Power and beauty: seals, charters and the story of identity celebrates 800 years of royal authority, power and symbolism using charters, seals and deeds from the Royal College of Physicians' collections.
The warrior on horseback shown here was a well known and heavily used image across Europe in the medieval period, especially among the military elite. By the 11th century it had become identified with the ruling elite in Normandy, the home region of William the Conqueror (c.1028–1087).
This image was first used as a royal symbol in England by William, Duke of Normandy, when he defeated Harold Godwinson at the battle of Hastings in 1066.
To create a symbol of his authority, the new ruler of both territories – England and Normandy – joined the Norman image of a mounted warrior to an English image of a man seated on a throne. This seated image had first been used by King Edward the Confessor (d.1066). Edward’s design would have been familiar to William, as he was Edward’s first cousin once removed. This dual image combined traditional symbols of both Normandy and England and became an enduring symbol of English royalty. It is still recognisable in symbols of royal power today.
However, the cultural integration of the wave of Norman settlers following William did not go as smoothly as the integration of the imagery. Even in the 13th century, English families descended from William’s followers proudly displayed their distinct cultural identity by using Norman symbols of authority.
The pictured seal authenticates rare surviving deeds from the 1280s belonging to a Rochester family, who clearly claimed Norman descent. This seal impression in wax has survived for almost 750 years. The metal seal matrix used to create this item, which didn’t survive, was probably created around 100 years earlier.