Charles had done the right thing of we wanted to avoid parliaments – reducing costs by making peace. But, how was he to raise money to clear that £2m debt? Well, two words came in to play – many, and various.
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Now then. I am conscious of quite possibly making a narrative mistake. Over the next couple of episodes, I am going to tell you the story of a man known for many generations as the Great Patriot – although we’ve largely forgotten him now unless you go to a specific school or are a Civil War fan; I know this because I did a seriously scientifically piece of research – otherwise known as a poll on Twitter where I learned than less than 18% of people knew who he was. And also of course, to talk about the great cause into which he was launched, the imposition by the king of Ship money, and therefore started his road to stardom that would be confirmed by his untimely death on Chalgrove Field. So I should really wax lyrical about this hero as a beacon of political liberty now, right now. But everything good people, everything in its place. First of all, this time, we need to talk about all the other ways that Charles approached the greatest challenge of his personal rule. His bank balance.
Money, I was told by a very dour cleaner in my halls of residence at St Andrews many years ago, money is the root of all evil. I nodded in agreement, while thinking in that case that I could do with a little more evil in my life, but I did not reveal my secret thoughts, and I am sure she was right.
Now I think you are aware that the old idea of a king ‘living of their own’ was a concept much beloved of the gentry that populated the English parliament, and to be honest one of the less impressive things about the English parliament was their blindness to the essential issue that English kings, while they might seem rich to you and me, were very poor in European terms and could not run a modern state on the income from the royal estates. Or even an Early modern state. I have said this before but one of the very first things that will result from the Scottish and English Revolutions is that the people will be mulcted of a far greater proportion of their hard earned spondulikes than Charles would have dreamed of. Now the Monarchs recently had not done themselves any favours, and were rather encouraging the victim blaming going on; James I had not proven himself competent to manage a piggy bank responsibly, let alone a subsidy, and Charles had gaily launched inappropriate wars at the drop of Buckingham’s be-plumed hat. In the distant Memory was Good Queen Bess the Mean as Mouseshit Monarch, who had seemed to manage a reign of fondly remembered glory, all on a piece of string, some drawing pins and a half used tube of glue. Nonetheless, Conrad Russell argues that one of the reasons for the success of the revolution and Charles’ defeat can be laid at the door of money. Root of all evil you see, if only he’d had enough money to repress his people, far fewer people would have died.
So, when Charles turned in despair from a parliament that he felt ought to have been consigned to the naughty step for the foreseeable future, the reason that all those foreign Ambassadors wrote off England as a force in European affairs was because even they recognised that warfare cost rivers of money, waterfalls, cascades, blizzards of the folding stuff. And not only was England relatively small and puny, it was rubbish at raising money. One essential difference between England and Hapsburg Spain was the absence of prerogative taxes, just in case you thought that the English were oppressed. In Spain Philip IV and his ministers had access to taxes like the Milliones – a tax on food which was supposedly voted by the Cortes, but in practice was become automatic; and the sisa, a land tax had once been a local tax, but had been transferred to the crown centrally in the 14th century. So, when deciding on his next tax rate, he could simply chuck a couple of arra’s at his dart board, see what number came up, and away he went. I mean it was a bit more complicated that that, but you know what I am saying to you.
Louis XIII in France meanwhile had prerogative taxes coming out of his ears; the Taille had been set by the Estates General, but the power had been half inched by the crown and the Estates General suspended in 1484. The Estates General limped up for a bit until 1614, then disappeared until the revolution of course; when it was called it was purely advisory anyway – a bit like Brexit apparently. Louis was also able to enforce payment of the regular Gabelle, a percentage imposition on salt, an absolutely critical component of life. I’m not pretending that it was easy – the gabelle was a riot of different rates set by local custom which led to blizzards of popular unrest and galloping smuggling since the rates applied to different regions varied wildly – but none the less, central government did not need to get approval to levy, or enforce it. I understand Salt tax was traditional around the world, including India, something the British Empire was to enjoy exploiting, with similar levels of unpopularity. But that’s for a future episode, should I still be alive that far in the future – or indeed should you be alive that far away. Maybe I should move on.
Also I might mention that prerogative taxes gave Hapsburg and Bourbon another critical element of absolutism their poor relations in England did not have; a paid set of public servants like the Intendants to go and collect this stuff, and a standing army of professional soldiers to make sure you paid up or they’d send the boys round, or indeed billet them on you as the Huguenots were to find out. So, Charles had a challenge on his hand. He was to get to grips with said challenge by addressing the demand side and supply side. That’s me trying to sound like an economist – how’d I do? Now we’ve dealt with the demand side last time – Charles had made peace, so the call on his cash was much reduced. Tick. The thing about politics and government of course is that things happen which will demand money, events dear boy, events, but for the moment a tourniquet had been twisted firmly to stop the immediate flow of blood.
Supply side then, and it is worth asking Richard Weston to come to the front of the stage at this point, since as Lord Treasurer, sorting out the king’s money problems would be his job, along with his Chancellor of the Exchequer, Francis Cottington. Weston was already trusted by Charles; resolutely opposed as he was to further parliaments, veering towards Catholicism, and pro Spanish. Weston had sat already at the feet of the Earl of Middlesex who had achieved great things with a much more difficult master in the incontinent James I, before Buckingham had brought him down. Now it was Weston’s chance with his son, and until 1635 when he died, he would be Charles’ right hand man – but never a favourite on the model of a Buckingham it must be said. Charles’ favourites phase, was, to his credit, behind him.
