A Family Legend: The Emerald Ring of the Preston Family

By Walter Rye

This ring, which was recently exhibited at the Norwich Art Loan Exhibition, and which is undoubtedly of the Stuart period, was shown by a family of high standing in the county, settled at Beeston St. Lawrence in Norfolk since 1640, when they bought the estate, and has for many (certainly 120) years been believed by them to have been given to their ancestor Jacob (sometimes wrongly called Sir Jacob) Preston, "a faithfull servant of Charles the First," on the scaffold. It is a 'doublet' of little intrinsic value and hardly what one would have expected a king to wear.

From the magnificent MS. history of the Hundred of Tunstead, in which Beeston is situate, compiled by Antony Norris, Esq., of Barton Turf (the next parish to Beeston), who completed such history before 1782, we learn what was then his opinion of the story: He writes:-

It has been said by the family of late years that Jacob Preston was a favoured servant of Charles I., that he attended him on the scaffold,1 and show a ring which they say was given him by the King at that time, that he was so persecuted by the prevailing party that he was forced to live concealed for some time, on which occasion he used sometimes to be let into his own house here by a window in the middle of the night.

Norris points out that the existence of the ring, which he says 'no one out of the family ever heard of till of very late years,' is no proof, and the only thing they could show in corroboration of the story is a passage from Herbert, which says that the king's body was delivered to four of his servants, Herbert, Mildmay, Preston and Joyner.2

He considered that the Preston was probably the John Preston, Esq., bow-bearer to the king, who was presented as a recusant in 1626, and was a recusant in arms against the Parliament in 1644, but I have satisfied myself that he could not have been.

Long before I bought the Norris MSS., or knew he had written on the subject, I had come to exactly the same conclusion as he had done as to the truth of the legend, so I will use his and my own material, drawn from calendars and books published long after his death, together.

John Preston, thought by Norris to have been the real man who accompanied the king, and who is known to have been a servant of the king and his bow-bearer, was certainly one of the knightly family of Preston of Lancashire, all devoted cavaliers; and names of no less than eighteen of them appear as such in the Domestic State Papers, the Calendars for Compounding, etc., etc., and in fact in all the cavalier literature of the period.

He might well have been attendant on the king, but recent researches show that the attendant who had to do with the king and his funeral was one Captain Robert Preston, whose name does not appear on the pedigrees of either the Lancashire or Norfolk families.

Mr. E. G. Atkinson of the Public Record Office, who has made the period his special study, has kindly sent me the following extract from the Exchequer Miscellaneous Rolls:-

To Capt. Robert Preston one of the 4 gentlemen attending the late King in the Isle of Wight and elsewhere in full of his allowance of £200 per ann. for one year ended the last of Jany. 1648 in pursuance of an Order of the House of Commons 20 March 1647 and by warrant dated 16 April 1649 £100.

After this clear contradiction to the family story it is hardly worth while to point out its inherent improbability or to emphasize the facts that Jacob Preston, the hero of the tale, whose mother bought Beeston in 1640, and who was born in either 1613-4, had married and settled at Beeston and had four children before 1645-6, so is hardly likely to have been following the Court before Charles' death in 1649, when he was thirty-six or thirty-seven.

The persecution tale is never now told, and in fact was unknown to the present family, so it is hardly necessary to point out that Jacob Preston, so far from being in hiding about the period, levied fines in the King's Court on Mich. 21 Chas. I.(1645), as to land in Gissing ; in Mich. 22 Chas.(1646), as to land in old Buckenham and Eye; and in Mich., 1650, in Wilton; and again in 1656.

If he had been a Royalist and in trouble we should expect to find his name occur in the old list of Norfolk Royalists who compounded in 1655, but it does not do so. Nor does it, nor the name of any Norfolk Preston - Jacob or Robert - appear in the eight volumes of reports of the Committee for advance of money, or in the Calendars of Compoundings, which give the names of every one who was in the least degree interested on the Royalist side; nor in the list of those who were to have been decorated with the Order of the Royal Oak; nor in the list of Royalists published by the Camden Society; nor in Hotten's Royalist and Roundheads Army List ; nor in the long list of Norfolk Compounders given in Mason's History of Norfolk.

In fact no negative evidence could possibly be stronger. The name is simply non-existent among the Royalists in the lists which detail all the sufferings and losses of the Astleys, the Kemps, the Anguishes, the Pettuses and all the few Norfolk Royalists. All the members of the Lancashire Prestons who were Royalists are to be found in these documents, but the same documents are absolutely silent as to a Norfolk Royalist of the name.

It would indeed have been strange if Jacob Preston of Beeston had been a Royalist, for his own associations and those of his family were distinctly with the other side.

The Christian names of Isaac, Abraham and Jacob in one generation speak for themselves as to the side the father and mother took in religion.

