This is the second in the occasional series about medieval objects in the British Museum.
There were a few seal-dies in the medieval gallery at the British Museum, but I chose these from Boxgrove Priory because I’ve been there a few times. The ruins of the priory are near Chichester in West Sussex. These dies date from the thirteenth century. The image of the priory is on the front of the seal and the Virgin is on the back.
Seals were attached to documents, usually legal ones, by means strips of parchment or silk laces which had been inserted into the bottom of the document. They were the medieval equivalent of a signature. At a time when few could read, or write, they were a useful way of guaranteeing that the people who were supposed to be agreeing to what was in a document had agreed to it. They were made by warming a piece of wax, pressing it around the lace or parchment and flattening it between the two halves of the seal-die, which were locked together until the wax cooled. Some seals were made of gold or silver, which was really a way of showing off the wealth of the owner.
Bronze was the metal usually used for seal-dies, because it was hard. This meant that dies could be engraved with more detail than was possible with other metals and that they would not wear away quickly with repeated use.
Seals were mostly used for transferring property from one person to another. Monasteries were often given property by kings or wealthy men who wanted the monks to pray for their souls after their death and the seals of both parties would be attached to transfer document.
Since they were the equivalent of a signature, they were valuable objects and were usually kept under lock and key. There are tales of monks using the seals to embezzle money from their monasteries.
The use of seals was not limited to monasteries, but they were limited to people who had wealth. Secular seals often depicted the person who owned them. If it was a man, he was probably in armour on horseback (as in the picture above) and, if it was a woman, she would be shown standing. An inscription around the edges of the seal identified its owner.
The seals of merchants and secular men were round. Noblewomen’s seals were usually the same shape as ecclesiastical seals as shown by the seal of Boxgrove Priory.
Secular seal-dies were either destroyed on the death of their owner or buried with them, so that they could not be used again. The heir to that person would have their own seal-die made.
The Boxgrove seal is a communal seal, in that it was used by the prior for the priory’s business, but the prior would also have had a personal seal.
King’s, of course, had seals, but that’s a whole subject in itself.
Masterpieces of Medieval Art – James M. Robinson
The Time-Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer
England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh