Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Question from Elizabeth M - Ring-wearing customs

I have a question about rings in Tudor times. I have noticed in many portraits, the sitters wear rings on their pinkies, the third finger of their hands, and the index finger, and even on their thumbs. But quite often, there is no ring on the middle finger. Was there a reason for this? Also, which hand, left or right, was the customary one for wedding rings in Tudor times?

10 comments:

kb said...

I don't know if there was a reason to not wear a ring on the middle finger. I know that the exchanging of wedding rings was not a Tudor custom. Instead there may have been exchanges of 'tokens' which depending on status could range from quite simple to expensive. For elites, the exchange was money, lands and income specified in marriage contracts negotiated in advance. Wedding rings became fashionable much later.

Anonymous said...

All I know is that when you were bethroed you got a bethroal ring.

kb said...

anonymous - Would you mind sharing how you know this?

I would love to track down specific references to betrothal customs, especially as I have no information at all regarding elite couples exchanging betrothal rings.

During Elizabeth's reign, the exchange of promises was sufficient to consider a marriage valid. The promise to marry did not even need to be made in front of witnesses. I've been looking at several marriages that today we would not consider valid but were considered valid then and in none of them can I find any references to betrothal or engagement rings.

Foose said...

I have looked at various sources and it appears that there was no taboo on wearing a ring on the middle finger during the 16th century in England. On the contrary, people frequently wore rings on all their fingers. However, this custom doesn’t show up in the portraits and the unadorned middle finger is noticeable, as Elizabeth M points out.

However, I do not think the issue is that people were deliberately avoiding, for some reason, wearing a ring on their middle finger when they sat for their portrait. A painted portrait was a highly idealized version of the sitter, constructed from life studies, mostly of the sitter’s head; the clothing, jewelry, even the hands might be added separately after the head was painted in.

Henry VIII is noted for wearing lots of jewels; in Diana Scarisbrick’s book “Rings,” she says: “…when the Venetian ambassador met the twenty-five-year-old Henry VIII he noted that this fingers were ‘one mass of jeweled rings.’ This was thought bad taste in Italy … just one or two rings, perfect of their kind, the stones remarkable for quality rather than for size, were preferable to a whole array.”

Although this attitude did not percolate through to the English elite, portrait artists might have been aware of it. In addition, the omission of a ring on the middle finger in a portrait might reflect the artist’s desire to emphasize the rings on the other fingers, which have a symbolic value. The thumb and first finger are reserved for signet rings; in portraits of the male elite, the signet ring is almost always visible. Signets are ring versions of their owners, as they are used to authenticate documents and letters, so there seems to be a rule that they must be present (to help identify the portrait subject?).

The third finger (ring finger) is supposed to have a vein that leads directly to the heart, so it is used for wedding rings or rings with sentimental value (the left hand is the “submissive hand,” while the right is the hand of power and dominance, so a woman’s wedding ring traditionally goes on the third finger of her left hand.) The middle finger, so far as I can find out, is associated only with the Holy Ghost, and bishops’ rings are usually placed on it, but there’s no restriction against non-clerical people wearing a middle-finger ring.

I would guess that the rings displayed in a portrait are likely to have been carefully chosen – by the sitter, possibly in collaboration with advisers (if royal) and the artist -- to convey a message to the viewer. The creation and dissemination of Elizabeth’s portraits were highly controlled; I would guess that there was some similar process of control during Henry’s reign. By separating the ringed index and third finger with an unadorned middle finger, the message may stand out more.

kb said...

One addition to foose's information - there was also an emphasis on long fingers as an attribute of beauty. Long straight pale fingers were desirable. As the middle finger is the longest on the hand, it is the easiest to highlight in a painting. A ring on this finger would visually shorten it.

Foose said...

Good point, kb!

Kelly said...

Certainly. In the Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir, it said that Anne, after some pressure, had given him a ring, but it was not a bethroal ring because she had not recieved one in turn.

kb said...

thanks Kelly

Elizabeth M. said...

I read in Ives's biography of Anne that Henry gave her an emerald ring as a betrothal ring.

Kelly said...

your welcome kb