The poison ring is one of the most interesting items of jewelry ever created. The subject of much history as well as literature, the poison ring became an important part of the age of knights. Today, it is a highly prized antique with some fetching a good price in antique auctions and retail stores. You can find the rings sporting many different designs that range from simple to ornate. Such rings were meant to compliment the wearer and become part of their overall fashion sense. This was mostly because the rings themselves were not designed to stand out. Rather, they were to look like any other ring of that time so that no one would suspect that it had an ulterior purpose.
What makes the poison ring so intriguing starts with its origins which had nothing to do with poison, at least at the beginning when they had a far more pleasing use.
What is a Poison Ring?
Sometimes called a Borgia Ring, it looks like a typical ring with a gem or design at the center. But that usually covers a small secret compartment. Accessing the compartment means the wearer of the ring can pull out one of the following.
- Religious Relics and More
Basically, a poison ring is a ring with a small storage compartment but is designed to conceal that fact. Most poison rings look indistinguishable from rings that have no secret compartment and that is by purpose. For the assassin to wear the ring under the noses of those who might suspect foul play. In that manner, they can deliver the poison and get away all without being suspected.
Although the exact origins are not known, it is believed that rings with secret compartments were first developed in the Far East and perhaps in India thousands of years ago. They were primarily used as a convenient method of carrying spice. The spice would be sprinkled from the ring onto the food by the wearer. However, when the ring itself made it to the Eastern Mediterranean and into Europe, another use for it was found. The first known use of the ring as a container of poison comes from 183 BCE when Hannibal, a Carthaginian leader of great renown, killed himself by taking the poison in his ring after his forces were defeated by the Romans. It is believed that poison rings had made it to Europe and North Africa long before 183 BCE, but there are no existing records of its use being found until that time. It is generally believed that poison rings were used in the Roman Empire which means that it spread throughout Europe and North Africa. Given the wide amount of trade with India through countries such as Egypt, such rings may not have been commonplace, but there were recognizable and available for purchase.
Use of Poison Rings
For the first thousand or so years, it was believed that poison rings were mostly used by the wearer to commit suicide if he or she was going to face a more unpleasant means of death. By killing themselves, they could avoid torture, slavery, or a more painful means of dying compared to the poison itself. It was not until much later did the ring become an instrument of assassination. It is not known when such rings were used as a means of killing another person, although it doubtless happened during the times of the Roman Empire. But the use of the ring by assassins became better known during the Medieval times as Europe was divided into many different countries. Within such countries, smaller amounts of land were ruled by lesser nobility which meant that their elimination provided advantage to others.
The Borgia Ring
A poison ring is often called a Borgia Ring because during the age of knights when the Borgia family, which ruled large parts of Italy along with Venice in the 15th and 16th centuries, killed their enemies by use of the poison. It was easier and far more economical to assassinate leaders, particularly royalty from rival factions by stealth. Employing assassins or doing the work themselves by attending functions, slipping the poison into a drink or meal, and then getting away all without being suspected. This is because the high mortality rate of the time made it difficult to know how exactly the person died. Sudden illnesses were commonplace and food poisoning, which was common enough, often had similar symptoms to actual poison. And if they took time for serious symptoms to appear, the assassin could finish their meal, enjoy the event, and leave all without any suspicion.
During this time of court intrigue, the poison ring reached its zenith. This is especially true given the access of rival factions along with those inside a noble family that wanted greater power. However, as times changed, so too did the status and importance of the nobility. With central governments becoming more powerful, the use of the poison ring diminished considerably as a weapon.
The Poison Ring Today
The ring itself survives as an antique, an heirloom that was passed down from generation to generation. In royal families and others who held power, the ring might have been kept just in case a rival faction needed to be addressed in a secretive manner. Some poison rings, especially those that have been connected to historic events or important people fetch a considerable price on the antique market. However, the secret compartment of the ring was also used in pendants. By the 19th century, such compartments were used to house small photographs of loved ones so they could be viewed in privacy. What started as a means of delivering poison morphed into a way of keeping the image of loved ones close to the heart.
During the age of knights, the poison ring was a simple tool used to eliminate an unwanted prince, duke, or other important member of royalty or nobility. But in doing so, the intrigue behind the ring itself made it more elaborate and popular.