Mourning Ring from Wolverton

Skull detail on mourning ring, 1681
Image courtesy of Warwickshire Museum

Mourning rings date back from the Middle Ages and continued to be used until the early 20th century. It was in the 17th century that they became more defined from the momento mori rings. Mourning rings were more personal, usually with the name of the deceased, their age and dates of birth and death inscribed upon the ring. They were worn in memory of someone who had died and were usually paid for and bequeathed by the deceased, with the recipients and monetary values outlined in their will. The rings had an emotive purpose, as a mark of respect and of regret that the person’s life had to come to an end. The rings were not limited by gender, and could be used to commemorate the passing of any loved one.

Fashions

The style of mourning rings changed with the fashions of the eras in which they were made. In the Victorian period mourning jewellery was the only type of jewellery one was allowed to wear for the first few years of a relative’s passing. Mourning was a more public than private matter, and was seen as a form of societal obligation and cultural fashion. The rings became particularly popular after the death of Prince Albert in 1861, when Queen Victoria and her court wore black and adorned mourning jewellery for years to commemorate his life and passing. The more wealthy the family, the more elaborate the design. Sometimes people would incorporate the hair of their loved one into the design, but others did not trust that the correct person’s hair, or even human hair (as horse hair was commonly used) would be present in the final design. Towards the end of their trend these mourning rings extended into other formats including brooches, lockets and trinkets.

Symbolism

They were usually in a single hoop shape, with designs of skulls, coffins or hour-glasses engraved into them, and commonly made of gold. The use of black enamel or stones like jet were the most common and signified the death of someone who had been married, white enamel and stones were used if the person who had passed was unmarried and a virgin, and occasionally the presence of pearls signified the death of a child. Sometimes the skull design would be wearing a crown which according to Rowan and Rowan represented the idea that death was master of us all, and lily of the valley represented the tears of the Virgin Mary.

Archaeological find in Wolverton

A mourning ring was discovered in Wolverton, Warwickshire and will be on display in Market Hall Museum when it opens later this year. It is made of gold, with a skull design engraved on the edge. This would have originally been defined in black enamel but this has worn down over time and through use. The dents and slight misshapen nature of the ring may reveal some information about the owner, the care he took over it and how often it was worn. The inscription on the inner side of the ring reads “Allice Wagstaffe: 5 Nov ’81” which refers to the year 1681. The person who found the ring carried out some research and discovered that a man of the name Wagstaffe lived in the village at the same date, so there is a possibility that this was his wife.

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