The first Christmas card dates back to 1843

When London’s John Calcott Horsley invented the first Christmas card in 1843 as a favor to Henry Cole, neither man had any idea of the impact it would have in Britain and later in America. Even the early Christmas card manufacturers believed Christmas cards to be a vogue which would soon pass. They operated on a quick turn basis and did not bother to document the cards they produced. However, the Christmas card was destined to become an integral part of the holiday season. By 1880 their manufacture was big business, creating previously unknown opportunities for artists, writers, printers, and engravers.

Continue reading “The first Christmas card dates back to 1843”

The King and his castle: how Henry II rebuilt his reputation

taken from the BBC History magazine

Henry II spent vast sums making Dover Castle the mightiest fortress in the land. Yet, as John Gillinghamargues, he did so not to protect his realm but to save face following the murder of Thomas Becket

On the evening of the fifth day of Christmas 1170, as the monks of Canterbury chanted vespers, four knights in armour pushed their way into the cathedral church where the archbishop was waiting for them. They killed him with sword strikes at his head; while his brains and blood oozed out over the paving stones, they looted his palace. The four killers had ridden from King Henry II’s court. No one doubted that behind the most notorious murder in medieval history lay the king’s anger.

Thomas Becket, the archbishop who for years had very publicly stood for the privilege of the church against the secular power of the state, had been publicly killed by agents of that state. Henry, like the rest of Europe, was shocked. He shut himself away and would see no one. For three days, the most powerful ruler in the west – king of England, duke of Normandy and Aquitaine, count of Anjou – did not leave his room. None of his subjects quite believed his protestations of innocence – though such was his power and ruthlessness that few of them dared to accuse him openly. Outside his dominions, there were no such inhibitions.

Within a few weeks miracles of healing were said to have occurred where Becket fell. In 1172 Henry acknowledged a degree of guilt and was formally reconciled with the church, but his reputation remained in shreds. In February 1173 the pope declared Becket a saint and a martyr for the liberty of the church. And a few months later, Henry’s situation got dramatically worse: his three most powerful neighbours, King Louis VII of France, King William of Scotland and Count Philip of Flanders, launched invasions of his lands from south and north, while simultaneously his wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and his elder sons rose in rebellion. Few kings have ever faced so great a political and military crisis. Yet he overcame it, and ironically he and many others came to believe that he owed his survival to the help of St Thomas Becket.

During the last ten years of his reign Henry oversaw the rebuilding of Dover Castle on such a scale as to turn it into the greatest fortress in western Europe, a massive symbol of the kind of power – secular and military – to which Thomas had fallen victim. Yet Dover Castle too owed its construction to St Thomas.

For ten consecutive years, beginning in the financial year 1179–80, Henry spent more money on Dover than on any other castle in England. From 1179 until his death his outlay on the fortress totalled £5,991. This was almost two-thirds of total recorded expenditure on all English castles (£9,263) during those years – the greatest concentration of money on a single English castle in history.

Ever since the record of this prodigious expenditure was published in the 1950s by R Allen Brown, then Britain’s leading castle historian, scholars have tried to explain just what was so special about Dover. Allen Brown’s own explanation was in terms of military strategy. He never tired of quoting the description of the castle as “the key to England” – by the mid-13th-century chronicler Matthew Paris. Its strategic location, commanding the shortest crossing to the continent, led to the natural assumption that so massive a castle was designed as a frontier fortress ready to hold any invader at bay – just as it was when Napoleon and Hitler dominated the continent.

Dover had long been the site of an important fortification and the financial records of Henry II’s reign show that he had occasionally spent money here – about £500 in total in the first 25 years of his reign (1154–79), including £236 over the two years 1172–74 when Count Philip of Flanders was threatening to invade. But in 1179 and throughout the 1180s there was no invasion scare. Count Philip, when he wasn’t thinking about crusading, looked to Henry for help against the young king of France, Philip Augustus. In the 1190s King Philip was to make territorial gains in north-eastern France at the expense of Flanders. But England was in no danger from the king of France for as long as England’s king also ruled Normandy – as he did until 1204 when the outcome of King John’s political ineptitude was the loss of that great duchy. It was only after 1204 that Dover found itself in the front line of Anglo-French rivalry. This cannot explain what happened in the 1180s.

