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Fig.1 obverse of Papal Bulla

Lead is a metal commonly employed during the Medieval period for making the seal dies used for sealing documents with wax impressions. There is however one type of seal that is actually made of a round flan of lead. They are known as bullae (singular bulla) - so named because they were attached to Papal documents or Bulls. They were sent from the offices of the Pope in Rome and the seal signified that the document was issued with the Pope's authority.

Being a soft and malleable metal, lead was a useful alternative to the more commonly used wax seal in countries where wax might be adversely affected by heat. Over 700 examples of bullae, many still attached to their original documents, are held in the Public Record Office and The British Museum also has a large collection. The bulla was impressed over a coloured silk lace or hemp cord, which was used to attach the seal to the document. The examples in the two collections show that various coloured silks were used - yellow, purple, red, white and green - but by far the most common is a combination of red and yellow.

The earliest bulla in existence is of John III (561-574AD) and until the middle of the 9th century early examples simply bear the Pope's name in lines on one side and PAPAE on the reverse. From the time of Benedict III (855-858AD) the name appears in a circle around a central cross or flower.

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Fig.2 Papal Bulla of Clement V (1305-1314)

From the 11th century the more familiar design appears with the heads of St. Paul to the left and St. Peter to the right of a central cross, both within a beaded border which may be intended to be a nimbus or halo. Above are the letters S'PA S'PE (St. Paul St. Peter). The reverse has the name and number of the Pope in latin form and PP with a contraction mark over - an abbreviation for PAPA. Remarkably this style was retained with only minor alterations for almost 900 years until 1878 when Leo XIII replaced the lead bulla with a red ink stamp. This stamp however still retained the design with the two heads of the Apostles. Additional decoration on some bullae are identifiable as the family Arms of the Pope. The bulla of Urban VI (illustrated) has the two eagles-displayed of the Prignano family.

The earliest recorded Papal bulla found in England is that of Innocent II (1130-1143AD) and so the discovery of an earlier or even pre-Conquest bulla would be very important indeed. It could also signify the existence nearby of an early ecclesiastical site. The title photograph is a bulla of Gregory VIIII (1227-1241AD) found on a Lincolnshire DMV by the author. Bullae later than 1534, the year when Henry VIII severed links with the Church of Rome, are unlikely to be found in this country. Many bullae may have been discarded at this time during the Dissolution of the Monasteries and therefore any former ecclesiastical site would have the potential to produce one of these artefacts.

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BONIFATIVS (Boniface) CALISTVS (Calixtus) CELESTINVS (Celestine) CLEMENS (Clement)


LVCIVS (Lucius) MARINVS (Martin) NICHOLAI (Nicholas) PASCHALIS (Pascal)

SERGII (Sergius) VRBANVS (Urban) ZACHARIAE (Zachary)

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1. A Catalogue of Seals in the Department of MSS in the British Museum (vol. vi) - W. de G. Birch, 1900
2. Le monete e le bulle pontificie - A. Serefini, 1910
3. Handbook of Dates for Students of English History - C. R. Cheney, 1961
4. The Award Illustrated Dictionary - J. Coulson (ed) - 1984

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