College of St George Archives Blog

College of St George Archives

Travels with Bishop Welldon

November 15th, 2016

Stafford Crawley (Canon of Windsor, 1938-1947), after completing his education at Harrow & Magdalen College, Oxford, spent several months travelling in India, Tibet and China in 1899, after which he returned to England to attend theological college to prepare for ordination. Canon Crawley’s diaries, along with a large collection of his family’s correspondence and some photographs, were presented to St George’s Chapel Archives by his children in 1984 and have since proved a fascinating resource for the study of society during Crawley’s lifetime. His diary of 1899 is the earliest held here and it is by far the most detailed of the collection as there are very few days with no entry.

On his journey to India Crawley travelled with James Edward Welldon, who was to be consecrated as Bishop of Calcutta. Crawley writes in his diary [SGC M.126/K/1] that Welldon is a great man but that he (Crawley) cannot share his thoughts and admits that he doesn’t amuse or interest Welldon. Although he feels he is unable to be of any practical use to Welldon while staying in Calcutta, Crawley is never critical of him. However, evidence of Welldon’s capacity for expressing himself forcefully is seen in Crawley‘s diary entry, reporting that Catholics in India are angry with Welldon for saying that Catholic nations everywhere are declining. Welldon’s maxim about schoolmastering was that “boys must first be crushed as if with a sledgehammer, then afterwards one can allow any liberties”. Crawley kept in touch with Welldon while training for ministry at Cuddesdon and afterwards.

A further impression of Welldon’s character may be found in this poem which E.M.Forster wrote about him after the bishop had criticised Labour MPs for “vulgar profanity”.

My brethren, nothing on earth is finer
Than a truly refined inarticulate miner
(Or may we say ‘under the earth,’ for there
Is a miner’s place, not up in the air ?) ;
But he must be refined, he must be meek,
Expert at his job, yet unable to speak,
He must not complain or use swear words or spit ;
Much is expected of men in the pit.

It is different for me. I have earned the right,
Through position and birth to be impolite.
I have always been used to the best of things,
I was nourished at Eton and crowned at King’s,
I pushed to the front in religion and play,
I shoved all competitors out of the way ;
I ruled at Harrow, I went to Calcutta,
I buttered my bread and jammed my butter,
And returned as a bishop, enormous of port,
Who stood in a pulpit and said what he thought.
Yes, I said what I thought and thought what I said,
They hadn’t got butter, they hadn’t got bread,
They hadn’t got jam or tobacco or tea,
They hadn’t a friend, but they always had me.
And I’m different to them. I needn’t be meek,
Because I have learned the proper technique;
Because I’m a scholar, a don, and a dean,
It’s all in good taste when I’m vulgar or mean.

I can bully or patronize, just which I please ;
I am different to them. . . . But those Labour M.P.s
How dare they be rude ? They ought to have waited
Until they were properly educated.
They must be punished, they’ve got to be stopped,
Parliamentary privilege ought to be dropped.
They shall be scourged and buried alive
If they trespass on My prerogative.

May I most clearly state, ere I lay down my pen,
That rudeness is only for gentlemen ?
As it was in the beginning, it shall be … Amen !

Jill Hume, Archives volunteer

William Edington, statute writer

October 5th, 2016

October this year marks the 650th anniversary of the death of William Edington, Bishop of Winchester. A financially astute servant of King Edward III, Edington served as Keeper of the Wardrobe, Treasurer and Chancellor throughout his career, arranging the kingdom’s finances to enable the king to pursue the costly Hundred Years War.

To find his significance in the history of the College of St George we must look back to our College Statutes. Amongst the oldest records relating to the College, these were first produced in 1352, four years after the College was founded by Edward III. The oldest surviving copy is on a vellum roll in the St George’s Chapel Archives, dating from the late-fourteenth or early-fifteenth century [SGC XI.D.20].

