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Put a Ring on It

cow as wedding gift

Alice and Silas receive a cow as a gift on their wedding day in a scene from the “Jamestown” TV series.

The “Jamestown” PBS Passport television series continues to explore the experiences of three women from different backgrounds as they navigate the male-dominated world of early Virginia. These women are not depicted as powerless, but their lives are challenging in the new closed society in which they find themselves. For some it is tedium, for others it is backbreaking work, and for still others—from the innkeeper’s wife to the wife of the governor—it is the heart-wrenching disappointment in their husbands. Jealousies of all sorts are widespread, and probably not far from the truth considering the unbalanced ratio of over seven“English and other Christian” men for every one woman recorded in the 1619/20 census of the colony.

But the television series has also depicted happier moments, such as the love match and wedding between Alice Kett and Silas Sharrow. The marriage ceremony (which was not depicted) would have followed the Solemnization of Matrimony that was incorporated in the Book of Common Prayer in 1559. After promises were exchanged by the couple, a ring would have been blessed and placed on the bride’s third finger of the left hand. Before the mid-16th century, the third finger of the right hand was used.  It was not customary for the groom to receive a ring during this time period and although wedding rings were a requirement for brides, they were not always worn permanently after the ceremony. The rings were usually plain copper alloy or gold bands, just as Alice is seen wearing in the image above. Seventeenth-century wedding bands or rings exchanged between lovers could be quite plain on the exterior but often there was a phrase inscribed on the interior. This practice continued in England until the Wedding Rings Act of 1855 which required hallmarking and thus left little space for inscriptions.

The inscribed bands are known as posy rings and a number have been found during archaeological excavations of Virginia’s 17th-century sites. A finger ring found at Historic Jamestowne admonished the wearer to “DEALE TRVLY,” whereas a gold ring discovered down a colonial well in Poquoson, Virginia sweetly declared “Time Shall tell I love thee Well.” The story behind why the ring was discarded or lost in the well is not known but hopefully it wasn’t because the vow of love was broken!

Posy rings like these will be displayed in the special exhibition TENACITY: Women in Jamestown and Early Virginia, which opens at Jamestown Settlement November 12, 2018. One of the rings from the collections of the Museum of London carries the same inscription as on the Jamestown ring. Another posy ring to be exhibited was found in present-day Prince George County on a settlement inhabited by two of the women sent in 1621 to be brides for the colonists. The ring contains the sentiment “Grace mee with acceptance.” Was this a reminder to the woman wearing the ring that she should be content with the man who became her husband? Did she have no choice in marriage partner?

This lack of choice is how the “Jamestown” series chose to portray the matchmaking process between settlers and single women sent to the colony by the Virginia Company. In this interpretation, the arriving “brides” had already been assigned to men who had pre-selected them based on knowledge of their skills and backgrounds. These women had no choice. But, as the “Tenacity” exhibition will explore, the Virginia Company records suggest that in fact they did. Although information is incomplete—and hard to follow because women change their surnames upon marriage—we know that some of the women sent to be brides did not marry. The Virginia Company’s intent, expressed in a letter to the leadership in Virginia, was that the marriages should be “free according to the law of nature” and that the women should not be forced “to Marrie against theire willes.”

Even though we don’t know for sure what arrangements were in place for pairing up the women sent by the Virginia Company with eligible men in the colony, we do know that a new husband was required to reimburse the Company 150 lbs of best-leaf tobacco for his bride’s transportation costs. This was quite a large sum and served to keep most of the poorer settlers from obtaining a wife. It wasn’t impossible, though, as we know from the surviving records that indentured servants sometimes worked out a deal to increase their terms of servitude in exchange for an opportunity to marry.

Governor Yeardley's hand with ring

Governor Yeardley’s hand as he examines a map in the “Jamestown” series.

A final note on finger rings. Not only were they associated with love and marriage, they were also very popular dress accessories at the time of Jamestown’s settlement. Some were decorative and included precious and semi-precious stones. Quartz crystal was a favorite. Other rings were practical. Called signets, they were engraved with personal symbols, coats of arms, or crests. Signets were visual signs of identification at a time when most people were illiterate and were primarily used to authenticate documents by impressing hot wax seals.  Governor Yeardley is seen in “Jamestown” wearing a signet ring but he has it on the wrong finger. Although men and women often wore several rings at once on their fingers and thumbs, the middle finger was always left bare.

Bly Straube
Curator, Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation

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