Medieval friends and lovers believed the wearing of words against the skin increased the poignancy of a message. So, they secreted notes and reminders of love, friendship, even fealty on bands of gold, silver and copper for wearers to keep close.
These treasured talismans, ferrying phrases on the inside or outside of the band, swelled in popularity from the fifth to 15th centuries, peaking in the Georgian and Victorian eras. And much like the inscriptions they bore, there is no one right way to spell poesy ring. No matter your preference: poesy, posey, posy or posie, these Middle Age messengers are mysterious and magical. (I prefer “poesy” and my pocketful is below.)
The late art historian Joan Evans compiled a list of thousands of mottos and cherished communiques dubbed “Posies,” derived from the French word “poésie,” meaning short rhyme, in her book: English Posies and Posy Rings, first published in 1931. She personally amassed a collection of these rings which were donated to the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ashmolean Museum and the Birmingham City Art Gallery.
The earliest poesy rings were engraved in Norman French, later expanding to French, Latin and English. Until 1350 or so, the lettering was done by hand in Lombardic, a script known for rounded capital letters, while later specimens were made using Gothic script – an ornate calligraphic or typographical style.
The meaning is quite clear for some: ‘Be Trve To The End,’ while others prove a puzzle: ‘Denial is death.’
The engravings are endlessly entertaining, the tidings ranging from romantic and friendly to pithy, literary and liturgical. George Kunz’s 1917 book Rings for the Finger also includes a list of posies, “Let liking last” and “Joy without end” among them.
Some inscriptions have been found on multiple rings, leading experts at The Victoria and Albert Museum to believe that poesy purchasers could select from stock phrases in addition to dictating their desired design.
Sometime around 1789, a ring like the one below was presented to Thomas Jefferson’s daughter Martha by John Frederick Sackville, British Ambassador to France. He enclosed the token in a letter, beseeching her to accept the gold and blue enameled ring as “a feeble proof de mon tendre souvenir” (of my fond remembrance) after she had returned to America with her father.
Reading “J’aime et J’espere” (I love and I hope), the ring was the second that Sackville, a noted womanizer, reportedly sought to gift to Martha. She had previously rejected a diamond (and possibly a marriage proposal) from the man, who was the uncle of two of her friends at the convent school she attended near Paris. She never returned to France and went on to wed her third cousin, Thomas Mann Randolph.
Sackville’s attempted love connection may have flopped but his enameled ring has garnered noted success, still replicated similarly to the original as well as in sterling silver for today’s everyday wearer.
Poesy rings have been enjoyably storied in historical fiction. In her book This Son of York, Anne Easter Smith employed a gold filigree band bearing Richard III’s motto: loyalté me lie (Loyalty binds me) as method of communication between the king and Kate Haute, a woman she fictionalized as his mistress and the mother of two – if not three – illegitimate children sired by the king.
Last weekend, I devoured a new novel by Kirsty Manning, The Lost Jewels, the tale of a present-day journalist who stumbles upon a potential family connection to the Cheapside Hoard, a real-life cache of jewels discovered by workmen demolishing a building in England in 1912. In part, the story focuses on a small diamond champlevé enamel ring that bears a (fictionalized) faint posie. I won’t say more because you simply must read the book. It’s SO good.
I’d love to know what is written on the inside of Queen Elizabeth II’s very own poesy ring, the wedding band from Prince Phillip gifted to her on their wedding in 1947. Reportedly, only the couple themselves – and the jeweler who made her ring of Welsh gold – know what the inscription reads. It is said that the Queen never removes her wedding band.
I can’t find any reference to the Queen referring to her ring as a poesy, though Mary Borchert, a historian with Antique Jewelry University told National Jeweler, “The message is the thing. If it has the message, you could make a point that it’s a posy ring,” she said.
While less common today, poesy rings remain sought after by collectors – and emulated by modern designers.
Those looking for the real thing should check out Ruby Lane and 1stdibs.com. I’ve also seen some listed on eBay and Etsy as well.
My two favorite contemporary designers are Laurel Elliott and Erica Molinari, whose works I feel pay the most faithful and careful homage to their predecessors.
Elliot’s collection – the more affordable of the two – range from near-exact replicas of pieces owned by major museums, to personal and more modern takes on the concept. On her website, she writes, “I am grateful to be part of the long history of the written word that connects us all through time and across cultures.”
Molinari’s works are done in Latin and English, sometimes contemporized with jewels (traditional poesy rings did not include stones).
Forbes’ Beth Bernstein wrote of Molinari, “In her distinctive style and with her affinity for jewelry that is deeply entrenched with meaning, Erica has continued to rejuvenate jewelry with a modern take on history and imbued all her pieces with a newly found presence—gutsier yet still feminine, an edgier take on the classical.”
I like wearing a modern replica of this 15th century posey ring, found on the river Thames foreshore at Bankside. Made of gold and inscribed in relief around the outside of the band in the period French spelling of the time, it reads: pour amour ce douc, meaning, for love so sweet. It was bezel set with a heart-shaped red spinel in four claws. (The original now lives in the Museum of London) – which is also credited for the photo, below.
It is obvious how special this keepsake must have been and I wonder how it ended up on the bank of the Thames. Maybe it was tossed into the water when the token’s promise didn’t pan out? It could have slipped from the wearer’s finger when she boarded a boat to cross the water. No matter how, the riverbank’s mud helped this piece escape meltdown and repurpose, preserving it for us to enjoy some 500 years later.
I believe posy rings are poised for perpetuity, their precious personalization setting them apart from their blank-band counterparts.