Seal Matrix thumbnail 1
Seal Matrix thumbnail 2
+3
images
Not currently on display at the V&A

Seal Matrix

1450-1460 (made)
Place Of Origin

Circular or oval seals of wax, lead or even precious metal, attached to a document with threads, guaranteed the stipulations or conditions laid out in the text above, and the authenticity of the document. They were used regularly in England from the twelfth century onwards. Seal matrices were cut and punched by specialist seal makers or, when matrices were made of precious metals, by goldsmiths. This pair of matrices is for a single, double-sided seal. A cake of wax would be placed on each matrix, the matrices were then lined up and pressed together in a seal press. Each side of the wax cake would receive the impression from the die, and the pressure would also unite the two cakes into a single seal. Many seals, however, were one-sided. Wax was pressed into the die, and then the matrix was gently removed to leave the wax impression. The matrices described here were made for the Benedictine priory of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Pilton, North Devon. The priory certainly existed by 1187, when it is mentioned in documents, but the monks preferred to claim it had been founded in the tenth century by the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelstan, and this is why Aethelstan's image and arms appear on the reverse matrix. Although the size of the seal matrices suggests a large institution, in fact Pilton Priory was a very small foundation which was dependent on Malmesbury Abbey (Wiltshire). In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries only three monks carried out spiritual and administrative duties there, which principally involved prayer, and tending to the practical administration of the Abbey estates in the area. Despite its small size, the priory played an important role in the community. In the 1530s, it was the centre of a flourishing local cult of the Virgin Mary, and annual offerings to the monastery totalled £10. Yet by the end of 1536 Pilton priory was no more, suppressed by Henry VIII as part of his plan to establish himself as Head of the Church of England.


object details
Category
Object Type
Parts
This object consists of 2 parts.

