The Plantagenet Christmas Gift-Giving Guide

The Plantagenet Christmas Gift-Giving Guide

Christmas and gift giving have been inextricably intertwined since the Three Kings gave gold, frankincense and myrrh to the Christ Child. These three precious materials were, in ancient times, often presented to both kings and gods. As gifts to an infant lying in a lowly manger, they are remembered for their overwhelming symbolism.

Even for those of us with less-than-royal status, gifts resonate with meaning. Each has a message – and that message has to be “just right”! The Three Kings may have found the perfect gifts, but for many of us, that yearly task is fraught with anxiety. When a click online can bring anything you desire, “need” is no longer a useful criterion. So, just what DO you give the man or woman who has everything?

E-Royalty suggests you take a hint from the Plantagenets!

The Plantagenets adored getting gifts. They also adored giving gifts. Kings were expected to be generous — and it was such fun to demonstrate one’s wealth! Royal “largesse” was also a practical means of rewarding the loyal and sweetening the disaffected.

“Christmas presents” were, then as now, an important part of the season, although the gifts were usually given on New Year’s Day rather than on December 25. Exactly what the gifts were, however, is difficult to discern.

In Tudor times, exact accounts were kept of who gave what (and the values noted to the penny). The Plantagenet records are far less informative. The accounts of the royal household do record a steady stream of incoming gifts of food – venison given by the rich, or a few chickens and vegetables by the poor. These were inevitably balanced by small cash payments to the givers or to the messengers who brought them to the royal household. Gifts within the royal family, however, are generally not recorded.

Gift-Giving Lesson #1: Henry III

The royal household accounts in the reign of Henry III do list the plethora of gifts that he gave to religious institutions between the Feast of St. Michael (29th September) and the beginning of January, including a number he gave specifically on Christmas Day 1241. Henry was a very pious king and intent, at Christmastime and throughout the year, on catching “God’s eye” through gifts to various religious establishments. His gifts are overwhelming not only in number and value, but in the care that went into choosing each individual item.

Henry III was very generous to the church.

Henry III was very generous to the church. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Henry’s gifts were actually purchased by his clerk Edward. Henry then ordered his Treasury to pay Edward for the luxurious gift items, purchased on Henry’s behalf. There is a long list of such payments.

The accounts include a lengthy list of Christmas gifts given to Henry’s chapel at Westminster Abbey. These were items that Henry III had specifically placed there “at the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, in the 25th year of our reign” (all information on Henry III’s payments are from Issues of the Exchequer; Being a Collection of Payments made out of His Majesty’s Revenue, from King Henry III to King Henry VI Inclusive, Frederick Devon, ed. London: John Murray, 1837, p 14-16).

In addition to unspecified items valued at £74 9s 6d, Henry gave the Abbey three chasables of red silk. A chasable is a large semi-circular garment with a central opening for the head (similar to a lightweight poncho), worn by priests for the celebration of Mass.

Some merchants specialized in luxury fabrics.

Some merchants specialized in luxury fabrics.

Henry also ordered payment from the Treasury to his clerk for additional ecclesiastical vestments, including

“… £17 18s l0d for 2 diapered and 1 precious cloth of gold for a tunic and dalmatican [an over-tunic] entirely ornamented with gold fringe, purchased by our command, and placed in our chapel in the same year and day; also to the same 47s 10d, for a chasable of silk cloth without gold purchased by our command, and placed in our chapel in the same year and day; also to the same £24 13s for two embroidered copes, purchased by our command, and placed in our chapel; also to the same 7s 2d for an alb [a long white tunic], embroidered with gold fringe, purchased by our command, and placed in our chapel; also to the same £17 1 mark for two embroidered chasables …”

It is only after enumerating this list of valuable gifts given to Westminster Abbey, that the accounts tell us that Henry also made a gift to his Queen, Eleanor of Provence. He ordered that the Treasury should also pay

“… £13 [and] half a mark, for a certain cup of pure gold, purchased by our command, and given to Eleanor, our dearly-beloved Queen, at the feast of the Nativity of our Lord, in the same year …”

Gold cups were de rigueur for the well-appointed royal table.

Gold cups were de rigueur for the well-appointed royal table. Courtesy of the British Library Illuminated Manuscripts Collection.

