As expected, rings varied in size and value. The object on display is a fine example of an early 13th century bishop’s ring, made of gold and sapphire. It would have been extremely valuable to mark the Bishop from other clergymen, and would have looked splendid if painted on a hand in a portrait.
Ornamental rings were mostly worn by middle and upper classes, sometimes on all fingers as well as thumbs. Since all jewellery was handmade, each piece was unique, making them easier to identify if one had been stolen or lost. Interestingly, the wedding ring was not considered necessary, although some wealthy people did indeed wear wedding bands. The most obvious kind of ring, especially for men and wealthy women, was the seal ring which was used to impress an image or motto into wax. These rings were especially useful to make servants or messengers appear official.
In Shakespeare’s plays, rings are often given as tokens of love, as in Romeo and Juliet and Cymbeline, or most often as a way of identifying an individual. In the comedy, now considered a problem play, All’s Well That Ends Well, the King of France is troubled by the sight of a ring that once belonged to him. He gave the ring as a gift to a young woman called Helena, whom he believes to be dead, and when he sees the ring on the finger of her husband Bertram, he begins to worry that she has been murdered:
That knows the tinct and multiplying medicine,
Hath not in nature’s mystery more science
Than I have in this ring: ’twas mine, ’twas Helen’s,
Whoever gave it you. Then, if you know
That you are well acquainted with yourself,
Confess ’twas hers, and by what rough enforcement
You got it from her: she call’d the saints to surety
That she would never put it from her finger,
Unless she gave it to yourself in bed,
Where you have never come, or sent it us
Upon her great disaster.
(All’s Well That Ends Well, 5.3, 2791-802)
Plutus = The god of wealth
Tinct and multiplying medicine = alchemy or the turning of base metal into gold
You have never come = Everyone believes that Bertram and Helena have not consummated their marriage
Shakespeare’s characters also use rings as a way of bargaining. In The Comedy of Errors, a courtesan gives a friend a ring in exchange for a necklace. For various reasons, involving two sets of twins and mistaken identity, the person she believes to be Antipholus of Ephesus is actually Antipholus of Syracuse, and he denies all knowledge of a ring. She decides that she is going to pursue the matter with Antipholus’ wife:
Now, out of doubt Antipholus is mad,
Else would he never so demean himself.
A ring he hath of mine worth forty ducats,
And for the same he promised me a chain:
Both one and other he denies me now.
The reason that I gather he is mad,
Besides this present instance of his rage,
Is a mad tale he told to-day at dinner,
Of his own doors being shut against his entrance.
Belike his wife, acquainted with his fits,
On purpose shut the doors against his way.
My way is now to hie home to his house,
And tell his wife that, being lunatic,
He rush’d into my house and took perforce
My ring away. This course I fittest choose;
For forty ducats is too much to lose.
(The Comedy of Errors, 4.3., 1231-46)
Ducats = European coins made of gold and silver
A chain = Necklace