• 30 October 2014
  • 3:00 – 3:30 pm
  • British Museum

The seal matrix made for the cathedral of Chichester is a unique and puzzling survival. It is beautifully engraved in silver and is composed quite simply of an architectural structure, a central vessel with an eastern and western addition, and a triple tiered receding tower above. On either side of the tower are two eight pointed stars. There are no windows included in the nave part of the building, however there is a small arched doorway, under which is engraved: TEMPLV[m].IVSTICIE. The inscription making up the legend reads: +SIGILLUM: SANCTE:CICESTRENSIS:ECCLESIE.

The seal matrix in the British Museum and its related impressions at the British Library have all been dated to the early 13th century, with the most specific suggesting that it was made around 1220. However the building imaged on the matrix is of a much earlier design and has been argued to represent a type of architecture seen before the 11th century. Most scholars who have commented on the object have remarked on the peculiarity of the representation of a building of such an ancient type. It has been argued - although never systematically - that the seal matrix might be a remake of an earlier matrix for Chichester cathedral ? perhaps made when the See was moved to Chichester from Selsey in 1090. The act of reproduction of a previous device while plausible appears to be simply conservative, however this paper will address the dynamism of the building imaged on the matrix and show that is far from either unimaginative or uninventive.

In the small arched doorway of the building the engraver has included a tiny, almost unnoticeable, slightly opened door situated directly above the inscription TEMPLV[m].IVSTICIE. This connection between justice and an open door will be a focus of this argument. I argue that this gives access to the way in which the matrix and its inventiveness can be analysed and understood. In 1222 Ralph Neville was appointed bishop of Chichester Cathedral. He had been keeper of the Great Seal of King John from 1213, and when the first Great Seal for Henry III was produced in 1218, he was immediately given custody of it. Neville was a churchman but most of all he was a high level administrator in royal government. His closeness to both John and Henry gave him an intimate working knowledge of the shifting political situation of the early 13th century. I will argue that Ralph Neville commissioned this matrix between the years 1222, when he was created Bishop, and 1226 when he was officially appointed Lord Chancellor. I suggest that the imagery on this device directly references the biblical narrative of Eliakim, a high level official in the government of King Hezekiah, who is granted the Key of David in Isaiah 22:20-25:"I will place on his shoulder the key to the house of David; what he opens no-one can shut, and what he shuts no-one can open."

King Hezekiah inherited the Kingdom of Judah from his father Ahaz, who, as recounted in 2 Chronicles, was a ruler who closed the doors of the temple. Hezekiah's first act as King was to open the doors and rebuild the temple.  I can't help but see this matrix as signalling the arrival of Henry as Hezekiah, with Ralph Neville as Eliakim, and the assertion that Henry as ruler of England had also become ruler of Judah and the rebuilder of Jerusalem. In the aftermath of the Interdict laid on England during John?s reign, Henry III needed to repair the relationship between Church and state and Ralph Neville would have felt the need to distance himself from John?s anti-papal stance.  The reason for retaining the design of an 'ancient' matrix was thus quite deliberately to assert the re-establishment of due order after a period of unprecedented upheaval.

About the speaker

  • Lloyd de Beer

    Lloyd de Beer is the Ferguson Curator of Medieval Europe at the British Museum. He is jointly responsible for all non-ceramic late medieval European collections made between the late eleventh and early sixteenth centuries.