An Introduction to Collecting Vellum Indentures

A collector information web page provided by
Phil Barber, Post Office Box 8694, Boston, Mass. 02114-0036 Telephone (617) 492-4653


General Types | Oldest Deeds | Skins and Inks | Seals and Signatures | Collecting Vellums | Preservation | Pictures | My Indenture Sale Catalog


"Indentures" are legal contracts, and are entirely written by hand (in English) on large sheepskins, in keeping with legal practice dating back to Medieval times. Today, these ancient British legal manuscripts are prized collector's items, and make impressive decorator accents when matted and framed. 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, his or her titles (this format is not used on all documents, and of course is lacking on items from the years of the Commonwealth and on a few pieces immediately following "the Glorious Revolution" in 1688-89. The pratice was largely abandoned after the 1790's as the prestige of the monarchy declined and was all but abandoned in Queen Victoria's long reign). The A.D. year is almost invariably stated next, verifying the age of the document. 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 forms a remarkably vivid testimony to the interests and customs of these long-gone times. Such familiar subjects as deeds (conveyances), mortgages, assignments, and leases are their subjects, along with archaic legalisms such as "feoffment", a term from the Middle Ages.

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. As demands on the Exchequer grew, so did the price of the stamped vellum, from a few pence a sheet to as high as four pounds in the early 1800's, a veritable fortune in the period of these documents. On verso (the back side of the sheet) the documents are docketed by the King's tax collectors, with the now-conventional phrase, that the document was 'signed, sealed, and delivered' by those individuals, whose signatures attest to this fulfillment of the law. 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. In the earliest documents these fragile seals are appended to the body of the document by means of a "gutter tab" which hangs below the vellum sheet. Unfortunately thus not protected from the rigors of handling, most of these early seals are lacking or encountered only in fragments. In the later manuscripts the seals are applied directly to the document by means of a small tab of cloth slipped through a slot in a double folded bottom margin. Thus seals from the middle of the18th century and later are generally found in a more well-preserved state.

Probate documents also to be found in our listings 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 too are written by hand, in English, on sheepskin. 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 of the diocese in which the will was probated, or later of the Sovereign's Probate Court.

General Types of Law Deeds

Much of what follows is from Emma Thoyts' fine little book How to Decipher and Study Old Documents, published at London in 1893.

As noted above, the two chief divisions into which all law deeds may be roughly classified are the deed-pole and the indenture. The former is a square piece of parchment, made by one person, such as a will or a bond, while the indenture is a larger format document, the work of several parties. Of this latter kind are deeds of trusteeship, marriage settlements, mortgages, and sales or transfers of land. The indenture was so called from the fact that its upper edge was vandyked, or indented - a very secure but primitive method of testing authenticity; each party had a copy. These duplicates were written on a single strip of parchment merely cut asunder afterwards, through a word written between the two copies, such as “chirographum”, so that when required to be produced as evidence the two divided portions and words would fit each other exactly, indisputable evidence of their originality.

A common form of early deed, met with among Latin language era title deeds dating before about 1525, is the ‘Fine,’ technically so-called from its opening sentence: 'Hic est finalis concordia facta in curia Domini Regis' (Latin for "This is the final agreement made in the court of the Lord King"; the Sovereign's name follows with the year of accession, after which are the names of the buyer and seller of the property, a full description of the amount of acreage, tenements, etc. After warranting the whole for life to its purchaser, the deed concludes with the sum of money paid for the property; this is written in words, not figures. These deeds are more puzzling to amateurs than any other. The ‘Fines’ are narrow strips of parchment, one or two in number; they are closely covered with black lettering, making them at first difficult to decipher. This transfer of land by ‘fine’ originated at first from an actual suit at law commenced to recover possession of the lands, and by this means to establish a clear indisputable title to it; in course of time the suit was discontinued, but the form of wording was retained by custom. “A ‘fine’ says Blackstone, “is so called because it puts an end to the suit (from the Latin word fixis, an end), which, when once decided, puts an end not only to that suit, but also to all other controversies concerning the same matter, for by this means an absolute sale was effected, and all previous claims upon the property were made void.” Sale by fine is of very ancient date. Instances of it are said to be known prior to the Norman invasion. We may, therefore, conclude that it was probably an old Saxon custom, or was devised in later times as a certain means to avoid dispute and disagreement arising from an imperfect title of possession. There are several legal varieties of fines, but these are of little consequence to the antiquary, whose interest lies only in the names, dates, and localities mentioned, and, so long as the land changed its ownership, cares little about the technical process by which the transfer was made.

