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Old Land Deeds
It has been a habit amongst lawyers in recent times that, when purchases are made of land, only the deeds that immediately concern the title are handed over, and early ones, unnecessary to quote in the abstract of the title, are considered as of small importance. They are sometimes retained in the lawyer's office for a while, and then sold, or are even discarded at the time. Such a course is exceedingly unsatisfactory from the point of view of the antiquary. There are some people who care nothing for the history of the land which they possess, and only desire that their possession of it should be secure, but there are many others keenly interested in everything that concerns the past story of land, and in the people who originally possessed it, and to them these deeds are of high importance.
The result of such a course has been that a number of parchments, from time to time, have come into the market, and moreover, large quantities of documents have been turned out of muniment rooms by persons who knew nothing of the value of the deeds they handled, and were quite unable to peruse them.
Collectors have added a new hobby, that of the acquisition of interesting and important deeds, and the price for such treasures has begun to mount to quite a substantial figure.
Deeds that have upon them the portrait of the Sovereign, with elaborate decorated borders, and with the seals appended therefrom, have a double interest. They are beautiful objects in themselves, and are generally also of some notable value from the standpoint of history. I know of one billiard-room splendidly decorated by a whole series of framed deeds which hang upon its walls, all beautifully written and elaborately illuminated, constituting a unique form of ornamentation.
Some collectors are only attracted by the seals, and for fine impressions of early Royal seals are prepared to pay substantial prices, whether the document to which the seal is attached is a notable one or not. Others collect deeds with signatures, and a document signed by Queen Elizabeth is always a precious thing. Her big, square, bold signature is very noticeable, and eminently characteristic of its writer.
Some landowners, having had their attention drawn to the early deeds they possess, have framed the documents, and have got an archivist to write a short account of each deed, to attach to the frame, and then have hung these deeds in passages or corridors: In this way they have provided, not only a method of decoration, but have enabled the treasures that have borne the signatures of their ancestors and their Sovereigns to be appreciated by all who can see them.
All kinds of deeds have been turned out of record-rooms and lawyers' offices, and have come into the market. There have been Court Rolls, from various manors, which easily sell for from ten to twenty pounds apiece, and much smaller ones are of less value. They are full of, information respecting the tenants of the manors. Marriage settlements have also been discarded, and when sealed and signed by important people are quite precious things. Old leases very often bear the autographs of historic personages. For example, I saw some a few days ago, signed by the Archbishops of Canterbury, Whitgift, Abbot, Laud, Juxon, Sheldon and Sancroft. Ancient charters often bear important seals, and the earlier they are in date, the more precious they are to a collector. A beautiful little charter of Henry III, with a delightfully sharp seal three inches long, sold for about ten pounds recently; a document of James II for a very similar amount.
Papal Bulls often occur amongst the family documents, and have been placed upon the market, and these are decorative objects, and generally give interesting information concerning religious difficulties in families, as, for example, marriages contrary to canon law, owing to the relations of the two persons as regards consanguinity, or the masses to be said at particular altars in certain churches.
Quaker marriage settlements are attractive things, because often they bear very many signatures, and those connected with some of the early watchmakers of the eighteenth century are adorned at times by the signatures of royal personages and ambassadors of high importance, who were present on these occasions.
There have been several notable documents sold recently in America; a highway grant under the Great Seal of Elizabeth sold for a very substantial sum, and a deed of exchange relating to certain property, which bore the signatures of William Cecil, Lord Burghley, and Sir Walter Mildmay, with the Queen's own signature, and possessing a splendid example of her first Great Seal, was a treasure for which there was considerable competition.
Deeds signed by Edward VI are unusually precious. It will be remembered that he came to the throne when he was only ten years old, and at first many of the Royal letters patent were signed by the entire Council of Regency, including Cranmer, the Duke of Somerset, the Lord High Admiral, Tunstall, Bishop of Durham, and others, and notable deeds not only bear the Great Seal, but also the King's Royal sign manual; a document signed in this way is worth about two hundred pounds, and it is very seldom that such a thing comes into the market.
Sometimes deeds contain maps of property which are ornamental, but which also may be of importance when the property changes hands, concerning its boundaries, and very often there are illuminated coats of arms upon ancient deeds, carefully prepared, and at times glowing with beautiful colour.
Sometimes, amongst the old parchments, there are family pedigrees, and these are always precious. There are collectors ready to purchase them, especially those who are connected in any degree, however remote, with the family whose pedigree has been prepared, and here, again, our American cousins take great interest in such matters, and are prepared to bid substantially for any ancient pedigrees. It is seldom advisable to turn boxes of deeds into the market until they have been very carefully examined, because even if they have no importance with regard to property which perchance has passed away from the family, there is antiquarian interest in such parchments, and very frequently an aesthetic charm in the membranes, quite apart from their archaeological value. There are many country houses in England where there are still masses of old documents, some of the highest possible archaeological importance, and yet I heard only within the last few months of ten boxes of old deeds, regarded as of no value at all, being turned out of a country house, and sold as waste paper at five shillings a box. One tiny deed out of one of these boxes belonged to the late thirteenth century, and was sold almost immediately for L25-ten times the amount that had been obtained for the whole lot of boxes.