A magic ring, a lost tale, and a phoenix
Today I want to share a story about my favorite piece of historical jewelry—the Chequers ring. This ring is marked with E (Elizabeth) and R (Regina/Queen) on the outside, and it opens to reveal two miniature portraits. There is also a phoenix on the bezel, a symbol of resurrection and chastity. This ring was owned by Elizabeth I.
No sovereign is without fault, and I believe Elizabeth I made some grave mistakes as a leader. However, she also overcame challenges that would have been difficult for any of us—let alone a woman in the 1500’s.
Elizabeth was officially (and unfairly) labeled a “bastard.” She endured sexual harassment as a child, faced the skepticism of her male advisors as an adult, navigated national financial strain and military hostilities, survived assassination attempts, was betrayed by several close to her, and lived unable to marry the man she loved. Before becoming queen, she was imprisoned in the Tower of London by her half-sister Mary I–but perhaps the most difficult trauma of all was the loss of her mother Anne Boleyn, who was murdered by her father Henry VIII when Elizabeth was just two years old.
Enter the Chequers ring.
Many theories surround this piece of jewelry, but I’ll share only the one I believe to be true: I think this ring contains portraits of Elizabeth I and her mother. I won’t go into the reasons historians have argued for and against that theory or why I have landed here. But as I’ve read about Anne Boleyn’s execution and considered what it must have been like as a mother facing death, knowing your daughter would likely endure terrible dangers (if she even survived), my heart has ached for both women.
In Spenser’s grand tale, Elizabeth I is represented by several characters, but Gloriana (the actual Faerie Queene) is primary. Just like the Chequers ring opens to reveal a rich and beautiful enigma, images within Spenser’s Faerie Land radiate mystery, grandeur, and longing. This epic poem is full of tales of danger, survival, and the fumblings of real human souls attempting to navigate their own weaknesses in a complicated world.
So many stories these days are told at a single level. Those stories are amusing for an hour or two, but they cannot be unpacked for decades. Rare souls who have already fallen in love with The Faerie Queene have found a treasure more like this ring—a magic ring that contains sadness, hope, victory, and glory all at once.
Spenser’s stories have never died, but they have fallen silent for too long. A phoenix lives within them, however, a hidden wonder waiting for the resurrection of Faerie Land. Thank you for helping make this happen.
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