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Essays in Medieval Studies 22 (2005) 77-93

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Horses, Horsemen, and Hunting:

Leading Londoners and Equestrian Seals in the Late Twelfth and Early Thirteenth Centuries1

University of London

The political identity of the city of London was changing towards the end of the twelfth century.2 Determined to take more control over their own affairs, the Londoners had developed new institutions of governance, and secured civic charters that recorded privileges of self-government they had won from the Crown. The declaration of the commune of London, which occurred in 1191, served both to recognize the achievements of the previous decades and set the stage for further developments.3 Not long after the declaration of the commune, a new official, the mayor of London, appears in the sources.4 The mayor was at once a personification of the political community and an authority figure who presided over his fellow citizens. In his dual role, the mayor was the foremost manifestation of the new political reality which self-government created. With royal oversight reduced, Londoners would now rule over Londoners. A number of scholars, including Susan Reynolds and C.N.L. Brooke, have produced studies which identify the men who served in the high civic offices, consider their political and family connections, and discuss their economic interests.5 Yet important aspects of the leading Londoners' identities remain obscure. The evidence provided by seals, however, can throw light on their collective identity, in contrast with the wider community of wealthy men within the kingdom and with their fellow Londoners.

Tens of thousands of medieval seals survive in English archives, but the personal seals of lay people have, as yet, received little attention from scholars.6 Seals were created by pressing a seal-matrix into soft wax, and the resulting impression was then appended to documents as a sign of validation (Fig. 1, overleaf).7 Seals, however, were more than signatures. They were status symbols, and they also provided an opportunity for an individual to make a statement about his or her family connections, social aspirations, group solidarities, and personal values.8 To [End Page 77] understand the significance of an individual's seal, the imagery and characteristics of the seal have to be set within the context of other surviving seals. The design of the seal has also to be related to what is known about the person who used the seal.9 For the purposes of this study, the charters held by the Corporation of London, the Guildhall Library, and St. Bartholomew's Hospital were examined, and further charters were sampled at the National Archives, the British Library and the archive of Canterbury Cathedral. All six collections preserve significant numbers of seals, although many are damaged or in fragmentary condition.10 Among the deeds of St. Paul's Cathedral, for example, approximately 636 twelfth- and thirteenth-century documents were identified and 245 proved to preserve at least one seal.11 In the future it is hoped that it will be possible to analyze systematically the characteristics and iconography of the seals of twelfth- and thirteenth-century Londoners. As a preliminary step toward such a project, the present study will consider the significance of the design of the seal of Henry FitzAilwin, London's first mayor.

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Figure 1

From the early 1190s until his death on September 19, 1212, Henry FitzAilwin served as mayor of London. In many respects he was typical of the group of men who ruled the city in the late twelfth century. He maintained a residence in the center of London, and also held land in Hertfordshire, Kent and Surrey.12 He came from a family with a tradition of involvement in civic government. His father may have been a London sheriff in the reign of Henry I, and it is recorded that on one occasion a meeting of the Husting court was held at his house.13 Henry FitzAilwin may have had interests in the cloth trade, and served as a...


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