Conservation of the Trinity College Charter of Dotation

rolled charter

From the beginning of January to the middle of March, the College’s Charter of Dotation, dating from 1546 and listing Trinity’s endowments, underwent extensive conservation treatment at the Fitzwilliam Museum’s Book and Manuscript Conservation Workshop.

distorted charter
The Charter as received, showing distortion due to rolled storage.

The Charter, which is written on seven skins of vellum connected by a green cord that bears a brown wax impression of the Great Seal, had suffered from a certain amount of neglect in past centuries. The parchment was heavily soiled with dark, sooty dirt, and fluctuating relative humidity, combined with rolled storage, had left the document distorted and extremely difficult to read. The seal had become detached in the past and had been tied back on upside-down!

Obverse of seal.
Reverse of seal.

Conservation treatment of this magnificent document involved highly detailed cleaning of the parchment to remove as much dirt as possible before the individual leaves were gently humidified and the distortions eased out. The cleaning charter 1cleaning process in particular demanded great concentration so that later annotations, some of them in pencil, were not removed along with the dirt. Three Mars plastic erasers were used in total, mostly cut up into tiny wedge-shaped pieces so that dirt could be removed from between the lines and the words!

charter text
Careful cleaning transformed the document from dark grey to creamy parchment.
Detail from the cleaned top border
Detail from the cleaned top border.

During cleaning, it was interesting to find a trimming from the end of a quill hidden in the plica (fold) of the document: there is no way of telling quite how long it had been concealed in the fold, but even if it is not from the pen of the original scribe, it must be several centuries old. Evidence such as this is always preserved during conservation treatment and the trimming has been mounted in the box with the conserved Charter.

The humidified and flattened parchment leaves needed to settle under weighted boards for several weeks so that they stabilised properly. During this time, a bespoke fitted box was made in the workshop to house the Charter and allow it to be displayed safely. The new box is made from archival materials and has a completely removable lid so that the base tray can act as an exhibition mount when the Charter is displayed, without further need to handle the original document. The box incorporates a contoured, padded recess to protect the seal and a window in which the quill trimming is displayed.

conserved charter
The conserved charter in its new box.


With thanks to Edward Cheese, ACR