Vetusta Monumenta: Ancient Monuments

Plates XXVIII-XXXIII: Letter from the English Barons to Pope Boniface VIII

Plates: Engraved by George Vertue after a copy by John Bradshaw of a drawing by Augustine Vincent.

Object: Copy A or the White Copy of a document commonly known as the Baron’s Letter of 1301. The letter defended Edward I’s right to rule over Scotland in response to a bull issued by Pope Boniface VIII in 1299 that asserted his precedent claim to Scotland as the country’s feudal overlord. The letter in question was never sent, but it remained an important archival document for establishing peerages and heraldry, the history of parliament, and sigillography. The plate preserves a copy of a seventeenth-century drawing of the letter and seals prepared by the herald, Augustine Vincent (c. 1584-1626).

Provenance and Location: Two copies of the letter were prepared at the Lincoln Parliament in 1301. In the eighteenth century, this copy here represented was kept in the Chapter House at Westminster. Both copies of the Barons Letter are currently held in the National Archives (ref: E 26). Augustine Vincent’s drawing is in the College of Arms (Vincent MSS 103[v] and 425).

Transcription and Translation: Click here to access a transcription and translation of the plates.

​Commentary by: Crystal B. Lake

I. Introduction:
Plates 1.28-1.33 depict a letter, dated February 12, 1301, that the Earls and Barons of England intended to send to Pope Boniface VIII. The letter is commonly described as the “Barons’ Letter of 1301.” The print in question depicts not the letter itself, but a copy made in 1629 by John Bradshaw of drawings made in 1624 by Augustine Vincent (c. 1584-1626) of what’s now known as Copy A or the White Copy of the Baron’s Letter. 

George Vertue completed his prints of the Barons’ Letter in 1729, but the document first officially came to the Society’s attention three years earlier. At the meeting on November 30, 1726, Peter Le Neve presented “a copy of a letter printed which was sent by the Earls and Barons of England to the Pope…with their several seals engraven by Burghers” (SAL Minutes I.194). The minutes here likely refer to engravings of the seals that had been prepared by Michael Burghers (1647/8-1727) sometime in the late seventeenth or early eighteenth century. Although these engravings of the seals have not been traced, some of Burghers's book illustrations survive, along with comments on his work by Thomas Hearne, one of the authors he illustrated (Hearne 1885: 7.323-24). The antiquaries also examined a copy of Jacobus de Voragine’s Legenda Aurea at this meeting. 

The minute books report that the following week, Le Neve “brought an exemplification of the aforesaid letter” in from the Library of the College of Heralds for members to view (SAL Minutes I.194). This time, the antiquaries also admired the depictions of the “seals” affixed to the end of the letter, deeming them “very curiously designed” (SAL Minutes I.194). This was likely Bradshaw’s certified drawing of Vincent’s certified copy of the Barons’ Letter. The previous summer, Le Neve had shared with the Society “an antient printed book relating to the King’s Barons”; this may have been preliminary research on the letter or part of an ongoing research project that drew Le Neve’s attention to Bradshaw’s copy of Vincent’s work (SAL Minutes I.165). 

Plates XXVIII-XXXIII illustrate the Society’s ongoing interests in a range of topics, including political history, genealogy, the Society’s own institutional history, heraldry, sigillography, the technologies of manuscript facsimile, as well as Vertue’s interest as an engraver in the art-historical tradition of metal work. 

The Barons’ Letter and Political History:
The letter was written in 1301 in response to a series of events that had unfolded in the previous year. In 1298, Edward I thwarted a Scottish uprising in the Battle of Falkirk. Defeated, the Scots appealed to both the French monarch King Philip IV and Pope Boniface VIII in Rome for redress. Consequently, Pope Boniface VIII issued a bull in 1299 that asserted his precedent claim to Scotland as the country’s feudal overlord. Edward I considered several responses to the Pope. One of these responses was the letter here included in Vetusta Monumenta. The letter, bearing the signatures of seven earls and ninety-six barons, was the most bellicose option Edward I entertained as one possible response; the letter outright refuted the Pope’s claims to jurisdiction in Scotland. Likewise, although the letter defended Edward I’s right to rule over Scotland, it also included a pointed reminder to both the King as well as to the Pope that Edward I enjoyed such sovereignty at the pleasure of the realm’s peers. The letter went so far as to insist that Edward I couldn’t relinquish his claim over Scotland even if he wanted to because the Barons alone had the authority to bestow the right to rule.

The Barons wrote the letter after the close of the Parliament at Lincoln, which was held from 13-20 January 1301. Records of this parliament were entered into the Close Rolls (25 Ed. I. m.16-17) and the Parliament Rolls (6 Ed. III. m.11). Late medieval chronicles such as Flores Historiarum, the chronicle of Thomas Walsingham, Hemming’s Cartulary, and Trivet’s Annalesinclude summaries, transcripts, and references to the letter (Hume 1762: 2.114). The standard reference source for the letter later became the transcription that appeared in the second edition of Thomas Rymer’s Foedera, published in 1726 (Rymer 1726: 2.873). In short, the Barons’ Letter remained a known and significant legal document from the time of its composition.[1]

Although the Barons’ Letter was useful for rehearsing the history of England’s rule over Scotland, the letter primarily featured as evidence in various debates about the rights of the sovereign versus the rights of the parliament. Questions over what the letter proved about sovereign and parliamentary prerogatives reached a fever pitch in the midst of the seventeenth century’s political crisis. For some historians, like Edward Coke (1552-1634), the Barons’ Letter showed that England’s sovereigns had willingly constrained their authority by consulting and deferring to a parliamentary body on matters of state. The letter was widely taken as the first document offering proof of sitting in parliament. 

