English Vellum Indenture Catalog

Presented for sale by Phil Barber, Cambridge, Mass. 02139 Telephone (617) 492-4653

What are "Indentures"?
We have all heard the term "indentured servant", which calls to mind harsh conditions in Colonial America. The term "Indenture" however is simply the now-archaic word for a legal contract, written as an agreement between two or more parties to any number of activities. The English indentures I present here are primarily related to the sale and use of land. Like their American cousins, Britons of the pre-Industrial Age were primarily yeoman farmers, so many indentures still surviving relate to the purchase or rental of farms, homes, orchards, fields, pastures, and the like. They are entirely written by hand (in English) on large sheepskins, in keeping with legal practice dating back to Medieval times.

About Indentures, in Brief
The top edge of the document shows the wavy, or "indented" margin that gives these documents their name; as a safeguard against counterfeiting, the copies given to all parties were placed together and cut in this margin in a wavy, irregular pattern, thus uniquely identifying the authenticity of each copy.

By convention in common use after about 1675, the documents open with the title "This Indenture" in large capital letters. This heading, written in the earlier examples and printed on the later specimens, is often further embellished with decorative flourishes or occasionally a copper engraved representation of the Arms of the Royal Order of the Garter (called an Armorial heading), reproducing a motif seen on contemporary silver coinage. The text conventionally continues by stating the name and year of reign of the current Sovereign, with his or her titles. This format was largely abandoned after the 1790's as the prestige of the monarchy declined. The A.D. year is almost invariably stated next.

Documents after the Licencing Act of 1694 feature embossed paper-and-foil tax stamps, much like the sort that caused so much discontent on this side of the Atlantic. All documents are completed by the additions of the signatures of the parties - or an indication of "X, His Mark" in the case of those unable to write. These are accompanied by wax seals bearing impressions of the lawyers', or parties' signet rings.

The probate documents found among the listings below are very similar in general format. They are Court copies of Last Wills and Testaments engrossed by the Probate Court when their terms were discharged. They begin conventionally with the phrase "In the Name of God Amen" or "The Last Will and Testament of..." in very large lettering, and continue with the now stock phrase "being of sound mind and understanding." Their content is often quite fascinating. Not only are family stories told by the amounts and stipulations of the bequests of money and property, but the deceased often specify the disposal of their most prized possessions. Such inventories are virtual catalogs of now rare antiques such as plate, paintings, and furniture. Attached to the will is the form of the Probate Court, written or printed with handwritten entries. Finally the seal of the issuing authority is attached. Unlike the small signet rings used in legal contracts these are large wax-and-paper seals embossed with the Arms of the Bishop or later of the Sovereign's Probate Court.

Documents from the years of America's much-misunderstood last King, George the Third (ruled 1760 to 1820), are especially prized this side of "the pond." The documents then state the specifics concerning the parties involved in the transaction, its nature, and all pertinent information. Originally rather dry and legalistic, such content today bears vivid testimony to the interests and customs of these long-gone times.

Please click here to go to my Collector Information Web Page providing a more detailed introduction to the history and collecting of vellum indentures.

Indentures As Collector's Items
Today, these ancient British Indentures are prized collector's items. They are valued for their testimony of the now long-vanished way of life that is recorded in the once commonplace transactions they describe. With their enormous size, red wax seals and blue revenue stamps, they make impressive decorator accents when matted and framed. Many collectors have found that they make welcome and treasured gifts to friends and acquaintances.

The supply of these lovely manuscripts from ancient legal archives once seemed inexhaustible but like so many early collectibles they have grown scarce in recent years. Since 1986 the English barristers' associations have requested their members donate these historic documents to the National Trust, rather than to place them for sale on the open market as had been the case until this time. General compliance with this directive has reduced the supply of these beautiful items to a trickle, and new hoards are avidly snapped up on those infrequent occasions when they become available. Because I have a solid network of contacts, some going back thirty years, I am still able to acquire these documents from primary sources. This allows me to pass on the savings to my customers and to offer these delightful items at what I believe are the most reasonable prices you will find on the net.

