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Plate 1.5: Three Medieval Seals
Scholarly Commentary with DZI View for Vetusta Monumenta, Plate 1.5. Commentary by Laura Whatley.
George Vertue [after his own drawings]
52.2050655, 0.1130068 [Seal of Clare College, Cambridge]
51.4993815, -0.1286692 [Seal of the Cathedral Priory of St. Etheldreda, Ely]
51.5194133, -0.1291453 [Seal of the Priory of Cottingham]
52.2050655, 0.1130068 [Seal of Clare College, Cambridge]
52.3936229,0.2462547 [Seal of the Cathedral Priory of St. Etheldreda, Ely]
53.7618287, -0.4216862 [Seal of the Priory of Cottingham]
01/01/1359-12/31/1359 [Seal of Clare College, Cambridge]
01/01/1280-12/31/1280 [Seal of the Cathedral Priory of St. Etheldreda, Ely]
01/01/1322-12/31/1322 [Seal of the Priory of Cottingham]
Digitized, courtesy of the University of Missouri-Columbia. Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives.
Seals (Fenn Index 2.3)
Etheldreda or Æthelthryth, East Anglian Princess
Wake, Thomas, Lord of Liddell
de Clare, Elizabeth
Plate: At the top of the sheet George Vertue (1684-1756) engraved an impression of the seal of Clare College, Cambridge. Just below the Clare seal, Vertue engraved both obverse and reverse of an impression of the second seal of the cathedral priory of Ely, from the second half of the thirteenth century. The third image on the sheet, engraved on a second copper plate, is of the original double-sided bronze matrix of the Abbey and Convent of Cottingham in Yorkshire founded by Thomas Wake, Lord of Liddell (1298-1349), in June 1322. Vertue’s engraving of the Cottingham seal is the most intricate of the three seals on Plate 1.5, and is the only one mentioned explicitly in the Society of Antiquaries of London’s Minute Book. John Warburton first brought the seal to the Society on 3 August 1720 and it was ordered to be drawn and engraved on 31 August (SAL Minutes I.35). Vertue presented the finished plate on 25 January 1721, but according to the minutes it appeared with another seal from Northampton (SAL Minutes I.39). At some point, the Clare Hall and Ely seals—perhaps the subject of “two drawings of old seals” exhibited 14 December 1720 (SAL Minutes I.36)—were substituted for the Northampton seal.
Objects: The top image depicts the Seal of Clare College, Cambridge (1359). Vertue’s depiction of the seal indicates that he observed an impression of the seal rather than the matrix itself. The middle image is of the obverse and reverse of the Seal of the Cathedral Priory of St. Etheldreda, Ely (1280s). Vertue likely based his engraving on an imperfect impression of the seal (or an antiquarian drawing). Finally, the bottom image is of the Seal of the Priory of Cottingham (1322). The rare survival of metal seal matrices from the Middle Ages would have made this an especially exciting and precious original for an antiquarian to own and have copied. An inscription on Plate 1.5 records that these three seals were in the collection of John Warburton (1682-1759), Somerset Herald of Arms. All three seals were engraved to scale.
Seal of Clare College: Elizabeth de Clare (1294/5-1360), widow of John de Burgh and youngest daughter of Gilbert, Earl of Clare, Gloucester, and Hertford, and Joan of Acre, daughter of Edward I, gave the seal matrix to the college in 1359 along with a set of statutes for the governance of the college, both of which are still housed at the college.
Seal of the Cathedral Priory of St. Etheldreda, Ely: A fine impression of this seal is also in the collection of Westminster Abbey (WAM 7933; Späth 2015, 165).
Seal of the Priory of Cottingham: The original matrix has been in the collection of the British Museum since 1913.
Note: These transcriptions record what was engraved on the plate and are not always accurate. We have used "-" to indicate untranscribable engraved letterforms, which indicate difficulties experienced by Vertue in deciphering the legends. Space constrains also affected the engraving, as he sometimes ran out of space before a legend was complete. For precise scholarly transcriptions of the seal legends, readers should also consult the versions available in Birch 1887-1900 and more recent sources.
