The Golden Age of Gift-Giving

Before the Victorians and the twentieth century transformed Christmas into the extravaganza that it is today, New Year’s Day–in the midst of an extended Christmastide– was the occasion for offering and receiving gifts. We know a lot about the meaning and materiality of gifts in Tudor England because of some extraordinary records, and several recent works which have transcribed and interpreted them for all of us, most notably Jane Lawson’s momentous transcription of 24 surviving Gift Rolls from Elizabeth’s reign, The Elizabethan New Year’s Gift Exchanges (2013) and Felicity Heal’s The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (2015). These two complementary volumes are really interesting and useful (though expensive–fortunately I received one as a gift!). I’m sure you can imagine how valuable and variable these sources are–as Elizabeth received a lot of stuff from her courtiers: pounds of gold coins in little bags made of luxurious fabrics and embroidered, beaded and embellished, books, jewels, articles of clothing, as well as more unique items. Let’s just look at one year’s haul, recorded in the roll from 1578-79 entitled New Yer’s Guiftes giuen to the QUENE’S MAIESTIE at her Highnes Manor of Richmond, by these Persons whose Names hereafter do ensue, the First of January, the Yere abouesaid, which has been digitized by the Folger Shakespeare Library.

gift-collage

elizabethan-gift-roll-folger

gift-roll-in-situ

Our sources: the gift rolls are quite literally ROLLS.

It’s a long roll, organized by the titles of the gift-bearers, from Earls to Gentlemen, and the value of their gifts, a perfect illustration of currying favor. Elizabeth’s long-time favorite, the Earl of Leicester, offered up a very fair jewel of gold, being a clock fully furnished with small diamonds pointed, and a pendant of gold, diamonds, and rubies, very small; and upon each a lozenge diamond, and an apple of green and russet enamel. From the Earl of Ormond, a very fair jewel of gold, wherein are three large emeralds set in which and red roses, one bigger than the other two, all the rest of the same jewel garnished with enameled roses and flowers, furnished with very small diamonds and rubies; about the edge very small pearls; and in the bottom is part of a flower-de-luce garnished with small diamonds, rubies, and one sapphire, with three mean pendant pearls, two of them small; the backside a green-enameled flower-de-luce. More jewels, lots of gold coin, and embellished apparel, including girdles and kirtles, mantles, “forepartes”,”scarfs”, petticoats, caps, mufflers, gloves and handkerchiefs  in cloth of gold, satin and velvet. Very detailed descriptions: you can easily see why these rolls are so valuable to historians of clothing and accessories, as well as to those attempting to piece together the intricate and dynamic relationships that formed the Elizabethan Court.

elizabeth-in-gloves

elizabethan-blackwork

swete-bag

A crop of Elizabeth and the Three Goddesses by Hans Eworth (1569), ©Royal Collection Trust: a rare image of the Elizabeth wearing gloves, a common New Year’s Day gift. A fragment of Elizabethan blackwork, often referred to in the Gift Rolls, ©National Trust; Elizabeth received at least one “swete bag” to fill with sweet-smelling herbs to guard her from the plague in 1579–this embroidered example is from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. 

Rather than additions to Elizabeth’s vast and well-studied wardrobe, I tend to look for more unusual items in these records, especially household furnishings.The Earl of Hertford gifted the queen with a small pair of writing tables enameled with a grasshopper, all of gold, enameled green on the backside, and a pin of gold having a small pearl at the end thereof.  From Lady Thockmorton, a large bag to put a pillow in or moire satin, allover embroidered with gold, silver, and silk of sundry colors, with 4 tassels of green silk and gold; and a cushion cloth of network, flourished over with flowers of gold, silver and silk of sundry colors, lined with white satin. Elizabeth also received  contemporary examples of things we might receive today (on Christmas Day): books, stationery, sweets, flora and fauna, including eighteen larks in a cage from one Morris Watkins, on New Year’s Day of 1579.

elizabethan-cushion-cover

Elizabethan Cushion Cover, Metropolitan Museum of Art.


5 responses to “The Golden Age of Gift-Giving

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