A unique gold mourning ring commemorating Hugh Audley, 17th century lawyer, sheriff, property magnate and rapacious moneylender, has been found in Carleton Rode, Norfolk, eastern England. Metal detectorist John Reed discovered the ring last December and, after expert examination, it was just declared treasure at a coroner’s inquest in Norwich.
The ring is made out of 24-carat gold and is engraved on the outside with an elongated skull and crosshatching with a dash at each intersecting point. Black enamel fills in the engraving, emphasizing the skull’s features and the crosshatch pattern. It’s in excellent condition, with almost all the enamel still in place. There is no enamel in the inscription engraved on the inside of the ring, but it’s very readable nonetheless. The inscription is what identifies who the ring is mourning. It reads: “H. Awdeley. ob. 15. nou. 1662.” Next to the inscription is a maker’s mark, a barely identifiable W inside a shield, which may be the mark of Plymouth jeweler Richard Willcockes.
Because the inscription is so clear, John Reed was able to research it as soon as he found the ring. He found a Hugh Audley who died on November 15th, 1662, at the venerable age of 86. Before his death, he had 11 mourning rings made for his heirs to remember him by. Ten of them were sized for women’s fingers, one for a man. If any of the other 10 have survived, we don’t know about it.
This was a common practice in the 17th century, not only wearing mourning rings in memory of a dead loved one, but for people to make provisions in their wills to have rings made for specific recipients. The Audley ring design is a classic of the genre, engraved with the deceased name and dates on the inside, a decorative death-themed pattern with black enamel details on the outside. A few years after this ring was made, the mourning ring industry would see an unfortunate boom as a consequence of the Great Plague of London of 1665-6.
Hugh Audley was very rich and famous in his day. He was known as The Great Audley because of his wealth. His death even merited a note in Samuel Pepys’ diary:
I hear to-day how old rich Audley is lately dead, and left a very great estate, and made a great many poor familys rich, not all to one. Among others, one Davis, my old schoolfellow at Paul’s, and since a bookseller in Paul’s Church Yard: and it seems do forgive one man 60,000l. which he had wronged him of, but names not his name; but it is well known to be the scrivener in Fleet Street, at whose house he lodged.
Pepys is referring to the terms of Audley’s will, which spread around the wealth (not all to one). One of his primary beneficiaries was Pepys’ friend Thomas Davies, Audley’s grand-nephew, a bookseller who would become Sheriff of London in 1667, Master of the Stationers’ Company (the publishers’ guild of London) in 1668, Master of the Drapers’ Company (the cloth merchants’ guild) in 1677, and Lord Mayor of London in 1676. I’m sure his inheritance helped make that marked increase in fortune possible. The very large debt of £60,000, worth millions in today’s money, which Audley forgave in his will was owed by Fleet Street writer John Rae. Audley lodged at Rae’s house starting in 1654 and wound up taking him to court in 1661.
Audley was something of a Horatio Alger character. A pamphlet published shortly after his death says it all in the title: The way to be rich according to the practice of the Great Audley, who began life with £200 in the year 1605, and dyed worth £400,000, this instant November, 1662. That final sum is the equivalent of $50 million in today’s money. He made this fortune by hustling constantly, basically. Audley began his legal training in 1603 when he was admitted to the Inner Temple, one of London’s four professional associations for lawyers. While he learned the law during the day, at night in the early hours of the morning he taught the same law he had just learned. He published a few tracts while he was at it, and used the profits to build the personal law library he couldn’t afford to buy outright.
In 1604, he was appointed a clerk of the Court of Wards and Liveries, the court that oversaw all the wards in what would later become Chancery Court (see Dickens’ Bleak House for more on that) where the disposition of wills was settled. There was a lot of money in this job, because fees would be paid from the wards’ fortunes and unscrupulous clerks could nickel and dime them at every turn. Audley was reported to have paid £3000 for this plum position. According to a biography of Hugh Audley written by Isaac D’Israeli, father of future prime minister Benjamin Disraeli, when someone asked Audley what the value was of his clerkship, he replied “it might be worth some thousands of pounds to him who after his death would instantly go to heaven twice as much to him who would go to purgatory and nobody knows what to him who would adventure to go to hell.”
At least a few hundred thousand, as it happened. Audley parlayed his Court of Wards windfall into a financial empire. He bailed out the wastrel sons of nobility, bought their debts, extended loans with the estates of their fathers as backing. Charging compound interest (hence the title of usurer which he bore unconcernedly) he quickly wound up the owner of a great deal of prime real estate. His first major real estate acquisition was the Ebury Estate in Westminster, then on the outskirts of London, now covering much of London’s most expensive neighborhoods: Mayfair, Belgravia and Pimlico. He bought it from Lionel Cranfield, Earl of Middlesex, who was deeply in debt and had to sell the property for far less than it was worth. The land where Buckingham Palace would eventually be built belonged to Audley and there’s a tony Mayfair street named after him.
The Audley estate would become the core of yet another great landowning family, the Grosvenors, now Dukes of Westminster. Audley’s grand-nephew Alexander Davies, Thomas’ brother, bought out his brother’s share of the inheritance. Alexander bequeathed the former Ebury property to his daughter Mary, and she sadly inherited it when she was just six months old. In 1677, she married Sir Thomas Grosvenor, Baronet, when he was 21 and she was 12. That transactional marriage proved to be a wise one from the Grosvenors’ perspective. To this day the family remains one of the biggest landowners in London.
As for the mourning ring, it is currently at the British Museum where it will be valued by experts. A local Norfolk museum will then be given the opportunity to pay the assessed value to the finder and landowner to secure the ring. If they don’t want it, other museums will be given a bite at the apple.