The Order of Chaeronea, the secret society for the cultivation of a moral, ethical, cultural and spiritual ethos within the Victorian gay community, was founded by George Cecil Ives in 1897. It was his belief that homosexual men and women would never be accepted openly in society and must therefore have a means of underground communication. Together they would seek to promote what was simply called ‘The Cause’.
The society took its name from the Greek battle in 338BC where the Sacred Band of Thebes, an elite regiment comprising 150 male couples, made its last stand before annihilation. Ives and other members dated their letters and other materials from the year of the battle, so that 1900 was written as 2238.
Although there was never an official list of members, the order is thought to have numbered perhaps 300 men and women. Each were privy to an elaborate system of rituals, ceremonies, codes and passwords.
Surviving relics of the Order of Chaeronea are very rare. Hence the competition for an otherwise unremarkable Edwardian ring offered by Bishop & Miller in Glandford, Norfolk, on May 16. Mounted on a silver band hallmarked for Barnet Henry Joseph, Chester 1905, was a marble-sized piece of smoky quartz engraved with the seal of the Order of Chaeronea.
Carved in intaglio are the order’s mystical ‘sign word’ Amrrhao, the number 338 referencing the battle of Chaeronea and the letters ZLD for the membership prerequisites of Zeal, Learning and Discipline. The motif of a chain and a double wreath were metaphors for secrecy and brotherhood.
Who originally wore this ring, so evocative of the LGBT experience a century ago, is unknown. It came for sale in East Anglia with a guide of £400-600 as part of a group of lots from a Norfolk dealer. It sold at £3700 (plus 25% buyer’s premium) to a private collector in the room.