Love Symbols of the Regency

With the approach of Valentine’s Day next week, it seems an appropriate time to discuss the various symbols which were emblematic of love and fidelity during the Regency. Some of those symbols are still recognized as appropriate for those same purposes today, while others have completely fallen out of use and our collective memory.

For those who lived during the Regency, how might they have signaled their love to their beloved?

The quintessential emblem of love in the Regency, as it is today, is the heart. Regency hearts were typically made in much the same shape as hearts today, though they tended to be on the plump side and not overly pointed at the bottom. A heart was the standard motif on a type of ring which dated back to the Middle Ages, the fide ring. Fide is Latin for "faith," and the bezel of this ring was made in the shape of a heart, sometimes surmounted by a crown, held by a pair of hands. Today, rings of this design are known as Claddagh rings, but they were known and worn during the Regency as fide rings and were often given as a token of love from a young man to his lady. Lord Nelson gave such a ring to Lady Emma Hamilton, who wore it for the rest of her life. Rings, and sometimes brooches or bracelets might be set with a pair of hearts, each of a different colored stone, enamels or contrasting metals. Or, the pair of hearts might be bound together by a lover’s knot. However, a more ardent young man might give his love a ring or other piece of jewelry with a flaming heart to symbolize his heated ardor. Any of these motifs might also be found embroidered on a pair of gloves, a handkerchief or perhaps a pair of garters.

The lovers of classical mythology, Cupid and his Psyche, the exceptionally beautiful but mortal princess who had captured the heart of the young god, were very popular Regency emblems of love. Cupid was usually depicted as a handsome youth, or as a young winged boy, often with his bow, his quiver and his arrows at hand. Cupid as the faithful but dejected/rejected lover was often illustrated by the handsome youth, his bow and/or his quiver of arrows abandoned on a nearby rock or tree branch as he knelt by a hound, dogs being well-known symbols of fidelity. Another favorite motif was a much younger, mischievous Cupid, running away with a heart in his hands, accompanied by the inscription:   "Stop, Thief!" Cupid, with his bow drawn, ready to loose an arrow at yet another unsuspecting victim, was a favorite Regency motif. A heart transfixed by one of Cupid’s arrows was also a popular symbol of love, proclaiming the owner of the pierced heart to be in the thrall of their beloved.

Psyche loved Cupid so deeply that she was willing to endure a series of trials set her by his mother, the goddess Venus, in order to be reunited with him. By so doing, she was not only able to marry her true love, she became immortal, a goddess herself. Psyche is depicted on her own as often as she is with Cupid, sometimes undergoing one of the trials which Venus had set her. Psyche’s symbol is a butterfly, because psyche is the Greek word for "butterfly." Gold or silver filigree butterflies, often set with precious and semi-precious gemstones were to be seen on rings, bracelets, brooches, and other jewelry during the Regency, and all would have been recognized as a love token. In some cases, the butterfly of Psyche might be seen along with Cupid’s bow and quiver, the combination of which would have been understood as a symbol of epic love in the Regency.

Turtle-doves, considered to be sacred to Venus, the goddess of love herself, were another popular symbol of love in the early nineteenth century. Turtle-doves were most often depicted in pairs. A favorite emblem for lovers who were to be separated was a pair of turtle-doves, each with one end of a cord in their beaks, flying away from one another. In the center of the cord was a lover’s knot, and this tableau was typically accompanied by the inscription:   "The Farther We Fly the Firmer We Tie." Thus, the further apart the pair of birds flew, the tighter they made the knot which bound their love. The Regency equivalent of "absence makes the heart grow fonder." Assuming the "tie" was successful, another appealing scene with turtle-doves showed them tenderly guarding a nestful of eggs. Such representations of turtle-doves might be painted in watercolors, embroidered on personal articles or on a number of pieces of jewelry, with the exception of rings. There are no rings which survive from the early nineteenth century, including the Regency, which incorporate turtle-doves into their design.

There are a few rings which survive from this time which have a clock dial on the bezel, with a heart, in some cases a ruby or a garnet, set in the place of the number 12. A gentleman might give such a ring to his lady love, if they must be apart for any length of time. The reassuring inscription on the hoop of the ring was usually in French, the traditional language of love:   Tems Nous Joindra (Time will bring us together). Occassionally, either lover might give the other a watch with a heart, often a red gemstone, on the dial in the place of the 12. That same French inscription might appear on the back of the watch, or inside the case, where only the owner could see it.

A number of different plants and flowers were also recognized symbols of love from the late eighteenth century into the nineteenth, including during the Regency. Strands of evergreen ivy, which clings tenaciously wherever it grows, was a well-known emblem of fidelity. It might be used on its own, or entwined with other motifs of love. A number of rings with green enamel ivy which trailed over a bright red enamel background survive from the Regency. Decades before, the Prince of Wales gave Mrs. Robinson a ring embellished with strands of ivy. Inside the hoop was the inscription:   Je Ne Change Qu’en Impourant (Only death can change me). Perhaps he actually meant it when he had the ring made.

