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Medieval seal returns to its original home, after 500 years

28 July 2023

JAMES DOBSON/NATIONAL TRUST

The Mottisfont medieval seal and seal matrix

The Mottisfont medieval seal and seal matrix

A RARE mould for the seal of a medieval document thought to have been used to authenticate indulgences is back where it was first used, 500 years ago.

The metal matrix was unearthed in a field not far from the Augustinian priory of Mottisfont, in Hampshire, where monks would dispense indulgences to rich donors, pardoning their sinful behaviour and reducing the time spent in purgatory.

It was found in 2021 by metal-detectorists on the site of an ancient market in the village of Lockerley, two miles away, where clerics from the priory would offer their wares. The National Trust, which owns the 18th-century house built on the priory site, bought the cast copper-alloy mould at auction last year (2022) for £3640, and it goes on display there this weekend.

The matrix, which dates from between 1470 and 1520, measures just 60mm by 40mm, and is inscribed in Latin: “Sigillu[m] officii prioris p[ri]oretas sce trinitat[is] de Motesfont” (“Seal of the Official of the Prior of the Priory of Mottisfont”). It bears a depiction of the Trinity, and a figure of a praying cleric. Matrices such as this were not regarded as precious by their users, as they were made from softer metals and were not intended to last long. As a consequence, few have survived to the present day.

Mottisfont benefited financially from selling indulgences, as it stood on the busy pilgrimage route to Winchester and Salisbury. But its income was dramatically reduced when the Black Death devastated Europe in the 1340s. To compensate, the Pope granted the priory permission to sell pardons to support its work. The indulgences could, it was said, remove one year and 40 days off the purchaser’s time in purgatory, while they waited to gain entrance to heaven.

George Roberts, a curator with the National Trust, said that the pardons effectively “fast-tracked” people to heaven. “This, of course, came with a price, which was then used to support the priory’s finances.”

It is believed that the matrix is the only one of its kind in the UK to be reunited with its original home. James Brown, the Trust’s archaeologist in the south-east, said: “It’s so wonderful to see this special find returned home. Archaeology can be rather like trying to complete a jigsaw puzzle without the box showing the final image, and with most of the pieces missing.

“This is a story where a missing piece of the puzzle has been found, allowing us to see more of the picture, aiding our understanding of the early history of Mottisfont, and, importantly, sharing that with our visitors.”

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