Top, Left and Right: SIGILLVM AVLAE CLARENSIS APVD CANTABRIGIENSES
Center Label: SIGILLVM CAPITVLI ECCLESIAE SANCTAE ETHELDREDAE ELIENSIS. / Sumptibus Societat. Antiquar. Lond.
Bottom Labels: SIGILLUM COENOBIJ de COTTINGHAM in agro EBOR. fundat. AD 1322. / Penes Joann. Warburton Fecialem Somersetensem. / Sumptibus Societatis Antiquariae Lond. 1720.
1. Seal of Clare College:
Legend: Aula’ . clare . Pia . Rege semper . virgo Maria
2. Seal of the Cathedral Priory of St. Etheldreda, Ely:
Legend of the Obverse: SIGILLVM : CAPITULI : ECCLIE : SCE : ETHELDREDE : DE : ELY
Legend of the Reverse: S’ SCI : PETRI : ET : SCE : ETHELDRIDE : VIRGINIS : ET REGINE
3. Seal of the Priory of Cottingham:
Legend of the Obverse: CEO EST LE SEIL LABBE E LE COVENT DE COTINGHAM QUE VOVS THOMAS WAKE SINGNOVR DE LIDEL AVOYES FOVNDE
Legend of the Reverse: EN LAN DE LINCARNACION MILL CCCXX SECOVNDE AL HONOVR DE LA VERAI CROYZ E DE NRE DAME E SEYNT PERE E D SEYT POVL
Top, Left and Right: Seal of Clare Hall at Cambridge
Center Label: Seal of the Cathedral Church of St. Etheldreda at Ely. / Published at the expense of the Society of Antiquaries of London.
Bottom Labels: Seal of the Monastery at Cottingham in the county of York, est. AD. 1322. / From the collection of John Warburton, Somerset Herald of Arms in Ordinary. / Published at the expense of the Society of Antiquaries of London 1720.
1. Seal of Clare College:
Legend: Pious Virgin Mary always guide Clare Hall.
2. Seal of the Cathedral Priory of St. Etheldreda, Ely:
Legend of the Obverse: Seal of Chapter of the Church of St. Etheldreda of Ely.
Legend of the Reverse: Seal of St. Peter and St. Etheldreda Virgin and Queen.
3. Seal of the Priory of Cottingham:
Legend of the Obverse: This is the seal of the Abbey and Convent of Cottingham which we Thomas Wake Lord of Liddell have founded.
Legend of the Reverse: In the year of incarnation one thousand three hundred and twenty-second to the honor of the True Cross and of our Lady and St. Peter and St. Paul.
Preparatory Drawings: Click here to see the Preparatory Drawings for Plate 1.5.
Commentary by Laura Whatley: Strong scholarly interest in medieval seals provides a common thread between the first Society of Antiquaries, disbanded in 1614, and the Society re-founded by Humfrey Wanley (1672-1726), John Talman (1677-1726), and John Bagford (1650/1-1716) in 1707. George Vertue’s finely engraved seals on this plate mark the beginning of a long series of seal engravings in Vetusta Monumenta, the publication series launched with the formal incorporation of this revived Society of Antiquaries of London (SAL) in 1718 (see also Plates 1.28-1.33, 1.53-1.54, 1.58-1.60, and later volumes). This heightened attention must be understood as a product of both the cumulative antiquarian interest in the careful recording of medieval seals and the increasing importance of seals (matrices, impressions, and casts) as historical documents. Indeed, Vertue later published a densely illustrated volume for the SAL on the career of Thomas Simon (1618-1665), official engraver of the king’s seals and medals in the early 1660s. As an engraver himself, Vertue likely felt professional admiration for medieval and early modern metalworkers, such as seal, coin, and medal engravers, and endeavored to commend and preserve their artistic contributions through his publications. Vertue’s engravings clearly sought to maintain the medieval style and iconography of the seals, as they were not “updated” according to eighteenth-century tastes.
For the Clare and Ely seals, engraved from original impressions, Vertue provided brief accompanying titles in Latin and did not include transcriptions of the seal legends. For the Cottingham seal, Vertue not only rendered the obverse and reverse of the original seal matrix, but also included the four projecting lugs pierced with holes (for alignment in the seal-press) and a transcription of the seal’s Anglo-Norman legend. All three of these medieval seals are common seals—that is, seals used by and embodying corporate bodies. On one hand, medieval corporations were people—they held the legal rights and benefits of personhood, including the use of a seal. On the other hand, the seals, like the corporations they signified, were meant to be deathless, a function supported by the images and legends.
