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An Elizabethan New Year

Updated: Aug 14, 2022

You've made it to the second part of our mini-series! In honor of 2022’s recent commencement, we’ll share a few fun features of the Elizabethan New Year.

Topics include:

The Year Starts in March?!

Gift Giving :)

Plough Monday / Festivities End

New Year’s Quiz


The Year Starts in March?!

Yes. Quite so…

Long story short:

The Julian calendar was established way back when by none other than Julius Caesar. According to it, the year began on January 1st. However, in the Middle Ages, European countries wished to reschedule New Year celebrations for a day with more religious significance. Popular dates included December 25th (the anniversary of Jesus’ birth) and March 25th (the Feast of the Annunciation). England chose March 25th.

Then in 1582, thanks to Pope Gregory XIII, several European Catholic countries left Caesar’s centuries-old calendar in favor of the new Gregorian calendar. With this switch came the conversion back to honoring New Year’s on January 1st.

But England didn’t join the Gregorian club until 1752. And the Elizabethans liked their new year on March 25th. Thus, they kept it that way. ‘Cause why not.

Gift Giving :)

Back then, out of all of the lengthy and grand Christmas festivities, gift giving was not one. Instead, presents were exchanged on New Year’s!

Gift Rolls

24 gift-rolls survive from Elizabeth I’s reign! YAY!!

Ok. But like… what are those? Glad you asked!

Queen Elizabeth I's New Year's Gift Roll

Typically 3-4 meters long, they consisted of 4-5 parchment membranes sewn together. One side lists the names of donors (ordered by social rank and official status) and a description of their gifts to the queen. The opposite side boasts a list of those lucky enough to have received presents from the queen herself!

FUN FACT: Although it’s often considered a New Year’s gift-roll, it also documented gifts from outside the holiday season. For instance, the gift Elizabeth I sent to Mary, Queen of Scots, for Prince James’ 1566 baptism is recorded at the roll’s end - under “Sundry Gifts.”

ANOTHER FACT: Parchment membranes were made from animal skin, commonly that of a sheep.

Gifts TO the Queen

As one may suspect, gifts to Her Majesty were… very nice. Hopefully nicer than what the last person gave her. Was there an undercurrent of competition between those giving to the queen? Most likely - Who wouldn’t want to be the favorite?

Courtiers’ gifts to Elizabeth I included embroidered pillows, jewelled fans, jewelry, cushions, and clothing. Do NOT forget the yummy treats! Elizabeth I, known for her sweet tooth, also received several pies, candied sugars, and dried plums.

Below are what gift-rolls reveal about two famous figures:

1562 - Sir William Cecil (Principal Secretary, a councilor dear to the queen)

Gave Elizabeth I a silver ink well and stand, matching gilt weights and measures, a penknife, and a seal. Quite the upgrade.

Elizabethan Penknife

1588 - Robert Dudley (Earl of Leicester, beloved by Elizabeth)

Gave Elizabeth I a fancy gold carcanet and a bejewelled sun design set with her image. Sadly, this the last New Year’s gift she received from him, as he died later that year.

Elizabeth I Wearing a Carcanet (the necklace)

Gifts FROM the Queen

Gift giving was reciprocal. The presents from the queen, however, typically weren’t nearly as personalized. Average gilt cups and pots sufficed. Unless one desired to pick up these goodies with a voucher, they were delivered by a messenger.

Of course, there were exceptions. A story, if you will:

Once upon a real past, there lived the Knollys family. The mother, Katherin, was one of the queen’s ladies. Perhaps, the favorite. After all, she was the only one of them to receive a special gift from Her Majesty: “a tablet of gold set with five diamonds two rubies and a pearl pendant.” Not too shabby, eh?

Sir Francis Knollys was lucky enough to be her husband. He was a governor, member of Parliament, guardian of Mary (Queen of Scots) for some time…

They had several children, amongst whom was their daughter Lettice.

Lettice Knollys

As important members of Elizabeth I’s court, the Knollys were regulars at the New Year gift-giving exercises. To gain Her Majesty’s admiration, they aimed to please.

