3 min read

Courtly love or medieval soap opera? The tiny gold love token lost centuries ago

a photo of a golden brooch with hands clasped in a circular shape with a fastener

The Winwick brooch. Courtesy Warrington Museum

Warrington Museum is packed full of wondrous treasures, but we hone in on a tiny medieval love token brooch lost by its owner over 500 years ago

It’s made of very pure gold. Even now it’s so bright compared to a lot of rings you see. It’s never suffered from any plough damage so it looks as pristine as the day it fell on the ground over 500 years ago.

On the front of it the writing says ‘pensez de moy’, which translates as ‘think of me’. On the back a series of five petaled flowers could well be forget-me-nots, which supports the idea of this small brooch being some kind of love or betrothal ring.

It dates to the 15th century and was described by the British Museum as a ‘medieval annular brooch’, but it’s also known as a fede ring, which means faith ring.

Faith rings date to the Roman period when they would have been worn on the finger, but by the medieval period they had evolved into a brooch with a pin on the back.

If you think of the medieval garments of that period they were quite high-necked and to preserve their modesty people would use a brooch like this to pin the garment together. It would have been for a lady’s gown – it’s not big enough for the cloak of a male rider, in fact you couldn’t even fasten it on a very sturdy cloak because of its diameter.

It has two hands clasped together, either as a symbol of betrothal or a sign that two people who connected with this token made a vow to each other. It’s actually surprisingly small, just over 22mm, so it’s a tiny little thing, which is possibly why it got lost – if indeed it was lost.

It’s obviously high status, if nothing else because of its weight in gold, which was your portable wealth as it is today when times are hard. It’s not like a Welsh love token where the man, if he had any skill as a carver, could actually make it himself – this would have been commissioned, so it’s not something a person would just casually hand out – there was obviously some thought in it.

a photo of a circular golden brooch with hands decoration clasped together

The rear of the Winwick Brooch. Courtesy Warrington Museum

All we knew initially knew about it was that it was a stray find, but a medieval ring was also found in the area, which led us to the enigma of why this brooch just turned up where it did.

Most people won’t have heard of Winwick, but the small Cheshire village to the north of Warrington is one of the most historic parts of the present day town with origins going back to the Bronze Age period.

There are a number of barrows around there and we already have in our collections some very fine Bronze Age axe heads, spears and others items from the area. It’s also known to be an early Christian site and is mentioned in the accounts of the Anglo Saxons in in the North West.

“We don’t know whether this is a tale of courtly love or a medieval soap opera.”

In early medieval times there was a church, which eventually became one of the richest livings in the country. The brooch was found in Lower Older Route Farm which was on an important medieval route that would have taken travellers past the moated platform site at Winwick to the royal hunting forest of Burton Wood.

But is our ring a tale of romance, and the first time she goes out riding with it she has not fastened it tightly enough and by the time she has found out she’s lost it and she’s distraught?

Or the other idea is that it’s a romance gone wrong; they have had a lover’s tiff and she’s thrown it away in a fit of pique.

What became of them afterwards?

We don’t know whether this is a tale of courtly love or whether we’re in the middle of a medieval soap opera.

The ring was acquired through the Portable Antiquities Scheme. Read more about it on the finds.org.uk database.

Janice Hayes, Heritage Manager at Warrington Museum, was speaking to Richard Moss. The Winwick Brooch is now on display at Warrington Museum, details below.

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Warrington Museum & Art Gallery

Warrington, Cheshire

One of the oldest local museums in the country, Warrington Museum & Art Gallery recently celebrated its 150th anniversary. Much of the quintessential character of the building has been preserved and its original glass cabinets are crammed with treasures from all around the world. Located above the central library, the…