Come very interesting side-lights are thrown upon the customs and tastes of our forefathers by the study of the wedding-ring. It reflects not merely the whim and caprice of fashion, but the delicate sentiment of the lover, the fervour of the religious enthusiast, and that fondness for picturesque symbolism which threw a poetic glamour over many of the institutions of the Middle Ages.
Appropriately enough, it came into fashion, to use a modern phrase, long after the general adoption of the betrothal ring; and just as the blushing dawn gives promise of the glory of the sunrise, so the latter, as the token of a pledge, served to herald, as it were, an emblem that denoted the fulfilment of the vow.
Among the Anglo-saxons the wedding-ring, usually of gold, but sometimes of silver, was worn on the third finger of the right hand-" the golden finger," as an old Saxon bard terms it - and our first illustration re-presents a characteristic design.
A silver wedding - ring belonging to the eighth or ninth century is shown in Figure 2. This ring, which was recovered from the sea near Margate many years ago by some fishermen who were dredging for oysters, has a curious engraving on the bezel, the fact that the woman is crowned denoting that she is a wife.
Fig. 1. The Anglo-saxon wedding-ring third finger of the right hand ninth century, which was recovered from the
Fig. 2. A silver wedding-ring of the eighth or sea near Margate by some fishermen who were dredging for oysters the wedding and other rings of the mediaeval period-a period of more or less religious fervour which found expression in the representations of various saints inscribed upon the bezels. And as a thinly veiled superstition often passed muster as faith in those days, rings thus embellished served as amulets. A figure of St Catherine and her wheel was believed to ensure good fortune; that of St. Margaret and a.church imparted faith, wisdom, constancy, and fortitude to the wearer.
A mystical significance was also attached to precious stones, with which, in Tudor times and for many years after, it was customary to enrich the wedding-ring. The practice was really borrowed from the Church of Rome,which had ascribed to each gem a special meaning. Thus the ruby indicated its glory, the emerald its tranquillity and happiness, the crystal simplicity and purity, the diamond invulnerable faith, the sapphire hope, the onyx sincerity, and the amethyst humility.
Symbolism was also laid under tribute in the design of the ring itself, notably the Gimmal, which in Elizabeth's time was commonly worn, very often on the thumb, by men as well as women as a wedding-ring. Our sketch (Fig. 3) represents the nuptial ring of Sir Thomas Gresham. now on exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum. It is of gold, set with a diamond and a ruby, the shoulders being richly ornamented with coloured enamel work. " Qvod devs convinsit " is engraved on one half, and " Homo non separet " on the other. So deftly are the twin hoops constructed that when closed they appear is of gold, set with a diamond and a ruby, the
Fig. 3. Sir Thomas Gresham's wedding-ring. It shoulders being richly ornamented with coloured enamel work as one, and thus typify the essential unity of man and wife.
But while these more or less ornate symbols were being worn by the wealthier classes, there was an undercurrent of feeling. ever growing in strength, that the plain circlet was the most fitting emblem of marriage. As early as the fourteenth century a nun's ring, inscribed with the words, "With this ring of. chastity I am espoused to Christ," was of this unpretentious form, thus emulating the alleged nuptial ring of the Virgin which is so jealously guarded in Perugia Cathedral. The plain hoop must have been generally used-in England, at least -in Tudor times, for previous to the marriage of Queen Mary with Philip of Spain some discussion had taken place in the Council about the ring, which the Queen decided by declaring that she would not have it adorned with gems, "for she chose to be wedded with a plain hoop of gold, like other maidens." Herrick, in a well-known poem, "To Julia," has incidentally commemorated this fashion in the dainty lines:
"And as this round Is nowhere found To flaw, or else to sever, So let our love As endless prove, And pure as gold for ever."
But even the simple gold circlet offended the tender susceptibilities of the Puritans, who saw in its use only a perpetuation of a heathenish custom, and, in consequence, actually proposed to abolish the wedding-ring altogether.
A propos of the ring being worn on the thumb, here, again, we have an interesting side-light thrown on the manners and customs of our ancestors. This wearing of the nuptial ring on the thumb was a departure from an older custom, for in the ancient ritual of marriage the ring was placed by the husband on the top of the left thumb with the words, " In the name of the Father "; then on the forefinger, saying, " and of the Son "; then on the middle
Fig. A. Wedding-ring of Henry Darnley and Mary Queen of Scots, which was found in Fotheringay Castle finger, adding, "and of the Holy Ghost"; and, finally, he left it on the third finger of the left hand with the closing word "Amen." We have practically reverted to this custom, the only difference being that the ring is now put at once on the third finger, all the preceding invocations being presumably understood.
Fig. 5. After the Restoration the wealthy classes discarded the unpretentious hoop in favour of a ring thickly encrusted with gems, like the modern engagement-ring
In the political and social topsy-turvey-dom which followed the Restoration the wedding-ring was not unaffected. The wealthy and aristocratic classes discarded the unpretentious hoop in favour of one thickly encrusted with gems, more after the fashion of a modern engagement-ring (Fig. 5). The most popular device seems to have been two hearts surmounted by a crown or coronet, typifying the supremacy of love (Fig. 6).
Inscriptions, moreover, or poesies, came into fashion again, some of which are very quaint. A brief selection may be made:
" Pray God to make us such a pair as
Isaac and Rebece were."
"Many are thee starrs I see, yet in my eye no starr like thee." ." Bee true in heart tho' farr apart." " My promise past shall always last." " Keepe fayth till deth." " My love is true to none but you." " I have obtained what God ordained." " Vnited hartes Death only partes." " The love is true that I O U." " My love is fixt, I will not range;
I like my choice too well to change." " God thought fitt this knott to knitt."
As an example of the humour and taste of the time it may be recorded that Dr. John Thomas, Bishop of Lincoln, in 1753, inscribed the ring of his fourth wife with the words:
" If I survive I'll make them five."
These revived fashions, however, were not of long continuance. The plain hoop, by reason of its very simplicity, had and has a distinction peculiarly its own, and by the close of the eighteenth century seems to have firmly established itself-in England, at least-in public favour. The very modesty of its form makes it conspicuous, and emphasises the appropriateness of the emblem wherein we may
" Love in the small but perfect circle trace, And duty in its soft yet strict embrace."
Note: The rings illustrated in this article have been reproduced twice the actual diameter in order to show details.-eds. to have been two hearts surmounted by a
Fig. 6. But the most popular shape seems crown, typifying the supremacy of love