In 1562, Katherin sent Elizabeth “a fair carpet of needlework,” fringed and buttoned with gold and silk. For this, Katherin was gifted three gilt bowls with a cover. Meh. But hey, it was better than what her husband got: one gilt cup. How awkward.

In 1564, according to available records, Lettice gave the queen a gift for the very first time. Lettice, then the Viscountess of Hereford, handed Her Majesty “a smock with a square collar and a rail wrought with black silk and gold.” In return, she got the standard. Nothing special.

But Lettice was determined. And every year, she put more gusto into it, always sticking with clothes or jewels - the queen’s well-known loves.

In 1567 she presented the queen with “a pair of ruffs and a pair of sleeves wrought with Venice gold and blue silk” for which she was bestowed “one bowl with a cover.” Lettice’s mom was still winning by two bowls.

In 1575, Lettice offered “a waistcoat of white satin all over embroidered with Venice gold and silver.” In return? Three gilt bowls with a cover. Now Lettice and Katherin were neck-in-neck.

Sadly, this story doesn’t end with Lettice eventually being gifted a grand estate or a dozen fine horses. Instead, it ends like this:

In 1579, Lettice gave Her Majesty “a great chain of amber garnished with gold and pearl.” That was the last time the queen rewarded Lettice a gift in return.

Why? Because at the start of 1579, Elizabeth had not yet been told Lettice had married Robert Dudley a few months before. And marriage was not something you kept from the queen. Not that queen, at least.

And that’s subtext, folks.

The end.

More Pictures!!

What’s that? You want to see more? Ok!

Welcome to a new blog feature: Tabs! (or whatever you want to call them?: drop-downs, arrows…)

Click the arrow to see descriptions and pictures! And be sure to find Queen Elizabeth I’s signatures on the documents!

New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1562

“On the recto is a list of recipients of gifts from the Queen, which were all of plate, with a note of the weight, distributed to each and the name of its maker. Also on the recto, there follows a list of gifts 'delyverid at sundry times', largely of plate, to foreign envoys and as christening presents, 3 April 1561-1 May 1562. The christening gifts include at the baptisms of children of Sir William Cecil, Thomas Sackville and 'Ipolitan the Tartarian' (Ipolyta the Tartarian, d. 1576, one of Elizabeth's gentlewomen who was a Tartar slave who had been given her by the traveller in Muscovite territories Anthony Jenkinson). Amongst the plate to envoys was a golden chain to the French ambassador, two collars 'of Esses of gold' and two silver gilt to Irish lords ('Lorde Oraily', Malachias O'Reilly, Chief of O'Reilly, and 'Lorde Odonerle', Calvagh O'Donnell, Lord O'Donnell and Chief of Tyrconnel).The verso contains a list of donors, corresponding to the list of recipients on the recto, grouped in order of precedence, with a description of the gifts made by each and a note as to their disposal. The gifts include, from the painter, sculptor and miniature painter Nicholas Belin de Modena, 'the half picture of Patche King henry the eightes foole'.The roll is signed in four places by the Queen and in two by John Astley, Master and Treasurer of the Queen's jewels; the roll was examined (and signed twice by) Edmund Pigeon, Yeoman of the Jewels and Plate.”



Materials: Parchment.

Dimensions: 3655mm x 415mm.

5 membranes sewn together into one roll.

New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1567

New Year's gift-roll of Elizabeth I, 1 January 1589

“Common” People

Non-Royalty-ish people also exchanged gifts at this time! Oranges, a bunch of rosemary, brooches, wine…

Those with more money might have sent fowl or rabbits to the mayor. Consequently, the mayor would throw a feast! One in which gifted fowl and rabbits were served... historians assume.

Plough Monday / Festivities End

The winter holiday festivities came to an end on Twelfth Night when the Lord of Misrule stepped down.

When is the Twelfth Night? In Elizabethan England, the 6th of January - also the day of the Feast of the Epiphany, another Christian holiday. A coincidence? We think not.

