The Regency Way of Death:   Mourning Rings

Last week, I wrote about the customs which governed women’s attendance at funerals during the Regency. As noted in that article, the majority of upper-class Anglican women did not attend funerals in the early nineteenth century. Some scholars of English jewelry have suggested that is the reason why the majority of the most elaborate and ornamental mourning rings of the period were presented to women. Women, in general, were considered to be more sentimental and emotional and it was believed that mourning rings would give them greater comfort as they privately mourned their loss.

A brief overview of the history and philosophy of Regency mourning rings …

The mourning rings which were an essential part of nearly every funeral during the Regency were actually the result of a merging of two different types of rings which had occurred during the seventeenth century. From at least the sixteenth century, when death from war, plague and a number of other causes was very common, many people wore memento mori rings to remind them of the shortness of life. Memento mori is Latin, and translates literally as "remember you will die." Christians, in particular, often wore memento mori rings not just to remind them of the brevity of life on earth, but also of the heavenly life which awaited them when they had shuffled off this mortal coil. In addition, such rings served as reminders to pray regularly in order to be in the proper state of grace to meet one’s end, whenever it might come. It had also become the custom during these years for people to leave rings of remembrance to close friends and family members as a tangible reminder of them after their passing. These rings were usually given with the hope that the recipients of the rings would keep the deceased in their prayers, ensuring their entrance into heaven. The design and inscriptions of such memorial rings were often specified in the will of the deceased. They might be presented to the intended recipients at the funeral, during the reading of the will, or at some other time soon thereafter. By the middle of the seventeenth century, the concepts behind the memento mori and personal memorial rings had become fused into the mourning ring, which remained in use right through the Regency.

Even before the turn of the nineteenth century, nearly anyone with any pretensions to respectability would make provision for mourning rings in their wills. A few people had their mourning rings made well in advance of their death and presented them to their loved ones themselves. For those who died without a will, their families would do their best to ensure that at least a few mourning rings were distributed to their nearest and dearest. Mourning rings were available in a wide range of styles and prices, so regardless of their income level, most people could afford at least a few of them, even if they had to be fairly plain. Except for the funerals of the very poor, mourning rings were considered de rigueur, or the family would have been thought parsimonious and disrespectful of the departed. Typically, the more prestige and money a family had, or wanted people to think they had, the more mourning rings they would distribute at the funerals of family members. There were many among the respectable poor who set aside a little money to ensure that there were at least one or two mourning rings for their closest relations when they died. These people would sacrifice many other necessities of life to pay for these mourning rings, so as not to be thought coarse or indecent, and to be assured they would be remembered after their passing.

Mourning rings were in such demand by the end of the eighteenth century that there were a few jewelers whose entire business was devoted to the making of them. However, jewelers who specialized in mourning rings were primarily located in London. Jewelers in the provinces could seldom afford to specialize to such a narrow degree. The best known mourning ring jewelers in the metropolis were Weatherly, located within the City, Hill, whose shop could be found at Ball Alley, Lombard Street, and Thomas Ayres, who had premises in Fenchurch Street. These mourning ring jewelers, and others, periodically placed discreet advertisements in the main newspapers advising potential customers that they had mourning rings in all styles available on "the shortest notice." A few trade cards for mourning ring jewelers survive which informed potential customers that they offered "Mourning rings neatly made" or that they specialized in "Mourning rings and Hairwork." Most of these specialist jewelers kept a large number of rings on hand which could be finished fairly quickly by the addition of an inscription to suit the customer. As early as the Regency, the production of mourning rings was becoming more and more commercialized and by the middle of the nineteenth century they would be mass-produced in large numbers as the use of mourning rings spread to all classes of society.

