Curator's Choice: John Clark of the Museum of London chooses the medieval seal of Ingelram de Préaux

John Clark interviewed by Chris Broughton | 03 March 2009
a photo of a man holding up a round metal seal

John Clark of the Museum of London with the medieval seal of Ingelram de Préaux. Photo courtesy Museum of London

In his own words... John Clark of the Museum of London talks about a medieval seal that has sat hidden in the Museum's Strong Room for decades.

This piece has many points of interest – for example, it’s a relic from a key event in medieval history, and one of the very first recorded archaeological finds from London. Yet after being given to the museum in 1945, it sat hidden away from public view for decades, and there are over 200 years of its history that can’t be accounted for at all.

When I started at the museum our items were listed on card indexes, but in the 1980s we began to computerise everything. During this process, various colleagues were checking the inventory store-by-store and suddenly an extra seal appeared on the computer that I didn’t know about.

It claimed to be medieval, accession no. 45.41, so I went down to the Strong Room to have a look and lo and behold there it was, tucked away in a cupboard, sitting in a nice little fitted box.

It has an eagle on it, and the inscription reads, “Sigillum de Ingelram de Preaus”. Once I started researching the Ingelram family, I realised the seal is a piece of documentary evidence of what happened when King John lost Normandy in 1204.

This led to a situation where dozens of Norman families who’d held land on both sides of the channel for generations suddenly had to decide where their loyalties lay – with France, meaning they’d become subjects of the French King Philip Augustus, or with King John back in England.

Ingelram de Préaux was a member of such a family. He seems to have been a personal retainer to King John who stayed, but his eldest brothers swore allegiance to the French king.

On the back of the seal is a little mark where a paper label used to be. We have a transcript that says the seal was found in the new cut of the Fleet Ditch between Fleet Gate and Holborn Bridge. This would have been in the 1670s when Christopher Wren attempted to canalise the Fleet River to allow barges to get upstream as far as Holborn.

a photograph of a seal with an eagle motif on it and Latin lettering

The medieval seal is a piece of documentary evidence of what happened when King John lost Normandy in 1204. Courtesy Museum of London

I did some more research and came across some references to an early antiquarian, John Conyers, who’s famous for having been London’s first archaeologist. He was an apothecary by trade, and had a shop in Fleet Street. After the Great Fire he visited sites where rebuilding work was taking place, seeing what antiques were being found, and one of the sites was the new Fleet Canal.

Conyers’ memoranda are in the British Library, and he recalled having seen workmen digging up various things, including, “…a seal as broad as a crown piece with an eagle upon it and an inscription reading, “Sigillum de Ingelram de Preaus.’” There’s no doubt at all that this is the same seal.

As for the family, well, the French branch lasted a long time, while the English one died out. There’s a de Préaux family still going strong in Guernsey, and we did lend the seal to an exhibition in the Channel Islands a few years ago. That was the first time it had been on display before this gallery opened.

But I’m still trying to track down where the seal went between John Conyers collection being split up after his death in 1694 and its reappearance in 1901, as part of the collection of Sir Joseph Dinsdale, then Lord Mayor of London. I’ve got the end of the story and the beginning of the story, but there’s still a 200-year gap in the middle to be filled.

Oh, and there’s another mystery we’ll probably never get to the bottom of - how the seal ended up in the River Fleet in the first place.

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