Not usually mentioned in the same breadth as the other kind, episcopal jewellery over the centuries has not had much press coverage. They have been regarded as holy symbols, magic talismans and even as evidence of “effeminate” propensities.
In a mid-19th century article on ecclesiastical rings, the anonymous author cautioned its reader to “look on the hands of those whom you revere and take for your guides, the men who by reason of their womanly propensities attire themselves as women and sitting in the glory of emeralds, rubies and diamonds attract nothing more than envious glances”.
Whatever anti-Catholic cant, they provoked. They were an integral part of high church rituals and religious consecrations for centuries.
The solemn enthronement of a Bishop, steeped in tradition essentials for oath-taking the book of the Gospel, ring, cross, and crozier which goes back to Anglo-Saxon times.
In the Sacramentary of 590, Pope Gregory stipulated that bishops should wear a ring on the third finger of the right hand to symbolise their spiritual authority. Many such rings have survived from the period with the Norman Conquest of 1066 and ending with the Reformation of Henry VIII.
Bishops then wielded tremendous political power, lived like royalty and were wont to adorn themselves with splendid sparkle and scant regard to public opinion. They have been pictured in their elevated ranks, with jewelled mitre, crozier and several rings – two on one finger.
The will of John de Sandale, Bishop of Winchester (died 1319) lists an astonishing inventory of 64 rings, two brooches and five loose sapphires. In his will, St. Hugh of Lincoln (died 1200), he asked that he should be interned with his consecration ring of “modest weight, yet of gold having a cheap gem of a pale sapphire”.
Most of the episcopal rings recovered are of this type, a few set with rubies, sapphires and amethysts. These stones were prized not only for their rarity and intrinsic value, but also for the “virtues” attributed to them.
According to one influential bishop of the 11th century, the sapphire was the “gem of gems” reputed to preserve the limbs from injury, cool the body and make the wearer beloved of God and Man. The ruby was supposed to withstand poison, plague and averted terrible dreams. Amethysts prevented drunkedness and gout, protected against treason, deceit and blindness. Belief in these talismans persisted well into the 17th century.
A chance discovery in 1940 of a hoard of jewellery from the banks of the River Thames brought to light a pontifical ring which reflects the art of the English goldsmith at its peak during the reign of Richard II. This collection is now at the Asmolean Museum in Oxford.
There was another more basic religious function for pontifical rings. As administrators of diocesan clergy and vast church properties, bishops had much business to transact. Seals essential for the signing of documents were set in signet rings worn on the thumb or index finger.
The earliest English episcopal cross comes from the Durham grave of St. Cuthbert, Bishop of Lindisfarne (died 607). It was set with garnets granulated with filigree gold – another example of early English gold craftsmanship.
Thomas Cranmer, architect supreme of the Reformation and as Archbishop of Canterbury, wore magnificent rings of sapphire, emerald, turquoise and diamond. With the rising tide of Protestanism in the 16th century, such ostentation was outlawed and fob seals worn on chains replaced signet rings.
Some 200 years later, the Anglican church turned its back on ornaments associated with the ritual and doctrine of the Roman Catholic faith. After 1833, vestments re-emerged though opposition was still fierce. It was not until Victorian times that the episcopal signet ring was revived fully. Two rings in particular have Roman Catholic provenances.
The present Bishop of Moray, Ross and Caithness wears a massive gold ring set with a lustrous garnet bequeathed to King George IV by the last Stuart monarch, Henry IX. The other was given by Pope Paul VI to Archbishop Michael Ramsey as a token of friendship at the end of their historic meeting in Rome in 1966. Set with rubies and emeralds, it was his ring as Archbishop of Milan. When Archbishop Ramsey died, his widow presented it to the See of Canterbury.
The modern bishop is usually identified by three things – a purple shirt, a pectoral cross and a simple ring usually with an amethyst.
No one knows for sure why the ring is an essential but the general hypothesis is the link of betrothal; in the bishop’s case, a declaration comes out of the monastic tradition with a celibate priesthood but hardly an analogy with so many married bishops today.