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
The chrismatory was an object used to hold special oils required for sacramental rituals such as baptism. Shakespeare often references the act of anointment, particularly in the context of kings and divine ordination.
The anointment of a king or queen was considered eternal and incontestable, which is why the scene in the history play Richard II – when the king is deposed or stripped of his crown – would have been considered shocking and even impossible. In this extract, Richard makes a show of deposing himself and handing over his crown to his cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV. Richard refers to his ‘balm’ or the oil that was used to anoint him during baptism and, eventually, his coronation:
I give this heavy weight from off my head
And this unwieldy sceptre from my hand,
The pride of kingly sway from out my heart;
With mine own tears I wash away my balm,
With mine own hands I give away my crown,
With mine own tongue deny my sacred state,
With mine own breath release all duty’s rites:
All pomp and majesty I do forswear;
My manors, rents, revenues I forego;
My acts, decrees, and statutes I deny:
God pardon all oaths that are broke to me!
God keep all vows unbroke that swear to thee!
(Richard II, Act 4, Scene 1)
In a more literal sense, Shakespeare refers to the act of confirmation at the close of the history play Henry VIII, when the new-born Elizabeth receives her baptism at the hands of the new Protestant Archbishop Cranmer:
[…] My Lord of Canterbury,
I have a suit which you must not deny me;
That is, a fair young maid that yet wants baptism,
You must be godfather, and answer for her.
(Henry VIII, Act 5, Scene 3).
Can you think of other references to the object on display?
Cartography was a complex and shifting science in the 16th and early 17th centuries, because as new lands were being explored, new maps had to keep-up-to-date. For everyday usage, people could purchase printed maps on single sheets of paper. For serious geographers, collections of maps could be purchased which ranged from individual counties to countries. The map of Warwickshire on display was produced by John Speed, and published in a collection called Theatre of the Empire of Great Britaine.
Kings, noblemen, politicians and soldiers are amongst Shakespeare’s map-wielding characters. Consulting maps allows for battle decisions, the division of kingdoms, and journey planning. Warwickshire itself is mentioned by Falstaff in Henry IV, Part I as he meets Prince Hal on the way to the battle at Shrewsbury with his troops. Falstaff and his company march from London to the Midlands, through Sutton Coldfield, to get to Shropshire. Can you trace their journey on the map?
What, Hal! how now, mad wag! what a devil dost thou
in Warwickshire? My good Lord of Westmoreland, I
cry you mercy: I thought your honour had already been
(Henry IV, Part I, (Act 4, Scene 2).
Shakespeare also employed the idea of maps or mapping to describe the reading of facial features. In the Tragedy of Coriolanus, the noble Agrippa discusses his own honesty and openness by referring to the ‘map of my microcosm’. in this passage Agrippa is mocking and berating the dishonesty of two tribunes or Roman officials:
I am known to be a humorous patrician, and one that
loves a cup of hot wine with not a drop of allaying
Tiber in’t; said to be something imperfect in
favouring the first complaint; hasty and tinder-like
upon too trivial motion; one that converses more
with the buttock of the night than with the forehead
of the morning: what I think I utter, and spend my
malice in my breath. Meeting two such wealsmen as
you are—I cannot call you Lycurguses—if the drink
you give me touch my palate adversely, I make a
crooked face at it. I can’t say your worships have
delivered the matter well, when I find the ass in
compound with the major part of your syllables: and
though I must be content to bear with those that say
you are reverend grave men, yet they lie deadly that
tell you you have good faces. If you see this in
the map of my microcosm, follows it that I am known
well enough too? what harm can your bisson
conspectuities glean out of this character, if I be
known well enough too?
(Coriolanus, Act 2, Scene 1)