Tantallon – a ring of truth?

Tantallon (25)While I was writing about Tantallon Castle, I came across this alluring story…

In 1852, a surveyor working at Tantallon Castle picked up a little gold ring.  It is thought to date from the 15th century, and in 1991 it was included in a catalogue of finds from the Castle:

“Enamelled gold finger ring.  It has a centrally ridged bezel, with, on one side, an engraving of the Virgin and on the other a figure probably meant to represent the Angel of the Annunciation.  The shoulders of the broad hoop are engraved with lilies, and on the back are the initials, twice, I.R. 

Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 121 (1991), 335-357 ‘Tantallon Castle, East Lothian:  a catalogue of the finds’ by David H Caldwell, illustrated by Marion O’Neil

From the description of its size and style of engraving, you might assume that the ring once belonged to a lady, or perhaps a lady in waiting:  lilies, the Virgin Mary, the Angel of the Annunciation… purity, chastity, virtue. The initials ‘I.R.’ might well be the initials of the owner.  (You can see drawings of the ring by clicking on the links above and below).

But then I came across another report, written only a year after the ring’s discovery and reproduced in the Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland:

Page from Proceedings of Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1852 (click to enlarge)

Page from Proceedings of Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1852 (click to enlarge)

“Notice of the discovery of a beautiful enamelled gold ring, believed to have belonged to King James V, found in the ruins of Tantallan Castle by Captain Henry James, RE

This ring was found at Tantallan Castle last summer by one of the surveyors employed upon the Ordnance Survey of the kingdom, from whom I purchased it, and now present it to the Museum of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.  The ring is of a small size, and has in the centre two conjoined elliptical shields or facets, with diverging rays or a glory round them.  On the right shield is engraved the effigy of a female figure;  and on the left, that of a male figure, with a sword (?) in his right hand.  On the strap on each side of the shields there are ‘Forget-me-not’ flowers, very elegantly engraved, which were enamelled with transparent colours;  a portion of the enamel still adheres on one side.  At the end of each ‘Forget-me-not’, the initials J. R. are engraved in Old English character.”

Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, 1852

Tantallon Long CropIn this second opinion, the flowers are not lilies but forget-me-nots, and from the drawing this seems more likely.  It looks to me as if the female figure may be holding a baby, but it is really too small to see.  Somehow, there is a little bit more intrigue attached to this description, and a suspicion of romance.

Who did this ring belong to – and who gave it to her, because it was surely a woman? What do the initials ‘I.R.’ (or, in medieval script, ‘J.R.’) represent?  And if your mind leaps to ‘James Rex’, you are then faced with the question of ‘Which one?’

When the ring was exhibited to the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland, it was suggested that it may have been given to James IV, who had apparently caught the eye of the Queen of France, “a young and beautiful princess”, who called herself “his mistress and lady-love” and sent him a ring from her own finger, daring him to “march three miles upon English ground for her sake.”   I am a bit blurry about the French queens.   Would this have been Anne of Brittany?  The writer also wondered if it was a gift to the young James V from his parents.

There is another alternative, and that is the possibility that it was a gift to an unknown woman from James V.  It is believed that, after his defeat at Solway Moss in 1542, James rode north to Tantallon to visit his mistress, while his wife, Marie of Guise, awaited the birth of their only child (Mary Queen of Scots) in Linlithgow.   Just a few weeks later, James was dead.   I know, it’s just speculation, but…

Tantallon CropWhen I wrote about Tantallon, I was prepared for a history of war and power, siege and bombardment.  These are men’s stories, while the women got on with the duties of marriage and childbirth.  This lovely little ring could tell a different story.

The ring is currently in the collection of the National Museums of Scotland, along with other finds from Tantallon.   


Photos copyright © Jo Woolf unless otherwise credited

Visit my main feature on Tantallon to find out more…

Tantallon (33)


  1. Tantallon a much overlooked castle which is a shame as it position and style is so grand. It is on my list to revisit as the only images I have are transparencies from the pre digital era. Maybe this year.

    • There’s no reason why it should be overlooked, David – I agree, it’s magnificent! I hope you find time for another visit. It’s a photographer’s dream! 🙂

      • I will….but from memory I seem to recall that the distant views placing the castle in its dramatic location were rather difficult to get to just the right place. But the view from the battlements over to Bass Rock are worth the visit just for that.

      • It is a case of trial and error, and going when the tide is out! 🙂 And yes, the view from the top is absolutely stunning.

  2. Fascinating. It’s good that there’s a little mystery surrounding the ring – more romantic!

  3. How fascinating! What a tangled web is woven here. Initials IR could be Iacobus Rex? Anne of Britanny was Queen of France in 1513 – Louis XII’s first wife Joan having got the heave. She called on the support of the Auld Alliance when Henry invaded France. (Her husband then went on to marry mary Tudor!!”
    Knox says James V went to visit his mistress the earl of Crawford’s daughter before his death – but that would be Fife?? He did run about the country after Solway Moss. Loves these mysteries!

    • I know, Marie, I think it’s fascinating too! I wouldn’t mind having a look at that little ring at first hand. It does make me wonder what lies beneath the soil around places like Tantallon. Thank you for shedding some light on the Queens of France, and also on one of James V’s mistresses. Perhaps he popped across the water to Tantallon?! I guess we’ll never know!

  4. Its wonderful that it was found, as you say, what else could be laying under the soil 🙂

  5. What a neat mystery…and how amazing a surveyor would just stumble upon it, so many years lost? Boy oh boy, Hank would love to find such lovelies on his various rambles!

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