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Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Shakespeare's Signet Ring

Object 64 - Read about one of the most prized possessions in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Peter Hewitt

Today's object post comes from Peter Hewitt, Doctoral Researcher in History at the University of Birmingham and features one of the most important treasures in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust Collections.

'She carved thee for her seal, and meant thereby,
Thou shouldst print more, not let that copy die.'

- Sonnet XI

Signet Ring
SBT 1868-3/274 A signet ring, thought to have belonged to William Shakespeare, late sixteenth or early seventeenth century.

One of the most prized possessions in the collection of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust is this gold signet ring.  The inscription, ‘WS’ (in reverse) has invited much speculation and, for many people, it is the most significant surviving object that was once owned and used by the poet.

In the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, signet rings were used to imprint the warm wax applied to documents with the sender’s symbol – this could be a monogram, a coat of arms or any other recognisable design.  Signet derives from the Old French word signe, meaning to mark, or a signature.  By 1600, signet rings were usually worn on the forefinger or thumb – the latter being a fashion revived by Henry VIII.  Rings were also worn around the neck on a chain, and many seventeenth-century signets are not ring-forms at all, but simple seals with handles and a hole for the chain to pass through.  They are usually associated with men of business, to be used in professional situations.

Wax impression
Wax impression from the W.S. signet ring.

Interspersed with the W. S. initials, this ring is inscribed with a knot-work design.  It has three distinct elements:  above the letters are four loops (one is heart-shaped), known as a true lover’s knot; between the initials is a slightly different looped design called a ‘Bowen’ knot; and below this the knot-work terminates in tassels (these are clearly seen in the wax impression).

In contrast to the idea that seal rings were commercial in nature, the same knot-design can be seen on a mid-seventeenth century seal ring in the V&A supposedly given to Elizabeth Eldoff from her friend Susan Gaynsford.  Interestingly, the ring carries the givers’ initials in the centre, S. G., and these are then surrounded by a border which bears the name of the wearer, ‘ELIZABET ELDOFF’.

Elizabeth Eldoff’s ring suggests that the initials on seal rings may, occasionally, be those of the giver, rather than the owner.  This raises questions about the actual use of the signet ring – if the W. S. does stand for William Shakespeare, did he use this himself or did he give it to another?  If this was a gift, does the knot-design, as in the Eldoff ring, denote friendship?  It is, of course possible that (much like today) friendship and business interests went together.  Sir Thomas Gresham gave seven rings as tokens of friendship to his associates, partly in reward for their services, and to remind them of his patronage (his emblem was etched into each one of the rings).  Did W. S. give this ring to a trusted business associate, who acted on his behalf?  As we are aware, Shakespeare was a successful man of business, a landowner, and by 1596, the inheritor of a coat of arms denoting gentlemanly status.

These ideas are speculative.  The ring’s provenance is doubtful (unearthed in a field next to Holy Trinity churchyard in 1810), and further complicated by the fact that the actor David Garrick displayed a similar one in his Temple to Shakespeare in the 1750s.  But as the sonnet suggests, seals had the power of reproduction, of bounteous replication, reminding the viewer of the original.  This may be a copy, a friendship or patronage ring, but nevertheless it continues to stimulate our thinking about Shakespeare and his world.