Written by Naomi Wallace
Every historian has an artefact that, if it were possible, they would keep for themselves: a letter, a piece of furniture, an old weapon perhaps. Or, in my case, a piece of jewellery. The Chequers Ring is an item that has fascinated me for years and though owning it may not be a realistic prospect, there is much discussion to be had about the identity of the woman within it.
The ring, crafted with mother of pearl, gold, rubies, and diamonds, was removed from the body of Queen Elizabeth I at the time of her death in 1603. It was probably created sometime around 1570 and is now known as the Chequers Ring as it lives at Chequers; the prime minister’s country house. Clearly, the ring was invaluable to Elizabeth as her coronation ring had to be cut off her hand shortly before her death. The fact she still wore this one indicates that it must have held a great personal significance for her. This significance, it seems, lies in the enamel portrait of a mysterious woman within the ring, above a portrait of the Queen herself.
Is it really that great of a mystery who this woman is? Personally, I would argue not. However, the differing theories about it must be entertained. Susan James points out the phoenix on the back of the ring, the emblem of the Seymour family, which has prompted some to suggest it was a gift from a member of the dynasty to Elizabeth. The phoenix, however, was a symbol the Queen herself liked to use in her own portraiture, so cannot assuredly be tied to the Seymours.
Some have suggested that the portrait depicts Katherine Parr, who was stepmother to Elizabeth during her adolescence, and clearly had a great impact on her education and religious convictions. The apparent red hair of the miniature matches that of Katherine. Her marriage to Thomas Seymour would also explain the use of the phoenix emblem. This theory is not wholly unbelievable; it does seem that Elizabeth loved Katherine and so perhaps would have wanted to pay tribute to her memory. But why not do this publicly? Recognising the love and stability Katherine briefly brought to Elizabeth and her siblings’ lives would hardly have been a controversial political statement, especially after so much time had passed, and England was a Protestant nation. As Owen Emmerson points out, Elizabeth would surely have had a portrait commissioned to commemorate Katherine’s memory if she were truly interested in paying tribute to her stepmother.
When one first lays eyes on the ring, there is a woman that immediately springs to mind; I refuse to believe that Anne Boleyn is not the first person that anyone familiar with Tudor portraiture, upon seeing the enamel miniature, thinks about. The French hood, the jewellery she wears: all hallmarks of iconography of Anne. Granted, the light hair of the woman in the ring does not match contemporary accounts of Anne’s dark brunette hair, however the natural ageing of the ring is a pretty simple explanation that overrides this.
For the woman to be Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s own mother, just makes sense. Elizabeth never spoke publicly of her mother, but more discreet actions such as bestowing gifts and patronage on Boleyn descendants prove that she did honour her memory. It is a difficult subject to navigate; both the fact that Elizabeth was not even three years old when her mother died, and her silence about it throughout her reign, leave historians in conflict about how she may have felt about her. If Elizabeth had explicitly supported her mother, this would come as a direct challenge to her father, upon whose orders Anne had been executed. It is therefore unsurprising that she did not decide to hash out what one can only assume was deep and unresolved family trauma in front of a country that was already in a very precarious state when she assumed the throne.
However, there are some clues that connect the Queen to her mother. Elizabeth constantly remained surrounded by cousins of her mother, such as Catherine Carey Knollys, and Sir Francis and Sir William Knollys. She also supported her cousin George Boleyn, the illegitimate son of Anne’s brother (also named George Boleyn), in his ecclesiastical career. Mathew Parker, Anne Boleyn’s own chaplain, agreed to be Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth because he had promised Anne before her execution that he would care for her daughter spiritually. Additionally, she frequently adopted Anne’s motto semper eadem (always the same). So, while she never made any outward statement of affection for her mother, there are many subtle but meaningful ways that Elizabeth paid tribute to Anne whilst she was Queen.
I think it is entirely plausible that Elizabeth would have kept a piece of jewellery such as this which established such a personal, intimate link to her mother. Having a portrait of Anne within a locket ring, for only her to see, seems like the perfect way to privately honour a woman to whose memory such political and religious turmoil was attached. Surely, the Chequers Ring can be no other than a material reunion of mother and daughter, Anne Boleyn and the illustrious Queen of England who was once the little girl left behind in the wreckage of her father’s violence.
Cole, Mary Hill. “MATERNAL MEMORY: ELIZABETH TUDOR’S ANNE BOLEYN”, Explorations in Renaissance Culture 30, 1 (2004): 41-56
James, Susan E. The Feminine Dynamic in English Art, 1485-1603: Women as Consumers, Patrons and Painters. Ashgate, 2009
Kennedy, Maev. 2002. “Ring That Could Hold Clue to Elizabeth I.” The Guardian. July 26, 2002. https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/jul/26/humanities.monarchy.
“The Woman in the Ring” Royal History Geeks. March 15, 2021. https://www.royalhistorygeeks.com/the-woman-in-the-ring/.
Feature image credit: The Chequers Ring. Property of The Chequers Trust. Accessed via The Telegraph (28 September 2021): https://www.telegraph.co.uk/art/what-to-see/elizabeth-versus-mary-queen-scots-royal-letter-rewrites-history/.