Queen Elizabeth held a lottery and one prize was a free get out of jail card
As you anxiously wait for your lottery numbers to be called, spare a thought for the people who took part in the first State of England lottery in the 16th century. Seen as an ideal solution to finance port infrastructure and essential investments in the English navy, Elizabeth I gave the green light to a far-fetched project to sell lottery tickets. The prizes even included the Elizabethan-era equivalent of a free get out of jail card.
While the membership of Elizabeth I had been welcomed in 1558, the Catholic threat in Europe began to wreak havoc. Dependent as the economy was on the cloth trade, which accounted for two-thirds of England’s exports, Elizabeth had to put the country, and especially England littoralthe ports and the fleet, in order to avoid any Catholic invasion and invest in maritime trade with the New World.
Such a project would require considerable funds. The brainchild of Sir William Cecil, his Secretary of State, the lottery seemed just the ticket. The idea itself was not new, and the Netherlands (now known as The Netherlands) had had success using a lottery system to fund infrastructure projects.
In 2010, a curious artifact was put up for auction in London. It was a two-page document letter to Sir John Spencer, written by Queen Elizabeth I herself, with clear instructions on selling 400,000 lots costing 10 shillings each. This “rich general lottery” was promoted on posters all over London from August 1567, and soon tickets were available in a scheme to raise funds for “the repair of the Havens, and the strength of the Realme, and towards these other good public works”. ”
George Gower’s Armada Portrait of Elizabeth I circa 1588. ( Public domain )
Despite the eye-watering prizes, including a top prize of £5,000 (“£850,000 in today’s money”, according to The daily mail ), the high ticket price and general skepticism kept most people from attending. As an added incentive, Elizabeth granted temporary immunity from arrest for crimes (excluding hacking, murder, felonies, or treason).
Unfortunately, the venture was not a success. Despite an Elizabethan-style marketing campaign, less than ten percent of the lots were sold and the draw was eventually postponed by royal proclamation until January 1569.
When it finally took place, outside the old St Paul’s Cathedral in London, the whole process was said to have taken four months due to the complex nature of calculating the reduced prices and the cryptic method of identification of winners; participants wrote playful remarks, some of them anti-Catholic, in order to keep their identities secret. “In God I hope and far for the Pope“, was one, while another desperate participant wrote” God sends much for my children and me, who were really made 20 years by one woman.
Top image: Representative image of Queen Elizabeth. Source: Dariakomarova/Adobe Stock.
By Cecilia Bogaard