Caroline Barton, British Museum
Mourning rings are an emotive form of jewellery; very few objects that we have the privilege of working with in the Treasure process have such potentially traceable histories, and academically they are of great interest. Examples such as the Littleton ring, which features in the ITV series Britain’s Secret Treasures can not only be accurately dated but also name the person whose death they commemorate.
But not all mourning rings specifically name the deceased, as this one does. They might feature or incorporate mottos or death-related prose. It was in the seventeenth century that Momento Mori rings developed more fully into what we know now as mourning rings. Momento Mori rings (with their rather stern inscriptions, such as ‘learn to dye’) acted as a reminder that youth and beauty come to an end, reflecting the Biblical reference in Ecclesiastes: ‘beauty ends in decay and putrification’. Memorial/ mourning rings marked the death of individuals rather than portraying urgings to godly living, and messages upon these rings became more personal.
Examples in the British Museum and on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database with messages/prose incorporated include inscriptions such as ‘Hope helpeth greife’, ‘Not dead but sleepeth‘, ‘not lost but gone before’, ‘In death shees blest Since heauens her rest’, ‘my friend is Dead my Joys, are fled’ and one that impacts when reading it, the really rather poignant inscription, ‘REMEMBER YOU ONCE HAD A SON GERALD‘.
Rings such as the Littleton example give a glimpse into what we today consider a very personal matter – family mourning. These rings, to the modern eye, bring imagery of a mourning family, keeping the details of their deceased loved one close by: their name, date of death, age at death forever close, worn around the finger. Mourning ritual at this time, though, was not so much a personal matter but a public one and mourning rings showed societal obligation as well as fashion trends of the time.
The colour black seen on rings such as these signifies memorial and in later production (around the eighteenth century) the ‘rules’ of mourning rings were quite strictly adhered to (black enamel for married, white for unmarried). Indeed the ritual of mourning in general was scrupulously respected. It was more than a demonstration of regret; it was a mark of respect. Widows would wear black for a year, seal impressions were black wax rather than red, mirrors were covered in the household, and indeed mourning garb itself had to avoid having a shine or reflection (with the soul being vulnerable to reflective images, especially when weakened by grief). Black apparel was not the only acceptable colour for mourning; white was appropriate for when the deceased was a young virgin of either sex; a mixture of black and white was also acceptable; red was associated with redemption and the blood of Christ, and purple/mauve was for royal mourning.
At the time of the Littleton ring, the ritual of mourning was very public. The use of mourning rings was widespread from the mid-sixteenth century and peaked in popularity in the eighteenth. Earlier examples tended to be produced by the upper classes, and by the time of the Littleton ring they were mass-produced and supplied by specialist jewellers whose trade cards advertised mourning rings at the shortest notice.
It was common practice to have rings itemised in wills, listing the number to be produced in that person’s name. For example, US president George Washington declared in his will: ‘to my sister-in-law Hannah Washington of Fairford and Mildred Washington Hayford I give each a mourning ring of the value of $1000. These bequests are not made for the intrinsic value but as mementos of my esteem and regard”.
The list of recipients for rings could actually be quite extensive and there are examples of itemised wills showing long (and expensive) lists of recipients. The rings tended to be distributed either at the funeral or within the mourning period, as shown in the contemporary source of Samuel Pepys’ diaries. Pepys describes a business visit to Captain Cooke of Greenwich which happened to coincide with a recent burial of a gentleman unknown to him, James Temple: “Here I had a very good ring which I did give to my wife as soon as I came home”. In fact, Pepys himself arranged for 128 rings costing over £100, to be produced upon his death.
From the 1860s the fashion of mourning jewellery started to change. The style of rings shifted to contain portraiture, and memento lockets, worn from the neck or from a bracelet, began to replace the ring. It’s thought by some that once the tradition became widespread, and not just a ritual of the elite, the upper classes stopped commissioning mourning rings. And with this, the fashion for them eventually declined, with the exception of course of bequests of general rings worn in memory of someone, which continues, but such rings are not easily identified.
By the early twentieth century, as mortality rates dropped, death seemed more remote and one may even say less feared, and so with this change in sentiment the individualised mourning ring declined and even the death toll of World War I did not revive the practice.
Though the sometimes cavalier distribution of these rings demonstrates a potential lack of connection or even mourning from some of the recipients this does not detract from the emotive nature of the rings. Mourning rings are fascinating as a datable object type but also as poignant objects in and of themselves.
I will leave you with an example which I feel fully epitomises that. Originally a betrothal/wedding ring, one example in the British Museum collection bears the inscription ‘God hath sent my hearts content’. It was later altered to become a mourning ring, with the addition of the black enamelled skeletal design on the exterior and the addition of R.C 1727 to the inscription, presumably now commemorating the death of one of the originally betrothed.
A ring that was once a romantic expression, refashioned to commemorate the loss of that same loved one. It clearly serves the intended purpose of a mourning ring; an affecting example that had much personal meaning to its owner, a sentiment that still resonates today.