Happy 480th Birthday, Big Chief Elizabeth (almost)

As those who follow my husband’s blog already know and as those who follow my own blog will be rather surprised to learn, I dress up for rubbish collection day. It started as a bit of a joke for my Facebook friends. I was making the point that even though I work from home and that my social life since the birth of my children can at its kindest be described as a little slow, I can still dress up like I am going to a ball on a Wednesday morning; I needn’t surrender to slippers and tracksuit pants just because nobody is going to see me over the course of the day. I’ve done Isadora Duncan, Jane Austin, cowgirl, pin-up and luchadore Rubbish Day photo shoots (much to the amusement of our neighbours) and then this week, I dressed like a man. I sang Frankie Valli’s ‘Walk Like a Man’ and took direction from my ever-patient husband as he tried to get me to strike a manly pose. I don’t think I was entirely successful, to be honest.

Tracy Loves History

Walk like a man…

My Wednesday cross-dressing episode started me thinking about girls who dress like boys, women who behave like men, women who take society’s idea of what they should be doing with their dainty, oh-so-pretty lives and shake things up a little. South Africa is a hugely patriarchal society. Our leaders are very much ‘old boys’ club’ boys. Our rape statistics are the worst in the world for a country not at war. A girl child born in South Africa today has a greater chance of being raped than of learning to read. We are a long way off from having a female president (although Mamphela Ramphele, I’m holding thumbs). Apart from the Rain Queen, Modjadji, the Queen of the BaLobedu, we don’t have a tradition of women in charge.

And then out of the blue I was contacted by another blogger, Elizabeth Eckhart, to see if I was going to be writing anything on the birthday of Queen Elizabeth I on 7 September. Now there was a woman who had some cajones and some spies and very bad teeth (and then almost no teeth at all) and “a witch” for a mother and a brute of a father. She managed to avoid being sold off to the highest bidder in the marriage auctions and with her fine alabaster skin and Tudor-red hair rose to become one of the most powerful women in the world. She was a woman who wore the metaphorical pants, even if she never took the rubbish out in them. And in writing about Elizabeth, I could get away from prattling on about being a fool in the Antipodes. So…here we are!

We all know quite a lot about Elizabeth, all of the Tudors in fact. Their record-keeping and letter-writing and utterly scandalous lives have provided rich fodder for authors and screen-writers. So, I’ll not bore you all with lists of dates and achievements, I’ll bore you instead with a list of suggested presents for the Queen who had everything and a little history of birthday celebrations.

Birthdays were not celebrated in the same way as they are today 480 years ago. First of all, the song didn’t exist. Parties were a dime a dozen though. In the not-so-distant days of Catholic rule, parties were often held on your Saint’s Day. I counted a full 30 Saints commemorated on 7 September alone, so Elizabeth would have been spoiled for choice should she have been so inclined. Occasionally feasts would be held on a person’s actual birthday but there would have been little in the way of gift-giving and, to be honest, a look at a menu for a casual Tudor dinner would lead you to think that really every meal was a party. There was a lot of food on offer!

I trawled through a book of expenses incurred by Elizabeth over a full year- 1551- when she was still Princess Elizabeth and there didn’t appear to be an increase of expenditure in September as far as I could tell. (There weren’t terribly many references to specific months at all). She did buy herself a “paier of shoes” in September though. If these were a little birthday prize from Elizabeth to Elizabeth, with love, she is indeed a woman after my own heart.

Gifts were not generally given on a birthday in Elizabethan England but there was a definite tradition of gift giving on New Year’s Day. Elaborate presents given by the Lords and Ladies of the land were recorded in great detail in a mixture of Middle English and Latin by Elizabethan scribes. And much in the same way as lobbyists and business leaders today earn preferential treatment from ‘The Man’, I imagine the fancier your gift to Elizabeth on New Year’s Day, the more she would be inclined to let you keep your head.