Another way of making a good title so as to legalize and effect a complete sale of property was that known as 'Sale by Recovery.’ This also consisted of a law-suit, at first real, then imaginary. The prescribed form was very complicated. Explanations of it are to be found in most books on law subjects, but the matter lies in a nutshell. One man desired to sell certain land which another man was anxious to purchase, where. upon the would-be purchaser issued a writ, in which he pretended to claim the land. At this stage of the affair a third party, not really concerned in any way in it, was brought forward to warrant the title of the real owner, who then came forward bringing a witness proving ownership to his property; thus an indisputable title to the land was established. A deed of recovery was then issued rehearsing the whole transaction, agreeing that a certain sum of money, equivalent to the value of the land, should be paid by the purchaser; and here the bargain was concluded, and the curtain fell on the legal farce.

Some of these recovery deeds are quite works of art. They are written in courthand on large squares of parchment, smooth and white. The heading and capital letter are ornamented with scroll-work in pen and ink. Generally an engraved portrait of the reigning Sovereign was added. Part of this ornamentation was done by hand, and the rest completed with steel engraving. The most elaborate deeds are those of the Stuart monarchs, especially towards the end of the seventeenth century, but after the time of the second George these well-executed deeds disappear. The oldest statute relating to Recoveries of which I find any mention is of the commencement of the reign of Henry VIL, but I have not met with any as early in date as this.

A beginner finds much difficulty in deciding between deeds of sale or appointment of trustees for the safe custody of land to secure marriage portions and deeds of mortgage. All these three deeds are, in point of size and general outline, nearly identical; the experienced lawyer can detect them at once; he needs only to study what is called the operative part of the document, avoiding any waste of time which wading through the technical phrases involves.

Shown at Left is a table of some variant forms of letters of the alphabet as they are sometimes seen in earlier manuscripts.

One of the commonest forms of deeds met with relative to the sale of land is that known as 'Lease and Release,’ a method invented by Serjeant Moore in the reign of Henry VIII, which, from its simplicity, speedily became very popular, and superseded the other forms of sale. The principal deeds referring to a Lease and Release are two in number. The smaller of these is generally found wrapped up within the larger parchment, as the two had to be kept together, being in reality part and parcel of each other. The smaller parchment was the lease drawn up between the parties; by it a formal lease for a year of the premises or land was granted by the owner to the purchaser, but no mention of any rent or sum of money is made in it, and herein is the difference between the sale-lease and an ordinary lease, for in this latter both the term of years and the yearly rental are expressly named. The Release, or larger parchment, is dated a day following the lease which it cancels, hereby gaining its name of 'release.’ It is in reality the actual deed of sale, for the price paid for the land will be found in it, and a full and complete warranty securing it for ever to the purchaser.

An ordinary lease of premises is worded similarly to the above, but differs from it in several ways; usually it is a larger sheet of parchment. The term of years varies from three, five, seven, to twenty-one, at a fixed rent paid either half yearly or quarterly at the four principal feasts, Lady Day, or the Feast of the Annunciation (March 25), the Feast of St. John, or Midsummer (June 24), St. Michael and All Angels, better known as Michaelmas (September 29), and the Feast of the Nativity, popularly called Christmas Day (December 25). These deeds commence with the date of the day, month and year, followed by the names of the persons contracting the agreement, with those of their co-trustees, or witnesses, usually selected from among relatives or connections by marriage, or else immediate neighbors. An exact terrier of the land is given, its locality, field-names, and acreage. Three parts of the way down the sheet of parchment will be found the rent and term of years for which the land is granted, together with stipulations as to repairs, rights of ingress and egress; any services, customs or heriots, whether due in kind or by payment; last of all comes the warrant against intruders. Of course, with deeds of sale there are other legal documentary forms, with variations of wording, but the two last above described are those generally met with.

