A Rare and Important Elizabethan Signet Ring


Friday 11th June 2010

Signet rings have been in use for millennia, with some of the earliest extant examples originating in Ancient Egypt. Seal rings incorporating heraldic devices and initials, however, did not appear until the medieval period in Europe.  The present ring is an example of this early form of initialled signet, and is much like a number of British rings in the collections of both the Victoria and Albert Museum and the British Museum.

In the late fourteenth century there appears to have been a change in taste with regards to signet rings, from those set with hardstone intaglios carved with Classical figures, to those with large metal bezels engraved with the owner's initials, usually enclosed in a rope or dot border and surrounded by foliate or symbolic ornaments. The earliest initial rings were typically in bronze or silver, and were used by the middle to lower classes whose business required frequent authentication of documents. In the fifteenth century, however, rings of this type were adopted by the aristocracy, and so heraldic as well as initial rings were rendered in gold for these purposes.  Large gold double initial rings like this one became especially fashionable in the second half of the sixteenth century. Uses varied, as is demonstrated by the diverse provenances associated with the few known examples.  A highly similar ring bearing the initials "HM" tied with a love knot once belonged to Lord Darnley (1545-1567), the second husband of Mary, Queen of Scots (1552-1587), and was made for their marriage in 1565. Another ring of the same type and decoration but with the initials "WS" is thought to have belonged to the most famous of poets, William Shakespeare (1564-1616)—likely commercial rather than nuptial in purpose. Other rings of this date and form are linked to merchants, such as one, again very similar to the present piece, depicted in a portrait of Gamaliel Pye (d. 1596), a Londoner and five times Warden of the Worshipful Company of Butchers. In this last example, we are fortunate to be able to see exactly how this ring was worn, at least by one owner---on the index finger of the left hand.

The decoration of the present ring is a further testament to its sophistication. Above and below the initials are two stylized foliate swags in the grotesque style of the Italian Renaissance. Inspired by the decoration of Nero's Domus Aurea (Golden House) in Rome, built in the first century AD and rediscovered in the late fifteenth century, it was at the forefront of fashion at this time, and was first brought to England via Italian artisans commissioned by Henry VIII.  The decoration on the shoulders, known as strapwork, is another variant of the grotesque, embraced more so in the Mannerist period which directly followed the Renaissance. First introduced by the Italian designer Rosso Fiorentino in (1494-1540) in his designs for the palace of Fontainebleau for Francois 1ier of France, the motif was then spread throughout Northern Europe by way of Flemish and German printmakers in the 1560s. Based on both the decoration and the provenance of other rings of this exact form, this ring is certainly a rare and important relic of sixteenth century British history.

REFERENCES

Charles Oman, British Rings:  800-1914, London:  B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1974.

Diana Scarisbrick, Rings:  Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty, London:  Thames and Hudson, 2007.

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