The letter, then, stood as a document that Charles I ought to heed: evidence that a century after King John had signed the Magna Carta, England’s monarch continued to feel compelled to summon a parliament in order to collaborate on a response to something as significant as the Pope’s bullish bull. Many historians noted that this letter wasn’t the only business conducted at the Lincoln Parliament: Edward I stamped his letters patent to renew the Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests. As William Blackstone would put it in 1759, the Lincoln Parliament marked “the final and complete establishment of the two charters…which from their first concession under king John A.D. 1215, had been often endangered, and undergone very many mutations, for the space of near a century; but were now fixed upon an eternal basis” (Blackstone 1759: lxxiv).

In the end, the letter appears never to have been sent to the Pope. Edward I sent a letter of his own instead: one that he drafted with the help of advisors and completed after the close of the Parliament at Lincoln. Edward’s letter was more conciliatory in tone and established Edward’s right to rule based on a review of legal precedents and a history of the Scots’ recent rebellion. Edward I’s letter to Boniface was also known and referenced alongside the Barons’ Letter. Historians believed, however, thatbothletters had been sent to the Pope and some felt that together, the two letters represented a collaborative and united response to Boniface’s bull. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century, when the archives at the Vatican had been searched, that historians realized that the Barons’ Letter had likely never been sent. 

In the meantime, however, not everyone agreed that the Barons’ Letter established the authority of a parliament or even evinced a meaningful collaboration between Edward and his barons. John Selden, for example, disagreed with Coke’s claim that the letter offered the earliest documented proof of the long-standing practice of sitting in parliament. Controversy over the Barons’ Letter reached a fever pitch after the royalist Robert Brady insisted in his Complete History of England (1685) that not only did parliaments like the one at Lincoln assemble purely at the pleasure of the king but also that the collaboration between the barons and Edward I was merely a convenient fiction that the sovereign tendered – one designed simultaneously to placate the barons and present a strong, united front to the Pope (Pocock 1987: 182-196). The letter’s significance for British political history, then, was likely one important reason why the antiquaries included it in Vetusta Monumentawhich featured facsimiles of a number of other notable documents relevant for determining precedents in matters of state, including the warrant issued for Charles I’s execution.

II. The Barons’ Letter and Seventeenth-Century Antiquarianism:
In their discussions of Barons’ Letter, scholars referred to one another, to the medieval chronicles and other similar texts that included notice of the letter, or to transcripts of the letter that were made and kept in private collections; they rarely consulted the document itself. Consequently, seventeenth- and eighteenth-century historians did not appear to realize that there were two copies of the Barons’ Letter. Both currently exist in the archives: copy A, or the white copy – on which the plates here are based – and copy B, or the blue copy. Early historians proceeded, however, as if there was only one, single copy extant. Given that the letter was never sent, one of the extant 1301 documents may be the original and the other a copy made for the purposes of bureaucratic record-keeping. Yet copies were often made in duplicate, even in the early fourteenth century. This means that still today, it’s impossible to determine whether or not one of the letters is the original (and if so, which one is the original) or whether or not both copies are duplicates of a now lost original. 

Although seventeenth- and eighteenth-century scholars primarily relied on transcripts and published descriptions of the letter, reports suggest that a few did consult the original 1301 documents. They just didn’t always consult the sameoriginal document. One copy of the Barons’ Letter was available, at least during the reign of James I, in the Treasury of the Receipt of the Exchequer in the Pell Office at Westminster Hall, and this was the most frequently consulted source. The other copy was across the street in the Chapter House at Westminster Abbey, where it appears to have been since the fourteenth century. Both copies of the letter ended up in the Chapter House by the early nineteenth century, and the copy from the Chapter House at Westminster was thus rediscovered in 1819 (Reports from the Lords Committees 1829: 2.325). The two copies were moved to the Public Records Office sometime later in the nineteenth century and then to the National Archives at Kew in the twentieth century. The copy of the letter preserved in Vetusta Monumenta is the copy thought to have remained relatively unnoticed in the Chapter House since the fourteenth century (Nicolas 1825: 795). 

The fact, however, that there were at least two contemporaneous copies of the Baron’s Letter and that no one seemed to have realized this fact before the early nineteenth century introduced considerable confusion into research that was conducted on the letter. Each copy inaugurated a slightly different line of transmission as transcriptions of both letters snaked their way into histories written by authors who assumed the existence of only one copy of the letter. Competing transcriptions were thus presumed to be fraught with errors. 