  • Seal Matrix
  • Seal Matrix
Brief Description
Circular seal matrices of copper alloy with three peripheral loops to hold them in place in a seal press. England, 1450-60.
Physical Description
Circular seal matrix of copper alloy
Gallery Label
Matrices of Seal. Bronze. Obv., the Virgin crowned, with an angel on either side, on carved bases beneath gothic niches; on her right arm she holds the Infant Saviour, and in her left a sceptre: round the border a dexter hand and the legend: VIRGO. ROGA. PRO. ME. TOTUM. SEMPER. TIBI. DO ME. Rev., King Aethelstan, the founder, holding a sceptre and orb, stands on a carved base beneath a gothic niche; on either side beneath a similar niche is a tree bearing a shield: the one on the left bears the arms of the King of the Romans, and the one on the right that of King Aethelstan (?): round the border is the legend:- HOC. ATHELSTANUS. AGO. QUOD. PSENS. SIGNAT. IMAGO. These matrices are those of the seal of the Benedictine Priory of St Mary, Pilton in Devonshire, and were cut at the period when Richard Kengeswode was Prior (1413-1421), whose name is indicated by the rebus of the royal arms and the trees. English. 15th century. Diam., 2 9/16 in. Bought, 6l. 746, 746a-1877(1877-1890)
Object history
These are the matrices for the common seal of the Benedictine priory of St Mary, Pilton, in North Devon. The obverse is engraved with the Virgin and Child, which reflects the devotional focus of the priory. The reverse is engraved with an image of the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelstan who the monks claimed as founder of their institution. Although this had been rejected by a royal enquiry in the time of Edward III (1327-1377) (Luxford: 2005, p. 148; Heale: 2004, p. 29), the priory persisted with the claim because it suggested their foundation was ancient and consequently of spiritual and political importance. The arms on the proper right of the king (an orb with a trefoiled cross, surmounted by a crown) are those of Aethelstan as imagined by medieval English heralds (see Fisher: 1682, p. 2; Birch: 1887, no. 3841; Williams: 1998, no. M.188). An early Museum label makes the ingenious suggestion that the combination of the figure of the king and the two oak trees that support the armorial shields are a pun on the name of Richard Kengeswode ('King's Wood'), who was Prior at Pilton between 1413-21. However, a seal of the same design is affixed to a 1534 document, long after his death, which makes it unlikely that this seal was Kengeswode's own personal one. The size of the matrices suggests they were for the common, or institutional seal of the foundation, which was affixed to documents that reflected the wishes of the whole community, and not a seal for a prior's personal correspondence. The fine, close black-letter script used for the legends round the rim and the elaborate, architectural canopies over the figures, suggest a mid-fifteenth-century date for the matrices, slightly later than Kengeswode's period of office (Williams: 1998, p. 2). The matrices survived the dissolution of the priory by Henry VIII's commissioners in 1536 and in the eighteenth century came into the possession of the Rev. John Bowle, Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries (elected 19 March 1767), whose name is engraved on the back of both matrices, with a date of February 1769. It was presumably Bowle who showed the matrices to the scholar Samuel Pegge in 1777; on the basis of their size and the quality of the engraved work, Pegge concluded that they were dies for the common seal of Milton Abbey, Dorset. This confusion is reflected in subsequent histories of the county but was eventually corrected in the nineteenth century when an identical seal was found attached to a document of 1534 in which the Prior and monks of Pilton acknowledged Henry VIII's position as Head of the English church (Nichols: 1872, pp. 251-57; the document translated in Bagley: 1907). Towards the end of the nineteenth century the matrices were believed lost, and the Antiquary John Gough Nichols made a plea for them to be traced (Nichols: March 1872, p. 240). However, in this period they had passed into the collection of the Rev. Thomas Hugo (1820-1876), also a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries and who is perhaps best-known as a writer on the Newcastle engraver Thomas Bewick. Shortly after Hugo's death, the Museum purchased the matrices for £6 from his widow, Mrs Hugo of The Rectory, West Hackney.
Summary
Circular or oval seals of wax, lead or even precious metal, attached to a document with threads, guaranteed the stipulations or conditions laid out in the text above, and the authenticity of the document. They were used regularly in England from the twelfth century onwards. Seal matrices were cut and punched by specialist seal makers or, when matrices were made of precious metals, by goldsmiths. This pair of matrices is for a single, double-sided seal. A cake of wax would be placed on each matrix, the matrices were then lined up and pressed together in a seal press. Each side of the wax cake would receive the impression from the die, and the pressure would also unite the two cakes into a single seal. Many seals, however, were one-sided. Wax was pressed into the die, and then the matrix was gently removed to leave the wax impression. The matrices described here were made for the Benedictine priory of the Blessed Virgin Mary in Pilton, North Devon. The priory certainly existed by 1187, when it is mentioned in documents, but the monks preferred to claim it had been founded in the tenth century by the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelstan, and this is why Aethelstan's image and arms appear on the reverse matrix. Although the size of the seal matrices suggests a large institution, in fact Pilton Priory was a very small foundation which was dependent on Malmesbury Abbey (Wiltshire). In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries only three monks carried out spiritual and administrative duties there, which principally involved prayer, and tending to the practical administration of the Abbey estates in the area. Despite its small size, the priory played an important role in the community. In the 1530s, it was the centre of a flourishing local cult of the Virgin Mary, and annual offerings to the monastery totalled £10. Yet by the end of 1536 Pilton priory was no more, suppressed by Henry VIII as part of his plan to establish himself as Head of the Church of England.
Bibliographic References
  • Victoria and Albert Museum: Exhibition of English Medieval Art, 1930. London: Board of Education, 1930
  • Birch, Walter de Gray. Catalogue of Seals in the Department of Manuscripts in the British Museum. 6 vols. London: British Museum, 1887-1900
  • Williams, David H. Catalogue of Seals in the National Museum of Wales. 2 vols. Cardiff: National Museum of Wales, 1993-1998, Volume II. ISBN: 0720003814 (vol. I) and 0720004527 (vol II).
  • Ellis, Roger H. Catalogue of Seals in the Public Record Office. Monastic Seals. Volume I. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1986. ISBN 0114401934
  • Fisher, Payne. A Synopsis of Heraldry. London: L. Curtis and T. Simmons, 1682
  • Nichols, John Gough. Letter. In: Notes and Queries, 4th series, vol. ix, 23 March 1872.
  • Nichols, John Gough. 'Exhibition of an impression of the Seal of Milton Abbey, Co. Dorset'. In: Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London, 2nd series, v, Thursday 1st February, 1872.
  • Bagley, W. H. M. Some Account of Pilton Priory and Church. Barnstaple: Sydney Harper and Sons, 1907.
  • Heale, Martin. The Dependent Priories of Medieval English Monasteries. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2004. ISBN ISBN 184383054X
  • Luxford, Julian M. The Art and Architecture of English Benedictine Monasteries, 1300-1540. A Patronage History. Woodbridge, Suffolk: Boydell Press, 2005. ISBN 09552480
  • Alexander, Jonathan and Paul Binski, eds. Age of Chivalry. Art in Plantagenet England 1200-1400. Catalogue of the exhibition at the Royal Academy of Arts, London, 6 November 1987-6 March 1988. London: Royal Academy of Arts / Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1987.
  • E-mail correspondence between Adrian James, MA, Assistant Librarian, Society of Antiquaries, and Wendy Clarke, The Pilton Story (http://www.thepiltonstory.org/about_us.html), June 2015, which confirms John Bowle of Idmiston was elected a Fellow of the Society of Antiquaries on 19 March 1767 and that some sources erroneously quote the year 1776 as the date of his election. I am grateful to Mrs Clarke for forwarding this information.
Collection
Accession Number
746 and 746A-1877

About this object record

Explore the Collections contains over a million catalogue records, and over half a million images. It is a working database that includes information compiled over the life of the museum. Some of our records may contain offensive and discriminatory language, or reflect outdated ideas, practice and analysis. We are committed to addressing these issues, and to review and update our records accordingly.

You can write to us to suggest improvements to the record.

Suggest Feedback

record createdJune 24, 2009
Record URL