Iconographic ring with image of St Catherine
Iconographic ring with image of St Catherine
Iconographic ring from Maes y Groes
Iconographic ring from Maes y Groes

The starkness of the inscriptions on these mourning rings is largely a consequence of the Reformation, which did away with prayers for the dead and to the saints. In contrast, earlier medieval rings sometimes depicted saints or contained religious formulas such as extracts from prayers, and a small number of these have been recently found in Wales. A fine example is the late 15th century silver gilt ring discovered by Mr Phil Jenkins at Carew in October 2013. Decorated all around with a twisted design, the bezel is divided into three facets, each engraved with a separate word, together making the formula ‘ihs ave maria’ [Jesus. Hail Mary]. Such rings were more than just decorative statements of faith, they could also be used as devotional aids.

In the later Middle Ages there was a new emphasis on a more mystic, personal relationship with God, to be achieved through prayer and contemplation, and which could be aided by objects such as books and images. The Carew ring could also have been used in this way as the name of Jesus (‘ihs’) prompted the contemplation of Christ’s life and death. ‘Ave Maria’ is the opening statement of the Latin prayer derived from the words used by the Angel Gabriel at the Annunciation, when he appeared to Mary to tell her that she was carrying Jesus. In this way the ring encapsulated in three short words the central beliefs of the Christian religion – that Christ was sent to earth to save mankind.

Does the presence of the Latin words on the Carew ring mean that the owner of this ring was an educated person, or maybe even a cleric? Not necessarily. Although literacy rates were low at this time common Latin phrases such as those used in religious ceremonies and prayers would have been easily recognised, much as ‘post mortem’ and ‘et cetera’ are today. Even if their literal translation was not understood, their general meaning and significance as religious terms was important and would have given them a certain spiritual power. They may also have been thought to have a protective effect in the manner of a charm, although the church would have officially frowned on this as straying too closely into the realm of magic! Other iconographic rings found in Wales contain images of saints, which may have been specifically chosen for particular reasons. In October 2014 Mr Philip Jenkins discovered a late medieval gold ring bearing an engraved image of St Catherine at Llandissilio West, Pembrokeshire. As one of the virgin martyrs she held a special significance for young, unmarried girls, and she was also the patron of scholars, wheelwrights and various other groups.

Medieval saints can often be recognised by their ‘attributes’, such as objects they hold or items of dress. Catherine is often shown with a wheel and sword, the instruments of her torture and death (and the rather gruesome inspiration for the Catherine Wheel firework). Like many of the other rings described here the St Catherine ring also carries an inscription on the inside of the hoop. This reads ‘en bon eure’ [In good year], which suggests it might have been a New Year’s gift for someone with a particular devotion to this very popular saint.

Although images of medieval saints are often easy to recognise, this is not the case with the late 15th century gold iconographic ring found by Mr Paul Anthony Byrne at Maes-y-Groes, near Wrexham. The ring has two images engraved on its double-faceted bezel, but both are worn and very little can now be made out other than a wing. This could therefore be an image of the Archangel Gabriel, St Michael (generally shown as winged), or even of St George.

It may seem strange for St George to appear on a ring found in Wales, but he was not exclusively associated with England at this time and, in any case, the owner may well not have been Welsh. Another interesting feature of this ring is the clasped hands which appear at the base of the hoop. These can signify love, trust or marriage and were a common symbol on medieval rings, known as ‘fede’ (faith) rings. Do the clasped hands suggest that this was also a lover’s gift like the posy rings described earlier?

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