‘Is this a prologue, or the posy of a ring?’
‘Tis brief, my lord’ *
This beauty is reputed to have been given by John of Gaunt (1340-1399) to his mistress and subsequent third wife, Katheryn Swinford (1350-1403). The inscription reads ‘alas for fayte’ which was probably a nod to Gaunt and Katherine’s illicit love affair.
Medieval Posy rings! What a delight they are and how I have longed to own one but the bank balance say No and unless I dig one up in my garden that is likely to remain the case. Posy, or poesy rings, took their name from the old French word poésy which alluded to the short poetic engraving – usually inside the ring but sometimes on the outside – and which worn next to the skin would only be known to the giver and recipient. Popular from medieval to the 17th century I am focussing here on the earlier medieval ones. How nice to think that in those times when, broadly speaking, only the lower classes were able to wed someone of their own choice – betrothed couples, who were often marrying the partner of their parents choice or even older couples where the status of their spouse was paramount – were often going into marriage with feelings of affection or that love grew later. Anyway its all extremely romantic and whats not to like? However to return to the ring said to have belonged to Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.
The engraving, worn next to the skin and therefore only known to the giver and recipient, reads ‘alas for fayte’
Katherine Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster’s posy ring. All photos thanks to Berganza Jewellers who sold the ring to a private buyer.
Described as being set centrally with a cabonchon sapphire, the sprays of flowers were originally enhanced with enamel. C.1360-1400 with documentation relating to the provenance of the ring.
A recently discovered posy ring found by a metal detectorist in Dorset:
Described as two intertwining gold bands symbolising two lives joined together. Set with a diamond in the centre and the inscription in French ‘leo vos tien foi tenes le moy’ which translates as ‘I keep faith with you, keep it with me’.
After its discovery, the ring was sent to the British Museum to be dated and authenticated. Experts who researched the ring were able to identify the man who had owned the land where it was found – Sir Thomas Brook – and have gone on to speculate that he may have given this valuable ring to his wife, Joan, on the occasion of their wedding day in 1388. The ring was found in an area covering the site of a medieval bowling alley and possibly Lady Joan may have lost the ring while playing an early form of croquet. Who knows? It’s a charming story though and has a ring of truth about it (did you see what I just did there!). Anyway – it’s easy to image the lady’s horror, whoever she was, when she realised her beautiful ring was missing and mourning its loss long afterwards.
******Gold band. Early 15th century. Engraved on the outside my.wordely.ioye+alle.my.trust on the interior +hert.tought.lyfe.and.lust. Victoria and Albert Museum.
Made c.1250-1300. Set with a polished cabochon sapphire. Engraved around the edges with the words AVE MARIA GRA[CIA],AMOR VINCI[T] O[M]NIA – Translates as Hail Mary. Love Conquers all/Love overcomes all things. Given to the Victoria and Albert Museum by Dame Joan Evans.
Mid 15th century. Gold set with a spinel. Inscribed on the outside ‘pour amor, say douc’, meaning ‘for love, so sweet’. This ring was found on the Thames foreshore at Bankside. Now in the Museum of London.
This ring was discovered by a metal detectorist on the 19th April 2015 in a field nearby to the village of Green Hammerton in North Yorkshire. Double bezel mounted with a cabochon ruby and emerald. Photo Warski.
English 15th Century. Engraved in Norman French ‘ne meur bon’ followed by an image of a heart which translates as ‘a good heart never dies’. The ring was declared treasure under the terms of the Treasure Act (1996) and local museums were given the chance to buy it from the finder. However sadly none of the museums were able to raise the funds and it was sold privately.
Gold and inscribed on the outside with the words ‘tout pour vous’ which translates as ‘all for you’ and sprays of flowers that were once enamelled. Made in the 15th century and discovered near Thame, Oxfordshire
Not a posy ring but an early finger ring dating from c1400. Found by a metal detectorist in the area of Bolnhurst and Keysoe (Bedfordshire) in 2013. Ashmolean Museum, Oxford.
Now I know, I know – this is not a true posy ring but I’m sneaking it in as its far, far too lovely not to. Dating from around the time of the reign of Richard II the ring would have been set off by the sumptuous fashions of the times. Two pearls of the original four pearls are missing but the pomegranate-red garnet is still intact.
Now here is the little hidden detail that has given me cause to include it although of course its not an engraving as such – the letters A and M are artfully included beneath the decorated shoulder of the ring….
The collet is supported by two gold, openwork letters – A and M – underneath the decorated shoulders of the ring – as the invocation of Ave Maria (Hail Mary). How sumptuous is that! Perhaps my favourite of all the rings I’ve come across in my search for posy rings…
Apologies for the quality of this photo. I’ve included it because of the poignancy behind it. Discovered by archaeologists from MoLA during the excavations at St Mary Spital the outside of this ring is engraved with the words ‘[Je] ne weil aymer autre vous’ (I am not seeking to love anyone but you).
St. Mary Spital Augustinian Priory and Hospital was founded in II97 and was the second largest infirmary in London covering the area known today as Spital Square. It stood for over 400 years until it was demolished in 1540. It had two infirmaries the smallest one of which was for higher status patiences. It was in the rubble of one of these infirmaries that this ring was found after being lost presumably by one of the patients whose story is lost to us now.
This gold ring is very small and thought to have been made for a child. Dated to the mid to late 15th Century. Now in the London Museum.
This small ring measures just 17 mm across. The size indicates it was a child’s ring and possibly for a betrothal. Decorated with engraved leaves which originally had alternating black and white enamelling. Interior of the ring inscribed with the words ‘nul autre’ (none other).
I hope you have enjoyed our little meander into medieval posy rings – and now I shall return to digging my garden….
*Hamlet, Act 3, Scene 2. William Shakespeare.
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