Signet rings were commonly used for impressing wax seals on documents. Signets were necessary for business to seal important papers but also to provide a symbolic proof of signature to a largely illiterate population. This ring probably once belonged to a very literate man: poet and playwright William Strachey, who survived a hurricane and shipwreck on his way to Virginia in 1609. Some believe that his account of the ordeal influenced William Shakespeare’s writing of “The Tempest.” In it, Strachey describes his fearful experience:
…commending our souls to God, committed the ship to the mercy of the sea.
Among the eight ships scattered by the storm, Strachey was on the fleet’s flagship, the Sea Venture, which wrecked on uninhabited Bermuda. The survivors spent the 10 months building two replacement vessels in which they sailed to Jamestown by May 1610. Strachey remained at Jamestown for less than a year, but in that time he became the Secretary of the Colony and recorded many of the things we know about the early years of Virginia, such as the shape of the first fort. He wrote an eloquent letter to an unnamed “dear lady” about the Sea Venture disaster and his time at Jamestown. The letter probably reached England in late 1610, and scholars believe Shakespeare wrote “The Tempest” in 1610-11. The play was first performed in London in November 1611.
In 1996, Jamestown Rediscovery archaeologists found this brass finger ring in a trashpit located near the southeastern bulwark of James Fort. It is finely engraved with the figure of a large bird and a cross on its breast. Such a “displayed” eagle embossed with a cross-crosslet is the official crest of the Strachey family. But why did the ring remain in Virginia soil after Strachey returned to England? Did he simply lose it? Or did he trade it to another Jamestown colonist after losing his possessions in the Bermuda wreck? Strachey moved in London’s literary circles but usually had money troubles. He served as secretary to Thomas Glover, the English ambassador to Turkey, in 1606 but was quickly dismissed after quarreling with Glover. After that, Strachey came to Virginia for the same reason many other English gentlemen did: to finally secure his fortune. Like many of those other gentlemen, Strachey found only harder times. He returned to an unheralded life in England and died in poverty in 1621.