How would servants of kings, lords or so on, prove that they are on some task given by their lord if someone were to question them?

I imagine a letter written by a ruler would be enough for those who could read, but what about the illiterate people? And even letters could be counterfeit.

My main interest is in middle ages Europe (15-16th century). Signet rings are what I first had in mind as the Wikipedia article states they are "used to attest the authority of it's bearer..." I was looking for objects beyond letters, that could prove a person has the authority of someone higher than themselves. Signet rings are basically what I am looking for but I believe they were very personal, and not handed out as sign of given authority.

  • Hi; Are you interesetd in a specific period of time or an specific place? Maybe you can start with these links before narrowing your question: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seal_(emblem) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Geleitrecht
    – Santiago
    Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 16:43
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    Signet rings produce reversed wax seals. Wax seals are portable and readable by the illiterate. Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 1:02
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    It's no wonder that back then, counterfeiters received some of the most horrible punishments if caught.
    – vsz
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 12:04
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    We still have this problem today. The IRS just called me this morning to tell me that I'm behind on my taxes and need to pay them immediately. Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 23:21
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    Charles II of England (1630 – 1685) employed four messengers. When asked how they were to be identified as His Majesty's messengers, Charles II broke off four greyhounds from a silver breakfast platter and presented each with this token. This has remained the symbol of the Messenger to this day. history.blog.gov.uk/2014/03/25/… Commented Jan 30, 2020 at 9:55

4 Answers 4


Livery is sufficient for what we today might call low trust transactions. For higher trust transactions, the noble (lord or king) could give the bearer a sealed document - those who had legitimate business with the noble would recognize the seal. Even those who could not read would recognize the fact of the seal, and many would recognize the heraldry.

At a very abstract level, aristocracies are autocracies. While there may be a legal code, practical enforcement of anti-fraud law is through intimidation. Any member of the lower class interfering with any member of the upper class is subject to summary justice (nominally any non-lethal penalty; practically any penalty at all). Any member of the upper class interfering with any other member of the upper class is going to have to consider the power calculus - will this interference be worth the trouble it causes me. Remembers, summaries are kind of like Box's law - all summaries are wrong, some are useful.

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    Livery reminds me of when a person imitates a police officer or has a "badge". It is easy enough to fool someone given the right presence. It is the penalty if caught that is the deterrence.
    – paulj
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 14:50
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    Correct- livery is for low trust transactions. Physical security specialists generally have contempt for "flash pass" authentication. Historically they didn't have any alternative, forging the credential was more expensive/more complex, and the penalties for forgery were very high. In the modern environment we have better technologies, but that discussion would be out of scope for H:SE.
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 15:02
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    And high-trust transactions are not likely to involve illiterates.
    – WGroleau
    Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 16:44

Again complementing the above answers: I was in Zurich's Landenmuseum, and they have the original golden seal of Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy.

One of the problems that lead to the defeat of Charles the Bold of Burgundy in a series of battles against the Swiss, was the loss of its golden seal. His military commanders only would trust direct ducal orders if sealed by his personal seal - so his chain of command was broken.

Seeing how intricate the seal image was, it is easy to conclude that it should be harder to forge than a signature: some kings did not really trust signatures, e.g. see how simple was the signature of King D. Pedro II of Portugal. Would you trust an order just because of these lines? Many portuguese or spanish kings just signed 'El-Rey' or just 'Rey' as above.

And signet rings were personal, but this may be not an issue.

A Diocese, Abbey, or University had its institutional signet ring, different from the personal seal of the Bishop, Abbot or Dean. Some (not all) dioceses use wisely these different seals (even today): when you see the bishop seal (with dangling tassels and galero hats) you know that it comes from the boss himself; when you see the diocesan seal (with mitres), it comes from a lesser official. So if the delegated power of the lesser official is clearly established, he does not need a copy of his boss' personal seal.

And there may be various commanders/messengers beyond suspicion, due to ties such as blood or religious brotherhood, or if there was no hope of mercy from enemies (vikings, muslims, etc).

Connecting the 2 points: close family of the Lords could have personal seals based on the Lord's seal but differentiated by cadence marks. So it would be clear to lesser officials that the order was not sealed by the Lord, but by the Lord's brother - the brother did not need to carry a copy of the Lord's seal, the Lord only had to establish clear rules about the powers delegated to his brother - going all or nothing as "only my personal seal authenticates order" like Charles the Bold would be quite dangerous, but after all, he is not called 'the Bold' for nothing.

Moreover, today we have tech to investigate more crimes - generally this allows the punishment to be less severe - as a less severe penalty may suffice as deterrent if there is no impunity. There were many harsh penalties, including death under torture, for a variety of crimes in the middle ages. I suppose someone caught impersonating his Lord on serious life-or-death matters would be severely dealt with.