Symbol of authority
If Dover was not a response to military threat, then some other explanation was needed. The castle no doubt functioned as a powerful symbol of authority, and few symbols could be better placed than one visible to all shipping using the straits. But why did Henry feel this particularly in 1179? In recent years English castle specialists have argued that Dover Castle was Henry’s riposte to the burgeoning cult of Saint Thomas. At this time the monks of Canterbury Cathedral were rebuilding the east end of their church, including the magnificent Trinity Chapel and Corona as a glorious new shrine to Saint Thomas. Dover Castle, it has been argued, was a visible assertion of Henry’s power in the face of a developing anti-monarchical cult.

But the problem with seeing the castle as Henry’s answer to an anti-monarchical cult is that by 1179 this is not how Henry saw Becket. Faced by rebellion and invasion in 1174, on 12 July 1174 he had done public penance at Thomas’s tomb in Canterbury Cathedral: “taking off his cloak, he thrust his head and shoulders into one of the openings of Saint Thomas’s tomb”. Then he was flogged, five lashes from each of the prelates present and three from each of the 80 monks. “When he had been disciplined, he withdrew his head from the tomb and sat down on the dirty ground with no carpet or cushion under him, and he sang psalms and prayers all night, without getting up for any bodily need.”

For a politician then, as now, to say sorry occasionally can be a shrewd move, and no politician ever said sorry more theatrically than Henry II. Few have been able to exploit their penance more cleverly. The next morning, at the very hour that he heard mass before leaving the cathedral, King William of Scotland was captured at Alnwick. That same day an invasion fleet was scattered. Henry won the war. It seemed to the world and to Henry himself that, thanks to Thomas, he had God on his side once again. Whereas he had initially discouraged pilgrimages to Thomas’s tomb, from 1174 on he led the devotion. A Book of Miracles was presented by the monks to the king – at the latter’s request. It became his custom, every time he returned to England, to visit St Thomas. Before 1174 he is only once recorded at Canterbury. After his penance, he made at least ten more visits. Whatever the Becket cult’s potential for celebrating opposition to public power, after 1174 Henry himself evidently did not see it as directed against him.

On Palm Sunday (17 April) 1177 King Henry was at Reading when he heard of Count Philip’s intention of visiting Becket’s tomb. King and count met at Canterbury on 21 April. The next day (Good Friday) he escorted Philip back to Dover and stayed there while the count made a night crossing. Next day Henry went to Wye, a manor near Ashford, where he celebrated Easter “with his earls and barons”. This is the one and only time Henry is known to have visited Wye. To have to celebrate one of the great court feasts in a village instead of one of the major centres of royal power such as Windsor, Winchester or Le Mans was awkward and embarrassing.

Henry’s show home
Henry II, like his predecessors, almost never visited Kent. There was no royal forest in Kent, and he had no houses there. When he crossed the Channel he went to Normandy and to western France, not to Flanders or north-eastern France. In the first 23 years of his reign Henry II sailed from Dover just once, but he embarked and disembarked at Southampton and Portsmouth 18 times. Count Philip’s pilgrimage had dragged him out of his usual itinerary, and accommodation fit for a king was evidently hard to find.

Two years later, in August 1179, something similar occurred. The only son of King Louis VII of France fell dangerously ill and his distraught father took the astonishing decision to go to Canterbury. As contemporaries observed, no king of France had ever set foot in England before. It was the first state visit in English history. Louis’s decision caught Henry on the hop. He rode through the night in order to be able to greet Louis on Dover beach. Next day he escorted him to Canterbury, where Louis prayed at Becket’s tomb and gave offerings, including the great ruby which Henry VIII was to grab for himself when he destroyed the shrine. Henry then escorted Louis back to Dover, where the two kings spent another night.

The chronology of expenditure shows that it was in the financial year beginning in September 1179, just one month after Louis VII’s pilgrimage, that Henry first spent more on Dover than on any other English castle. It is hard not to think that it was this extraordinary visit, and the prospect of more to come – and in the 1180s great secular and ecclesiastical princes continued to descend on Canterbury – that triggered the king’s decision to build something truly spectacular at Dover. This is supported by a recent interpretation of Henry’s great tower – in particular the forebuilding, with its three flights of steps leading up to the upper floor –  which have suggested it was designed as a setting for ceremonial entrances and exits.

When Henry visited Paris he stayed in the royal palace. But what palatial residence could Henry offer important guests coming from abroad? No doubt it would have been possible to improve the king’s castle at Canterbury. But Canterbury would always be the city of the archbishop and monks of Christ Church. Dover was obviously the place for a great building which could not only accommodate foreign princes and their entourages – Louis came with dukes, counts and many barons in his train – but which as a symbol of royal power visible from afar would overwhelm visitors even before they set foot on English soil. Evidently, Dover Castle as it was in 1177 and 1179, did not meet the bill.

By 1179 Henry was at the height of his power. He had become the arbiter of Europe. His sons and daughters were all provided for. His wife, Eleanor of Aquitaine, was safely locked up. Henry, with Thomas Becket’s help, dominated his world. This is what the new Dover Castle represented and it became a place Henry was happy to visit. In 1184 he sailed from Wissant (located between Calais and Boulogne) to Dover – the first time since 1156 that he had used the port of Dover. In the last years of his reign he used it twice more, in 1185 and 1187, sailing from Dover to Wissant, and then travelling overland to Normandy. Why was he now taking so circuitous a route? Because he was conducting VIPs out of England, and had something truly impressive to show them.

Despite the strength of its site, the old fortress at Dover was not impregnable. It surrendered to Duke William in 1066, and to King Stephen in 1138. But when Louis VII’s grandson, Prince Louis of France, came to England at the invitation of the barons in revolt against King John in May 1216, Dover did not surrender, as Canterbury, London and Winchester did. Matthew Paris’s description of Dover as the key to England was made in his account of the great siege of 1216. So crucial did Louis judge Dover Castle to be that between 10 July and 14 October he kept the bulk of his army there. While Dover held up Louis’s forces for three months, his cause – which in May and June had been sweeping all before it – lost momentum. Failure before Dover laid the foundations for Louis’s defeat. The castle built to welcome princely pilgrims to Becket’s shrine – built at a time of peace when Henry was the richest ruler of western Europe and had nothing to fear – turned out to be the saving of his son’s and grandson’s throne. It was yet another example of the murdered archbishop saving Plantagenet hide.

John Gillingham

Partial cartulary online

I’ve just uploaded half of the manuscript I wrote about a couple of days ago (Luxembourg cartulary from the 14th century). It’s not final though as it needs some editing but the essential is there and the text is highly readable.

I will try to complete the manuscript by the end of next week. In the meanwhile stay put for more information about the ongoing project.

You can find and browse the manuscript by clicking on the “Cartulary” banner tab on the homepage.

Once the manuscript is open, I recommend going into fullscreen for a better experience. You can do that by clicking on the bottom left icon on the manuscript interface. You can click on the pages to zoom in. Don’t forget to flip the page, though… 😉

Link to the manuscript

Punishment for coin forgery in 15th century France

The counterfeiter is shown being boiled in this 15th c. manuscript from Toulouse. During the 14th and the 15th centuries, French kings effortlessly tried to reduce coin counterfeiting or “faux-monnayage” as the kingdom was expanding and the royal authority was being reinforced in the provinces.

Luxembourg chartulary to be digitised

I plan to digitise at my own expense and effort one of Luxembourg’s National Archive’s 13th century chartulary. The work will most probably begin this Thursday. Please come back to the WR to learn more about this ongoing project.

I will post more about the nature of this chartulary later this week as I have my hands full with university stuff right now.

Great collection of English charters

Great tidings for you all rejoicing historians!

I’ve just discovered this: Durham University’s medieval documents compilation website.

Now this is great! A place to have access to both the charter and the transcribed text. It goes without saying that this webpage promises to be of great help to the beginner paleographer and manuscript studies student.

