Happy New Year, everyone! If you had a bad 2012, I hope 2013 is much better, and if you had a good 2012, I hope 2013 outdoes it!
As you probably know, in medieval and Tudor England, the gift-giving day was not Christmas Day but January 1. The Ryalle Book, a manual for royal practices which David Starkey dates partially to Edward IV’s reign, spells out how the king and queen were to receive their presents:
On New Year’s Day in the morning, the King, when he cometh to his foot-sheet, an usher of the chamber to be ready at the chamber door; and say: “Sire, here is a year’s gift coming from the Queen.” And then he shall say: “Let it come in, Sire.” And then the usher shall let in the messenger with the gift, and then after that the greatest estates’ servant as is come, each after other as they be estates ; and after that done, all other lords and ladies after the estates that they be of. And all this while the King must sit at his foot-sheet. This done, the chamberlain shall send for the treasurer of the chamber, and charge the treasurer to give the messenger that bringeth the queen’s gift, and he be a knight, the sum of ten marks, and he be a squire, eight marks, or at the least 100 shillings, and the king’s mother 100 shillings, and those that come from the king’s brethern and sisters, each of them six marks, and to every duke and duchess, each of them five marks, and every earl and countess 40 shillings. This being the rewards of them that bringeth the year’s gifts. For I report me unto the king’s highness, whether he will do more or less: for this I know hath been done. And this done, the King to to make him ready, and go to his service in what array that him liketh.
The queen was likewise to sit at her foot-sheet, with her chamberlain and ushers performing the same tasks as the king’s. As her gifts would not be expected to be “all things so good as the King’s,” the rewards she would give to bearers would likewise be less generous.
As the excerpt above indicates, The Ryalle Book sometimes veers into the first person, where the author recalls the practice of an earlier court—apparently, as Starkey notes, that of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou. That couple, the author of The Ryalle Book writes, arose earlier than was their usual custom on New Year’s Day and lay in bed to receive their gifts, remaining in bed “as long as it pleased them” to accept their presents. As Starkey writes, “We think of Henry VI and Queen Margaret as Shakespeare’s tragic couple; here we see them (still in their thirties) behaving like excited children on Christmas morning, up early and inspecting their presents in bed.”
E. Grose, The Antiquarian Repertory, vol. I (1807).
David Starkey, “Henry VI’s Old Blue Gown: the English Court under the Lancastrians and Yorkists,” The Court Historian (1999).