New Year’s Day in Tudor England

By Adrienne Dillard

Today, holiday gift giving is synonymous with a bountiful tree decked in sparkling ornaments and glittering lights, a rosy-cheeked rotund demi-deity clad in red velvet, and bulging over-sized stockings hung by the chimney with just the right amount of care.  In adverts all over the world, children still clad in their sleepwear bound eagerly towards the mountain of gifts waiting for them on Christmas morning.  It’s a scene that would have been completely unrecognizable in Tudor England, but it’s not entirely off the mark.  In the 16th century, homes were decked in evergreen, even if it wasn’t in the form of the Christmas tree as we know it; and while gifts didn’t come from the North Pole, contemporary portraits do show that the man offering them up to courtiers bore some striking physical similarities to the man we call Santa.  The most noticeable difference is the timing.  Gifts were still given during the Yule season, but rather than on Christmas proper, they were exchanged a week later – on New Year’s Day.

So, who were the lucky recipients on this annual day of gift-giving?  Well, just about everyone – including the king!  Over the years, I’ve had the pleasure of digging through the treasure trove that is The Letters and Papers of Henry VIII, and I’ve always found the New Year gift inventories to be the most fascinating items in the collection.  I thought it might be fun to share some of my favourite gems.


This list is fairly standard, as far as Henry’s inventories go – just about everyone received either a cup with a gilt cover or a ‘little pot gilt’ – with the amount of precious metal used in each determined by the receiver’s status.  The Bishop of Canterbury received 34 oz., while Lord Audley received 15 ¾ oz.  What makes this list notable is the inclusion of Lady Bulleyn – Anne Boleyn’s mother.  Two decades after this New Year, Elizabeth Boleyn would receive gifts fit for the wife of an Earl and mother to the queen, but in this early year of Henry’s reign she received a modest pot containing 16 ½ oz.


The inventory of 1521 is interesting, not just for the list of money the royal treasury handed out, but for the list of gifts the king received: To a woman with a pomaunder, 6s. 8d. To John Sympson, for a branch of rosemary, 3s. 2d.  To John Jones, for a basket of oranges, 6s. 8d.  To John Elys, for a book of wax, 6s. 8d.  To a stranger, for three pair of bellows, 6s. 8d.  To Lady Vampage, for rose water, 40s. 

Henry VIII, c. 1520


While researching my latest novel, The Raven’s Widow, this inventory came in handy.  Among the list of usual suspects – Cardinal Wolsey and the Archbishop of Canterbury, along with the Bishops of Winchester, Lincoln, Exeter, and Carlisle all received very generous gifts of plate – the protagonist of my story is found mentioned down near the bottom of the list.  To ten mistresses, sc., Norris, Jane (sic) Bollen, Baker, &c. from 22 to 10 oz.  At this point, Thomas and Elizabeth Boleyn were still Viscount and Lady Rochford, so Jane’s gift would have probably been on the lower end of the scale.  However, it was still a more valuable gift than many living outside of the court would have received.


By 1532, Thomas Boleyn had been promoted to the Earldoms of Wiltshire and Ormonde, so the Lord and Lady Rochford referred to in this inventory are George and Jane Boleyn.  Here we can see just how much their income had grown over previous four years – their gifts to the crown were two gilt “hyngers” (knives) with velvet girdles and four velvet and satin caps trimmed with gold buttons.  Also listed are gifts Henry received from his sister, Mary, and the dukes of Norfolk and Suffolk.  From the French queen, a pair of writing tables with a gold whistle.  The duke of Norfolk, a woodknife, a pair of tables and chessmen, and a tablet of gold.  The duke of Suffolk, a gold ball ‘for fume.’  My favourite, though, is the king’s present from the dowager duchess of Norfolk: The birth of our Lord in a box.  If anyone knows what that is, can you please tell me in the comments below?  The royal menagerie increased this year, as well.  Westmoreland gave a brace of greyhounds and Stephen Andrew, a beast called a civet.


Anne Boleyn, by an anonymous painter. Hever Castle, Kent.

The year 1534 arrived on a wave of high hopes for the future – Queen Anne Boleyn had done her wifely duty and filled the royal cradle at last.  Though they had been anticipating a boy, the appearance of Princess Elizabeth was still a joyful occasion, and the fact that the queen had successfully conceived and delivered without incident meant that there was no reason to doubt boys would eventually come.  Anne was at the pinnacle of her success and she was feeling generous.  It was during this year’s celebrations that she bestowed upon her husband a very expensive gift: a goodly gilt bason, having a rail or board of gold in the midst of the brim, garnished with rubies and pearls, wherein standeth a fountain, also having a rail of gold about it garnished with diamonds; out thereof issueth water, at the teats of three naked women standing at the foot of the same fountain.  The fountain was designed by the artist Hans Holbein and it is probably the gift that Anne is most known for.  Though it is no longer in existence, you can still find drawings of it today.

This is just a small sampling of the New Year inventories found among Letters and Papers – there are several volumes filled to the brim with treasures such as these!  I love to imagine what it would have been like to walk through those gorgeously decorated halls at Greenwich, down the corridor to the king’s chambers to present my annual New Year offering.  What a wonderful, yet nerve-wracking experience it would have been.  I hope His Grace likes my gift!

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  1. Hilary Bridewell says:

    Please I really want this book as this is the sort of thing I love to read.

  2. Hilary Bridewell says:

    Re the dowager duchess of Norfolk’s gift: could it have been a nativity set?

  3. Yes please

  4. Alicia Mae says:

    Such interesting gifts! It gives an interesting perspective. I too would love to know what “the birth of our Lord in a box” is!

  5. this is awesome! I love stuff like this!

  6. Phil Darling says:

    Fingers crossed – this sounds such an interesting read

  7. Nicola.daniel says:

    sounds like and excellent read. I have no idea what the birth of our Lord in a box could be. they clearly had expense taste. I find this part of history really in treating. it a on my list for next year !

  8. Nicola Dunn says:

    This looks amazing!

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