The College statutes were written by William Edington and Simon Islip, the Archbishop of Canterbury. They were entrusted with the work by Pope Clement VI, who stated in a papal bull issued on 30 November 1350 [SGC PB.3] that he fully approved and supported Edward III’s intention to found a college of canons, priests, clerks and Poor Knights at Windsor for the salvation of his soul and other people’s. Clement VI confirmed his confidence in Edington’s and Islip’s mindfulness of God and so granted to them the authority to order and enact statutes for the College and to appoint its first members.

The statutes that Edington and Islip produced covered a wide range of subjects in meticulous detail; everything that they considered important for the successful operation of the College and of St George’s Chapel. There are instructions about each member of the College, from the Dean (then known as the Warden) to the boy choristers: where they are to live and how often they are expected to attend services in St George’s Chapel, how much they should be paid and the penalty if they did not fulfil their obligations. For example, each Poor Knight was to receive 40 pence in sterling silver a year, plus 12 pence for every day he was resident at Windsor. If a Poor Knight was not in residence then his money for that day would be distributed among those who were. A Poor Knight was obliged to attend four services each day: two masses, evensong and compline, and to say one hundred and fifty salutations to the Virgin Mary, interspersed with fifteen recitations of the Lord’s Prayer, at each.

To ensure sound religious practice and financial management rules were provided about which people the Dean and Canons must keep in their prayers, about the duties of the different offices to be held by the Canons of the College and about how to invest any money that the College had left over at the end of a year. The statutes go into detail about the behaviour and appearance of members of the College – canons, vicars and clerks were discouraged from frequenting “taverns and suspicious places” and could be suspended from entering the quire for appearing too often in unclean or ridiculous attire. To maintain both the peace and the reputation of the College, anyone proven to be a defamer, grumbler and sower of discord was to be expelled.

Following Edington’s death, which is believed to have fallen on 6th or 7th October 1366, a tomb bearing his effigy was erected to commemorate him in the nave of Winchester Cathedral. Our statutes form another lasting memorial to his life and work as, with the addition of a number of supplemental charters to make them workable in the modern era, they are still in effect for the governance of the College of St George today.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

The Blind Traveller

September 15th, 2016

The foundation of the Naval Knights of Windsor was established in 1795 to accommodate and maintain “seven Gentlemen who are to be superannuated or disabled Lieutenants of English Men of War” in exchange for their attending regular services in St George’s Chapel. Each Naval Knight was permitted four months leave each year, provided that at least four of them remained in residence at all times. One man, however, extended his leave far beyond that.

James Holman, born in 1786, entered the Navy as a 1st Class Volunteer at the age of twelve. From 1807, he was commissioned as Lieutenant but in 1810, at 25 years of age, he contracted an illness which left him totally blind and with limited mobility. This ended his naval career and in 1812 he was appointed a Naval Knight of Windsor. Within a short time he was said to have found the “quietude of the life there intolerable”. He petitioned for a leave absence, citing that his only chance of recovery lay in a “continual change of Air and Scene”. His extensive, well documented travels earned him the title of The Blind Traveller.

Lieutenant Holman travelled alone, “trusting his own sagacity and the sympathy of others”. His childhood ambition to see the world became an ambition to experience it and the rest of his life was dedicated to his travels. On his first tour of Europe, he had a highly unusual adventure while believing himself to be waiting in a stationary carriage in Bordeaux. He patiently awaited assistance to exit the carriage for more than an hour before the other passengers returned to explain the delay. During that time, they had arrived at the Dordogne River, the other passengers had crossed by ferry and caught a coach to take them downstream, while the carriage – with Holman still aboard – had been transported onto a raft and he had travelled four miles by water without having the least idea of moving!

His adventures would take him across the world. In Italy, he charred his walking stick at the summit of Mount Vesuvius and in Russia, while attempting to reach the Chinese border, he was mistakenly arrested as a spy. He would eventually make it to China on one of his later travels as well Australia, New Zealand and Syria among others. He would also visit Africa and America, and was part of the second party to climb Table Mountain on horseback. Later, travelling through Equatorial Guinea, he joined the fight against slavery and spent some time working on anti-slaver ships.

