College of St George Archives Blog

College of St George Archives

Researching medieval Garter robes

April 25th, 2016

To mark St George’s Day on Saturday, research project The Lexis of Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Royal Wardrobe Accounts published an article about the Order of the Garter. The Lexis of Cloth and Clothing is a project designed to encourage school-children, students and interested members of the public to engage with Britain’s medieval past, its language, manuscripts, and the clothing worn at the time.

An interview has also been published between Dr Charles Farris, project researcher, and Dr Euan Roger, who recently completed his PhD on the College of St George in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The interview was filmed in the St George’s Chapel Archives, where Dr Farris and Dr Roger were also able to inspect the sixteenth-century depiction of Garter Robes in the Black Book of the Garter.

The article can be read here. To watch the interview please click here.

It’s not business, it’s strictly personal

April 15th, 2016
More on the personal seals in the Archives.

Following a blog published in July 2015, this is a more detailed look at the value and importance of personal seals from the point-of-view of their history, usage, ownership and designs.

Most of the wax seals in the St George’s Chapel Archives remain attached to their original documents. The best represented period is between the 13th and 17th centuries: five hundred years of seals being used throughout the United Kingdom for the first time. During that time seals (and, of course the matrices from which they took their impression) reduced in size and shape, becoming mostly circular, with an average diameter of 18mm.

Personal seals are those used by an individual in a private capacity as a means of authentication and validation. They were attached at the bottom of a handwritten deed or covenant by a parchment tag or tongue, or plaited strings or cord, or applied directly onto the deed itself by pressing a seal matrix into soft wax on the parchment. Once attached, the seal helped to maintain the integrity of the document as it had to be placed by the owner of the matrix and could not be reused. In the case of important transactions or agreements the seals of all parties to the arrangement, including witnesses, might be attached to the document.

During the 13th century the use of seals spread to all but the lowest levels of society in England and Wales. This is usually attributed to a developing land market and an increase in trade and the subsequent use of documentation: individuals demanded written proof of transactions and agreements. Because such proofs represented finalisation of the transactions the records were stored away and moved infrequently and thus have been little disturbed, unlike medieval books. Now, however, the documents are used for study and this provides an opportunity to clean the seals of centuries of dirt and grime to reveal wonders of art and design.

A particularly lovely non-stamped seal in the Chapel Archives bears a remarkably preserved ash tree leaf set onto a red wax seal and attached by a parchment tag to a document appointing a man to a canonry in the deanery of Wolverhampton.

It is fascinating how many different designs and meanings are represented on wax seals and the collection in the Chapel Archives is no exception. From equestrian noblemen shown hunting, surrounded by a legend, to simple flowers with no legend, and many categories in between. Some feature a merchant’s mark, unique to each merchant – sometimes still in use today as a trademark or company logo. The meanings of some designs are lost to the mists of time, such as a fox and a goose attached to a lease of 1555.

Seals showing family coats of arms are fairly common, with a legend surrounding the design often commencing with the letter S or the full SIGILLVM (Latin for seal) followed by the bearer’s name and title. Sometimes the designs are puns on the owner’s name, such as a figure with a bow and arrow for a man called Archer. This is known as a rebus.

If a seal has a legend on the obverse or reverse, or both, and it is intact and clear enough to read this is a great help identifying ownership or meaning.  One of my favourites is a thirteenth century seal which reads ECCE AGNUS DEI EST AMOR MEUS ‘Behold the Lamb of God is my love’.

Peter Eley, Archives volunteer

I am indebted to Dr Elizabeth New’s work ‘Seals and Sealing Practices’. 2010 British Records Association for additional information.

From your very loving Staff

March 16th, 2016

Arthur Stafford Crawley was Canon of Windsor from 1934 until his death in 1948. Amongst the papers that are housed in St George’s Chapel Archives, there is an extensive correspondence between Crawley and his wife, Anstice, written whilst he was in France serving as an army chaplain from 1915 to autumn 1917. These letters hold a wealth of information about what life was like for him on the front line as a Chaplain serving the soldiers and as a man missing his family and struggling with the conditions.