The oldest form of sale is called a 'Feoffment,’ or grant. Externally it differs little in appearance from a 'fine,’ at least as regards its earliest form, both being very small, closely-written deeds; the first was in the set lawyer type of handwriting, while a 'fine’ was indited in courthand. A 'Feoffment,’ or grant, was the oldest and simplest form of document; but in later times it was followed by a deed 'of Uses,’ which required many other deeds to follow in its wake before a permanent and satisfactory sale was effected. It is all these legal formalities which make the reading of old deeds so unnecessarily confusing; their intricacies can only be mastered by careful study of books on legal matters, and a comparison of the several kinds of deeds above enumerated. A mortgage deed differs from the sales or leases in several particulars: firstly, the term of years granted is usually absurdly long nine hundred or a, thousand years, perhaps; while in lieu of money the nominal rent of one peppercorn yearly, or some equally insignificant equivalent, was demanded. In place of the rent in an ordinary lease the real reason of the mortgage is given in full, with the date and appointed place where and when the borrowed money is to be repaid. Often the vicarage, or the parson's house, was chosen-perhaps considered as an additional guard against fraud, and that the clergyman as a witness, being a disinterested party, would see justice done on both sides.

No mortgage deeds exist today that are extremely old; the older ones, if they existed, were probably destroyed as soon as the transaction was finished. Most of those found among family papers are of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and refer to small pieces of land or cottages, showing that even then the small owners became involved in debts and difficulties, being obliged to raise money upon their holdings, until finally the land itself had to be sold to satisfy the demands of the creditors, the purchaser usually being the nearest large landed proprietor, who paid a better price for what would join on to and complete the area of his estate. These small holdings had probably been accumulated bit by bit out of the waste. First, perhaps, the settler rigged up a primitive dwelling, or hut, the old tradition being that if a roofed dwelling with a chimney could be erected in one night a claim to the land was thereby established. If undisturbed, the squatter would gradually extend his boundaries; but a small rent was generally demanded by the lord of the manor as an acknowledgment of the encroachment; these little holdings are called “key holdings” and are to be found in all parts of England.

The Oldest Deeds

It is rare to meet with deeds dating further back than the Reformation. This may be accounted for by the enormous amount of land possessed by the monks, who, instead of having to search through deeds, entered these grants and gifts of property into their charter-book. The monastic estates, after the Dissolution ordered in the mid-16th century by Henry VIII, were managed through the Augmentation Office; many of the original deeds were destroyed or lost in the general confusion, and a new distribution of the lands took place by the King irrespective of the former owners, whose claims were totally ignored, although in such grants or deeds of gift the name of the monastery formerly owning the property is usually named. The King must have realized large sums of money by these transactions, which were carried out through, and in the names of, his commissioners or agents, and not usually granted direct from the Crown; very little of the land confiscated from the abbeys was retained as royal property, but appears to have been almost immediately sold or granted away.

But to begin from the oldest reliable period at which deeds may refer to, is to go back to the Norman Conquest, or, rather, to the time when the lands had been distributed among the Norman noblemen, as described in the famous Domesday Book, compiled, it is said, between 1080 and 1085. Reference is therein made to previous Saxon possessors; but only in very few instances can any certain information be obtained of private property prior to the eleventh century.

Private deeds do exist between the time of William I (1066) and Richard I (1199); from this latter King's reign, about A.D. 1179, come the so-called “legal memory dates,” but usually the earliest family deeds are of Edward I (1272 - 1307), because then it was that the legal era was fixed to commence. This King passed innumerable Acts of Parliament on the subject of legal matters; he revised the whole of the national laws, retaining but improving existing arrangements. It is very rare indeed to discover private deeds earlier than this period.

Shown at Right are some variant forms of the numbers 1 through 9 as seen in early manuscripts of the 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th centuries, left to right.

To prove a title to property it is now only requisite to show a twenty years' possession of it. Papers forming the title deeds to farms or small holdings are seldom of any great age. The custom of depositing estate records in the care of the family lawyer has tended to preserve a few deeds; but, on the other hand, has resulted in much wholesale destruction of documentary evidence and collectible manuscripts. Numbers of deeds have been sold when a lawyer's office has been broken up. These vellums, having lain for years unclaimed until the ownership was lost or forgotten, finally were sold to some antiquary, or else, perhaps startling to the modern collector, the skin was cleansed and used again, parchment being quite a valuable commodity. It is even today employed in some trades. From it common size was formerly prepared. Goldbeaters still employ (and destroy) vellum indentures, it being not at all uncommon for parchments hundreds of years old to be pounded to pieces in the hand-production of precious gold leaf. It remains a staple of bookbinder's and restorer’s trade, besides having many other and varied uses.

