Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/A casket of rings

Once a Week, Series 1, Volume III  (1860) 
A casket of rings
by J. G. Johnson

A CASKET OF RINGS.

Amelus told me ’twas all about a little ring,
A ring the princess threw away, and I took up.
A ring the princess threw away, and I tJohn Ford.

It may well be a matter of surprise and wonder that Sir Thomas Browne, whose searching wit and lively fancy found quincunxes lavishly scattered everywhere by the providence or caprice of nature, never took in hand the still richer theme of a Ring. He might have charmed contemporaries and posterity alike, by employing on a congenial topic his quaint imagination and his learned diction, whilst he displayed his subtle mind and his extensive reading. He might have directed our attention to the stars of heaven and the worms of earth, and showed us rings encircling both. He might have pointed to the persons of savage and civilised man, to the tails of serpents and apes, to the necks of birds, to the skins of one of the most ferocious and one of the most gentle animals which inhabit the wilds of Africa, to the green sward, to the leaves of trees. He might have enlarged upon the manifold uses of the ring in human societies—either simply as an ornament to the person, or as a means of authenticating the owner’s will and wish; or as coin passing from hand to hand in commercial dealings; or as a significant symbol in momentous proceedings; or as an amulet averting disease and misfortune; or as an aid in divining the unrolled, unwritten secrets of the future. He might have entertained us with an account of the marvellous properties which superstition in various ages ascribed to rings, and he might have noticed the changes in shape and mode of wearing which, as personal ornaments, they have undergone at the fickle will of fashion. As a physician, doubtless, he wore a ring in compliance with the precepts of Hippocrates and Galen; and, after describing it, he might have agreeably indulged his discursive intellect in digressions as to the metal of which it was composed, the precious stone which adorned it, or the inscription which compressed within a few letters a lucid truth or a dark mystery.

Far be from us the presumption of attempting what the learned humourist left undone. Yet there can be no harm, perhaps, if we offer a contribution in the manner of a mémoire pour servir for the use of the future historian, to be honourably mentioned, or silently passed by in his luminous pages, as our humble performance may deserve. And the subject well demands its own historian; for within the magic circle of a little ring how many things of deep importance to the whole human race have been performed; out of its diminutive compass how much of weal and woe to individuals has issued!

Associations connected with rings crowd into the memory from history, from fiction, from art. The costly ring of Polycrates, that was as little to be got rid of as his destiny; Rogero’s, in the “Orlando Furioso;” Abdaldar’s, which when cast into the gulf, “A skinny hand came up, and caught it as it fell, and peals of devilish laughter shook the cave;”[1] Borgia’s poisoned ring; Camilla and Gil Blas; Boccaccio’s story of the three rings, told by the Jew to the Mahometan, which has been thought to shadow the doubts of a sceptic; the unseemly wager between Posthumus and Iachimo, when the former staked his wife’s honour and a jewelled ring “dear as his finger;” Isabella, disposing of her wedding-ring, described in a passage of “The Fatal Marriage,” which when read by the amiable Sophia Western, the book dropped from her hand, and a shower of tears ran down into her bosom; the antique ring of massive gold “with a cameo most beautifully executed, bearing the head of Cleopatra,” presented as a peace-offering to the Antiquary by his nephew; the ruby ring which Charles II., disguised as a gipsy woman, dropped into Alice Lee’s pitcher;[2] and a thousand others of more or less celebrity. But to indulge in general allusions will conduce little to the amusement or instruction of the reader, and with these objects in view we must treat the matter with greater particularity.

The early history of the ring, like that of all important things, is involved in obscurity; but we can readily believe that the rude pleasure received by the eyes from bright and glittering objects would induce the primitive denizens of the earth to construct ornamental appendages of an annular form as soon as they had acquired sufficient skill to cut stone or cast metal. Tubal Cain was the earliest artificer in brass or iron; and Bezaleel, the son of Uri, the first maker of rings on record. Rings are mentioned in the “Odyssey.” It was a condition imposed by Penelope on her importunate suitors, that they should shoot an arrow from the bow of the absent Ulysses through twelve rings, alternately of silver and brass, placed in a line. This task they were unable to perform; but when the wandering chief, returning in disguise, drew the cord, his shaft flashed through them all. Pliny refers to the practice of wearing rings, more than once, and after alluding to the labours undertaken with the view of extracting metal from the bowels of the earth, and precious stones from their bed, he exclaims, “How many hands are harassed that a single member of the hand may look gay!”

