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Poesies: Finding Love in Jamestown and Early Virginia

by Bly Straube, curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

This interlocking gold finger ring on loan from the Museum of London for Jamestown Settlement’s special exhibition, “TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia,” contains the hidden posy, “AS HANDES DOE SHUT SO HARTE BE KNIT.”

Why did 146 English women in the early 17th century choose to heed the Virginia Company’s call for “young, handsome and honestlie educated maids” to be wives for its Virginia colonists? Some may have been strongly encouraged by family upon whom, as single women, they were dependent. Others, like widow Ann Rickard may have just “myded & purposed to dwell elsewhere.” But all would have hoped to find a good man to marry and perhaps love. The marriage market in England was very poor at the time and as Jennifer Potter, author of The Jamestown Brides, explains:

Society expected all women to marry, whatever they wanted for themselves, and those who remained single and owned no property of their own were pushed to the margins, required to remain
dependent as daughters, sister, kin or servants in other men’s households. (2018:42).

Tokens of love have been found on Virginia’s 17th-century archaeological sites in the form of finger rings that are inscribed on the interiors with private messages. Known as posy rings from the French word “poesie” meaning poetry, they were commonly used in 17th-century England to signify a betrothal or marriage. This practice continued in England until the Wedding Rings Act of 1855 which required hallmarking and thereby left little space for the inscriptions

Some popular 17th-century poesies such as “I Am Yours,” “I Like My Choice,” “Love Forever” and “True Love” sound like the modern sentiments on sweetheart candies commonly shared between youthful crushes on Valentine’s Day. Posy rings could be purchased ready-made with standard phrases or the giver of the ring could have a personally composed message inscribed. If one were at a loss for words, there were contemporary print sources such as The Mysteries of Love and Eloquence or the Art of Wooing and Complimenting by Edward Philips that provided ideas for sentimental verse.

A number of posy rings have been found on 17th-century archaeological sites in Virginia. One from James Fort on Jamestown Island bears the heartfelt appeal to “Deale Trvley.” A gold ring located in a Poquoson well is inscribed with the seemingly prescient sentiment: “Time shall tell I love thee well.” One of the 1621 “maids” may have lost the posy ring found during excavations of Flowerdew Hundred in Prince George County where two of the women are known to have settled. On display in Jamestown Settlement’s special exhibition, TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia, the ring is inscribed with the rather unromantic sentiment “Grace Mee With Acceptance,” a reminder that it also took tenacity to accept life’s circumstances, whatever that may have been.

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