There were likewise notable discrepancies between the Writs of Summons to the Lincoln Parliament, the record of those who attended the parliament, and those who signed the letter. There was also confusion about the timing of the letter’s composition, signing, and sealing. According to Sir Nicholas Harris Nicolas (1799-1848), the antiquary who would emerge as the expert on the Baron’s Letter in the early nineteenth century, Edward I issued a number of Writs in the autumn of 1300 summoning nine earls and eighty barons to convene for a Parliament in Lincoln in February, 1301 (Nicolas 1825:787). Comparing the letter’s signatures to the names appearing in the Writs shows that of eighty-nine individuals known to have been directly summoned to that parliament, seventeen either declined to sign the letter or did not attend the meeting: two earls and fifteen barons. Yet the letter contains one hundred and three signatures. Even this number could be contested. Rymer’s Foederarecords one hundred and four signatures; Dugdale’s transcript of the letter in his “Copy of All Summons of the Nobility” records one hundred and two (Nicolas 1825: 802). Thirty-one individuals therefore signed the letter who are not recorded as having been summoned or recorded as present at the parliament in the Rolls. Variations between who was summoned and who appeared at the parliament as well as who signed the letter proved a challenge for heralds looking to establish lineages for the peerage and thereby settle competing claims to property as well as privileges, but such variations also introduced debate over the balance of power in the fourteenth-century state.[2]

Some claimed the letter had been drafted at the Parliament itself, indicating that it had been treated as official government business. Others claimed the letter had been drafted after the Parliament concluded, indicating that Earls and Barons had elected to take matters into their own hands. Additionally, not all of those who attended the Parliament sealed the document on site. The Wardrobe Rolls, for example, note payments to one of the king’s clerks, Alexander Convers, for his service traveling to collect seals and signatures in the weeks following the close of the Lincoln Parliament.

A number of hypotheses could explain both the timing of the letter’s composition and discrepancies between who was summoned to the parliament, who attended it, and who signed the letter. Such hypotheses also, inevitably, bolstered competing claims about both the relationships between the king and the barons as well as individual barons’ rankings in the hierarchies of fourteenth-century English society. Nicolas maintains, however, that few hypotheses could ever be proven satisfactorily. For one thing, the conventions of ancient governments were too obscure (Nicolas 1825: 800). For another thing, those conventions could hardly be clarified by an archive that was necessarily and woefully incomplete. Not only were many ancient documents acknowledged to have gone missing, the letters themselves were hardly legible by the early nineteenth century. In 1825, Nicolas confidently claimed that the Barons’ Letter in the Chapter House had “in the last two centuries…received more injury than in the three preceding ones” (Nicolas 1825: 806).

Nicolas felt that the damage was more than the effect of time; he was convinced that “proof exists of wilful [sic] spoliation” (Nicolas 1825: 802). Nicolas never speculates about why anyone would purposefully vandalize the copy of the Barons’ Letter then in the Chapter House. Nor does he describe the state of the copy of the letter that was originally kept in the Treasury of the Exchequer, Copy B, but later moved to the Chapter House by the time Nicolas studied the documents for himself. Today both copies exist in similarly illegible states. Nicolas’s research attempting to confirm that the copy of the letter in the Chapter House, Copy A, was either the original letter or an official duplicate (and not, as some suspected, a forgery), however, does lead us back to the seventeenth century and a controversy other than the one over the history or nature of England’s constitutional monarchy: a controversy over genealogical histories and the antiquaries who compiled them. The two 1301 copies of the letter contain minor variations in the letter itself; they also contain minor variations in the names listed, especially with regards to spelling and the application of honorifics. With regards to spelling and naming styles, small differences made a big difference when it came to determining which specific rights which specific barons and earls enjoyed in the fourteenth-century state and what privileges the descendants of those barons and earls were consequently also entitled to enjoy.[3] These differences were compounded when researchers based their claims on transcripts of the letter which often silently corrected or accidentally emended the source text.

In 1825, Nicolas found three references to Copy A of Barons’ Letter in previously-published historical works: Rymer, in the “early editions of the Foedera,” Dugdale in his “List of Summons,” and the print prepared by Vertue (Nicolas 1825: 794).Nicolas concludes, however, that only the version of the letter printed in VetustaMonumenta was the copy that could be definitively linked to the document in the Chapter House; the others were likely based on previous transcriptions, despite their claims to the contrary, or were otherwise corrupted (Nicolas 1825: 802-804). The copy of the letter that served as the basis for the print that appeared in Vetusta Monumenta was originally made by the herald and antiquary Augustine Vincent. At the behest of his patron, Thomas Howard, the Earl of Arundel (1586-1646), Vincent created a series of facsimile drawings of Copy A of the Barons’ Letter in 1624, at which time Vincent was riding high as one of England’s most celebrated antiquaries.[4] Two years prior, Vincent had personally dealt the death blow in a public feud that had been ongoing for more than twenty years between William Camden and Ralph Brooke (c. 1553-1625). 

For the fourth edition of the Britannia, issued in 1594, Camden – who was an important member of the first Elizabethan Society of Antiquaries – added new information on the history of heraldry and the peerage, hoping to leverage the accolades he had received as the first author of a comprehensive history of England into a position at the College of Arms where he could live out the rest his days working with their manuscript collections. Camden got his wish and was appointed as the Clarencieux King of Arms in 1597, but he soon met a rival at the College: the York Herald of Arms in Ordinary, Ralph Brooke. Brooke considered himself to be England’s premier expert on arms and the peerage; he bristled at Camden’s appointment to a superior position in the College. After Camden successfully defended the College’s choice to grant arms to the Shakespeare family against the complaints voiced by Brooke, Brooke nursed his resentments and commenced what would become a protracted program of revenge. In 1599, Brooke published his Discoverie of Certaine Errours Published in Print in the Much Commended Britannia, 1594, Very Prejudiciall to the Discentes and Successions of the Auncient Nobilitie of this Realme (1599). Brooke’s Discoverie maligned Camden’s research, listing any and seemingly every error Camden had made in the fourth edition of the Britannia.

