|Presented for sale by Phil Barber, Post Office Box 8694, Boston, Mass. 02114-0036 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 an archaic word for any 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" 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 twenty 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. Select the highlighted links below to view the graphics, and when you are done you may select GO BACK in your browser to return to this page. Approximate loading speed with a 56K modem is 3-4K/sec; thus a 60K image would take 7 - 10 seconds to load. Loading time is proportionally longer with slower modems.
More catalog updates of individually described indentures from the 17th to 19th centuries are planned and are in the process of preparation - please check back again soon!
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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Contents ©2007 Phil Barber.