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Little Treasures: Univ’s medieval seals

Detail UC:E/D4/D/9

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?

A gift from an Archbishop

A major benefaction to a poor College

A fortunate survival from the north east

Doing business with Osney Abbey

Some local assistance: The Mayor helps out

Univ does business with Lincoln College

Uncomfortable Univ: Two tales of medieval forgery

Further Reading

Further details of the deeds to which these seals are attached may be found here:

For Oxford

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.

For Arncliffe

Robin Darwall-Smith, Early Records of University College, pp. 28–33.

For Newcastle

PDF UC:E5 Various in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, c. 1235-1894 (p.7)

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

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