Camden politely responded to Brooke’s Discoverie and quietly corrected many of these errors in edition of the Britannia that appeared in 1600. Brooke was hardly appeased. He wroteA Second Discovery of Errors that circulated in manuscript amongst members of the College of Arms. Brooke did not stop here. For twenty more years, Brooke continued to rabble-rouse at the College. He set up an elaborate hoax that duped some heralds into granting arms to the City of London’s hangman. He publically attacked his upstart colleagues at the College again, including Camden, in 1619 when he published his Catalogue and Succession of the Kings, Princes, Dukes, Marquesses, Earles, and Viscounts of this Realme of England, and Brooke doubled down on those attacks when he reissued a bigger and improved edition of that work in 1622.

Augustine Vincent had finally had enough. Vincent considered Camden to be a mentor and a friend. Camden helped secure for Vincent a place in the College of Arms as Rouge Rose pursuivant-extraordinary in 1616 and supported Vincent’s promotion to Rouge Croix pursuivant in 1621. Vincent and Camden worked closely together until Camden’s death in 1623, after which Vincent became the Windsor Herald and the Keeper of the Records in the Tower of London. Like Camden, Vincent preferred to base his historical research on primary source material. Vincent became especially adept at working with medieval manuscripts. Over the course of his life, Vincent compiled more than two hundred and sixty volumes of extracts and reflections on such manuscript materials as well as nearly four hundred pages of pedigrees that he illustrated with painted arms. He used all of these as references sources for his work as a herald and he shared his research freely.

After Vincent’s death, his manuscripts were kept and consulted by his son, John, who used them to prepare a work to be titled, Heroologia Anglica; Or, A Genealogical History of the Succession and Creation of all our Princes, Dukes, Earls, and Viscounts(Nicolas 1827a: 84). John never completed this work. The manuscript draft of John Vincent’s Heroologia ended up in Anthony Wood’s materials in the Bodleian, and Vincent’s manuscripts were either willed or sold by John to Ralph Sheldon (1623-1684) who later donated them to the College of Arms. Antiquaries such as John Bridges, William Burton, William Dugdale, John Seldon, and John Weever all referred to Vincent’s work. Vincent had also gathered materials for an intended county history of Northamptonshire and planned to write a Baronage of England, although he completed neither of these projects.

Vincent did, however, manage to publish something based on his vast knowledge of manuscript materials in his own lifetime: a satirical response to Brooke’s first attack on Camden. While he watched Brooke sow discord in the College of Arms, turning from “vinegar to gall and from gall to venom,” Vincent got to work in the archives (Nicolas 1827a: 41). Vincent published his own A Discoverie of Errours in the First Edition of the Catalogue of Nobility Published by Ralphe Brookein 1622. Vincent’s Discoveriereprinted many of Brooke’s initial attacks on Camden with new sections inserted that identified the errors Brooke had originally made. Vincent relied extensively on archival material to identify Brooke’s many errors.

Vincent assembled two important allies in this publication venture: the Earl of Arundel, to whom the Discoverie was dedicated, and William Jaggard, the Discoverie’s printer. Jaggard published Brooke’s first attack on Camden in 1599, and Brooke argued that any errors that other antiquaries had identified in that work had been introduced by Jaggard. Brooke also maligned Jaggard’s use of typography and claimed he corrupted the illustrations. Jaggard was therefore happy to throw the weight of his print shop – then one of the largest in England and the official printing house for the city of London – behind Vincent to expose Brooke’s errors in 1622. Vincent’s Discoverie included a defense of the printer’s work on Brooke’s original publication, purportedly written by Jaggard himself. Nicolas posits, however, that Vincent may have been the author (Nicolas 1827a: 51). Jaggard returned such favors by inscribing one of the first complete folios of Shakespeare’s plays that issued from his press to Vincent. Vincent’s Discoverieproved to be the concluding, definitive publication in the controversy; Brooke’s scholarly reputation was permanently tarnished.

The whole protracted affair involving Camden, Brooke, and Vincent transformed the state of genealogical research in the seventeenth century. As Vincent explained in the Discoverie’s preface, Brooke’s evidence for his claims were “no proofs but Pythagorian [sic] proof;” “instead of scriptum est, ipse dixit” (quoted in Nicolas 1827a: 42). Brooke had used “no record, no antiquity, but his own antiquity of forty years practice” for establishing the peerage, lineages, and coats of arms. Brooke, of course, insisted that he hadconsulted the archives. Vincent begged to differ. On the one hand, Brooke had “perverte[ed] and miscronstru[ed]” what he had read. On the other, Brooke hadn’t read very much for Vincent had “discovered” “by the books [he] searched a great deal of ignorance and insufficiency” on Brooke’s part.

