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Political Jewelry: Whose Side Are You On?

This week’s blog is all about jewelry and politics, and how they have been tangled-up together throughout several momentous events in history. In this blog, we focus on jewelry during the English Civil War, the Restoration, and the exile of King James II and his son.

Since ancient times, jewelry has always been associated with political strength and authority, worn by leaders and monarchs all over the world. There are tales aplenty of gems and pearls passed through whole lines of kings and queens, as well as stories of jewelry given as marks of favor, from the royal courts to the papal palace. Crown jewels, medals, gifts, and commemorations: each piece tells its own interesting story of politics and power.

During the English Civil War, jewelry took on another level of significance, where certain pieces were worn as symbols of allegiance, by followers claiming their loyalty and their side in the events of history. It was a divisive and bloody war: on the one hand stood the Royalists, staunch supporters of King Charles I and the monarchy, and on the other stood the Parliamentarians, supporters of the rights and privileges of Parliament.

From left to right: King Charles I (1600-1649), Reigned 1625-49A, photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London; Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658), Lord Protector of England, photo: © National Portrait Gallery, London.

During the Civil War, Royalist supporters wore various items of jewelry featuring portraits of Charles I or inscriptions of Royalist sentiments and symbols as a display of their allegiance. Charles I’s wife - Queen Henrietta Maria - was responsible for distributing many of these lockets, slides, and particularly rings, to supporters who lent their money to the Royalist army and cause. Some of the jewelry produced in this time includes portraits of both Charles I and Charles II, signaling support for the continuation of the Stuart line.

Finger-ring; gold with slender hoop and oval bezel with a portrait of Charles I in enamel on a blue ground; the shoulders and sides of the bezel are enameled with black designs on white. The inside is inscribed. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Gold ring with black enameled floral scrolling and a central rose on the outside and an enameled inscription inside: 'OBBAY THY KING'. The placing of the inscription inside the ring indicates that it was made for a Royalist to wear discreetly during the Civil War. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Plum-stone pendant, carved with the heads of Charles I on the obverse and the future Charles II on the reverse. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

In 1649, the Royalists lost their fight to the Parliamentarians and surrendered. King Charles I was publicly executed and the rule of the country was turned over to the head of the government, Oliver Cromwell. After the King's death, more jewelry featuring his portrait was made to commemorate Charles I, some of which incorporated locks of the King's hair.

This style of jewelry - using hair and portraits - was common for mourning jewelry, worn to honor the memory of passed loved ones. These pieces, however, would not just be worn by close relatives and friends but were worn by many Royalist supporters across Britain, not just to honor the dead King's memory, but also to indicate their continuing loyalty to the monarchy.

Many Royalists considered Charles I's death to be a sacrilege against his divine right to rule as king, and images of him often show his eyes gazing upwards towards Heaven to symbolize this. Inscriptions in the jewelry, too, often included angels and other imagery symbolizing his kingly divinity. Royalists supporters continued to wear such jewelry even after they were defeated and Cromwell took over, but this was dangerous to do, so they often wore them hidden from prying parliamentary eyes, under a flap or inside a locket.

At first glance, this ring looks like a typical, expensive mourning ring with a large diamond at its center flanked with black enamel. However, the oval bezel of this ring is actually a hinged lid concealing an enameled portrait of Charles I. By wearing the ring with its lid closed, the wearer could keep their Royalist allegiance secret during the years of the Commonwealth and Protectorate. Via Teaching History with 100 Objects & The British Museum.

