Royal seal of approval

Patrick Ferry
Wednesday, 5 June 2024

Although Australia is a constitutional monarchy, it is one without a lot of 'majesty'. Since the monarch is represented by a governor-general, Australia lacks the ceremonial objects and appurtenances usually associated with monarchy. There are no Australian crowns or palaces. An exception is the Great Seal of Australia. Authorised by the monarch, this is used on key documents exercising royal powers in Australia. Example of seals used by the monarch and their vice-regal representatives are preserved in the national archival collection.

Ancient symbols of authority and authenticity

Seals are ancient recordkeeping devices, used for millennia to authenticate the exercise of authority by rulers and officeholders. Examples range from ancient Mesopotamian 'cylinder seals' to the British Great Seal of the Realm and the American president's seal.

Signed, sealed and delivered

The Great Seal of Australia is primarily applied to key documents signed by the governor-general. Examples include proclamations and letters patent establishing royal commissions. Since 1955, it has also been a royal great seal, used when the monarch personally signs documents for Australia.

The Great Seal bears the Australian coat of arms, surrounded by the monarch's Australian title. It is directly impressed onto documents using a seal press. The current Great Seal was authorised by Queen Elizabeth II on 19 October 1973, although its predecessors date back to Federation.

'Federal and imperial'

Provision for the Great Seal was first made in letters patent signed by Queen Victoria establishing the office of Governor-General (1900):

II. There shall be a Great Seal of and for Our said Commonwealth which Our said Governor Shall keep and use for sealing all things whatsoever that shall pass the said Great Seal.

A design for a double-sided wax seal was chosen via a public design competition in 1901. This combined the work of two artists, David Souter and Blamire Young. However, double-sided seals were inconvenient to use as they had to be attached to documents via a chord. As a result, the Australian government opted instead for a smaller, uniface seal which could be impressed directly onto documents.

Based on Young's design, this featured the British royal coat of arms, surrounded by the Australian state shields. The seal was also inscribed with the King's titles (in Latin) and the words 'Commonwealth of Australia'. Described as being suitably 'federal and imperial', the iconography reflected the duality in Australian national identity and status: Australian and British; self-governing yet still colonial. King Edward VII approved this seal in November 1903.

New seals were subsequently issued in the names of King George V (1912), George VI (1938 and 1948) and Elizabeth II (1954). These were virtually identical to the 1903 seal, except for updated royal titles and minor heraldic modifications. 

A 'simplified and modernised' seal

This design continuity did not reflect the evolution of Australia’s constitutional status or national identity. Nor did it take into account the emergence of more distinctly Australian national symbols, particularly the Australian coat of arms.

In 1973, the Whitlam Government had the Great Seal redesigned following the passage of the Royal Style and Titles Act. This removed historic references to Britain from the monarch’s Australian title, which was henceforth:

Elizabeth II by the Grace of God, Queen of Australia and Her other Realms and Territories. Head of the Commonwealth

Reflecting this title, Prime Minister Whitlam opted for a 'simplified and modernised' design featuring the Australian coat of arms with the inscription 'Elizabeth II Queen of Australia'.

This seal will remain in use until a new Great Seal of Australia is authorised by King Charles III.

National Archives of Australia would like to thank the Cabinet Division, Department of the Prime Minister & Cabinet for permission to reproduce images of the Great Seal of Australia from the national archival collection.