New Year's gifts Elizabeth I

New Year’s Day gift inventory

So, let’s imagine that we are shopping for a gift for the Queen. What do you buy for the woman who has a couple of countries and all her heart desires?

To give you a few ideas, the New Year’s gifts recorded in the year 1575 (the year Frederigo Zuccaro, drew the sketch below) were:

From her Secretary of State, Walsingham, a gold collar necklace with two serpents’ heads of opal, decorated with diamonds and a large ruby.

Item, a coller of golde, being two serpents, the hedds being ophall, a peramyt of sparcks of dyamondes, in the top thearof a strawbury with a rock rubye. Geven by Mr. Secretary Walsingham. 5 oz. dim. qa.

Elizabeth I by Frederigo Zuccaro, 1575. (British Museum)

Frederigo Zuccaro sketch of Elizabeth I 1575

From Lord Howard, a gold and jewelled ornament of a ship.

Item, a juell of golde, being a shippe, sett with table dyamonde of ive sparcks of dyamondes, and a smale perle pendaunte. Geven by the Lorde Howarde.

Ships were a common motif in presents for Queen Elizabeth. It was her colonisation of America that led to her being called Big Chief Elizabeth by the Native American Indians as per the title of the blog. (It is my favourite name for her. Why be a Virgin when you can be a Big Chief instead?) I wonder if the ship from Lord Howard in 1575 is perhaps this one in the V&A Museum. Was Liz a re-gifter?

ship pendant

Henry Carey’s ship pendant, a gift from Elizabeth I

“By family tradition the pendant was a present from Elizabeth I to Henry Carey, (1526-1596), 1st Baron Hunsdon, first cousin of The Queen. He was the son of Mary Boleyn, sister of Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth’s mother. He had a prominent career as a courtier and soldier. He played an important role in the suppression of the rebellion of the northern earls in 1570, was appointed Lord Chamberlain in 1586, and was a commissioner at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587. When the Armada threatened in 1588, he commanded Elizabeth’s bodyguard at Tilbury in 1588.”

~ V&A Museum provenance

She was also given 5 gold toothpicks. This reminds me of the conman who once robbed my father of far too much money. He had a gold-plated toothbrush. Advice for life here, never trust a man with a gold-plated toothbrush! You can look at Charles II’s rather demure looking gold toothpick.on the BBC’S History of the World in 100 objects site. Below though is a fabulously awful contemporaneous toothpick/ ear wax remover – pick teeth with the sharp end, scoop earwax with spoon end.

Item, some toothe-pickes of golde. Geven by Mr. Snowe.


Toothpick and ear cleaner.

The Earl of Leicester gave her a very expensive sounding pendant in the shape of a cross. It was set with 6 emeralds, two of which were bigger than the others and one of which was cracked, and 3 pearls. Do you think it could be the one below?

“First, a juell, 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. Geven by therle of Leycetor. 8 oz.”

Hardwick Hall portrait emerald cross

Hardwick Hall portrait of Elizabeth I detail

Having been a bookseller in another life, I was particularly taken with the gift of a book of gold with parchment pages in which Elizabeth could write. I wonder if it was a teeny tiny one like her mother’s prayer book.

Item, a booke of golde, with leaves in it of paper and parchement to write in. Geven by Sir Henry Lee. 8 oz.

Anne Boleyn's prayer book

Anne Boleyn’s prayer book

Also on the list were salts. As salt was so expensive, when you put some on the table at feast time, you really put it on the table. You showed off your salt in a salt. There were standing salts which were larger than regular salts but both were elaborately decorated. In 1575, Elizabeth received salts from two gift-givers. I wonder if Lady Sidney was a little embarrassed that her salt wasn’t nearly as lavish and garish as Mr Harrington’s.

Item, a saulte of agath, garnished with golde, steeple fashion; in the toppe [with a pyramyde on the top of the cover, enamuled grene and red] a jasper with v smale pearles set, and iiii smale pearles pendaunte. Geven by Mr. John Harrington.

