Recently I have been researching surviving objects from the Tudor court, and this selection of coins caught my eye in the Royal Mint. This hoard of shillings and pennies includes instances from the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth I. They are a great example of objects that circulated between the palaces and the people within them. One of the ways money exchanged hands was in the form of a gift and this relates to another aspect of my reading: the Tudor New Year, best illustrated by the traditions of Henry VIII’s court which continued into the reigns of his children.
Although the festive season may now seem to be a distant memory, for the Tudor calendar the celebrations continued into the New Year as the annual ceremony of gift-giving fell on 1st January. The 16th-century Royal Household did not wait in anticipation for a visit from Father Christmas on 25th December. The court did revel in festive feasting but had to wait until 1st January for the presents! On average, the king received over 150 gifts and gave just as many. These were mostly gifts of gold and silver plate, and also money – perhaps the coins above exchanged hands in the form of a New Year’s gift.
Gift-giving was an ordered event with a ceremonial function. In the morning, the first gift would arrive from the queen, shortly followed by the servants of the leading members of the court bearing gifts on their behalf. The king would accept or reject gifts and then reciprocate the gesture. This was not confined to the royal palaces; noblemen across the country engaged in smaller-scale rituals to swap gifts with their households and servants.
The royal gift-exchange was recorded in the New Year’s gift roll, four of which survive from Henry VIII’s reign – the years 1528, 1532, 1534 and 1539. Inspecting the 1539 roll reveals how the day’s proceedings were noted. On one side of the long scroll, the gifts given by the king were listed with the recipients ordered by rank: the king’s family, followed by his bishops, dukes and earls, lords, duchesses and countesses, ladies, chaplains, gentlewomen, knights and gentlemen. The other side recorded the gifts given to the king, with the donors listed in the same manner. The gift of money appears frequently on both sides of the roll, such as in the gifts given to the king by two Knightes:
“By Sir Brian Tuke in a purse of crimsen satten – x li. with the kinges grace.
By Sir John Aleyn in a purse of tynsell – vj li. with the kinges grace.”
Sir Brian Tuke, Treasurer of the Chamber, gave £10 in a purse made of crimson satin and Sir John Aleyn, one of the king’s councillors, gave £6 in a purse woven with gold or silver.
Coins were a valuable and, most importantly, practical gift. They were portable, and with the Tudor court always on the move between palaces, this was necessary. Gifts of gold and silver plate in the form of cups and bowls followed the same logic; they were small and easy to transport, but still of worth and easily exchanged for cash when needed. As the 1539 gifts show, money was usually given within a purse, paper or a glove, and did not hold the modern stigma of being an impersonal choice. In fact, when Henry VII was king he only gave money as a gift to the court, with the amount dependent on social scale.
Perhaps this can be explained by the nature of the ceremony; gift-giving was not for finding something perfectly suited to the recipient, but about reputation, prestige and mutual expectation. If a courtier gave the king a gift, they would receive one in return and the New Year’s gift roll ensured Henry VIII knew who had and had not partaken in the exchange. The roll also reveals that presents were noted down by weight, and this was linked to status and relationship with the monarch – the heavier the present the better! It was an opportunity for the king to display his wealth and the magnificence of his court, but more importantly, his favour. The political nature of New Year’s Day was explicit in 1532, for example: Henry VIII’s dismissal of Katherine of Aragon’s gift of a gold cup, and acceptance of all of the gifts Anne Boleyn sent was symbolic of his commitment to his future queen and his rejection of the church in Rome.
The extravagance at New Year endured until the end of Elizabeth I’s reign and 25 of the rolls from her era remain, illustrating that the popularity of money as a gift continued. I like these coins because they show how even small and simple objects can embody the ceremonies, relationships and politics of the Tudor court.