Above: The Seal of Peter, showing him praying at a small alter. It may possibly depict the altar in the Chapel of St Thomas the Martyr on London Bridge. Around the edge is the inscription (translated) ’Seal of Peter Priest of London Bridge’. At the top of the seal it is just possible to see the green of the original wax.
“Reminiscing the Past”
What is the oldest thing your have ever held? Was is a photograph of a distant relative, taken in Victorian times? Was it a coin or a piece of china that you have in your possession from Tudor or Georgian times? Was it even older than that? This story is all about an object that is over 700 years old and of the buzz you feel as you realise the antiquity of such an historic object.
During 2015 I was doing some work on the history of old London Bridge – that would be the one with the houses on it. The emphasis of my deliberations was to find out more about the man who was responsible for its construction. His name was Peter – we don’t know if he had another name. We do know that he was a Rector of a City church on the north side of Cheapside called St Mary Colechurch. For that reason he is usually known in the history books as ‘Peter of Colechurch’.
When he was born, where he came from and how well educated he was are details about his life that are all unknown. What we do know is that he was associated with the repairs to a wooden bridge on the site of the old London Bridge in 1163. We also know that he was responsible for work on the first stone bridge, also built on the same site in 1276. The bridge was not completed until 1209 and Peter died in 1205. As a tribute to his dedication to the work, his body was buried in the chapel on London Bridge.
Our limited knowledge of Peter raises more questions than answers. It would be interesting to know how Peter became interested in bridge building and who it was who first offered him the job. Perhaps he was the son of a master carpenter or the son of a master mason. Perhaps he had a skilled manual job before he became a priest. We just do not know. What we do know is that Peter started work on the first stone London Bridge in 1176 which was about six years after Thomas a Becket was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral (in 1170). A few days before his death Becket had delivered a sermon in the Priory of St Mary Overy, right next to London Bridge on the Southwark side of the Thames. After delivering that sermon he returned to Canterbury Cathedral and was slain a few days later. Perhaps, being a ‘man of the cloth’ himself, Peter actually knew Becket.
While doing my research into the beginnings of the stone London Bridge I came across some documents into the life of Peter of Colechurch that I had not seen before. One article mentioned that, as well as supervising the work on the bridge, he had his own seal. In those far off days, any official work was accompanied by a document which was authorised by having a wax seal attached to it – usually by creating the seal and embedding a piece of ribbon into the back so that the other end of the ribbon could be attached to the document.
Only men in authority were allowed to have a seal so this meant that Peter was not ‘just’ a priest supervising work on a bridge. If that had been the case, he would have acted for the parish for whom he was priest and the authority for carrying out the work would have been authorised by that parish. Clearly Peter was a man ‘in authority’ by himself and he must have been working ‘in his own right’, otherwise he would not have had an official seal.
In summary it would be fair to assume that Peter was head of a fraternity of men (rather like a monastic order) who were formed to build the bridges at the crossing we call London Bridge. Peter’s authority to get work done was issued through his seal. In a similar way abbots or priors of religious houses also had a seal of authority. At the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536, one of the first things that was done by the King was to demand the surrender of the seal from each abbot or prior of a religious house. Their authority to act for their order was removed by taking away their seal.
Returning to the story of Peter’s seal, the article went on to say that there was a seal attached to a document of land ownership still held by St Bartholomew’s Hospital, in the City of London. That hospital had been founded in 1123 and therefore it was in existence at the time of building the stone London Bridge. Armed with this information, I went along to the Museum in ‘Barts’ to see if I could look at the seal. The seal was not on display and, on enquiring to see if it was possible to view it, I was directed to the Hospital Archivist. After explaining that I wanted to see a seal dating from around 1200, I was informed that the hospital had hundreds of seals that matched that description. After a bit of searching through catalogues and history books relating to the hospital, we tracked down Peter’s seal and, much to my delight, it was brought from secure storage in a modern A5 envelope. Better still, I was told I could take it out of the envelope to look at it.
Inside the modern envelope was a piece of paper about 12 inches square. The document was folded several times so that its size was about two inches across one side and, hanging from it by a ribbon, was Peter’s seal. The seal was made of green wax that had become almost completely black with the passage of time. Because the seal related to the transfer of a piece of land in about 1190, the document had been held by the hospital in safe keeping ever since. Unfolding the document revealed a neatly written medieval script.
The seal was in remarkably good condition. It is unlikely that many people had ever handled it. The chance to hold something like that was quite unexpected because the best I had been hoping for was to see it in a glass case in the museum. Something like 720 years had elapsed since Peter had actually pressed his brass seal into that wax to form the shape. The hospital had kept it safe for all those years and now I was holding something that Peter of Colechurch had actually handled because only he would have had the authority to create that seal for the document – quite a remarkable moment!