We’re often slightly exhausted by the time we reach New Year’s Day, certainly most of us aren’t in the mood for a party. Not so for the Tudors! Chief Curator Tracy Borman explains that for the Tudors the party was only just getting started…and she’s got a personal reason for agreeing with them.
New Year’s Day. With a name like that, it should be the most hopeful, celebratory day of the year: a day of fresh starts, a time to move on from the disappointments and failures of the past and look to the future with renewed optimism. In fact, it’s usually a bit of a damp squib. For a start, many people will have been out celebrating the night before, so the following day is less a time for buoyant optimism than for nursing a fragile head. What’s more, Christmas is over and with it the over-indulgence, so the order of the day is dieting and Dry January. Oh, and did I mention it’s also my birthday?
Keeping up with the Tudors
Our Tudor ancestors would have scorned our lack of stamina. For them, the festive season could begin as early as Allhallowtide (1 November) and last all the way up to Candlemas (2 February) – a whopping twelve weeks of partying. Perhaps not surprisingly, Henry VIII was praised for keeping Christmas with ‘much nobleness and open court’, along with ‘great plenty of viands’. Greenwich Palace, the place of his birth in 1491, was the traditional location for the yuletide festivities. More than a thousand courtiers would flock there to eat, drink and be merry – and warm themselves by the huge Yule log that was lit on Christmas Eve. The ensuing festivities were a riot of excess and magnificence, with feasting games and carols, all presided over by the Lord of Misrule. But the star of the show was always Henry, decked out in sumptuous new clothes every year. And he didn’t stint on the expense. The records show that for the first Christmas of his reign in 1509, the eighteen-year-old king laid out the equivalent of £13.5m.
To Henry, from Thomas
In contrast to today, the twenty fifth of December was not the star of the show. That honour went to New Year’s Day, the crescendo of the celebrations and the time when presents were exchanged. Henry VIII encouraged his courtiers to come bearing lavish gifts, which would be given to him during a special ceremony in his presence chamber. They would vie with each other to present the most extravagant gifts and thus win more favour. Cardinal Wolsey once gave his master a gold cup worth £100 (more than £50,000 in today’s money). Some of the more unusual gifts that Henry received included dog collars, six cheeses from Suffolk and a marmoset monkey.
Gifts fit for a Queen
Gift giving scaled new heights during the reign of Henry’s youngest daughter, Elizabeth I, who regularly received thousands of lavish gifts each year – everything from jewellery and silk stockings to toothpicks made of gold. Not wishing to leave anything to chance, she even decreed the amount that each person was to spend on her, according to rank. New Year’s gifts could be a handy way of getting back in the queen’s good books, too. In 1580, courtier and diplomat Sir Philip Sidney fell out of favour by suggesting she marry; but he presented her with a jewelled whip to demonstrate his subjection to her will and he was forgiven.
As a Tudor historian, I have often wished that I could go back in time and be a fly on the wall (or, ideally, a favoured attendant) in the royal court. But the time I wish it most is on my birthday. Elizabeth I and her kind would have known how to help me celebrate.
Historic Royal Palaces