British Museum blog

Mourning rings: portable and poignant souvenirs

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City CouncilCaroline 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.

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

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.

Mourning ring, 17th century

Mourning ring, 17th century

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”.

Mourning ring, about 1696-1731

Mourning ring, about 1696-1731

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.

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

Littleton mourning ring found in Bridgnorth, Shropshire. © Birmingham City Council

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.

If you would like to leave a comment click on the title

Britain’s Secret Treasures is broadcast on ITV 1 Thursdays at 20.30, 17 October – 5 December 2013

Filed under: Archaeology, Portable Antiquities and Treasure, ,

3 Responses - Comments are closed.

  1. keridouglas says:

    Beautiful story!

    Like

  2. ritaroberts says:

    I am awe struck at these beautiful rings. I always thought mourning rings were solely a Victorian Object. Thank you for the lovely photo’s of them.

    Like

  3. vanbraman says:

    Makes me think of ‘Great Expectations’. Mourning rings were mentioned several times in the book.

    Like

Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Join 14,269 other followers

Categories

Follow @britishmuseum on Twitter

British Museum on Instagram

US artist John Sloan was born #onthisday in 1871. 
John Sloan, painter, printmaker and teacher, first took up etching as a self-taught adolescent.  Moving to New York in 1904, he became part of a group of eight artists, better known as “The Ashcan School”, who focused on creating images of urban realism. Between 1891 and 1940 Sloan produced some 300 etchings. He was also one of the first chroniclers of the American scene and wrote about printmaking and the etching technique.
This etching comes from the series of 10 prints entitled 'New York City Life', recording the lives of the ordinary inhabitants in less affluent areas of Manhattan. The prints had a mixed reception at the time and a number were rejected from an exhibition of the American Watercolor Society as ‘vulgar’ and ‘indecent’. #August is named after the Roman emperor Augustus. Before 8 BC the Romans called it Sextilis! 
This head once formed part of a statue of the emperor Augustus (ruled 27 BC – AD 14). In 31 BC he defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra at the battle of Actium and took possession of Egypt, which became a Roman province. The writer Strabo tells us that statues of Augustus were erected in Egyptian towns near the first cataract of the Nile at Aswan and that an invading Kushite army looted many of them in 25 BC.
Although Roman counter-attackers reclaimed many of the statues, they did not reach Meroë, where this head was buried beneath the steps of a native temple dedicated to Victory. It seems likely that the head, having been cut from its statue, was placed there deliberately so as to be permanently below the feet of its Meroitic captors.
The head of Augustus appears larger than life, with perfect proportions based upon Classical Greek notions of ideal human form. His calm distant gaze, emphasised with inset eyes of glass and stone, give him an air of quiet, assured strength. Coins and statues were the main media for propagating the image of the Roman emperor. This statue, like many others throughout the Empire, was made as a continuous reminder of the all-embracing power of Rome and its emperor. English sculptor Henry Moore was born #onthisday in 1898.
Drawing played a major role in Henry Moore's work throughout his career. He used it to generate and develop ideas for sculpture, and to create independent works in their own right.
During the 1930s the range and variety of his drawing expanded considerably, starting with the 'Transformation Drawings' in which he explored the metamorphosis of natural, organic shapes into human forms. At the end of the decade he began to focus on the relationship between internal and external forms, his first sculpture of this nature being 'Helmet' (Tate Collections) of 1939.
This drawing titled ‘Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal’ was based on a pencil study entitled ‘Ideas for Lead Sculpture’. It reflects his awareness of surrealism and psychoanalytical theory as well his abiding interest in ethnographic material and non-European sculpture; the particular reference in this context is to a malangan figure (malangan is a funeral ritual cycle) from New Ireland province in Papua New Guinea, which had attracted his interest in the British Museum. 
Henry Moore, Two Women: Drawing for sculpture combining wood and metal. England, 1939. Here's another fabulous view of the Great Court captured by @whatinasees at our instagramer event #regram #repost
Check out all of the photos at #emptyBM Vincent van Gogh died #onthisday in 1890. Here's a print of his only known etching. It depicts his doctor, Dr Paul Gachet, seated in the garden of his house.
#vanGogh #etching Beatrix Potter was born #onthisday in 1866. Here are some of her flopsy bunnies! 🐰
#BeatrixPotter
Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 14,269 other followers

%d bloggers like this: