Little Treasures: Univ’s medieval seals
Medieval documents regularly had seals attached to them as a means of authentication. They came in many sizes and designs, from a Great Seal of the King, down to a small seal of a private individual, but so many of them are intricately worked, and are fine examples of medieval craftsmanship.
Earlier this year, another College archivist circulated a message around his colleagues to ask if they could do a survey of their medieval seals – in particular, roughly how many did each of us have, and did we have any interesting ones? It was not surprising that the Colleges which owned a large number of estates scored very high: Magdalen has about 10,000 medieval seals and New College about 7,000. Even Queen’s College has about 1,000. But Univ, which owned very few estates in comparison, has – about 400 of them.
We do not, then, have many medieval seals, but when I compared our most interesting seals with those of other Colleges, I was pleased to find that, as so often with our archives, we more than make up in quality for what we lack in quantity. For this month’s treasure, therefore, here are just some of the remarkable medieval seals in our collections.
Some of these deeds are even older than the College. They have come to our archives because, before the creation of a Land Registry in the 1920s, the best way to prove one’s title to an estate was to own a set of title deeds which told the history of that estate as far back as possible. Therefore, whenever Univ acquired or was given a new piece of land, it received an accompanying collection of title deeds, some of which might go back a century or two before the date of the current transaction.
The College’s oldest seal?
There are two contenders for the title of the oldest deed in Univ.’s collection both of which have interesting seals attached. This one may just be the earliest: it can be dated to c. 1175–1200, because one of the people mentioned in it was John, Bishop of Norwich, who held his post during these years.
It records a grant by Cecilia, daughter of Richard, the son of Gonvaker de Waregeford, to Richard Goldsmith of some unspecified land which had been given to her by Estrilda, daughter of Herebodus of Oxford. We have no other information about this property: unfortunately, title deeds as early as this describe properties being handed over in very little detail. At the time, no doubt, it would have been clear enough which lands were Estrilda’s. The property, however, was almost certainly somewhere in Oxford, because in 1361 Univ bought several houses and fields in Oxford from the descendants of the Goldsmith family.
The seal, unusually, has no heraldic design, or any recognisable image, but instead an abstract pattern of whorls, with an inscription around. Most of the latter is lost, but the words “Cecilie Ricardi” are visible on the left-hand side. The seal is in the shape of a pointed oval, called a vesica, rather than circular. Oval seals tended to be used by women and by churchmen (like the one below).
A gift from an Archbishop
This seal comes from the other contender for the title of the oldest deed in Univ.’s archives. It is a grant from Geoffrey, Archbishop of York, to Geoffrey Goldsmith, of land in “Wilton”. We still do not know where “Wilton” was. Archbishop Geoffrey, an illegitimate son of Henry II, was Archbishop of York in 1191–1212, and Stephen de Langeton, one of the deed’s witnesses, became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1206. The deed must therefore date from c.1191–1206.
This seal is unusual in having images on both sides. The front shows an archbishop, and bears the inscription ‘Sigillum Gaufridi Dei Gratia Eboracensis Archiepiscopi’ (the seal of Geoffrey, by the grace of God, Archbishop of York), and the back shows what has been identified variously as a warrior or a man holding a stylus and wax tablet, and has the inscription ‘Sigillum Galfridi Henrici Regis Anglorum Filii’ (seal of Geoffrey, son of Henry, King of the English).
Once again the seal is vesica shaped, being created for a clergyman.
A major benefaction to a poor College
In 1443, Henry Percy, the second Earl of Northumberland, gave Univ the rectory of Arncliffe, in North Yorkshire. Arncliffe is a large parish, deep in the Yorkshire dales, and is perhaps the most beautiful of all the places where Univ. has owned property.
Percy gave the rectory to Univ. with the intention that the College would receive most, if not all, of the tithes from Arncliffe itself, using some of the income to employ a vicar to look after the parish, while the remainder of the money would endow three new Fellowships. This was a major benefaction for a poor College, which at the time comprised just over half a dozen Fellows. Furthermore, Arncliffe was the first parish where Univ had the right to appoint a priest to administer it.
The seventeenth-century antiquarian Antony Wood claimed that Percy made this donation after the University of Oxford had lobbied him to assist an old but poor College with links to the north-east of England. There is no explicit evidence for this story, but there survives a letter from the University thanking Percy for his gift to the College, which suggests that they were aware of what was happening.
This deed, as well as recording Percy’s gift to the College, also includes some detailed conditions attached to the gift. They are mainly concerned with ensuring that the Fellows of Univ say regular masses and prayers for the souls of Percy and his family (as well as King Henry V), no doubt to speed them on their way through Purgatory.
As well as bearing this fine example of Percy’s seal, the deed is unusual because Percy actually signed it as “Harry Eerle of Northumberland ye secunde”.
A fortunate survival from the north east
Although Newcastle-on-Tyne has long been a major centre in the north-east of England, its proximity to the Scottish border made it vulnerable to incursions during periods of Anglo-Scottish tension, and it seems that, as a result, surprisingly few medieval records survive for a place of such importance.
Here at Univ we are fortunate to hold a collection of several dozen medieval deeds about Newcastle, because we were given several houses there in 1447 by Alice de Bellasis, member of a wealthy local family. Their arrival in Oxford has therefore kept them safe for the last 500 hundred years, and they remain an important source for the medieval history of Newcastle.
As a representative of this very special collection of deeds, here is a fine copy of the common seal of Newcastle, which dates from c. 1269. It shows the castle after which the town took its name, and there is a fragmentary inscription “Commune … Novi Castri” (the Common [Seal] of Newcastle).
Doing business with Osney Abbey
In 1332 Univ acquired the site of what is now the central third of Main Quad. During the next few decades successive Masters and Fellows gradually expanded the site of the College to the east and to the south, buying or being given properties, often just one by one: it was a slow process.
This seal reflects one part of that process. In 1396, Univ rented for 80 years from Osney Abbey the site of a property called Hart Hall, which lies under what is now part of the Master’s Garden. Although no documents survive to prove it, it appears from contemporary accounts that the lease was renewed in 1476.
Osney Abbey lay to the west of Oxford, and was its largest religious house. Its magnificent abbey church was chosen as the first cathedral for the new diocese of Oxford in 1542, until Henry VIII changed his mind, and moved the cathedral to the old priory church of St. Frideswide within his new foundation of Christ Church. Deprived of any reason to exist, Osney Abbey was gradually dismantled, until nothing of it now survives. Seals like this are now the only material remains of this grand complex.
Some local assistance: The Mayor helps out
Several fourteenth-century deeds relating to property in Oxford bear the same extra seal. This is one of the earliest examples of this seal, attached to a deed dating from 1335. This deed relates to a property called Olifaunt Hall, which lay on the south side of Brasenose Lane, and which Univ bought in 1360/1. It is now part of the site of Lincoln College, as can be seen from below.
The presence of the ox will reveal the identity of the owner of the seal: this belongs to the Mayor of Oxford. But the Mayor of Oxford had nothing to do with this transaction, apart from acting as a witness; what is he doing here?
The reason lies in the donor of Olifaunt Hall. He was John de Aldewyncle, rector of “St. Mary atte Naxe” (presumably St. Mary Axe) in London. As an inhabitant of London, he will have been an unfamiliar figure in Oxford, and his seal might not be trusted. Therefore, as John himself states in this deed, “because my seal is unknown to many people, I have arranged for the seal of the office of the mayoralty of Oxford to be placed on these documents.” Within Oxford, no one could doubt the authenticity of a document bearing the mayoral seal. The presence of this seal on several fourteenth-century Oxford deeds in our archives shows that this was a popular method of authenticating a transaction at the time.
Univ does business with Lincoln College
In 1463, Univ sold several properties situated in Brasenose Lane or Turl Street, including the site of Olifaunt Hall, to Lincoln College. These properties are all now part of the central site of that College.
The deed recording this transaction has attached to it this fine example of the seal of Lincoln College. There is, however, another copy of this deed, held in the archives of Lincoln College (ref. D/OAS/144). This copy, logically enough, bears Univ’s seal, so that each side had a means of authenticating the transaction.
There was another way of authenticating a document. As was customary with many medieval deeds, these two documents are “indentures” – that is to say, they both have wavy lines at the top. The intention was that the two copies of a deed would be written on one sheet of parchment, and then cut in two in such a way that the copies, when reunited, should match each other. A few years ago, I took our copy of the 1463 deed over to Lincoln, and, even after almost 550 years, the tops of our deed and theirs could be made to match up. The medieval system still worked.
Uncomfortable Univ: Two tales of medieval forgery
This, undeniably, is rather embarrassing. Twice in about 1390 and about 1430, the Fellows of Univ stooped to forging documents to help them in tricky legal disputes.
The first set of deeds relates to the properties bought by Univ in 1361 which had once belonged to the Goldsmith family. Unfortunately, the vendor of the properties, John de Gonwardby, seemingly had no right to sell several of these lands, and the College was sued by the heirs of the Goldsmiths to hand them back. The case rumbled on for over 25 years, finally being heard before the King’s Council in the late 1380s. At point during this period, the College seems to have created a set of deeds which suggested that John de Gonwardby was absolutely within his rights to sell these lands to Univ.
It is hard to say whether the deeds particularly helped. The King’s Council came to a decision in January 1390. After so long a time, the Council arranged a compromise: Univ was allowed to keep all the Goldsmith lands, but they were ordered to pay compensation to their opponents of over £100 – well over the College’s annual income from this date.
The second set of deeds relates to a dispute with Osney Abbey. The College had acquired the site of 9 High Street in 1401, and found that this house’s owners had to pay an annual quit rent to Osney Abbey. The College evidently did not want to do so, and in the early 1430s the Abbey took the College to court.
Once again, a collection of deeds were assembled which obligingly told a different history of the property, in which the owners of 9 High Street never had to pay a quit rent to the Abbey. We do not know whether the forgery was detected, but we do know that crime did not pay here; the College lost its case.
It is easy enough to prove that the deeds were forgeries: even in the early eighteenth century, William Smith identified them as such. First of all, the handwriting gives many of them away: they are written in hands which bear no relation to genuine deeds of the date which these purport to be. Then there is the language used. These deeds make mistakes in their formulae. One deed, for example refers to “King Richard the First after the Conquest”, whereas the real Richard I was always called “King Richard the son of King Henry”.
This leaves the seals, for many of these deeds bear them. These will have to have been procured from somewhere. In the case of the seals from the late 1380s, one can occasionally catch the College recycling an existing seal to create a new one. Here is an example:
The left-hand seal comes from a genuine document, dated 16 March 1349, and belonged to one Robert Maunsel. The right-hand one purports to come from a document dated 22 May 1233, and to belong to one Geoffrey Goldsmith. One can see the suspicious resemblance. Perhaps the left-hand seal was used as a matrix for the right-hand one, or else a real seal of Maunsel on another deed was transferred to this one. Either way, another interesting
detail is that the “1233” seal was made with red wax, which has been stained black to make it appear older.
This seal from another forgery of the 1380s, this time purporting to date from 1265, shows another trick which the College tried, this time it seems with some help.
Three hundred years ago, William Smith, when transcribing these deeds, came to an astonishing, and undoubtedly correct, conclusion about this seal:
“The inscription about the seal which seems genuine is this S Officialitatis Cantuariensis the Impresse is a Bishop with a mitre on his head, his breast & head pritty prominent, under such a Canapy as used to be placed over the Dean & prebendarys stalls in old Cathedral churches. This seal seems not to have been took off some other deed, but primarily fixt to this deed, and therefore it is highly probable that the keeper or underkeeper of this seale was privy or consenting to this forgery.” (UC:AR2/MS1/1 p. 241)
In other words, Smith suggests that this is a seal freshly made from a genuine matrix. It is also notable that, whereas the other two seals are once again made of red wax stained black, this seal is made entirely from black wax.
The 1430s seals are slightly harder to prove as forgeries – perhaps the College was getting rather better at this.
This elegant pair of seals comes from a deed which claims to date from the late twelfth century. They do look rather more plausible, and it is not yet clear how the College might have created them – or whether, as William Smith had wondered, they have been taken off another deed.
These forged seals clearly demand further investigation – but, indeed, so do our “real” medieval deeds. I have no doubt that other treasures await the researcher there.
Further details of the deeds to which these seals are attached may be found here:
From Robin Darwall-Smith, Early Records of University College, Oxford (Oxford Historical Society, vol. 46 (n.s.), 2015):
pp. 261–2 (the deeds for Cecilia and Geoffrey Archbishop of York).
p. 203 (Osney Abbey).
pp. 204–5 (the Mayor’s seal)
pp. 215–16 (Lincoln College),
pp. 240–59, 329–32 and 356–69 (on the forgeries of the 1380s)
pp. 219, 229–30 and 230–3 (on the forgeries of the 1430s).
Archbishop Geoffrey’s deed has been transcribed with a commentary as no. 55 in M. Lovatt (ed.), English episcopal acta. 27, York, 1189–1212 (Oxford, 2004), 62–3, and has also been transcribed and illustrated in Martin Brett, David Smith, and Philippa Hoskin (eds.), Facsimiles of English Episcopal Acta, 1085–1305 (Oxford, 2012) as no. XLIV A.
Robin Darwall-Smith, Early Records of University College, pp. 28–33.
A. F. Butcher, ‘Rent, Population and Economic Change in Late-Medieval Newcastle’, in Northern History 14 (1978), pp. 67-77.
Further selected Univ Treasures are detailed below or explore the whole collection on our News and Features Treasures pages.
Published: 24 October 2023