1. Seal of Clare College, Cambridge (1359): The foundation of Clare College in the fourteenth century does not begin with Elizabeth de Clare. In 1326, the University obtained license and sought patronage to establish a new, endowed collegium (corporation of scholars) under the title University Hall. The early benefactors of University Hall proved inadequate (and were perhaps fraudulent) and Lady Clare, who was made aware of the situation before 1336, attempted to obtain the license. After several years of setbacks and negotiations, the college was formally transferred to her in 1340; notably, the college was referred to as “Clare Hall” as early as 1339. As patroness, Elizabeth de Clare changed the structure of the college to better accommodate its fellows and to bring poor young men with intellectual promise to the University. In 1359, she issued the official statutes for the governance of the college and sealed the statutes with a silver, versica-shaped matrix measuring 2 ½ x 1 ⅜ inches. This became the official common seal and was in use until the eighteenth century, when a new matrix was engraved.
Vertue’s depiction of the seal indicates that he observed an impression of the seal rather than the matrix itself. It must, however, have been a very good impression, as it allowed him to discern the legend and minute details in the design. The seal’s legend records: Avla Clare Pia Rege Semper Virgo Maria. The legend directly corresponds to the pictorial content. A gothic framework in the Decorated Style (crocketed pinnacles, diapered surfaces, etc.) divides the central scenes and figures into four distinct compartments. The largest frame pictures Elizabeth de Clare with head veiled, holding the statutes with a large attached seal in her right hand and the foundation charter in her left. Nine men piously and respectfully surround her, receiving the documents and offering prayers in her direction. These men certainly embody the Master and Fellows of Clare College, who would thereafter be responsible for the sealing of the college’s writ. One of the most remarkable aspects of this image is the inclusion of the sealed statutes. The seal matrix was no doubt engraved for this particular occasion, the sealing of the statutes in 1359. Therefore, the image within the seal foreshadows and commemorates the very act of sealing the statutes by the noble foundress.
Directly above Elizabeth’s swaying figure is a half-length Virgin and Child beneath a large gothic canopy. The seal’s legend indicates that the perpetual Virgin (“Semper Virgo Maria”) was patron saint and protector to the members of the college. John the Baptist (holding the agnus dei) is represented on the Virgin’s right and John the Evangelist (holding an eagle and palm) is on her left. The remainder of the seal’s pictorial content is heraldic. The central image of Elizabeth de Clare is surrounded by three coats of arms: on the right, the arms of England (Gules, three lions passant guardant), likely in reference to her maternal grandfather Edward I; on the left, the arms of her grandmother, Eleanor of Castile (the quartered arms of Castile and Leon); and at the bottom, the arms adopted by Lady de Clare in 1353, which combined the arms of de Clare (Or, three chevrons gules) and de Burgh (Or, a cross gules) in a border of golden drops. The seal’s images therefore work together to establish Elizabeth de Clare’s noble lineage, pious character, and legal authority in direct relation to the endowment, bureaucracy, and management of Clare Hall.
2. Seal of the Cathedral Priory of St. Etheldreda, Ely (1280s): The history of the cathedral priory of Ely is complex, but it is key to understanding the pictorial and textual content of its seals. It was founded as a double monastery in 673 by Etheldreda, an Anglo-Saxon queen turned nun, who served as the foundation’s first abbess until her death in 679. Etheldreda’s successor, Sexburga, translated her body from the churchyard into the church on October 17, 695. At the time, her body was reported to be uncorrupted and placed in a marble sarcophagus near the high altar. In the late tenth century, the monastery was assailed during the Danish invasion. The extent of the damage to the church and community is unclear, but resulted in its restoration and refoundation as a community of Benedictine monks in 970 under the authority of Æthelwold, Bishop of Winchester. In 972, Archbishop Dunstan of Canterbury formally consecrated the restored church, dedicating the high altar to St. Peter and the Virgin. It would be called the church of St. Etheldreda and St. Peter until the Reformation. In 1109, the monastery was elevated to a cathedral priory and Hervey le Breton served as the first Bishop of Ely until his death in 1131. As in most other conventual cathedrals in England, the bishop was also recognized as the abbot, and a prior was appointed to oversee the direct governance of the monks. Notably, the prior and monks were responsible for the election of the bishop, although royal or papal interference could thwart this process.