Crawley wrote to his wife almost every day, and sometimes more than once a day. He spent most of his time visiting different troops who were always happy to have a visitor. He tries to give services where he can with his busiest times being around Christmas and Easter. In his letter on 28th December 1916, he writes that he will be taking a service every morning that week and on Good Friday in 1917 he took three services in one day (M.126/F/413, M.126/F/493 & 493). He cares for the men practically too and his letters are full of worries and concerns about the long hours and terrible weather the soldiers work in.

The stories Crawley tells his wife about people he has just met exemplify his caring nature. He tells of one occasion when he shared a train carriage with two newly trained flying officers. They had come from the far north of Scotland and had travelled for a week before even reaching France (M.126/F/486). Another such example was a Gunner he met on a boat who had been recalled to the Front after only one night back home with his wife and child (M.126/F/484). Crawley cared enough to ask these people their stories. Although he does not record their names he retained details about them, details he felt worth remembering and sharing. Details, one imagines, he would have remembered after they had parted and the Gunner and flying officers went to fight and possibly make the ultimate sacrifice.

As well as seeing Crawley’s caring nature for the soldiers as Army Chaplain, it is easy to see the father and husband in him. In most letters the last page has nothing to do with the war or what he’s been doing but rather is about the family. Whether he’s sending thanks to one of his children for their letter or advising about potato planting or just sending his love and saying how much he misses them, it is always present. Of particular interest was the difference between a letter written on the 14th March 1917 and one on the 28th. Between the sending of these two letters Crawley had been home for 10 days leave. His excitement about coming home had led to him sending almost the exact same plans and concerns for his leave in three consecutive letters. This contrasts with his complete sadness about having to say goodbye after the ‘perfect happiness’ he has enjoyed with his wife and children (M.126/F/483). The interesting nature of Crawley’s letters and the information they contain leave you wanting to know more of his time there. But more so, the caring nature of the man himself endears you to him and leaves you wanting to know how the rest of his family is and when he is going to receive another letter from them.

Hannah Pomeroy, work experience student

Love thy neighbour

February 15th, 2016

For many who work for the College of St George, Windsor Castle is not just their place of work, but also their home. People are not just colleagues but neighbours who foster a wonderful sense of community. However, a couple of fascinating documents in the archives reveal a dispute between neighbours that erupted in September 1607; a dispute that began with some name-calling but ended with a door taken off its hinges!

The main players in the dispute were Mark Leonard and his wife, and Nathaniel Giles and his wife, Anne. Mark Leonard was a petticannon, now known as a Minor Canon. Nathaniel Giles was Master of the Choristers and Organist. The primary document of dispute is intriguing and comprehensive, relating the events of mid-September 1607 as told by Nathaniel Giles [XI.B.50].

According to Nathaniel Giles, on September 15th 1607, Anne Giles heard Mark Leonard’s wife make “rayling speeches” towards Alice Newcomb and Mrs Leonard’s ire turned to Anne Giles when she attempted to placate her. Using “in rayling sort divers evil wordes”, Mrs Leonard called Anne Giles “paltery Baggage”, with Anne Giles retorting, as she walked away from her, “Away pich, I will not touch thee”.

Giles continues that Alice Newcomb made a complaint, and as a consequence, Anne Giles was summoned to appear at the Chapter House, and under oath, she stated that she had heard Mrs Leonard shout insults at Alice Newcomb. Taking exception to her testimony, Mrs Leonard argued that Anne Giles had, in fact, insulted her on September 15th, for she believed Anne Giles had said something slightly different from “Away pich”. According to Giles, Mrs Leonard proceeded to brand his wife “brazen faced Baggage”. Mrs Leonard was admonished for her behaviour and an end was put to it, or so it seemed.

