February 12, 2012 Leave a comment
In a letter dated October 24th, 1839, Charles Darwin wrote to his cousin William Darwin Fox, asking if he knew “what the motto to our crest is for I mean to have a seal solemnly engraved.”  Which, evidently, he did—a letter from Darwin to the Reverend Gilbert Smith dated November 20th, 1840, sports a seal featuring his family crest and motto.
The seal, impressed in red wax, shows a griffin, facing left, holding a shell, all within an oval border inscribed with the motto Cave et Aude, which, according to Fairbairn, means Beware and Dare.  This is the crest at the top of the Darwin coat-of-arms (which has a shield with three shells diagonal and the motto at the bottom). Darwin’s seal is rare—he wrote thousands of letters after 1840, but no other is described as having the seal. It is possible Darwin had the seal made in a fit of youthful enthusiasm, used it for a short period of time and then stopped, realizing it was a bit ostentatious. A simpler explanation: He lost it. 
Interestingly, the motto was not always Cave et Aude. In the late 18th century, Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus changed the motto to E Conchis Omnia (Everything from shells), reflecting his belief that all life descended from one simple form, a concept he put forward in his Zoonomia (1794):
“Would it be too bold to imagine, that in the great length of time, since the earth began to exist, perhaps millions of ages before the commencement of the history of mankind, would it be too bold to imagine, that all warm-blooded animals have arisen from one living filament, which THE GREAT FIRST CAUSE endued with animality, with the power of acquiring new parts, attended with new propensities, directed by irritations, sensations, volitions, and associations; and thus possessing the faculty of continuing to improve by its own inherent activity, and of delivering down those improvements by generation to its posterity, world without end!” 
Erasmus not only put the new motto on his bookplate, he put it on the side of his carriage. Unfortunately, Thomas Seward,  who was Canon of nearby Lichfield Cathedral, noticed it and accused Erasmus of having “renounced his Creator.” He wrote a satirical poem about Erasmus, part of which read:
Having been called out by the Canon, Erasmus painted over the motto on his carriage to avoid offending his clients. Nevertheless, he kept it on his bookplate, as did his son, Robert Waring Darwin, Charles’ father. Thus, Charles grew up in a house where all the books carried an evolutionary declaration. 
12 Upper Gower St
Friday Nov. 20th
 Darwin Correspondence Project (http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk), letter #541. The letter here has not yet been published by DCP, but is known to them and numbered 580f.
 Fairbairn’s Book of Crests of the Families of Great Britain & Ireland, c1860.
 Of course, he may very well have continued to use the seal. Most of Darwin’s later correspondence was on stationery and mailed in envelopes, most of which were discarded taking any seals with them. Thus the rarity of his seal may be due to the introduction of the “envelope” in 1840.