The Story Behind Elizabeth’s Jewellery


In medieval times, jewels played a much bigger part in administrative duties of royals than they do now. Education was only for the rich, so common servants such as guards or court servants were illiterate. Also, with no technology to determine identity, jewels were used to authenticate a court messenger, prove the sincerity of agreements made, or act as vouchers to redeem a past promise. At the same time, royals liked to dress up, show off their glitz and power, and have fun.

Writing on Windows

Some touching stories of writing messages on castle windows with pointed diamonds have been preserved. These gems, called pyramid diamonds, were dubbed Tower Rings once set in rings because they were so frequently used by those confined in the Tower of London to write names and verses on their prison windows.

In a happier setting, Queen Elizabeth I and Sir Walter Raleigh were having an affair when, according to historian George Kunz, during an interview with the Queen, Raleigh scratched on the window of the audience room, “Fain would I climb, but that I fear to fall.” In reply, the wily Queen scratched her own monition: “If thy heart fail thee, do not climb at all.”

Gift in Friendship

In those days, gimmel rings were popular; two rings fitting exactly together to form one ring. Often they were made of three rings, the two outside spheres having hands that fit together over a small heart on the middle ring. They were commonly used as engagement, or in those days, betrothal rings.

Elizabeth presented a gimmel ring to her cousin, Queen Mary of Scotland, as a sign of mutual goodwill. Made of two hoops, each containing a diamond joining to form a heart, it was divided between the two heads of state.

During the Scottish Civil War, Mary was forced to flee from Scotland to England, sending a message to Elizabeth of her arrival. She gave the messenger her half of the gimmel to prove the servant’s legitimate royal service.

Mary’s attempts for sanctuary were in vain. After letters were found revealing a plot to assassinate Elizabeth involving Mary, Elizabeth had no choice but to sign the Scottish queen’s death warrant. She was beheaded on February 8, 1587 at Fotheringay Castle.

Also used to prove authenticity, a sapphire ring was the token given to Mary’s son, James I, to herald Elizabeth’s death and his accession to the throne. He waited so long to hear this news that anyone being the first to inform him would be given special honours. The Queen’s lady-in-waiting, Lady Scrope, wishing to enable her brother to receive these favours, threw a sapphire ring to him out the death chamber window. The ring, recognized as belonging to the Queen, served to validate to James the court origin of the messenger.

Elizabeth’s Promise Ring Fails Love and Life

Elizabeth I never married, but she had her favourites. One was the Earl of Essex to which she presented a ring and a promise. The ring was gold, set with a sardonyx into which had been cut her portrait. The promise referred to the fragility of court life and her forthrightness in addressing it. She promised him whatever he may be charged with in future, if he sent her the ring, she would pardon him.

As went all of Elizabeth’s romances, love faded and Essex fell out of favour. Years later, Essex was impeached for high treason and condemned to death. Unable to trust his jailors, in desperation he threw the ring out his cell window to a young boy passing by, shouting instructions to take it to the lady-in-waiting, Lady Scrope. This lady was also sister of Lady Nottingham, wife of Essex’s arch enemy. The boy got the message wrong and gave it to Lady Nottingham, who kept the ring and said nothing to the Queen. Essex was executed after the queen assumed he was too proud to ask for help. On her deathbed years later, Lady Nottingham called for the Queen and made confession. She may have hoped Elizabeth would take pity on her condition but she was wrong. The Queen flew into a lengthy rant, after which she burst from the room shouting, “God may forgive you, but I never shall!”

Only weeks later, Elizabeth herself passed away and it is said she died of a broken heart. She was wearing the ring when she faded away. It was returned to the Essex family. It remained passed down through the family until 1911 when it resurfaced to public view at an auction and sold for the astounding sum of $17,060, far more than the value of the materials or the artistic skill warranted. Only the legend behind it could have given it such value.

These days, royals wear their jewelry for its historic value or simply to celebrate its beauty. With widespread literacy, communication styles and identification technology of today, they need serve no other purpose.