At the Tudor court it was New Year, rather than Christmas, that was the main gift giving event of the year, and it was always celebrated in fine style. During the reign of Elizabeth I, each New Year the Queen would be presented with a whole array of magnificent gifts from her fawning courtiers, who were all eager to ingratiate themselves with the Tudor monarch. Numerous records of these costly gifts survive, and as the Queen’s reign progressed, the gifts she received became increasingly elaborate. At New Year 1559 for example, Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, presented her with ‘a faire Cheine set with pearle’. By New Year 1576 however, he was presenting the Queen with a sumptuous jewel, ‘being a crosse of golde conteyning vi very fayre emeraldes, whearof two bigger than the rest, the one of the biggest being cracked, and iii large pearles pendaunte’.
Gift giving was a reciprocal process, and each time that one of Elizabeth’s courtiers presented her with a New Year’s gift, they could expect to receive one in return. These were rarely, however, of such a thoughtful and personal nature as those that the Queen received: generic gilt cups and pots were the usual choice. On one occasion however, Lettice’s mother was given ‘a tablet of gold set with five diamonds two rubies and a pearl pendant’ – a clear sign of Elizabeth’s adoration for her, made all the more significant given that she was the only one of the Queen’s ladies to receive such a gift.
As integral members of Elizabeth’s court, Lettice Knollys and her family regularly participated in the New Year tradition. In 1562 her mother, Katherine Knollys, gave the Queen ‘a fair carpet of needlework’, fringed and buttoned with gold and silk. In return for her generosity, Lady Knollys received ‘three guilt bowls with a cover’. Such gifts were standard and demonstrate how exceptional the aforementioned gift had been, but Lady Knollys’s favour with the monarch was greater than that of her husband, Sir Francis Knollys, who received just one gilt cup. The first occasion on which Lettice was listed as having presented the Queen with a gift was in 1564. She was by then the Viscountess of Hereford, and may have visited court that New Year in order to present the Queen with ‘a smock with a square collar and a rail wrought with black silk and gold’ in person. She was well favoured by Elizabeth, but
did not receive anything in return that demonstrated this. Over the coming years Lettice continued to give the Queen thoughtful gifts in an attempt to ingratiate herself: in 1567 she offered ‘a pair of ruffs and a pair of sleeves wrought with Venice gold and blue silk’, and was rewarded with ‘one bowl with a cover’, while in 1575 she gave ‘a waistcoat of white satin all over embroidered with Venice gold and silver’, and had received three gilt bowls with a cover in return. The gifts continued the following year when she presented the Queen with ‘a forepart of a kirtle, a pair of sleeves and a partlet of green satin cast over with net work’. Lettice’s gifts were always items of clothing or jewels, reflecting the Queen’s well-known passion for these items.
At New Year 1579 Lettice presented Elizabeth with ‘a great chain of amber garnished with gold and pearl’. As she gave her gift however, the Queen had no idea that Lettice was harbouring a secret: her recent marriage to Elizabeth’s favourite, Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. It would not be long before the Queen discovered the truth, and Lettice had no idea that this would be the last occasion on which she would be listed as a recipient of one of the Queen’s New Year’s gifts.