Catalog Descriptions and Condition
As are all items I sell, the documents in this catalog are unconditionally guaranteed to be genuine and accurately described. The actual dimensions of the documents are listed below in inches, rounded to the nearest half-inch, with height given first, followed by width. They are in collectible condition as noted in each catalog entry. They are complete as issued and are free of damage or objectionable defects, having been carefully preserved in old archives and probably very rarely consulted after the generation of their makers had passed. Condition problems are always described if they are present. I stock only the best quality indentures that can be found today so you’ll find very few defective pieces in my listings.

The outer, blank sides of the MSS are generally soiled or discolored from age, which does not affect the written side, or the collectibility of the document. As vellum is a natural substance which was prepared for use entirely by hand processes, there is considerable variation from document to document in the thickness and color of the skins. Small holes, generally averaging no more ¼", are naturally present in many old vellum documents, due to variations in the skin itself, and are not considered defects. In many cases you will find the copyist has skillfully written around these natural blemishes, clear evidence of their authenticity. They are mentioned in the catalog description when present.

Purchased Indenture(s) will arrive folded, just as they were stored in the archives for centuries. They can easily be opened without fear of damaging the vellum, which, fortunately for collectors, is a very durable and long-lasting substance. Fold lines can be eliminated by carefully refolding the document in the opposite direction of the original fold, thus readying the piece for framing or other display. The fold lines will virtually disappear after the old vellum has been allowed sufficient time to "relax". The process should not be artificially enhanced, but carefully placing the opened manuscript between two sheets of weighted inflexible plastic or plywood will hasten the result. Never apply heat of any kind!

Because of the large size of these documents it is impractical to provide full illustrations of any of them in this catalog - simply because they are much too large to fit in my scanner. We have however assembled a small library of scans, accessible below, which will give you an accurate impression of the appearance of some important elements of the manuscripts. Cilck on the small thumbnails below to view a fullsized scan, and when you are done you may select GO BACK in your browser to return to this page.

This scan is a detail of a small 1693 Indenture. It displays the appearance of a typical floursihing engraved heading, which is printed directly on the vellum by the legal stationery store which sold the skins to barristers. Its elaborate engraving, struck off from a copperplate, was designed to thwart counterfeiting. Also visible is the legal calligraphy of the text. The red wax seal, embossed with the barrister's or maker's signet ring, is typical of the appearance of seals. The maker's signature completes the document.

Scan of a typical handwritten Indenture heading from the latter part of the 17th century. Again, elaborate decoration was supplied in an effort to foil counterfeits of the document.
Our specimen also include an especially collectible Arabic numeral date in the heading motif.

This scan features a typical ornate Armorial heading, with its decorative flourishes, on an Indenture from the middle 18th century. Depicted is the royal Order of the Garter, with its famous motto "Honi Soit Qui Mal Y Pense (Shamed be him that thinks evil of it)", backed by the colorful Medieval tale of the Order's inception by Edward III. circa 1348. The legend goes that while dancing with Edward at Eltham Palace, the Countess of Kent lost a garter, which the King picked up and put on his own leg, uttering the challange preserved in the Order's motto. Today it is the pinnacle of the honours system in the United Kingdom.

This scan depicts a typical Indenture with multiple red wax seals and signatures. The skin was folded to form a "gutter" through which a piece of ribbon was threaded, with the hot sealing wax applied over the ribbon, to attest to its authenticity. Signatures of all parties follow to complete the deal. One often sees "X, his mark" in place of a signature, in a case where the party is illiterate.

Scan of a strip of three embossed blue Sixpenny Royal tax stamps. Stamps of this appearance were in general Revenue use since the 1690s, and into the 1770's. Initially, a single Sixpenny stamp satisfied the tax, but the law soon doubled and then tripled the duty, making the three-stamp strip the most commonly seen denomination of much of the 18th century.

This scan depicts theShilling Sixpence tax stamp, used from the 1770's on most legal documents. It replaced the strip of three Sixpence stamps, and is similar in appearance to the American Revenues of 1765. It would be augmented by a Sixpence and later a Shilling additional duty as the Crown strove to find funding to continue the unpopular war against the American insurgents.

This scan is of a typical Pound Ten Shillings stamp of the early 1800's. Totalling thirty shillings, it represents quite a substantial tax increase and must have been quite prohibitive for most Englishmen, when the average wage was a few shillings a week. The tin alloy tab, used on British Revenue stamps from about 1700 on, which is visible in the center of the stamp, attaches it to the document so it cannot be taken off and used again. On the back of the sheet the Royal tax collectors attached a Royal Cypher Seal, also intended to revent illegal reuse of the stamp.

This engraving shows the appearance of some of the very rare 1765 -1766 British Revenue stamps intended for use only in the American Colonies. These illustrations are provided for purposes of comparison only. No items in this catalog bear these stamps: in fact, no specimens actually used in what would become the United States are known to exist. Only a handful of proofs and die trials are known to survive today.

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Catalog updates of more individually described indentures from the 17th to 19th centuries are planned - please check back again soon!

Vellum Specials
some vellums
Here's a selection of fine early vellum Indentures for your consideration. All are typical examples of this fascinating collectible, in attractive fine condition. Their content relates to real estate transactions, such as conveyances, mortgages, leases, assignments or releases, feoffments, and the like. The exact dates and contents of indentures shipped will be of my choice as my inventory allows.

V-9001. [Vellum Indenture, King George III's Reign] Typical Example, 1782 - 1799. These decorative early English documents are written on sheepskin, and begin with a flourishing heading starting "This indenture made on the [date] of the Reign of our Sovereign Lord George the Third, King of Great Britain..." The embossed blue Royal tax stamp found on each document closely resembles the hated American Revenue issues that are impossible for the collector to obtain today. The text is written in English in a fully legible legal hand and the skins measure at least 14" x 20". Indentures made in the name of America's last King are especially prized for their historical association. Nice condition, with all wax seals etc. as issued. Multiples available, all different dates and content. While my supply lasts they are offered at a most favorable price, just, per document . . . . 40.00
My Order quantity: 

V-9003. [Vellum Indenture, Regency] Typical Example, 1801 - 1820. These fine legal manuscripts were issued during the reign of America's last king, the ill-fated George III, in the final years of his exceptionally long reign. At this point George was suffering from ill health, including intermittent bouts of madness; his role was largely in the hands of his son, the dissolute future King George IV. By this time too the general dislike of the monarchy had become so intense that we no longer see a reference to the Sovereign on the indentures. The text is written in English in a fully legible legal hand and the skins measure at least 14" x 20". Nice condition with wax seals, tax stamps, etc. as issued. Multiples available, all different dates and content. . . . . 24.95
My Order quantity: 

V-9495. [Early 19th Century Vellum Indenture]. Typical Example, 1820 - 1838. Here's a bargain offering of best quality large size sheepskin documents are in top condition with all wax seals, tax stamps, printed or manuscript headings, etc. as issued. Their content relates to real estate transactions as noted above. All are written in English in a fully legible legal hand, and measure at least 15" x 22". Nice souvenirs of this transitional period of English history. Multiples available, all different dates and content, and in excellent condition. . . . . 19.95

My Order quantity: 

V-9500. [Vellum Indenture, Queen Victoria]. Typical Example, 1850's - 1880's. These lovely large size (about 20" x 25" or more) sheepskin documents are in top condition with all wax seals, tax stamps, printed headings, etc. as issued. All are written in English in a fully legible legal hand. They are remarkable similar in appearance to documents written a century or more earlier, and make attractive introductions to this area of collecting. Multiples available, all different dates and content, in lovely bright condition. Because of a favorable purchase we able to offer these at just, per indenture . . . . 19.95

My Order quantity: 

V-9501. Probate of Will, dated between 1840 and 1901. This beautiful manuscript document consists of the Last Will and Testament of an individual, written in a fully legible legal hand and measuring 12" x 18" or more. Interesting content often includes household inventories, bequests to the poor, in addition to lands and monies disbursed among family and friends. Attached to the will is the Probate Court certificate attesting that the terms of the will have been complied with, which is printed on vellum or paper, with handwritten entries, and measures about 8" x 10". It bears one or two large blue embossed tax stamps as issued and the official wax-and-paper seal of the Court, an impressive medallion generally depicting the Queen's Arms or the local Cathedral as its central motif. I have found a small supply of these uncommon and interesting documents in fine condition and offer a specimen while they last. Multiples available, all different dates and content. . . . . 19.95
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I hope you have enjoyed this catalog, and have found its contents useful and informative. Please feel free to e-mail your questions and comments to our address below. We look forward to hearing from you!

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