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September 2019 Item of the Month

The patriarchal seal of Bishop Bek

Indulgence of 80 days by Antony [Bek], patriarch of Jerusalem and bishop of Durham, dated at Eltham in the diocese of Rochester, 5 June 1310. (Ref: DCD 2.13.Pont.6) Image reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral.

The seal of Antony Bek, bishop of Durham, as patriarch of Jerusalem represents pretty well the apogee of power and influence of the bishops of Durham. Bek was appointed patriarch of Jerusalem by Pope Clement V in 1306. The position made Bek in effect the senior clergyman in the kingdom. It was a distinction that no member of the clergy in this country had held before or has held since. Whilst it was an honour that was somewhat lacking in power in itself as Jerusalem was then in Moslem hands, it did bring Bek some perks as the patriarch still had some possessions in Mediterranean islands, and the use of a church in Rome, and, perhaps more pertinently, it brought Bek personal exemption from obedience to his immediate superior, the archbishop of York.

Never one to let slip a chance for proclaiming his status and position, Bek made use of his new title in his documents and had a new seal made, which uniquely combines images of his two high ecclesiastical offices. It is a stunning example of the seal-maker’s art, one of the finest in the cathedral’s extensive collection of many fine seals. It is redolent with imagery of Bek’s new elevated rank. The central portion of the obverse of the design reflects Bek as patriarch. At the top is Our Lord on the Cross flanked by the Blessed Virgin Mary and St John. Below that is Our Lord’s sepulchre with an angel seated on it, announcing the Resurrection to the 3 women, with 3 soldiers dozing on their shields in the tomb’s recesses below. At the bottom is Bek, in his mass vestments, kneeling, and praying. He is flanked on each side by a patriarchal cross, beautifully shaped and with a pin in the foot for planting it beside the patriarch, rather than being borne before him processionally. The two side panels reflect Bek as bishop of Durham, with the crowned Blessed Virgin holding the Christ child on one side, and on the other St Cuthbert fully robed and mitred. His right hand is raised in blessing, and he is holding the crowned head of St Oswald in his left hand, with his mitre in the crook of his elbow. In a roundel below each of these niches is an ermine mill-rind cross, part of Bek’s personal arms, and reflecting his military career on Crusade with Prince Edward in the early 1270s and then commanding part of the then King Edward I’s troops at the Battle of Falkirk in 1298.

Charter of Antony [Bek], Bishop of Durham, inspecting and confirming a grant by Sir Thomas of Herrington to Richard de Hoton, Prior, and the convent of Durham of his manor of Houghall, dated at Pickering, 28 August 1292 (Ref: DCD 3.2.Pont.15a) Image reproduced by kind permission of the Chapter of Durham Cathedral.

The dorse or reverse of this seal is another image that also sets Bek apart from his predecessors and further embellishes his status. (The illustrated example of this reverse design is from an earlier, but better surviving, vesica-shaped version of Bek’s seal.) This is very much him as bishop of Durham, but the image is emphasising the temporal power and authority that he holds, uniquely, as that bishop. This image imitates that of the obverse of the great seal of the king, as here the bishop is depicted seated on a throne. Bek’s military and warlike nature is enhanced by his personal arms of an ermine mill-rind cross being depicted on the chasuble that he is wearing. The device also features below the throne to his left. Opposite it is a castle, probably reflecting Bek’s position as constable of the Tower of London which he was awarded in 1275. Above Bek’s mitred head is a leopard from the royal arms. To Bek’s sides are a crowned and robed St Oswald holding a sceptre in his right hand, and St Cuthbert, again in mitre and mass vestments and holding the crowned head of St Oswald.

The document to which this seal is appended further illustrates Bek’s now unique status. He is titled at the beginning of it as patriarch of Jerusalem and bishop of Durham. In it he grants indulgences to those visiting Durham Cathedral, not just for 40 days as bishop, but for an additional 40 days as patriarch. Furthermore, he ratifies all other indulgences granted by bishops, and also by archbishops, indicating his status above even the archbishop of Canterbury. He did not live too long to enjoy this status. This document was sealed on 5 June 1310; he died 9 months later, on 3 March 1311. Nor was his status and power untrammelled as he had gone to Rome in 1306, yes to solicit the pope’s favour and thereby to receive this elevation to be patriarch, but actually more pertinently to seek papal support in his long-running dispute with his prior at Durham Cathedral, Richard de Hoton. The convoluted case, involving a siege of the cathedral, the imprisonment of the prior, and demands for a charter of liberties by the commonalty of Durham, showed that such a magnificent seal could reflect a perceived authority, rather the actuality of that authority.

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