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Æthelwulf Ring

  • Object type

  • Museum number

    1829,1114.1

  • Title (object)

    • Æthelwulf Ring
  • Description

    Gold finger-ring decorated in the Trewhiddle style, the hoop flat and rising in front to a high mitre-shaped bezel. In the triangular portion a conventional 'tree', which divides the field into two halves, is flanked by two peacocks, all reserved in the metal upon a ground of niello. In the two lower corners are panels with foliage in relief without niello. The two discs with rosettes, which form part of the central ' tree', are treated in the same manner. Around the hoop is the nielloed inscription, preceded by a cross. The back of the hoop has a circle containing a rosette upon a nielloed ground, flanked by foliate designs, one of which is interlaced.

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  • School/style

  • Culture/period

  • Date

    • 828-858
  • Findspot

  • Materials

  • Technique

  • Dimensions

    • Diameter: 2.8 centimetres (max)
    • Height: 1.2 inches
    • Weight: 285 grains
  • Inscriptions

      • Inscription Type

        inscription
      • Inscription Content

        + ETHELVVLF RX
      • Inscription Transliteration

        Ethelwulf Rex
  • Curator's comments

    Text from Dalton 1912, Catalogue of Finger Rings, no. 179:
    'Archaeologia', vii, pl.xxx, p. 421; 'Archaeological Journal', xxi., 327; H. Clifford Smith, 'Jewellery', (1908), p. 72 and pl. xiii, fig. 5. Ethelwulf, father of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, reigned between A.D. 836 and 858.
    In Early Christian art peacocks are more usually separated by a vase, or by a disk containing the sacred monogram. The hom (handwritten correction from original 'horn' in Dalton) or sacred tree of Persia had, however, entered Christian art before this period, having been introduced through textiles and other works of minor art. It usually stands between quadrupeds or monsters, and has the most varied forms, in many cases so conventionalized that all resemblance to a tree is lost.
    Anglo-Saxon art appears to have derived such oriental motives not directly from the East, but mediately through Italy and France. The half-barbaric treatment of the peacocks may be compared with that of the Agnus Dei on the ring of Ethelswith (AF 458).
    A third nielloed Anglo-Saxon ring, dated through an inscription referring to a historic personage, is that of Alhstan, Bishop of Sherborne (A.D. 824-67), in the Victoria and Albert Museum ('Archaeological Journal', xxi, p. 327 and fig. 4; H. Clifford Smith, 'Jewellery', p. 71 and pl. xiii, fig. 9).
    The Anglo-Saxons enjoyed a reputation as goldsmiths and silversmiths reaching far beyond the limits of their own country. Anglo-Saxon work is often mentioned in the 'Liber Pontificalis', and some entries specify the use of niello. King Egbert, visiting Rome in a.d. 858, took silver vessels with him. See 'Archaeologia', lxi, pp. 359, 360, and S. J. Beissel, 'Zeitschrift für christliche Kunst', ix, pp. 364 ff. (1896).Webster & Backhouse 1991
    The condition of the ring no doubt reflects the circumstances of its discovery, in 1780, in a cart-rut. Its inscription firmly associates it with Æthelwulf of Wessex and father of Alfred the Great, who appears to have reigned from 839 to 858, and before that was king in Kent from at least 828. The ring, a particularly ambitious piece, was not the king's personal ring, but was presumably given as a gift or as a mark of royal office. Its fine Trewhiddle-style ornament would certainly fit a mid ninth-century date.

    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. 31, 22-9; Page, R.I. 1964, Appendix A. The Inscriptions, in D.M. Wilson, ‘Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork’, 82; Backhouse, J., Turner, D.H. and Webster, L.E. (eds) 1984, ‘The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art966-1066’, London, cat. 9; Wilson, D.M. 1984, ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’, London, 96.Webster et al 1984
    The ring's distorted condition and missing niello reflect the circumstances in which it was found, but it also shows signs of wear.

    Provenance: Laverstock, Wiltshire; found in a cart rut about August 1780.

    Exhibitions: British Museum 1976, no. 445.