Brooke also frequently attested to his many years of expertise in the College of Arms, but Vincent was not convinced that this meant much, either: “[E]xperience cannot make you wise, experience cannot make you skillful in records,” he quipped (quoted in Nicolas 1827a: 46). For Vincent, the records themselves were experienced, and the antiquary had to go “where they were…and come fitly prepared and qualified…to understand the language they speak” (Nicolas 1827a: 46). “Whatsoever my experience be,” he continued, “sure I am the records I quote have experiences; compare yours with theirs: they have years, measure theirs with your own, and then tell me of your fifty years’ practice of study” (quoted in Nicolas 1827a:47). Vincent, in short, argued that not only had he consulted more and better archives than Brooke, he had more expertise in working with and deferring to such medieval source material. Moreover, Vincent pointed out that he, unlike Brooke, had dutifully cited all of his sources. The public agreed.

Vincent’s work, characteristically represented in print by his Discoverieand in practice by his collections of extracts from archival sources, reflected the interest in genealogy taken up by seventeenth-century antiquaries while it also helped establish the examination of manuscript records as the primary and preferred method for conducting genealogical research. By including Vincent’s facsimile of the Barons’ Letter in Vetusta Monumenta, the Society of Antiquaries preserved a record of Vincent’s antiquarian work which likewise served as an institutional history of the early Society’s activities. Vincent receives a brief mention from Gough in the introduction to Archaeologiathat rehearses the history of the Society of Antiquaries; Vincent, along with Randal Holmes, is remembered as one of “those laborious collectors in the heraldic department” who planned, but did not complete, “a Baronage” (Gough 1770: xxiv). After his death in 1626, Vincent continued to be remembered as a first-rate antiquary. For any “point sought relative to the question of Peerage…Vincent’s Collections are generally the first which are consulted,” explained Nicolas (Nicolas 1827a: 80). Vincent’s facsimile of the Barons’ Letter was therefore important as a record for political history and as a representative example of early antiquarian research on the peerage and genealogies. Le Neve, who brought Bradshaw’s copy of Vincent’s drawing to the Society’s attention in the first place, also prepared an elaborate annotated copy of Vincent's Discoveriethat eventually made its way into Richard Gough’s library (Folger STC 24756 Copy 2).

III. The Barons’ Letter and the Technologies of Heraldry and Sigillography:
The Barons’ Letter likely attracted Vincent’s attention as a herald hoping to settle disputes over pedigrees and lineages because its long list of signatures serves as a veritable biographical dictionary of fourteenth-century barons and earls: a who was who of medieval Britain. The print that appears in Vetusta Monumenta, however, is not an exact copy of Vincent’s drawing which was also not an exact facsimile of the Barons’ Letter.[5] In the History of the Society of Antiquaries, Joan Evans has little to say about the preparation of the Barons’ Letter for publication in Vetusta Monumenta other than it was one project the Society undertook during the mid 1720s: a time in which the Society had no director and apparently little direction. In these years, Vertue prepared two long series as well as two individual plates: Plate XX, depicting coins, medals, and jewels, Plates XXI-XXVI, depicting the tournament of Henry VIII, Plate XXVII, and Plates XXVIII-XXXIII, depicting the Barons’ Letter, the latter of which Evans complains “were not even facsimiles” (Evans 1956: 79).

Vertue’s plates – like Vincent’s drawings – never aspired, however, to be perfect facsimiles of the letter itself. Nicolas notes that “several words are abbreviated which in the original are written at length, and in a few instances the names both of persons and places are differently spelt” (Nicholas 1825: 807). Nicolas was convinced that it would have been “impossible” for anyone to create a “verbatim et literatim copy” of the original “for so many parts of the letter are so much torn, that an hiatus in several places, especially towards the end, would be unavoidable” (Nicolas 1825:807).

Vincent also added his signature as well as a note to his drawing of the letter. Vincent’s note describes how some of the seals were attached on individual strings, others were attached to a single string, others affixed to the back of the letter, and that labels linking the seals to specific signatories were then affixed on the original document. Vincent likewise records that eight Barons who signed the letter did not seal the letter. Bradshaw’s copy of Vincent’s drawing preserves Vincent’s signature as well as his note. Bradshaw then also added material of his own. Bradshaw records, firstly, that the Earl of Arundel also requested that Bradshaw copy Vincent’s work in 1629. Secondly, Bradshaw appends a certificate verifying that Bradshaw himself had personally consulted the letter then archived in Westminster Abbey and confirmed that the seals as well as signatures depicted by Vincent were authentic representations of those appearing on the original letter.

Bradshaw, then, appears to have checked (and perhaps even completed) Vincent’s work. The reference in the Minute Books to the prints of the seals prepared by Burghers that members of the Society of Antiquaries viewed alongside Bradshaw’s copy in 1726 suggests that they were then similarly engaged in a comparative research project: one that aimed to match seals to signatures and thereby coats of arms to their bearers. Here, the letter emerges as useful evidence in the study and history of heraldry. While the letter remained embroiled in debates about both political history and the privileges of the peerage, the print that Vertue prepared would become important evidence for research on coats on arms. Nicolas could confidently state in a letter published in 1827 in Archaeologiathat “[t]he Society is aware that the Seals in question present the earliest and most authentic evidence which is extant of the armorial ensigns used by the Baronage of England in the fourteenth century” (Nicolas 1827b: 195).