However, according to the document, on September 16th another incident erupted. While Mr Giles was dining in the mayor’s house, Mrs Giles had some guests for dinner. The children of the choir (choristers) were outside playing in the castle yard. Mark Leonard, believing that one of the children, George Pretty, had mocked his daughter, went to strike the boy, and then ran after the children with a stick. The children ran into the Giles’s house followed by Mark Leonard. Mrs Giles admonished him for threatening violence and for chasing the children. A war of words then erupted, according to the document, in which various insults were thrown. Mark Leonard was referred to as “a dog”, and “a minstrell”, while Mrs Giles was singled out as being not only “flirt Baggage” but also “scurvy Baggage”. Her husband, in his absence, was deemed “a fiddler” who “getts his living by fidlinge” and Mrs Gibbs, one of Mrs Giles’s guests, was labelled “an idle housewife”.

The situation escalated and attempts to close the door on Mark Leonard resulted in Mrs Giles being thrown against the wall and hurting her hand. All the guests and servants then combined in an attempt to shut the door while Mrs Leonard joined her husband pushing the door from the outside. The door was lifted clear of its hinges. Mark Leonard then departed but one unfortunate child was caught as he left and struck across the face.

Nathaniel Giles was made aware of what was happening through a messenger and – as soon as dinner was finished – he returned home.

The second document is the response from Mark Leonard [XI.B.63], a concise document in which he does not directly address the events as told by Nathaniel Giles, but rather refers to a number of insults to which he was subjected. In his response, Mark Leonard requests that the Dean ask Mr Giles whether or not he said, “If yu shouldst but hurt so much of my dog his Tayle thou shouldst know I would make thee eate it”, and secondly, whether after enquiring if Mr Giles knew some of his family that he responded, “Yes I knowe them to have more honestie in one finger then such a Harlett as you hast or wilt have in thee”.

What was the outcome of the whole affair? The Chapter Acts record on October 24th 1607 that Mark Leonard received his first admonition according to the statutes for “affrightinge the wief and houshold of Mr Giles by a violent attemptinge to [end]d enter, into the same house”.  He lost one month’s pay and had to acknowledge his fault in the Chapter house in the presence of Mr Giles and the rest of the choir.

At present, all the doors of the houses in the castle are sitting on their hinges and nobody has been accused of being paltry, scurvy or flirt baggage for some time.

Éilis Crowe, Archives Trainee

A (Windsor) Christmas Carol

December 16th, 2015

In April 1901 Major Charles Grantley Campbell Norton was admitted as a Military Knight. With him to Windsor came his wife, the popular guitarist, singer and songwriter, Mina Norton. Mrs Norton could sing in eight languages and had performed before the Royal Family.

The St George’s Chapel Archives holds a collection of the Nortons’ letters, notebooks and song lyrics written by Mina Norton [SGC M.1205]. Included in this is a Christmas carol that she wrote and set to music for their first Christmas living in the Lower Ward. The third verse is all about their new community of neighbours in the College of St George.

Oh! Christmas! time of joy and mirth,
The advent of our Saviour’s birth,
When all around breathes peace on earth,
Oh! happy Christmas-tide.
The time when heart-felt prayers ascend
To God for blessings on each friend;
Oh! may Thy holy joy descend
On us this Christmas-tide

God bless our King and Royalty;
May all his subjects loyal be,
And all unite in praising Thee
This joyful Christmas-tide.
And bless our soldiers now at war,
Guard those at sea when storm clouds lower;
May every nation feel Thye power
This glorious Christmas-tide.

God bless the Dean and clergy, too,
Who strive Thy holy will to do;
The organist and choir, who
Praise Thee this Christmas-tide.
And bless the gallant knights so bold,
And all within these precincts old;
Oh! may our present Governor hold
His post next Christmas-tide.

And bless, Lord, those now racked with pain,
Restore them soon to health again;
Oh! may Thy Heavenly peace remain
With them this Christmas-tide.
And when around dark shadows creep,
May angels soothe our long last sleep,
And bear our souls on high to keep
Eternal Christmas-tide.