The fashion for all things classical had made its way into the design of the more upscale mourning rings by the last decades of the eighteenth century and the fashion continued right through the Regency. The most ornate and expensive mourning rings had a large bezel on which would be displayed a scene which incorporated classical imagery which was symbolic of mourning. Funerary symbols such as a broken column or an obelisk and urn dated back to ancient times and were often included in the scenes which were portrayed on the bezels of mourning rings. These symbols might also be romanticized by the inclusion of a weeping willow or a faithful dog keeping vigil nearby. Historical paintings by artists such as Angelica Kauffman and Benjamin West, of events from Classical Antiquity, such as Agrippina bringing home the ashes of her husband, Germanicus, or Andromache mourning the death of her husband, Hector, were the inspiration for a plethora of scenes of sorrowing women in classical garments on the bezels of mourning rings. Such women were posed weeping near a sarcophagus, a broken column or an urn on a plinth, often over-hung with a weeping willow and/or a dog keeping vigil. These scenes were usually painted on either ivory or vellum and set under a thin layer of crystal to protect them. Others were painted and fired in enamel on copper so that a crystal cover was unnecessary. The name, and usually the date of death, of the deceased would be inscribed on the column, the urn, the plinth or on the back of the bezel. A mourning sentiment of the time might be inscribed on the tomb or plinth, or over the top of the scene. One of the most popular was "Not Lost, But Gone Before." The bezels of the most expensive mourning rings were surrounded by diamonds or pearls, while others were surrounded by precious or semi-precious colored gemstones.

A Biblical motif which was used on its own, or in conjunction with classical motifs on the bezels of mourning rings, was one or more sheaves of wheat. This symbol was used to allude to the phrase from Psalm 126 in the Bible: "Those who went sowing in tears came back singing, carrying their sheaves." This phrase was sometimes inscribed on the back of the bezel or around the inside of the hoop of the ring. Though skeletons or skulls had been common motifs on mourning rings during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, such stark images seldom appeared on mourning rings made during the Regency. By that time, the images used on mourning rings had become more romantic and sentimental than they had been in previous centuries. As with all of the most ornate mourning rings, the name and date of death would be inscribed on the back of the bezel or on the inside of the hoop of the ring.

Perhaps the single most significant symbol in any mourning ring was the hair of the deceased. Hair was very durable and could last for a very long time. As human material, it was believed to be a special emblem life, a powerful, physical evocation of the person to whom it had belonged. From at least medieval times, giving of a lock of one’s hair was considered the most personal gesture of affection. Having a lock of a loved one’s hair grew out of a strong desire to keep a small part of that person close. Hair was often woven and knotted to make a wide range of personal ornaments. When used in upscale mourning rings, hair was often plaited and used as the background for the scene on the bezel or shaped into symbols such as a weeping willow or sheaves of wheat. These bezels would always be covered with a transparent crystal to protect the hair. In other cases, the hair might be placed alone under a crystal on the back of the bezel. When the hair was placed on the back of the bezel which had a mourning image on the front side, these bezels were often made so that they could revolve, allowing either the hair or the scene to be turned outward. In other bezels, the hair at the back might be concealed under a metal cover which could be opened by a secret spring to reveal the lock of hair only to those who knew how to operate it.

Less complex and ornate mourning rings, which were still fairly expensive, had a bezel on which would be painted a miniature of the deceased. As with some love rings, there are a few mourning rings on which is painted only one eye of the departed. For those who could not afford a painting, a miniature silhouette would be used instead. Nearly all mourning rings which included a image of the deceased, whether it was a painting or a silhouette, also contained a small lock of the departed’s hair as well. Sometimes the hair encircled the image on the front of the bezel, while on other rings, the hair was coiled under a cover on the back of the bezel. As with bezels which depicted classical scenes of mourning with a lock of the departed’s hair on the back, these bezels were sometimes made to revolve, or the bezel cover could be opened by a secret spring. The deceased’s cipher was usually incorporated into the design, and might be worked in gold thread or in the hair of the departed. Mourning rings with portraits were typically given only to very close friends and relations of the deceased.

In less costly mourning rings, a small bezel might have a only a small lock of hair under a clear crystal with minimal ornamentation. In others, the hair might be placed inside the hollow hoop of the ring, with a small crystal window set into the hoop through which to view the strands of hair. Though it seems quite strange to us today, by the end of the eighteenth century, many older people had begun to set aside locks of their hair to ensure a sufficient quantity was available for mourning rings when they died. For example, it was recorded that in 1792, Lady Bute instructed the maid who was cutting her hair to "Keep this for my daughters, they will be glad of it, and very good hair it is for a woman of nearly seventy-seven." Those who did not have the foresight to set aside locks of their hair might go to their graves with very little hair on their heads, depending upon the amount required for mourning rings and other mourning jewelry which would be made to remember them.

