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Queen Elizabeth I Held England’s First Official Lottery 450 Years Ago

The lucky winner took home a prize that included not just money, but also fancy dishware and tapestries

A rare English gold pound coin dating to 1594-1596, with a portrait of Queen Elizabeth I. (Hoberman Collection/Corbis)
smithsonian.com

With the jackpot for the Powerball lottery rising to a hefty $1.5 billion, people across the United States are getting caught up in lottery fever. An ocean away, 450 years ago, people were experiencing similar excitement, as they geared up for England's first official state lottery held by Queen Elizabeth I.

The idea of using a state lottery to raise money for infrastructure and other government projects is an old one. While one of the first recorded lotteries was held in 1446 by the widow of Flemish painter Jan van Eyck, the state lottery dates back to ancient civilizations like the Roman Empire and China's Han dynasty, which used money raised by a type of lottery called “Keno” to fund the building of the Great Wall, according to the North American Association of State and Provincial Lotteries. During the Elizabethan Age, the idea of using lottery money instead of taxes to fund government projects took hold in Europe once again.

A little more than a century after the van Eyck Lottery, Queen Elizabeth I was looking for a way to raise money for several large public projects, in particular the rebuilding of ports and building new ships for the royal fleet. At the time, in 1567, she had two choices: levy a new tax on her citizens or hold a lottery. The Queen decided to go with the latter and established England’s first State Lottery.

This lottery is different in many ways from the modern ones found in the United States and England, partly because of the cost of a ticket. While many lotteries these days are heavily marketed toward people with low-income salaries, the Queen's lottery targeted the upper class—indeed, the majority of English citizens in the mid-16th century wouldn’t have been able to afford the 10 shillings price per ticket, according to the British Library. Not only did it cost a lot of money, but the pool was limited to 400,000 tickets. And the lucky winner wouldn't just receive £5,000 in cash, but also goods like plate, tapestries and “good linen cloth.”

To sweeten the deal even further, Queen Elizabeth announced that all participants would be granted immunity from arrest, so long as the crime wasn't piracy, murder, felonies, or treason, the British Library reports.

While the winner’s name has been lost to the history books, the Queen's raffle helped set the stage for the modern-day lottery system. As is the case in many countries, the national lottery system fell in and out of use in the United Kingdom, depending on who was in power and what their preferred fundraising methods were. The current incarnation of the British National Lottery officially launched in 1994, after it was established by the administration of Prime Minister John Major, the Guardian reports.

The modern British National Lottery may only be barely more than two decades old, but the American lottery system has been around the block, comparatively. Though small lotteries date back to some of the earliest colonists, the game of chance was officially sanctioned at the state level in 1964, when New Hampshire began looking into using a state lottery to raise funds. Since then, all but six states have established their own official lottery system as an alternative to raising taxes for projects like infrastructure and public schools. Now, more than 50 years since it began, the Powerball lottery might make one very lucky person very, very rich – if he or she can beat the astronomical odds, that is.

About Danny Lewis

Danny Lewis is a multimedia journalist working in print, radio, and illustration. He focuses on stories with a health/science bent and has reported some of his favorite pieces from the prow of a canoe. Danny is based in Brooklyn, NY.

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