The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Seal-Die of Boxgrove Priory

Seal of Boxgrove Priory

Seal of Boxgrove Priory, British Museum

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.

Boxgrove Priory

Boxgrove Priory

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.

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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.

 

Sources:

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

 

15 Comments

Filed under Medieval Life, The Medieval Church

15 responses to “The British Museum in Thirteen Objects – Seal-Die of Boxgrove Priory

  1. If my memory isn’t messing with me (and that’s always a possibility), the seals in Japan of roughly the same period were cylindrical, so they could be rolled across the wax.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very interesting article, short and to the point with nice photos. I really like your blog! 🙂

    (Rereading my message I realise it sounds like one of these spammy messages – oops!)

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The horseman – presumably a knight? – is a very striking image. Am I right in thinking that the impressions in signet rings were later used as seals?

    Liked by 1 person

    • The horseman is a knight. Yes, sort of. Not much later than this, they started using gems set in rings. I’m not really sure how this worked, though, unless there was also something in the setting itself to identify the owner.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. More spackle to fill the gaps in my brain!!! I have seen several seals on documents, but wondered at the mechanics of it. Pondered if some were two-sided. Now I know! Could not find anyone to ask, as most documents I saw were photos. One of the drawbacks of being a mid-western American.

    Do you know if an agreement between two parties occasioned having both seals back-to-back? A separate seal could be cut off. Back-to-back, using the same wax, would be more binding.

    I have seen ribbons of seals, with the primary one at the top, and underlings’ seals ranged below. Often, the waxes seem colored. Was that common then? Boutiques today offer colored sealing waxes, even perfumed. I presume the sealing wax was a mixture of beeswax, gum resin, and other materials to make it hard and durable. Did people mix their own or were there craftsmen who created sealing waxes? Certainly they were expected to withstand the ravages of time, temperature and humidity?

    I wonder when seals began to be impressed into the paper without wax? Have also noticed seals affixing short ribbons tied to the bottom of documents. And remember a couple where a bit of the vellum was nearly sliced off and the seal impressed into the dangling part.

    Am fascinated by the subject. Love this series! Thank you, good lady, and the very best to you and yours!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, that’s very kind.

      I don’t think seals were attached back to back, but it’s an interesting idea. I wanted to use an image of a sealed document, but all the ones I could find are copyright images. On my next visit to London I must go to the British Library and see what I can find there.

      I’m afraid I don’t know about the manufacture of the wax. I’ll keep my eyes open in case I come across any further details.

      Like

  5. It’s interesting to see that documents have been being “sealed” for authentication for so long. Some of the advancements in digital signatures and security are often promoted as if they’ve invented a new concept.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Loving this series April.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Pingback: Medieval Heraldry | A Writer's Perspective

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