Vincent’s work, via Bradshaw, was therefore important as an example of an excellent method for illustrating, or “tricking,” the coats of arms and legends that appeared on ancient seals. Other trickings of the seals affixed to the Barons’ Letter were available in the seventeenth century, including those that appeared on a transcript taken from Copy B in 1611 by the Lancaster Herald, Nicholas Charles, which was in the Cottonian Library (Cotton MS Julius C, VII, f.228b). The Harleian library also included in MS 5804 item number 10: “A Letter or Remonstrance to the Pope, complaining of his infringement of the privileges of the K. of England in regard to the King of Scotland, dated at Lincoln 12 Feb. 1300. Which Letter was subscribed by 96 Persons of the first rank in the Kingdom, & here all their Seals are annexed” (Wanley,et. al 1759: no. 5804).[6] In 1702, William Nicholson described a “most Noble Parchment-Roll of the Letter sent from the Barons of Englandto Pope Boniface, on Account of the Disputes with Scotland, sign’d at Lincolnon the twelfth of Februaryin the year 1301 to which are affix’d the Seals of Arms of the several Subscribers, drawn in proper Colours” that was then “Inter Cimelia” at Oxford (Nicholson 1702:145).[7]

Although transcriptions of the Barons’ Letter, its signatories, and trickings of their seals were therefore available in the libraries antiquaries frequently consulted, their quality was questionable. The difficulties of copying a fourteenth-century document at a distance of two centuries – and in the case of the Barons’ Letter, copying unwittingly from two variant copies of the same document – proved as problematic for those researchers hoping to complete studies of ancient seals as it did for those researchers hoping to settle the histories of the state and the genealogical pedigrees of the peerage.

Copy A and Copy B, however, were slightly incongruent in terms of how names were spelled, where they appeared in the letter, and how honorifics as well as other local descriptions were applied; transcriptions likewise introduced new errors and new confusions that made it difficult to assign seals to signatories. None of these variations could be easily be resolved by consulting the originals given their state of deterioration by the eighteenth century; Vertue’s copy of Bradshaw’s copy of Vincent’s copy of Copy A of the Barons’ Letter proved to be the most reliable way researchers could connect individual seals to their signatories. Only Copy A included the labels identifying which signatories each seal represented, and Vincent had dutifully copied these into his drawing. In his facsimile of Copy B, Charles had added labels to his trickings presumably based on his own knowledge of heraldry.

Creating definitive facsimile trickings of the seals was necessarily a tricky business; the seals’ legends and symbols had to be gleaned from the aging wax impressions. When Bradshaw certified Vincent’s drawing in 1629, ninety-five seals were attached to Copy A. Vincent had added to his drawing a note identifying the eight barons who signed but did not seal the document.[8] When the Lords Committees purportedly examined both Copy A and Copy B of the Barons’ Letter between 1819 and 1822, they found that the several of the seals were “broken, but many remained perfect” (Reports1829:2.325). When Nicolas examined both copies for himself in 1825, however, he discovered that this may have been the case for Copy B, but not for Copy A (Nicolas 1827b: 193). Thirteen of the original ninety-five seals from Copy A were missing, many were “mutilated,” and three duplicate seals had been apparently detached from the letter; for the seals that were attached several to a string, none of the labels that Vincent found in 1624 remained (Nicolas 1825: 807).

Nicolas collated the seals from Copy A and Copy B of the Barons’ Letter in 1826. He determined that the seals on both copies of the letter “were manifestly from the same matrix,” but he noted that ten of the seals that remained on Copy A were now missing from Copy B, while three seals that were still preserved on Copy B were now missing from Copy A.[9] Until Vertue copied Bradshaw’s copy of Vincent’s copy of the letter, Charles’s transcription of Copy B of the Barons’ Letter seems to have provided the widely-available trickings of the original seals for researchers to consult, and Charles’s trickings of the seals were arguably inferior to Vincent’s. In his definitive study of the Barons’ Letters published in 1903, Henry de Walden confessed that “accuracy in copying the [seals’] legends,” was not Charles’s “strong point,” and only Charles alone could explain his “readings” of many of the legends that he copied (de Walden 1904: xi).

Accuracy in tricking became especially important in the seventeenth century as the heralds began granting arms in far larger numbers than they had previously. Selecting, designing, combining, and assigning the various charges as well as legends that would decorate all those new achievements required an increasingly substantial body of reference material that heralds could consult in order to ensure that they avoided creating duplications while also maintaining traditions. Trickings of medieal seals offered ideal source material for this work, and the seals attached to the Barons’ Letter were among the earliest and most reliable evidence of heraldic history and practices. Although some debate occurred over whether or not the seals were the official signets of the signatories they represented, they still offered proof of historic heraldry; their images were matched in the Falkirk Roll of Arms and in stained glass at Dorchester Abbey, both of which were contemporaneous with the Barons’ Letter (Lamborn 1949: 88). Therefore, the seals attached to the letter provided the antiquaries with a guide to consult for designing as well as interpreting coats of arms. The history of heraldry was also useful, as Thomas Moule explained, for histories of “architecture, sculpture, and painting” as well as for numismatic studies (Moule 1822: vi).