Given that Eleanor was in a strong position at court, as the mother of the young heir, and given that she never ever hesitated to look out for her own interests (no matter the cost), it is unlikely that a gold cup was her only Christmas present. It seems likely that the cup was meant not only to acknowledge her status, but also to ensure her good humor at the gifting of so many wondrous and expensive items to the Abbey.

The cup may have been Eleanor’s only present on December 25th itself. She was probably, however, showered with further baubles, luxurious fabrics, and perhaps even lands when the more traditional gift-exchange took place on New Years’ Day.

The accounts for Christmas 1241 end with Henry ordering payment for gold-plated items that he was giving to his chapel in Westminster Abbey,

“… also to the same 18s 6d for the workmanship of 2 censers made for our chapel, and for pure gold, weighing 11 dwts., to gild the same censers, by our command, in the same year and day; also pay to the same 5s for pure gold, weighing 4 dwts., to gild a certain chalice for our chapel, by our command, and for the workmanship of the same, &c.”

Royal churches were treasure houses. Pictured here is gold from the Abbey of Saint-Denis, Paris.

Royal churches were treasure houses. Pictured here is gold from the Abbey of Saint-Denis, Paris.

None of the gold-plated items given to Westminster even approach the value of Queen Eleanor’s golden cup.

The first lesson to be learned from Plantagenet gift-giving? She (or he) who wears the crown should get the best. Nowhere is it claimed that Henry III was an overwhelming success as king but it is generally agreed that his marriage was a strong one.

Gift-Giving Lesson #2: Richard II

The second lesson can be found in the reign of Richard II, Henry III’s great-great-great grandson. And that is, there is nothing like the gift of an “experience” for the man, woman or child who has everything!

Today, that might mean concert tickets or a surprise vacation to an exotic locale. In 1377, Richard’s “best gift ever” was a “Mummers’ Parade” medieval-style!

The pageant was organized for the delight of the young king by the citizens of London. It was described by John Stow in his Survey of London (all descriptions taken from the version edited by William J. Thoms; London: Whittaker & Co, 1842, p. 37)

“… in the feast of Christmas … [on] the Sunday before Candlemas, in the night, one hundred and thirty citizens, disguised, and well horsed, in a mummery, with sound of trumpets, sackbuts, cornets, shalmes, and other minstrels, and innumerable torch lights of wax, rode from Newgate, through Cheap, over the bridge, through Southwark, and so to Kennington…”

Christmas Mummers.

Christmas Mummers.

Richard, who was only ten years old, was living at Kennington with his mother. Also present that evening were his uncle John of Gaunt, duke of Lancaster, the earls of Cambridge, Hertford, Warwick and Suffolk, and many other lords.

The first ranks of mummers, forty-eight in all, rode two by two, clothed in red coats and gowns, dressed like esquires and wearing masks. They were followed by another forty-eight, dressed like knights. Then

“… followed one richly arrayed like an emperor; and after him some distance, one stately attired like a pope, whom followed twenty-four cardinals, and after them eight or ten with black visors, not amiable, as if they had been legates from some foreign princes.”

After the masked riders entered the manor courtyard, they alighted from their horses and entered the great hall on foot. There they were met by Richard, his mother and the lords. The mummers, by

“… showing by a pair of dice upon the table their desire to play with the prince, which they so handled that the prince did always win when he cast them. Then the mummers set to the prince three jewels, one after another, which were a bowl of gold, a cup of gold, and a ring of gold, which the prince won at three casts [throws of the dice]. Then they set to the prince’s mother, the duke, the earls, and other lords, to every one a ring of gold, which they did also win. After which they were feasted, and the music sounded, the prince and lords danced on the one part with the mummers, which did also dance; which jollity being ended, they were again made to drink, and then departed in order as they came.”

Gift-Giving Lesson #3: Richard II

Richard II’s mummers give us our final lesson. Take a hint from these wise medieval gift-givers! No matter how wondrous and special the experience you are providing, also be sure – before December 25th arrives – to visit your local purveyor of glittery, pretty things.

The wise medieval gift-giver was sure to visit a vendor of luxury items.

The wise medieval gift-giver was sure to visit a vendor of luxury items.

Whether a bowl of gold, a cup of gold, or a ring of gold, there is nothing like a little “bling” to ensure that yours is the PERFECT Christmas present!

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