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Cup and cover - The Cowper Seal Cups

The Cowper Seal Cups

  • Object:

    Cup and cover

  • Place of origin:

    England (made)

  • Date:

    ca. 1714 (made)

  • Credit Line:

    Accepted in lieu of tax allocated to the V&A by the Arts Council England

  • Museum number:


  • Gallery location:

    In Storage

This unusually large and heavy silver-gilt cup is one of a pair. They are outstanding examples of the English tradition of commissioning commemorative display objects to be made from the monarch's seal, which is known from the time of Edward the Confessor. The Great Seal of the Realm was a perquisite of the Lord Keeper's office, and only one such seal was in use at any one time. Upon the death of the monarch the matrix would be cancelled, and could be melted down and transformed into a commemorative object.

This pair of seal cups was made for William Cowper who served as Lord Keeper for Queen Anne from 11 October 1705 until 23 September 1710. As a pair of seal cups it is a unique commission that reflects Cowper's involvement in one of the more important events in British history, the Act of Union in 1707. This union between Scotland and England ended the Union of Crowns in place since 1603: instead of one monarch for two kingdoms, England and Scotland became one single kingdom. William Cowper was reappointed to that office in September 1714 after Queen Anne's death.

On 1 May 1707 this Kingdom of Great Britain was established with Queen Anne as monarch and a new Great Seal was created. It depicted the seated figure of Britannia on one, and the image of Queen Anne seated between allegories of Faith and Law as the pillars of her reign on the other side. The symbolic image of the queen was already used on the previous seal and can therefore be found on both seal cups as one of the relief medallions. William Cowper remained Lord Keeper throughout Queen Anne's reign and therefore had two seals. They were transformed by an unknown goldsmith into these magnificent cups and covers, probably shortly after the death of Queen Anne in 1714.

Physical description

A silver-gilt seal cup and cover; on circular voluted base, rising to a baluster stem and tapering cylindrical threaded cup, the removable voluted cover with finial which represents the heraldic crest of William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper, a lion's gamb erect and erased or, holding a cherry-branched vert, fructed gu., the cup applied with oval medallions representing the two sides of the seal of Queen Anne; one of a related pair. One side shows the seated figure of Britannia, head in profile to the left, with the English Rose and Scottish Thistle united by a single royal crown; the other side shows the Queen Anne seated between allegories of Faith and Law.

Place of Origin

England (made)


ca. 1714 (made)

Marks and inscriptions

Britannia in the sixth year of the reign of Queen Anne
This inscription encircles the medallic representation of Britannia and the union of the crowns of England and Scotland in 1707.


Height: 64.5 cm overall (cup and cover), Weight: 220 troy Combined weight, Weight: 6.842 g Combined weight

Object history note

Provenance: William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper (1665-1723); thence by descent to Francis, 7th Earl Cowper (1834-1905) and to his neice Lady Ethel Fane (d.1868) and then by descent to her daughter Ethel, Lady Desborough (1867-1952) and then by descent to her daughter Alexandra, Viscountess Gage (1905-1969). The cups were solde by the Trustees of the Late Viscountess Gage, Christie's London 26 November 1980 lot 115.

William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper (1665-1723) was a brilliant lawyer appointed King's Counsel in his late twenties. In 1705 he was appointed Lord Keeper of the Great Seal. In 1706 he served on the commission for the Treaty of Union with Scotland and became the first Lord Chancellor of Great Britain. In late 1710 he resigned from this office, but was reappointed to his former post after the death of Queen Anne in 1714. As a new Great Seal had to be created after the Union in 1707, Earl Cowper had the seal of Queen Anne as Queen of England and the seal of Queen Anne as Queen of Great Britain to recycle when he decided to have cups and covers made to commemorate his holding of office in her reign. This explains the unusually heavy weight and size of these commemorative vessels.

Historical context note

Seal cups were made from the Great Seal of the Realm used in various forms since the time of Edward the Confessor to indicate the Monarch's approval of important state documents. The seal dispensed with the need for the Monarch to personally sign every state document, and in an age when literacy was far from universal, provided an easily recognized symbol of royal authority. Custody of the seal was originally entrusted to the Chancellor but became a separate office as the duties of the Chancellor increased and involved absence abroad.

When the old seal fell out of use, either through the death of the Monarch or due to some other need to change it, the cancelled seal matrix, normally made of silver, became the perquisite of the Lord Keeper's office. Sir Nicholas Bacon, Lord Keeper from 1557 until his death in 1579, was the first to commission cups from seals. One of these, made from the Great Seal of Mary Tudor, is now in the British Museum. One of the seal cups of Sir Thomas Coventry made from the seal of James I and the first seal of Charles I was accepted in lieu in 1993 and is now also in the V&A collections M.59-1993.

Descriptive line

A large silver-gilt seal cup and cover, with relief medallions depicting both sides of the Great Seal of Great Britain created following the Act of Union, unmarked, circa 1714; one of a pair. The finial is in the form of the armorial crest, respresenting William, 1st Earl Cowper.

Bibliographic References (Citation, Note/Abstract, NAL no)

Wyon, Alfred Benjamin, The Great Seals of England, London, 1887
Banister, Judith, 'Rewards of High Office: Silver Seal Cups and Salvers I', Country Life, 29 January 1981, p.279
Clayton, Michael, Christie's Pictorial History of English and American Silver, Oxford, 1985, p.118, ill.p.119
Arts Council England Acceptance in Lieu Report 2010-12, no.44 p.56

Labels and date

Silver Galleries Discovery Area Display (Room 66, Case 5) from 14 June 2013
Shown alongside the Wright Seal Cup from the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Collection (LOAN:GILBERT.587-2008. )

Introductory Panel:


These large cups commemorate the careers of two high-ranking government officials of the early 18th century. Both Sir Nathan Wright and William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper served as Lord Keeper of the Great Seal, a responsibility held today by the Lord Chancellor.

The Great Seal is a silver die, in two parts, from which a wax impression is made and attached to documents of state drawn up by the government. The wax impression marks the monarch's official approval. The law requires that when there is a change of monarch, or of national jurisdiction, the Great Seal must be replaced.

Wright and Cowper held the Great Seal during a time of royal and political transformation. In 1702, Queen Anne succeeded William III, and, in 1707, The Act of Union joined England and Scotland under a single government, creating the state of Great Britain. Each momentous national change demanded a new Great Seal. For Wright and Cowper, a centuries-old tradition enabled them to keep the redundant seals and have them melted down and turned into display cups to mark their time in office. This tradition was referred to as a perquisite, from which evolved our modern word 'perk'.

Object Label:

England, 1707-1714
Made for William Cowper, 1st Earl Cowper (1665-1723)

These cups were made for William Cowper, who twice served as Lord Keeper. They are decorated with plaques depicting the two seals in use during his time of office. Cowper took responsibility for the first seal, on the left, when Nathan Wright resigned in 1705, and retained it two years later when the Act of Union made it obsolete. On the death of Anne in 1714, Cowper kept the seal on the right, which shows the rose of England and thistle of Scotland joined after the Act.

Accepted by H.M. Government in lieu of Inheritance Tax and allocated to the Victoria and Albert Museum 2013
Museum number M.10 to M.11-2013



Silver; Silver-gilt


Chasing; Casting; Gilding


Ceremonial objects; Portraits; Commemoration; Royalty


Metalwork Collection

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