The Several Seals of Bella Hella

Today is International Women’s Day, and Imprint thought this would be a good time to tell you the story of a shrewd medieval businesswoman, from her first steps as an adult in her teens to holding an established position in her community.


In 1965 Francis Hill, writing on Medieval Lincoln, used some of the Dean and Chapter deeds to describe what was happening in the thirteenth-century Lincoln suburb of Butwerk. He described land in St Rumbold’s parish there ‘which once belonged to Matilda Drincalhut whose name suggests a street cry and its appropriate trade. Here too were Henry the illuminator, and Ralf the tailor’ (p. 161). All of this is true, but Hill ignores the person who is central to all these grants. When Imprint came to look at the deeds and the attached seals we found that the documents Hill used were all granted by one woman – Bella daughter of Alan Helle (once called Bella daughter of Alan of Glentworth) and that the sealing as well as the documents told us much more about Bella.

Bella’s father probably died whilst she was a minor, as the first grant she makes – to Henry the Illuminator of land once held by Matilda Drincalhut in the parish of St Rumowld –  includes an endorsement that she has made the document, being judged to be now in her majority, before the mayor and commonalty of Lincoln, when Roger son of Benedict was mayor, This is probably the first time Roger was mayor (around 1267, although Hill says 1275).

Excerpt from the dorse of Lincoln Dij74/2/3
Excerpt from the dorse of Lincoln Dij74/2/3

In two other grants of c. 1269, when William Holgate was first mayor, she grants more land in the parish of St Rumwold and land in St Bavon’s parish to the same Henry (very probably at the same time as the witness lists are near identical).

Each of these grants is in return for a halfpenny in lieu of service, but these halfpennies were then quitclaimed by Bella in favour of Henry for an even more nominal payment of a clove a year to Bella and her heirs, sometimes  1269-1273/4 (in one of the years that Holgate was mayor). This was not, though, the final piece of negotiation between Henry and Bella. Bella had retained a right in the property through the nominal service owed to her, and in 1275/6 (dated by the appearance in the witness list of Roger son of Benedict in his second period as mayor) the land in St Rumwold’s once held by Ralph the Tailor was re-granted, with identical boundaries, to Henry for 1d a year.

Two more, undateable documents also survive. In one Bella grants Henry the property in St Bavon’s mentioned in her 1269 document, but for an annual payment of 5d in lieu of service. There is also a more unusual document in which Matilda undertakes not to sell or alienate the property she owns in St Rumwold’s parish and with which she has enfeoffed Henry without Henry’s agreement. If she breaks this agreement, Henry is released form the 8s. a year he owes Bella at that point from property in St Bavon’s parish. Bella still gains in the short term at least in return for this this charter Henry has paid her twelve shillings sterling.

These seven documents show us Bella carrying out some shrewd business deals, apparently increasing in confidence over the ten or so years the deeds cover. If we look at her surviving seal impressions these also suggest a growth in confidence and status. Four of these seven documents have seals or fragments of seals on them, all of them according to the documents Bella’s own seal. They are not all, though, from the same matrix: Bella had at least three different matrices in this decade, and these changes both demonstrate something about Bella’s use of seals, and perhaps her attitude to sealing, as well as allowing us to place at least one of those undated documents in its correct place in the sequence of events.

Bella’s first document, the one issued when she was adjudged to be of age, has a round seal, with a simple radial design. The seal is in green wax, now repaired, what remains of the legend is nicely spaced, and the seal image appears to have been well carved if not of the highest quality. Such a simple design might well be what a young woman who finds herself needing her first seal might choose, and perhaps what she might be offered as an ‘off the peg’ matrix by an engraver.

Seal of Lincoln Dij74/2/3
Seal from Lincoln Dij74/2/3

The next sealed document, from 1269-c.1273/4 uses a very different matrix, a pointed oval, now broken but with an image which appears to be an inverted stylised lily, or possibly a cross shaped radial design (the missing bottom half of the seal impression makes it hard to be certain) with the remaining legend reading ‘+ S’ BEL … LLE’. This seal too is of reasonable quality, with the double LL towards the end of the legend nicely spaced – similar in fact to that of her first seal and possibly by the same engraver. It may well be that Bella was already using this seal by c. 1269: the pattern of the remaining tag on her two documents dated from round that year suggests it once held a seal which was a pointed oval.