The common seals of Ely were used by the prior and monks—that is, they were seals signifying the conventual body, while the bishop of Ely possessed his own seal. The monks had used the same common seal since the twelfth century, a single-sided seal featuring an enthroned figure of St. Etheldreda (BL Harley ch. 44 D. 31; Birch 1887, 1.3109). As Markus Späth has convincingly argued, this seal was old-fashioned and did not fully convey the monastic community’s deep knowledge of Ely’s ancient and glorious past (Späth 2015, 167–69). Around the year 1280, the monks commissioned a new, large (d. 3 ¼”) double-sided matrix with six full-length standing figures set within a gothic framework. Notably, Vertue’s engraving of the second common seal of Ely does not directly correspond to any extant impressions of the new seal. It is unlikely that Vertue studied another version of the common seal. Indeed, his transcriptions of the seal’s legends are a perfect match to the second seal. It is therefore more likely that he based his engraving on an imperfect impression of the seal (or an antiquarian drawing) that made it difficult for him to discern key details of the seal’s iconography, such as attributes that help with the identification of the six figures.
Like Ely’s history, the pictorial program of the seal is convoluted and detailed, and the legends do not fully elucidate the content for the viewer of Vertue’s engraving. The legend of the obverse reads: SIGILLVM : CAPITULI : ECCLIE : SCE : ETHELDREDE DE ELY (“Seal of Chapter of the Church of St. Etheldreda of Ely”). The architectural framework is in higher relief than the figures and consists of five towers and three trefoiled niches containing three standing figures. The pillars of the central niche are clustered, giving the sense of a tower crossing within a gothic church, while censing angels are placed on either side of the tower. The central figure is the tallest and most prominent—St. Etheldreda. She is frontal, crowned, veiled, and holding a pastoral staff in her right hand. While Vertue’s engraving has her left hand extended, perhaps in benediction, extant impressions of the seal clearly show her holding up a book. This is an important detail: the book could be a Bible or it could reference the Liber Eliensis, the twelfth-century hagiographic chronicle of Ely. In his study, Späth found many important connections between this text and the seal’s iconography in regards to the power and sacred authority of the monks (Späth 2015, 167–69).
In the engraving, St. Etheldreda stands between two male figures. The figure on her right is crowned and holds a scepter, indicating a king. In impressions of the seal, the figure on her left clearly wears a noble cap and holds a bird, either a trained falcon or raptor, with open wings by the jesses. When looking at the seal in person, one sees the trails of the jesses (leather straps around the falcon’s legs) in the field below the falcon. However, Vertue’s depiction of the second man includes none of these details—the figure appears youthful and perhaps courtly, but wears no cap and holds no attributes. Finally, the two male figures are turned towards Etheldreda, focusing the viewer’s attention on her. Based on the attributes and figural connections to St. Etheldreda, the two male figures have been identified as her husbands, prince Tohnberht of Gyrwe (who died young) and king Ecgfrith of Northumbria (r. 670–85). The inclusion of these two men certainly emphasizes Etheldreda’s decision to disdain bodily and temporal demands for life as an avowed religious. Her hagiography makes clear that she remained chaste through both marriages, ultimately divorcing Ecgfrith to take the veil and found her double-monastery. Etheldreda’s conjugal chastity was an important sign of her sanctity and asceticism, which was underscored by the witness of her two husbands flanking her on the seal.