Besides, it would be taken at least as perjury - a serious crime and sin in a age when people were more religious and had to trust more in the spoken word than today.

Finally, authenticating orders may not be such a relevant issue if the armies/domains are small and directly commanded/visible by the lord. This may be true for smaller local disputes.

  • Another good catch! Well done
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 19:32
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    Is this an accurate image of the seal of Charles the Bold? If so, it would be useful to link it from this answer, just to show the level of intricacy we're talking about. Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 15:44
  • @Quuxplusone, thx! I added your link. I do not remember it exactly, but it looks similar. Unless somebody can go to Zurich...
    – Luiz
    Commented Jan 28, 2020 at 16:08

Expanding on the answer by Mark C. Wallace - Even high level transactions could be verified by livery, if not by the envoy personally then by accompanying personnel. Any counterfeit of such livery would have been an expensive and time consuming proposition, particularly as the livery of senior officials frequently incorporated precious metals, particularly gold.

Ney caught up to Napoleon at Charleroi, early afternoon of June 15th, 1815, having spent three days in a goat cart to do so. Deciding that degree of effort was worthy of trust, Napoleon decided to give Ney command of the left wing. But how to credential Ney sufficiently that both Reille and D'Erlon, in command of the II and I Corps respectively, would be confident in Ney's authority? This problem was particularly acute in wake of the desertion by Louis-Auguste-Victor, Count de Ghaisnes de Bourmont, and his staff just that morning.

The solution was to provide Ney with an escort of one squadron of the Imperial Guard Red Lancers, with the direction "Use them lightly." Any general of France could be certain that a person escorted by that renowned regiment had the full confidence of Napoleon.

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In the case of the Red Lancers - all that glitters, is gold.


In Napoleon's army every dispatched division and higher commander was expected to forward a situation report twice a day to both his immediate superior and Berthier, each report to be forwarded by three couriers dispatched an hour apart, by three different routes. Berthier's staff likewise distributed orders by the same protocol, typically also informing all adjacent units to each command of what the unit's role was to be, to facilitate coordination.

While Berthier was breaking ground with the thoroughness of his methodical practice, this was n the nature of an incremental, not revolutionary, approach.

  • Why counterfeit them when you could simply 1.) Kill the messenger en route, 2.) Steal his fancy uniform, 3.) Impersonate him, delivering your counterfeit missive in place of the real one? I guess the trick is to kill him in such a way that doesn't leave obvious blood stains, but when the uniforms look like those, (i.e. already bright red), the job is already half done for you. Suppose it depends on just how brazen the hypothetical forgers wish to be... Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 16:27
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    @DarrelHoffman: Blood dries very dark, almost black. Those uniforms, particularly for officers, were tailored to fit. Showing up with an improperly fitted outfit would immediately be known as an imposter. French cavalry squadrons had an establishment of about 250 troopers. By definition soldiers son't impersonate - only spies do. Commented Jan 29, 2020 at 16:36

The Swedish mail (which in 1636 was created (?) as a government related body) had to freely transport mail for the administration. One trouble which came from the beginning basically was that persons in authority also sent private mail with post (which was exempt from tariffs.)

Which is a trouble because:

  • the farmers who was responsible for moving it by foot thru the country simply got to much mail to carry, and;

  • the general post master in Stockholm who ran the post and got a bit of the tariffs as an income (a fairly good one) lost income

All of this partly because that cheapskates sent mail with the pretext that it was on the king's business.

I would expect everyone in Europe (and the Americas) who was entitled to send mail for free because some of it is in King's service also did sent a fair amount their private mail without paying for transport.

Search for Magnus Linnarssons disertation :

Postgång på växlande villkor: det svenska postväsendets organisation under stormaktstiden

In the 17th and 18th century the Swedish mail changed business methods, under a number of years a general post master in Stockholm ran it as his own authority (while skimming and paying an agreed sum to the King) while in other periods the mail was outsourced to a noble man so at that time the King didn't got any income from the mail (but the noble man agreed to provide some service or loan the king a fairly large amount of money.)

While the post is outsourced, unauthorized franking did hurt that noble man's own income.

The farmers which was the couriers of the post got tax exemption in return for their service. Later on the expansion of business activities, state's administration and demands on the service qualities/performance caused an imbalance between the value of the tax exemption and the necessary work to be done. A fair number of couriers and post masters in the different towns was aware that some people uncorrectly used their permission to employ franking which with increasing demands on couriers became more sensitive politically.

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    The US Postal service permits franking - same solution, with the same set of problems. Good catch! The US Postal System also explicitly has disproportionate penalties for intereference with the mail because of the need to generate trust. I believe this is why in most nations the Postal system is a government body.
    – MCW
    Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 18:31
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    I like this answer because it shows that sometimes they did not have a good solution and just lived with that. Even outsourced the problem to someone else.
    – Luiz
    Commented Jan 27, 2020 at 19:42

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