Seal from Lincoln Dij74/129
Seal from Lincoln Dij74/1/29

By c. 1275/6, when she re-granted property once held by Ralph the tailor to Henry for a higher rate of payment than previously, Bella was using a third matrix. This was another pointed oval, again with a stylised lily image upon it, but this time a more elaborate one, and with a different legend reading ‘+ SIGILLV…BEL…’. This matrix was of higher quality, with a better engraved image and a well-carved legend.

Seal from Lincoln Dij74/2/1
Seal from Lincoln Dij74/2/1

Probably this matrix was also used for the last of Bella’s documents which includes a seal. This again is a stylised lily, of the same form, and the legend again starts +SIGIL … The impression is not as sharp as that in the 1275 document, and it is just possible that this impression is from a fourth matrix, but equally likely that it represents a careless use of the matrix or a matrix which has become worn. This impression is found on Matilda’s guarantee not to alienate her messuage in St Rumwold’s parish without Henry’s agreement so this can probably be dated to near the end of this run of agreements.

Seal from Lincoln Dij74/2/4
Seal from Lincoln Dij74/2/4

So as Bella gains in confidence and status she changes her seal matrix, ending up with a higher quality and a slightly more individual image.  Although these changes could be the result of lost matrices, the changes in style and quality suggest that Bella had made an active choice. Not all those who owned seal matrices changed them: even whilst changing their status and their description in their charters from daughter to wife to widow, women could retain the same seal. In such cases the owner’s feeling of identity with their matrix might lead them to keep it even as their life situation changed. In Bella’s case, however, it seems that changes in a matrix may be connected to changes in identity, revealing a different sort of relationship between sigillant, seal and matrix.

Philippa Hoskin

On Making Wax Seals; Or, Why Instructions Matter

A few weeks ago, members of the Imprint team donned white coats and headed for a laboratory to experiment with making sealing wax and applying seals to documents. The aim was to discover more about the material we are investigating, the physical process of sealing, and how and when prints on medieval seals were created, so that we can better understand and interpret the results of the forensic analysis.

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I have made sealing wax on numerous occasions, but usually in my kitchen (be warned that some of the ingredients are flammable or toxic!) and with appropriately medieval disregard for precise measurements, so I was particularly keen to have a clearer idea of exactly what was going on.

So, what did we do, and what did we find out? The principal ingredient of medieval sealing wax is… wax! Beeswax, to be precise: the hard, shiny sticks sold as ‘sealing wax’ are shellac (produced by a beetle native to South East Asia) or an artificial substitute. We used three different sources of beeswax and noticed that this affected the finished product, perhaps explaining why some medieval recipes specify ‘white’, ‘yellow’ or ‘polen’ (particularly high-grade) wax. Resin, usually colophony – Larch – is another key ingredient of most seals, making the wax harder, and pigment was often added.

‘Take a pound of whight wex, and throwe therinne a quartroun of terbentyne […] Thanne loke thou have redy oz. 1 of vermyloun, smal grounde, al so smal as ony poudre’

 – BL Sloane 73, f. 173v

Based on fifteenth-century recipes in Trinity College Cambridge MS R.14.37 and British Library MS Sloane 73, we mixed beeswax, colophony and pigment at a ratio of 16:4:1, and found that it is important to keep stirring enthusiastically to ensure that the ingredients mix correctly. Beeswax starts to become plastic at around 32°C but melts at a much higher temperature, all recipes stating that the resin should then be added but not on direct heat, with pigment added last; our mixture was 69°C when the resin had melted and pigment was added.

‘sette it adoun of the fier, and styre it weel’

Having ruined one saucepan (only high-tech equipment for us!), we decided to employ a bain marie technique, but found that this does not work – the resin formed a hard ball amid liquid wax.

And that answers the question ‘Should we melt wax in the same way you’d melt chocolate?’. No.

So, armed with a new saucepan, we continued to experiment, adding vermillion (mercury II sulphide) for red wax and verdigris (copper II acetate) for green wax, as specified in the recipes.

It would have been impractical to go through this process every time a document needed sealing, and sealing wax was prepared in advance and formed into small ‘cakes’. The Trinity College recipe specifies that, when the wax mixture has solidified but is still warm, it should be ‘tossed’ between well-greased hands, rolled into a sausage, and sliced to form cakes. This is messy and fiddly, and during previous experiments I came up with an easier solution: pouring the liquid wax mixture into confectionery moulds.

This appeared to work, for although the pigment often sank, leaving the top of the cake pale, the colour  generally evened-out when the wax was re-warmed.





