Signet ring

WB.198     1525–75 • signet-ring intaglio

The unidentified owner’s initials ‘H. E.’ identify this as a personal seal, used to seal wax on letters. The owner’s coat of arms is engraved in rock crystal over coloured foils which are now damaged.

Curator's Description

Gold signet-ring; slender hoop plain at back, but partly engraved with black spiral scrolls; shoulders chased as scrolls of blue, red and green. Oval bezel enamelled at back with blue lines radiating from green centre; pearled band around sides. Bezel set with crystal depicting coat of arms: per fess griffin rampant; three fleur-de-lis in base; helmet, phoenix and monogram above.

This object was collected and bequeathed to the British Museum by Ferdinand Anselm Rothschild.

How big is it?

2.4 cm wide, 2.8 cm high, 0.7 cm deep, and it weighs 12.3g

Detailed Curatorial Notes

Text from Tait 1986:-

Origin: Probably Northern French or Southern Netherlandish, mid-16th century.

Provenance: None is recorded.

Commentary: The particular shape of this shield and the use of adjacent initials can be frequently paralleled in examples of sixteenth-century heraldry in north-west Europe. For a datable example in England as early as the second quarter of the sixteenth century see the stained glass roundel with a shield bearing the device of the Prince of Wales, 1537-47, from Cowick Priory, Devon (now preserved in the Victoria and Albert Museum, Inv. no. c.453-1919, and illustrated in ‘British Heraldry’, comp. and ed. R. Marks and A. Payne, London, 1978, p. 41, no. 69). It has been suggested that it was made by a foreign (Flemish?) glazier working in England in Henry VIII's reign.

European gold and silver signet-rings of the sixteenth century, with bezels engraved with a shield of arms accompanied by the initials of the first owner, are well recorded and have occasionally been identified and dated; for example, the gold signet-ring of Sir John Tirrell, knighted in 1588, has survived in the British Museum (see Dalton 1912, no. 600, pl. VIII; C. C. Oman, ‘British Rings, 800-1914’, London, 1974, p. 107, pl. 48D; ‘British Heraldry’ 1978, p. 94, no. 150) and is engraved with the arms of Tirrell and above the shield the initials I.T. (for Iohannes Tirrell).

However, among armorial signet-rings of the sixteenth century the great refinement was to reproduce not only the coat of arms in intaglio but also the correct heraldic tinctures by setting a clear, transparent stone, such as rock-crystal, in the bezel, engraving in intaglio the coat of arms on one side and, on the reverse, applying the appropriate colours, often by using coloured foils. In this way the engraved surface could be used for making impressions without wearing away the colours of the coat of arms which lay protected on the underside within the bezel.

Of the few examples that have survived even fewer can be dated with any degree of certainty. Firstly, in the Guilhou Collection there was a plain gold signet-ring set with a rock-crystal intaglio of the arms of von Stralenberg (Frankfurt) and above the shield the initials I.V.S.; the rock-crystal was backed with foil to show the device in the correct colours. The underside of the bezel was said to be inscribed '1508' and the shoulders with the initials V.G. and A.A.A. ; but as the present whereabouts of this signet-ring are unknown, it is not possible to confirm that the ring really dates from the beginning of the sixteenth century, although the evidence of the illustration would seem to support this early dating (sold at Sotheby's, 11 November 1937, lot 577, pl. XIX).

Secondly, there is the gold signet-ring of Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531 ?), which was purchased by the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum, Munich, in 1909 from Johann Renning of Augsburg. The ring is depicted in the double portrait of 1529 of Hans Burgkmair and his wife (preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and most recently published by A. V. Reitzenstein in Zum Burgkmairschen Doppelbildnis von 1529, ‘Pantheon’, XXXIII, no. II, 1975). This signet-ring, which was carefully examined and fully described by Dr Armtraud Himmelheber in ‘Princely Magnificence, Court Jewels of the Renaissance, 1500-1630’, ed. A. Somers Cocks, exh. cat., Victoria and Albert Museum (Debrett’s Peerage Ltd), London, 1980, (no. 4), has the bezel set with a rock-crystal engraved with the arms of Burgkmair “with painted foil red, black and gold”; more precisely it is stated that the bear's head to the right is foiled black, the bear's head to the left is foiled gold, and the background is foiled red. The condition of this ring, with its black-enamelled inscription, MORS VINCIT, on the exterior circumference of the bezel, is remarkable, for apart from being 'slightly scratched' no other damage or loss is recorded.

The third example, which has an impeccable provenance traceable back through the inventories of the Imperial Treasury in Vienna, is the magnificent combined signet- and sundial-ring of a sixteenth-century Archduke of the House of Hapsburg (preserved in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Inv. no. 2183), which Dr Rudolph Distelberger fully described in ‘Princely Magnificence’ 1980 (no. 7). His description stressed that although the rock-crystal set in the bezel was engraved with an archducal coat of arms the arms had not been blazoned and so could not be identified with certainty. Much of the colour under the rock-crystal is damaged, and it is not clear whether a painted foil was placed beneath it or whether the underside of the crystal was painted. Nevertheless, Dr Distelberger was confident that this beautiful signet-ring had not been made for the Archduke Ferdinand II of Tyrol (b. 1520-d. 1595), as had hitherto been supposed. As the coat of arms is surrounded by the order of the Golden Fleece and neither Bohemia nor Hungary is included in the arms, Dr Distelberger has suggested that this signet-ring might have been made for the Emperor Charles V's brother, Ferdinand I, after he had become a knight of the Golden Fleece in 1516, before the Jagellonian inheritance (Bohemia and Hungary) of 1527 and perhaps even before his election as King of Bohemia on 2 October 1526. Such an early date (c.1516 - 26) for this exceptionally handsome and finely chased acanthus ornamental gold ring would be highly significant, because if so eminent a person as the Emperor's brother at the Imperial Court had favoured this new type of signet-ring, it would have tended to set the fashion throughout Europe. Certainly, there is evidence to suggest that it was introduced in England before 1530 and remained popular for almost 100 years.

Indeed, one other historic signet-ring of this type can be dated to within ten years during the middle of the sixteenth century: it is the signet-ring of Mary, Queen of Scots (b. 1542-d. 1587) in the British Museum (see Hugh Tait (ed. And contrib.), ‘The Art of the Jeweller, A Catalogue of the Hull Grundy Gift to the British Museum: Jewellery, Engraved Gems and Goldsmiths’ Work’, London, 1976, p. 249, no. 422, pl. 10, where it was dated to 1548-58). The oval bezel of this gold enamelled ring is set with a crystal engraved with the shield of Scotland, surrounded by the collar and badge of the Order of the Thistle, and supported by two unicorns chained and ducally gorged. The crest on a helmet with mantling and ensigned with a crown is a lion sejant affronté, crowned and holding in the dexter paw a naked sword and in the sinister paw a sceptre, both bendwise. On either side of the crest are the initials M R (for Maria Regina) the legend IN DEFENS and two banners, one with the arms of Scotland (on the dexter) and the other with three bars and overall a saltire (the cross of St Andrew). The tinctures of this immensely intricate achievement of Mary, Queen of Scots, appear through the crystal on a field of blue. The underside of the bezel is engraved (with traces of the original enamel) with a cipher formed of M and the Greek letter phi (Φ) for Francis, Mary's first husband, and it is the presence of this cipher that helps to pin-point the origin of this magnificent but much-worn signet-ring.

Mary had succeeded to the throne of Scotland upon the sudden death of her thirty-year-old father, James V, in 1542 when she was only six days old. Her entitlement to bear the arms of Scotland alone dates from that year, but it was not until 1548 that she was betrothed to the Dauphin Francois and went to live at the French court of King Henri II. The ten years between 1548 and 1558 (the date when they were married) is the one period in her life when Mary not only bore the arms of Scotland alone but also would have used the cipher of two letters standing for Francois, the Dauphin, and M (for Mary). Upon her marriage to the Dauphin in April 1558 she assumed the arms of France as well as those of Scotland, and immediately after the death of Mary Tudor, Queen of England, on 17 November 1558, the French King, Henri II, formally caused his daughter-in-law to be proclaimed Queen of England, Ireland and Scotland, and caused the King-dauphin and the Queen-dauphiness (as they were titled) to assume the royal arms of England, in addition to those of France and Scotland. The sudden death of Henri II in July 1559 resulted in Mary, as consort to Francois II, becoming Queen of France, but her coat of arms changed again in December 1560, when her husband died. By August 1561 Mary had returned to Scotland to begin a personal rule of her inheritance, and within four years she had fallen in love with the young Lord Darnley, married him in July 1565, and made him King Henry of Scotland. If, as would seem likely, Mary had no reason to incorporate the cipher of M and Φ in the design of her signet-ring after Francois II's death, this historic ring would seem not only to date from the decade 1548-58 but to have been made by a goldsmith at the French court; moreover, the technically brilliant cutting of the complex armorial achievement on the rock-crystal set in the bezel may be attributed to one of the leading French exponents of the art of gem-engraving, perhaps a pupil of Matteo del Nassaro, of Verona, who had worked in France for Francois I, training French craftsmen and setting the highest standards in the field of the glyptic arts.

A French or Netherlandish mid-sixteenth-century origin for the Waddesdon armorial signet-ring is here tentatively suggested for the first time in place of the previously published attribution 'German, 16th century'. Until the coat of arms and the initials H E are identified there can be no certainty about its origin, but the shape and design of the ring itself are not dissimilar to several engraved designs by the Lorraine goldsmith Pierre Woeiriot (1532-96), whose ‘Livre d'Aneaux d'Orfèvrerie’ was published in Lyons in 1561 (see the facsimile, with an introductory essay by Diana Scarisbrick, reprinted by the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, 1978). Although Pierre Woeiriot was only one among many French artists who provided designs for finger-rings for the goldsmiths to copy and adapt, his collection of forty plates provides a valuable indication of the range of forms and decorative motifs that were in favour in France during the middle decades of the sixteenth century. Out of the fifty-seven designs provided by Pierre Woeiriot in his Livre the rings on plates 3 (upper), 11 (upper) and 37 (lower) have the most in common with the Waddesdon signet-ring. None is identical, but that would hardly be likely.

The armorial signet-ring set with an engraved crystal and backed with coloured foils continued to enjoy a long period of popularity, but of the very few that can be dated none made in the last quarter of the sixteenth century exhibit the same shape or characteristics as the Waddesdon ring. For example, both the English signet-ring of Robert Taylor, dated 1575 and bearing the device of Sir Thomas Gresham (see ‘Princely Magnificence’ 1980, no. 30) and the German signet-ring of Duke Maximilian I of Bavaria, who succeeded his father in 1597 and died in 1651 (see ‘Princely Magnificence’ 1980, no. 76) have the simple, almost standard form of the normal signet-ring of the seventeenth century. The presence of the three fleurs-de-lis within this coat of arms is not proof of a French origin, but the general appearance of this heraldic device, together with the evidence of taste in mid-sixteenth-century France, does suggest that this signet-ring could have originated in France or perhaps in a Southern Netherlands workshop, many of which were at this time copying French designs and fashion. The proposed mid-sixteenth-century dating is again confirmed by the gold enamelled signet-ring dated 1562 in the British Museum (Dalton 1912, no. 326). This ring is very similar, albeit smaller, in form, and the bezel is set with a crystal engraved with a shield bearing a spray of three five-petalled flowers, the tinctures showing through from the underside; also under the crystal on the crimson field are the gold initials V M N (for the German phrase meaning, 'Forget me not'). The presence of these initials suggests that the ring might have been intended for a German- or Flemish-speaking patron of which there were many in the Southern Netherlands, especially at the Hapsburg court of the Regent.


  • Charles Hercules Read, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest: Catalogue of the Works of Art bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898’, London, 1902, no. 198
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘Catalogue of the Finger-Rings, Early Christian , Byzantine, Teutonic, Medieval and Later in the British Museum’, London, 1912, no. 327
  • O.M. Dalton, ‘The Waddesdon Bequest’, 2nd edn (rev), British Museum, London, 1927, no. 198
  • Hugh Tait, 'Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum. 1., The Jewels', British Museum, London, 1986, no. 42, pl. XXIXA, figs. 183-186.Dalton 1912

    C.H. Read, 'The Waddesdon Bequest, Catalogue of the Works of Art etc' 1902, no. 198.

  • References

    1. Read 1902: Read, Charles Hercules, The Waddesdon Bequest. Catalogue of the Works of Art Bequeathed to the British Museum by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild, M.P., 1898, London, BMP, 1902
    2. Dalton 1912: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, Franks Bequest Catalogue of the Finger Rings, Early Christian, Byzantine, Teutonic, Mediaeval and Later, Bequeathed by Sir Augustus Wollaston Franks, KCB, in which are included the other rings of the same period in the Museum., London, BMP, 1912
    3. Dalton 1915: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, Catalogue of the Engraved Gems of the Post-Classical Periods in the Department of British and Mediaeval Antiquities and Ethnography in the British Museum., London, BMP, 1915
    4. Dalton 1927: Dalton, Ormonde Maddock, The Waddesdon Bequest : jewels, plate, and other works of art bequeathed by Baron Ferdinand Rothschild., London, BMP, 1927
    5. Tait 1986: Tait, Hugh, Catalogue of the Waddesdon Bequest in the British Museum; I The Jewels, London, BMP, 1986

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