Category Archives: Chancellor of the Exchequer

Henry’s Howlers: (1) Economic Background to the Wars of the Roses (1437-1450)

(1) Introduction: King Henry VI (1422-1461 and 1470-1471)

On 6th November 1429 in Westminster Abbey, Henry of Windsor (son and heir of King Henry V) was crowned King Henry VI of England.  This royal investiture in London was only the first half of a ‘double coronation’. Two years later, on 2nd December 1431, in Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris, Henry was also crowned King of France. Henry was then only four days short of his tenth birthday. About fourteen years after his French Coronation, on 23rd April 1445, Henry aspired to another Gallic royal triumph when he married Margaret of Anjou. Yet all this youthful promise was to come to nought:-

  • Within thirty years of his Paris coronation, in 1461, Henry VI had lost both his English and French Crowns. The Yorkist Edward Earl of March was crowned King Edward IV of England on 4th March 1461. Almost exactly four months later, on 3rd July 1461, Prince Louis of Valois was crowned King Louis XI of France.
  • Even worse was to follow. Within ten years of his English deposition, on 21st/22nd May 1471, King Henry VI was sadly  done to death in the Tower of London: almost certainly on the orders of King Edward IV. Henry was then about 50 years old.

So how is King Henry VI remembered today?

  • Is it that he is the youngest person ever to have succeeded to the English Crown? (Henry succeeded to the English Crown on 31st August 1422, when he was just nine months old.)
  • Is it that King Henry VI is the only King of England to be recognised as King of both England and France? (31st August 1422)
  • Is it that King Henry VI founded  both Eton College (in 1440) and King’s College, Cambridge (in 1441)?

For me, King Henry VI’s chief claim to fame is that, as Head of the Lancastrian Monarchy in England, he presided over one of the worst governments to rule in medieval England. Furthermore, so ineffective was King Henry VI, that he helped to cause the murderous conflict that was to engulf England in the mid-fifteenth century: The Wars of the Roses!

(2) Economic Recession 1440-1480

(i) Compared with the economic boom that occurred in 12th century England, the economic situation was very bleak in the mid-fifteenth century. Historians now refer to the mid-fifteenth century as ‘The Great Slump’. This economic downturn was especially severe for certain sections of English society:-

a) The Magnates (Great Nobility), who saw their rental income fall.

b) Woollen cloth manufacturers, who experienced a decline in woollen cloth exports.

c) Workers involved in manufacture, who were increasingly under-employed (or unemployed).

As is the case with most recessions, certain sectors of society did quite well, such as agricultural labourers.  John Hatcher and Mark Bailey have suggested that: “By the middle of the fifteenth century the purchasing power of a day’s labour seems to have more than doubled”.

[John Hatcher & Mark Bailey: ‘Modelling the Middle Ages’ (2001), page 48]

Yet overall, the recession was profound.

(ii) King Henry VI’s Lancastrian Government shared in this economic gloom. On 6th November 1449, a new session of Parliament met at the Dominican Friary, Ludgate, London. Immediately, the Commons  petitioned Henry VI on the state of royal finances. The petition is worth quoting in full:

“The Commons assembled in this your present parliament pray you to consider; whereas your chancellor of your realm of England, your treasurer of England, and many other lords of your council, by your high command, showed and declared the state of this your realm to your said commons at your parliament l; last held at Westminster; which was, that you were in debt for £372,000, which is a great and grievous sum.”

[‘The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504, Volume XII’ (2012), page 107]

Worse then followed.  According to the Commons Petition, royal income was only £5,000 a year, while royal expenditure was £24,000 a year. Such financial pressures on governments are not restricted to the mid-fifteenth century: they are also only too apparent in 2013! The point is, such financial problems imposed severe constraints on Henry’s Government, which in turn was a great source of instability in mid-fifteenth century England (as the Commons Petition implied). In addition, financial pressures meant that the Lancastrian Government could not properly defend Normandy against the encroaching French Forces (see my forthcoming February Blog). The question is: How far were Henry VI and his ministers responsible for the financial mess in which they found themselves in 1450?

(3) To what extent was King Henry VI’s Lancastrian Government responsible for the Government  Financial Chaos in 1450?

On one level, Henry VI was simply the victim of the ‘Great Slump’. It has been estimated that English woollen cloth exports had collapsed by a third between 1440 and 1450. There had also been a decline in imports of wine in this period. This major contraction of international trade in turn meant a great reduction of crown revenue from customs duties. Royal revenue from the customs duties had been £40,000 in 1421 (towards the end of King Henry V’s reign).  In contrast, King Henry VI could only count on an average annual customs revenue of £28,000 between 1446 to 1448.