Before Charles' death he had married and had a family by the sister of Sir Isaac Appleton, who seven years before (in 1642) had been a Commissioner for prosecuting scandalous ministers. He was a J.P. and Custos Rotulorum in 1664, and I am inclined to think he may be the Jacob Preston of Lincoln's Inn, Esq., who sold land in Gissing and Burston in 1642.3

His son Isaac married the daughter and heiress of Charles George Cock of Norwich, one of Cromwell's Judges of the Admiralty.

The family, I believe, now consider that though Jacob married the daughter of a Roundhead he may have personally been on the other side, and argue that his first cousin Thomas Preston, the Herald, was presumably of Royalist opinion, as he was sent by Charles I. to Ireland in1630 to acquaint the Lords Justices of the birth of Prince Charles. But he was then a Herald, and the fact that he was afterwards made Ulster King of Arms in 1633 seems to me to prove nothing.

Heralds were privileged people, and it will be remembered that Sir William le Neve, who had been sent in 1643 to the Earl of Essex with a proclamation of pardon if his army would lay down their arms, was not disturbed in his office when the Commonwealth came into power, and kept his berth till 1658.

Norris rather doubts the authenticity of the entries of the baptisms of Thomas, Jacob, Francis and Charles Preston, in 1642-6, entered in the Beeston register, and points out that they are all in a different hand to the rest of the register, and considers Jacob to have been the son of Isaac Preston of Pulham in Norfolk, afterwards of Thelveton.

Yet the entry in the visitation of 1664, made while Jacob and his first cousin, the Ulster King at Arms, were alive, states the parents of Jacob to be William Preston and Rose Dickleburgh. Jacob, the hero of this tale and his first cousin the Herald must have known their own grandfather's name and that it was William, but that he came from Buckenham in Norfolk and not from Preston in Suffolk, and that when calling him Preston of Preston in Suffolk4 they were laying down a fabrication for the use of future generations and with the idea of founding a territorial family. As far as I can make out there never were Prestons of Preston in the territorial sense.

The only old Suffolk family of Prestons mentioned in Davy (p. 285) come from one Peter Preston of Micklefield, who died 1616, having also married a Thomazine.

That the Jacob Preston of Old Buckenham, who died 1630, and whose brass was moved to Beeston, came from the yeomen family of Preston of Pulham seems to me clear. But, with Norris, I have grave doubts if he bore arms in 1630, and think they were added to his brass afterwards.

Norris derives the Buckenham and Pulham Prestons from Isaac Preston of Thelveton by Diss, not far from Buckenharn and Pulham, whose wife Margaret died 1540; and there are entries in the Pulham St. Mary Magdalen registers from 1558, though none of a baptism of a Jacob in or about 1564.5

He suspects that the brass to Jacob Preston of Buckenham, who died 1630, was erected long after his death, and points out that the date was first cut 1627, which he considers shows that it was first put up when the exact date of his death had been forgotten. There is no doubt about the genuineness of the brass - or rather brasses - one with the arms and the other with the inscription, for they were seen and noted by Tom Martin and Blomefield long before they were improperly and foolishly removed from Buckenham to Beeston in 1808. It is not impossible however that the brass with the arms is of a later date than the inscription brass, and it is strange that the motto on it is the canting one of 'Pristinam spero lucem,' and not the more recent motto of 'Lucem spero clariorem.'

The crescent of the crest is marked with a mullet of five points, the difference of the third son, whereas Jacob, if he ever was entitled to arms at all, was the second son.

Let us now try to fix the identity of the Captain Robert Preston, the actual attendant on the king.

Though we have satisfied ourselves that the alleged recipient of the ring could not have been Jacob Preston of Beeston, as has always been alleged, it is possible that this Captain Robert Preston6 may have been a kinsman of the Beeston family, and sharing its politics have been a servant nominated by the Commonwealth to attend the king, and while acting in that capacity may have behaved kindly to him and received the ring. The fact that Jacob had a son named Charles, born in 1646 - Charles being a name I cannot trace in the family earlier - may show some sentimental good feeling in the Beeston family towards the king.

To begin with, we know for certain that the king's four attendants who received his body were Thomas Herbert (author of the well known Memoirs), Captain Antony Mildmay,7 Captain Robert Preston and John Joyner.8

Herbert we know was a Cavalier, but may not some of the others have been Roundheads? Besides the funeral warrants mentioned above there are warrants, dated November-December 1648, to Mildmay and Preston in payment of official services in respect of the said captain's allowances of £200 each per annum as two of the four gentlemen attending the king in the Isle of Wight.

Now these payments would be excessive allowances if made out of compassion to two faithful Royalists who personally waited on the king (it is noteworthy I find no trace of payments to Herbert or Joyner, who are known to have been personally attached to him), but none too much for the pay of men who were practically responsible for his safe custody.