In addition to classical motifs, other symbols were used on mourning rings, some of them the same as those used on rings of love. Pansies, forget-me-nots and snakes were considered equally appropriate for use in a memorial context for a loved one, signifying a faithful remembrance of love which endured beyond the limits of human life. Snakes, which had symbolized the putrification of the corpse in the seventeenth century, had become emblematic of eternal life by the Regency, when depicted with their tail in their mouth, which formed an endless circle. It had become the usual practice to work the initials of the deceased into a cipher which would appear over the scene on the bezel of the mourning ring. The rank of members of the aristocracy was always respected. Any mourning ring commissioned for a deceased aristocrat would include the coronet appropriate to their title, be it duke, marquis, earl, viscount or baron. The coronet was usually represented with the cipher of the deceased’s initials as well. Cornets and ciphers were regularly used on the mourning rings made for the funerals of both male and female aristocrats.

Ornate mourning rings with scenes on large bezels covered with a crystal and set with gemstones were the most expensive style of mourning rings. They were typically commissioned by the wealthy of the upper classes and presented to the close friends and family members of the deceased. Most of the middle classes purchased a more common type of ring which was a simple hoop enameled on the outside with appropriate colors. The inside of the hoop of these rings would be inscribed with the name and date of death of the deceased. Sometimes a brief sentiment might also be engraved inside the hoop. This style of mourning ring would be enamelled on the outside of the hoop in black for most people. However, rings for children, and virgins, male or female, were usually white. In situations when two people might be buried together, rather than have two different colored rings commissioned, a single, multi-colored ring would be made. For example, if a mother and her newborn were to be laid to rest together, a ring was made which had black on one side and white on the other, thus signifying the status of both. The use of white enamelled rings for those who died unmarried was rigidly observed throughout the eighteenth century, but by the early nineteenth century, that began to change. It then became acceptable for maiden ladies who died to have pale blue enamelled rings distributed at their funerals. This was considered appropriate because pale blue was the color of the heavens and thus the color of purity. These simple enamel rings were kept in stock by many jewelers, including those who specialized in mourning rings. This style of ring was regularly used by members of the middle classes, but they were also purchased in large numbers by those of the upper classes as well. Ornate mourning rings with large bezels were given only to the close friends and relatives of deceased members of wealthy families. However, most mourners at the funerals of the wealthy were given a ring, but a much more simple mourning ring, usually an enamelled hoop.

There was anther style of mourning ring which had become popular among ordinary folk by the end of the eighteenth century and continued in popularity right through the Regency. The dog, symbol of faithfulness, was the inspiration behind the design of mourning rings made in the shape of a dog collar. These dog-collar rings were typically enamelled in black or white, though some were enamelled in pale blue, when intended for distribution at the funerals of maiden ladies. These dog-collar style hoops were often engraved inside with the name and date of death of the deceased. Rarely, some included a brief sentiment of remembrance. Though such sentiments had been engraved in Latin in the seventeenth century, by the Regency they were just as likely to be written in French or even in English, depending upon the wishes of the person who had commissioned the rings. Dog-collar mourning rings were favored for a relatively short period, from the 1790s though about 1820, after which they gradually fell out of fashion.

Because mourning rings were regularly distributed before or after funerals, they were typically given only to men, since women seldom attended funerals. Yet numerous letters and diary entries reveal that these men almost always presented the mourning rings they had been given to their wives or other female family members when they returned home after the funeral. Most of these ladies were very pleased to have a memento of a lost loved one, which often helped them through the grieving process. Most men did not go into full black, as did most ladies after the death of even a close family member, and even those of the upper classes typically went about their business as usual afterward. English gentlemen were expected to behave with great emotional restraint, even after the loss of someone particularly close to them. Perhaps that is why so few men chose to wear mourning rings, they did not want a constant reminder of such a painful loss as they went about their day. In fact, mourning rings made specifically for men are very much more rare and they are always much more austere than were mourning rings in general. Though many women did not attend funerals during the Regency, they were still considered the managers of the household’s mourning rituals. It fell to the ladies to direct all of the mourning activities within the home, and to lead the vigils for the departed prior to the funeral. They were also considered to be the social representatives of their husbands. It was the ladies who demonstrated the family’s sorrow to the world by their wearing of mourning garments and observing the many little rules which governed correct mourning. Perhaps having a mourning ring to wear during this difficult time served to remind them why they must carry on and perform all these sorrowful duties.

