Rush Rings

In Sixth Report of the Committee on Scientific Memoranda. Trans. Devon Assoc., 1881, Vol XIII, pp. 69-71.


J. R. Chanter

Prepared by Michael Steer

A Rush Ring is basically a ring made from a rush or rushes, for example, one used in a ceremony for a temporary or unofficial marriage, and as well as a form of rustic seal on medieval administrative deeds. Its earliest use as a term  is by Edmund Spenser (?1552–1599), poet and administrator in Ireland. From the late fourteenth century the seal impression was often covered with a protective layer of paper encircled with a "fender" of plaited paper, leaves or rushes. The article, from a copy of a rare and much sought-after journal can be downloaded from the Internet Archive. Google has sponsored the digitisation of books from several libraries. These books, on which copyright has expired, are available for free educational and research use, both as individual books and as full collections to aid researchers.

"Among the ancient title-deeds relating to the Long Bridge at Barnstaple, commencing 1303, is one dated 4th Edward IV. (1464, the earliest deed in English), which has a noticeable peculiarity worth recording. It purports to be a deed of award, whereby a tenement in Barnstaple is adjudged as belonging to several persons therein named for their lives, with the ultimate remainders: 'To the Wardyneys of ye long Brugge of the Town foresaid, and to their Heirs and Successors for ever, to the behove profite and mayntenaunce of the said Brugge. Sealed by John Pollard the Arbitrator, and also at his request for the preservation of the testimony of the document, sealed by John Denys, Gencier Boteler, Simon Passlewe, Robert Pollard, John Wyggen, Richard Newcomb, and Walter Frost. Dated from Barnstaple, 1st May, 4th Edward IV.' Six of the seals are still attached to the document. The impressions are mostly monograms; but two of them have the singular addition of rush rings appended to and forming parts of the seals. These rings are of the same size and appearance as were commonly used by the peasantry in early times in plight of matrimonial troth, being formed of woven or plaited rushes, the ordinary size of a finger.

"The perfect rush ring of one of these seals still adheres to it, and was apparently placed on the wax while hot, and the seal then impressed through it.

"On the circular margin of the other seal the impression of the rush ring is as distinct as the impression of the seal itself - the rushes being decayed or broken away. This is the only document among the many thousands examined which has seals of this character.

One of the Inspectors under the Historical Manuscripts Commission, J. Cordy Jeffreason, Esq., who visited Barnstaple some time since, and who has treated on the subject of 'rush rings' in one of his valuable antiquarian works, made the present discovery, and was especially interested in it, as an instance had never before come under his notice. He suggested that the ring may have been the familiar symbol of perpetuity, thus used to heighten the solemnity of the ceremony, and indicate the perpetuity desired, for the testimony of the instrument and the gift to the bridge.

"Mr. Jeffreason writes me that since he left Barnstaple he has kept a sharp look-out for other instances of such seals; but only at Ipswich had he seen any to be grouped with the Barnstaple specimens; and even then there were only three among a collection of several thousand writings. Those he found were a deed of release of Edward III.'s reign, the seal gone, but a perfect rush ring hanging round the label, from which the seal had been broken; a deed of Henry VL's time, with a cluster of rush ring seals, some retaining the rush annulet, and all the others with marks showing that such circlets had been there; and another deed of Edward IV’s time similarly sealed.

"It is singular that the only places in which this peculiar application of rush rings has hitherto been discovered should be two equally ancient burghs, placed at the extreme east and extreme west sides of England. It may be worth while to keep a look-out among ancient deeds for any similar instances of rush rings.

"Two somewhat analogous instances of appendages to seals are given in Notes and Queries, viz.:

"On a deed of sale of quit rents at Alnwick, in the year 1655, is the following testatum: 'Signed, sealed, and delivered, with one single twopence of lawful money of England put into the seale, in token of the possession, lively, and seisin of the out rend or quit rent of 5s. by yeare within named in presence of, &c.'  N. and Q. 2nd Series, ii. 129.

"Stillingfleet, Orig. Brit., iii. 13, referring to a monkish chronicle, says: 'He observes one particular custom of the Normans, that they were wont to put some of the hair of their heads or beard into the wax of their seals - N. and Q. 1st Series, 317. (J. R. Chanter.) "