I expect Mildmay and Preston were two of the 'staff of attendants appointed by the House to wait on the King,' for Gardiner refers to the king being accompanied in his flight from Hampton Court by Berkeley, Ashburnham and Legge, and on page 259 to his own attendants, Herbert and Harrington, but does not mention either Mildmay or Preston.

Now we come again to the question - Who was this Captain Robert Preston? As before mentioned, I cannot trace him on any pedigree, but it seems to me that he must have been the Robert Preston, otherwise Captain Robert Preston, who had been an active agent of; in fact an informer in the service of; the Commonwealth.

In 1643 (July 24) there is a complaint of one Raleigh Sanderson that he had been improperly denounced as a delinquent 'on the mis-information of Robert Preston, who later on seems to have issued a writ of 'quo minus' on the same man's wharf at Shadwell.

On August 13, 1645, Captain Robert Preston (no doubt the same man) informed the Commonwealth that there were three trunks of goods at the Savoy belonging to one Alexander Courtney, who was in actual war with the Parliament. Next year there is an order to the Committee for the safety of Warwick and Coventry to billet Captain Robert Preston.

Then in 1648-9 we find the 'Captain Robert Preston' in attendance on the king, and as late as 1656 being reimbursed the money he had spent at the funeral; and a few months later, on March 2, 1657-8, 'Captain Preston' is appointed one of the Commissioners appointed to examine Bailiff England of Yarmouth as to words spoken by him in 1649, though of course the Captain Preston may be the Captain Isaac Preston of Yarmouth mentioned in Endnote 3.

Further local inquiries may tell us more of this Captain Robert Preston, and enable us to ascertain if he had any connection, through Yarmouth or otherwise, with the Beeston family.

If it turns out that he had, it would give some sort of an explanation how the ring came to it, but a widely different one to the picturesque tale which has been so credulously believed for many generations.


1. He could not have been on the scaffold, for, as S. R. Gardiner, in his account of the execution, says, the only friend who attended the king on the scaffold 'was Juxon, Herbert having begged to be excused from witnessing the painful sight. No other persons were admitted to a place on the scaffold excepting Colonels Hacker and Tomlinson and the two masked figures of the executioner and his assistant,' and this is borne out by the early prints of the scene showing two executioners and three spectators only.

2. Captain Preston and Captain Joyner were in 1656 paid various sums for money spent at the funeral (Dom. State Papers, cxxix. 69).

3. This Isaac may be the Isaac Preston of Yarmouth who bought his freedom there in 1642, and who in 1650 received a captain's commission in the Commonwealth army, who in 1654 was associated with this Mr. Cock as Commissioner for scandalous ministers, who influenced the return of Colonel Wm. Gofe (the regicide) for Yarmouth, and who in 1657 was one of the Norfolk Commissioners for raising £6o,ooo for the use of the Commonwealth. But more probably this Isaac was his namesake and first cousin, the son of Thomas Preston, the Ulster King at Arms.

4. Of recent years the family have again stated their early pedigree with Prestons from the village of Preston, 'where its ancestors held rank as gentlemen in the reign of Edw. III.' But this is all Burkian flourish. There are Subsidy Rolls for Preston, Suffolk, for 39 and 43 Eliz. and 8 Jas. I., but the name does not occur in them or in the Suffolk Visitations. Isolated instances of people of the name 'de Preston' occur in the Suffolk Fines from 19 Hen. III. to 10 Ed. II., but the only fragment which might help to prove a Suffolk descent is that the Rev. John Preston in 2 Hen. IV. had to do with land in Whatefield, and Jacob Preston, who died 1630, is said to have had land in Whattlesfield.

5. The first layman of the surname I find in Norfolk is Henry Preston, who in 4 & 5 Hen. V. (1417-8) was party to a fine of the manor of Surlingham and advowson of Bramerton.

6. There had been several Robert Prestons in Norfolk, e.g. Robert Preston nephew of William Preston, rector of St. Creak in 1509; Robert, freeman of Norwich in 1514; and Robert Preston, witness to the will of Nicholas Bell of Great Bircham, 1609 ; while later we find a Robert Preston freeman of Yarmouth in 1692, a fact doubly interesting in view of the connection between the Beeston family and Yarmouth.

7. Possibly of kin to Sir Anthony Mildmay of Apthorp, Northampton, who died 1617, whose daughter and heir married Francis Fane first Earl of Westmorland.

8. In Heath's Chron. of the late Intestine war (fo. 1676, p. 221), Preston is called his server and Joyner family cook to the king The last named being in a subordinate capacity did not apparently receive the high pay Mildmay and Preston did.

Ref: Rye, W. 1902. A Family Legend: The emerald ring of the Preston Family. The Ancestor. No. II. pp 82-90