In 1832 Lieutenant Holman achieved the distinction of being the first blind person to circumnavigate the globe. He published an account of this journey under the title A Voyage Round the World (1834-5). His achievements were widely recognised: he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Linnaean Society and his writings on plant life in the Indian Ocean are cited as a source in Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the Beagle.

In his own words, Holman found that through travel he was “enabled to extract from calamity so large a measure of enjoyment. How many resources against discontent and loneliness this beautiful and varied earth presents.”

A full account of Lieutenant Holman’s life can be found in an unpublished history of the Naval Knights of Windsor by Peter Clissold, held in the St George’s Chapel Archives.

Beth Elliott, work exchange trainee

The 670th anniversary of the Battle of Crécy

August 26th, 2016

670 years ago today, on 26 August 1346, one of the most significant victories in English military history took place – the Battle of Crécy – where, against the odds, Edward III’s army defeated the forces of Philip VI of France. The battle formed part of the long running dispute between England and France, later known as the Hundred Years War, which had been instigated by the founder of St George’s College, Edward III, to assert his claim to the French throne. Following the victory, the English forces were able to capture the strategically advantageous city of Calais from their weakened opponents within a year.

Despite its importance to Edward III’s campaign, not many reports have survived from Crécy. The fullest and most contemporary account now known was produced by an Italian, Giovanni Villani, sometime before 1348.(1) Edward III is reported to have chosen a stand at Crécy to confront the French army who were pursuing him. Villani states that while the French had 12,000 knights and almost numberless men at arms, the English had just 4,000 knights and 30,000 English and Welsh bowmen. These numbers are almost certainly greatly exaggerated, but they do give an idea of the relative sizes of the two armies. The English king used his position and small numbers to the best possible advantage, ordering that the carts carrying their provisions should be arranged to protect the English forces and leave only a small area in which the troops could engage. Combined with the (in)famous longbows, this strategy rendered large parts of the French army useless: their hired Genoese crossbowmen did not have enough range to out-shoot the English while armoured and horsed French knights could be brought down from a distance, thereafter becoming obstacles for their own men. Such tactics were considered ‘un-knightly’ by the French and much scorned by their chroniclers.

One of several theories about Edward III’s reasons for founding the chivalric company, later known as the Order of the Garter, in 1348, was to reward those who had served him well in France and to secure their future loyalty. Of the twenty five men usually considered ‘Founder Knights’ of the Garter, well over half had been present that day at Crécy and many of them also at the successful siege of Calais which followed.

Notable among these was Edward III’s eldest son, ‘the Black Prince’, who at just sixteen years old commanded one of the three divisions of the English troops. He was supported in this by Sir Bartholomew Burghersh, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and Sir John Chandos, who would all become Founder Knights. Meanwhile, Sir James Audley, Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir John Lisle, Sir John Grey and Sir John Beauchamp fought in the king’s retinue, Beauchamp carrying the Royal Standard.

However, not all those gave distinguished service at Crécy, and other battles in the Hundred Years War, were chosen as ‘Founder Knights’. Some were appointed later in the 1340s and 1350s, notably Sir William FitzWaryn, Earl of Northampton, William de Bohun and Sir Thomas Ughtred. Meanwhile, Richard FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel, who had been given command of one of the three divisions of the English army at Crécy, never rose to the distinction of Garter Knight, although he lived for nearly thirty years after the company had come into being. The early development of the Order of the Garter is lost in obscurity and this apparent omission, along with many other details, may never be fully understood.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

(1) A detailed analysis of this and other accounts can be found in Barber, R., Edward III and the Triumph of England (London, 2013).

Letters to Mother

August 15th, 2016

Philip Frank Eliot was appointed a Canon of Windsor in 1886. Prior to this he had been Vicar of Holy Trinity, Bournemouth. For five years he continued to hold the parish in plurality with his canonry at St George’s and during that time he is said to have spent more time in Bournemouth than in Windsor. This was not unusual behaviour for a canon in the nineteenth century, nevertheless, Eliot’s promotion to Dean in 1891 caused something of a stir amongst his colleagues and was thought largely to have been due to his wife’s position in the Queen’s household – Mary Emma Pitt Rivers had been Queen Victoria’s Maid of Honour from 1870 until her marriage to Eliot in 1883.