The structure of the seal’s reverse is very much a mirror of the obverse. The architecture, censing angels, and placement of the legend in relation to the gothic architectural framework are nearly identical. The legend records: S ’ SCI : PETRI : ET SCE : ETHELDRIDE : VIRGINIS : ET REGINE (“Seal of St. Peter and St. Etheldreda Virgin and Queen”). The use of the genitive on the reverse enhances the seal’s conventual status, not as the seal of the prior and monks but as the seal of Ely’s patron saints. It ultimately was St. Peter and St. Etheldreda who signed and ratified all writ; the monastic community was simply acting as their agent. The visual indication of hierarchy or importance on the reverse is similar to the obverse, although the identities of the figures in the three niches have changed or shifted. St. Peter stands in the central niche and is bearded with a nimbed halo. He holds a key in his right hand and a book in his left hand. Since the church’s rededication in 972, St. Peter was the patron saint of Ely alongside the Virgin Mary. In the niche to Peter’s left, a crowned, standing figure is partially turned towards St. Peter, holding a book in the right hand (missing in Vertue’s engraving, as is St. Peter’s book) and a royal scepter in the left hand. This figure is certainly either a king or queen. The right niche contains a full-length standing figure of a bishop, with a mitre and a crozier in his left hand and book or scroll in his right hand.
Once again, Vertue’s engraving does not include these important attributes. Instead, in the plate this figure is unidentifiable as a saint or historical person. The bishop is fully turned towards St. Peter, nearly in profile view, which could indicate a particular devotion to the saint. He bears no halo or other attributes of sacred status. Therefore, the identification of these two figures is open to interpretation. Birch identifies the mitred figure as “a bishop,” but interprets the crowned figure as St. Etheldreda, possibly based on the seal’s legend (Birch 1887, 1.1523). Späth offers a more nuanced analysis based on the description of Ely’s refounding in the Liber Eliensis. He recognizes the bishop as Æthelwold of Winchester, the saintly figure who was responsible for reestablishing Ely as a Benedictine monastery, and the royal figure as Edgar, King of the English from 959–75 and a major supporter of England’s tenth-century monastic revival (Späth 2015, 168). Indeed, the royal figure on the reverse has a short hairstyle and is not veiled like St. Etheldreda on the obverse, indicating a male. Taken together, then, these three figures—Peter, Æthelwold and Edgar—fully signified Ely’s change of status and identity between 970 and 972.
Below these figures, directly beneath St. Peter’s feet, is an enigmatic image of a boat or ship carrying five men on a river or other body of water. Although Vertue’s engraving only generally captures the content of the scene, Ely is situated on the River Ouse and is surrounded by other waterways of the Fens. In consquence, it is a site often associated with transport via boat. Späth links the image with an episode from the Liber Eliensis around the time of the refoundation. Abbot Byrhtnoth of Ely set out with a group of men to steal the relics of St. Whitburh, one of Etheldreda’s sisters, in order to further sanctify his house and complete the relic collection. They were able to escape with the relics from St. Whitburh’s shrine at East Derehem by boat over the Fens (Späth 2015, 168). It is also possible that this small depiction could offer a link to the pictorial program on the obverse, drawn from an episode in St. Etheldreda’s hagiography. Bede, for example, recorded that when Abbess Sexburga decided to move Etheldreda’s body to a more dignified tomb in the church, she sent several brothers by boat over the marshy Fens to Grantchester to procure stone for the new tomb slab. Miraculously, they discovered a beautifully crafted Roman sarcophagus of white marble near the city walls. When they returned with the new tomb, Etheldreda’s old tomb was opened for the translation and they found her corpse uncorrupted, a clear sign of her sanctity (Bede 1990, 237). Although any identification of the scene is tentative, it would be appropriate to include references to St. Etheldreda on both sides of the conventual seal. When impressed in wax and appended to a document, the two sides of the seal signified St. Etheldreda and St. Peter’s joint protection and sanctification of Ely’s monastic community and their written records. The seal’s imagery also communicated significant episodes in Ely’s sacred foundation and refoundation, providing a selective but longue durée account of Ely’s distinguished patroness and the church’s institutional past.
