We know that rings were important to Queen Victoria because of the numerous references to them which she made in her journal and the fact that they feature so strongly in her photographic legacy. Her hands are literally covered with them. We must assume then, that they occupied a significant place in her personal jewellery and as such, were a striking part of her appearance like the widow’s caps or large white handkerchiefs which she frequently carried about with her. The Queen’s rings, if we look deeper, help tell the story of her life, public and private. The most important in personal terms is surely her wedding ring.
The ring which Prince Albert gave her was the focus of a touching rehearsal ceremony in the Queen’s rooms at Buckingham Palace the night before the wedding. The Queen made the following entry in her journal for Sunday, 9 February 1840: ‘We read over the Marriage Service together and tried how to manage the ring’. Albert gave it to her in the marriage ceremonial at the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace, and the Queen noted happily that evening in her journal at Windsor that she ‘felt so happy when the ring was put on and by Albert’.
It was, however, not the only ring which she received on the occasion of her wedding, though it was surely the most treasured. Queen Victoria was also given a beautiful ring by her beloved half-sister Feodora, Princess of Hohenlohe-Langenburg, with a crowned double heart and the words in French ‘Unis a jamais’ [United forever]. Her adored governess, Baroness Lehzen also gave the Queen a ring on her wedding morning. Poignantly, it was her wedding ring which was one of those few placed upon her finger after death. The symbolism of this, I think, is clear. Not only did the Queen want to be buried according to the strict instructions she had left, but she wanted to be surrounded by the protective, precious symbols of what mattered most. In death, of course, her widowhood was over, and she was once again, reunited with the husband she had loved, the bridegroom of 10 February 1840.
In public terms, the ring which best symbolised her royal status was her coronation ring which was placed on her finger at the point of the investiture between the anointing and the actual crowning. This had been clumsily forced onto the wrong finger by the Archbishop of Canterbury, which she could afterwards only painfully remove with ‘the greatest difficulty’ in the robing room at Westminster Abbey, requiring iced water to be applied to her fingers (Christopher Hibbert, Queen Victoria: A Personal History, 74). The reason for this mishap properly lays, however, with the fact that the royal goldsmiths, Rundell, Bridge & Rundell had unfortunately made the ring to fit the Queen’s little finger so it was too small.
‘Queen Victoria’s Coronation Ring 1838’ – as she had it engraved afterwards – is of gold, sapphires, rubies, diamonds and silver. It was left by Queen Victoria to the Crown and is kept today in the Jewel House at the Tower of London, since George V deposited it at the Tower in March 1919. The Queen gave a gold sapphire and diamond set ring to one of her Train Bearers which Queen Mary acquired for the collection in 1925.
Queen Victoria’s journal shows us that she gave and received rings as personal gifts. One such jewelled ring was given to the Duchess of York, the future Queen Mary, to mark the christening of Prince Edward of York (later Edward VIII). The Queen had it engraved ‘16th. July 1894, from V.R.I’.
In the language of precious stones, these rings are revealing because of what they tell us about the Queen’s relationships, the occasions when they are given and what they can contain. Researching in the Royal Collection has revealed touching details about these rings, which may or may not at some point, have formed part of that huge family of rings which adorned the Queen’s fingers.
Some of these rings were of extreme sentimental value, such as the ring with clasped hands set in diamonds which opens into two hearts. Given to Queen Victoria by her mother, the Duchess of Kent for Prince Albert’s birthday, it formed part of that group of precious jewels which the Queen had placed in the room in which Albert died at Windsor and which were never to be passed on within the Royal Family. One of the Queen’s gold rings from 1854 was given to her by the royal children and contains some of each of their hair. This too, was on the Queen’s list of jewels to go into the Blue Room at Windsor, as was touchingly, her first ring as Princess Victoria, a delicate ring in the shape of a flower set with five emeralds.
As Princess Victoria, the Queen had practised her considerable artistic skills in drawing and watercolour. One of these was a watercolour sketch showing a study of a hand with a ring on the middle finger, perhaps her own. Victoria inscribed the drawing: ‘[Study] of a hand from nature. P.V.f. KP. March 2d 1833’.
Queen Victoria also inherited rings which were passed on to her after the deaths of other royal women, for example, the daughters of her grandfather, George III. These included historically important rings such as Queen Charlotte’s keeper ring from her wedding day, which passed to Queen Victoria after the death of Charlotte, Princess Royal and Queen of Württemberg and Queen Charlotte’s opal and finger rings, both of which were given to Queen Victoria by Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, the youngest of George III’s princesses. The Queen owned several rings which claim a direct association with Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester, including a mourning ring which she had inscribed: ‘’V.R. Given to me by Aunt Gloucester May 29 1848 having belonged to At. Sophia. 29th January 1820 [date of George III’s death]’ and a ring bequeathed to her, containing the Duchess’s hair. In 1875, Queen Victoria was given a ring containing the hair of Princess Charlotte, only daughter of the Prince Regent, later George IV.
In keeping with the tradition for what became known as Victorian mourning jewellery, the Queen had a microphotograph of Prince Albert inserted into a gold and black memorial ring with the linked royal cypher of ‘V’ and ‘A’. Another plain gold ring belonging to Queen Victoria in the collection contains a length of dark hair, although it is not clear whose hair is inside.
Rings which belonged to the Queen without any particular association were probably intended for more daily use. Surviving examples of these include a gold ring carved with cameos and a gold ring of crystal which contains strands of unnamed hair.
At some point, Queen Victoria came to own the wedding ring of the mother of her devoted Highland servant, John Brown. We know this because it was amongst those private items of jewellery with which she was buried and therefore to which she attached extreme importance. A plain gold ring, it was a fitting choice for the Queen-Empress who had known both splendour and simplicity. Queen Victoria may have worn the ring of John Brown’s mother since the ghillie’s death in 1883 (Kate Hubbard, Serving Victoria, Life in the Royal Household, 359), and it was amongst the clutter of keepsakes which with she wanted to go into eternity. Along with the wedding ring of Brown’s mother went a lock of Brown’s hair and a photograph of him, which was sensitively hidden in tissue paper before being placed in her hand.
©Elizabeth Jane Timms, 2019