An antique ring - an emerald set between two diamonds - has long been the proud possession of the Preston family at Beeston Hall, Beeston St. Lawrence, in Norfolk.
Family pride in it has been based on the tradition that it was handed to a forebear, one Jacob Preston (1614-1683), by King Charles I on the scaffold. 'The family, as is well known', runs the most fulsome version of this tradition, 'distinguished themselves as Royalists in the Civil War. Jacob Preston was one of the four gentlemen appointed to wait on Charles I during his imprisonment. Indeed he was the King's favourite servant. His Royal Master, as a last tribute of affection, presented him while on the scaffold, with an emerald ring which is still jealously preserved by his descendants'.1
If the Prestons living at Beeston in the late 18th century believed this, their neighbour, Antony Norris of Barton Turf, compiler in 1782 of 'The Hundred of Tunstead' for Armstrong's 'History of Norfolk', had his doubts. Norris argued that the fact that the ring existed, which he claimed no one of the family ever heard of till very late years', was not proof and the only thing the family could show in corroboration of the story was a passage from Herbert (Memoirs of the last two years of the Reign of Charles I by Sir Thomas Herbert (1605-1681)) which said that the King's body was delivered to four of his servants - Herbert, Mildmay, Preston and Joyner.2
It was highly unlikely, Norris thought, that Jacob Preston of Beeston 'a man of small estate' had been a cavalier servant of Charles I considering his wife was the daughter of a staunch Parliamentarian, Isaac Appleton, and he later married his son (Isaac Preston) to the daughter of Charles George Cock, one of Cromwell's judges of the Admiralty and 'a most violent sequestrator of royalist property'. Furthermore, Jacob was known to have spent the years 1639 to 1646 at Beeston, 'peaceably getting his wife with child in each of those years, better employed, perhaps, than cavaliering'.
Writing in 'The Ancestor' at the turn of the century, the Norfolk historian, Walter Rye, agreed with Norris and dismissed the ring story as a 'myth ... very misconceived'.3 He showed that the Preston concerned was not Jacob Preston of Beeston but one Captain Robert Preston, no Royalist but a Commonwealth informer. Rye, however, allowed that Captain Preston might have been a kinsman of the Beeston Prestons through the Great Yarmouth branch of that family and, despite his politics, might have behaved kindly towards the King and received the ring. Rye pointed out that there were several Robert Prestons living in Norfolk at the time but was not able to identify for certain the one concerned. He suggested it might have been the 'Captain Preston' who was appointed to a Commission in 1657 'to examine Bailiff England of Yarmouth as to words spoken by him in 1649', but his first name is not recorded.
It is significant in this connection that the Yarmouth Prestons had their own version of the ring story, namely that the emerald ring came to them first, by whose hand is not known, and only later reached the Beeston family by way of gift or a legacy. This came to light in a letter written by one, Isaac Preston of Great Yarmouth, to the Eastern Daily Press on 14th January, 1897. Although his version of how this came about was challenged by other correspondents and proved inconclusive, the fact that the Yarmouth Prestons had their own King Charles ring tradition must add a new dimension to Rye's conjectures about the kinship of Captain Robert Preston.
Captain Preston is first heard of as one of the four gentlemen assigned in February, 1648, to guard the King at Carisbrooke Castle, Isle of Wight, where Charles was confined sometime after his recapture following his escape from Cromwell's custody at Hampton Court. A correspondent of the Earl of Lanark described these men as 'four of the severest of them' and Sir John Oglander, a Royalist who had entertained the King at his house on the Isle of Wight a year earlier, lamented in his diary that from then on 'no man could see His Majesty without being informed against, for there two gentlemen Captains Preston and Mildmay ... professed they would inform both Parliament and Army ... '.4
Captain Preston, who was referred to in Herbert's Memoirs as 'King's Server and Master of the Robes', accompanied the King in January, 1648, together with Herbert, Mildmay and Joyner, to his last place of confinement - St. James's Palace in London. All four attended the King during the time of his trial and sentencing to death, right up to the day of his execution on 30th January, 1649. But although these men received the King's body after the execution, and were entrusted with his burial, not one of them, contrary to the Preston Ring story, was actually on the scaffold when the King was beheaded. Only Herbert, who was closest to Charles, accompanied him as far as the window of the Banqueting Hall in Whitehall, outside which the scaffold had been erected, but was too overcome to go any further. In the light of this, another version of what happened seems to be more credible, namely that the 'Emerald Ring was given by Charles the first when dressed for execution to those gentlemen his pages of whom his body was given on the scaffold'. This version which only recently came to light, was given by Amelia Lady Calder in a letter to her cousin Abraham Preston of Yarmouth, dated April 27th, 1821. Lady Calder was married to Sir Robert Calder, Bt., RN., one of Nelson's admirals and was a Beeston Preston on her mother's side.
