Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture | National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth

For the last two days I have been in attendance at the National Library of Wales/Llyfrgell Genedlaethol Cymru, at a fantastic Aberystwyth and Bangor Universities workshop in medieval studies. I was fortunate enough to not only participate in the event as an attendee but also as a speaker on the first day. Entitled Archives, Artefacts & Literary Culture, the intent was for the workshop to be discursive and interactive, and that was certainly the case.

The first paper of the day was presented jointly by Dr Elizabeth New of the Department of History & Welsh History at Aberystwyth, and Dr Julie Mathias, of the Department of Information Studies. Their discussion, entitled Deeds, Seals & Archival Collections, set the tone for the day. Dr New opened the session discussing the Penrice & Margam Estate Records, which are held at the National Library. This reasonably complete archival collection from Margam Abbey, in Glamorgan, contains material from the 12th century through to the Reformation. The collection is rich, and extensive, and fortuitously survived the fate of many other monastic collections, which were lost, destroyed and scattered during the dissolution of the monasteries. The Margam collection went wholesale into the hands of Rice Mansel, through intermarriage to the Talbot family of Penrice, and thereafter on deposit to the National Library, who finally took full possession of the collection in lieu of death duties.

Dr Mathias then took over the talk, showing the audience the National Register of Archives website. She told us that if you’re interested in a particular family or a collection, it is not safe to assume the records are all kept together. The Margam family, as an example, had thirteen collections, with papers scattered with organisations around the country. It is therefore always worth checking the National Archives website.

We then moved on to the Penrice & Margam Charter 20, the manuscript of which was circulated around the group. The handwriting, a Carolingian Minuscule (an 8th to 12th century handwriting, named after the Emperor Charlemagne) is made up of carefully formed letter shapes, with plenty of space between the words, and is an ancestor to our modern handwriting. Dr Mathias identified specific letters within the manuscript in order to determine a date: for example, a capital W, which didn’t appear until after the 12th century. Carolingian Minuscule eventually evolved in Anglicana, a cursive business script which allowed for the faster production of manuscripts. Charter 20, said Dr Mathias, had no date attached, but there was a place date, which put the manuscript as having been created either in Cardigan or Cardiff. There was some discussion of this point amongst the group, and Dr Mathias told us that if one is ever in doubt as to a particular abbreviation it was always best to consult Trice-Martin’s book of abbreviations and place names, to make doubly sure.

Dr New then moved on to examining the seal appended to the manuscript. She noted that the seal was much larger than the actual document, and that without the seal, the document is invalid – there was a shift to the use of seals as a form of validation. Seals from the middle ages would have been made of beeswax or tree resin, and quite often coloured – the seal on this particular Charter was a dark brown, and the seal of William, Earl of Gloucester. The seal would not have been this colour at the time of its creation: the belief is that seals of this sort were varnished, possibly with a varnish that was quite rich in colour, and used to preserve the wax and make it look fancier. This painting over of the wax fell out of fashion in the mid-13th century: elements of the seal, therefore, also assist in dating a manuscript, and are an integral part of the identification process.

We then moved to another manuscript, Penrice & Margam Charter 198, where the writing becomes, as Dr Mathias put it, “a little more laterally compressed”, as we move into the Anglicana era. Dr New mentions the sealing clause included within the text of the manuscript, an identifying factor in manuscript studies that we don’t see until the early 13th century, and usually comes before the witness list within a document (although this is not always the case, so caution should be taken when searching for it). In the case of Charter 198 it is an unusual clause: it states “My seal is appended”, but there are two seals attached to the manuscript, one being the communal seal of the burgesses of Kenfig in South Glamorgan (now, apparently, buried by the sand dunes, but once a small and thriving town) and the other being the seal of Alice, widow of John Prevat. “My seal”, she states rather forlornly in the sealing clause, “is to many unknown.” Alice probably hadn’t needed to use a seal until after the death of her husband, and no doubt needed the seal of the burgesses of Kenfig as further validation of her own, new seal.

Dr Mathias took us through some of the aspects of Penrice & Margam Charter 443. A 15th century manuscript, written in Anglicana despite the rise during this period of the Secretary hand, there is a sealing clause contained within the text and two seals (those of Hugh Kene and Agnes, his wife), which are attached to one tag. There were obviously two separate seal matrices, with different designs – one is made up interlaced letters, H&K (presumably a monogram of his initials) and the other is endorsed with male and female heads, and a phrase relating to love and loyalty, but Agnes herself is not specifically referenced on the seals. Hugh Kene is clearly identified by his initials, but we only know that Agnes used it because she is mentioned in the sealing clause.

Penrice & Margam Charter 17 has a sealing clause which, quite shockingly, has writing on it in pencil, where someone during the 20th century has made a note of the Abbey the manuscript mentions in the text. Aside from this transgression, the manuscript is interesting because the sealing clause mentions the fact that a seal has been loaned for the purpose of validating the document. The seal, that of the Prior of St Michael of Ogmore, shows an ecclesiastical figure. A similar seal can be found at the National Museum Wales: the photograph below is an image of that seal, and not the one at the National Library, but I have included it to give you some idea as to the beauty of this fragile artefact.

ImageWhat’s also interesting about this manuscript is that the sealing clause appears to have been added at a later date to the manuscript: presumably a space for a name was left until such time as someone willing to lend their seal could be found. The witness list in this manuscript is particularly long, possibly because the person providing the gift to Margam, the seal-less Ketherech, son of John Du, needed more than one witness because without a seal, he lacked validity.

There were many other manuscripts and seals shown to the group: Penrice & Margam Charter 54, Caradog Uerbis to Margam, in which Uerbis makes it clear in the document that the document, and he himself, is “under the seal of my lord”; and Penrice & Margam Charter 72, Ifor Fychan and sons to Margam, which has only one seal which represents Fychan and his sons, the matrix being made to represent the whole group. There was also Penrice & Margam Charter 84, the Papal Bulla of Innocent III, and Penrice & Margam Charter 1978, endorsed with the seal of Geoffrey Sturmi of Stormy Down. The image on the seal is that of a man dressed as a hunter or forester. I have included an image of Geoffrey’s seal, taken from an artefact held at the National Museum Wales.


Dr New said that the academic Robert Patterson, working from photographs, thought that the monks of Margam forged the seal to get themselves more land, but Dr New believes that it is genuine. Patterson thought the contents of the manuscript and what is being gifted within it doesn’t seem right, but it is probably almost impossible for them to have forged the documents, and the seal was used several times thereafter with no question as to its validity. In this case, Geoffrey of Monmouth‘s opinion that “The monks of Margam are not to be trusted” seems false.

I have included here several other images of seals, in this case seal replicas which Dr New passed around the group, the images of which are reproduced here with her kind permission. One was the Great Seal of Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror:






And this wonderful seal, which I think is a seal of Henry VIII but I may be very incorrect on this as I didn’t make a clear note, so if anyone out there has the knowledge and can attribute this correctly, please do!



We were astonishingly privileged to be able to get access to so many rare and beautiful manuscripts, and to have the expertise of Dr Mathias and Dr New on hand to take us through these objects. You’d be pretty hard pressed to get a better opening session at a conference: I’ve certainly yet to find it.


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