In 2020 the Regional Directorate of Cultural Affairs (DRAC) in France’s northernmost region, Hauts-de-France, requested that the country’s National Monuments Center (CMN) begin renovation of an historic royal castle located in the commune of Villers-Cotterêts in the department of Aisne. While searching a room in the north wing of the royal residence earlier this year, the archaeologists discovered a rare St George seal that represents one of the most significant finds to emerge from their explorations. According to the official Inrap French press release , this 15th-century St George seal was of the type known as a seal matrix, which is an engraved metal object (bronze in this instance) that would have been used to put a wax seal of identification on important documents.
A side view of the rare St George seal found in a medieval castle in France. (© Serge le Maho / Inrap)
French Castle Renovations Lead To St George Seal
The historic royal castle in the commune of Villers-Cotterêts was constructed in 1528 by king Francis I , who is well known for his 1539 order that required the use of the French language instead of Latin on all official government documents.
As a part of the ongoing Villers-Cotterêts renovation project, archaeologists from the National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research (Inrap) and the Aisne Archaeological Service have been carrying out excavations everywhere on castle grounds. They’ve been trying to locate and remove any artifacts that might be damaged or lost as construction- and reconstruction-related activities progress.
In medieval times, wax seals were added to establish the authenticity of such documents. Each seal matrix would contain a unique signature, either an image, lettering, or both, that would act as a distinct identifier for the organization, authority, or individual to whom it belonged. A seal matrix might be used by a government official working in some bureaucratic or administrative role. It could also be used by private authorities or individuals who wanted to authenticate documents issued by their company or organization.
Seals like this were once used exclusively in Europe by kings and representatives of their courts. But starting around the 10th century religious authorities began putting seals on their documents, and by the 13th century wax seals were routinely added to documents by a wide range of royal, religious, secular, and bureaucratic authorities.
A closeup of the “positive side” of the St George seal in which you can easily see George the knight and his steed above the dragon. (© Serge le Maho / Inrap)
Obtaining the Saint George Seal of Approval
The 500-year-old Villers-Cotterêts St George seal matrix was found in the remains of a fireplace, encased inside a pile of old burned-out coals. It may have fallen into a fire accidentally or been discarded there by someone who no longer had use for it and was attempting to melt it down.
The seal matrix was made from bronze and included a metal extension with a suspension ring that allowed a person to wear it on a chain or strap so it could be carried around the neck. Its engraved face was quite small, measuring just 0.86 inches wide and 0.67 inches high (or 22 mm by 17 mm).
Despite its small size, a close-up examination of the face of the matrix revealed a clearly discernable and quite extraordinary image of Saint George, a Christian martyr who was widely celebrated during medieval times. In this image Saint George is perched atop a horse and is riding right over the top of a dragon apparently getting ready to crush it. The rider’s armor was of a type frequently used in the 15th century, which is what the archaeologists relied on to date it to that time.
On the perimeter of the engraved face there is a legend written in Gothic letters, which reads as follows: IP PRI/EUR / DEVILLERS / LESM / OINE. At present the meaning of these letters remains unknown.
Based on its unique iconography, the Inrap and Aisne archaeologists say the wax seal belonged to the Saint-Georges monastery in Villes-les-Moines, which was affiliated with the abbey of la-Chaise-Dieu in Auvergne. This priory was located just over a half-mile or one kilometer to the northeast of the castle at Villers-Cotterêts, which is about 70 km (44 miles) northeast of Paris.
Unfortunately, little is known about this priory, outside of the fact that it existed. It was converted into a Benedictine convent called Saint-Rémy-Saint-Georges in the 17th century, as the famed Saint George remained its patron saint throughout its existence.
A mosaic depicting St George on horseback slaying the dragon. ( VIS Fine Arts / Adobe Stock)
Who Was Saint George?
According to historians, Saint George (George of Lydda) was a Christian of Cappadocian Greek origin who served as a member of the Roman Praetorian Guard during the reign of Emperor Diocletian (285 to 305). At some point he was asked to renounce his religious faith, and when he refused he was sentenced to death in the year 303 AD.
After being granted sainthood, Saint George became one of the most popular and admired Christian martyrs in medieval Europe. Monasteries were named after him, villages and nations alike chose him as their patron and protector, and legends were told that celebrated his bravery and dedication to his faith and to helping people in need.
The most famous of these legends was called Saint George and the Dragon , and it is this story that is referenced on the newly recovered seal matrix.
In this tale George is credited with saving a Libyan princess from a cruel dragon, which had terrorized a village for many years demanding human sacrifices. In the earliest versions of the story this feat of bravery had been assigned to other saints, but sometime in the 11th or 12th century the highly popular St George was drafted into the hero’s role.
St George’s association with the legendary killing of the evil dragon helped inspire even more admiration for him, cementing his reputation as one of the most courageous of all Christian saints. In medieval Europe he came to be seen as the personification of unshakeable religious faith and humanitarian commitment.
The medieval French Villers-Cotterêts castle restoration project where the St George seal was found is about 70 km or 44 miles northeast of Paris. ( French Ministry of Culture )
A Remarkable Artifact by Any Measure
The discovery of matrix at the castle in Villers-Cotterêts is a notable because the object is so unusual. Most medieval seal matrices were melted down or discarded after being used for a few years, and consequently these objects are only occasionally found during archaeological excavations.
The fact that this particular matrix included the image of Saint George, in the context of the most famous legend connected to his name, only adds to its remarkable character and rarity.
Top image: The rare St George seal, a matrix seal, found during the Villers-Cotterêts medieval castle restoration project last year . Source: Serge Le Maho / Inrap
By Nathan Falde