The Galloway Rings: a Family Collection

The historical interest of these rings transcends their small scale, for each represents an outstanding personality or event in seventeenth and eighteenth century Britain, associated with an aristocratic Scottish family.The provenance can be traced back to Alexander Stewart (died 1649), descended from Sir William Stewart of Jedworth (died 1402), one of the leading men of Scotland, supporter of Robert the Bruce and  ancestor of Lord Darnley, husband of Mary, Queen of Scots. Their son, James I of England and James VI of Scotland, who recognised Alexander Stewart as his cousin, created him Earl of Galloway in 1623 and appointed him Privy Councillor. A man of “great talent, loyalty and integrity” the first Earl remained close to the Stuart monarchy throughout the years of political and religious dissent which culminated in the Civil War and  the execution of  Charles I in Whitehall, 1647. The devotion of the first Early of Galloway to the Stuart dynasty is represented by two rings, one with the miniature by Jean Petitot depicting the king in the middle years of his reign, the other containing a lock of hair removed from his corpse (nos. 1, 2). 

In the next generation the second Earl of Galloway who adhered to the Stuarts until the restoration of Charles II in 1660 was forced to sacrifice his fortune by the exactions of Oliver Cromwell and the Parliamentarians. His continuing courage and loyalty is reflected in the rings with miniatures of Charles II depicting him as Prince of Wales and as king (nos. 3, 4). Faithful during the next reign, even after the flight of James II to France and the accession to the throne of William III and Mary II in 1688, the Galloways did not abandon the deposed king. On the contrary,it was then that they became Jacobites, loyal to Jacobus Rex (King James), described by the poet Robert Burns as those who “shook hands with ruin for what they esteemed the cause of their King and Country.” After James II died in exile in 1701 their allegiance to his heir, the Pretender James III, is indicated by the miniature with his portrait (no. 5). In this phase it was Alexander Stewart, the 6th Earl (169401773) who stood out, in the words of Horace Walpole as “indecently Jacobite,” ready to “venture his life and fortune in the service of his king.” His hopes for another Stuart restoration had been rekindled by the romantic adventure of the Young Pretender, Prince Charles Edward, who had landed in Scotland without money or arms, but by his charisma assembled an army which he led to within reach of London. 

Although the defeat of this army at Culloden in 1745 effectively put an end to Jacobitism as a political threat, the faith of the 6th Earl in the Stuarts remained unshaken. Furthermore, he made no secret of his attachment and went about in London society looking, as Mrs. Delany observed in 1761 “like a Scotch undertaker come to bury the English monarchy” (see Lady Llanover, ed. Autobiography and Correspondence of Mary Granville, Mrs. Delany (1861), Vol. III, p. 627). So great was  his pride in the family collection of  Stuart miniatures and the relic of the hair of Charles I that he had them reset with slender hoops and pie dish bezels with convex fluted backs in the style then fashionable in mid eighteenth century London. At home his walls were hung with portraits of all the Stuarts, from Robert the Bruce to Prince Charles Edward and at his table toasts were drunk to the “King over the Water.” This world of illusions and false hopes was vividly evoked by Walter Scott in Redgauntlet, when he describes the Jacobites as people who for centuries have been “living under a doom which has rendered vain their courage, their talents and their wisdom. Often making a figure in history, they have been ever in the situation of men rowing against both wind and tide who distinguished themselves by their desperate exertions and their persevering endurance of toil but without being able to advance themselves upon their course.”

The Galloway story takes a different twist in the next generation when the 7th Earl (1736-1806) changed political direction. His support for the Hanoverian monarchy, now firmly established, and recognition that Jacobitism was a lost cause is signified by a ring enclosing a portrait of George III, who appointed him Lord of the Bedchamber and Knight of the Thistle (no. 6). Ever since, like the mementoes of their loyalty to the Stuarts, the  George III ring was revered by the Galloways as a token of family distinction and passed down as an heirloom through the following centuries.