Mourning rings were an important feature of English mourning rituals among the upper classes for more than a century before the Regency began, but their use became more common among the middle classes as the nineteenth century opened. Though it is not readily apparent to those of us living today, the distribution of mourning rings after a death was much more than an expression of loss and regret for a departed loved one or a respected member of the community. Mourning rings were understood to be a mark of homage paid not only to the deceased, but also to the institution which was considered the very foundation of society, the family. Failure to distribute mourning rings was seen as an affront not only to the deceased, but to society itself. It was for that reason that mourning rings were distributed in such large numbers from the end of the eighteenth century. Those numbers only increased as the nineteenth century progressed.

Even before the Regency began, mourning rings had become almost an embarrassment to the majority of those in both the upper and the middle classes. Most people would have received so many mourning rings that they would not be able to wear most of them for more than a brief time before another one took its place. Over time, prominent members of Society and those with a large circle of friends and acquaintances were likely to have accumulated a large number of mourning rings. One historian noted that many ladies’ jewel boxes had become akin to portable graveyards due to the large number of mourning rings which they contained. However, a large cache of such rings could be a boon to those of later generations. Most mourning rings contained at least some gold, not to mention those embellished with pearls and gemstones. It was not unheard of for these rings to be traded in to a jeweler or goldsmith. A few conscientious people had the proceeds converted into a larger piece, engraved with the names and dates which had been engraved on the rings. Some people had the gold and gems made into a single larger piece of jewelry, while others preferred the cash.

The majority of mourning rings made during the Regency were designed and made for women, even though many of those rings would be given to men at the funeral or afterwards. Most of those men would present the rings to their wives or other female family member when they returned from the funeral. Very few men wore mourning rings at all, and those that did seem to have done so in memory of someone extremely close to them. Many women did wear mourning rings, particularly those for their nearest and dearest. These ladies were often comforted in their grief by having a tangible memento of someone they had lost which they could keep close to them. Rings with a lock of the departed’s hair were considered especially comforting. Failure to distribute mourning rings would not only have been considered disrespectful of the dead but also a snub at Society itself. From the last decades of the eighteenth century, right through the Regency, most people of the upper and middle classes would received a large number of mourning rings over the course of time.

Dear Regency Authors, might some aspect of mourning rings be used to embellish an upcoming story? Perhaps you have a character who believes their death is imminent and is compulsively accumulating locks of their hair for the making of mourning rings and other mourning jewelry. A cruel and heartless husband might attend the funeral of a member of his wife’s family, but refuses to give the mourning ring to his wife when he returns, increasing her pain and sorrow. Or might a gentleman, perhaps the hero, wear a mourning ring for his lost love? To avoid comments from his friends and family, maybe he wears that ring on a chain around his neck where no one can see it. A cheese-paring character might refuse to have mourning rings made after the passing of a family member, upsetting the departed’s relatives and publicly embarrassing the family. Mayhap a young lady, perhaps the heroine, believes she has been left destitute after the death of her mother, only to find a significant cache of mourning rings in her mother’s jewel box. Will this find enable her to keep the family home, pay for her brother’s education or her sister’s debut in London? From our modern-day perspective, we may consider mourning rings trivial, but our Regency ancestors took them very seriously and there were a great many of them made and distributed during that time.

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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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16 Responses to The Regency Way of Death:   Mourning Rings

  1. Of course you know the plot bunny that sprang to my mind, that a large, ornate bezel with a hidden spring catch could conceal a tiny secret message, or poison for a spy/assassin, all overlooked as a normal mourning ring… or for romance, the secret compartment containing a message from a son of the deceased to his beloved, to whom it might be unexceptionable to send a ring of this kind, but whom he has been forbidden to meet…

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Ooohh! I like that plot bunny!!! The romantic one, where the secret compartment contains a love message. And maybe he has hers specially made, with the addition of a faithful dog and maybe even forget-me-nots in the scene. And just for good measure, he might have a snake encircle the bezel, with its tail in its mouth, another message of his eternal love!