However, in the interests of science we decided to follow the specified method, and I confidently scooped up the warm wax mixture. I had, however, neglected another key point, and the wax stuck to my un-greased hands…


A fresh batch of wax mixture later and with grease (well, cheap vegetable oil) applied, the rolling was underway, and the resulting cakes were a consistent and bright colour throughout – so don’t try the shortcut! It would be interesting to know what types of ‘grease’ were used, and what effect this might have on the consistency and stability of sealing wax.

We knew we’d bought that vegetable oil for a reason…

Once the cakes had cooled and hardened, the next stage was to recreate the process of validatory sealing. Sealing wax can be applied to the face of a document but adheres poorly, and in medieval Britain the principal means of attachment was via a cord or strip of parchment hanging from the document. This requires wax to be moulded around the parchment strip or cord, and there are debates about how this was done. It is sometimes suggested that one wax cake was pressed into the matrix, the cord or parchment strip laid across this, and another cake then moulded over the top. This makes sense if a large matrix is impressed in one side of the wax and a smaller matrix in the other side, since it avoids damaging the impression from the principal matrix while the second is impressed – although Imprint has found several examples of hand and finger prints over the principal impression. A second theory, which from experiments and extant seals I think was most common in England and Wales, is that two cakes were moulded together and the wax disk held while a matrix was impressed. The initial findings of Imprint seem to support this, with numerous examples of clear and relatively deep palm prints on the back of pendant seals.

Before the wax is attached it needs to be warm enough to be malleable and take an impression, but not so soft that they it is difficult to handle or sticks to the matrix. I usually warm the cakes in water since beeswax is water-repellent (but they need to be dried carefully to avoid water damaging the parchment, and it is easy to scald your fingers dunking them!), and know from experience how soft the wax needs to be, but ‘this feels about right’ is hardly a scientific benchmark so we used a probe-thermometer for a more precise reading: 43.9°C in the case of our second batch of green wax.

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The final stage of the process is to impress the matrix, and it is sometimes suggested that it was powdered or oiled to help with removal from the warm wax. I’m doubtful about the former because I have never seen pitting on an impression which could result from this, and rarely use the latter, but we decided lightly to oil the matrix. Holding the wax carefully on one hand I impressed the matrix with the other, something which takes a surprising amount of pressure. The result was a clear impression of the matrix and, on the back of the wax, visible lines from my palm, just as we so often see on medieval seals.


The experiments confirmed some things we knew, but also provided unexpected insights and led to further questions. Firstly, the process of documentary sealing is a complex one, and benefits from experience. From adding wax to a container and starting to warm it until the sealing wax cakes were cooling on the worktop took approximately fifteen minutes, but we were making very limited amounts and had the advantage of an electric heater. Furthermore, the fumes given off by the ingredients are strong (plus vermillion and verdigris are poisonous), and the preparation of large batches of sealing wax would have been an unpleasant task, perhaps explaining why even small scriptoria and chanceries appear to use quite a lot of similar-coloured wax at certain times. The importance of kneading the cooling wax mixture to ensure a consistent and vibrant colour was something of a surprise, and whether this was done, and for how long, may also be a contributory factor in seals of an inconsistent hue or grainy appearance, although the latter may also be the result of resin not melting properly – as we found out – or pigment not ground finely enough or added too late in the process.

Of perhaps greatest significance for the Imprint project were the final stages of the process, attaching the wax cakes to a document and impressing a matrix.


Although the cakes need to be quite warm when forming the disk, and despite the manipulation of the wax at this stage, there were very few, very faint, prints visible. It was only when holding the wax and exerting enough pressure to create a good impression of the matrix that my prints were clear. I deposit poor-quality prints, and women generally have lower ridge detail than men, but this does suggest that many of the prints we are analysing were made when the matrix was impressed, rather than at an earlier stage. We also found that, despite enthusiastic handling of the wax soon after the matrix had been removed, no further prints appeared to be deposited, again suggesting that those on medieval seals were made during the actual sealing process. Finally, I held the wax in my left hand, orientated with the parchment tag between my thumb and forefinger, because this replicated prints on several seals analysed for the pilot project.


Although it would have been possible for another person to impress the matrix, it is much easier for the same person to hold both wax and matrix. As we analyse more Imprint data we plan further replications of how the wax was held, since this will help us to study the physical process of sealing and its implications for questions of agency, participation in legal and administrative processes, and access to the enacting of power and authority. It will also give us an excuse to spend another fun day in a lab!

Elizabeth New

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

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!