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