Words by Mina Norton, Henry VIII Gateway, Windsor Castle, Christmas 1901.

Strange creatures in the Archives

November 17th, 2015

Strange creatures represented in medieval manuscripts are not uncommon. They can be seen mostly in the margins of many early European illuminated manuscripts and early books dedicated to animals are generally known as bestiaries.  Some of our own manuscripts at St George’s Chapel Library and Archives, although not bestiaries, contain images of strange creatures and as well as in manuscripts they can be seen, with a little difficulty, under the stall seats in the quire of the Chapel where the wonderful medieval oak-carved misericords feature many animals, both real and imagined.

A carving from a misericord in St George's Chapel

What readers may find more unusual is that strange animals appear again on old wax seals, and these are well represented in the fascinating collection of medieval wax seals attached to legal documents in the archives at St George’s Chapel, see images below.

The background to beasts as art in books, paintings, carvings, sculpture, and seals etc., is as interesting as many of the other incidental details of medieval artwork and gives rise to a specialised subject fairly well documented by scholars of history and nature.

A seal showing a hare with a trumpet riding on a hound

So many strange creatures are the result of stories and legends told by peoples hundreds of years ago all over the world and to this day never seem to lose their fascination and fear factor, especially to the young.

Bestiaries in medieval times were second only to the Bible in their popularity and wide distribution. They were catalogues of animal stories combining known zoological information as well as myths and legends of bizarre, exotic and monstrous creatures drawn from verbatim tales of scary imagined animals by creative storytellers. Homer was a very good proponent of them several hundred years BC, viz. CERBERUS the three-headed dog with sharp teeth who guarded the entrance to Hades, the underworld.

Perhaps the most famous, or infamous, creature known today is the DRAGON, of which we know something here at St George’s.  Our depicted dragon is almost certainly slain by our English patron Saint George and the two of them can be seen in various places around the Chapel and environs, including a fine gilt statue situated in the courtyard of the Dean’s Cloister. The Library and Archives have many representations of St George and the Dragon and perhaps the best images are on the Chapter seals attached by parchment tags to legal documents.

The seal of Elizabeth Rogers, from a lease in St George's Chapel Archives

Another strange creature to be discovered on a fine small seal is the CERASTES, a serpent with horns and a snake-like tail and a flexible spine-less body. According to legend it would cover itself with sand, apart from the horns, with which it would allure its prey, and then suddenly spring up, catch the victim and devour it.

A cerastes shown on a seal from a 15th century lease

MANTICORES appear frequently in medieval art; these are hybrids of various animals, including men and women, having the head of one creature and the body of another.

Sketch of a manticore copied from the Black Book of the Garter

Perhaps the most well-known kind of manticores are MERMAIDS. They would be beautiful women from the waist up, but instead of having legs and feet their bottom half would be a fish’s tail, and in some ancient stories they could be found helping people at sea in distress, but more often than not their siren calls would lure seamen to a watery grave.

The heraldic beast of King Edward III (the creator of the chivalric Order of the Garter in 1348) is the UNICORN, a mythical creature resembling a small horse with one spiralled horn growing out of its forehead. According to medieval writing the horn represented the Gospel of Truth. The Unicorn was an untameable beast that could only be captured by a young virgin. It supports the British Royal coat of arms, along with its traditional enemy, the lion.

There are more strange creatures to be seen, if one cares to look, at St George’s Chapel, or by appointment at the Chapel Library and Archives.

Copies of dragon heads incorporated into initial letters in the Denton Black Book

You could also take a look at an interesting article by Dr Alixe Bovey, Head of Research at The Courtauld, on the British Library’s website, which includes videos of strange creatures. For further reading on this topic, Julia Cresswell’s book Legendary Beasts of Britain (Shire Library, 2013) can be purchased from the St George’s Chapel shop.