However, on another level, there is no doubt that the Lancastrian Government  made things worse for themselves, and Henry VI himself  should shoulder a lot of the responsibility:-

  • There is some evidence that Henry VI’s Government had got itself into a trade war with Burgundy (an independent Duchy in North Western Europe). This had led to Burgundy banning the import of English woollen cloth into Burgundy. Apparently, Henry’s Government had been feeble in its response to this prohibition. The Commons Petition in the Parliament that met at Westminster (February 1449) expressly complained that: “As yet no redress has been made, to the most intolerable harm of all the commons of this realm. . . many cloth makers, that is to say male weavers, fullers and dyers. And female combers, carders and spinners.” [‘The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England 1275-1504, Volume XII’ (2012), page 60].
  • King Henry VI was excessively generous in making grants to supporters and for ‘good causes’. Right at the beginning of his rule, in 1438, one of Henry’s council clerks (in modern language, a top civil servant) had complained that Henry had pardoned a collector of customs, thereby losing the Crown £1,300. Exactly ten years later, in 1448, Henry VI expressly willed the huge yearly sum of £1,000 to go towards the building costs of King’s College, Cambridge. He even earmarked part of his own Duchy of Lancaster income to pay the £1,000. Needless to say, the money soon dried up. Such was Henry’s financial profligacy, that by 1450, his Government was reduced to mortgaging its future income to meet its current debts. The proceedings of the February 1449 Parliament also record a grant of 2,500 marks (about £1,700) to the Duke of Somerset and £1,000 to the Duke of Suffolk. [‘The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England Volume XII’, page 68] Both of these payments were to be paid from taxation revenue due to Henry VI’s Government in 1450.

(4) How did Economic Pressures contribute to the Outbreak of the Wars of the Roses?

One of the greatest 19th century philosophers of History, Karl Marx, pointed out the link between economic factors and political events. There is clearly some link between economic pressure and later political conflict. For example, no student of 20th century conflict would surely deny the links (direct or indirect) between the Wall Street Crash in the USA in 1929 and the later international conflicts in Manchuria (1931) and Abyssinia (1935).

Similarly, the ‘Great Slump’ of 1440 to 1480 was the clear backdrop to the murderous conflict between the Lancastrian and Yorkist Forces in England between 1455 and 1465.                                                                                              (i) Pressure on their rental incomes made the Magnates more disposed to use violence to protect their living standards. For example, a Lancastrian Force of 700 soldiers, led by Lord Egremont (son of the Earl of Northumberland) attacked a group of Yorkists at Heworth, outside York, in August 1453. This ‘battle’ was in effect the start of the Wars of the Roses; yet the real cause of the Lancastrian aggression was the fact that one member of the Yorkist group had  inherited two valuable manors (one in Yorkshire, one in Lincolnshire). Both these manors had originally belonged to the powerful Earls of Northumberland. This powerful Lancastrian family evidently wanted to regain these manors, probably to compensate for their declining rental income. (See my forthcoming April Blog for details).

(ii) The total Lancastrian mismanagement of the national finances was itself politically de-stabilising. It caused uncertainty and concern amongst the general population. Such concern could easily erupt into popular unrest, as actually happened in the summer of 1450 with the major civil strife in London known as Cade’s Rebellion. One of the complaints of the rioters in Cade’s Rebellion was that: “The King himself is so beset that he may not pay for his meat and drink, and he owes more than ever any King of England ought.” [‘English Historical Documents, Volume IV’, edited by A.R. Myers, page 267]

Nor could public opinion in 1450 fail to notice that the magnates who financially benefitted at a time of national stringency were the Dukes of Somerset and Suffolk. Both these Magnates were very close to King Henry.     Both these Lancastrian magnates were generally unpopular in 1450. The Duke of Suffolk was especially hated. According to the rioters in Cade’s Rebellion, he was: “the false traitor the Duke of Suffolk.” [English Historical Documents. Page 267]. Suffolk was effectively lynched by the mob in 1450. That left the Duke of Somerset to fly the Lancastrian Flag. Perhaps it was no accident that it was personal dislike of Somerset that fuelled the Duke of York’s opposition to the Lancastrian Government which was to be one of the bases of the Wars of the Roses a few years later.

(5) Conclusion

In his play King Henry VI, Part II (Act V, Scene I), Shakespeare has Richard Duke of York address Henry in the following way:-

“King did I call thee? No, thou art not a king,

Nor fit to govern and rule multitudes.”

Is York’s mocking speech justified?  Read the next exciting episode (February 2013) of my new ‘Wars of the Roses’ Blog, entitled: “Henry’s Howlers (2), ’Nonsense in Normandy and Mayhem in Maine.’

Question

King Henry VI is one of four medieval kings of England who were murdered after losing their throne. Who were the other three?

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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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