April 6th 1110: King Henry I plays Checkers.

Friday 6th April 2012, is a very special day. It is the Festival of Good Friday, one of the holiest days in the Christian Calendar, and therefore a Bank Holiday. The fact that our financial institutions, even now, have to remain closed in the UK on this day is entirely appropriate, as it reflects the religious significance of Good Friday in our national life. Yet on another level, the closure of banks and other financial institutions today is also somewhat ironic, as Friday 6th April 2012 also marks the start of the new UK Financial Year (which will run from 6th April 2012 to 5th April 2013). Perhaps in Henry I’s reign, this anomaly would not have been so apparent; as in his reign the bishops also acted as financial administrators of the national finances.

So let us now go back just over 900 Years to the Court of King Henry I.

  • It is the year 1110. After his great victory over his elder brother Duke Robert at Tinchebrai (in 1106) Henry I had increasingly resided in Normandy. This was politically astute, as Henry’s power in England partly rested on his authority in Normandy. To govern England in his absence, Henry relied on his wife, Queen Edith Matilda. Queen Edith Matilda was an able ruler. She issued writs (in her own name) and attended meetings of the king’s council. Queen Edith Matilda was helped by an inner circle of advisors who regularly met in the Treasury. These advisors tended to be dominated by clerics, notably Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, Robert Bloet, Bishop of Lincoln and Richard, Bishop of London.
  • In 1110, Henry I had a pressing need to raise extra revenues (some things in government never change). The reason was that Henry had to provide a dowry for his daughter Matilda, who had been betrothed to the Emperor Henry V. Such a marriage alliance with the Emperor would further strengthen Henry’s power and authority. The result was the development of a vitally important department in English Government: The Exchequer. The institution of the Exchequer was to be one of the most significant developments in government occurring in the reign of King Henry I.

The Institution of the Exchequer c. 1110

The term ‘exchequer’ is derived from the chequered cloth that covered the table on which was conducted an audit of the sheriffs’ accounts, in the presence of Treasury advisors. Chief of these advisors was increasingly Bishop Roger of Salisbury, who progressively began to assume the status of Royal Justicar. The table itself was about three metres in length and about 1.5 metres in breadth. The cloth served as a huge abacus, and different squares and columns on the cloth represented different amounts of money.

Twice a year (Easter and Michaelmas), the sheriffs would present themselves at the Treasury, and hand over the moneys they had collected, such as tax receipts. When the sheriffs handed over their money, it was set out on the cloth alongside what they owed, and surpluses and deficits could then be calculated. It was a simple but an effective means of improving the government accounts.

Exchequer Storage: The Pipe Rolls.

As seen, twice yearly, the sheriffs made their payments to the Exchequer. These twice yearly financial transactions then had to be recorded on membranes as a permanent record. The membranes were then affixed to each other and rolled into a tight roll for storage. These rolls then resembled a pipe, so are called, oddly enough, ‘pipe rolls’. They were vital for efficient government, recording as they did payments made to the government, debts owed to the crown and disbursements made by royal officials. The first complete pipe roll is for the financial year 1129/1130, though they undoubtedly existed before that date. The device of the pipe roll was one of the greatest boons bequeathed by Henry I to later English medieval monarchs. The Pipe Rolls only became continuous in the reign of Henry I’s grandson, King Henry II, starting in 1155/56. They reflect the competence and expertise of that great monarch.

Early References to the Exchequer: c. 1110 to 1120

The first references to the Exchequer occur in the second decade of Henry I’s reign.

(1) Writ of Henry I in favour of  Holy Trinity, London.

“Henry, king of the English, to Roger, Bishop of Salisbury, and to the Barons of the Exchequer, greeting. Notice that I have ratified the gift which Queen Maud [Edith Matilda] gave and granted to the canons of Holy Trinity, to wit, 25 pounds.”

(2) Writ of Henry I in favour of the Abbot of Westminster.

“Henry, king of the English, to Richard, Bishop of London, greeting. I bid you do full right to the Abbot of Westminster concerning the men who forcibly, by night, broke into his church at Wenington. And unless you do it, my Barons of the Exchequer will cause it to be done in order that I may hear no further complaint about it for lack of right.”

Both these extracts are taken from English Historical Documents, edited by D. C. Douglas and G. W. Greenaway (1981) pages 520-521

The second extract is especially interesting, as it shows the Exchequer Barons acting in a legal capacity, besides showing that forcible entry, at night, was as much a problem in the early 12th century, as it is 900 years later in our own era. One can almost picture an exasperated Henry I telling the esteemed Bishop of London ‘to pull his episcopal finger out.’

{Wenington is now located in the London borough of Havering}

The Pipe Roll of the year 1129 to 1130.

The first surviving complete pipe roll, that of 1129/1130, reveals that at the end of the third decade of his reign, Henry I was financially very secure, partly reflecting the success of his innovation of the Exchequer. The Pipe Roll indicates that for the fiscal year 1129-1130, a grand total of £23,000 was paid over to the Exchequer. Of this total, £2,400 (i.e. 10%) was raised by direct taxation. This direct tax was the Geld, a land tax levied at 10% per hide of land (a hide was equivalent to about 30 acres).

Henry I’s financial strength was not followed by his successor, King Stephen (1135-1154). As a result of Stephen’s incompetence, royal income declined catastrophically during his reign, such that Henry II found himself with a minute annual income of £7,000 when he became king in 1154.

King Henry II and his councillors had to laboriously repair the national finances, by a combination of judicious borrowing and tallaging cities, boroughs and royal manors. Gradually, the national finances recovered under Henry II’s prudent measures. In the 1160s, the average annual government income rose to £16,700. In the 1170s, the average was £19,200. Only, in the final years of Henry II’s reign, after 1180, when the average annual income rose to £23,300 did royal income equal what it had been fifty years before in the final years of King Henry I’s reign. This is conclusive proof of Henry I’s brilliant management of the national finances; and it is his innovation of the Exchequer, together with the pipe rolls, that partly explains his great fiscal success.

Concluding Comments

In analysing 12th century financial policy, it is a case of ‘Like Grandfather: Like Grandson.’ King Henry I built up the national finances by a strategy of peace and stability in England, combined with innovations in fiscal management. His grandson, King Henry II, relied more on judicious borrowing from Flemings like William Cade and Jews like Aaron of Lincoln. These prudent loans were allied to sensible tallaging of the main English settlements – but it took a long time for Henry II’s financial measures to bear fruit. The main thing was, Henry II ‘stuck to his guns’ (or, rather, his swords and hauberks).

Question

Is there a moral here for the present government?

(Answers please to Number 11 Downing Street . . .)

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Filed under Angevins, Bishop of Salisbury, Bishops in the Church of England, British Exchequer, British Kings and Queens, British taxation, Chancellor of the Exchequer, Finance, Henry I, Henry II, History, King Stephen, Medieval government, Medieval History, Medieval Normandy, Medieval pipe rolls, Norman Kings, Sheriffs

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