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A glimpse into bygone times – Medieval seals from Wales and the Marshes

Award Information

AHRC ref: AH/G010994/1
Discipline: History
Funding opportunity: Research Grant
Areas of Impact: Culture and Heritage; Knowledge exchange; Museums and collections
Lead RO: Aberystwyth University
Region: Wales

In medieval Britain, men and women throughout society possessed seals and many thousands of these survive in archives, museums and private collections. Mostly the seals are small and quite often damaged, but no matter their condition they all reveal information about their owners, whether individuals or institutions, and offer glimpses into bygone times.

Seals have been used for authentication and to validate documents across the world for centuries, and work undertaken at Aberystwyth University by Professor Philipp Schofield and his team, recording 3,500 seals from across Wales and the Marches, raised the profile and significance of seals as an underused and often undervalued historical resource.

The team’s work has led to a greater understanding of both the use and the importance of seals, not only for the public but also for those working in heritage and archives. In Wales and the Welsh Marches where written records and other sources are scarce, the detailed study of medieval seals provided insight into facets of medieval life, such as politics, religion, culture, economy and society. As a result of new methods developed by the team, archivists, conservators and museum staff have become better equipped at preserving, interpreting and displaying seals in their collections, including in The British Library, National Records of Scotland (NRS), Trinity Hall Cambridge and Denbighshire Records Office. NRS adopted the template developed by the Aberystwyth team for the systematic recording of all sealed documents across Scotland. Adoption of this common format will have major benefits in allowing more and better exchanges of data between organisations. 

More than 5,000 members of the public visited the exhibition ‘Seals in context: Medieval Wales and Welsh Marches’ at the National Library of Wales, and events such as the Tewkesbury Medieval Festival, National Eisteddfod and at the National Museum of Wales offered related talks and workshops. The research team also ran tailored workshops for local and family history societies, amateur archaeologists and metal-detectorists where participants benefitted from engaging with local cultural heritage and areas of special interest. But, interestingly, seals can crop up in the most unexpected of places. An archivist from Powys Council, who had attended one of these workshops, came across a 14th Century scroll of a local land deed, complete with wax seal, on eBay.  Having learnt at the workshop that seals can help identify and authenticate such items, the archivist contacted the team at Aberystwyth who were able to both authenticate and name the owner of the seal. The deed was then purchased through public donations, and the role the seal played in verifying authenticity was highlighted by the media www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-23717505. Dating from 1318, the land deed and seal became the oldest artefacts stored in the Powys archives.

For more information on the project visit: Seals in Medieval Wales 1200-1550

Gateway to Research Project Links: Seals in medieval Wales, 1200-1550 (SiMeW