As those of you who know me may recall one of my most favourite historical figures is Robert Carey. He’s the chap who caught the ring his sister, Philadelphia Scrope, chucked it from the bedroom window having it plucked from Elizabeth I’s finger after her demise in 1603. Robert rode for Edinburgh and did the journey in a very impressive three days.
It is now thought that the ring that Robert carried was not necessarily one given to the queen by James VI of Scotland but more probably the so-called Chequers Ring that ended up in Lord Lee’ hands in 1919 having travelled from Elizabeth to James and then to Lord Lee via the Home family. Alexander Home was the second Earl of Home. His father also called Alexander. It was on account of the favour that he found with James VI of Scotland that Alexander senior was raised to the Scottish peerage. Demonstrating the ties between England and Scotland it should also be noted that he was married to Mary the daughter of Edward Sutton the 5th Baron Dudley, Lord Lisle. The first earl died in 1619 and James, by now James I of England intervened in a dispute over property, took Alexander junior under his wing and negotiated a good match for him. The second earl married Catherine Carey who was part of the extended Carey family and thus a cousin of some description to Robert Carey who started this post. The marriage took place in May 1622 in Whitehall. It had been arranged by James I. Catherine died in childbirth within five years. Alexander would marry again but did not have any children. The title, the property and presumably the ring passed by entail to the next eligible male in the Home family tree.
However, ownership aside, the Chequers Ring bears the letters E for Elizabeth and R for Regina in diamonds and blue enamel. The body of the ring is lined with rubies. The ring bezel is actually a locket hiding two portraits. But more on that anon. The problem is that the ring doesn’t turn up on Elizabeth’s jewellery inventory – and I’m sure that we all have one of those to keep tabs on our bling so that hinders its pedigree and even worse we can’t give a definite identity to one of the images in the portrait because there is no provenance or paperwork to accompany it.
A possible clue as to where the ring comes from is the fact that there’s an image of a phoenix painted in enamel on the underside of the bezel. It has been suggested that it was Edward Seymour who gave the queen the gift in a bid to soften her up after he ran off and married Katherine Grey in 1560. If only it was that simple. The portrait of Elizabeth dates form the 1570s by which time Katherine was dead. Not only that but Elizabeth used the image of the phoenix on more that one occasion to give the idea of herself as the phoenix rising from the ashes of her mother’s death.
One of the portraits is unquestionably Elizabeth in her middle years. The other is a woman who looks remarkably like Anne Boleyn because of the french hood that she wears although it has been argued that it could be Katherine Parr- there are issues over hair colouring. It has even been suggested that it is the image of a more youthful Elizabeth – now Elizabeth was unquestionably vain but would she really cart around two secret images of herself? Not being an art historian I couldn’t comment. Dr Starkey observed, at the time he curated the exhibition in the National Maritime Museum where the ring was first displayed, it is likely to be an image of Anne because despite the fact that Elizabeth knew her mother for only a very short time she was likely to be a huge influence on her daughter’s life. This view is supported by Tracey Borman in The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen. Elsewhere it is pointed out that Elizabeth is known to have spoken of her mother only twice in her lifetime but it would also have to be said that if as Alison Weir suggests a youthful Elizabeth can be seen wearing her mother’s famous pearls in the Whitehall family group portrait along with a pendant that looks suspiciously like the letter A then she did indeed feel a closeness to her mother which History can only speculate upon.
I will be posting more about Elizabeth I’s iconography as I shall be delivering a ten week course on Gloriana after Easter using a portrait, including the famous Rainbow Portrait, as my starting point each week.
Borman, Tracey. (2009) Elizabeth’s Women: The Hidden Story of the Virgin Queen.
Having seen the ring at close quarters a few years ago and without then knowledge that the image was alleged to be Anne Boleyn, I immediately thought of it as being the young Elizabeth, portrayed when her life was in danger, hope almost lost, in the reign of her sister Mary I. Then like a Phoenix, she rose to become the powerful queen shown in the second image. I felt this was less vanity and more a reminder to herself never to forget how fragile power can be and how far she had come. I can’t see Anne Boleyn ever being portrayed or described as a strawberry blonde or redhead and though Elizabeth undoubtedly favoured her mother’s relatives, she also adored her father Henry VIII, who she was proud to resemble. If she only ever spoke of her mother twice when she was Queen, and did not at least state an opinion on her supposed guilt, it seems to me odd she would wear her mother’s image in the ring. I suppose we will never know for sure. This is just the impression I got.