3. Seal of the Priory of Cottingham (1322): Vertue’s engraving of the Cottingham seal is the most intricate of the three images on Plate 1.5. He does not reproduce an impression of the seal itself, but instead illustrates the original two-sided bronze matrix with four mounting lugs for alignment in the seal press. The seal is relatively large with a diameter of 2 ¾ inches. Vertue provided a very strong sense of the seal’s materiality and physical character due to his delicate rendering of minute detail, such as the lozenge diaperwork in the background of each side, while his precise use of hatching suggests depth and overall three dimensionality. The rare survival of metal seal matrices from the Middle Ages would have made this an especially exciting and precious object for an antiquarian to own and have copied. Vertue clearly spent a great deal of time examining the seal’s pictorial content and long, descriptive legends, which he transcribed in full in the field above each side of the seal. It is important to underscore that the legends were written in French and not Latin, in contrast to the majority of monastic seals (Cumming 1843, 214–15). Indeed, many aspects of this seal seem more appropriate for the personal seal of a nobleman, rather than for the common seal of a religious house. The donors, Thomas Wake and his wife, form an important focus of the seal’s content in terms of both power and piety (see Cherry 1994, 14–23).
In 1320, Thomas Wake (1298-1349) was granted papal license to found a monastery of Augustinian Canons in his town of Cottingham in the East Riding of Yorkshire. However, Wake was unable to obtain a secure title for a parcel of land in Cottingham proper and, while construction started on the church and monastic buildings, the site was ultimately abandoned. In June 1322, Edward II granted Wake license for land in Newton, afterwards called Haltemprice (from “haute emprise,” “high enterprise”), for his foundation within the parish of Cottingham. Significantly, the matrix, which is dated to 1322, was likely made before the change of location, since the legend records that the house was in Cottingham and there is no evidence that another matrix was made for the priory. According to the foundation charter, Wake dedicated the new monastery, the Priory of the Holy Cross, to “God, Blessed Mary, and all saints, in honor of the Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, and for his soul, and those of his wife, his father and mother, and his heirs…” (Dugdale 1846, 6.519). The Augustinian prior and a small number of canons (there were twelve canons at the time of the 1537 Dissolution) were charged with the spiritual care of the lay community (Dugdale 1846, 6.522). The first prior of Haltemprice, Thomas de Overton, was appointed in 1327, several years after the date of foundation, which suggests that the prior had no agency in the design of the common seal. Wake was certainly its patron. Unfortunately, the history of Wake’s foundation is fraught with questionable spending, crushing debts, poor leadership, and natural disasters. At the time of Wake’s death in 1349, he had failed to leave a sufficient endowment for the foundation. The priory buildings were in complete disrepair by the time of Henry VIII and nothing remained when the antiquary John Burton (1710-1771) was working on his Monasticon Eboracense in the 1750s. The bronze seal matrix therefore may be our only visual record of the priory and its administration, both temporal and divine.
The obverse of the seal features a building set within an octofoil frame with alternating lion heads and fleurs-de-lis in the spandrels. The architecture is an interesting blend of stone fortification (ashlar construction, battlements) and delicate gothic church (pinnacles, sculpture niches, lantern tower). The central block of the building has an arched doorway with doors wide open, providing entry to the building and access to the religious community. In the field above the gabled roof, to either side of the lantern, there are two rectangular flags or shields blazoned with the arms of Thomas Wake and his wife, Alice (or, two bars gules with three roundels gules in chief). The Wake arms are rendered again in a shield on the church’s left. The shield to the right of the church has been identified as the arms of Stuteville (Barry of twelve). The inclusion of these arms is very specific to the history of Thomas Wake’s land holdings in Cottingham. In 1233, the Wake family inherited a manor house and keep from the Stuteville family (the Lords of Liddell) through marriage—the last male heir of the Stuteville line had died. Finally, the shield below the church contains an heraldic cross with three points on each arm—identified as a “cross pattée” by the British Museum but as a “cross patonce” in Birch’s Catalogue of Seals (Birch 1887, 1.3004). This cross has not been linked definitively to a specific individual or family, although John Cherry has proposed that it may represent the arms of William Melton, Archbishop of York (1317–1340) (Cherry 1994, 14–23). Interestingly, the Stutevilles were one of the great crusading families of Yorkshire, and Hugh Wake, whose marriage to Joan Stuteville in 1229 brought the Wake family the lands in Cottingham, died on Crusade in 1241. The cross could be used here to reference the dedication of the priory to the True Cross as well as to Thomas Wake’s crusading lineage. The juxtaposition of architecture and heraldry on the Cottingham seal is unique. The use of architectural emblems on common seals usually signified two key things: identity in relation to a collective (conventual) authority and the place of sealing. They were thus architectural “portraits” meant to authenticate the origin of a sealed charter. In contrast, the inclusion of the arms of Wake (and Stuteville) redirects some of that authority from the religious community to the founders and their noble pedigree and history.
