These small, seemingly humble, items can often be overlooked and taken for granted, but they offer great insight into the lives of those that used them. This post aims to show, by looking at just one exemplar, what seals can offer the historian. This is a general commentary that reflects ideas of continuity and change and often throws up more questions than answers for the historian to puzzle over!
A seal is referred to as an item which carries an impression, produced by a metal engraving, pressed into a soft material such as wax. They would usually contain an image of the owner which would be used to authenticate any correspondence or official documentation. They would be used as a literal seal to such items and attached by an adjoining cord or tag. They would sometimes be placed immediately onto the face of a document.
The intended audience of seals varied. In the case of the seal of Henry, Count of Champagne (1152-1181) the audience for this would be wide because, as Count of this region, he ruled over and thus communicated with many other nobles of Champagne. He also had approximately 2000 vassals subordinate to his authority. He had distinguished himself with King Louis VII of France (c.1120-1180) during the second crusade and he married the King’s daughter Marie. Her mother was Eleanor of Aquitaine therefore he is likely to have also had connections with the English court after 1154. His seal must then, have needed to represent and establish his place within this sphere of the medieval world.
Henry’s seal carries his identity in words, written around the edge and it is in Latin. Centrally the seal presents an image of him on horseback. The horse is ready for action with prancing forelegs and the hind legs push against the circle that encloses the image.
They look as if they could spring forward should the need arise. Having said that there remains a static nature, lacking some energetic direction to the very vertical image, as though there is contemplation to this future action. The Count wears military attire which comprises full armour inclusive of helmet. He has his shield held protectively upright, in front of his body. His sword is also held vertically and he faces right, from his perspective this means he is facing straight ahead.
J. Backhouse et al. (see below for further reading) reflect a range of arguments that comment on the use of personal secular seals during the latter part of the Anglo-Saxon period. They argue that they were used to provide veritability and identification when attached to documents. They also quote an opposing view; that they were merely used to seal the letters! Backhouse et al. assert that the sword indicates a mark of secular status which is very revealing when considering the seal of Henry, Count of Champagne. This is further evidenced by an image from a ninth-century Carolingian manuscript, known as the Utrecht Psalter contained as part of the design of the handle of the seal-die of Godwin. (See below for reference). It assists the historian in linking the seal of Henry to other scholarly debate surrounding the transmission of ideas using images.
During the late Anglo-Saxon period, this imagery mirrored contemporary coinage and was associated with royal seals. Having stated that however, during the period between 1050 and 1180 in Northern France sealing practices were permitted for use by non-royal elites. So, the questions must be then; did the sword remain separated for use by royalty only? Was Count Henry presenting this image to reinforce those royal connections brought to him through his marriage to Marie?
Adrian Ailes states that the first Great Seal used by William I of England combined Anglo-Saxon tradition with new imagery of the post-Conquest order. The new aspect contained a portrait of him with full armour and on horseback. He does not carry a sword but a flag on a lance. Ailes also claims that by the early twelfth-Century the flag was replaced with the sword and that by the middle of the century, many knights of middle status had decided to use this imagery for their seals too. This then contradicts the idea that the sword, as used in the iconography of Count Henry, followed the Anglo-Saxon traditional origin of representing royal status. These equestrian icons certainly were, whether with lance or sword, indicative of military prowess and someone prepared to protect people.
Separately, Count Henry is recorded as a multi-faceted individual. He was known as Henry ‘The Liberal’. He was a crusader, political mediator, generous benefactor, Latin scholar and keen sportsman. He also ensured that under his control, the Champagne region flourished economically by introducing large trade fairs which included protection for the travelling merchants involved.
To surmise with a final analysis; this seal is useful to historians in that it is easy to see whom it represents due to the text around the image. This could narrow down the dates of any documents it accompanied. The depiction of Henry reveals that he was a military conqueror/defender and also shows his wish that the recipients of his documents be reminded of this. It also, arguably, shows him as a combined force (and character) of both considered contemplation and prepared fighter. This idea could be further argued using additional knowledge of him as a liberal individual, scholar and crusader.
Some of the limitations of the seal as a source of evidence are as follows. The image that the count wished to portray to his audience using this seal only tells how he wished to be perceived. The seal cannot show its reception and it is therefore impossible for it to reveal general contemporary opinion of the Count. There is some ambiguity as to whether he used the sword in the Anglo-Saxon tradition – to promote some sort of royal standing – or whether he was following a more recent fashion that many knights were following. Due to the date the latter is most likely as well as other evidence possibly presenting a humble character.
There is no evidence as to who ‘physically’ made the seal.
[National Archives], [Online]. Available: http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/research-guides/seals.htm
Henri I the Liberal [University of Paris], [Online]. Available: http://lamop-intranet.univ-paris1.fr/baudin/anglais/comtes/henri1/texte_henri1.htm
Ailes, A. , The Knight’s Alter-Ego, from Equestrian to Armorial Seal [British Museum], [Online]. Available: http://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/1a%20rev%20order.pdf
Backhouse, Janet., Turner, D. H., Webster, Leslie., Archibald, Marion., British Museum.,British Library., 1984, The Golden age of Anglo-Saxon art, 966-1066, Published by British Museum Publications Limited for the Trustees of the British Museum and the British Library Board, London.
Utrecht Psalter, British Museum, MLA 1881, 4-41, featured on p.113-114 of above title.
Wilson, Katharina M.,Margolis, Nadia,, 2004, , Women in the Middle Ages : an encyclopedia [Greenwood Press], [Online]. Available: http://search.credoreference.com/content/entry/abcwma/marie_de_champagne_1145_1198/0?searchId=6427307506576346000&result=0