Amongst the oldest rings in existence may be mentioned that of Cheops, the builder of the Great Pyramid, which was found in a tomb near that stupendous erection. It is of gold, with hieroglyphics.[3] Various rings with Runic inscriptions have been found both in this country and in Scandinavia. They are now safely deposited in museums, and some of them have been dissertated upon by our antiquarians.

Many ancient rings have been preserved, and have at length found their way into the cabinets of collectors, on account of their reputed power to guard their wearers from harm—a power residing more perhaps in the stone than in the setting. According to an Eastern writer, the precious stones are all influential in their several ways: thus, the diamond cures madness, and soothes vain fears; the ruby dispels melancholy bodings, and ensures honourable place; the emerald prevents ill dreams, and cures the palsy; the sapphire averts the operation of enchantments; and the turquoise enlivens the eye, and heals the bite of poisonous reptiles. The Persian name of the turquoise is “Father of Isaac.” Now it will be remembered, that the ring Shylock had from Leah when he was a bachelor, was set with this stone: the ring that he declared he would not have exchanged for a wilderness of monkeys, when he heard how his daughter, after her elopement, had given it for one. Are we to suppose that the turquoise was by tradition a stone peculiarly Jewish? It does not, however, appear to have been set in any one of the four rows of stones which composed Aaron’s mysterious breast-plate. From a passage in one of Donne’s poems, it seems that it told the state of the wearer’s health by changing colour:

As a compassionate turcoise that doth tell,
By looking pale, the wearer is not well.

And Ben Jonson, when describing some parasites of Sejanus, says that they were accustomed to

Observe him as his watch observes his clock,
And true as turquoise in the dear lord’s ring,
Look well or ill with him.

The ring given to Camball, by his sister Canace (Faëry Queen, book iv.), had not only the virtue of staunching wounds, but of restoring the weariness of the spirit and the wasting of the bodily powers in battle:

Through working of the stone therein y-set.

When the murder of Andrew of Hungary, husband of Joanna Queen of Naples, had been resolved upon, the deed was effected in this wise: the royal couple being absent from their capital on a hunting expedition, it was reported that despatches had arrived from Naples which required instant attention; and when allured by the false intelligence from his apartment into the corridor, he was attacked by the assassins. But as they believed that a ring given him by his mother was a talisman against death by sword or poison, they tied a silken cord round his neck, and completed the work of strangulation by pushing him out of the window.

Various other curious properties have been attributed to rings, either by the credulous fancy of the populace, or the creative fancy of poets. Everyone has heard of Gyges, King of Lydia, who had a ring which was said to possess the virtue of rendering him invisible when he turned it in his hand, without depriving him of the power of seeing others. In later days, there was a tradition that one Keddie, a tailor, found in a cavern in the hill of Kinnoul, near Perth, a ring possessing a similar property to that of Gyges. This gothic version of the classic tale is told by Sir Walter Scott, in a note to his “Fair Maid of Perth.” In the story of the Tartar king, “Cambuscan bold,” it is related that when the monarch was sitting at a feast on the anniversary of his birthday, a knight came riding into the hall on a steed of brass,