Contemporary lawyers find great difficulty in preserving and storing the deeds entrusted to their charge. The dangers of fire and damp are conflicting, and to avoid the one may bring about greater risk from the other cause. Parchment being an animal substance (usually made from the skin of sheep), if carelessly stored in a damp place, soon begins to decay and become offensive. Under improper storage conditions, mites readily attack it, dirt and dust accumulate rapidly on its external woolly surface. The usual storehouse for such collections was in times gone by some unused garret or stable-loft, where rats and mice ran riot and birds flew in and out as they liked. The sad evidence of such poor storage conditions is seen all too often in searches among hoards of old deeds. Forgotten, perhaps, for several generations, the old documents lay untouched till death or removal brought changes, and the deeds were either placed in safer keeping, or else- and this was the most usual course -were consigned to the flames as useless rubbish. It has always been my policy to stock and offer my customers only those old documents in the best available collectible, i.e., problem-free condition.

The size and shape of a deed at first glance goes far with the experienced reader to determine its age, even before a single word of it has been read; likewise the general aspect will give a slight hint as to the possible contents without deciphering any of it. The deeds relative to the earliest grants of land are very small in size, a marked contrast to the voluminous sheets of parchment considered necessary to a modern conveyance or deed. The writing often was minuscule, but each letter was carefully formed.

On Vellum and Ink

The quality of parchment (vellum) varies much. That upon which early deeds - generally, before 1300 - are written, is in small pieces, woolly in texture and of a dark brown shade. By the sixteenth century the sheets are larger, smoother and yellow, becoming whiter in color and more even as its preparation was better understood and practiced.

Vellum was a fine sort of parchment prepared from the skins of very young or still-born animals. Of it the oldest manuscript books were made, adorned with illuminations and miniature paintings, which required a fine, smooth surface, and vellum was free from the flaws which frequently occur in the skins of mature animals, which were routinely used in the largest size indentures.

Another important part of an ancient deed is the ink with which it was written. Each scribe had his own particular receipt for making it, the principal ingredients being oak-galls and sulfate of iron. Many chemicals are recommended as restoratives for faded ink, but these should be avoided as far as possible, as they are liable to stain and disfigure the parchment, and in the end make matters worse. Familiarity with particular handwritings after some practice will enable the reader to make out otherwise unintelligible words without any other assistant than a powerful magnifying glass. If the ink is very faint the simplest and most harmless restorative is sulfate of ammonia; but its loathsome smell once endured is not easily forgotten; the experiment in consequence is very seldom repeated, for the result is scarcely good enough to risk a repetition of so horrible a smell, and it is liable to affect the MSS.

Colored inks or pigments were seldom, if ever, employed for legal documents. The use of these was restricted to the cloister, requiring manipulation by an illuminator instead of a mere scribe. Red, blue, and green were in use; these were mineral colors. The red was composed either of red-lead or oxide of iron, the green from copper, and the blue from lapis lazuli finely powdered, or else it, too, like the green, was prepared from an oxide of copper. Illuminating was a separate profession apart from that of writing. The charter or missal was finished by the scribe, and then handed over to the artist to be adorned with fanciful capital letters and elaborate scroll-works. Such ornamentation was unnecessary for legal documents, yet sometimes these had fancy headings, which, like the illuminations, were put in after the writing was finished, as is proved by the occasional omission of them, although space is left where they ought to have been filled in.

On Seals and Signatures

Seals and seating-wax came into use gradually. The earliest deeds are very small, and have very small insignificant seals. It is said that neither the Saxon nor Norman noblemen could sign their own names, but instead employed the Christian sign of the cross (still in use among the illiterate) as their pledge of good faith, and to witness their consent and approval. The use of seals as appendices to deeds was a further proof that the deed itself was approved and executed. A man's seal or signet was always regarded as his most sacred possession. It was destroyed after death to avoid its being used for fraudulent purposes.

The use of signet-rings is very ancient. Many old Roman and Saxon signet-rings have been dug up from time to time in various parts of England. Small private seals bearing devices appear to have been attached to deeds of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Many of the large wax seals are very beautiful, but few in private collections of deeds exist in any state of perfection. The wax used for them was either its natural color or else a sealing wax of a very dark green, also black, or red. White, also, was used, now discolored by age into a dingy yellow.

Besides the royal seals, each abbey had its own particular seal, bearing either a view of the abbey, a portrait of its patron saint, or its badge or shield. Many of these are described by Dugdale in the 'Monasticon,' but he was unable to discover the devices pertaining to the lesser houses or cells. The fashion for large seals died out, till at last only royal grants or similar documents of the sixteenth century have them attached. In the Georgian period (1717 and later) we find small private seals placed on the margins of deeds. These were not always the arms and crest of the person against whose signature they appear - perhaps belonged to the lawyer or one of the contracting parties. Here it is that a knowledge of heraldry is extremely useful.