Plates 1.28-1.33 offer one example of many illustrated elsewhere in Vetusta Monumenta, of the Society’s ongoing interest in sigillography. Richard Gough describes the research John Anstis (1669-1745) and Richard Rawlinson (1690-1755) undertook, alongside Vertue, undertook with regards to the history of seals (Gough 1768: xxxi-xxxii). Vincent’s drawings offered a gloss, perhaps even a corrective, to Charles’s trickings. Early antiquaries felt particularly stymied in their research on seals by having to rely, as William Dugdale put it, on trickings “not imitated to the life directly,” and Vincent’s trickings were long prized for their quality and precision (quoted in Hamper 1827: 158).[10] In 1825, Nicolas observed that some of the wax seals still extant were imperfect impressions, and features of some of them could only therefore be determined by comparing those attached to Copy A with their counterparts on Copy B; Vincent’s trickings, therefore, came to stand as the best extant record of the designs of those seals that had been lost or whose impressions were incomplete or worn (Nicolas 1817b: 195).

Vertue’s personal investments in the history of metalwork, which also informed his interest in coins, attracted him to the study of medieval seals. Vertue’s interests in seals included the history of their design and development as well as the means by which they had been illustrated by subsequent artists. In 1745, he published A Description of the Works of the Ingenious Delineator and Engraver Wencelsaus Hollar, which included a catalogue of Hollar’s illustrations of “Coins, Medals, Seals, Vases and Cups” (Vertue 1745: 103-105). In 1753, he published a lavish illustrated volume on the “medals, coins, great seals, and other works” by the seventeenth-century medalist, Thomas Simon. Walpole’s “List of Vertue’s Works,” published in a postscript to the second edition of the Catalogue of Engravers(1767) identifies many seals engraved by Vertue himself under “Class 16. Coins, Medals, Busts, Seals, Charters, Gems, and Shells” (Walpole 1767: 16-18).

In Vertue’s hands, Vincent’s trickings convey detail and depth. Vertue’s engraving renders the depicted figures on the seals – especially those of the horse-riding knights – with proportion and includes shading that enhances the intricacies in the various arms and ornaments included on the coats of arms the seals illustrate. Vertue’s versions of Vincent’s drawings eschew representing heraldic features as outline sketches or shapes that can be mixed and matched, preferring instead to depict them as fully-realized works of art. Vertue’s precision, detail-oriented engraving gestures to the metal of the seals rather to their wax impressions and thereby visually preserves, even reconstructs, the matrices themselves, many of which were and remain, lost. Doing so also speaks to the Society’s goal of similarly preserving, even monumentalizing, their own institutional history. Not only do the engravings reconstruct the metal seal matrices that were missing and preserve a document that was in an advanced state of deterioration, they also serve as a record of Vincent’s work as well as that of other heralds, thereby linking the work of eighteenth-century antiquaries like Peter Le Neve with that of earlier antiquaries like the heralds Vincent and Camden together in one continuous history. 
-Blackstone, William. 1759. The Great Charter and Charter of the Forest. Oxford: Clarendon.
-Brady, Robert. 1685. A Complete History of England. London: T. Newcomb.
-Brooke, Ralph. 1599. A Discoverie of Certaine Errours Published in Print in the Much Commended Britannia, 1594. London: J. Woodman and D. Lyon.
-Brooke, Ralph. 1600 (1723 Reprint). A Second Discoverie of Errours Published in the Much Commended Britannia, 1594. London: J. Woodman.
-Dugdale, William. 1685. A Perfect Copy of All Summons of the Nobility. London: Samuel Roycroft.
-Evans, Joan. 1956. A History of the Society of Antiquaries. London: Society of Antiquaries.
-General Index to the Twenty-three Volumes of The Parliamentary Or Constitutional History of England. 1753. London: T. Osborn and W. Sandby.
-Gough, Richard. 1770. “Introduction.” Archaeologia 1: i-xxxix.
-Gough, Richard. 1768. Anecdotes of British Topography. London: W. Richardson and S. Clark.
-Great Britain, Parliament. 1705-1707. A Collection of State Tracts, Publish'd on Occasion of the Late Revolution in 1688. 3 vols. London: Publisher Not Identified.
-Great Britain, Parliament. 1751. The Parliamentary or Constitutional History of England: Being a Faithful Account of all the Most Remarkable Transactions in Parliament. London: T. Osborne W. Sandby.
-Hamper, William. 1827. The Life, Diary, And Correspondence of Sir William Dugdale. London: Harding, Lepard, and Co.
-Hearne, Thomas. 1885-1921. Remarks and Collections of Thomas Hearne. ed. Charles Doble et al. 11 vols. Oxford: Clarendon Press. 
-Hume, David. 1762. The History of England. 6 vols. London: A. Millar.
-Lamborn, E. A. Greening. 1949. The Armorial Glass of the Oxford Diocese 1250-1850. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
-Lewis, John. 1740. Dissertation on the Antiquity and Use of Seals in England. London: W. Mount and T. Page.
-Moule, Thomas. 1822. Bibliotheca Heraldica Magnæ Britanniæ: London: T. Moule.
-Nicolas, Nicholas Harris. 1825. A Synopsis of the Peerage of England. London: J. Nichols and Sons.
-Nicolas, Nicholas Harris. 1827a. Memoir of Augustine Vincent, Windsor Herald 1617-1624. London: W. Pickering. 
-Nicolas, Nicholas Harris. 1827b. “Remarks on the Seals affixed to two Documents preserved in the Treasure of the Receipt of the Exchequer.” Archaeologia 21: 192-231.
-Nichols, John. 1812-1816. Literary Anecdotes of the Eighteenth Century. 8 vols. London: 
Nichols, Son, and Bentley.
-Nicholson, William. 1702. The Scottish Historical Library. London: Publisher Not Identified.
-Pocock. J.G.A. 1987. The Ancient Constitution and the Feudal Law (1957)Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
-Plot, Robert. 1677. Natural History of Oxfordshire. London: S. Miller.
de Rapin, Paul. 1727. History of England. trans. Nicolas Tindal. 15 vols. London: T. Osborne and J. Shipton.
-Reports from the Lords Committees Touching the Dignity of a Peer of the Realm. 1829. 2 vols. 
London: Parliament, House of Lords.
-Rymer, Thomas. 1726. Foedera. 20 volumes. London: J. Tonson.
-Tyrrell, James. The General History Of England, Both Ecclesiastical and Civil. 2 vols. London: W. Rogers.
-Vertue, George. 1745. A Description of the Works of the Ingenious Delineator and Engraver Wencelsaus Holler. London: Printed for the Editor.
-de Walden, Howard. 1904. Some Feudal lords and Their Seals. London: The De Walden 
-Walpole, Horace. 1767. A Catalogue of Engravers, Who Have Been Born or Resided in England
5 vols. Twickenham: Strawberry-Hill Press.
-[Wanley, Humphrey et. al]. 1759. A Catalogue of the Harleian Collection of Manuscripts.2 vols. London: D. Leach.
Further Reading: 