Upon his thombe he had of gold a ring;

which he brought along with a mirror to Canace, the king’s daughter, from the King of Arabie and Inde. She was told that the virtue of this “queinte ring” when borne on her thumb, or carried in her purse, consisted in enabling her to understand the language of birds, to reply in a manner intelligible to them, and to know the medicinal powers of all plants.[4] In Wilhelm Meister’s Travels, the story of the New Melusina relates how the daughter of Eckwald, king of the dwarfs, waxed by virtue of a monstrous ring, that lay in the royal treasury, to the full dimensions of a mortal. It took four-and-twenty dwarfs to lift it; but it no more than fitted her finger when she had attained the stature of a mortal. The same ring had had the opposite property of transforming a man to the size of a pigmy, as the garrulous barber experienced who had the fortune to become Melusina’s husband. An instance of the supernatural powers popularly reputed to belong to particular rings may be found in Fletcher’s “Loyal Subject,”—a play first performed about 1618. A ring is represented as given by the Duke of Muscovia to Alinda, his sister’s waiting-maid; the posy was, “The jewel’s set within.” Alinda smiles on receiving it, from thinking “what strange spells these rings have, and how they work with some.” Afterwards, she affects to feel its influence, and exclaims, “Sure there’s a witchcraft in this ring!” We may quit this part of the subject by reminding the classical scholar that the Greeks had a scheme of divination by rings enchanted, or constructed after some position of the stars; and this they called Δακτυλομαντεία.

From the earliest times of which we have any record, the ring was held emblematic of power and authority. We hear of honourable place being conferred by the simple gift of a ring, just as the British Chancellor receives his appointment by the mere delivery of the Great Seal. Alexander the Macedonian, when stretched on his death-bed, drew the ring from his finger, and gave it to Perdiccas; thereby intimating, it is thought, that he bequeathed his vast empire to that General, and appointed him his successor. Perdiccas conceived that his title would be fortified by another ring, for he married Alexander’s sister, Cleopatra. His competitors, however, were too strong for him; and, after he had been ruined in fortune, he was assassinated in his tent by his own officers. Who took possession of Alexander’s ring, history does not inform us. It is well known that the Roman knights wore a gold ring, presented to them at the public expense. It is an instance of the humanity or the dissimulation of Julius Cæsar, that when the Egyptians, after the battle of Pharsalia, brought to him Pompey’s head and ring (he was a knight) Cæsar wept. Perhaps he recollected with tenderness the intimacy of their former friendship; perhaps he was suddenly struck by the idea of the instability of human grandeur; perhaps he thought the act would tell upon his soldiers. When a Roman slave received his liberty, his master bestowed upon him a white robe, a cap, and a ring. In a curious account of the Ceremonies and Services at the English Court in the time of Henry VIII., printed from an ancient manuscript in the Antiquarian Repertory, there are some directions as to the proceedings in the creation of a prince. “The prince shall be brought in and presented before the kinge in his estat, in the abit of a prince, between two dukes, before him his sword borne by a duke or an erle, on the left side the ringe. The kinge shall first put upon him his sword, after the ringe on the left finger.” A ring formed part of the peculiar attire of the Roman bishops; and in our own church it still appears at the ceremonies which take place on the occasion of an episcopal investment. The privilege of wearing a ring became an object of ambition to haughty abbots, who witnessed with an ill grace any marks of superior dignity on the persons of others. In the records of the abbey of Glastonbury, there is a grant from Pope Alexander VI. to the abbot, of the right to wear a mitre and a ring; and the muniment room of other monasteries could show similar documents.

How the ring came to be used at the celebration of the marriage rite does not clearly appear, but it is believed that at first it formed no part of the actual ceremony, being merely one of the sponsalia, gifts made to many persons at the time of entering into a solemn engagement as a testimony of the contract. It may be remarked that, among the Romans, a ring was frequently handed over by way of earnest at the closing of a bargain. One of the most singular marriage-contracts in which the ring was introduced was that annual alliance of the city of Venice to the sea, which dated from the year 1176. On Ascension Day in every year the Doge sailed in his splendid galley—the Bucentaur—into the Adriatic amongst the palaces that had their origin in dirt and seaweed, and let a ring fall into the water, whilst he pronounced the words “Desponsamus te, Mare, in signum veri perpetuique dominii.” Alas! the presumption of man that dares to speak of the lastingness of aught belonging to him, most of all when the possession he boasts of is dominion!