The two flowers most associated with love and fidelity were forget-me-nots and pansies. There are several stories about how the forget-me-not got its name. According to one legend, on the sixth day of Creation, God named all of his creations, but while naming the plants, it seems He over-looked a small plant with tiny blue flowers. As He was about to leave, one of the tiny blossoms called out, "What about me?" In reply, God said, "I shall call you forget-me-not so that I will never again forget you." Another folk tale involves Adam and Eve, who, when they were cast out of the Garden of Eden, were shunned by all the plants and animals, except one small blue flower. As the disgraced couple were leaving the Garden, the little blue flower showed them kindness by acknowledging them and asked them not to forget about it. In return, they named it forget-me-not. The small flower was popular with both lovers and close friends as a symbol of remembrance. On jewelry, forget-me-nots were typically made of small turquoise stones as the petals, with a tiny diamond or topaz set in the center. They might be entwined with ivy to enhance the symbolism of fidelity. In particular, rings adorned with forget-me-nots were popular as tokens of both love and friendship. It was customary for good friends to exchange forget-me-nots on 29 February, a day on which it was believed the forget-me-not became an especially powerful good luck charm.

The pansy had nearly as many associations with love as it had alternate names. The wild pansy was believed to have been white, until it was struck by Cupid’s arrow, at which time it became purple, the color of a bleeding heart. Thus, it became known as Cupid’s flower, as well as love-lies-bleeding, flame flower, call-me-to-you, kiss-me-quick, cuddle-me, and Johnny-jump-up. Wild pansies were also known as heart’s-ease because it was believed the plant had the ability to cure problems of the heart, especially those related to love. The name pansy itself comes from the French, pensée, which means "thought" or "remembrance." The flower was dedicated to St. Valentine, due to its close association with love. In some rural areas, pansies were believed to be an aphrodisiac and an important ingredient in love potions. In fact, in Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare had Puck rub pansy juice on Titania’s eye lids, in order to ensure she would fall in love with the first creature she saw when next she opened them. The pansy is also a generous and altruistic flower, according to a folk tale which explains how it lost is fragrance. It seems the beautiful perfume of the pansy drew many people to the meadows where it grew, causing them to trample the grass which their cows needed to eat. In order to prevent the cows from starving, the pansy prayed that her fragrance would be taken from her. Her prayer was answered, and without her beautiful perfume, the people no longer trampled the meadows, the grass grew lush and tall and the cows were fat and healthy, grazing the fresh green grass. Pansies were as popular as forget-me-nots during the Regency and were often incorporated into designs for jewelry and other tokens of love. And, as with forget-me-nots, they could be entwined with ivy as a dual symbol of remembrance and fidelity. Single hearts were made as ring or pendant lockets, which, when opened, revealed an enamelled pansy or forget-me-not, perhaps wreathed in ivy. In addition, from the late eighteenth century, a tiny enameled purple pansy was the hallmark of the very fine and highly coveted sewing implements sold at the Palais Royal in Paris.

In addition to turtle-doves, other animals were associated with love. The snake was a symbol of eternity, especially when formed as a ring or bracelet, with its tail in its mouth, creating a never-ending circle. Jeweled serpents and snakes were very popular during the Regency, with many people, including the Regent himself. Serpents were often combined with Psyche’s symbol, the butterfly, as an emblem of eternal love. In the guise of the rejected lover, Cupid was depicted with a dog, another symbol of fidelity. Perhaps one of the most charming and enchanting rings which survive from the Regency has an enamelled bezel on which a white rabbit is depicted, peeping out from a thicket of leaves and flowers. The inscription on the hoop of the ring is in French:   Tou Jours Coraignette (Ever shy). Perhaps a gift by which to tease or taunt a very proper or timid young lady.

Other objects served as symbols of love during the Regency. Padlocks, often in the shape of hearts, and usually accompanied by tiny keys, were very popular. Many of these padlocks were made as lockets, which their accompanying key would open, to reveal a miniature portrait or a silhouette of their beloved, in many cases, along with a lock of their hair. A variation on the padlock locket was the galley slave ring, which consisted of a fine chain clasped by a miniature padlock, in imitation of the iron shackles which were used to bind prisoners, thus declaring the wearer to be a captive of love. Near the end of the Regency, rings made as miniature dog collars were briefly fashionable. These tiny dog collars were made in enamel to resemble leather, and, like full size dog collars, most had a diminutive silver plaque engraved with the name of their "owner."

Probably the most unique and cryptic symbol of love and fidelity during the Regency was the number 3. This is one case in which French had no influence, German was the key to this symbol. Drei is the German word for three, but when Drei is pronounced in Saxon, it sounds more like dru, very similar to the word "true," in the sense of faithful. Initially, the number 3 was adopted as a love token among the cognoscenti, but it was soon in much wider use during the Regency.