    Commentary for 1829,1114.1 and AF.458
    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: Okasha, E. and Webster, L. 1970, An Anglo-Saxon Ring from Bodsham, Kent, ‘Antiquaries Journal’ 50, 103; Page, R.I. 1970, ‘Life in Anglo-Saxon England’, London, 48; Dolley, R.H.M. 1971, The nummular brooch from Sulgrave, ‘England Before the Conquest’, ed. P. Clemoes and K. Hughes, Cambridge, 336-7; Okasha, E. 1971, ‘A Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions’, Cambridge, no. 70 and refs; Mottram, S. 1972, The West Dereham Ring, ‘Antiquaries Journal’ 52, 343; Hinton, D.A., 1974, ‘A Catalogue of the Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork in the Department of Antiquities, Ashmolean Museum’, Oxford, 5, 7, 41; Jessup, R. 1974, ‘Anglo-Saxon Jewellery’, Aylesbury, 78-80; Oman, C. 1974, ‘British Rings 800-1914’, London, 15, 90, PL. 6A; Hinton, D.A. 1975, Late Saxon Metalwork – an assessment, ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ 4, 178-9; Hinton, D.A. 1977, ‘Alfred’s Kingdom, Wessex and the South 800-1500’, London, 52-3, 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. 19; Campbell, J. ed. 1982, ‘The Anglo-Saxons’, Oxford, 139, no. 128; Graham-Campbell, J.A. 1982, Some New and Neglected Finds of 9th Century Anglo-Saxon Ornamental Metalwork, ‘Medieval Archaeology’ 26, 148; Keynes, S. and Lapidge, M. 1983, ‘Alfred the Great: Asser’s Life of Alfred and other contemporary sources’, Penguin, 237; Okasha, E. 1983, A Supplement to Handlist of Anglo-Saxon Non-Runic Inscriptions, ‘Anglo-Saxon England’ 11, 117 and refs; Wilson, D.M. 1984, ‘Anglo-Saxon Art’, London, 25, 60, 96, 105-6, pl. 117.Wilson 1964
    Given by the Earl of Radnor. From Laverstock (Laverstoke), Wiltshire.

    The ring was found in a cart-rut at Laverstock (sometimes known as Laverstoke), Wiltshire, about August 1780 by one William Petty. Petty sold it to a silversmith (a Mr. Howell) in Salisbury and the then Earl of Radnor purchased it from him.

    Ethelwulf, King of Wessex, was the father of Alfred the Great and reigned between 828 and 858.

    Before 858.

    See pp. 2, 5, 6, 22-29, 34, 56, 79, 82 and pl. XIX.

    Bibliography: Brøndsted, J. (1924) 'Early English Ornament', London/Copenhagen, 133 and fig. 109; Leclerq, H. (1930): 'Dictionnaire d'archéologie chrétienne et de litergie'(ed. Cabrol/Leclerq), ix, 2éme partie, Paris, 2402 and fig. 7184; Waterton, E. (1862): 'On Niello', The Archaeological Journal, xix, 327 and fig. 3; Oman, C. C. (1931): 'Anglo-Saxon Finger-Rings', Apollo, xiv, 105 and fig. B, 14; 'Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of London', ser. 2, vi (1875), 307; Kendrick, T. D. (1933a): 'Viking Period Antiquities in England', The South-Eastern Naturalist and Antiquary, 183 and fig. 25; Jessup, R. (F.) (1950): Anglo-Saxon Jewellery, London, 130, fig. 8 and pl. 36, 1; 'British Museum, Alfred the Great Millenary Exhibition', 1901, London 1901, 13; Maryon, H. (1950): 'A Sword of the Viking Period from the River Witham', The Antiquaries Journal, xxx, 178 and fig. 2; Hodgkin, R. H. (1952): A History of the Anglo-Saxons, 3rd edition, Oxford, ii, pl. iv; Moss, A. A. (1953a): 'Niello', Studies in Conservation, i, 61; Moss, A. A. (1953b): 'Niello', The Antiquaries Journal, xxxiii, 76; Jackson, C. J. (1911): History of English Plate, London, i, 54 and fig. 70; 'Victoria History of the Counties of England: Wiltshire', ii, 36-7; 'British Museum: A Guide to Anglo-Saxon . . . Antiquities . . .', London, 1923, 114 and fig. 143; Wilson, D. M. and Blunt, C. E. (1961): 'The Trewhiddle Hoard', Archaeologia, 98, 96, 105 and 107.

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  • Bibliography

    • Dalton 1912 179 bibliographic details
    • Webster & Backhouse 1991 243 bibliographic details
    • Wilson 1964 31 bibliographic details
    • Tait 1976 445 bibliographic details
    • Tait 1986a 567 bibliographic details
    • Okasha 1971 70 bibliographic details
    • Webster et al 1984 9 bibliographic details
  • Location

    On display: G41/dc3/sA

  • Exhibition history

    Exhibited:
    2008 1 Feb-27 Apr, Winchester Museum, 'King Alfred: Wealth, Wisdom and Warfare'
    1999-2000 08 Sep-09 Jan, Museum of London, 'Alfred the Great 849-899: London's forgotten King'

  • Condition

    The ring has been crushed and somewhat flattened, some of the niello in the inscription being lost.

  • Subjects

  • Associated names

  • Acquisition name

  • Acquisition date

    1829

  • Acquisition notes

    found 1780

  • Department

    Britain, Europe and Prehistory

  • Registration number

    1829,1114.1

Gold finger-ring, the Æthelwulf ring, with bezel in form of a cocked-hat, with 2 birds and plant on nielloed ground.

Gold finger-ring, the Æthelwulf ring, with bezel in form of a cocked-hat, with 2 birds and plant on nielloed ground.

Image description

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