- Museum number
- Object: Æthelswith Ring
Gold finger-ring; plain hoop expanding at the shoulders, which with the bezel are chased with Trewhiddle style designs upon a nielloed ground. The bezel is circular with a pearled border; it is ornamented with a medallion inscribed in a quatrefoil and containing the Agnus Dei between two letters; the leaves of the quatrefoil and the spaces between them are chased with foliage. Each shoulder has a semi-circular panel with pearled border, containing an animal on a ground of niello. Inside the ring is engraved with an inscription.
- Production date
- 853-874 (probably)
Diameter: 26 millimetres
Height: 20 millimetres
Weight: 20.20 grains
- Curator's comments
Text from Dalton 1912, Catalogue of Finger Rings, no. 180:
'Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London', 2nd ser., vi, p. 305 ; H. Clifford Smith, 'Jewellery', (1908) p. 72 and pl. xiii; 'Victoria County History: Yorkshire', vol. ii, p. 98.
The owner of this ring was Ethelswith, Queen of Mercia (A.D. 855-89), and sister of Alfred the Great. The form 'D', intended to represent the sound 'th', is unusual; but Ð occurs on a copy of a coin of Edgar (died A. D. 975) set in a brooch in the British Museum (R. A. Smith in 'Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries' xix, p. 210). The letters on either side of the Agnus Dei may be intended to represent those two words, as each has a mark of abbreviation above it. The 'D' may, however, stand for a Greek Θ, in which case the words might be Agnos Theou (Greek letters).
The ring was ploughed up in 1870 between Aberford and Sherburn, West Yorkshire and, it is said, was attached by the finder to the collar of his dog. It was purchased by a York jeweller who sold it to Canon Greenwell. An extract from the Minutes of a Council Meeting of the Yorkshire Philosophical Society on 5 May 1873 runs as follows:
'The Secretary made the following Statement.
'The Rev. Canon Raine having informed Mr. Noble that a Gold Enamelled Ring evidently of Saxon Workmanship and bearing in Saxon Characters the words "Ethelswith Regina" had come into the possession of a York Jeweller and was purchasable and that it was desirable so important an object of Antiquity should be secured to the Museum. The price asked being £30 Mr. Noble at once offered to secure the Ring and pay the money, many Members of the Society having expressed a desire that the Ring should be obtained.
'The Rev. Canon Greenwell of Durham a short time afterwards called on Mr. Noble and stated that if the Yorkshire Philosophical Society would abandon their claim at present to the Ring he would purchase it on the following conditions:
1. That the Ring should be handed over to the Society after his death and that he would give such guarantee in writing in respect of this Condition as the Treasurer and Secretary should approve.
2. That he would on consideration that the Society would allow him to have possession of the Ring for his life on the above terms hand over to the Society as a free gift his valuable collection of Saxon Antiquities found in Yorkshire.
So far as could be judged the Ring appeared to be of the date assigned to it and the enamelled work was similar in character and colour to the enamelled design on the Ring of Ethelwulf King of Wessex the Father of the Lady who is supposed to have owned the Ring. King Ethelwulf's ring is a well known specimen of Saxon Antiquity and is now in the British Museum.
'The statement respecting the finding of the Ring is to the effect that it was found in a ploughed field in the neighbourhood of Sherburn in the W.R. Yorkshire.'
The ring was never again seen in Yorkshire. The matter is further raised in the Council Minutes of the same Society in November 1907, when it was recorded that representations had been made to Canon Greenwell on the subject of the ring which was by this time in the possession of the British Museum. The ring was still in the possession of Canon Greenwell in 1876 when it was exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries by Franks. It probably passed into Franks's possession a short time after this and it came to the Museum in 1897 with the rest of the Franks bequest.
The inscription on the ring 'Eathelswith Regina' associates it with Queen Æthelswith of Mercia (853-88).
See pp. 2, 5, 6, 22-27, 29, 34, 56, 75, 79, 80, 82, 83, 90 and pl. XI.
Bibliography: 'British Museum: A Guide to Anglo-Saxon . . . Antiquities . . .', London,1923, 114 and fig. 144; Leclerq, H. (1930): 'Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de litergie'(ed. Cabrol/Leclerq), ix, 2éme partie, Paris, 2402 and fig. 7185; Oman, C. C. (1931): Anglo-Saxon Finger-Rings, 'Apollo', xiv, 105 and fig. B, 17; 'British Museum, Alfred the Great Millenary Exhibition', London 1901, 13; Elgee, F. & H. W. (1933): 'The Archaeology of Yorkshire', London, 188 and fig. 33; Kendrick, T. D. (1938a): 'Anglo-Saxon Art to A.D. 900', London, 183-4; Smith (1908), Jessup, R. (F.) (1950): 'Anglo-Saxon Jewellery', London, 68, 131, pl. xxxvi, 2 and fig. 9; Hodgkin,R. H. (1952): 'A History of the Anglo-Saxons', 3rd ed., Oxford, ii, pl. iv; Brøndsted, J. (1924) 'Early English Ornament', London/Copenhagen, 133 and fig. 110.
Webster et al 1984
The ring is in good condition, but is rubbed on the top and bottom of the bezel.
Provenance: Aberford near Sherburn, Yorkshire; ploughed up in 1870. Formerly in the collection of Canon William Greenwell.
Exhibitions: British Museum 1976, no. 446.
