Who Had the First Diamond Engagement Ring?

Hint: It’s a French monarch from the Middle Ages.

Engagement rings have been around for what seems like forever, but in actual fact they only became globally popular in the 20th century. Before that, they were a folly of the higher classes only, and before THAT they were really only a thing amongst royals and rulers. But it had to start somewhere, right?

Ancient civilisations have exchanged rings as a symbol of marriage since, well, ancient times. But the concept of an ‘engagement’, a period of time before a marriage in which a man and woman formally commits to one another, originates from the Middle Ages. In that era of history a middle class didn’t really exist; you were either at the top or the bottom of the wealth ladder. As we all know, engagement rings mean precious metals and diamonds, so it was a tradition that was exclusive to the richest people at the top of the later.

Mary of Burgundy was on of these people. Appropriately she was also known as Mary the Rich, and she reigned over the Duchy of Burgundy (now part of eastern France) from 1477 until her death in 1482. France at this time was a beautiful place, full of rolling green hills, hidden castles and stone villages. Architecture, art and culture were very important. Since it was still the Middle Ages however there was also a lot of battles, plagues, kings, queens and poverty.

Mary was just 20 years old when she inherited the Duchy after her father Charles The Bold’s death. Her ruling region was very wealthy, prosperous, and most importantly large, which meant one thing in particular; Mary’s hand in marriage was much sought after. Her first proposal came from the future king Ferdinand II of Aragon, when she was just five years old!

Charles the Duke of Berry followed suit, as did the younger brother of King Louis XI of France. Although Louis himself was already spoken for, he made no hesitation in trying to arrange a marriage between Mary and his son, who would one day become King Charles VIII of France. He was 6 years old (13 years younger than her) and her cousin! Another aristocrat, Nicholas I the Duke of Lorraine also had his eye on Mary’s kingdom. Hey, at least she had plenty of options.

Mary, however, had her own ideas for marriage. From her full spectrum of suitors, she chose the Archduke Maximilian of Austria, the future Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian I. The reason? Love! Okay, historical records are sadly lacking in the romantic details of the relationship, but we like to think this young couple (the Archduke was 18 and Mary was 20 when they wed) swept politics aside for each other.

The real story however is that Mary’s father had lost a hugely important battle, and needed a strong ally to win back his territory’s strength. The Habsburgs (Maximilian’s family) had great military prowess, but lacked money. Joining the two houses was the perfect match. Both sides were anxious for a wedding to take place as soon as possible, so Mary’s father sent her a letter requesting her approval, and Maximilian did the same.

To help win over his potential spouse, Maximilian sent along the world’s first diamond engagement ring with his written marriage proposal. It consisted of a small number of oblong shaped (possibly early marquise cut) diamonds arranged in the form of a letter ‘M’, for Mary, and sat on a plain band. Some sources say he spent a little too much of his fortune on the diamonds, and ending up causing further financial difficulty for the family. Good thing he married into wealth!

The marriage sparked a two-century conflict between the Habsburg and Burgundy royals which resulted in the War of the Spanish Succession in 1710, but otherwise was quite successful! They had three children between 1478 and 1481; Philip the Handsome who was Mary’s successor, Margaret who married the Prince of Asturias, and Francis who sadly died at three months of age.

Unfortunately the tragedy didn’t end there; Mary tragically passed away the following year at the young age of 25. While riding a horse, it threw her off its back and then landed on her. She had a broken neck but survived the incident, only to die a few days later. Maximilian went on to become the King of the Romans and the Holy Roman Emperor. He married twice more to Anne, Duchess of Brittany and Italian noblewoman Bianca Maria Sforza… but he never gave anyone another diamond engagement ring.