The Small Matter of the Hereford Jury Seals

Hereford Cathedral Archives (HCA): No. 649

Of all the documents the team examined at Hereford Cathedral Archives, probably the most interesting personally were also the most unassuming. Hereford possesses a small set of jury verdicts dating from the early 14th century. These are pretty much as they sound, a written record of a jury’s verdict, in these instances relating to criminal trials. Most importantly for the project, the jurors each attached their seals as authentication of the verdict. While the amount of surviving judicial material in England is not insignificant by the late 13th and early 14th centuries, surviving verdicts with seals are comparatively very rare.

The verdicts are written on very small bits of parchment. Strips (known as tongues) were cut horizontally into the parchment at the bottom and the seals were attached on these, often with several seals to each tongue. The names of the jurors themselves are usually listed in the verdict, though we currently cannot match seals to names. Below are the contents of the verdict. Many of the seal impressions are now obliterated, but the ones which do survive are varied, and some are quite sophisticated in their design. What is particularly striking about these, however, is the tiny size of the seals (see the photo below for a comparison with a 5p coin).
juryseal comparison
HCA : No. 648
Tuesday next after the Feast of St. Hilary.
Verdict of a jury in the court of Madely, consisting of Phillip Dypre, Hugh de Karewardin, John de Kinleye, William de Godeweye, Walter de Cobliton’, Adam de Murmal, Roger de la Hyde, Walter son of Richard de Lolham, Richard de Abbrugge, Gilbert de Bellemere, Roger de Lolham, Robert de la Hull’, to the effect that Hugh son of William de la Bache is a thief and broke into the house of Hugh the smith of Madely and the house of Walter the smith of the same and stole flour and horseshoes and other goods, and the house of Margery de la Bache and stole woollen cloth and other goods.

Interestingly, the small size of Hereford’s surviving jury seals are also repeated in another type of criminal document dating from 1346. This is a receipt from four men to the sheriff of Hereford for assuming from the sheriff the responsibility of guarding a murder suspect until to his court appearance (see below, HCA 1116).

These are the smallest seals that the project has come across to date and, despite the fragmentary condition of some of them, they show a marked similarity in size. This in itself is intriguing. Is this related to the social status of the seal owners? Are they perhaps related by a common place or person of manufacture? Or are these seals perhaps peculiar to certain forms of documents, particularly those relating to criminal justice? If the latter, does it extend beyond Herefordshire? These are all questions which we will be exploring further.

HCA 649

prisoner custody
HCA 1116

Fergus PW Oakes

The curious case of the pressed-in ring

After two weeks of training with our specialist equipment, we were unleashed into The National Library of Wales to work on the Penrice and Margam charters.

January is a strange time to be introduced to Aberystwyth: it is beautiful, the people are very friendly and there are postcards in the shops saying ‘Come to Sunny Aberystwyth’ but it is also freezing cold, very windy and the sea is out to get you. I spent four weeks in various lonely B&Bs including one week on the sea front during a storm. I lay in my bed watching the waves crashing against my third-floor window until the proprietor came to tell me to close the curtains ‘just in case they get smashed’. The next morning involved a daring escape through the basement kitchen and up a fire escape, a dash past closed-off roads, dodging waves and flying rocks and a battle against the wind up the hill to arrive, soaking wet, at what seemed at that moment the best place on earth. The National Library of Wales is a wonderful place where you’re greeted in both Welsh and English, where the gift shop sells everything from books and cards to jewellery and whisky and where the cafe serves tea in pots and soup with cheese. Their collections include the Hengwrt Chaucer, Piers Plowman and, of course, charters with lots of beautiful seals, covered in prints.

While we saw many beautiful and interesting seals depicting knights on horseback, flowers, enthroned bishops and heraldry, my favourite was a seal without a matrix impression at all. Penrice Margam charter 123 has a seal with the impression of a ring in it. Not the impression of a signet ring, but the whole ring, pressed into the wax.

Seal of Aberystwyth, The National Library of Wales, Penrice and Margam charter 123

The charter itself is a quitclaim by Wenthlian, daughter of Morgan, to Margam Abbey, of a meadow and gorse land which belonged to her father. The charter is small in comparison to the seal and the attachment, which is a long, plaited cord of at least two colours. It seems to me a little incongruous: someone seems to have made a big deal of sealing the charter and attaching the seal, and yet the seal matrix is lacking. Was it simply overlooked, or was it a deliberate choice to press a ring (perhaps with monetary or sentimental value)? Using the Crime-lite Imager, we found prints in the centre of the ring impression.

The seal under the Crime-lite Imager

I would love to think that these are the ring and  handprint of Wenthlian, daughter of Morgan. Unfortunately, we will never know for sure. What it does tell us, however, is that seals and sealing practices were not as straightforward as people might think. If a seal was simply a mark of an individual, what does this impression say? While a ring could be a signifier of authority, it means little in profile. One could deduce that it was the act of sealing that was important for this person, rather than the seal itself. In that case, perhaps it was Wenthlian after all who, lacking in a seal matrix and unsure of the technique, was nonetheless determined to make an impression.


Hollie L. S. Morgan

Charters and seals and blogs, oh my!


Welcome to the Imprint Project blog! We have been running around all over the place (National Library of Wales, Hereford Cathedral Archives and Exeter Cathedral Archives) and we are soon to move on to Westminster Abbey. We’ve looked at hundreds of seals, imaged hundreds of prints and also had the chance to use our Crime-Lite Imager to look at some treasures. More details to follow, so watch this space!