The Eliot family’s favour with Queen Victoria and the Royal Family is made clear in letters to and from Philip Eliot that survive in the St George’s Chapel Archives. Prominent among these are the letters that he wrote to his mother, describing in detail the services and social occasions which provided the opportunity for interaction with the Royal Family.

This letter to Mrs Eliot was written not long after her son’s appointment as Dean of Windsor and hints at his difficulties adjusting to his recent elevation.

5 February, 1891: On Tuesday afternoon we got a telegram from Osborne saying that the Queen wished us to go to dine at Osborne on Wednesday and to stay the night. … Dinner was at quarter to nine. Mary had to dress in black as the court is in mourning – and she looked as nice as could be. The Queen came into the drawing-room for a moment before dinner, and kissed Mary and bowed to me. At dinner there were: Princess Louise – Princess Beatrice – the Duchess of Connaught – the Duchess of Albany – the Duke of Connaught – Prince Henry of Battenburg and two or three of the household. I sat next to Princess Beatrice on one side and Lady Waterpark on the other. The dinner was very lively and there was a good deal of conversation. I said “Grace” right this time!

Princess Beatrice talked a good deal to me especially about our going to Windsor. After dinner the Queen first talked to Mary and then came to me. – Nothing could be nicer and kinder than she was, and when I had got over my little speech of thanks “for her kindness and confidence” in appointing me to the Deanery, I did not feel at all nervous, and talked to her for nearly half an hour. [SGC M.885/3]

Only a few months later, Dean Eliot was able to report on the wedding of Queen Victoria’s granddaughter, Princess Marie Louise of Schleswig Holstein:

8 July, 1891: As for the Wedding on Monday, it was magnificent as a scene. You must imagine the whole of St George’s filled from end to end with men in magnificent uniforms and ladies in magnificent dresses.

All the ladies who were invited guests were in low dresses. My lady looking as well as any of them.

The Archbishop and I walked side by side at the end of the clerical procession; two boys in surplices holding up the Archbishop’s long red train behind him. The Queen and the German Emperor and Empress and all the other Royalties were on a platform just outside the Communion Rails. …

The Service itself was very reverent and impressive and the music quite perfect. Immediately afterwards I had to go up to the Castle with the Register Books and was ushered into a Room where all the Royal people were, and had to show the Queen and the German Emperor and Empress and all the others where to sign their names.

There was a great fuss for a time about the Archbishop – as he had gone astray and could not be found. The Queen got quite impatient and sent 3 messengers for him before he could be found. [SGC M.885/4]

Later, as the bride and groom left, Eliot tells that the German Emperor “ran after the carriage like a school-boy and threw an old shoe at it!”

Dean Eliot’s confidence can be seen to grow over the years he spends as dean and he is able to report to his mother occasions when he has made The Queen laugh, or provided comfort to a member of the Royal Family in distress. His children were also allowed to take dancing lessons with some of Queen Victoria’s grandchildren, and this is a cause of great excitement for the family. The collection of Eliot’s correspondence also includes a number of letters to and from the Royal Family, including Queen Victoria herself. Although always formally expressed, these letters are evidence of the friendly connection between Eliot and the Royals.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

A king five years ahead of schedule?

July 18th, 2016

On my third day of work experience at the College of St George’s archives on a two-week attachment, I was asked to catalogue the digital photographs which record the various sections of the ‘Tables’ of the Knights of the Garter, which hang in the Deanery at St George’s Chapel.

The ‘Tables’ are large hinged panels displaying the coats of arms of every individual appointed to the Order of the Garter since its foundation, arranged according to the reign during which they were appointed. They were moved from the main part of the Deanery to a room known as Mr Dean’s Upper Hall (later the library) in the 1920s by Dean Albert Victor Baillie, who feared their former position left them vulnerable to damage or theft.