My grandson Oliver assures me that scary new creatures continue to terrify in the forms of the Basilisk and Aragog (Harry Potter), Azog (The Hobbit) and Godzilla (Godzilla) etc., so the myths and legends are out there… be very, very afraid!

Peter Eley, Library and Archives volunteer

An Agincourt veteran at St George’s

October 14th, 2015

‘Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,

But he’ll remember, with advantages,

What feats he did that day’ – Shakespeare, Henry V

Sir John Trebell – The Story of an Agincourt Veteran at St George’s

This year celebrates the 600 year anniversary of a particular English triumph: Henry V’s great victory over the French at Agincourt. While the efforts of a small handful of English lords, knights and archers captivate the public’s attentions, it is perhaps fitting to celebrate the life of one such individual with a strong connection to St George’s and Windsor: Sir John Trebell. Trebell receives little attention in the historical record – few accounts of his military activities come to light in the documentation – but he is particularly interesting as a former military knight of St George’s (then known as poor knights), and a veteran of Agincourt. Sir John served at Agincourt in the retinue of Sir Thomas West, 2nd Baron West. He later took out letters of protection to return to the French wars in 1417, this time serving under the admiral of the fleet, Sir Walter Hungerford. His previous master had died in unfortunate circumstances in 1416. Before West had even had a chance to don his armour for battle, a large stone fell on him from a nearby catapult in the process of being loaded. The resulting injury left him mortally wounded and he died shortly after in England.

In appreciation of his past services, Trebell was appointed a poor knight of St George’s, Windsor on 23rd May 1430. In his appointment he was described as a ‘King’s Knight’, and he had thus probably at some point entered the monarch’s service. It is possible that Sir Walter Hungerford may have had an influence in the appointment of a fellow Agincourt veteran. As Treasurer of England in 1430, and a Knight of the Garter from as early as 1421, Hungerford was in the perfect position to support his former retainer in his old age. As one of only two poor knights at the time of his appointment, Trebell received a house and garden within Windsor Castle, an annual salary of 40 shillings, and further payments for attendance in chapel three times a day. At the time of his appointment, there were significant tensions between the knights and the dean and canons who controlled the college’s finances. It is a sign of Trebell’s status and good behaviour that he was paid regularly throughout his time at Windsor. This was in comparison to his fellow poor knight, Sir John Kiderow, who was barred from payment at the same time on account of his outlawry, and in 1431 was forced to consider a return to active service.

Trebell died at some point between September 1437 and 11th June 1438, when his garden was appropriated by one of the college’s canons, John Deepdene, for the notional annual rent of one rose on Midsummer’s Day. His final years appear to have been peaceful. In the aftermath of the bloodshed of Agincourt, Sir John Trebell settled down to quiet retirement at St George’s, where he was rewarded and respected as befitted a veteran of the king’s wars. It is unlikely that he ever forgot the brave feats he was part of in 1415, but instead, remembered them with advantages!

Euan C. Roger, Royal Holloway, University of London

The Longest Reign

September 10th, 2015

On Wednesday 9th September 2015, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became the longest reigning British monarch. This record was previously held by Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years and 7 months (or, to be precise, 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes) from her accession in 1837 at the age of 18 until her death in 1901.

Throughout her reign, which began on 6th February 1952, Queen Elizabeth has had a close association with Windsor – both the Castle and St George’s Chapel – and even prior to becoming queen, she and her sister visited Windsor often as young princesses.

These images, held in the photographic collections of St George’s Chapel Archives, illustrate some of the Queen’s involvement with St George’s throughout her reign. (Click once on the pictures to enlarge them.)

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip process through the Lower Ward of Windsor Castle with the other Companions of the Order of the Garter in 1948, the year of their installation to the Order and of the Order’s six hundredth anniversary.

At a Garter Day ceremony in the late 1950s the Queen passes the Galilee Porch of St George’s Chapel where her sister, Princess Margaret, and two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne are waiting to curtsy and bow to her.

