[From Manx Soc vol 20]
THE SEAL OF THOMAS, BISHOP OF THE ISLE OF MAN.
THE real history of this remarkable seal still remains to be ascertained, for the various accounts as yet given of it not only rest on no reliable authority but have a suspiciously strong resemblance to the mythical.
As to the history of the particular impression from the matrix, which is here presented to the members of the Manx Society (engraved with no less excellence of execution than faithful accuracy by Mr. J. H. Le Keux) the following details although short yet are free from the faintest shadow of doubt.
About twenty-eight or twenty-nine years ago Mr. Charles Darling, a member of the Irish Bar, put it into the hands of a gentleman of high position, Mr. Thomas Palmer, at that time residing close to Dublin, and now living at Melksham as head of the North Wilts Bank. He would not, however, lend it to Mr. Palmer as it had only been committed to his keeping by the owner. In his presence Mr. Palmer took the wax impression from which he made the Electrotype, from which Mr Le Keux has engraved the plate. Whether Mr. Darling mentioned the owner's name or not, or any circumstances connected with its history, Mr. Palmer after this interval of time does not remember, but his impression is that it was said to be a seal of Thomas a Becket, which it could not be, except in the sense that the Episcopal figure on the seal represented that unfortunate prelate who had perished about three centuries before the seal existed. Mr. Darling who has been dead for some years, left a widow. Mr Palmer kindly acceding to a request made to him, has made many enquiries after that lady, but whether from a subsequent change of name or some other cause all his exertions have been fruitless. But even could she be discovered, it is not probable that she would know much of its history, or the name of the owner that entrusted it to hands of Mr. Darling. As far, however, as negative evidence goes, Mr. Darling's silence as to any connection with the silver bracelets would tend to show that no such connection ever existed. There is another-account which mentions the Isle of Thanet as the place of finding, but one of the most accomplished Antiquaries of the present day who has taken much interest in this particular seal, has come to the conclusion that there is not the smallest foundation for such a statement. A Manx seal might easily find its way across the sea into Ireland, as constant communication has ever been kept up between the Islands of Man and Ireland, so that there would be nothing singular in its being found in the latter Island; whereas, its discovery in the Island of Thanet would be a most improbable circumstance. The only fact that is really substantiated is that it was in Ireland some thirty years ago, and is possibly there at present hid in some forgotten corner, for on the assumption that the owner of it in Mr. Darling's time set a proper value on it, (as appears by that gentleman's caution in not allowing it to go out of his hands,) it has, probably not found its way to the melting pot. It was however a fortunate circumstance that Mr. Palmer took an impression, and that the electrotype he then took of it was carefully preserved by him until its existence became accidentally known to a member of the Manx Society, and who at once communicated it to the late Dr Oliver. Since then many enquiries have been made in various quarters but without success. Time may, however, bring the lost matrix to light, which was massive and of silver.
The execution of the Seal is such that it can hardly be the production of Manx artists, for even at the present time such work could not be probably executed by native talent, and there is no reason to suppose that in the fifteenth century Manx art was more advanced than it is in the present one. That the seal is of that date is evident from the architectural and other details so elaborately executed. The principal figure is that of a Bishop with his uplifted hand giving the blessing, which in the case of a Bishop was done by raising the two first fingures. The mitre is richly jewelled or embroidered, as is also the collar of his chasuble. The figure stands under a rich canopy. Below is the smaller figure of a Bishop with his hands clasped in prayer, and similarly dressed as the figure above. A smaller figure under the larger one is not uncommon in seals of this date, such as for instance; in the seal of Saint Lawrence's Hospital, at Bodmir, where, however, the smaller figure is that of a leper kneeling under the figure of the saint, as appears by his gridiron and book.
In the seal of John Burghill, Bishop of Llandaff, 1396-1398, nearly a century earlier than the Manx one, there is a Bishop praying with his head slightly inclined in the opposite direction to that in this instance. The position of the crozier also is reversed. It is not usual to find one Bishop placed under another, unless it may be conjectured in this case that the two figures represent one Bishop in the two attitudes of blessing and prayer. It is, however, so rare to find this arrangement that this conjecture requires further confirmation from other examples.
The inscription is S. THOME. DEI GRATIA EPISCOPI, MANUENSIS. In the list of the Bishops of Man given in the proceedings of the Manx Society, vol. xviii. p. 137, there are two Bishops of the name of Thomas, to either of whom, as far as the possible date of the Seal indicates, it may be assigned. Thomas Burton held the See from 1448 to 1457, and was succeeded by another Thomas, whom Browne Willis thinks may have been also the Abbot of Vale Royal in Cheshire, where he is said to have died and been buried in 1480. In Wharton's collection we find that Thomas, Abbot of Vale Royal was Bishop of Man in 1446. To one of these two Bishops the Seal must therefore be assigned but they lived so nearly about the same time that as far as the evidence of details helps us, it is impossible to defer it to one rather than the other.
Thomas Burton, however, enjoyed his Bishopric about 9 years, and it is not stated he had held another preferment, whereas his successor was Bishop for twenty-six years, as well as Abbot of one of richest Cistercian Abbeys in the kingdom, the mere building of which in 1330 cost £32,000 of the money of that time.
If the cost of such a seal could have been a matter worth consideration, it is more likely that the wealthier of the two Bishops incurred the expense, and that the Abbot of Vale Royal was the richer of the two is very probable. He probably had his separate seal as Abbot. The present arms of the Bishopric are "upon three ascents the Virgin Mary (or Saint Bridget as some think), standing distended between two pillars, on the dexter is a church. In base the ancient arms of Man," (the three legs), but of what date this coat is is not mentioned in Oswald's Vestigia, vol. v, p. 2. The seal before us was probably more of a private than the regular official one of the Bishop, who, however, might have inserted the three legs instead of the smaller figure, for that this bearing was known in Man about 1450 is clear from the statement p. 6 of the Vestigia. If he was the Abbot of Vale Royal and preferred to live in Cheshire rather than in the Island the absence of the national badge might be partly accounted for. It is, however, by no means certain that this bearing had at that period found its way into the official seal. When it was first adopted is a question which Manx antiquaries can best determine. All that can be stated, then, with any degree of certainty is that the seal is of a Bishop of Man of the fifteenth century, and that his name was Thomas, and that it is probable that it was that Thomas who was also the Abbot of Vale Royal, and who first became Bishop in 1457, and lastly, that the seal existed in Ireland about thirty years ago, and that it was not in any way connected with the silver bracelet, of which no satisfactory account has yet been published.
The silver bracelet had been noted by Cumming in his footnote #31 to Manx Soc vol 10 where he discusses it and refers to a paper by Miss Wilks - this discussion strangely seems to have been unknown to Paul Bridson, the presumed author of the article.