Connected with this ceremony we may refer to the fresco-painting executed by the Bellini for the Hall of Council in the Doge’s palace, in one of which the Doge Grimani was represented in the act of receiving from the Pope the gold ring to be used in his espousal of the Adriatic. We may recall this picture the more appropriately since, like the observance it was designed to commemorate, it is transferred into the list of things that were: it was destroyed by fire in 1577.

It is a flat truism to say that of all earthly things, fortune excepted, fashion has had the widest reign, and taken to herself the greatest privilege of fickleness. Could it be expected that the ring would escape her influence? Not only have rings been worn on fingers of the hand, but on the wrists, arms and ankles, in the nose and ears; not only have they been made of metal, but of glass, stone, wood, ivory; and, in short, of every substance which can be shaped into the annular form. Rings in the nose were once worn by the Israelitish women, but are now confined to savages and pigs. We have been more reconciled to the sight of rings in the ears of men (it is a common custom amongst the lower classes on the continent to wear them thus) since we learned that our own Shakspeare adopted the fashion; at least if the accuracy of the portrait once belonging to Lord Ellesmere may be trusted. At all events this mode of wearing rings was common amongst the gallants of Shakspeare’s day. When Master Matthew (Every Man in his Humour, 1596) was in straits for money, he offered to pawn the jewel in his ear. The thumb at some periods has been adorned with a ring. We think there is a story of a Roman lady who was wont to slip one of her husband’s rings upon her wrist and wear it as a bracelet.

In the early part of the last century it is stated in the British Apollo, to have been the custom to place the ring in the ceremony of marriage upon the fourth finger, but afterwards to wear it on the thumb.

“Multis hoc modis, ut cætera omnia, luxuria variavit, gemmas addendo exquisiti fulgoris, censuque opimo digitos onerando sicut dicemus in gemmarum volumine, mox et effigies varias cælando, ut alibi ars, alibi sententia esset in pretio.” Such is the elegant language of Pliny, and he proceeds to detail some of the modes of wearing that, the various shapes of which he had summarily alluded to. The Gauls and Britons, he says, placed the ornament on the middle finger, whereas, in his day at Rome, that was the only finger on which it was not carried. In the seventeenth century a fashion prevailed in England of having a skull cut on the stone, a mode dictated by the same feeling, one would think, that induces a tobacco-smoker to have the bowl of his hookah carved in the shape of a grinning caput mortuum. Among the whimsical figures to which the countenance of the pedant Holofernes is likened by the merry lords in “Love’s Labour Lost,” is a death’s face in a ring. He is going to deliver a grave speech in an assumed character before the Princess and her court, and being repeatedly interrupted, he declares he will not be put out of countenance by them. Because, says Biron, thou hast no face. What is this? replies the unlucky schoolmaster, pointing to that part of his person which answered to the visage of other people, and immediately a bushel of derisive similitudes was showered upon him.

Young, in a passage, condemning the frivolous pursuits of life in the presence of its awful realities, represents man as attired—

In all the fruitless fopperies of life,
And raffling for the Death’s head on the ring.

Many (said Robinson, Bishop of Bangor, in one of his sermons) carry death on their fingers when he is never nigh their hearts. A ring made of two entwined, and hence called gimmal ring (gemellus, a twin), was at one time in use, as we are reminded by a passage here and there in our old plays. Thus, in Beaumont and Fletcher’s “Beggar’s Bush”—

Hub. Sure I should know that gimmal.
Jac. ’Tis certain he—I had forgot my ring, too.

There is an allusion now and then occurring amongst the writers of that period which we do not altogether understand. When a damsel was crossed in love we find her straightway employed in making rings of rushes. The tailor’s daughter, in the “Two Noble Kinsmen,” is an instance; and again we are told that Phædria, whilst in her boat busy with “vaine toyes,” devised some “gaudy girlonds” and “rings of rushes.”—(Faery Queen, Book ii, 77.) The usage no longer obtains with us of engraving an inscription on the ring, but formerly it was not complete unless it had its posy, a word which was probably derived from ποίησις, a poetical maxim. Old Udal spells it poysee, which brings it very near the Greek word.