There are only English charters available but they are remarkable by their quality and importance. Moreover, some charters feature a commentary from a historical and paleographical point of view.

However, this is a limited selection whose purpose is educational. I’m hoping for new additions in the near future.

Durham University went out of its way to provide the cyber-community with this great tool. The charters are sorted by year so it’s easy to see an evolution from the 11th to the 15th century in terms of structure, script, seal, etc.

A great website, once again, that I will be accessing heavily.

It should be noted that this website is largely similar to Sorbonne’s Theleme. For the French-speaking, the Theleme website is awesome. It takes transcribing and understanding all sorts of manuscrips (primarily French charters) to the heart. Highly recommended.

Champagne and Clairvaux abbey seals online. Charters too.

Sigillography enthusiasts will find this online resource both fun and useful. The French archives of the Aube department propose an online flash-based tool for showcasing the most famous medieval seals of the historical region of Champagne currently preserved in the departmental archives.

Under the name “Sceaux et usages de sceaux” (Seals and the usage of seals), this tool allows you to look for seals based on a series of criteria, such as geographical location (using an interactive high-quality map of historical Champagne) or keywords contained in the seal description.

More than a searching tool, this instrument also works as a great illustrated introduction to sigillography. Enough to give you a taste of the realm, it explains a great deal of elements that define a seal and scrutinizes most types of medieval sigilla.

The “Sceaux et usages de sceaux” is entirely in French and does not supply an English translation. This might dissuade some non French-speakers from using the website. I believe however that a dictionary and some very basic French skills are all it takes to enjoy this great tool.

For something more localized, the archives also feature a searching tool for 3672 seals from the famous abbey of Clairvaux currently indexed on their website. The files are greatly detailed and most have high-quality photos of the seals. It is a valuable tool for the historian.

But as my interest lies primarily in the manuscript area, I was happy to find out that most of the digitized seals come with the charters they were attached to. This is really something.

You can access the “Sceaux et usages de sceaux” online resource here

For the Clairvaux abbey seals, please click here . You will need to look for those files that contain an “eye” icon indicating there is a photo attached, most likely with the original document.

The formal structure of a medieval charter

All paleography and manuscript studies book note  how difficult transcribing charters and diplomas are as opposed to nice, smooth calligraphic books such as Bibles, treatises, books of hours, etc. However, such an effort is swiftly rewarded by an improved ability to decode almost all sorts of texts and documents.

There are many reasons why this exercise can often be bitter and they are all related to the script. The fact that the same scribes who wrote colorful books acted as secretaries and official court scribes and therefore wrote most of the charters and diplomas can be of little help and consolation for the beginner transcriber.

To make his job somewhat easier, I will present the elements that make up a royal charter (baronial and seigneurial as well to some extent) and try to work through the lines of England’s king Stephen’s Oxford charter (1136) to illustrate the structure of medieval charter production.

I shall begin by presenting the composing elements of a charter. Not all these elements appear in all charts but the more official a document is, the more it comes closer to this canonical structure.

Initial protocol



invocatio: invocation of the Diety, either by a symbolic chrismon or cross, or in words

narratio: background of the case

subscriptio: names of principal(s), witnesses and officials

intitulatio: name of individual issuing the charter

dispositio: what is enacted by the charter

datum: date clause, stating when, where and by whom he charter was written

inscriptio: name of individual(s) to whom charter is addressed

final clauses

marks of authentication: subscriptions, signatures, seal

salutatio: greeting



I will now try to pinpoint the elements in the transcribed text of king Stephen’s charter:

[INTITULATIO->] Ego Stephanus [INVOCATIO->] Dei gratia, [INSCRIPTIO->] assensu cleri et populi in regem Anglie electus, et a Willelmo Cantuariensi archiepiscopo et sancte Romane ecclesie legato consecratus, et ab Innocentio sancte romane sedis pontifice postmodum confirmatus, [SALUTATIO->] respectu et amore Dei sanctam ecclesiam liberam esse concedo, et debitam reverentiam illi confirmo. [NARRATIO->] Nichil me in ecclesia vel rebus ecclesiasticis simoniace acturum vel permissurum esse promitto. Ecclesiasticarum personarum et omnium clericorum et rerum eorum justiciam et potestatem et distributionem bonorum ecclesiasticorum in manu episcoporum esse perhibeo et confirmo. Dignitates ecclesiarum privilegiis earum confirmatas et consuetudines earum antiquo tenore habitas inviolate manere statuo et concedo. Omnes ecclesiarum possessiones et tenuras, quas die illa habuerunt qua Willelmus rex avus meus fuit vivus et mortuus, sine omni calumpniantium reclamatione, eis liberas et absolutas esse concedo. Si quid vero de habitis vel possessis ante mortem ejusdem regis quibus modo careat, ecclesia deinceps repetierit, indulgentie et dispensationi mee vel restituendum vel discutiendum reservo. Quecunque vero post mortem ipsius regis liberalitate regum vel largitione principum, oblatione vel comparatione, vel qualibet transmutatione fidelium eis collata sunt, confirmo. Pacem et justiciam me in omnibus facturum et pro posse meo conservaturum eis promitto.

Forestas quas Willelmus avus meus et Willelmus avunculus meus instituerunt et habuerunt mihi reservo. Ceteras omnes quas rex Henricus superaddidit, ecclesiis et regno quietas reddo et concedo.

[DISPOSITIO->] Si quis episcopus vel abbas vel alia ecclesiastica persona ante mortem suam rationabiliter sua distribuerit vel distribuenda statuerit, firmum manere concedo. Si vero morte preoccupatus fuerit, pro salute anime ejus, ecclesie consilio, eadem fiat distributio. Dum vero sedes propriis pastoribus vacue fuerint, ipsas et earum possessiones omnes in manu et custodia clericorum vel proborum hominum ejusdem ecclesie committam, donec pastor canonice substituatur.

[FINAL CLAUSE->] Omnes exactiones et injusticias et mescheningas sive per vicecomites vel per alios quoslibet male inductas funditus exstirpo. Bonas leges et antiquas et justas consuetudines in murdris et placitis et aliis causis observabo et observari precipio et constituo. Hec omnia concedo et confirmo, salva regia et justa dignitate mea.

[SUBSCRIPTIO->] Testibus Willelmo Cantuariensi archiepiscopo, et Hugone Rothomagensi archiepiscopo, et Henrico Wintoniensi episcopo, et Rogero Saresberiensi episcopo, et Alexandro Lincolniensi episcopo, et Nigello Eliensi episcopo, et Evrardo Norwicensi episcopo, et Simone Wigorniensi episcopo, et Bernardo episcopo de S. Davide, et Audoeno Ebroicensi episcopo, et Ricardo Abrincensi episcopo, et Roberto Herefordiensi episcopo, et Johanne Rovecestriensi episcopo, et Athelulfo Carlolensi episcopo, et Rogero cancellario, et Henrico nepote Regis, et Roberto comite Gloecestrie, et Willelmo comite de Warenna, et Rannulfo comite Cestrie, et Rogero comite de Warewic., et Roberto de Ver., et Milone de Gloecestria, et Brientio filio Comitis, et Roberto de Oilly conestabulis, et Willelmo Martello, et Hugone Bigot, et Hunfredo de Buhun, et Simone de Belcamp dapiferis, et Willelmo de Albiniaco, et Eudone Martello pincernis, et Roberto de Ferreriis, et Willelmo Pevrello de Notingeham, et Simone de Saintliz, et Willelmo de Albamarla, et Pagano filio Johannis, et Hamone de Sancto Claro, et Ilberto de Laceio. Apud Oxeneford. [DATUM->]Anno ab incarnatione Domini M.C. XXXVI., set regni mei primo. [Following signature and seal]

At times, the invocatio may be absent, like this 14th century “lettre de rémission” delivered by the king of France, Charles V to a certain Guiot the Fair: the document reads: “Charles etcetera…”. Even the intitulatio is abridged. The seal and the signature nonetheless show the letter is royal in nature and gives impunity to the formerly convicted Guiot.

What remains constant however is the presence of the narratio and dispositio since these two elements constitute the substance of any official document.