In a note at the end of Carols from the Coalfields (1886), Skipsey gives the following background to the poem:
There is a tradition that Essex had elicited from Queen Elizabeth a ring as a token of confidence, with the assurance that if he ever should incur her displeasure, or need her assistance, by the production of the said ring she should be pacified, or that assistance given. Afterwards the Earl was impeached for high treason, tried, and condemned, when to the last the Queen anxiously awaited the forthcoming of the token which should have secured his pardon. The talisman did not come, and the Earl was executed. Years after, the Queen discovered that the Earl had, by a confidant, sent to her the ring, but that from malicious motives it had not been delivered, whereat she went nearly frantic, and died a few days after of a broken heart.
Robert Devereux (1565-1601) was a well-connected member of the nobility. A descendant of Mary Boleyn (sister of Anne) and therefore a cousin of the Queen, his stepfather (whom his mother married in 1578) was Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester (d 1588), the Queen's long-standing favourite; in 1590 he married Frances Walsingham (1567-1633), widow of Sir Philip Sydney and daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth I's Secretary of State from 1576 until his death in 1590. He first came to court in 1584 and by 1587 had gained the Queen's favour. He took part in a number of military engagements, distinguishing himself at the Siege of Cadiz in 1596 (which is when a grateful Queen is said to have given him the ring). He was appointed, at his own request, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1599 with a brief to defeat the Irish, under Hugh O'Neill, Earl of Tyrone, whose rebellion was undefeated since 1595. Despite having the largest expeditionary force ever sent to Ireland, Essex failed to engage the Irish army, instead concluding what some considered to be a humiliating truce. Returning to England against the Queen's orders, he was tried and convicted of desertion of duty and deprived of public office. Unhappy with this situation, in 1601 he led a band of followers into the City of London to try and force an audience with the Queen. This led to his trial and conviction on charges of treason, and he was executed on Tower Hill on Feb 25, 1601.
Catherine Carey (c1547-1603), daughter of Henry Carey, 1st Baron Hunsdon (another descendant of Mary Boleyn), married Charles Howard (1536-1624) in 1563. Howard went on to become 2nd Baron Howard of Effingham, Lord High Admiral of England, and first Earl of Nottingham (1597). Catherine was a lady-in-waiting to the Queen for 44 years, and died on 25 February 1603. The Queen died weeks later, on 24 March.
The story of the ring first appeared in print in 1695 and a version is recounted in David Hume's History of England (1754-61). However, most historians consider it to be a myth.