Robert Fitzwalter was a powerful baron who, in 1215, led the rising against king John that resulted in Magna Carta. During that rising, Fitzwalter gave himself the title “Marshall of the army of God and the Holy Church”. His motives for opposing the king, however, were not entirely holy and selfless. He had entered into many unsavoury disputes with John in the years before 1215 and at one point may even have plotted to murder the king.
When King John rejected the terms of Magna Carta later in 1215, Fitzwalter and his closest ally, Saher de Quincy, the Earl of Winchester, invited the heir to the French throne to invade England. That invasion failed but the two brothers in arms continued to oppose the king’s authority even after John died in 1216. In 1219 they both joined the Fifth Crusade and fought in Egypt where Saher de Quincy died. Fitzwalter returned to the English court and was one of the barons who witnessed the final and definitive version of Magna Carta in 1225. He died ten years later. His story captures the complexity of the ambitious, warlike and often intensely religious lives of the barons and knights in the later medieval period.
This is a high quality example of a medieval seal-die. Seal dies were pressed into wax to authenticate a wide range of documents and prevent them being interfered with. They were the equivalent of a modern signature in a period when few people were literate. This die is made from silver and has clear and expressive imagery. The inscription around the edge, when stamped into wax, reads + SIGILLVM: ROBERTI: FILII: WALTERI. This translates as The seal of Robert the son of Walter. The stem of the surname Fitzwalter derives from the French words fils meaning son. The die was found at Stamford in Lincolnshire in the reign of Charles II over 400 years after Fitzwalter’s death. Intriguingly, Stamford is where the rebellious barons met in 1215 before marching to London to confront King John.
Each element of the imagery on the die is significant. The knight is mounted on horseback, reinforcing the owner’s status, as no one could be a knight who could not provide his own horse. He holds a sword indicating his readiness to fight. His horse stands astride a dragon, suggesting that his enemy is all forms of evil, in keeping with the culture of chivalry that, by 1300, bound knights all over Europe to notions of courage, duty and honour. He wears protective armour including his tunic, mail shirt, helmet and spurs. Gilt spurs were awarded to a warrior when he attained the status of knighthood as in the case of the most famous English medieval knight, the Black Prince, after his victory over the French at Crécy in 1346. The shield held by the knight, his tunic and the caparison draped over the horse all bear the owner’s coat of arms. Unusually another shield is included on this seal: in front of the horse, Fitzwalter has included the heraldic emblem of his closest ally, Saher de Quincy, the earl of Winchester. This convention showed that the two men were brothers in arms who had committed to fight together in a cause and to share any profits of war.
The seal-die itself is not significant in the sense that it had any great impact on events then or since, but it is significant for its insights. It opens lines of investigation into at least three different aspects of medieval life: the character, status and intentions of the group that forced the king to agree to Magna Carta, the medieval culture of chivalry and the formalising of contracts and agreements across a wide range of activities in Medieval England.
An article about Robert Fitzwalter, from a website commemorating the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
The nature and significance of Magna Carta
An article from the BBC History magazine website that summarises the nature and significance of Magna Carta.
The British Library web pages on Magna Carta
The value of seals as historical evidence
British Museum PDF article on the value of seals as historical evidence with a host of illustrations that may support classroom activities.
University of Notre Dame website on medieval seals with illustrated examples of a wide range of different sorts of seal.
A podcast of a BBC discussion on medieval chivalry, led by Melvyn Bragg.
A helpful review from the BBC History magazine of the book by Nigel Saul, For Honour and Fame: Chivalry in England 1066 – 1500, Bodley Head, 2011.