How Indentures are Collected

Indentures are collected in a variety of ways, chiefly as the collector finds most rewarding. A very popular use for the old documents is framed display. With their large format, with beautiful penmanship, fancy engraved heads, blue tax stamps, and red wax seals, they can make unique and quite distinctive additions to one's home or office. Others may form more specialized collections, obtaining different kinds of indentures, or documents from certain towns or counties, or documents of parties having the collector's family name, for just a few examples.

We have all heard of the American "indentured servants" who came to this country in the earliest days as contract laborers. Such fascinating documents are, alas, virtually non-existent today, as it was the practice to burn them on discharge of their terms.

Collections are also formed containing a specimen from the reigns of the Kings and Queens whose names appear on them. Generally speaking indentures become obtainable on the collector market today starting with the reign of James I (1603 - 1625). Examples from earlier reigns are encountered quite infrequently. The earliest I have thus far located dates to the reign of Edward II (1216 - 1272). Documents dated during our War of Independence (1775 - 1783) are especially collectible today. American manuscript material of the period is extremely uncommon and generally quite high priced, making these items from the mother country a fine, affordable alternative. With the name of the much-maligned last king of America George III on them, they are perfect association items from those turbulent times. They also bear higher denomination tax stamps, similar to those which caused so much trouble on this side of the Atlantic, as the cost of waging the American war increased along with its unpopularity.

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.

Please click here to go to my online catalog of vellum indentures available for sale today.

Condition and Preservation Considerations

The manuscripts we stock are in fine condition and are complete as issued, among the best condition of the limited population of surviving indentures. All are free of damage or objectionable defects unless otherwise described, having been carefully preserved in old archives and probably very rarely consulted after the generation of their makers had passed. Purchased document(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 to flatten or repair vellum! This will effectively cook the skin and destroy it.

Briefly, the enemies of old documents are heat, humidity, and sunlight. To maintain their fine condition, they should be kept in a stable storage environment free of excess fluctuation in temperature and humidity. There should limited contact with air and strong light. To accomplish these goals, select a dry, cool place in your home to store your collection. Any room suitable for habitation will generally be satisfactory for the preservation of this material.. Never leave it in the basement or attic, where change of temperature and humidity occur regularly and can cause deterioration.
If you frame your collection, include an ultraviolet filtering screen between them and bright light. Secondly, select only archival quality acid free containers for permanent storage. These can be fairly costly if purchased already made up, but with a little ingenuity, some Mylar, and double-sided adhesive tape, you can make your own custom holders at a considerable savings. Documents maybe treated with acid-neutralizing chemical agents, though it is suggested that amateurs do not attempt this process as the solvents can be harmful and the results erratic.

Preservation Information on the Internet

The World Wide Web is a gold mine of helpful information of all kinds for the collector, archivist, and historical hobbyist. Here are a few suggested links for further information on the care and preservation of collectibles of all kinds.

Conservation Information
The Northeast Document Conservation Center ( This excellent site includes an online version of the Center's very helpful book Preservation of Library and Archival Materials: A Manual.
Conservation OnLine ( A project of the Preservation Department of Stanford University Libraries, this site abounds in useful information and has a wide variety of links for further online resources.
UNESCO's "Memory of the World" project ( This very ambition project aims to "promote the preservation of the documentary heritage of mankind" and to this end discusses many way of preserving paper, photos, and modern archival materials. This site contains Tim Padgfield's An Introduction to the Physics of the Museum Environment, a useful discussion on relative humidity and its effect on collections, with techniques for environmental monitoring.
Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections ( Featured here are a number of pamphlets, including several on insect pests and identification of archival quality plastics.

Commercial Websites
University Products. This site sells the finest archival quality supplies to house your collection, and books on how to care for your valued collectibles.
Action Plastic Sales. Here you will find a wide selection of economically priced polyethylene slips (useful for shipping and short term storage) and other useful supplies.
L-W Book Sales & Publishing. Excellent retail source for reference books and price guides in many areas of antiques and collectibles.

You can also visit my information pages on collecting, collector terminology, how to read my general catalog descriptions, and more by selecting this link.

Contents 2000 Phil Barber.