One of the most fascinating items in our museum collections is the gold signet ring, sometimes called ‘Shakespeare’s Ring’.
But is it really Shakespeare’s ring?
The background story of the ring is intriguing...
WHAT IS THE RING LIKE?
The design is typical of man’s signet ring of the Shakespearean period. It is large and quite heavy (about 18 grams of solid gold).
In the middle of the face (or bezel) of the ring are the initials ‘WS’ (reversed to give a positive impression when pressed into hot sealing wax). These letters are intertwined with a tassel known as a ‘Bowen’ or ‘true lover’s knot’.
There is remarkably little wear on the ring, suggesting that it was relatively new or little used when it was dropped.
HOW AND WHEN WAS IT DISCOVERED?
The ring was discovered by a female farm labourer named Mrs. Martin, in a field called Mill Close adjacent to the churchyard of Shakespeare’s church, Holy Trinity, Stratford upon Avon in March, 1810.
By pure coincidence there it was said that there was another labourer working in the same field that, whose name was William Shakespeare!
The ring was very dirty when it was first found. By the time the local historian, solicitor Robert Bell Wheler, got to see it he was mortified to find that it had been thoroughly cleaned by Mrs. Martin who had dipped it in nitric acid! Luckily the ring was made of gold and not silver, otherwise the ring would have dissolved. Wheler bought the ring for 36 shillings and it was presented to the Shakespeare Trust by his sister in 1868.
WHAT WAS THE PUBLIC REACTION AT THE TIME?
The artist Benjamin Hayden wrote to poet Keats in 1816 a state of great excitement at the prospect of it being Shakespeare’s ring: "I shall certainly go mad! In a field at Stratford upon Avon, in a field that belonged to Shakespeare; they have found a gold ring and seal, with the initial thus- W.S. and a true lover's knot between. If this is not Shakespeare who is it? - a true lover's knot.!! As sure as you breathe & that he was the first of beings the Seal belonged to him - Oh Lord!'"
WHAT IS A SIGNET RING?
Even quite ordinary people in Shakespeare’s time possessed their own seal. It was often the most expensive personal item that someone possessed. The 16th/17th centuries were litigious times, and a seal was a very important way of either authenticating a document (a more romantic and imaginative method than the pin-number!) or making sure an important personal letter had not been tampered with. Shakespeare’s mum, Mary Arden, had her own seal – a rearing horse – as did his son-in-law, John Hall.
Signet rings were used to imprint a personal seal on a blob of sealing wax. By Shakespeare’s time this ‘wax’ was no longer the traditional beeswax used in medieval times, but a resin called ‘shellac’ coloured red with a pigment known as vermilion.
WAS THE RING SHAKESPEARE’S?
It is very possible that this was William Shakespeare’s ring.
It is of the right quality for someone of his social standing and we know that when he amended his will in March, 1616 shortly before his death, the document that had originally concluded with ‘hereunto set my hand and seal’. The ‘and seal’ bit was crossed out.
We are currently researching the documents of other men in the area of Stratford during the period with the initials WS, to discover whether there is a matching seal. There was a William Smith, a draper from Stratford who was WS’s contemporary – but he had another seal (skull & bones). Unfortunately there are no Shakespeare documents bearing a seal impression.
There are several other interesting links between Shakespeare and the site where the ring was discovered. Holy Trinity church – close to where the ring was found – was, of course, Shakespeare’s church. Shakespeare held 107 acres in the open fields of Old Stratford, where Mill Close is located, together with a farm-house, garden and orchard, and 20 acres of pasture.
WHERE IS THE RING NOW?
You can see the ‘WS’ signet ring on display in the exhibition at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Visitors’ Centre.*
*Update Feb 2018: It is currently in display in the exhibits at Shakespeare's New Place.