Medieval seal mould which promised a ‘fast-track to heaven’ to go on public display

A rare medieval seal matrix that lay buried in a field for over 500 years is to go on show at its original home, the National Trust’s Mottisfont in Hampshire.

The matrix, which is made of cast copper-alloy and dates between 1470 and 1520 was found by a metal detectorist just two miles away in the parish of Lockerley, which had been the site of a former medieval market.

The small carved mould, measuring just 60mm x 40mm, is likely to have been used to authenticate indulgences when Mottisfont was an important Augustinian priory and a site of Catholic pilgrimage.

Indulgences were written pardons for sinful behaviour granted by religious institutions like Mottisfont in return for a financial donation. They removed one year and forty days off the purchaser’s time in purgatory after death while they waited for entrance to Heaven. The documents were certified with a wax impression created by the carving on the seal matrix when pressed into hot coloured wax.

The seal matrix is inscribed in Latin with sigillu[m] officii prioris p[ri]oretas sce trinitat[is] de Motesfont, which means Seal of the Official of the Prior of the Priory of Mottisfont. It features a carved depiction of the Trinity and a figure of a praying cleric, probably Mottisfont’s Prior or another member of the community.

Although once quite wealthy, the priory’s finances had been badly affected when the Black Death plague swept through Europe in the 1340s. The Pope granted permission for the priory to sell pardons in return for money to support its work – the medieval equivalent of today’s fundraiser.

It is believed that the Mottisfont seal matrix is the only one of its kind in the UK to be reunited with its original home, five hundred years after it left, and the first Mottisfont seal matrix to be discovered. It is likely to have been taken to the medieval market at Lockerley by a canon, hoping to sell indulgences.

Seal matrices like this are rare, and not often on public display. The Mottisfont matrix will go on show from Saturday 29 July during the final weekend of the annual Festival of Archaeology.

James Brown, archaeologist for the National Trust 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.

“We are very thankful to the finder who did the right thing by reporting it to their local Finds Liaison Officer at the local council. This meant the find could be added to a national database and flagged to the National Trust, meaning we were able to start conversations about bringing this item back to its home.”

Although of obvious financial value to their religious institutions, matrices like this would not have been considered precious; they had no adornments, were fashioned from soft, less hardy metals and were not intended to stand the test of time. This makes it unusual to find survivors today. The practice of selling pardons later became embroiled in accusations of corruption – a factor in the Protestant Reformation and the eventual closure of the priory at Mottisfont.

George Roberts, curator at the National Trust commented: “Although the seal matrix dates from late in the priory’s history it reflects the role the site would have played in medieval people’s lives since its foundation in the early 1200s. Pilgrims travelling between the great cathedrals at Salisbury and Winchester are likely to have passed Mottisfont and may well have stayed and worshipped with the community there.

“All this was done to help secure a place in heaven after their death. However, before they could reach heaven, they believed they would need to spend time in purgatory to be purified. By being able to sell indulgences, Mottisfont Priory could offer people a reduction in their time in purgatory – in effect, fast-tracking them to heaven. This of course came with a price, which was then used to support the priory’s finances.”

The seal matrix will go on display at Mottisfont from Saturday 29th July.