Mourning for a king
Though widely associated with the Victorian era, the wearing of mourning and commemorative jewellery such as rings and lockets began in the sixteenth century. Mourning jewellery tended to be very personal, worn by close friends and family to mourn the death of a loved one. Commemorative jewellery was produced on a larger scale to remember or demonstrate support for an important event or public figure. This gold ring combines elements of both types of jewellery. Made in England around 1650, a year after the execution of Charles I, it would have been worn not just in memory of the death of the king, but also as an indication of its wearer’s continuing political loyalty to the monarchy.
Secret allegiance to the royalist cause
The ring has a large diamond at its centre, flanked with black enamel, and is at first glance typical of the expensive mourning jewellery worn in public in memory of a dead family member. However, the oval bezel of the ring is actually a hinged lid that opens to show a concealed locket containing an enamelled portrait of Charles I, thus revealing the wearer as a supporter of the royalist cause. By wearing the ring with its lid closed, the wearer could keep their allegiance to Charles a secret during the years of the Commonwealth and Protectorate.
The production of commemorative jewellery increased greatly following Charles’ execution in 1649, suggesting an undercurrent of public sympathy towards the monarchy, though the secret nature of this ring makes clear that its owner had reasons to conceal their loyalties. Not all jewellery commemorating Charles was produced after his execution. Rings with portraits of him were presented to supporters during his lifetime by his Queen, Henrietta Maria, in appreciation of their loyalty and financial backing and presumably on the understanding that they would be rewarded more substantially when the Civil War was over. The restoration of the monarchy in 1660 again produced great amounts of commemorative jewellery, which was worn openly either by genuine long-term supporters of the monarchy or those who claimed to have been royalists all along.
Who might have worn such a ring?
The use of gold and a diamond in making this ring indicates that its owner was wealthy and indeed most actively committed royalists were members of the nobility and the landed gentry. They did not only have ideological reasons for supporting the monarchy, as many of them owed their position in society and their lands to the king. During the Interregnum period the estates of many royalists were sequestered by Cromwell’s government. Royalists were given an opportunity to regain their lands through payments to the government, but those who continued to oppose parliamentary rule might have their lands sold by the government. To circumvent this, many royalists hired agents to buy their land and hold it in trust. Many believed that, in the event of the monarchy being restored, they would be rewarded for their loyalty to the crown and be able to return to their estates.
Not all royalists were noble or rich. Artisans, tradespeople and women with a more conservative view of monarchy, hierarchy and government also supported the restoration of the monarchy. However, the most fundamental factor determining allegiance was religion.
The cult of the royal martyr
At his trial, the king refused to recognise the authority of the court because of his belief that ‘a king cannot be tried by any superior jurisdiction on earth’. In a speech delivered on the scaffold just before his execution, he maintained that that he stood ‘for the liberty of the people of England’ and that he would die as ‘a martyr of the people’.
Shortly after Charles’s death, the publication of a royalist propaganda account of his supposed sufferings in prison entitled Eikon Basilike – A Royal Portrait – contributed to the creation of cult of religious martyrdom. The Eikon Basilike was so popular that the Commonwealth’s Council of State commissioned John Milton to write a rebuttal, entitled Eikonoklastes. This image of Charles as a martyred king helped sustain the royalist cause throughout the Commonwealth and Protectorate years.
Biography of Charles I
The execution of Charles I
Article on the reasons for the execution of Charles I.
Allegiance during the Civil War
Article on factors determining allegiance during the Civil War.
The Society of King Charles the Martyr
A British Museum blogpost on mourning rings.