By Harriet Guildford
"Blest be the art that can immortalize" - William Cowper
A true feat of craftsmanship, a fascinating piece of British history, and a tale of immense tragedy and true love. This ring holds a remarkable story which dates back to over 200 years ago.
Dated to circa 1818, this exquisite ring features a glass compartment containing braided human hair, protected by an oval old cut chrysoberyl to the left, and an oval old cut amethyst to the right. Hand-crafted out of a rich, buttery yellow gold, creating incredible intricate granular detail and a finely decorated gallery, this ring is certainly a labour of love.
Most significantly, clearly engraved to the bezel of the ring, it reads:
'Eliza Cheney Obt.16 May 1818 .32'
This piece is a mourning ring. These beautifully crafted pieces acted as visual reminders of loved ones passed, and prompted the wearer to live for the moment as life could be short. In many instances, hair from the deceased was incorporated into these designs, and they were often inscribed with the names and dates of the loved one.
After extensive research, I believe the deceased to be Elizabeth Cheney, formerly Elizabeth Ayre. Eliza, as she is referred to in the engraving, was born in 1786 in Leicestershire. More specifically, the small, quaint town of Gaddesby. Her youthful hair, delicately braided and protected for over 200 years lies behind the glass compartment of this ring.
Eliza’s father was John Ayre of Gaddesby, the High Sheriff of Leicestershire, and her mother was Anne Ayre. She lived at Gaddesby Hall along with her siblings, and in 1811 at 25 years of age, married Edward Hawkins Cheney (1778-1848).
As I delved further into the history of this piece, I made the fascinating discovery, that Eliza's husband and likely original owner of this ring, Edward, is in fact a significant figure in British History, famed for his crucial role in the Battle of Waterloo.
Colonel Cheney was the senior captain of the Royal Scots Greys, who commanded the regiment at Waterloo after the commanding officer was killed, and the two majors seriously wounded. He was executive commander of the battle, and during those hours, showed a defiant bravery and expert leadership.
In the midst of the chaos of the Battle of Waterloo on June 18th 1815, Cheney led four charges, and had four separate horses killed from beneath him. On the fifth horse who was injured, he led the surviving soldiers off the field of battle. The importance of Cheney’s role in the battle was recognised almost immediately afterwards by being awarded the rank of lieutenant-colonel. A sculpture by Joseph Gott was created in the event of Cheney's death, depicting the pivotal moment a horse was shot from beneath him. This imposing, dramatic sculpture was created to stand in Gaddesby Hall where Eliza and Edward lived, but in 1917, was moved to Gaddesby church, where it resides to this day.
Cheney spent his entire active service career with the Royal Scots Greys, but in 1818, he retired to half-pay. This was due to the death of Eliza, who on the 16th of May of that year, tragically passed away during the birth of their second son, who also did not survive. She was 32 years of age.
I believe this remarkable ring was commissioned and worn in her memory, by her grieving husband, Edward. The use of her hair ensures her essence is eternally held and immortalised. To further encapsulate the love between Eliza Ayre and Edward Cheney, the choice of gemstones featured in this ring may also hold significance. One could suggest that the 'C' in chrysoberyl and the 'A' in amethyst, was a conscious choice by Edward to symbolise the union of the lover's surnames, Cheney and Ayres.
A design driven by sentimentality and unconditional love, this ring truly honours Eliza's memory. Mourning rings were often created with the hope that their loved one will live on, not only during the lifetime of the grieving, but beyond. Here we are, over 200 years later, recognising their love, and remembering Eliza.