      However, the other scenario also works. Some of those mourning rings had very large bezels, so it would be possible to hide a message inside, or enough poison to do someone in.

      =^..^=

      • I make a gift of the idea to anyone who wants to use it as I have a list of plot bunnies long enough to keep me busy for a VERY long time… I have been using your Regency Way of Death to add a few side details – and red herrings – in the latest Jane and Caleb murder mystery [such as how stopping clocks could be an excuse to hide something in them]. And maybe there’s a touch of Heyer’s ‘the Reluctant Widow’ in the use of a clock as a hiding place, but how many of us have NOT seen the possibility in our youth?

  2. Very impressive plot bunnies! Hm, how about this one:
    A jeweler specialized in mourning rings makes a bespoke set for his noble, wealthy and very aged customer. In one of these a special message is engraved. Upon the death of the old aristocrat, the rings are delivered to each of the recipients. But the ring with the special message can’t be delivered to the addressee, as she, too, has died. Thus it happens that her son (our hero) – a young officer just back from the war – receives the ring with the message. From this he learns that his mother was not only the mistress of the deceased, but that they were indeed secretly married. Therefore, the young officer is the true heir of the deceased. He sets out to the ancestral seat of the deceased to find out more. The welcome is icy: A cousin of the deceased had hoped to become the heir of title, family seat and fortune, to marry the beautiful ward of the deceased and to life happy ever after. Such plans are shattered now. Will our hero be able to take The place as the heir as he is entitled to? And on whose side is the deceased beautiful ward living at the family seat?

  3. juliaergane says:

    I remember when I was a little girl seeing all the “hair art” that was made from my 19th century paternal ancestresses’ hair. The Victorian period really went much further with this particular practice.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      A lot of personal ornaments were made with hair during the Regency, but you are right, the Victorians went WAY over the top! It is a wonder that many of them did not go bald!

      Thanks for stopping by.

      Regards,

      Kat

  4. junewilliams7 says:

    Wow, I was impressed by the information about mourning jewelry and rings – and the image of “ladies’ jewel boxes (that) had become akin to portable graveyards” – and then I saw these plot bunnies. You are a muse!

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thank you! The whole point of the Redingote is to share my research so that other authors who do not have access to the rich sources available to me might find useful bits of Regency reality by which to embellish their stories.

      Regards,

      Kat

  5. elfahearn says:

    Kathryn, did you read about Jane Austen’s turquoise bezel ring, which was sold to singer Kelly Clarkson and then purchased back by the Jane Austen house? From what you’re describing, that ring sounds like the shape of a mourning ring. I wonder if it could have been to commemorate the death of an unwed young lady.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      It is extremely unlikely that Austen’s turquoise ring was a mourning ring. The pale blue rings which I mentioned in the article were plain gold hoops which were enameled on the outside in a very pale blue. The turquoise stone in the JA ring is a little too dark, and not a pure blue. Only a pure, pale blue would be considered an acceptable substitute for pure white.

      There is also the fact that there is nothing engraved on the back of the bezel or inside the hoop of the Austen ring. The quintessential hallmark of a mourning ring was that the full name, or at least the initials of the deceased, and their date of death, would be engraved on the ring. It was not a mourning ring otherwise.

      Even more telling, according to the records, Cassandra gave the ring to the woman who was about to become her sister-in-law. There is no way she would have done such a thing with a mourning ring. It would have been considered rude and insulting on so many levels, and by all accounts, Cassandra liked Eleanor Jackson.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • elfahearn says:

        Ah, that makes perfect sense. Thanks Kathryn, as usual. Your article makes me want to have rings made in memorium when it’s my time. I’ve no desire to be buried, but a piece of jewelry for folks to remember me by … that would be kind of cool.

  6. Pingback: History A'la Carte 11-28-13 - Random Bits of Fascination

  7. Pingback: For Love or Death:   Locket Rings | The Regency Redingote

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