The composition of an apt motto was deemed no dishonourable task by the great wits of a by-gone age, and their pens seemed to have been guided by a rule something like that given by Sir Toby to his friend Sir Andrew for the composition of his challenge. “Be brief; it is no matter how witty, so it be eloquent and full of invention.” When Jacques and Orlando met in the forest—neither of them in the humour for wordy politeness—such was the epigrammatic pithiness of Orlando’s sentences that the world-sick courtier surmises he had been acquainted with goldsmiths’ wives, and had conned his answers out of rings! The weeping maiden, in Shakspeare’s “Lovers’ Complaint,” is seen tearing letters in the extremity of her grief, and we are told that she

Cracked many a ring of posied gold and bone.

The practice of thus inscribing rings was a widely-extended one. It obtains at this day amongst the Chinese, with whom the single word “Patience” is a favourite motto.

But the ring has not always been merely an ornament or a plaything; it has had its uses, and has frequently performed notable service. Its use, as a signet, dates from very early times, and in that character it is often mentioned in the narratives of the Bible. Cicero has the expression—“imprimere sigilla annulo.” The Pope has a ring which is called the Fisherman’s ring, because it bears the representation of Peter as a fisherman. It is used to seal the Papal briefs—instruments of less importance than bulls. When the Pope dies the Cardinal Chamberlain breaks the ring, and the city of Rome presents the succeeding occupant of St. Peter’s chair with a new one. The peculiar authenticity ascribed to impressions of signets has led to their being often employed to effect a sinister purpose both in real life and in fiction. The atrocious violence to which the virtuous wife of a Roman senator fell a victim was accomplished, it will be remembered, by the Emperor Valentinian, by means of her husband’s signet ring.

Another use of rings was, as we have already hinted, in the way of money. Ancient ring-money found in various parts of the island, may be seen in the British Museum: and bronze rings used for a similar purpose have been disinterred in Ireland.

Antiquarians are of opinion that large rings of gold, occasionally dug up in Scandinavia, were used at the ceremony of administering an oath.

Some persons have been known to carry poison secreted under the stone; Demosthenes is said to have been one of them, so that he had always a means of terminating his existence in that which seemed to others nothing but an innocent ornament.

As gifts and marks of affection, rings have figured largely in the intercourse of society. If a monarch desires to express his acknowledgments for the politeness of his inferiors, he thinks he does it most suitably by the gift of a diamond ring. If a lover wishes to intimate the strength or purity and endlessness of affection for his mistress, and at the same time to prefigure the knot which he hopes will hereafter bind them together, is it not all done by the present of a ring?

Fair sweet, if you desire to know,
And would the meaning understand,
Wherefore on you I do bestow
This ring of gold with heart in hand,
Read these few lines that are behind,
And there my meaning you shall find.[5]

How often has a ring been intended to typify the lasting force of a friendship the frailty of which a few months exposed. Amongst the Latin poems of Buchanan are some lines on a ring set with a diamond, presented by Queen Elizabeth to her dear cousin Mary Queen of Scots. The spotless lustre of the stone and its adamantine hardness, however, betokened something very different from the feelings which were meant to be expressed, or the qualities meant to be imaged, and the aspirations with which the poem concluded in the name of the ring—if Fate ordains that it should link each to the other with a chain as of adamant never to be broken by the attacks of envy, hatred, malice or time, then would it be the happiest, the most celebrated, and the most estimable of jewels—proved as fallacious as any human desire, as baseless as any human prophecy, has ever been. One of the large pictures in the Luxembourg Palace (from which we may obtain an excellent idea of the modern French school of High Art) should be mentioned as representing an episode in history in which the ring was an actor. Every one knows that Francis I. fell into the hands of the Emperor Charles V. at the battle of Pavia, and was kept a prisoner for some months in Spain. Subsequently, Charles, being desirous of visiting his Flemish dominions, asked permission of Francis to pass through his kingdom, which was granted. On his road he was entertained at Fontainebleau with great splendour. Some of the king’s friends exhorted him to take this opportunity of retaliating upon the emperor by seizing his person, and amongst them was the Duchess d’Etampes. Charles being conscious of his dangerous position, thought it prudent to gain the woman over to his interests by some species of bribe. One day, when preparing to wash his hands before seating himself at table, he drew from his finger a ring of great value, and purposely let it fall near the duchess, who picked it up from the floor and presented it to the owner. “No, madame,” said he, “the ring is in a hand too beautiful for me to take it again.” The trick answered its purpose; but the duchess was not the only one with whom Charles had to contend. When the Court jester—“a fellow wise enough to play the fool, a practice,” says Viola, “as full of labour as a wise man’s art”—laid a list of fools before the king, it was found to be headed with the emperor’s name as being fool enough to put himself into the clutches of his adversary.

