The Tudors - A Century of Change

3. Paying for Government

Modern politicians have one thing in common with Tudor monarchs: shortage of money. We've seen how Edward IV solved this problem but to understand why he did what he did we have to go back in time to see how English kings traditionally raised the revenue necessary to do their job.

Long before the Norman Conquest Viking invaders were bought off by the payment of Danegeld - an emergency tax levied throughout the old Anglo--Saxon kingdom. The right to levy geld was taken over by William the Conqueror and was one of reasons for the celebrated Domesday survey. King William wanted to know just how much his newly acquired kingdom was worth. In time geld proved to be too difficult and and too expensive to collect. A much better source of income was provided by the king's position as ultimate judge. Anyone with a serious dispute to settle took care to have their case heard coram rege (in the king's presence, hence court). Moreover most crimes were punishable with fines, there being no limit to those the king could impose.

Of course a king could always alter or amend his own judgement, making it essential for successful litigants to keep his favour. Payments made by individuals and corporations 'for the king's good will' occur throughout the Middle Ages and into the Tudor period. Henry VII made particularly effective use of this type of sanction. Firstly he would let an individual know that he was under suspicion then gracefully agree to let him off in return for a 'gift'. Other payments into the royal exchequer derived from the king's rights as a landlord. When a bishop died, the lands of his see were temporarily returned the crown, making it tempting for the king to delay the election of a successor; if lands held directly from the king were inherited by a child, the king enjoyed the use of them until the owner came of age (wardship). Complaints were still being made about the operation of the court of wards under James I (1603-1625).

No medieval king spent more than Edward I (1267-1307), so it is hardly suprising to find Parliament has its origins in his reign. By bringing together representatives of all those who mattered in the kingdom - including knights from the shires and merchants from the growing towns - Edward was able to persuade them to finance his wars in Scotland, Wales and France. The snag was the need for agreement; subsidies granted by Parliament produced more money than any other form of tax, but it meant that Parliament had to be called every time a subsidy was needed. Time and again, monarchs summoned Parliament in the hope of solving some financial crisis only to be told that the granting of a subsidy would have to wait until other matters of concern had been sorted out. Although we tend to think of events leading up to the Civil War in 1642, Parliament acted as a focus of opposition from the very beginning; even Edward I found that there were limits to his subjects' generosity.

Given the power which Parliament thus possessed it is small wonder that Edward IV tried to finance his government in other ways. Although William the Conqueror was obliged to grant large tracts of land to those who had fought at Hastings in order to persuade them to stay and help him hold his newly won kingdom, he retained the biggest share for himself. Over the years the size and profitability of this royal estate varied; kings were always under pressure to reward supporters and provide for relatives with gifts of land. By the 15th Century however, the idea was gaining ground that the king should 'live off his own' i.e. that the normal expenses of government should be met from the crown's private wealth. Those who had received grants of crown land were apt to have them taken back if the king ran short of money. Such a threat could prove very ueful in bringing an over-mighty subject to heel but it could also promote a feeling of insecurity within the king's closest circle: it may have been a factor that led Richard III to take the crown for himself.

The young Henry VIII's determination to equal his namesake Henry V (the victor of Agincourt) created huge difficulties for his principal minister, Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey was a tireless and efficient administrator, but even he could not deliver the kind of finance his master's military ambitions required. Extra-parliamentary devices such as an attempt in 1525 to force leading citizens to 'lend' money to the crown aroused great resentment.

Henry was rescued by Martin Luther. Lay control of the church led to asset-stripping on a grand scale; Henry's assumption of supremacy over the church (1533) was followed by the dissolution of the monasteries and the plundering of national shrines such as that of Thomas Becket. Within two years (1538-40) Henry became the richest English king since William I.

Unfortunately, as we read in the Lisle Letters, there was a queue of eager recipients waiting to be rewarded for their support with grants of monastic land. Fear of invasion by the combined Catholic powers of France and the Empire forced Henry to embark on a huge programme of coastal fortification, which consumed most of his new-found wealth. By the time of the king's death, the crown was virtually bankrupt; the coinage had been debased (a capital offence in the Middle Ages) and prices had begun to rise as silver flooded into Europe from the mines of Spanish America.

As many modern governments have found, debasement (de-valuation) of the currency is a very short term 'fix'. It drives prices upwards, forcing further debasement until money becomes worthless. The only solution available in Tudor times was to call in as much of the devalued money as possible and issue new coins made of pure metal. This means that the government had to spend less than it received. Already in 1551, Edward VI's ministers were trying to ensure that all outstanding debts to the crown were paid so that the value of the coinage could be restored, but it was not until the reign of Elizabeth that this was achieved.

Even if she had wanted to, Elizabeth could not have waged any aggressive wars at the outset of her reign. Her ability to resist Parliamentary attempts to persuade her to marry, and to take the Church of England in a more Protestant direction, rested on the degree of financial independence achieved by a policy of peace abroad and economy at home.

As is well known, events in Europe gradually obliged Elizabeth to abandon her neutral stance. She could not stand by whilst Protestant rebels in the Netherlands were crushed by the forces of Catholic Spain, nor could she prevent adventurers like Drake and Hawkins waging their own private war on the 'dons'. Elizabeth knew that her popularity rested on giving tacit support to such activities (from which her treasury also profited), whilst steering clear of all-out war. Frequently criticised in her own time for being indecisive, she managed to balance conflicting priorities with infuriating skill.

Finally forced to give her assent to Mary Queen of Scots' execution by incontrovertible proof of Mary's complicity in plots against her, Elizabeth provided the king of Spain with the moral excuse he needed to attempt an invasion of England (1588). The Armada was defeated, but the fifteen years of war which followed, including the need to put down a rebellion in Ireland, proved disastrous for the royal finances. It was only by selling the central reserve of crown lands that the necessary expenditure could be found. Alternatives, such as the granting of monopolies (the sole right to manufacture or import certain commodities), proved so unpopular that the wise Elizabeth abandoned them, turning the original error into an advantage by her apparent generosity.

'Though God hath raised me high,' she told her last Parliament in 1601, 'yet I count the glory of my crown that I have reigned with your loves...Though you have had and may have many mightier and wiser princes sittig on this seat, yet you never had nor shall have any that love you better... And (Mr Speaker) I pray that before the gentlemen depart into their counties you may bring them all to kiss my hand...'

It was the most elegant 'climb-down' in English history.