In Elizabethan London, New Year’s Day was the big time to give and receive gifts, particularly at court. The tradition appears to date back to at least the 13th century but under Queen Elizabeth I it reached new heights in terms of the extravagance and range of the gifts given.
Courtiers and members of the Queen’s household were expected to present her with gifts. As can be imagined competition to impress the Queen was fierce and there must have been immense pressure to come up with gifts that were valuable enough (many resorted to giving money, usually gold coins, in extravagant silk purses) or useful (she received many perfumed gloves and gold-trimmed hankies) or just intriguing.
In the latter category are many animal jewels, such as an emerald, diamond and ruby serpent with a pendant pearl, given in 1581 by the Countess of Oxford or a golden cat playing with mice and again decorated with diamonds and pearls given the same year by Lady Howard. One can imagine the emerald and diamond salamander or the pearl ship pin from the Cheapside Hoard being equally acceptable New Year’s gifts. The Queen loved puns and many of these jewels would have held hidden meanings and witty jokes for her amusement.
A number of rolls or lists detailing the gifts she received for New Year still survive and give a fascinating glimpse of life in the Elizabethan court. Many of the queen’s admirers liked to give her a gift which would remind her of themselves. Sir Christopher Hatton, whose portrait is on display in the Cheapside Hoard exhibition, on loan from the National Portrait Gallery, frequently used a knot motif and so in around 1585 he gave Elizabeth a headdress, decorated with expensive golden knots. In 1574 the fan that the Earl of Leicester gave her was decorated with bears, part of his device. Others gave gifts that they hoped would get them noticed and some of these were rather fabulous. For example, on New Year’s Day 1581 Sir Walter Raleigh presented Elizabeth with a crown set with Peruvian emeralds which he had captured in a raid on the Spanish fleet the previous year. However, the rolls show that she also received plainer gifts such as a quince pie from John Betts, who was a pastry servant, or a box of lute strings or eighteen larks in a cage.
In return the Queen would give gifts too, and whilst these were sometimes generous in the extreme, more often than not they were of a lower value than those she received. Often she would give an image of herself, such as the cameo portrait of the Queen which Hatton is shown holding in his portrait. A similar, though smaller cameo can be seen on display as part of the Cheapside Hoard. But if you wanted to impress the Queen it seems to have been much more a case of five gold rings rather than a partridge in a pear tree!