Queen Elizabeth, Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret leave the Deanery with Dean Hamilton, carrying bouquets presented to them after an Easter Day service in St George’s Chapel.

The Queen is saluted by the Military Knights of Windsor as she arrives with Dean Woods at the opening of St George’s House in 1966.

Queen Elizabeth II and Dean Fleming with other members of the Royal Family and Canons of Windsor on the west steps of St George’s Chapel following a service to celebrate the Chapel’s Quincentenary in May 1975. On the occasion of the Chapel’s 500th anniversary the Queen wrote to the Dean saying, “I join in thanksgiving to Almighty God for the building of St George’s Chapel. Over the centuries it has borne witness to God’s Sovereignty and to the Gospel of Christ,” and recalling “the many associations which my own family, at our home in Windsor Castle, has with this Chapel.”

Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh with Dean Mitchell at the fountain in the Dean’s Cloister. The Queen switched on the fountain, with its golden statue of St George, in 1998, marking 650 years since the foundation of the College of St George.

The Queen unveils a plaque at the official opening of the new building to house the Archives and Chapter Library of the College of St George in 1999.

A photograph of the Lay Stewards of St George’s Chapel with Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, taken in 2006 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the stewards.

Queen Elizabeth has continued the tradition which her father re-established in 1948 of celebrating the Order of the Garter every year. This photograph shows The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh leaving St George’s Chapel after the Garter Day service in June 2015.

An exhibition celebrating The Queen’s reign opens in the Dean’s Cloister from Thursday 10th September. Normal opening hours are Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm; Castle admission charges apply.

The man behind the Black Book

August 18th, 2015

Illumination is a key feature of the Black Book of the Garter which, commissioned by King Henry VIII in 1534, documents the Knights of the Order of the Garter from its origin in 1348 until 1551.

Accounts of the household for the King contain regular payments to Lucas Hornebolte (an anglicised form of his real name: Horenbout), a Flemish painter described in the accounts as a “pictor-maker”. He was appointed King’s Painter, and worked as court miniaturist to Henry VIII from 1525 until his death, painting several famous miniature portraits including those of Henry’s wives and children. Horenbout’s miniature portraits appear to use a technique very similar to that in the illumination of manuscripts, thus it has been identified that Horenbout was the illuminator for the Black Book.

Lucas Horenbout was born in Ghent around the year 1490 and trained with his father, who was a manuscript illuminator. In the 1520s Lucas, along with his father, Gerard, and sister, Susannah, moved to England. It has been suggested that they moved to this country in order to help the attempted revival of English manuscript illumination, but there is no definite evidence for this. Nevertheless, Horenbout is considered by many as the founder of the English school of portrait miniature painting.

While the ensuing two volumes of the Register of the Order of the Garter are also decorative in keeping with a similar style, the Black Book is undoubtedly illuminated to a higher quality. Not only does it contain several pages on which the Sovereigns since the start of the Order are represented, surrounded by beautifully designed borders, but decorative initials are a continuous presence throughout.

Elaborately illuminated page for the start of King Henry VI's reign

On the whole, the use of the colours red, blue and gold are most prominent, with each initial of the start of each paragraph or title of Sovereign or Knight, written in gold and backed by a square of blue or red alternately.

Due to the highly decorative nature of the Book in comparison to the other registers of the Order, King Henry VIII may have commissioned it as a status symbol to display his wealth and power as King of England and Sovereign of the Order of the Garter. The ornate use of the colour gold throughout conveys the sense of wealth, and the more extravagant decoration for the Sovereigns sets Henry VIII’s pages apart from the rest of the book, suggesting its purpose wasn’t merely to document the statutes and the foundations of the Order. Likewise, toward the centre of the Book on a double page spread are four illustrations depicting a Garter procession and Henry VIII surrounded by the Knights of the Garter, further exhibiting his status, and emphasising his involvement in the creation of this first volume of the Register of the Order of the Garter. By comparison, all other monarchs who appear in the Black Book have only one small miniature portrait to mark the start of their reign.

