From the reign of Edward III to that of Mary Tudor, monarchs used to bless a plateful of gold and silver rings every Good Friday at the altar of the Chapel Royal, rubbing them between their fingers; thanks to the royal healing touch (cf. King's evil), they could cure epilepsy, cramp, or palsy, provided they were ‘given without money or petition’, as Andrew Borde noted in his Breviary of Health (1557, fo. 166).
This royal ritual either developed from, or inspired, a less élitist one described in a manuscript of c.1400 (MS Arundel 275, fo. 23b). Five silver pennies must be taken from the Mass-offerings on Good Friday in five different churches; these 25 coins must be laid before a crucifix while five ‘Our Fathers’ are said in honour of the Five Wounds of Jesus, for five days running, and then hammered into a ring inscribed with ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ and the names of the Three Wise Men.
After these customs had been abolished in the reign of Elizabeth, people took to making rings for themselves, to cure fits or rheumatism, out of metal that was in some way special. The most popular method was to collect 12 or 30 pennies, each from a different person, and ask a clergyman to exchange them for a shilling or a half-crown from the collection plate; this ‘sacrament silver’ was then made into a ring. There are references to this in Hereford in the mid-17th century, in Berkshire in the 18th, and in several 19th-century regional collections. In Cheshire, the ring could be made from a shilling obtained by begging a penny each from twelve people of the sex opposite to the sufferer (Moss, 1898: 166); in Essex and Devon, from nine sixpences, and in Suffolk from twelve scraps of broken silver, all to be got in the same way (Radford, Radford, and Hole, 1961: 293–4; Opie and Tatem, 1989: 327–8). In Yorkshire, pieces of lead cut from coffins were used; in Shropshire and Devon, coffin nails— ‘three nails taken from three coffins out of three several churchyards’ (Burne, 1883: 193).