|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
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
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
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!
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
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
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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Contents ©:2016 Phil Barber.