By Alexandra Samuel
Boxley Abbey, Kent, founded in 1146, was a Cistercian Monastery, most well-known for housing the Rood of Grace. It became a site of pilgrimage for those looking to gaze upon this miraculous relic, with visitors coming from far and wide, including a young Henry VIII and Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio.
Cardinal Lorenzo Campeggio & Henry VIII
Following the dissolution of the monasteries, Boxley Abbey was disbanded and its assets appropriated by the Crown in 1537, and in 1540, the site was granted to Sir Thomas Wyatt, along with many of the surrounding manorial estates.
16th-century English politician, ambassador, and lyric poet
It was within this area on a cold January day in 2019, nearly 500 years later, that an astonishing jewel was discovered by a metal detector. A gold ring, set with deep red gemstones in the formation of a fleur-de-lis.
The fleur-de-lis motif originated with the Frankish King, Clovis (466-511AD), and there are differing tales as to how the two are linked. One such legend tells how the Virgin Mary presented him with a lily at his baptism, which supposedly grew from the tears shed by Eve as she left the Garden of Eden. Another legend suggests that King Clovis adopted the symbol when golden lilies showed him how to safely cross a river during battle, to successfully defeat the invaders.
King Clovis 466-511AD
The fleur-de-lis has since taken on many symbolic meanings, from purity and chivalry to the holy trinity. However, it has throughout retained its undeniable connection to the French monarchy, and their divine right to rule, appearing as part of their insignia and on their coats of arms.
Rings in the shape of a fleur-de-lis are very much few and far between. In the Berganza collection and alongside the Boxley Abbey ring, we have one other, featuring sapphires with traces of white enamel.
Post-Medieval Sapphire Fleur-De-Lis Ring, Circa 16th Century
Another example, primarily set with diamonds, features in '"Living nobly": Jewelry of the Renaissance Courts', (Chadour-Sampson and Hindman, 2020) and was part of the Colnaghi’s 1981 exhibition ‘Wunderkammer’ (Chamber of Wonders). After extensive research, it appears that a fleur-de-lis ring featuring just rubies is most unusual as we are yet to find a comparable example.
Since its discovery, there has been some discrepancy as to what gemstone is set within the ring found at Boxley Abbey, with both amethysts and garnets being suggested by the Portable Antiquities Scheme and the auction house it was then sold through, respectively. Upon close inspection by our gemmologists, the gemstones were in fact determined to be rubies; natural, untreated, and from the world-renowned Burmese mines, which has been a historic source of rubies since at least 600 AD.
Rubies were one of the most sought-after gems of European royalty and nobility due to their supposed intrinsic virtues and properties. With reference to ancient texts, medieval and renaissance lapidaries proclaimed that rubies guaranteed health, wealth, passion, and wisdom. In some cases, it was even thought that the stone would darken to communicate important information, such as the presence of danger, to its wearer. The ruby was a rare and powerful stone, for powerful people.
The ring itself is crafted from high carat yellow gold, and shows no traces of having once featured enamel detailing, as can be seen in other examples of fleur-de-lis rings. The symmetric and ornate detailing of the shoulders, along with the quatrefoil style of setting is highly suggestive of a date towards the end of the 16th century, likely during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I.
There is no exact way to deduce where precisely this ring might have been made, or for whom, however, it is probable that given the rarity of the rubies, the finely detailed craftsmanship, and the telling fleur-de-lis motif, that this ring has links to the French court.
So how did a ring, most likely originating in France, end up in the south of England?
Since we know it was discovered in a place of pilgrimage frequented by royalty and Princes of the Church, it could be attributed to their visits. However, when one considers the high possibility of this ring being crafted in the latter half of the 16th century, and with the dissolution of Boxley Abbey occurring in 1537, this seems unlikely.
Another avenue that should be explored is whether this ring was brought over by a member of the French court during a visit to England. Indeed, King Henry III of France’s younger brother, François, Duke of Alençon and Anjou, famously courted Queen Elizabeth I from 1578 until his death in 1584, and visited her in England on a couple of occasions in 1579 and 1581.
François, Duke of Alençon and Anjou
Perhaps it was during one of these visits by the Duke and his French entourage that the ring found its way to Boxley Abbey, which lies equidistant and en-route between the English Channel and London. With rubies known to symbolise love and passion, this could well have been a gift from a noble French man to his English love. Or perchance it was simply misplaced, lost to time until it resurfaced in the twenty-first century.
Whilst the fascinating story this ring surely holds can never be truly known, this incredible piece will soon be on display at our showroom, alongside a curated selection of rare gem-set rings from the Berganza collection, all of equal intrigue!
"Living nobly": Jewelry of the Renaissance Courts', (Chadour-Sampson and Hindman, 2020)