“But,” said Francis, “if I allow him to pass free, what then?”

“Why, then,” said the jester, “I shall strike out his name and write yours in its place.”

We have seen that the ring is present at the most important act which a man performs in his course from the cradle to the grave. It appears once more at the last scene of all. This time, however, it is tricked with black, and glitters not with jewels, its sole ornament being a short and mournful admonition. Those who are acquainted with the history of the Spectator’s country knight (and who is not?) will remember that he left rings by his will for every one in the club.

Amongst our collection of annular curiosities we must not omit to mention that a diminutive watch has sometimes taken the place of the jewel in a ring. George III. was presented by a London watchmaker with a ring thus ornamented. The watch was less than a silver twopence, and, though it had no fewer than one hundred and twenty-five several parts, it weighed only seven grains more than five pennyweights. Charles V. of Germany and James I. of England had rings ornamented in a similar manner, and in the museum at Dresden is to be seen a ring set with a minute horologe.

Amongst the accumulations of elegant and fantastic shapes into which stone and precious metal are found carved in the cabinets of princes or in national museums may often be seen rings whose claim to preservation is that they have been worn by some illustrious departed. In the public library at Wolfenbüttel are Luther’s marriage and doctor’s rings; and Prince Metternich’s museum at Königswart contains the rings of Matthæus Corvinus and John Sobieski.

A few miscellaneous references to art, verbal and pictorial, where this ornament is introduced being given we shall cease to task the reader’s patience. In the hands of a true artist it is a powerful instrument in telling his story or heightening its effect. When Hogarth wished to expose the wretched passion of avarice in an old man who had bartered away the happiness of his daughter for an alliance with a titled spendthrift, he painted him drawing off the ring from her fingers as she lay in the extremity of death. To shift the scene—Dante deemed not fully apparelled the hand of the woman, to whom he offered the precious incense of his verse, without a ring on one of the tender fingers. And in Suckling’s gay lines on a wedding he must needs exhibit to us the slender delicacy of the bride’s hand by telling us that—

Her finger was so small the ring
Would not stay on which they did bring,
It was too wide a peck.

In Massinger’s “Great Duke of Florence” we see Sanazarro, a prisoner in a lonely chamber of a country mansion, conveying to the Duchess of Urbino, who was in love with him, a notice of his condition and a petition that she would intercede for his liberation, by writing on a pane of glass with a ring which she had given him, and flinging it at her feet. Remember the astonishment of the poor fisherman and his wife when Undine left their cottage for a moment and came back with two costly rings, one of which she gave to the storm-bewildered knight Sir Huldbrand, and kept the other herself.

We must now shut down the lid upon the contents of our little casket, which have been collected and arranged for the inspection of our friends in the hope that it would afford them pleasure to see grouped together some of the

That on the stretched forefinger ofjewels
That on the stretched forefinger of all time
Sparkle for ever.

Our fair readers especially will appreciate the purpose to which little Dan Cupid is putting the ring in our tailpiece.

Cupid's Ring.png


  1. Thalaba (book v.).
  2. Woodstock.
  3. “Englishwoman in Egypt.”
  4. Chaucer, “Squire’s Tale.”
  5. A sonnetta from a collection of poems principally by Thomas Delony, printed 1607.