All of these symbols of love and fidelity appeared on many items during the Regency, from jewelry to personal textiles to paintings to porcelain and even, occasionally, furniture. Lovers might even doodle any of them on secret missives to one another, or on cards which might accompany flowers or other gifts. Perhaps a young man is not considered acceptable by his true love’s parents and it not allowed to speak to her when she is out with them. So, he surreptitiously scratches a 3 in the dirt of the path when he happens upon the family in the village to assure her of his fidelity. When a young lady’s beau, a soldier, is about to leave for the Peninsula, she decides to make him a hussif. Inside, on the lining, somewhere only he will see, she embroiders a pair of turtle-doves, flying away from each other, each with the end of a cord with a lover’s knot that will tighten as they fly. Maybe she even includes the reassuring inscription:   "The Farther We Fly the Firmer We Tie." Or, two school friends exchange forget-me-not rings, on 29 February, and many years later, those rings show themselves to be true good luck charms for one or both of those ladies. Dear Regency Authors, how might you incorporate some of these Regency symbols of love into your next story?


About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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11 Responses to Love Symbols of the Regency

  1. Kathy says:

    Interesting that faithfulness and fidelity were so highly valued then, when nowadays the focus of Valentine’s Day seems to be on Passion and the enactment (or re-enactment) of Courtship Rituals.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      I suspect that for many people, faithfulness and fidelity are still very highly valued today, as they are the real foundation of a happy and successful long-term relationship.

      I think the problem is that they do not easily lend themselves to hype and drama, thus being poor fodder for advertisers desperate to grab our attention in order to sell their wares. It is much easier to dramatize passion and courtship than it is that inner warmth that a faithful and steady partner can give us every day.

      Thanks for stopping by.



  2. Kathryn Kane says:

    I appreciate the thought that the Redingote be published as a book, but I think that would significantly reduce its value. In its present form, it is available to anyone with an Internet connection. In addition, because it is digital, it is fully searchable, not something a book could offer, as much as I love books myself. Plus, it is always up-to-date, while a printed version would become outdated even before it went to press.

    Thanks for sharing your information about the butterfly in Japan. I studied iconography as an art history student, and was intrigued to discover that many objects, plants and animals had similar meanings in many cultures, even those completely isolated from one another. Perhaps there is some common, but subliminal, human thought process which causes us to assign similar meanings to the same thing.



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  5. Roger Wiles, Duncan, BC, Canada says:

    Dear Kat,

    I have just stumbled on your site and am transfixed by a passage posted 8 February 2013 – “Such representations of turtle-doves might be painted in watercolors, embroidered on personal articles or on a number of pieces of jewelry, with the exception of rings. There are no rings which survive from the early nineteenth century, including the Regency, which incorporate turtle-doves into their design.”

    I have been wearing a family ring for over 40 years that may be relevant. Until now I have not had any information about this ring except for a scant explanation provided by my grandmother. Born in 1879, she was the daughter of a Shropshire clergyman (Wakefield) and said that the ring went at least as far back as her grandfather.

    “Grannie” believed that the stone was cornelian and she had it reset in gold as a gift to me when I came of age. It is of intaglio design and she thought it to be a sealing ring for letters. She told me that a motto accompanied it: “The farther we fly, the tighter the tie.”

    Over the years, I have asked in many jewelry and antique shops about its possible origin (including in London), all to no avail. Your article is the first confirmation that I have ever seen. Can you direct me to your sources or how I might learn more? I would be happy to send a photo of the ring that includes one bird on land, one on the wing, each holding a tether-end with a knot between, and a sailing ship upon the ocean.

    Thank you.

    Roger Wiles

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      WOW!!! You may have the only ring with this symbol. It is quite surprising that it is an intaglio, since most of the intaglio stones of which I am aware were mostly from Italy. Cornelian was a popular stone for carving intaglios. The majority of Italian intaglios had classical motifs. The pair of turtle-doves is almost certainly an English motif. Very unique, for sure. The sailing ship in the design on your ring might suggest that it was a gift, perhaps a pledge of love, from a sailor to his lady love, or maybe from her to him, prior to a voyage.

      There is no need to send me a photo, since I am not an expert on cornelians or intaglios and there is little I could tell you. However, my sources were:

      British rings, 800-1914, by Charles Chichele Oman
      Finger Rings: From Ancient to Modern, by Diana Scarisbrick and Martin Henig
      Rings: Symbols of Wealth, Power, and Affection, by Diana Scarisbrick
      Rings: Jewelry of Power, Love and Loyalty, by Diana Scarisbrick

      These books all have many illustrations, which may be helpful, as well as substantial bibliographies which could lead you on to other sources. You might also try running searches on such strings as “finger rings,” “cornelian intaglios,” and “The farther we fly, the tighter the tie” at Google books. That may yield other sources, which may or may not be online, but once you have the bibliographic citations, you should be able to find them in your local library or they can get them for you through Inter-library loan.

      Good Luck in your search, and congratulations on having such a rare and unique ring.



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