THE DODDERSHALL RING
In the early 16th Century records show that Thomas Pigott, Sergeant at Law and a high-ranking official in the County of Buckinghamshire, owned a large Tudor house near Aylesbury. The office of Sergeant at Law denotes that he was in the service of the monarch and basically looked after the king’s interests in the area in which he lived. Sergeants were an elite closed society created, paid by the Crown and Thomas’s descendants still live in the house today.
A LOST RING
Over 400 years ago and not far from the sturdy timber and plaster house, a gold finger ring was lost on the neat and manicured lawn. Whether Thomas, his immediate family or descendants dropped it, we shall never know. The loss remained unnoticed … until just recently. In February 2015, detectorist Tom Clark, who had permission to detect near the Tudor manor, found an immaculate and complete gold finger ring beneath the lawn.
The Latin inscription on the decorated outer surface reads PRESERVACIO * LEGIS. EXECUCIO *REGIS, which can be literally translated as, for the preservation and for the execution of the Law of the King. Tom, an experienced detectorist, knew that he had found something special and rather significant. He showed both the landowner and the local FLO, and the ring started its journey through the treasure process.
Unfortunately, neither Tom nor the landowner were informed of the inquest, even though the coroner had received instructions from the BM to inform them, so they missed the opportunity to have their say. They were both disappointed that Tom’s exciting and unique find was declared ‘treasure’ and eventually offered to Aylesbury Museum. It was fait accompli and, at that stage, they had no option but to accept the decision.
Tom embarked on some serious and comprehensive research, determined to prove that the ring had a strong provenance. He ‘knew in his heart’ that the ring had originally belonged to Thomas Pigott, but his ‘theory’ had to be supported by strong evidence, which he diligently collected and eventually sent to the BM.
Tom knew that it wasn’t going to be easy and attempted to show – with appropriate references – that the present landowner’s ancestor was Thomas Pigott, a Sergeant at Arms in the early 16th Century. Indeed he could also have been acting for Kings Henry VII and VIII. Research confirmed that Pigott lived in the very same Tudor house where the ring was found about 30 yards from the front entrance … and there was more. He sent his observations to the appropriate department within BM, who said it could never be proven and that another Sergeant could have dropped the ring. Evidently there wasn’t enough level of proof and the spokesman emphasised that it would be ‘very difficult’ to prove the ring belonged to the current Mr. Pigott.
In search of further evidence, Tom consulted local historian, L G Cooper, who was able to provide more useful information. The ring, being tiny, doesn’t fit on the small finger of the average man’s hand. This fact might suggest that Thomas Pigott didn’t own it, but it could have belonged to one of his family.
Mr. Cooper pointed out that the ring was probably one of several Thomas had made to celebrate his appointment and these would be presented to his family and close friends. There could have been several rings! See ‘QUESTIONS’, below.
TREASURE ACT 1996
What objects do not qualify as treasure? Objects whose owners can be traced …
After reading and digesting the 1996 Treasure Act, the present landowner, whose family is direct descendants of Thomas Pigott, believed that he was the rightful owner and decided to claim his inheritance.
In a letter supporting Tom’s and sent to Aylesbury Museum as well as the BM, he pointed out that he was a direct descendant of Thomas Pigott and lived in the same Tudor house. He said that the ring would have been handed down through the family.
Furthermore, the ring was found at the front of the house, which was used mainly by family and guests. The main entrance was at the back. The ring was most likely to have been lost by one of them, and he was claiming provenance.
WHAT HAPPENED NEXT?
Aylesbury Bucks Museum dropped its interest to acquire the ring and subsequently so did the Crown. It was returned to the landowner, a high-ranking Aylesbury dignitary. He was pleased …
The Museum (at that time) is currently raising money (£1.35 million) to secure the Lenborough Hoard of late Anglo Saxon coins. Director Richard de Peyer said that they had, “… reached a private arrangement with the family on whose land the ring was found, which respects our desire to exhibit and theirs to preserve an association that goes back a long way.”
The landowner, who regularly donates sums of money and is a Friend to Aylesbury Museum, has said that they can borrow the ring any time they have special exhibitions or the like. The Museum was pleased …
The landowner wanted to reward Tom Clark with the full monetary value as determined by the Treasure Valuation Committee. Tom refused this offer, but agreed to the usual 50/50 split, and this was done. They were both pleased …
The official PAS record states, ‘It has not been possible to search for parallels for this inscription, but it may be the ring of office of a Sergeant at Law.’
Which raises the question. This ring seems to be unique, one of a kind. Has a similar ring ever been found? Well, yes it has. I was unable to find an example on the PAS database, but was referred to an interesting and learned article in the December 2002 Searcher magazine, by Peter D Spencer.
The ring in this case had been disclaimed and the finder asked Peter if he could do further research, which he did. Having exhausted the available books, Peter eventually found one in the Leeds main reference library that mentioned Sergeants at Law – British Rings, 800-1914 by Charles Oman, and realised that this type of ring was extremely rare.
The fact that there could have been many rings – mentioned by the historian – is also corroborated, and I quote from Peter’s article: ‘Records show that as early as 1362 it was the practice for new sergeants to give gold rings in court … in 1428 a newly created sergeant spent £50 on rings and presented them (to all the people present at the ceremony … but an indeterminate number were given to personal friends.’
Anyone interested in this subject is advised to obtain a copy of the Searcher report, for it is too long to reproduce here. A second ring was found a month later, and discussed by Peter in an article published in January 2003.
My second question: Is this the first time that a claim to provenance by a titled landowner has been made after such a long period of over 400/500 years? A spokesman at the BM could remember (from the ‘top of his head’) only two. Both were unsuccessful.
NOTE: There are two historic cases, which set a precedent. One is for a vervel belonging to the first Duke of Bedford and a gold seal matrix belonging to the Lord Portman.
Both were declared Treasure – though the museum withdrew from the Bedford vervel. The burden of proof set by the government’s lawyers is quite demanding.
It is easier if the case is much more recent, as demonstrated in the case of the Hackney Hoard, where the son of the original owner did successfully claim the coins. See my preliminary report in the December 2010 edition of The Searcher.
ABOUT TOM CLARK
Tom Clark, the finder of the ring, has been detecting very successfully since 1970 and works closely with the Portable Antiquities Scheme. You will find many of his finds (credited) in the Aylesbury Museum.
In July 2011 he was the winner of ‘The Most Significant Hoard’ in the Searcher magazine’s Nations’ Greatest Finds competition. The Roman Coin die and associated items he’d unearthed were also generously donated to the Museum. These ‘significant’ finds were on display until just recently.
This story originally appeared in The Searcher magazine of January 2017