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Shakespeare in 100 objects: Memento Mori Seal

Object 92 - Tudor mourning rings were sometimes bequeathed to family members or close friends in a will

Stephanie Appleton

This post is by Stephanie Appleton, doctoral researcher in the History Department and whose doctoral research examines domestic and community life in early modern Stratford-upon-Avon.


‘Bardolph: Why, Sir John, my face does you no harm.
Falstaff: No, I’ll be sworn; I make as good use of it as many a man doth of a death’s head, or a memento mori.
I never see thy face but I think upon hell-fire and Dives that lived in purple – for there he is in his robes, burning, burning’. (Henry IV, Part 1 3.3. 24 – 28)

Memento Mori Seal
SBT 1872-4 A Memento Mori Seal from the collections of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

In this blog I’d like to return to the theme of death which I considered in my previous posts, number 63, about a will, and number 67, about an inventory. For people living in Shakespeare’s England, death was everywhere. Plague epidemics hit the country numerous times in this period (and in fact Stratford-upon-Avon suffered an outbreak in 1564, the year Shakespeare was born); women faced death in childbirth; and illnesses that would easily be treated by today’s modern medicines often carried away their victims. The early modern life expectancy was therefore a good deal shorter than our own estimated 80 years today: at birth, most people could only expect to live to around 40 years old. For anyone surviving past childhood, however, an age of around 50 or 60 might be expected.[1]

Death affected every family – Shakespeare lost his own son Hamnet in 1596, at the tender age of 11 – and because of this certainty of death every person was encouraged to prepare for their own end. Making a ‘good’ death at this time was very important, because it signalled the destination of your soul. Reformed Christians were encouraged to live a good, honest life, to repent their sins and, most importantly, to pray daily. One of the prompts used to encourage this prayer and reflection on death was the memento mori. ‘Memento mori’ is Latin for ‘remember death’, and this phrase could be inscribed on any number of objects, perhaps alongside a skull (or ‘death’s head’) or even a skeleton.[2]

It is this tradition to which Falstaff refers in the above quotation from the first part of Shakespeare’s Henry IV plays, in which he likens Bardolph’s red face to the fires of hell. This exemplifies how Elizabethan people could ‘see’ or imagine death in many forms. This post features one of the many material manifestations of the memento mori tradition that formed part of everyday life in Shakespeare’s England. It is an impression left by a seal, currently on display in Nash’s House in Stratford-upon-Avon, and is well worth a look if you’re in town. It is inscribed with the phrase ‘N. R. MEMENTO MORI’, and we can imagine its user being reminded of his (or, perhaps less likely, her) own mortality every time he used the object (probably a signet ring) which left this mark.[3] Not only this, but any recipient of a letter bearing this imprint in its waxy seal would have been prompted to consider their own end too.

This seal impression may therefore be associated with mourning rings, which were sometimes bequeathed to a family member or close friend in a will: the theory being that every time the person wore the ring, they would not only think of the relative or friend who had given it to them, but again also of their own mortality. We today would find this kind of preoccupation with death decidedly morbid; however for the people of Shakespeare’s England, when death might snatch you away at any point, it was always prudent to be prepared.

[N. B. This memento mori seal was explored in an earlier post as part of the ‘Shakespeare on Show’ thread, and can be found here: http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/seal-impression-shakespeares-top-ten-characters]


[1] Ralph Houlbrooke, Death, Religion and the Family in England, 1480 – 1750. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2000 (1998). pp. 7 – 8.

[2] For this tradition see Nigel Llewellyn, The Art of Death: Visual Culture in the English Death Ritual, c.1500-c.1800. London: Reaktion Books Ltd (1991) and a great post by Ollie Jones over at the Dutch Courtesan website: http://www.dutchcourtesan.co.uk/deaths-head-middle-finger/

[3] Such as the signet ring with the initials WS featured in another post in this series: http://findingshakespeare.co.uk/shakespeares-world-in-100-objects-number-64-shakespeares-signet-ring