Delicious pairing of warm gold and an emerald in a rare and elegant Medieval Stirrup Ring

Taking the shape of a horse’s stirrup, these medieval rings became popular in Britain from the 12th to 14th century. This example is rare, adorned with refined relief ornamentation and set with a vibrant emerald cabochon.

Far rarer than diamonds, emeralds have beguiled us since Antiquity. In the Middle Ages the writings on stones by Pliny and Theophrastus were rediscovered and Marbodus, Bishop of Rennes (c. 1035-1123), wrote the lapidary Liber Lapidum in which he describes the properties of gemstones. Emeralds were believed to cure fever and soothe eyes. For a newly married couple, emeralds were also thought to bring wealth. 

The delicate decoration of the hoop could be interpreted as stylized pinecones, symbolic of love. Thus, this ring with emerald and pinecones may have been given in promise of marriage or for a wedding.       

Gold ring with D-section hoop which widens and terminates in an almost pyramidal point bezel. Seen in profile it has a triangular form, set with an emerald cabochon. Both shoulders are adorned with a relief ornament of three pinecones (?).  The ring shows signs of wear through age and is in excellent wearable condition. 


The ring was discovered in 2018 by a metal detectorist in the village of Askham Richard, near the city of York. Treasure Case number: 2018/T400.


Variants of the stirrup ring can be found in the British Museum, London (Dalton 1912, no. 1796, 1816 and Oman 1974 Plate 15 B and D), Victoria and Albert Museum, London (Church 2011p. 17, plate 9; Campbell 2009, pp. 72-3, E), Museum of London (exh. cat. Treasures and Trinkets, Jewellery in London from pre-Roman times to the 1930s, plate 10, no. 307); Ashmolean Museum, Oxford (Scarisbrick 1993, p. 26; Scarisbrick/Henig 2003, pp. 30-31, Plate 6, fig. 1); Alice and Louis Koch Collection in the Swiss Nationalmuseum, Zurich (Chadour 1994, vol. I, no. 565); Griffin Collection in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (Hindman and Miller 2015, p. 211. No. 35); Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (57.1986); The Hashimoto Collection of the National Museum of Western Art, Tokyo (Scarisbrick 2004, no. 109).

The chronicler Matthew Paris, a Benedictine monk in St Albans, illustrated a stirrup ring in his Chronica Majora, vol VII (British Library, Liber Additamentorum, Cotton MS Nero D. I. f. 146v). This manuscript documented the treasury of St. Albans Cathedral (Oman 1974, plate 62 C). The ring had belonged to John, Bishop of Adfert, deposed in 1221 and died in 1245.

The stirrup rings mentioned above vary in size and proportion and the majority are plain; one has a double bezel, others have engraved leaves and dragon heads along the hoop or initials on the bezel. Sapphires are pre-dominant and probably worn by clerics. Emeralds are less frequently found on stirrup rings and the relief ornament of the hoop is rare. The decoration could either be interpreted as tree symbols or more likely stylized pinecones. A stirrup ring with emerald in a private collection has leaves and berries (Scarisbrick 2007, no. 87 with further examples) on the shoulders and on the lower part of the hoop a dextrarum iunctio (clasped right hands) which were common on betrothal or wedding rings. This ring may lead to the interpretation of the pinecone being symbolic of love, rather than having a religious context.


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