First, oone sault of silver guilt, squared with iiii pillers and two bolles of cristall. Geven by he Ladye Mary Sidney.

standing salt

A standing salt in the Met Museum Collection

I also spent ages wondering about the following gift:

Item, some litell beare glasses, in a case of mother-of-pearle, and in a box of crimson silke embroudered with golde and silver. Geven by Mr. West.

Initially I thought that perhaps bear glasses were just drinking glasses with some sort of bear design on them. Queen Elizabeth was an ardent supporter of bear-baiting events at the Bear Garden in Southwark, so bear-related gifts would have been a hit. After some thinking though, I am almost convinced that the gift of glasses from Mr West was in fact a pair of eye glasses. And perhaps they were given to Elizabeth, whose eyesight did indeed deteriorate over time, to use in watching the bear-baiting – bear glasses, like opera glasses. Below is a picture of James II’s glasses and their elaborately decorated mother-of-pearl case which now live in the V&A Museum.

James II spectacles

James II’s specs

So, there you go. A list of presents fit for a Queen. If none of the above took your fancy, you could always have gone with pearls. Elizabeth was a fan of pearls! Everytime I look at a portrait of her I wonder how she was even able to stand up in her dresses, so heavy with them were they. Jewels featuring a phoenix were also most welcome, connecting her to her mother, as the phoenix did. The phoenix was a symbol associated with the Seymour family originally; the falcon was Anne Boleyn’s badge but Elizabeth is known to have embraced the phoenix, perhaps partly as a taunt to the surviving Seymours who hated Anne and were set on putting Jane on the throne alongside Henry, or perhaps simply to symbolise her rise from the ashes of her mother’s reputation to sit on the throne as Queen of England. Heavily jewelled pelicans were also sure to please the Queen. She wore pelican brooches, symbolising the sacrifice of Christ, quite often. You also couldn’t go wrong with gold. Lots of gold.

It was, indeed, good to be the Queen when you look at the list above. Should you be interested in the rest of her haul, here’s the rest of it from the Camden Miscellany. If you’ve got gift fatigue, just sing Happy 480th Birthday, Big Chief Elizabeth, happy birthday to you on September 7th.

20080830031247!Elizabeth_I_of_England_Hardwick_1592 - Copy

Happy unbirthday, Ma’am.

From the Camden Miscellany.

Item, a gyrdell of gold, contayning xvi agathe heddes, and xv troches of perle, ii perls in every troche. Geven by the Counties of Lyncolne.

Item, a juell of mother-of-perle, garneshed with golde, sett with two sparcks of dyamondes, and vi smale sparcks of rubyes, with iii mene perles. Geven by the Lord Straunge.

Item, a payre of braceletts of golde garnished with iv jacents and iv agathes. Geven by the Ladye Howarde.

Item, a payre of braceletts of golde set with agathe hedds, and other stones graven. Geven by the Ladye Stafforde.

Item, a cheyne of golde. Geven by the Counties of Bedforde. 6 oz. 3 qa. dim.

Item, a juell, being a cristall sett in golde with twoe storyes appeering on bothe sides, with a smale perle pendaunte. Geven by Mrs. Blaunche Parrye.

Item, a flower of golde, having a butterflye, two white roses, and garnetts. Geven by Mrs. Elizabeth Knowles.

Item, a juell of agathe garnished with golde, sett with two sparcks of dyamondes and xvi sparcks of rubyes, with a pendaunte of golde enamuled redd, and sparcks of smale rubyes, and a flye of ophall upon it. Geven by Mr. Henage.

Item, a small ring of gold, with a phenex of ophall, and a rose of viii smale rubyes. Geven by Mrs. Townesend.

Item, a juell of golde, being two cheyryes with a butterflye of ophall. Geven by Mrs. Marye Sydney.

Item, a juell of golde, contayning 4 emeraldes without foyle, and vii smale perles. Geven by Mr. Lavyson, Goldsmithe.

