Saturday, January 17, 2009

Signed, sealed, delivered.

First of all - my website's back up - YAY!

Now to the next post.

The other day I was looking up a charter of Hugh Bigod II (d.1225) the hero of my current work in progress. I wanted to know who had witnessed the charter because the witness list is a good indicator of who a lord was relying on for support and who was in the household at that time.
Hugh's seal was apparently attached to the charter and there is a description of it in Latin by Camden, the chap who made the transcription from the Medieval document. As I read the description I became rather interested and very curious. I read Latin very badly, but I can decipher certain words.
The transcription says 'Hec est forma posteriosis partis sigilli, in qua leonis salientis ymago quam eleganter expresso erat. Anterior pars majoris latitudinis et longitudinis ert, prae se ferens ymaginem hominins equo insedentis dextra gladium et sinistra manu clypeum gestentis. In sua clypeo anterior pars leonis emergebat.'

So, I am struggling very slightly with this, but I take it, very roughly paraphrased to mean that on the back of the seal there is a lion rearing up with both its front paws on a level (leonis salientis) and that on the front of the shield there is the image of a man on horseback with a sword in his right hand (dextra gladium) and a shield in his left. Then at the end it seems to say that a lion can be seen emerging on the front of his shield.
Now then, the standard Bigod device is a red cross on a yellow back ground. That's what was carried on their shields up until the time that Roger Bigod IV (c1245-1306) took the Marshal blazon of a half-green and half-yellow background, with the famous 'scarlet lion' rampant in the foreground. The right to carry that device came down through his grandmother, Mahelt Marshal, who was, of course, daughter of the great William Marshal whose device this had once been. It seems very likely that Mahelt's son, Roger Bigod III (1209-1270) bore the traditional Bigod cross on his shield. On his equestrian seal he carried the Bigod cross too.
One source says that the seal at the beginning of this post is that of Roger Bigod II (hero of The Time of Singing), and is the seal he used as Earl of Norfolk throughout his life. The counterseal shows the Bigod cross. (A counterseal was a smaller, personal seal that a baron might keep about his person. His main seal was often kept by a trusted administrator). However, another source tells me that this is the seal of Roger Bigod IV. This is the point where I start banging my head on my desk! The armour in the sketch suggests that this is perhaps later than Roger II. Personally I would say it is Roger III because of the cross on the shield and because a list of said seals in the British museum describes the seal of Roger III as looking like this. Then again, according to Camden, Hugh Bigod's charter seal shows a lion on the shield and on the reverse. So either Hugh Bigod (Roger II's father) had a reason for adopting a lion on his shield, or the wrong seal has been assigned to that charter by future generations. I might be able to make mileage out of this anomalous lion in the novel, I don't know yet.
None of this has any bearing on my work in progress as such, except that I would like to know if Hugh Bigod really did have a lion on his shield and if so, was the reason connected with his wife? To find that out, I'm going to have to try and get to look at the seal myself. The only way to tell is to look at the style of the armour and pray that it has a legend round the outside. A 'Hugonis' would be extremely useful!
This is the counter seal of Roger Bigod IV, last earl of Norfolk of the Bigod line.


All this searching after seals, led me to wonder more about seals in general, and I found a wealth of fascinating information at the Durham University site.

