Raffles and lotteries are by no means new. Legend has it that funds raised by a traditional lottery, known as keno, were used to partly finance construction of the Great Wall of China. The widow of the great painter Jan van Eyck dispensed with many of his remaining artworks in a fundraising raffle after her husband’s death. The sale of more than £600,000 worth of lottery tickets partly funded the construction of the original Westminster Bridge in the mid-18th century. And almost 450 years ago, even Queen Elizabeth I got in on the act by organizing the very first national lottery in English history—and perhaps the first state-sanctioned lottery in the English-speaking world.
The early years of Elizabeth’s reign were overshadowed by her need to not only pay off the colossal debt her father had lumbered the nation with on his deathbed, but to build on Britain’s foreign trade and colonial enterprises. But both international trade and overseas exploration—not to mention the construction of the new ships, docks and harbors that they require—are far from cheap. Keen not to increase taxes or enter into potentially ruinous money-lending deals with other countries, Elizabeth and her court looked elsewhere to find a fundraising idea to finance the nation’s overseas endeavors. And in 1567, she struck upon the perfect idea.
In a letter that came up for auction in 2010, on August 31, 1567 Elizabeth wrote to Sir John Spencer (a High Sheriff of Northamptonshire, and a distant ancestor of both Sir Winston Churchill and Diana, Princess of Wales) explaining that he was to help organize England’s very first national lottery. Similar letters were likely sent out to high-ranking officials in all the English regions, but Spencer’s is the only one to have survived, and it is ultimately thanks to him that we know just how Elizabeth planned the lottery to run.
Four hundred thousand tickets, or “lots,” were to be put up for sale nationwide, at a cost of 10 shillings each. The tickets themselves were not merely numbered tokens, but specially printed slips on which anyone wishing to enter the draw would be asked to write their name and a short written “device” (typically a brief biographical note or a favorite Bible verse) that was unique to them and so could be used to identify them if they won. Essentially, it was a Tudor English equivalent of a password reset security question. “God send a good lot for my children and me,” wrote one entrant on his ticket, “which have had 20 by one wife truly.”
The lottery itself was to be played “without any blanckes”, meaning that all ticket holders whose tickets were picked from the hat were guaranteed a prize. Unlike today, prize draws at the time tended to employ two separate draws, one from a tub or “lot-pot” containing the players’ tickets, and the other from a tub containing the names of all the prizes. This second tub also typically contained a large number of blank tickets alongside all the prize tokens, meaning that a winning player could have their number come up, only to go on to be awarded nothing at all; it’s the reason we talk of “drawing a blank” when we’re utterly nonplussed or defeated today. But in this unique national lottery, Elizabeth decreed that somewhat unfair system was to be ignored.
Out of every pound raised, Elizabeth explained, sixpence was to be set aside to pay a salary to the ticket-sellers and revenue collectors, described in the letter as “somme persons appointed of good trust,” who were to be specially chosen for the task. For his trouble, out of every £500 raised and sent to London, Spencer was to be paid 50 shillings (the equivalent of almost £600/$750 today). Corruption and any attempts to cheat the system were to be severely punished, Elizabeth warned, as the entire enterprise was for the good of the country—or, as she explained, “anything advantagious is ordered to be employed to good and publique acts and beneficially for our realme and our subjects.”
The 10 shilling ticket price (equivalent in value to almost £120 today) sadly put entry into the lottery far outside the reach of most ordinary citizens of the time—but the prizes and incentives on offer were tempting for many. First prize was a staggering £5,000 (equivalent to more than £1.1 million today), which was to be paid partly in £3,000 cash (“ready money”) and partly in an extravagant prize package containing fine tapestries and wall hangings, gold and silver plate, and a quantity of “good linen cloth.” Second prize was £2000 cash and a further £1500 worth of luxury items; third prize £1500 cash and the same amount of luxury goods, with similar prizes of diminishing value awarded for any player drawn in fourth to 11th place. And as if that weren’t enough, anyone wealthy enough to purchase a ticket was even granted a temporary immunity from arrest for all crimes except felonies, piracy, and treason.
Unsurprisingly, the logistics involved in running a fair, corruption-free, high-stakes national lottery in Elizabethan England—not least one that awarded anyone holding a ticket near total criminal immunity—proved challenging. Not only that, but the hefty entry cost meant only a fraction of the 400,000 tickets on sale (possibly as little as 10 percent) were actually purchased. As a result, the draw itself did not take place until almost two years later: On January 11, 1569, an eager crowd standing in a square outside the old St Paul’s Cathedral in the City of London watched as a blindfolded child steadily picked tickets and prizes from two large urns. And although they didn’t sell as many as hoped, according to one 19th century history, “the drawing [continued] without intermission till the 6th of May, day and night.”
So who won Elizabeth’s national lottery? Sadly, the names of all the winners, including that of the grand prize winner, are unknown. But it’s fair to say a £5000 prize more than four centuries ago would have been a life-changing amount of cash—especially for someone with 20 children.