It’s said that Queen Elizabeth I spent many hours standing in her private chambers before collapsing onto a heap of cushions for a further four nights and finally being carried to her death bed.
A stooped, small, solitary pillar of dignity behind her poisonous lead painted mask, a stiff wig styled up to suggest the glorious red hair robbed by small pox, it’s impossible not to feel some pity for Elizabeth in those final days in 1603.
When she did pass away in the glare of court protocol, a ring was prised from her bony finger to be carried from Richmond-upon-Thames to James VI of Scotland to prove that the seemingly immortal ‘Gloriana’ was no more.
It was the symbol that he was (presuming he survived all challengers and conspiracies) to be bumped up the succession ladder and becomeJames I, King of England, uniting the two kingdoms at a stroke.
Fashioned in six diamonds into a flashing capital ‘E’, with rubies, an ‘R’ for her title as ‘Regina’, gold and mother-of-pearl, the Queen’s ring was found to contain two images in a secret locket compartment.
This was a personal intimacy not unusual in jewels for the Tudor nobility and aristocracy where sharp-eyed servants and interferers followed them from the cradle to the grave.
On one side of the Queen’s ring is an enamel portrait of the Queen herself, not surprisingly about 25 years younger and fresher.
On the other is an image which all credible historians have declared to be of her mother Anne Boleyn.
Henry VIII’s second wife was beheaded when Elizabeth was just two years old and she was simultaneously declared a bastard of Anne ‘the moste happie’.
The two women face into each other — a solid relationship stated in the arrangement.
Elizabeth was a vain woman (we all are at some level). She has long tapering hands with fine straight fingers, celebrated in portraits of her from the age of 16.
Her hands are always about dawdling on fine embroidered skirts with a sceptre or Bible.
Rings were a perfect addition to draw attention to her feminine allure, and when you are queen for 44 years, you are queen, and you can have hefty gemstone knuckle-dusters for every day of the week.
Locket rings were enticing little fancies, and Mary Queen of Scots had just such a ring on her finger at her execution showing herself on one side and her son James on the other. She drew it off and gave it to one of her ladies while she still had a head for decision making.
Tantalisingly the Chequers Ring is not recorded in any inventory or image of Elizabeth, so there has been some speculation about her companion in miniature.
The fair hair suggested in the enamel has prompted some speculation that it could be Katherine Parr, widow of Henry VIII, who went on to marry the real love of her life, Captain Flash-heart in person — Sir Thomas Seymour.
A bauble of lifelong affection between Katherine and Elizabeth screwed to her finger ‘til her dying day seems ulikely.
Princess Elizabeth left the household of Katherine at Sudeley Castle in a red faced hurry in 1548, when Thomas, who was turgid with political ambition, took to chasing the gorgeous and apparently flattered teenager around the topiary gardens.
The figure embedded with Elizabeth’s own image wears a French hood, something seen in most every portrait of Anne, both contemporary and copied after her death.
The British Museum in its catalogue for the exhibition ‘Elizabeth’ at the National Maritime Museum in 2003 speculated that the ring portrait and the fabulous painting of Anne Boleyn by John Hoskins the elder (c.1590-1664) were probably taken from the same, earlier and now lost picture of Boleyn when she was Queen.
It’s known through the extensive research of eminent academics that Anne mounted the scaffold on the back of trumped-up charges produced by her enemies.
By deliberately confusing the ordinary nonsense of the courtly love tradition and the act of open adultery, the Queen was deftly eliminated to suit Henry’s intent to remarry and sire another boy.
We can only imagine, as some film makers have done, the reaction of the on-lookers when the clasp was released and the portrait of Elizabeth hinged to her mother is discovered in the royal bed chamber.
David Starkey, a foremost authority on the Tudor dynasty claims that Elizabeth never spoke of her mother, meaning of course that there is no recorded, surviving, credible historical reminiscence by the Queen. Was the ring a reminder of the transience of life, the dangers of presuming absolute power?
Whatever her feelings, here in this astonishing, personal little treasure (and there’s actually little, buildings and vellum aside, that does survive from the Tudor reigns) is clear and moving evidence that the most reviled and unjustly condemned woman in English history, was very present in the life of her remarkable daughter.
The John Hoskin portrait of Anne Boleyn can be found at the National Portrait Gallery in London. The Chequers Ring goes on occasional display, and is in the care of the Chequers Trust.