“A lottery is a taxation upon all the fools in creation; and heaven be praised, it is easily raised, for credulity’s always in fashion.”
Or so claimed English novelist and dramatist Henry Fielding in his 1732 play The Lottery, and truthfully, he was not far off. The lottery as a method of raising funds for the government has existed since at least the Roman Empire and possibly before. Ancient China had a form of lottery (Keno) that was used to finance the Great Wall of China’s construction, and the Bible even mentions a form of lottery system used by Moses in Numbers 26. The first recorded lottery (1446) was held by the widow of Flemish painter Jan van Eyck to help her dispose of her husband’s paintings. Lotteries began to gain traction in medieval Europe where they were oftentimes used to raise funds for public welfare projects.
It was not until 1567 that England held its first state lottery. Queen Elizabeth I set about to raise funds for several public works projects, chief among them the rebuilding of harbors, undertaken in order to expand Britain’s world trade influence. Given the choice between levying a new tax and holding the first state lottery, the Queen elected to hold a lottery. Now, although Fielding wrote his play long after Queen Elizabeth had died, it is probably safe to assume that a similar thought passed through Good Queen Bess’ mind.
An advertisement for England’s first state lottery laid out the cost of entry, the number of entries, and the prizes, some of which were quite interesting. I personally appreciated the heading of the advertisement that read:
A very rich Lotterie generall, without any Blanckes, contayning a great number
The details of the lottery reveal that the number of entries was limited to 400,000 and the cost of entry was ten shillings – far too high a cost for most ordinary citizens to afford entry. The first prize was £5000, an enormous prize for the time. The prize was to be paid partly in ‘ready money’ and partly in plate, tapestries and ‘good linen cloth’. (I can’t help but wonder if the Queen got rid of some of her used tapestries and tablecloths by making them part of the prize.) As further motivation for her subjects to enter the lottery, Queen Elizabeth gave all entrants a weeklong immunity from arrest for all crimes other than murder, felonies, piracy or treason.
England’s first national lottery was long enough ago that the winner’s identity has been lost to history. However, it is readily apparent from the practices of modern society that the lottery as a national fundraising method (or ‘voluntary tax’) has survived and grown exponentially in its use around the world. In England, the national lottery fell in and out of favor depending on the government in power, but it has survived to this day and was again set up as a state-franchised lottery under government license in 1993 during the Major ministry.