[1]In addition to Hume’s history and Brady’s (discussed below), see also: William Dugdale’s List of Summons (1685); James Tyrrell’s The General History of England(1697-1704: 2.781-2.784); William Nicholson’s The Scottish Historical Library (1702); A General Index to the Twenty-Three Volumes of the Parliamentary or Constitutional History of England(1753: 119-123); A Collection of State Tracts(1705:1.461); Paul de Rapin’s History of England(trans. Nicolas Tindal) (1727:1.382).
[2]See the Reports from the Lords Committees Touching the Dignity of a Peer of the Realm(1829) for an especially lengthy and detailed explanation of the many difficulties the two fourteenth-century copies of the letter introduced into questions over the peerage (1.238-1.242, 2.329-2.341).
[3]See, for example, Nicolas’s extended discussion about the presence, or lack thereof, of William Lord Molines’s or Willielmus Dominus Molyns’s signature on the letter (Nicolas 1825: 800-804).
[4]Vincent’s drawings were collated and engraved by John Bradshaw in 1629. Bradshaw’s work formed the basis for Vertue’s prints. Nicolas reports in 1825 that Vincent’s “transcript has been lost” (Nicolas 1825: 806); it has since been found – and was apparently always in – the archives at the College of Heralds (Vincent MSS 103[v] and 425).
[5]Nicolas reports that Vincent’s drawings were missing at the time the Society examined Bradshaw’s copy of the drawings in question; Vincent’s drawings, however, are in the College of Arms today, and they may well have been there in the eighteenth century, too. 
[6]De Walden implies that this is another copy of Charles’s transcription and trickings (de Walden 1904: xxiv).
[7]This may, in fact, be a reference to Vincent’s drawings because Anthony Wood had frequently corresponded with Vincent’s son, John, about his father’s manuscript collection; John Vincent’s materials for his Heroologiaended up in Wood’s collection at Oxford (Nicolas 1827a:90). 
[8]Charles’s transcript of Copy B also includes the names of eight barons who signed but did not seal the letter (de Walden 1904: xxv). Vincent corresponded with Cotton, whose library contained Charles’s transcript, so he may have seen and referred to Charles’s earlier facsimile of Copy B (Nicolas 1827a: 73-74, 106, 119-122). Nicolas notes that the absence of eight seals may indicate that they were once there but have since been “destroyed or taken away,” while he also notes that it was possible for one baron to seal for another either with his own or with a duplicate seal. This might possibly explain the presence of three duplicate seals, unnoticed by Vincent, that were with the letter when Nicolas examined it in 1825 (Nicolas 1825:808). 
[9]The National Archives at Kew maintains that they have ninety-five of the original seals today in total, collated from both Copy A and Copy B. Although detached from the original letters, many of the seals are still attached to their cords. 
[10]A brief aside by John Lewis in his Dissertation on the Antiquity and Use of Seals in England (1740), the first authoritative publication on medieval seals, returns us again to the Camden, Brooke, and Vincent affair. Lewis writes that Camden included notice of the early Society’s activities “in the Dispute betwixt him and Brooke,” of the meetings that the antiquaries held. Camden noted that Francis Tate (1550-1616) attended these meetings as part of his ongoing research into medieval seals. Tate reportedly composed twenty-eight manuscript book studies of seals (Lewis 1740: 9). Nichols, in The Literary Anecdotes, includes a late eighteenth-century letter from George Allan to John Nichols that expresses admirations for the “excellent” trickings Vincent made on a herald’s visit to Leicestershire in 1619 (Nichols 1815: 8.367).

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  1. Plate XXXII: Letters from the English Barons to Boniface VIII
  2. Plate XXXIII: Letters from the English Barons to Boniface VIII
  3. Plate XXVIII: Letters from the English Barons to Boniface VIII
  4. Plate XXIX: Letters from the English Barons to Boniface VIII
  5. Plate XXXI: Letters from the English Barons to Boniface VIII
  6. Plate XXX: Letters from the English Barons to Boniface VIII