This fragment of wax is a surviving portion of the Great Seal of King Edward IV, attached to a grant made to the Dean and Canons by the King on 1 December 1471 [SGC X.1.12]. Throughout the Middle Ages, the Dean and Canons received many generous grants of property and privileges from monarchs and their extended families. This is a case of something less tangible but equally important – the King’s pardon.
To confirm that it is an official document formally authorised by the King, the Great Seal is attached. The Great Seal is a thick and heavy piece of wax, almost 12cm in diameter. Although this one has been damaged over the centuries and part of the wax lost, you can still see the central figure of the impression: the King, crowned and wearing a cloak, bearing the orb in his left hand and the sceptre in his left. This might be a familiar sight to those who watched the coronation of King Charles III earlier this year!
After a standard greeting to the reader, the text launches straight into the matter of the pardon:
Sciatis quod de gra[cia] n[ost]ra sp[eci]ali ac c[er]ta sciencia et mero motu nostris p[ar]donavim[us] remisim[us] et relaxavim[us]…
“Know that by our special grace, certain knowledge and mere motion, we pardon, remit and release…”
The list of crimes for which the Dean and Canons are reportedly being excused is long and extremely grave. It includes, but is not limited to, murder, rebellion, insurrection, conspiracy, riots and extortion. All of these committed before the last day of September 1471 are to be pardoned without penalty. Furthermore, all debts owed to the Crown before 29 September in the 9th year of Edward IV’s reign (i.e. 1469) were also to be forgiven.
Faced with such a document, the mind races as to what the Dean and Canons – a religious community charged with serving God and the King within St George’s Chapel – could possibly have been getting up to! And why haven’t we heard more about it?
The answer lies in the broader context of this document, which was the period of civil wars we now describe as the Wars of the Roses. Edward IV had first claimed the throne of England in in 1461. However, a revolt led by the Earl of Warwick saw the restoration of his predecessor, King Henry VI. Edward IV was forced into exile and Henry VI reigned for a further six months.
Edward IV returned to England in March 1471 and reclaimed the throne. The Earl of Warwick was killed at the Battle of Barnet and Henry VI was imprisoned in the Tower of London. This pardon is part of the administrative process of restoring Edward IV’s reign: all those who had supported Henry VI during his return to the throne either had to be penalised for doing so, or else pardoned so that life could continue. The list of crimes given are therefore not specific examples of crimes committed by the Dean and Canons themselves, but a standard form of wording used to signify any imaginable crime that anyone might have committed.
Royal pardons were issued quite frequently by medieval monarchs. The Archives at St George’s Chapel contains three general pardons to the Dean and Canons issued by Henry VI, two by Edward IV and two by Henry VII.
Kate McQuillian, Archivist & Chapter Librarian