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Gifts at New Year

Anyone feeling disappointed with their presents this year may take comfort from knowing that Queen Elizabeth I was also the recipient of socks and hosiery, although, as during the 1560s well-fitting hosiery was amongst the most coveted of sartorial treasures she possibly enjoyed hers more!

Whilst we are often ungracious enough to leave people un-thanked or to have unwanted gifts for sale on eBay before the end of January, Elizabeth was the model of courtesy making sure each person was thanked with a gift of a purse of money or items of silverware known as plate. Each gift was documented in meticulously kept registers detailing who gave her what, so that she could ensure that she reciprocated with suitable largesse, often deliberately exceeding the value of the gift received so that she could display her wealth and generosity. She was also careful to make sure that she was always dressed diplomatically to display the gifts received the next time the giver attended court.

In the 16th century gifts were given more frequently at New Year in echo of those offered by the Magi, rather than at Christmas. It had long been tradition since the reign of Henry VI for the monarch to be offered gifts of purses of money, each of pretty colourful silk, velvet, or knitted metal thread. By the 1580s those who sought to curry favour with Elizabeth had begun to realise the value of the personal touch. The New Year’s Gift Rolls are filled with details of beautiful items especially made or thoughtfully commissioned to please and flatter her. She received many stunning jewels from the wealthiest at her court including ‘a juell of golde, being a catt and myce playing with her, garnished with smale dyamondes and perle’ given by Lady Howarde in 1581-2, and fan from Sir Francis Drake in 1589, a gorgeous concoction of white feathers, diamonds and pearls with a half-moon of mother of pearl – one of her favourite emblems of Cynthia the moon goddess – with her own likeness concealed within.

The Drake fan is detailed in The Progresses and Public Processions of Queen Elizabeth by John Nichols:

'of feathers white and red, the handle of golde inamuled, with a halfe moone of mother-of-perles, within that a halfe moone garnished with sparkes of dyamondes, and a fewe seede perles on thone side, having her Majesties picture within it, and on the backside a device with a crowe [probably crown] over it'.


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