Posted 7th March 2021
ANNE LISTER’S FAVOURITE CARNELIAN WAX SEAL – A PRESENT FROM A MOTHER TO HER DAUGHTER
Whilst working on the the less exalted maternal line of Anne Lister, I came across an interesting record which may explain a passage in Anne’s diaries that has intrigued me since I read Helena Whitbread’s transcription of this diary entry:
“To my surprise & great sorrow found, on taking my watch out of my pocket for my favourite seal (a pelican feeding her young with the blood from her breast), and which seal I have used constantly ever since I used a seal at all, that it had broken off from my seal-ring and was lost forever. My mother gave me this seal when I was a child. The carnelian was picked up in Prussia by Count de Obzendorf and cut in Paris. I am very sorry to have lost this seal. Looked all around the room for it in vain.” (Whitbread, 1992, p.324)
“15 January 1824 .On making the bed this morning, found my pelican seal.” (ibid.)
I was intrigued by the provenance of this carnelian intaglio seal which Anne professes in 1824 to be her favourite seal and one she regularly uses. It’s acquisition from Prussia via Paris from a foreign Count by her mother Rebecca Battle left me wondering how did a young Rebecca Battle come into the possession of this seal and how on earth did she meet a Count in the rural setting of the East Riding of Yorkshire in the 18th Century from whom she received this intimate gift!
I have a theory and I stress a theory, as it does question if the familial information recorded in Anne’s own entry above is accurately noted. It is Anne’s own recollection of the provenance of the carnelian seal which is the subject of my query.
The Pelican in her Piety
The seal itself is a carnelian intaglio with an image of a Pelican in her Piety carved onto it. This image is based on a medieval Christian motive of self-sacrifice, arising from a belief that a pelican would pierce it’s own breast and feed her chicks her own blood if they were in need of sustenance. It was a popular Christian motif and was introduced during the later medieval period into certain Heraldic arms. Although often mentioned for it’s reference to female Christian self-sacrifice, the Pelican in her Piety can be also viewed as a representation of the female sacrifice of motherhood.
Ellen J. Millington writes in her book Heraldry in history, poetry, and romance (1858) : “The pelican is always drawn with her wings ‘addorsed,’ ‘vulning,’ or wounding her breast with her beak. Frequently she is in her nest, feeding her young with her blood; she is then described as the ‘Pelican in her piety,’ and affords one of the highest lessons of heraldic symbolism; for whether she is regarded as feeding her young with her blood, or, according to Bossewell, restoring to them thereby the life which by their ingratitude they had forfeited, the symbolic allusion to our ever Blessed Saviour is equally perfect. Bossewell’s account is as follows: “”The pellicane feruently loueth her byrdes : yet when they ben haughtie, and beginne to waxe bolde, they smite her in the face and wounde her, and she smiteth them again and sleaeth them. And after three days, she mourneth for them, and then striking herself in the side till the bloude runne out, she sparpleth it upon their bodyes, and by vertue thereof they quicken againe.””As a symbol of our Lord, the ‘Pelican in her Piety’ is most appropriately introduced into the decoration of churches, and on funeral monuments. In Warbleton church, Sussex, a pelican is inscribed on the brass of William Prestwick, Dean of Hastings, with the motto, “Sic Christus dilexit nos. (*Thus hath Christ loved us.’) In Winchester Cathedral, too, it is seen in the Arms of the good Richard Fox, Bishop of Winton: ‘Ar. a pelican in her piety, or.;’ and Corpus Christi College, Oxford, of which he was founder, bears his Arms, in conjunction with those of Hugh Oldham, Bishop of Exeter. The Pelhams of Laughton, Sussex, bear three pelicans, without the nest.” (Millington, 1858, p.237)
Although we know that Anne Lister possessed a Pelican in her Piety carnelian seal, I believe it was carved as a Christian feminine self-sacrificial motif rather than a Heraldic seal. I believe Lister treasured this seal particularly as it possibly represented for her both her mother’s dedication to her children and aspects of Lister’s own Christian faith.
“Count de Obzendorf” and the Battle family.
Having previously searched through records looking for Count de Obzendorf, indeed any Obzendorf living or visiting Yorkshire from the 17th to the 19th century I came up with no records of that surname. There appeared to be no record that I could find of a Count de Obzendorf. Of course the possibility existed that Rebecca Battle had travelled abroad when young and met this Count de Obzendorf perhaps in Paris where the seal was cut. However, because of the dearth of records even in the European nobility of a Count de Obzendorf, I began to think that Anne had made a mistake in the spelling of the name as Anne had received the seal as a young girl and may not have even known the mysterious Count and maybe her mother may not have recalled correctly the name. I suspected that somewhere in the passing on of information, the name Obzendorf could have been altered through a phonetic error.
Some months later I was continuing my research on Anne’s maternal pedigree concentrating on her maternal grandfather’s life. As some of you may know he was William Battle, a farmer and grocer who held land in Yorkshire particularly in the area surrounding Market Weighton and Welton. William Battle was married to Anne Lister’s grandmother Rebecca Fearn who was descended from the notorious Fearn family of Leeds. William and Rebecca had a number of children one of whom was Rebecca Battle, wife of Jeremy Lister and mother to Anne, Marian, Samuel etc.
Rebecca Fearn (Anne Lister’s grandmother) was born in 1732 to Nehemiah Fearn, a clothier in Leeds and to Catharine Hobman. William had married Rebecca Fearn when she was 25 in 1757 at St. Helens, Stonegate, York. Rebecca Battle gave birth to a daughter her namesake Rebecca Battle in 1770 and I include all records for these events here:
Rebecca Battle (senior) died in July 1774 at the age of 42 leaving her husband William a widow and with 4 year old Rebecca and her 11 year old sister Fanny to raise.
However, another marriage record emerged for William Battle of Welton, this time recorded as a widower. He had remarried a widow named Mary in 1775 whose previous married name had been Mary de Holzendorf. The similarity of the name Obsendorf from Anne Lister’s diary entry and this name struck me and I believe it is no coincidence and that these two names are in fact the same, rendered different by Anne Lister’s spelling in her diary entry above.
Mary de Holzendorf was born in Wakefield as Mary Webster and had married a Frederick Williams Holzendorff in May 1763. I include a record of this marriage from the Leeds Parish register:
However, the marriage did not last long and Frederick Williams de Holzendorff passed away the next year in 1774 leaving Mary de Holzendorff a widow. Frederick de Holzendorff’s obituary appeared in the Leeds Intelligencer on the 1st March 1774:
The similarity of the name Obzendorf to de Holzendorff, the fact Frederick de Holzendorff was a native of Prussia where Anne’s carnelian fob was purchased, the remarriage of his widow with William Battle when Anne’s mother was only four years of age, and the lack of any Obzendorffs in the British and European records of the time are reasons enough for me to believe that the carnelian seal of a Pelican in her Piety which Anne Lister received from her mother as a small child was more than likely gifted to Anne’s mother from her stepmother Mary, the widow of Frederick Williams de Holsendorff AKA the Count de Obzendorf.
Of course, this is just a theory and a newly transcribed journal entry could pour cold water on all this. Or not!
I attached a simplified maternal pedigree for Anne Lister here to demonstrate the familial connections discussed in this post. Please feel free to contact me with any theories supporting or contradictory!