Signet Ring thumbnail 1
Image of Gallery in South Kensington
On display at V&A South Kensington
Jewellery, Rooms 91, The William and Judith Bollinger Gallery

Signet Ring

mid 15th century (made)
Artist/Maker
Place of origin

Rings are the most commonly surviving medieval jewels. They were worn by both sexes, across all levels of society. Some portraits show wearers with multiple rings across all their fingers. Although rings were worn for decoration, they also had important practical functions. Signet rings such as this one were pressed into sealing wax to create a unique, legally recognised signature.

Signets could be engraved with a coat of arms for those entitled to bear them, with a personal device or simply with an initial letter. The design on this ring of a cross and sickle moon can also be read as the letters IP. The crescent moon was also one of the symbols of the Virgin and the cross stood for Christ. . The shoulders are engraved with religious mottoes - IHC merci refers to the Sacred Monogram, an abbreviation of the name of Christ in Greek, merci may mean 'mercy' or 'thanks'. 'Ladi help' is probably an appeal to the Virgin Mary. The inscription IHS merci can be found on other jewels such as the chaplet or jewelled headband worn by the tomb effigy of the poet John Gower (died 1408) in Southwark Cathedral.

The phrase can also be found in a hymn to the Virgin from the time of Henry III:

'Ofte IHC seke merci
thin swete name ich calle
Mi flehs is foul, this world is fals
thu loke that ich nich falle.'


(Often IHC seek mercy, thy sweet name I call. My flesh is foul, this world is false, thou look that I not fall).

The combination of the IHC phrase with the invocation 'Lady help' may suggest that a hymn such as the one above was the inspiration for the inscriptions on the ring. It was intended to be worn as a sign of faith and to claim the help and support of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus.


Object details
Categories
Object type
Materials and techniques
Engraved brass
Brief description
Nielloed silver signet ring with an octagonal bezel engraved with a cross and sickle moon which can also be read as IP. The shoulders are fluted and inscribed in black letter, England, mid 15th century
Physical description
Nielloed silver signet ring with an octagonal bezel engraved with a cross and sickle moon which can also be read as IP. The shoulders are fluted and inscribed in black letter i h c merci and ladi help
Dimensions
  • Height: 2.8cm
  • Width: 2.8cm
  • Depth: 1.2cm
Marks and inscriptions
inscribed in black letter i h c merci and ladi help (The shoulders)
Credit line
Bequeathed by Miss E. M. Begg
Subjects depicted
Summary
Rings are the most commonly surviving medieval jewels. They were worn by both sexes, across all levels of society. Some portraits show wearers with multiple rings across all their fingers. Although rings were worn for decoration, they also had important practical functions. Signet rings such as this one were pressed into sealing wax to create a unique, legally recognised signature.



Signets could be engraved with a coat of arms for those entitled to bear them, with a personal device or simply with an initial letter. The design on this ring of a cross and sickle moon can also be read as the letters IP. The crescent moon was also one of the symbols of the Virgin and the cross stood for Christ. . The shoulders are engraved with religious mottoes - IHC merci refers to the Sacred Monogram, an abbreviation of the name of Christ in Greek, merci may mean 'mercy' or 'thanks'. 'Ladi help' is probably an appeal to the Virgin Mary. The inscription IHS merci can be found on other jewels such as the chaplet or jewelled headband worn by the tomb effigy of the poet John Gower (died 1408) in Southwark Cathedral.



The phrase can also be found in a hymn to the Virgin from the time of Henry III:



'Ofte IHC seke merci

thin swete name ich calle

Mi flehs is foul, this world is fals

thu loke that ich nich falle.'




(Often IHC seek mercy, thy sweet name I call. My flesh is foul, this world is false, thou look that I not fall).



The combination of the IHC phrase with the invocation 'Lady help' may suggest that a hymn such as the one above was the inspiration for the inscriptions on the ring. It was intended to be worn as a sign of faith and to claim the help and support of the Virgin Mary and her son Jesus.

Bibliographic reference
Halliwell-Phillipps, J. O. (1878). A Dictionary of Archaic and Provincial Words, Obsolete Phrases, Proverbs, and Ancient Customs, from the Fourteenth Century. United Kingdom: J. R. Smith, p. 957
Collection
Accession number
M.339-1975

About this object record

Explore the Collections contains over a million catalogue records, and over half a million images. It is a working database that includes information compiled over the life of the museum. Some of our records may contain offensive and discriminatory language, or reflect outdated ideas, practice and analysis. We are committed to addressing these issues, and to review and update our records accordingly.

You can write to us to suggest improvements to the record.

Suggest Feedback

Record createdFebruary 13, 2006
Record URL
Download as: JSONIIIF Manifest