Testing carried out on the paint and woodwork of the panels in the early 2000s suggests that these panels date from the seventeenth century, and indeed the central decorative panel is painted with the initials CR, presumably for Charles Rex, one of the two Charleses to reign during that century. There is strong documentary evidence that panels similar to these existed as early as 1400, but what became of those is unknown.

While examining the photographs, I noticed in one image from the collection an inscription which caused me something of a conundrum. I understood that it related to Edward III – Edwardus tertius – but some of the numbers did not add up.

The inscription surrounding Edward III’s coat of arms appeared to read ‘Began to Reigne Jan ye 25. In 1322 And He Reigned 1 years & 5 mon.’ This was very suspicious as the reign of Edward III is well documented as having begun on 25 January 1327, when he was crowned at the age of fourteen after his father was deposed by the Queen and the Earl of March. He reigned for a little over fifty years before dying in June 1377.

Fortunately, closer examination of the photograph showed one perceived mistake was just a mis-reading on my part. The painter had mixed Arabic numbers and Roman numerals and what had looked at first glance like a 1 was in fact an L – the Roman numeral for fifty.

Even so, Edward III’s date of coronation has indisputably been painted on the panel as 25 January 1322, when we know that it was 1327. Surely there was a reason why?

There was no answer to this question – it seems that the painter had simply included the wrong date. It leads to an interesting thought on how even those employed by the highest in society to work on material relating to kings and queens can make slips of the pen – or paintbrush – and how one must always keep an open mind when looking at any historical evidence.

Stuart Hemsley, work experience student, St George’s Chapel Archives

Life of a chorister

June 15th, 2016

In January 1901 James Douglas, former chorister in the St George’s Chapel choir, wrote an account for his daughter of the years he had spent at Windsor, from 1847. Over a century later, their descendants gifted a copy of this account to the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC M.1061]. It provides a fascinating account of life in St George’s College at that time through the eyes of a young boy who was “always sent out spick and span” by his mother and whose grandparents and aunts granted him “many indulgences”.

James tells how he and his fellow choristers were remunerated for singing in the Chapel with 18s a month and their schooling. For the occasional singing they did at Eton, however, each boy was paid with a 1lb loaf, 1lb of meat and one quart of beer for the day. At this time James was only ten years old.

Many of his recollections seem to be connected with food; buying freshly-baked ½d sausage rolls from a shop in Windsor; being treated to a large bowl of “strawberry mess” (strawberries beaten up with sugar and cream) by a kindly Etonian; visiting the Deanery each year on stir-up Sunday (traditionally the last Sunday before Advent, when Christmas pudding is made) and being given a mince pie “about the size of a large cheese plate”.

Of the pass-times of the choristers, who spent most of their days between 7am and 5pm in a mixture of school-work, singing in the Chapel and practising and learning to sing, James says that they mostly played marbles and went fishing. He attributes these choices to there being no cricket ground for them to use, a fact that he seems to regret. The choristers also took an unusual interest in candle-wax – James reports that they often “watched the candles more than thinking of the service that was going on” – because they could collect the drippings from them and, when they had enough, sell the old wax. Accordingly, they looked forward to draughty nights and James reports that some of them secretly wedged their candles with small pieces of paper so they would tilt slightly and drip more frequently.

The memoir also gives accounts of some of the men living and working in St George’s Chapel at the time. Notable amongst these is Sir George Elvey, then organist and master of the choristers, whom the boys liked very much because he very rarely punished them. Nevertheless, he was known to use a paper knife to hold their tongues down if they were not opening their mouths properly when singing. He also boxed the ears of any boy who sang carelessly or out of tune in a Chapel service – James recalls that this usually seemed to happen in the afternoon services and never in the morning. Other colourful characters include a rather lazy lay clerk, described as “one of the biggest men I ever saw”, who paid James 6d a month to hang his hat upon its peg and hand him his surplice; a virger with a fondness for long words but little idea of when best to use them; and a devoted member of the congregation, who could repeat any verse of the Bible correctly and would call out to any canon who made a mistake in the collect or readings during a service, “you’re wrong!”