Gold pendant with the royal cipher of Charles I in gold wire mounted over what is thought to be the king's own hair, under glass. At the back, the inscription 'CR REX MARTYR' describes King Charles I as a martyr. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Enameled gold commemorative ring, the oval bezel with a crystal enclosing a miniature on vellum of Charles I and on the reverse an enameled white skull below a crown between C and R. There is a palm in black enamel and a crystal on the shoulders. The hoop is inscribed inside 'sic transit gloria mundi', meaning 'thus passes the vainglory of the world'. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Enameled gold commemorative ring for Charles I, the oval bezel enameled in white with a skull above CR in black. The shoulders chased with masks and enameled black. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gold commemorative ring, the oval bezel set with a crystal enclosing a miniature of King Charles I, between two brilliant-cut diamonds in silver collets. Worn as a sign of allegiance to the Royalist cause. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Silver, heart-shaped locket, the obverse inscribed 'Prepared be to Follow me/CR', and on the reverse 'I live and dy in loyaltye'. On the inside 'I morne for monerchie' with a medallion of King Charles I, indicating the unflagging allegiance of the jewel's royalist owner. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

One of the seven mourning rings given at the burial of Charles I, it has the King's Head in miniature, behind a Death's Head, between the letters C and R, and is inscribed with the motto, 'Prepared be to follow me'. Finger-ring; enameled gold, the oval bezel with a portrait of Charles I on a blue ground, the sides with flutes in black enamel, the shoulders enameled black. The back of the bezel is enameled with a skull flanked by monogram, all in white on black, with a black enamel inscription inside the hoop. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum

Enameled gold commemorative ring, oval bezel with a revolving center. On the obverse, an intaglio portrait of Charles I, and on the reverse a skull between C and R with a coronet above and a royal crown below. Inscribed 'GLORIA' and 'VANITAS'. Engraved inside the hoop is 'Emigravit gloria Angl', meaning 'the glory of England has departed'. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Enameled gold ring with an oval bezel set with an enamel miniature of King Charles I, with a border of rose-cut diamonds in silver collets. The back of the bezel and hoop are enameled in black with floral ornament. The shoulders are set with a rose diamond. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gold ring with a posthumous miniature portrait of Charles I. The back is enameled with a white skull. Many such images in enamel, generally of poor quality, were produced for distribution to followers of the Royalist cause. Photo: Royal Collection Trust / © Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2020

Gold commemorative ring, the oval bezel set with a crystal enclosing a miniature of Charles I. Many of these kinds of rings may have been hidden until the Restoration.

Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

After the Restoration of 1660, even more commemorative jewelry was produced. Charles II wanted to preserve the memory of his father, and the jewelry was to be worn openly as a sign of allegiance to the new regime, or in some cases, as an indication of continued Royalist support.

This is a political jewel made both to commemorate Charles I and to show support for the young Charles II. Oval pendant set with an enameled double portrait of King Charles I and King Charles II. The gold frame is enameled, the reverse painted with flowers on a white ground. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

28 years later, Charles II’s successor - James II - was exiled for his Catholic and absolutist views. The rings featuring Charles I and II's portraits would be taken up once again by supporters, as well as new rings commemorating James II and featuring portraits of his exiled Catholic son, James Francis Stuart, to show their desire for the restoration of Catholic Stuart rule. Circulating and wearing the images of the Stuarts reinforced the idea that this was the legitimate royal family, temporarily exiled, but poised to one day return and take back the throne.

Gold memorial ring for James II of England and VII of Scotland, with an oval bezel set with a faceted crystal enclosing the monogram JR in gold wire below a crown supported by two angels in silk. The foliated shoulders are enameled in black. Wearing this ring would have constituted an act of mourning as well as an expression of continuing support for the Stuart claim to the throne. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gold ring, the octagonal bezel set with a table-cut crystal enclosing a portrait of the 'Old Pretender' or 'Old Chevalier' - James Francis Stuart - on ivory. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Gold ring, the oval bezel set with a crystal enclosing a miniature on vellum of Prince James Francis Stuart, the 'Old Pretender', or 'Old Chevalier', with openwork shoulders. Photo: © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Of course, the English Civil War is far from being the only historical event where jewelry played an important part. From fights for independence to revolutions to modern-day politics, jewelry has had - and continues to have - an important role in expressing opinions, beliefs, and support. For a little bit of background information on jewelry in the lead-up to the French Revolution, you can read our blog about Mary Antoinette: Her Story In Jewels.

To wrap up, here some of AAJ's mourning jewelry, hair jewelry, and jewelry featuring miniature portraits or political inscriptions:

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