A Tudor New Year
Although the Tudors celebrated the first of January, they would have been greatly surprised at our fireworks, long raucous parties and desperation to find someone to kiss at midnight. The Tudors actually believed that the New Year began on March 25th and on this day held the Feast of Annunciation, “celebrating when Mary was first told of the forthcoming birth of Jesus”. However they still followed the Roman tradition of celebrating 1st January, along with other important events during the 12 days of Christmas.
For the Tudors, it was on New Year’s Day not Christmas Day that mass gift giving would occur. Although gift giving was popular in the upper classes there are no records of it taking place in the homes of ordinary people, probably because of its political nature. For the upper classes, especially those living at court, gift giving was of great political significance and the act could reveal your prospects for the rest of the year.
All royal gifts were recorded in a New Year’s Gift list – many of which still exist today! Instructions for the reception of royal gifts in Henry VIII’s court also survive:
“The King would finish dressing on New Year’s morning, and just as he put his shoes on a fanfare would be sounded and one of the Queen’s servants would come in carrying a gift from her, followed by the servants of other important courtiers bearing their master’s gifts. The Queen, meanwhile, also received gifts in her own chamber.”
As mentioned, the political nature of the gift giving was really significant in the Tudor times. If the Monarch accepted your gift, it showed that would were favoured by him. However if the Monarch rejected your gift things were not looking so good for you! Here are a few real life Tudor examples of this:
- A well-known example of this comes from 1532 when Henry VIII accepted a set of elaborately decorated Pyrenean boar spears as a New Year’s present from Anne Boleyn but rejected Katherine of Aragon’s gold cup. Henry was angry that Katherine had sent him a present and not only did he refuse the gift (a significant slight), but he also forbade his Privy Councillors from sending Katherine any New Year’s gifts. This reaction was telling of Henry VIII’s feelings towards the two women and he went on to marry Anne the next year.
- In 1571, the Duke of Norfolk, whilst imprisoned in the Tower of London, sent Elizabeth I a very opulent jewel as a New Year’s gift. Although the present was remarkable, it failed to win over Elizabeth and she rejected the gift. The Duke was executed the next year.
- Sir Philip Sydney managed to regain royal favour with his New Year’s gift in 1581. He had angered Elizabeth I by writing to her and pleading her not to marry the Duc d’Alencon. But in 1581, luckily, after presenting Elizabeth with a jewelled whip to show his subjection to her will, he regained her lost favour.
After being presented with a gift, the Monarch would give a gift in return and demonstrate their generosity by making sure the gift they gave was of higher monetary value than the gift they received. In 1532 after receiving Anne Boleyn’s gift, King Henry VIII gave her “a matching set of hangings for her room and bed, in cloth of gold, cloth of silver and richly embroidered crimson satin.” It was also customary for the King to give gifts to the Queen and her ladies, as was it for the Queen to give gifts to her ladies and the King. Generally she would give the King personal items like embroidered shirts and collars.
So you can see the New Year’s gift exchange was an important way for the upper classes to gain royal favour, to assert their status and show off their wealth by giving elaborate and lavish gifts. It was also a way for the Monarch to show their pleasure or displeasure by accepting or rejecting gifts.