The earliest seals in the medieval period were crude in execution and it wasn't until the thirteenth centure that they became sharper and more elegant of design. By the fourteenth century the simplicity of the earlier seals had been replaced by more elaborate seals with much fine detail.
The word 'seal' should only properly apply to the die or matrix that is used to make the impression on wax or whatever material is used. However, it is loosely used when talking about both the matrix and the impression itself. The seal matrix usually has a central design surrounded by a border legend. Matrixes could be made of bronze or latten (an alloy). Some of the higher status matrixes were fashioned from jet or silver. Engraved gems were common. Lead was a metal used by people of less exalted rank.
These seal matrixes were carefully guarded to prevent fraud by people not authorised to use them. Sometimes in monasteries, if discipline was lax, monks misused the seals and overspent the budget by authorising all sorts of luxuries and unnecessaries. This happened at Bury St. Edmunds in the twelfth century. Monastic abuse of seals was widespread and rules were introduced by which official documents could only be sealed in full view of the entire chapter.
In secular life, important seals, such as those belonging to towns, were kept locked in a box that was itself closed with the seals of the mayor and two constables.
Seals were often made by goldsmiths, who had the requisite skills. In the later Middle Ages (1440's) at Durham, Joss the goldsmith was paid twenty one shillings and 8 pence for making a seal for the prior.
If a seal ceased to be valid - if the owner died for example, it was customary to break it into pieces or deface it, a detail that is borne out by the very few surviving examples of seal matrices.
Most seal impression are imprinted in beeswax. This could come in several colours, cream, and green and red being common. The seals of the Norman kings appear to have been of cream-coloured wax mixed with a chalky substance that made them friable and easily breakable. By Henry II's period, seals, red had arrived and by the time his sons were sealing charters, green was the colour of the day. Seals were attached to documents by threads, by woven cords and braid, and by strips partially cut from the documents themselves.
Medieval seals generally come in two shapes. Round ones are used by laymen, whatever their rank, and oval ones are used by ladies and ecclesiasts. The general reason for this is that women and the clergy were usually depicted standing upright, which better suited the oval shield shape.
Here's an enlarged copy of the shield of Isabelle de Clare, wife of William Marshal.

Seal rings were not so much in use in the period about which I write, although they had been popular earlier on in Roman and Carolignian times, and were to become popular again later, returning to full vogue around the end of the fifteenth century.
In general terms, the larger the seal, the more important the person. Royal seals were larger than those of the magnates, and lesser gentry had smaller seals again. A bishop had a bigger seal an an archdeacon. I think it interesting that when William Marshal became a magnate, he kept the smaller, equestrian seal he had had as a knight. I wonder if it was from a sense of quiet personal pride, or to remind himself of his roots that he continued to use this seal rather than opting for an ostentatious one. Keeping the old one fits his character. He knew the things that mattered and those that didn't.
Seals were very carefully attached to documents because a document without them was invalid.
The earliest medieval seals were fixed by the wax being rivetted through a cross shaped incision cut into the parchment. From there the technique developed and seals were attached by partly cutting a strip from the parchment on the lower edge of the document and fixing the seal to this.
There was also the technique of cutting an incision into the parchment fold at the bottom of the deed or charter, passing a narrow strip of parchment or leather through this incision, and then attaching the seal to the two loose ends. Sometimes several seals were attached to a document by this method. From the end of the 12th century, silk and wool cords were used in documents concerning the higher ranks in society.
When there were a lot of seals on a document, the most important personage took preference and the grandest would begin at the bottom left hand corner and the others would progress in order of status to the bottom right.

I have paraphrased most of this from the very interesting article on Durham University's site. For readers wanting to study the full article, the url is here. Fascinating stuff!


Jan Jones said...

I think I need to come back to this post when I've got a spare day or so to do it justice!

Fascinating stuff.

Anne Gilbert said...

Thank you! I learn something new every time I come here. I didn't know that female and ecclesiastical seals were oval, nor did I know anything about seal sizes relative to rank. Lovely!
Anne G

Carla said...

Would it be usual for a husband to adopt a device from his wife's family? I.e., if Hugh did have a lion on his shield courtesy of Mahelt Marshal, would this have been normal, unusual but still within normal bounds, or pretty much unique?

Elizabeth Chadwick said...

Anne, I knew about the oval seals but I haven't always known - I probably found out about three years ago when researching the Marshal.
Carla, I would say it would be highly unusual, especially when husband and wife were of similar rank. I'm sure I've read of rare incidences of this happening, where a husband has adopted his wife's device, but I couldn't tell you where and when. I would say that if Hugh did have a lion on his shield on one side of the seal and a lion on the other too, that it would be an oddity. That's why I really need to see this and check on the period of the armour depicted and whether there's a legend around the outside. It's one of those niggling anomalies one comes across that probably could be solved if one had the time and resources and know how!