Item, a riche juell, being a clocke of golde, garnished with dyamondes, rubyes, emeraldes, and perles, with one very fayre rubye in the bottome, and a fayre emeralde pendante sett in golde, and two mene perles pendaunte, all 9 oz. 3 qa. Geven by Mr. Hatton, Capitayne of the Garde.

Plate received at sundry tymes of sundry persones.

First, oone coller of golde of the order of St. George, with a George hanging at it. Bought of the Lady Chandoies Dowyer. 37 oz.

Item, oone chalice with a patten of silver guilt, received from the Deane of Westminster, being parcell of the deficience set upon persone Thurlande. 34 oz.

Item, tenn dosen of knotts lyke strawes. Geven by Mr. Hattoun, anno 18° Reginæ Elizabethæ.

Item, a border containing vii buttons or troches of gold, in every of them iii smale rubyes, and viii buttons or troches of golde, in every of them iv mene perle. Geven to her Majestie by the Lady Cheyney

35 thoughts on “Happy 480th Birthday, Big Chief Elizabeth (almost)

  1. The wife and I are making our way through Blackadder II at the moment, and while I don’t think their depiction of Big Chief Liz is accurate, they sure got her penchant for receiving gifts right. I wouldn’t mind that gold-plated journal myself.

    I’ve never heard of pelicans being a symbol for Christ’s sacrifice. Do you know where that association comes from?

    • I so want to go through the Blackadder again. The WWI series was my favorite.

      I’m not sure about the pelican reference. The mind boggles! I just came across it twice in trying to find images of the 1575 gifts in her portraits. There was the so-called Pelican Portrait, and then Mary Sidney – who gave her the vastly inferior salt – gave her a pelican pendant made from rubies, diamonds and pearls in 1576. I’ll check up on it and let you know.

    • In medieval Europe, the pelican was thought to be particularly attentive to her young, to the point of providing her own blood by wounding her own breast when no other food was available. As a result, the pelican came to symbolise the Passion of Jesus and the Eucharist,[103] and usurped the image of the lamb and the flag.

      Says Wikipedia

    • Thanks. The ship is really gorgeous.

      I don’t know if you’ve seen it online but there is also a ring that she wore that is just unbelievable. It has rubies around the finger and onto the mount, with a little E on the top spelled out in seed pearls (or hang on, are they diamonds?). Anyhow, it is beauteous just so but then the top of the ring is hinged and inside of it are two of the most amazing mini-miniatures supposedly of Elizabeth herself and her mother, Anne.

  2. Pingback: My Mom’s Birthday and Her Gift of Reading | Tasithoughts' Weblog

  3. To answer one question – Elizabeth was indeed a re-giver. It seems to have been the custom to circulate some of these valuable presents. ‘Pins’ – which I take to mean something to do with holding your clothes together in a time before buttons (let alone zips or velcro) and were bigger and more elaborate than our sewing pin – were often given to her and given away again. (There was a time when I read the State Papers for sport – no longer, and I’ve forgotten all I ever read there – but that’s where it’s all documented. Wikipedia is quicker, though.)

  4. We Scots are not fans of Elizabeth 1 of England as she incarcerated her cousin Mary, Queen of Scots and then had her executed in Fotheringay castle in 1587 in case the latter stole her throne. In the end it was Mary’s son JamesVI of Scotland who became James VI and1 of the combined thrones of England and Scotland when Elizabeth died without an heir.

    • My great grandfather came to South Africa from Glasgow, so I also have a particular fondness for Mary despite the fact that her having grown up in the French court probably made her more mais oui than och aye!

  5. A most interesting post. I, myself, am a complete and utter plebeian when it comes to history. I am hoping to pick up as much as I may ever need in polite conversation here…don’t let me down ma’am, the pride of both Australia and South Africa are at stake!

  6. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Bess! | strategie evolutive

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