What is it?

What is it?

What is this strange looking document, which has been given publicity in certain sections of news reporting over the last week? It’s very fancy, it has lots of bling, and it seems to be in a small suitcase or perhaps briefcase.

It is called an ‘Instrument of Consent’, although it is actually a public proclamation addressed by one person, ‘Elizabeth the Second’, to a multitude, referred to as ‘all to whom these Presents shall come’. The particular ‘these Presents’ concerned are the two people named in it as having been given consent by the person issuing the proclamation. As this indicates, it is written in highly elaborate, not to say archaic, language. And it is, as many readers will realise, an official document issued as by the Queen and in her name that gives consent to members of the British Royal family to get married, something which is still legally required and is also archaic and rather odd. The document is in addition a kind of letter, or at least it is on the borders of being one, a point returned to later.

The Instrument, proclamation or public letter is addressed generally and is commandingly phrased: ‘Elizabeth the Second by the Grace of God… To all to whom these Presents shall come, Greeting! … now Know You that We have consented and do by these Presents signify Our Consent to the contracting of Marriage… We have caused Our Great Seal to be affixed … By the Queen Herself Signed with Her Own Hand’.

It is, then, a document announced as being signed by the Queen ‘with Her Own Hand’. But, as looking at it attentively indicates, this is for show, for her actual signature is placed at the top right and looks – it’s small, look hard! – both modest and also extraneous to the official splendour of the rest. It is there, so to speak, to do the business in a legal sense; but in a wider impact sense, what counts is the bling of the document and what is affixed to it. This is signified in a symbolic sense by something that can be hardly seen in the photograph but which explains the setting of the document, and it quite literally seals the message to the medium.

This Instrument, proclamation or public letter looks odd or at least out of the ordinary to a contemporary eye even beyond the bling: it’s a fancy piece of paper in the inside top of a suitcase or briefcase. But why is it in a case? It is officially described as a document on vellum (a kind of leather compound which can be written on and is very long-lasting) transcribed in calligraphy, but without reference to it being in a box. What is harder to see is that in the bottom of the case and affixed (no lesser word would be sufficient here) to the document is a very large flat red seal. Is ‘We have caused our Great Seal to be affixed‘ the main ‘doing the business‘ device here, or is this the Queen’s signature and her name, or indeed are these to be viewed as one and the same?

The answer depends on what kind of document this is seen to be in an ontological sense – what is it? As the Queen’s proclamation, it is the Great Seal which stands for her official person or persona. As a letter-like message from the Queen to her subjects saying ‘We have consented’, it is the opening address that it comes from Queen and the closing comment that it is ‘By the Queen Herself Signed with Her Own Hand’ that are more important. It would seem, then, that this document is a hybrid, part legal act and part letter. It is at the same time wholly a performance: the British Royals at work in the theatre of pomp and majesty.

Last updated:  17 May 2018