What two wonderfully informative and interesting afternoons of talks on seals we were able to enjoy on 15 and 22 March. Elizabeth New and I were very disappointed when the Conference on Seals and Identities of the People of Britain, due to have been held in April last year, was cancelled due to Covid. But, like a phoenix, as a result of the Society’s ability to host online-events and thanks to the skill of Danielle Wilson Higgins, the conference rose from the ashes in a renewed and better form. Two afternoons were chosen to accommodate those in America interested in seals, and they were attended by those from a whole range of countries including Israel, Portugal and Canada.  The online format also meant that more talks could be included. We heard not only about the development of the study in England and Wales, and the work that had already been done, but also about recent discoveries of medieval seals in the Portable Antiquities Scheme , where seal matrices are the fourth most common type of medieval object. – indeed more medieval seals have been reported through the PAS than are in the collections of the British Museum. We discovered what such seals told us about the role of women in sealing in the Middle Ages, and about the detail of documents and the seals of widows in Lincolnshire.

The second afternoon was devoted to Scotland and Ireland. We learnt of the individual concern of Scottish ladies with the way in which their heraldry on seals was very much a matter of choice to reflect their genealogy and marriage rather than following defined rules. The Treasure Trove scheme in Scotland (in some ways the Scottish PAS and also, in some ways, better than the English Treasure system) was described, and the different types of seals reported were analysed. For Ireland the use of seals by the Irish kings before the invasion of Henry II was a revelation, as was the number of medieval seals that survive today in archives outside the Four Courts, destroyed in 1922. The similarities and the differences between English/Welsh seals and Irish ones were also considered. Finally the proverbial and poetical quality of the inscriptions on medieval personal seals were analysed, and  I was left with images of Walter gathering thorns by the light of the moon, and a sailor stranded in Suffolk seeing his seal and singing sea shanties.

Very different to experience all this at one’s desk at home rather than in the lecture room at Burlington House. This meant that the numbers of those attending were much higher and the largest number ever attending a conference on medieval seals with over 500 attendees across the two afternoons. Since then over 600 people have watched the sessions on the Society’s YouTube Channel. It was a pity, however, that those attending could not have the opportunity to examine the extensive and important seal cast collection of the Society, and that, although questions were asked and answered, there was not the same opportunity for discussion, the acquisition of surprising and odd information, or the making of new friends through random encounters, that marks the best conferences.

The conference was announced in the first issue of SEWISE, an online newsletter devoted to the exchange of information about seals in Wales, Ireland Scotland and England. The next issue, to appear in July, will contain a longer review of the Conference. If you wish to receive it, please send an email to [email protected]. If you wish to comment on the conference, send it to the same email address. The conference was organized jointly by Sigillvm, (an international organization to support interest in, and the study of seals), and the Society of Antiquaries. To join Sigillvm go to https://www.sigillvm.net.

Elizabeth New FSA and John Cherry FSA

If you would like to know more about our collection of seals you can view the resource pack that was created for this event.

You can view the seminar on YouTube using the links below.