Charters and Seals

As literate culture grew more established in medieval Europe, charters became increasingly common as a means of recording legal transactions. The witnesses to charters did not sign their documents to prove their authenticity: instead, they attached wax seals to represent their assent.

Charters were among the first objects that came into the University of Oxford’s possession. Many remain in the University Archives. The earliest charter naming the university is WPβ/P/12/1, granted on 20 June 1214 – sometimes considered Oxford’s foundation charter. Many other charters from the university’s medieval archives are available on Digital Bodleian.

The Bodleian also houses many other charters from across medieval Britain. Most of these are from the collections of early modern antiquarians, most notably Anthony Wood (1632–95), who gathered medieval monastic deeds and rolls.

Wood’s charters from Oseney Abbey in Oxford are the source for two of the Bodleian’s copies of the most famous British charter, Magna Carta, originally issued under King John in 1215. The Bodleian has four of its seventeen surviving pre-1300 ‘engrossments’: MS. Ch. Oxon. Oseney 142b (1217), MS. Ch. Oxon. Oseney 142c (1217), MS. Ch. Gloucs. 8 (1217), and MS. Ch. London 1 (1225). The library also holds an unusual single-sheet copy of the 1215 Magna Carta: MS. Lat. hist. a. 1 (P).

The wax seals attached to the Bodleian’s charters were mostly detached during the nineteenth century and now form a separate collection. A few of these are available on Digital Bodleian, such as an example of the second great seal of Henry II (king of England from 1154 to 1189), MS. Ch. Yorks. 1*.

William H. Turner and H.O. Coxe published a summary of the Bodleian’s charters in 1878, available online: Calendar of Charters and Rolls Preserved in the Bodleian Library .

This collection also includes eight 5th century BCE clay seals of the Persian prince and satrap Arshama.