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‘Piglings, geese, flax and honey’: St John the Baptist, Thanet’s Letters Patent

‘Piglings, geese, flax and honey’: St John the Baptist, Thanet’s Letters Patent

The Letters Patent (U3/140/3/H1) colloquially known to the parishioners of St John the Baptist in Thanet (Margate) as ‘our charter’, were issued by Queen Mary Tudor on 6 November 1553, just four months into her reign, ‘in augmentation of the living of the tithes of lambs, wool, piglings, geese, flax and honey’ as well as the monetary offerings on four principal feasts of the church. Letters Patent were ‘open’ official documents meant to be in the public domain and could take many forms.

The church was founded c 1050 as an appendage of Minster in Thanet and so remained until becoming a parochial chapel in the early 13th century. Minster and its daughter churches had been appropriated to St Augustine’s Abbey c 1128; the Abbey grange of Salmestone was in St John’s parish. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries the parish was finally severed from Minster church but lost its small tithes as Salmestone went to the crown. Edward VI was petitioned to augment the income and apparently agreed but died before the necessary authorisation could be issued. Queen Mary issued her Letters Patent at the very beginning of her reign to rectify the situation. The document remained in the parish until about 20 years ago.

The document comprises one sheet of parchment 30cm x 30cm with 7.5cm turned up at the bottom, to which the seal is attached by a cord in the Tudor colours of white and green. The parchment is rather discoloured, there is a small hole under the initial ‘M’ of Maria and round the edges are the remains of metal studs which had been used to fix the document to the wooden box in which it was kept before its arrival in the Cathedral Archives. Otherwise the document is in reasonable condition, as is the seal. There are two signatures: Thomas Hewitt the then vicar and Richard Francis, probably the scribe. Unlike some other documents appearing in this series, it is decorated but uncoloured and without gold leaf. The text begins ‘Maria Dei gracia Anglie’ and the initial letters of these words are decorated in black ink; some other words in the body of the text appear in ‘bold’. Across the top of the document there is a floral border and between the decorated initials are smaller motifs comprising a garter and its supporters.

Close up of letter

At first glance the capital which begins the document is not clearly discernible as an ‘M’ as it is filled with the Queen enthroned under a canopy with the legend ‘vivat regina’ and lacking most of its middle stroke. Also the sides are curved almost into an ‘O.’ The letter is surrounded by a flowing floral border, and flowers also fill the two strokes which form the letter and surround the enthroned figure of Mary. The outline of the letter appears like a thread with a ‘knot’ at the top and half way down each side is strapwork. The Queen faces forward and is wearing robes of state, an ermine cloak and shoulder cape, and what appears to be a close fitting ermine upper garment, and she has unbound flowing hair. Her skirt is plain and full with one foot showing beneath it. She is wearing a crown with a cross at the front. Her left hand holds a sceptre and her right hand rests on the crowned orb. The image evokes a coronation image. A very similar initial appears on a Queen’s Bench document KB /1169 (available on the University of Houston website).

The initial D of ‘Dei’ is written in the same plain black line as the M but has no image in it; it is filled with flowing foliage as is the A of ‘Anglie’ which is curved in a way that brings to mind the arches at Wells cathedral. These letters have calligraphic decorative extensions called cadels, a feature introduced from the Low Countries c. 1430-40.

The width of the document above the initials is also decorated by a band of foliage with the supporters and royal arms within a garter. The lion sits between the M and the D at the top of three low steps; he is breathing fire and holds a staff with a fleur-de-lis. The other supporter is a dragon (often used by Tudor monarchs, perhaps in a reference to their Welsh origins); this is also seated on a step, breathing fire and with a similar staff. Between these is a garter with its motto surrounding the royal coat of arms: the three lions passant of England quartered with the three lilies of France in the ‘modern’ version. This shield is not very well executed with the heraldic beasts represented merely by wavy lines.

SEAL OBVERSE (CROWNED FIGURE)

The 12cm diameter double-sided seal is affixed by green and white cords to the upturned part of the document. Within the diamond shape which attaches this cord to the document is a monogram and to the right the signature of Thomas Hewitt and Richard Francis. The seal is in reasonably good condition although the legend round the edge is worn. The obverse shows a figure enthroned under a canopy holding the sceptre and orb and being flanked by two garters. The monarch’s face and hands are blank and were possibly obliterated deliberately, as the surface is very smooth, rather than appearing worn away by age. As no features are discernible it is impossible to decide if this is a man or a woman; there is certainly no flowing hair such as appears in the decoration to the initial M. Much of the legend encircling the seal is almost worn away but at the top right hand side the word Edward is clearly visible and may also appear again further round the circumference together with the word ‘rex’ (king) rather than ‘regina’ (queen).

SEAL REVERSE

The reverse shows a mounted figure on a richly caparisoned horse with an accompanying hound. This might be the greyhound sometimes used in Tudor heraldry. In front of the rider is a fleur-de-lis, with a Tudor rose behind. The figure is not wearing a long womanly gown but rather male attire. Similar seals from Mary’s reign are listed in Wyon as being on documents held at the British Museum (111 H 2, 12 February 1554); Canterbury Cathedral (G 184, 8 March 1554 and H 138, 15 March, 1555); and Dover Corporation (16 March 1556).

Usually a monarch’s seal was destroyed at their death and a new one made for the successor; the turmoil surrounding Mary’s accession to the throne may have given no time for a new seal to have been cast by the time of these Letters Patent, the terms of which Edward had apparently already agreed to. Thus, Edward’s seal was used. A later seal of Mary sees her riding side saddle close to her husband, Philip of Spain.

As noted the document is decorated in black ink only. Providing colouring was the responsibility of the grantee and one reason for not doing so was when the document was considered of little importance; cost could also be a reason. In the present case, lack of importance is unlikely. This is the only document known to me, apart from parish registers, to survive from the 16th century, for St John the Baptist. Hasted, quoting Lewis, gives the income of the living as £8; we may therefore assume that the parish just could not afford costly illumination, though it treasured its ‘charter’ for centuries.

Gill Wyatt: MEMS friend
Editor: Jayne Wackett, MEMS, University of Kent

Further Reading.

Calendar of the Patent Rolls preserved in the Public Record Office.
Philip and Mary. Volume AD1553-1557, (HMSO, 1937)

Hasted, Edward, Historical and Topographical Survey of the County of Kent, 2nd ed., 12 volumes (Wakefield, 1972)

image of the Cathedral
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