One of our seals is missing! How a summer vacation brought Charles I’s government to a grinding halt

During the coronavirus pandemic we have grown used to government interventions disrupting our travel plans. However, in 1625 the government itself was disrupted by a holiday in Wales, as Dr Paul Hunneyball of our Lords 1558-1603 section explains

In the context of contemporary British government, the office of lord privy seal – more correctly lord keeper of the privy seal – is a non-job, a sinecure which in recent decades has been used to provide the leader of the House of Lords or House of Commons with a salary and a seat in cabinet. The privy seal as an instrument of government was effectively abolished in 1884. However, a few centuries ago, it was a key feature of the crown’s executive power. Royal orders issued under the sign manual (the monarch’s signature) or the signet (the monarch’s personal seal) were almost always transmitted to the Privy Seal Office, where warrants were prepared, authorizing action by the Exchequer or Chancery, the latter department being the home of the great seal – literally the final seal of approval of government decisions. In addition to this pivotal role in the crown’s bureaucracy, the privy seal was sometimes used to approve payments by the monarch or, conversely, to confirm royal requests to individuals for financial assistance, in the shape of ‘privy seal loans’.

Edward Somerset, 4th earl of Worcester (Gilbert Jackson, 1621), Art UK

In 1625 the lord privy seal was Edward Somerset, 4th earl of Worcester. The last of Elizabeth I’s courtiers to retain a senior government role under the Stuarts, he was now aged around 73, and his reappointment that year by Charles I was probably a reward for his decades of loyal service to the crown. In practice the Privy Seal Office was run by its clerks, who could operate without Worcester’s direct supervision, but the steady flow of warrants generated substantial fees, a proportion of which found their way into the earl’s pockets. Nevertheless, he took his responsibilities seriously, and does seem normally to have retained custody of the privy seal itself. For example, in 1624 he entrusted the seal to George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, before leaving London for a summer break at his country seat, Raglan Castle in Monmouthshire.

Raglan Castle, Monmouthshire

Charles I’s reign began badly. A military campaign against the Habsburgs on the continent had stalled, and the king wanted to try a naval attack on Spain instead, but for this he needed extra tax revenues. When he summoned Parliament, MPs voiced concerns that taxes voted in 1624 for the war had been squandered, and declined to grant fresh ones on the scale that Charles needed. To complicate matters further, a serious plague outbreak had recently hit London, and it became clear that a long session at Westminster was out of the question. Accordingly, Parliament was adjourned to Oxford, where the king intended to appeal for a supplementary tax grant. And because no one knew how long these discussions would last, most key government personnel went too, no doubt relieved to get away from the capital. Among them was the earl of Worcester, bringing with him the privy seal.

In the event, the 1625 Parliament’s second phase proved even more acrimonious than the first, and lasted less than a fortnight, before an angry Charles dissolved the session on 12 August without securing any more financial assistance. Two days later, the government decided to press on regardless with the naval strategy, resolving to address the tax revenue shortfall by means of privy seal loan requests. Meanwhile, as the plague was still raging in London, government ministers scattered in all directions, rather than returning to Whitehall. The king went hunting in Hampshire, while a much-depleted privy council met at Southampton.  Worcester himself was excused from his official duties, and retired to Raglan for the remainder of the summer. And for reasons that have never been explained, he took the privy seal with him. Presumably in the confused exodus from Oxford he failed to find anyone else to whom he could hand the seal, and decided that the safest option was to keep it himself. At any rate, it seems highly unlikely that he packed it by accident.

Given the general disruption to the government’s operations, some days passed before anyone noticed that the seal was missing, and then no doubt inquiries were made to establish where it had gone. In the meantime, the usual flow of official warrants ground to a halt, and the new policy of privy seal loans also had to be paused. Finally, on 30 August the lord treasurer, James Ley, Lord Ley, informed the privy council ‘that the lord privy seal was gone to his house in Wales, far remote from this place, and had taken the seal with him’ [Acts of the Privy Council, 1625-1626 ed. J.V. Lyle, 148]. As an emergency measure, the council agreed that warrants under the privy signet should temporarily be treated as equivalent to those under the privy seal, so that the normal business of the Exchequer might resume. However, the king’s approval was needed for this change of practice, and that seems to have taken another few days to secure. Not until 7 September did Charles write to Worcester, explaining with remarkable restraint: ‘We find that the want of our privy seal is prejudicial to our service, by the stop it gives to many things of importance, that may not suffer delay’ [TNA, SP16/6/26]. The earl was instructed to return the seal to the king without delay, though ‘by some person of trust’, rather than in person.

Remarkably, Worcester seems never to have been formally reprimanded over this episode. The privy council, resuming discussion of the privy seal loans on 7 September, speculated that the earl would shortly be relieved of his office, but this assumption proved to be misplaced. In the short term the privy seal was entrusted to the comptroller of the royal household, Sir John Suckling, but once Worcester returned to London in October he resumed his duties, and played a major part in managing the loan requests over the next nine months. He was still in post when he died in 1628, and it’s clear from official records that he’d retained custody of the seal. Charles had evidently decided that the episode of the missing seal was a temporary aberration by an old, loyal and trusted servant. And as the king would demonstrate many times subsequently, loyalty was a quality that he prized more highly than efficiency.


Further reading:

R.P. Cust, The forced loan and English politics: 1626-1628 (1987)

G.E. Aylmer, The king’s servants: the civil service of Charles I (1961)

Biographies or further biographies of Edward Somerset, 4th earl of Worcester, George Abbot, archbishop of Canterbury, James Ley, Lord Ley (later 1st earl of Marlborough), and Charles I (as prince of Wales) may be found in the History of Parliament’s recent volumes on The House of Lords 1604-29 ed. Andrew Thrush (2021).

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