Before laying his head on the block, the King handed the George, Insignia of the Order of the Garter, and such jewellery as he still had on his person, to William Juxon, Bishop of London, with instructions to give these to his friends. Subsequently Bishop Juxon was obliged to give them to a Parliamentary Commission which arranged for their sale, together with other items of the King's property. It is recorded that Captain Preston took charge of a 'Garter of blew velvet sett with 412 small dymonds valued at £160 which was taken from the King's body'. This item is mentioned as having been received by Captain Preston in the sales list of the Property of Charles I. It was sold a year later to Ireton, Cromwell's son-in-law for £205.5
There is no record of Captain Preston having come by an emerald ring belonging to Charles. However, as Master of the Robes, he would have been in a good position to acquire such a ring from the King before his execution, as suggested by Lady Calder's version of the story, or in some other indirect way afterwards from among the King's effects, perhaps secreting it and keeping it for himself and his descendants. There is no way of knowing.
What is known, however, from Herbert's Memoirs, is that the King possessed at least one ring the description of which, as far as it goes, tallied exactly with that of the Beeston Ring, namely 'an emerald set between two diamonds' .6 On the eve of the execution, according to Herbert, the King drew a ring from his finger answering to this description and gave it to Herbert with instructions to take it to his laundress, Lady Wheeler, at her house in Westminster. There he was to exchange it for a casket which she would give him, containing jewels which the King wished to give to his daughter, the 13-year-old Princess Elizabeth. This Herbert did.
The King may have had other rings of the same kind - kings did not necessarily wear the rings they gave other people. They were often made for the purpose of making a present of them as a token of gratitude for some service rendered as, indeed, in Lady Wheeler's case. Could it have been a twin of the one the King gave to Herbert for Lady Wheeler, or possibly the original one itself, which somehow came into Captain Preston's possession?
True, expert opinion (British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum) has thrown doubt on the dating of the Beeston Ring from the days of Charles I, considering it more likely to have been made later - during the Restoration. But, even if this is so, in spite of the extraordinary coincidence of the two ring descriptions just mentioned, it does not necessarily invalidate the Beeston Ring story as such, flawed though it obviously is in some important respects. During the course of several generations of family life, rings can be lost, mixed up and other similar ones substituted for them to which the tradition of the original then becomes transferred. They can also be re-set. On any of these assumptions, the Preston Ring tradition could be seen as part 'misconceived' and part authentic.
1. Account of the Funeral of Sir Jacob Henry Preston, Bart. Eastern Daily Press, 17th January 1897.
2. MS Collections of Anthony Norris, Norfolk Record Office, Rye MS 86.
3. Walter Rye, 'A Family Legend', The Ancestor, Vol. 2, 82-90.
4. Jack D. Jones, The Royal Prisoner (1965).
5. Oliver Miller ed., The Inventories and Valuations of the King's Goods, 1649-1651, Walpole Society Vol. XLIII (1972).
6. Sir Thomas Herbert (1605-1681), Memoirs of the Two Last Years of the Reign of Charles I, 4th edn., 1839.
Ref: Preston, R. 1987. The Preston Ring Saga. Norfolk Archaeology. Vol XL. pp 119-121