Thomas Wake is even more prominent on the seal’s reverse. Like the obverse, the composition is framed by an octofoil and includes an astounding fifteen figures and four additional heraldic shields, all bearing the arms of Wake. A three-storied gothic framework of delicate columns, pointed arches or niches, and crocketed gables organizes the figures, much like an altarpiece. One has the sense of walking through the open doors of the church on the obverse and entering into a symbolic church interior on the reverse. Indeed, the legend on the reverse is a continuation of the legend on the obverse, thereby underscoring a strong cohesion between obverse and reverse. In the uppermost story, there are three niches. The large, central niche contains the Crucifixion between the Virgin and St. John, who are turned toward the viewer and gesture to the body of Christ—the path to salvation. In each side-niche, an angel faces the Crucifixion scene and swings a censer. The Crucifixion gives the seal a devotional locus and also emphasizes the priory’s dedication to the True Cross. In the niche just below the Crucifixion, a supplicant figure kneels in prayer, facing left. He clasps a pastoral cross between his praying hands. This figure embodies the office of the prior of the foundation. St. Peter, with keys and book, is on his right and St. Paul, with sword and book, is on his left. The kneeling prior faces St. Peter and, beyond him, Thomas Wake, who is represented kneeling on a bracket in the far right field of the design, set between the frame and a lobe of the octofoil. He wears armor, with his arms blazoned on an ailette. His wife, Alice, appears in the same pose in the far left field of the design. Both Thomas and Alice have their hands clasped in prayer and have heads tilted up towards the Crucifixion scene.
The seal therefore depicts the founders in a perpetual state of devotion. It suggests that their salvation is all but sealed through their prayers and pious foundation. Significantly, the prior’s prayers are not directed towards Christ. Rather, he is oriented towards his patron, Thomas Wake. The community’s constructed reverence for Wake is further indicated by the five kneeling canons in the lowest story of the frame. Like the prior, they all face the seal’s right field with heads tilted slightly up towards Wake. Vertue did not miss any of these subtle details in his engraving of the seal, which suggests that he observed both the matrix and an impression of the seal. Through careful study, he fully captured the contents of the seal, in regards both to the text and images. The engraving honors the seal as a statement of Thomas Wake’s largesse, piety, and eternal authority over his priory of Augustinian Canons.
As noted, the survival of medieval seal matrices is rare, certainly in relation to the survival of seal impressions in lead and wax. A metal matrix could be melted down and reused or, as key evidence indicates, often was buried with the owner or broken upon the owner’s death. In 1858, for instance, Viollet-le-Duc discovered the silver seal die of Isabelle of Hainaut in her tomb in Notre-Dame in Paris. Stolen from the cathedral treasury in 1860, the matrix was rediscovered by London antiquary Raymond Jones in 1957 and is now owned by the British Museum (Nolan 2009, 95). Vertue’s meticulous rendering of the Cottingham seal as well as a flurry of notices in the SAL’s Minute Book indicate a perceived antiquarian importance of the object (by comparison, the minutes made no specific mention of the Clare and Ely seals). On August 3, 1720, the minutes recorded that Mr. Warburton “brought the two matrixes of an old brass seal of the family of Wake, founder of the Monastery of Cottingham near Hull,” and then on August 31 the SAL ordered the seal to be drawn and engraved, presumably by Vertue (SAL Minutes I.35). On January 11, 1721, Vertue delivered an engraving of the Cottingham seal as well as one of a seal from Northampton, and he was asked to provide each member of the SAL with four prints of each on January 25, 1721 (SAL Minutes I.39). Of course, Plate 1.5 does not include an engraving of a seal from Northampton, and it is unclear in the minutes whether the works that Vertue brought on 11 January were on a single plate or were two distinct plates; the order in the minutes that “each member should have four prints of each” perhaps indicates the latter (SAL Minutes I.39). Broadly speaking, the minutes offer us very little information about specific motivations for the recording of an object, but it seems clear that the Cottingham seal matrix was recognized as an especially rich and exceptional artifact right from the start.
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