Lucy Brown, Archives work experience student

Conservator’s eye view: wax seals

July 23rd, 2015

The Medieval Seals at St George’s Chapel Archives or a Geek’s blog

My background has been rich in the conservation and restoration of many historical artefacts mostly on paper and parchment, books and paintings and in the service of the most prestigious of clients. But rarely have I encountered wax seals, those mostly little red things hanging from the bottom of documents, so my introduction to them four years ago by the gracious Librarian & Archivist, Dr Clare Rider at St George’s Chapel Archives was met with not a little apprehension. Since then I have offered my voluntary service on Tuesdays to help clean, repair, survey and protect some 2,000 plus fascinating medieval wax seals. When I relate what I have been up to for the past four years to some of my family and all of my friends I am met with a glazing-of-the-eyes and pathetic attempts to suppress their yawns. I have morphed into, not a Navy Seal, but a Geek Seal and very proud of it I am too! So let me try to explain what treasures we have at St George’s Chapel Archives and to begin with a short background to the subject.

Four wax seals attached by parchment tongues to a deed from 1530

A seal attached to a legal document is a device for authenticating the document. It may be attached by a tag (a strip of parchment threaded through slits made in the folded foot of the document) a tongue (a strip cut laterally across the foot of the document with the seal attached at the end) or a cord (made from wool, silk and often plaited, threaded through the foot of the document) or applied directly onto the document. Most early seals are made of coloured beeswax, although some are left uncoloured and they generally have an impression stamped into them, though again, some are just wax blobs. The impression is created by a hand-engraved matrix or die, which in principle is the personal property of its user, i.e. the person accepting responsibility for what the document says. In England prior to the early 11th century the solemn grants of lands and rights bore no seal and their authority was written and signed by eminent witnesses along with the sign of the cross for sacred and divine significance. The earliest English documents known to be authenticated by attached seals are the writs of Edward the Confessor (1042-66). This is possibly the period when wax or metal seals were introduced as a permanent form of document authentication in England.

Whilst there are many thousands of medieval wax seals, some broken but many intact, within the archives of British libraries and institutions there are sadly very few of the matrices remaining. This is a pity because the study of the subject is enhanced if a well impressed seal has its matching ‘partner’ complete, like two hands coming together in prayer. Nevertheless, the real importance is the document together with its attached seal. The matrix would have been engraved and made by hand, some of the best were done by gold or silversmiths, and the materials used were copper alloy, gilt or silver and most had a handle made of metal or wood which would be held and pressed into the soft wax. Some smaller seals were made of precious metals in the form of a signet ring.

The front of King Edward III's Great Seal from 1333

The reverse of King Edward III's Great Seal from 1333

The broad categories seals and their respective documents take are as follows:

  • Royal seals or Great Seals (very often double-sided);
  • Aristocratic and heraldic seals;
  • Secular clergy seals, e.g. Bishop’s seals of dignity;
  • Personal seals (mostly un-heraldic);
  • Seals of corporate bodies, e.g. monastic and town seals

My four years of experience at St George’s Chapel Archives has enabled me to experience all of these categories, but the overriding majority of seals here are personal seals, belonging to the seal owning public. The great spread of personal seals in the 12th/13th centuries and after reached out to virtually all landholders, from the largest to the smallest. It seems that virtually no one, including villeins, such as tenant farmers, was denied the use of a seal to authenticate a legal document – either their own or a borrowed seal. Therefore the plethora and complexity of designs and motifs impressed into the wax for us to study today is astounding. The collection of personal seals at St George’s Chapel Archives is no exception.

A seal depicting a grotesque head. Sketch by Peter Eley.

A seal depicting a phoenix rising from the ashes. Sketch by Peter Eley.

A seal depicting a two-faced man. Sketch by Peter Eley.

Peter Eley, Library and Archives volunteer