James Douglas remained a singer throughout his adult life but, despite a glowing testimonial from Sir George Elvey and his own childhood habit of making a wish every time he tasted a fruit or vegetable for the first time in a season, he never made it into a Cathedral Choir as an adult. He ends his recollections of Windsor by saying they were “happy, very happy days, such days as few boys are privileged to have, and tho’ my life has not been at all what it should have been, yet the influence of those days has I think often helped me strive against evil.”

Kate McQuillian (Assistant Archivist)

Peter Mews: a warrior priest in interesting times

May 15th, 2016

Few of Windsor’s many canons are likely to have heard the sound of cannon fired in anger. One who certainly did was the “Christian soldier” Peter Mews, who held the canonry of the 7th stall from 1662 to 1673, and later became bishop of Bath and Wells, and finally bishop of Winchester.

Peter Mews was born in the tiny Dorset village of Purse Caundle (some four miles east of Sherborne) in 1619, to Elisha Mews and his wife Elizabeth. With the help of his uncle, Dr Thomas Winniffe (who was dean of St Paul’s), he was able to attend Merchant Taylors’ School in London, and from there proceeded to St John’s College, Oxford, where he was elected a fellow in 1641. An academic career seemed to beckon, but by this time England was in a state of mounting crisis with the king and parliament moving towards open conflict. After the civil war began in August 1642, he joined the king’s army, rising to the rank of captain. Several times he was wounded, and at the battle of Naseby in June 1645, he was taken prisoner. After the war, he was ejected from his fellowship at St John’s College.

During the years of the Commonwealth (1653-60), Mews was in exile in the United Provinces. Initially, he planned to return to academic life and had his eye on the professorship of philosophy at Breda. This came to nothing however and so he spent most of the seven years involved in royalist plotting on behalf of the court in exile. This entailed acting as a messenger or liaison officer, and several times his life was in danger. Altogether it was not an easy time for him, and he suffered from the backbiting and intrigue which dogged the exiled royal court. It is not clear when he was ordained, but as he was known as Captain Mews during the years of exile, it seems unlikely he was then a clergyman.

Once Charles II was restored to the throne in 1660, his fortunes looked up. He was installed archdeacon of Huntingdon in 1660 and over the next decade acquired a string of church appointments, culminating in the deanery of Rochester in 1670. Preferment in the academic world came his way too. In 1667 he succeeded to the presidency of St John’s College, (having married the previous president’s daughter a few years before) and from 1669 to 1673 was chancellor of Oxford University. As a churchman, he was fierce in his persecution of dissenters, whom he described in almost quasi-military terms, as if he was continuing to fight the civil war by other means.

When he was consecrated bishop of Winchester in 1684, he was sixty-five years old and his days of military activity must have seemed long past. Events were to dictate otherwise. In 1685, James II (whom he strongly supported) succeeded his brother, and within months faced a serious challenge from James, duke of Monmouth. Seeing a chance to relive his military youth, Bishop Mews hurried down to the west country to join the royal camp at Sedgemoor and took part in the battle on 6 July, in which Monmouth’s men were routed. His exact role in the battle is not clear, but he lent some horses which were used to pull cannon and he was wounded, which suggests close engagement with the rebels. The king gave him a medal in recognition of his contribution to the victory. Despite his views on dissent, he urged clemency for the rebels, but to no avail. Following the Bloody Assizes presided over by Judge George Jeffreys, many were executed by drawing and quartering.

Three years later, James II’s rule was crumbling. Bishop Mews did what he could to save his royal master, but at times seemed to do more harm than good. After James’s overthrow, he conformed to the revolution, but in parliament he voted against the transfer of the crown to William and Mary.
He remained bishop of Winchester, but his effectiveness in his diocese was much reduced. His death, at the ripe age of 87, occurred at his palace, Farnham Castle, on 9 November 1706, following a dose of incorrect medicine. It was a sad end to a sometimes colourful life, shaped by the turbulence of interesting times.

Simon Harrison, Archives volunteer

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.