View Full Version : Signet rings

03-13-2015, 08:27 PM
Iím writing a story that is set in a Medieval-style fantasy world. One of the characters is a prince who wears a signet ring that the MC notices before she even finds out heís a prince. I have a few questions related to signet rings that Iíve tried researching on my own, but Iím getting mixed answers and thought Iíd try asking here.

First of all, on which finger would a prince wear a signet ring? Does it matter? When I looked this up myself, I saw people mentioning both the pinky finger and the index finger, so Iím confused.

Secondly, out of which metal would it be more likely for the ring to be made? Silver? Gold? Other?

And finally, do signet rings always have something like a family crest on them, or do they have images specific to the individual, or what?

Answers to any or all of the questions will be very much appreciated. Thanks!

Drachen Jager
03-13-2015, 08:42 PM
For a prince, I'd expect gold. I don't know what finger he'd wear it on, I think you can choose that without worrying too much (if you can't find it, the one in a millionth person who actually knows will probably forgive you)

Tradition varies regionally as to what would be on the ring, but usually it would be a family crest with something specific to the individual added, a crown for a king, perhaps, usually that change signifies the rank of the individual. All signets pretty much have to be unique, otherwise how would you know who sent the letter? There's also usually some form of standardized code on them so you can tell the rank of the sender (like the crown I mentioned). It does vary greatly, though, so I think you have the freedom to choose what suits your story.

03-13-2015, 08:44 PM
I know a guy who wears a signet ring: it's gold, on his left hand pinky, and is an heirloom but the sigil isn't a family crest.

03-13-2015, 10:42 PM
It's a fantasy, right? You get to make up the customs, from what's on the signet to what finger it's worn on and why.

I would presume a royal's ring would be made of the rarest, and therefore most expensive, metal suitable for jewelry. Whether that's gold, platinum, silver, or copper in your world is part of your world-building.

Is the ring used to imprint sealing wax? Then you get to determine which finger it's easiest to use for that purpose, with any ring you own. (Try it on a pat of butter. Clean the ring first and you can still use that butter.) Or is it a symbol for others to kiss in a show of respect or affection? Index or middle finger, probably. Or maybe it's a symbol of having the upper hand, in which case I'd put it on a thumb, since the thumbs are highest when hands are clasped either by the individual or in handshake.

For this sort of thing, research of actual practices serves as a jumping-off point, not the solution to how it's done in a place you've invented.

Maryn, who likes a good thumb ring

King Neptune
03-13-2015, 11:17 PM
Recent ones might have initials or even name. Search for images on google. There are many available, and they vary widely.

03-14-2015, 01:08 AM
In reality (as opposed to whatever rules you want in your fantasy world) there isn’t really a “family crest”. The Coat of Arms belongs to one person, who passes it on to his or her heir. Only that person may use it. (In general. There are probably times and places where this varied.)

Now an eldest son might have a coat of arms that consists of his father’s arms with a label of cadency denoting eldest son. Second son gets a second son’s label, etc. This varied due to time and place, also.

A signet ring might have a person’s coat of arms, or the parent’s coat of arms with a label of cadency, or it might be a badge (Richard III had a silver boar. Napoleon Bonaparte had a bee.)

The point of a signet ring is to use it to leave your mark on a document in a semi-literate society.

Which finger doesn’t matter much. The more wealthy the person, the more expensive the materials the ring is made of.

A prince would be more likely to have his personal badge on his ring, unless he is the ruling prince of a Principality in which case he’d likely have a personal signet ring and a more official seal with his arms as ruler of the Principality.

If your MC notices the signet ring “before she even finds out he’s a prince” then I would expect her to Not Be From Around Here. The Arms and Badge of the ruler of a country, or her son, ought to be well-recognized by their subjects. That’s the whole point of Heraldry, after all. ;-)

03-14-2015, 02:15 AM
To answer your last question first, no, medieval signet rings didn't always have coats of arms or heraldic badges on them. Before personal heraldry became popular among thirteenth-century European nobility, signet rings often bore the owner's name, initials or monogram. Some of them also had crosses and simple human figures. There were also signets with re-purposed Roman intaglios (carved jewels). Karen Larsdatter has collected a nice selection of links to images of medieval signets (http://larsdatter.com/rings-signet.htm) on her website.

Gold and silver seem to be well represented in present-day collections of medieval rings, but that may just be the desire of modern collectors to acquire the most valuable examples. The Ashmolean Museum's online gallery of rings (http://www.ashmolean.org/ash/objects/makegallery.php?pmu=153&mu=152&gty=brow&sec=&dtn=20&cpa=1) includes ones made out of silver-gilt, bronze and steel as well.

In the Middle Ages, there probably wasn't a strict etiquette for which finger the ring belonged on. Signets start showing up in portraits in the sixteenth century, and there are several examples at the bottom of the Larsdatter page linked above. Most of the subjects (who are mostly from Germany and the Low Countries) seem to be wearing their signets on their index fingers, about equally divided between right and left hand, but there's one Italian wearing it on his pinky and one Englishman with the ring on a chain around his neck.

03-14-2015, 08:05 PM
Wow, look at all these great answers! Thanks everyone, this is really helpful!

If your MC notices the signet ring ďbefore she even finds out heís a princeĒ then I would expect her to Not Be From Around Here. The Arms and Badge of the ruler of a country, or her son, ought to be well-recognized by their subjects. Thatís the whole point of Heraldry, after all. ;-)
Good catch! It's a portal fantasy and the MC is from an entirely different world than the prince. She barely knows the name of the country she's in, much less who its rulers are or what their Arms and Badge look like.

03-15-2015, 04:17 AM