Commentary for AF.458 and 1829,1114.1
The fortunate survival of two gold finger rings associated with the royal house of Wessex, almost certainly manufactured for the people whose names appear on them, provides valuable primary dating evidence for ninth-century metalwork. The inscription on 1829,1114.1 refers to King Æthelwulf of Wessex (839-58), father of Alfred the Great and of Queen Æthelswith of Mercia, whose name is incised on the bezel of AF.458. Little is known about her, but according to the ‘Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’ she married Burgred of Mercia in 853, lived abroad following his exile in 874 and died at Pavia in 888, whilst on a pilgrimage to Rome (Whitelock, D. et al. ed. 1965, ‘The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle’, London, 43, 53).
There can be no doubt that the inscription on the Æthelwulf ring is contemporary, as it is an integral part of the design, but the one on the Æthelswith ring may have been added later, perhaps to commemorate a royal gift. However, the use of niello, and the occurrence of Trewhiddle-style details on the Æthelswith ring, such as the nicked hindquarters of the Lamb, lend additional support for a ninth-century date. Both rings exemplify the ornamental traditions from which the animal ornament of Alfred's reign and the earlier tenth-century manuscripts derived.
The central design on the Æthelwulf ring represents the Christian symbol of two confronted peacocks flanking the Tree of Life. Ultimately derived from Late Antique sources, it is here almost unrecognisably translated into the native Trewhiddle-style. The ‘Agnus Dei’ on the Æthelswith ring, although current in tenth and eleventh-century ecclesiastical metalwork and sculpture (e.g. a reliquary cross held in Cathedral S Michel, Brussels (cat. 75), a portable altar held by Musée du Cluny, Paris, CL.459 (cat. 76), a possible pectoral cross fragment held by Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 17.190.217 (cat. 124) and a cross-head held by Durham Cathedral, Chapter House Library, no. xx (cat. 139), is rare in secular contexts. A ninth-century finger ring from Driffield, Yorkshire, now lost (Okasha 1971, no. 33), has various features in common with the Æthelswith ring, including an inscription on the bezel and hoop which translates, “Behold the Lamb of God”.
These rings were probably not worn by the persons whose names are inscribed upon them, but should be viewed more as gifts, or as symbols of office bestowed upon faithful retainers, a practice documented during this period.
Bibliography: Hinton, D.A. 1970, Two Late Saxon Swords, ‘Oxoniensa’ 35, 4; Okasha, E. and Webster, L. 1970, An Anglo-Saxon Ring from Bodsham, Kent, ‘Antiquaries Journal’ 50, 103; Okasha, E. 1971, ‘A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions’, Cambridge, no. 107 and refs; Mottram, S. 1972, The West Dereham Ring, ‘Antiquaries Journal’ 52, 342-3; Hinton, D.A. 1974, ‘A Catalogue of the Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork in the Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum’, Oxford, 6, 37, 41, 43; Oman, C. 1974, ‘British Rings 800-1914’, London, 15, 90, PL. 6D; Hinton, D.A. 1977, ‘Alfred’s Kingdom, Wessex and the South 800-1500’, London, 193; Hinton, D.A. 1978, Late Saxon Treasure and Bullion in ‘Ethelred the Unready’, ed. D. Hill (‘British Archaeological Reports’, BS 59), Oxford, 136-7, 150-1 fig. 7:1, no. 21; Campbell, J. ed. 1982, ‘The Anglo-Saxons’, Oxford, 139, no. 12g; Keynes, S. and Lapidge, M. 1983, ‘Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of Alfred and other contemporary sources’, Penguin, 281; Okasha, E. 1983, A Supplement to Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions, ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ 11, 118 and. refs; Wilson, D.M. 1984, ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’, London, 15, 60, 96, PL. 118.
Webster & Backhouse 1991
The ring was ploughed up between Aberford and Sherburn in 1870. By an extraordinary coincidence it is associated by its inscription to the ring of King Æthelwulf (reg. no. 1829,1114.1) who was the father of Queen Æthelswith whose name appears on this ring. The queen of Burgred of Mercia, Æthelswith married him in 853 or 854, probably accompanied him to Rome on his expulsion from the kingdom by the Danes in 874, where he shortly died, and was herself buried in Pavia in 888. It is most likely that this ring dates from her regnal years in Mercia, rather than to those after the expulsion; like the Æthelwulf ring, it signifies a royal gift or symbol of office, not a royal possession.
Select bibliography: Wilson, D.M. 1964, ‘Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork 700-1100 in the British Museum, Catalogue of Antiquities of the Later Saxon Period’, I, London, cat. 1, 22-7, and passim; Page, R.I. 1964, Appendix A. The Inscriptions, in D.M. Wilson, ‘Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork’, 82-3; Backhouse, J., Turner, D.H. and Webster, L.E. (eds) 1984, ‘The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art 966-1066’, London, cat. 10; Wilson, D.M. 1984, ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’, London, 96.
- On display (G41/dc3/sA)
- Exhibition history
2009 11 Dec-2010 10 May, Madrid, Canal de Isabel II, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2009 1 May-20 Sep, Victoria, Royal BC Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2007 14 Sep-2 Dec, Hong Kong Museum of Art, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2007 3 Feb-27 May, Taipei, National Palace Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2006 18 Mar-4 Jun, Beijing, Capital Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2005 27 Oct-2006 31 Jan, Haengso Museum, Keimyung University, Daegu, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2005 25 Jul-8 Oct, Busan Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2005 11 Apr-10 Jul, Seoul Arts Centre, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2004 26 Jun-29 Aug, Niigata Bandaijima Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2004 10 Apr-13 Jun, Fukuoka Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2004 17 Jan-28 Mar, Kobe City Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
2003 18 Oct-14 Dec, Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum, Treasures of the World's Cultures
1999-2000 08 Sep-09 Jan, London, Museum of London, 'Alfred the Great 849-899: London's forgotten King'
- Acquisition date
- Acquisition notes
- Britain, Europe and Prehistory
- Registration number