But don’t look so dreary. It was a most joyous occasion! (Well, until the last minute.) According to the Folger Shakespeare Library, “Like other festivities in the season, Twelfth Night was a time of topsy turvy celebrations inverting social order: boys crowned in mock religious processions, heavy drinking and lavish feasts, parody and misrule replacing stern morality. It was, of course, also marked by song and performance.” Sounds like a grand ‘ole time to me!

In the countryside, Plough Monday (AKA January 7th) was the final goodbye. Why “Plough” Monday? Because you returned to the fields! And ploughed :)

Early in the day, ploughmen competed to see who could get their hatchets or whips to the hearth before the young ladies could place kettles on them. Dancing and masquerading followed, along with a beribboned plow traveling to collect money for the local church.

According to Thomas Tusser’s Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandry*, tells farmers to prepare the ground:

“Go breake up land,

get mattock in hand,

Stub roote so tough,

for breaking of plough.”

* For more information on Tusser’s book and Elizabethan farming practices, check out our previous article titled “How Farming Inspired Shakespeare's Work”!

New Year’s Quiz

Let’s test your Elizabethan New Year’s Fun Facts knowledge!

Answers are below.

  1. Name the Shakespeare play to which this quote belongs: “Well, if I be served such another trick, I’ll have my brains ta’en out and buttered, and give them to a dog for a New Year’s gift.”

    1. Twelfth Night

    2. Henry V

    3. A Midsummer Night’s Dream

    4. The Merry Wives of Windsor

  2. The Twelve Days of Christmas began when?

    1. December 12th

    2. December 23rd

    3. December 24rd

    4. December 25th

  3. The Twelve Days of Christmas ended when?

    1. December 31st

    2. January 1st

    3. January 3rd

    4. January 6th

  4. According to John Manningham’s diary, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was performed at Middle Temple (a London law school) on…

    1. February 2, 1602

    2. January 1, 1603

    3. January 6, 1603

    4. December 30, 1604

  5. Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night was originally called _________?

    1. Last Night

    2. Twelfth Night, or What You Will

    3. Twelfth Night, Full of Folly

    4. We Refuse to Plough

  6. The Lord of Misrule represented ________?

    1. temporary withdrawal from the strictness of proper society

    2. the king’s lack of freedom

    3. the need for more children in society

    4. why more breaks were needed in Parliament meetings

  7. “Plough Monday, next after that Twelfth tide is past. Bids out with the plough, the worst husband is last.” Who wrote this quote?

    1. Thomas Tusser

    2. Ruth Goodman

    3. Peter Ginn

    4. Elizabeth I’s secretary

Written by Mariela Rivero

Edited by Laura Yumi Snell


1. d. The Merry Wives of Windsor, …Can you guess who said it?

2. d. December 25th

To learn more about the other Twelve Days of Christmas, check out our article “A Merry Elizabethan Christmas”

3. d. January 6th

4. a. February 2, 1602

5. b. Twelfth Night, or What You Will

6. a. temporary withdrawal from the strictness of proper society

To learn more about the Lord of Misrule, read our article “A Merry Elizabethan Christmas”

7. a. Thomas Tusser


Sources (Quotes & Images):


The Elizabethan New Year's Gift Exchanges, 1559-1603, ed. by Jane A. Lawson, Records of Social and Economic History New series vol. 51 (Oxford: Oxford University Press for the British Academy, 2013). The rolls are transcribed at pp. 55-72, 1559-1603, 386,405.

Essex, Sarah. Portrait of Lettice Knollys.

Felicity Heal, The Power of Gifts: Gift-Exchange in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

Folger Shakespeare Library.

Hilliard, Nicholas. Queen Elizabeth I.

Jackson, V. (2013, January 25). Shakespeare in 100 Objects: Elizabethan Penknife. Shakespeare Birthplace Trust.

Jewels and Plate of Queen Elizabeth I: the Inventory of 1574, ed. by A. Jefferies Collins (London: British Museum, 1955), p. 249-251.

Shakespeare, William. The Merry Wives of Windsor.

Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night, or What You Will.

Thomas Tusser, Five Hundred Pointes of Good Husbandrie (Edition of 1580 collated with those of 1573 and 1577. Edited by W. Payne and Sidney J. Herrtage.)


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