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William Shakespeare uses the word “lottery” in his plays 8 times, often referring to a reward that comes after taking a gamble. While we may be familiar with lotteries like the Powerball or Publishing Clearinghouse here in the United States, a ticket based lottery where people could pay money for a chance to win big was brand new for England in Shakespeare’s lifetime. The first time England had seen a real lottery, was the first national lottery in 1567, instituted by Elizabeth I, when Shakespeare was just 3 years old. Here today to share with us how this lottery worked, who bought tickets, and who ultimately won it, is our guest, Elizabeth Norton.

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Dr Elizabeth Norton is a British historian, specialising in the queens of England and the Tudor period. She has degrees from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford, as well as a PhD from King’s College London, where she has taught History. She is the author of twelve non-fiction books, including the critically acclaimed ‘The Lives of Tudor Women’. She regularly appears on television as an expert. Recently, she acted as Historical Advisor and featured contributor on the BBC’s ‘The Boleyns, A Scandalous Family’.

In this episode, I'll be asking Elizabeth Norton about:

  • What was the reason behind starting the lottery in England? 
  • Was anyone allowed to enter? What did the tickets cost?
  • Were there any specific incentives offered to try and get people to enter? What did people think about the lottery if they had never seen this idea in England before? 
  • …and more!

Books and Resources Elizabeth Norton recommends:

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19th C John Ahston’s history of English lotteries.

  • This book is available online as part of the Internet Archive here
  • See a selection of handbills from this publication available online by an anonymous blogger who refers to themselves only as “the gentle author” Source

Visit The British Library Website for great resources on the first English National Lottery

Other books Cassidy thought you might enjoy or find relevant:

A Note on the Lottery of Queen Elizabeth I and Coriolanus, 5.2 by Eric C. Brown Shakespeare QuarterlyVol. 50, No. 1 (Spring, 1999) , pp. 70-73 (4 pages) Published By: Oxford University Press.

The History Press, UK, writes about the first English Lottery in their article “It Could Be Ye: England’s first lottery”

Smithsonian Magazine writes about Elizabeth's first National Lottery

David Dean, “Elizabeth’s Lottery: Political Culture and State Formation in Early Modern England.” Journal of British Studies 50.3 (2011): 587-611. Online

  • A picture of the only known surviving advertisement for England's first national lottery
  • A link to a transcript for the prizes that were given away for the lottery
  • Lottery related Shakespeare quotes
  • Copperplate of Old St. Paul's (where the first lottery was drawn)
  • Portrait of Elizabeth I with William Cecil, the man who oversaw the lottery for her
  • Picture of Old Market Hall, where the Draper's (who won a suit of armor in this lottery) sold their wares
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