The challenge was significant. Royal debt stood at £2m which was about 3 times the annual income in peacetime, which stood at about £600,000. At the start of the personal rule also, the economic bones were not falling well for the forecasters. 1629 and 1630 were years of dearth; there was unemployment in the cloth trade, rioting as we have mentioned a couple of episode ago, in London and the South East and the West Country. The 1629 harvest was uninspiring, but that of 1630 was thoroughly awful; the price of wheat rose from 38 shillings in 1629 to 54 shillings in 1630. I’m not sure how aware you are of the value of the shilling in your pocket, all you need to register is that if any staple food goes up in cost by 40%, there’ll be trouble. Almost none of the 1630s harvests were good, and 1638-9 would see a widespread plague. Famines are behind the English, but dearth is not.
Furthermore, income from crown lands was not good – primarily because there were very few of them left, though I am forced to admit that I can’t find a figure for how much revenue specifically it yielded, although in the first 10 years of his reign, Charles raised £640,000 from sale of crown lands – which might help pay the bills in the short term, but was robbing the future of course.
Well, the most obvious source of income was the customs – tunnage and poundage, and the extra impositions made by James I. Of course, these were not in the king’s gift – parliament had never granted them, as was due, and the impositions had been argued back and forth ever since first levied. So that avenue was closed, because Charles deeply respected the traditional rights of parliament.
Not, I mean obviously. Without the customs dues, the personal rule would have been dead in the water, and anyway as far as Charles was concerned they were required as a matter of state, and king was the only one capable of deciding what determined matters of state so…I’ve thought about it and I think this one qualifies as a matter of state.
Although there was some initial resistance, the collection of customs throughout the personal rule was basically something of a triumph for Charles and Weston. Initially economic problems depressed customs revenue, but then came a peace dividend. England had less war, and that helped trade; everyone else had more war, and that meant that English merchants managed to capture the carrying trade while other countries fought; mainly the Dutch, but from 1635, also the French, when France decided they’d had enough of watching the Hapsburgs give everyone a kicking, and entered the Thirty Years War, stage left, with La Gloire and Marianne at the fore. So although the 30 YW depressed trade horribly, as least the English were carrying more of it. In 1635 also, Charles introduced a new book of rates raising the customs dues on various products. The result was that customs and dues revenue started at £270,000 a year, went to £358,000 in 1635, and a whopping £484,000 by 1640. So that’s a pretty penny then.
With all the following financial secret plans and clever tricks, we are going to have to apply the Revolution test, of course, because at the end of the personal rule we are going to have to answer a fundamental question – was England a steaming mass of seething resentments and indignation ready to burst into the fire of revolution? Or really were the Clarendon types correct, and everything was not only fine, but also dandy until some troublemakers in parliament stirred things up again? You might think that continuing to gather customs dues in the face of parliamentary rights would have been most incendiary – but as you can see from the figures that doesn’t really seem to be the case; I mean, no one wants to pay taxes, but customs dues had been a fact of life for ever, and there’s precious little sign of refusals to pay or boycotts in favour of the rights of parliament. Let me not give the impression that everyone was happy with it; the way customs were collected raised the heat quite a lot too.
This was to use farmers; not people with bits of hay sticking out of their hair given to saying aaaagh, pullovers with holes in the elbows and the faint odour of pigs, but slick city types with the latest mobile, fast cars and loose boyfriends. Basically the government went to the powerful of the merchant community and sold them a patch within which they could collect dues – or harvest them you might say, sticking to the farming idiom. They might say, well this patch will cost you £50k up front. The farmer would pay up and the government was well chuffed, because they had money in pocket and none of the schlepp of collecting the money or the risk of having a shortfall – certainty is always nice. The fly in the ointment was that the farmer wasn’t doing this for the good of their soul or because of the love of their king. Their calculation was that they could turn a profit, which made them super sharp eyed in collecting every drop of possible due from their victims, I mean clients. This did not make the relationship any easier. This was incidentally, a common technique throughout Europe, even in a centralised place like France, where they had paid government Intendents in each region – whereas in England of course, you relied on the unpaid gentry and JPs to monitor things.
This meant that there was a fairly small group of super merchants and financial wizards doing very well thank you very much from the government, as opposed to mid level merchants for whom the government was nothing more but a bad credit risk that came looking for loans on occasion. The difference was made even more stark by the practice of monopolies. You have heard all the fuss about monopolies before now of course, in Elizabeth’s reign and James’ reign, when parliament kicked up a stink about these favoured special people making them pay fees for a monopoly they’d bought from the government. Once again, the big boys had to buy these monopolies, which went to the highest bidder. And they weren’t going to turn a profit by offering deep discounts, but by screwing purchasers for every additional penny, purchasers who of course couldn’t go anywhere else for what they needed because yup, that’s the nature of a monopoly.
Now none of this was legal anymore; because in 1624, good ‘ole parliament had passed the Statute of Monopolies, which incidentally is considered to be the start of patent law in England – obviously a great question for your pub quiz. Basically, monopolies were based on letters patent. The word comes from the latin for open, unobscured, because anyone could see the letter to check the legality of it. Sorry for mentioning that, I supposed it’s patently obvious. Arf, and if you will, arf, I’ll be here all week. Anyway, rubbish jokes aside, the Statute of Monopolies banned individuals from being given letters patent unless the product or service involved was demonstrably a novelty, like a new invention. You could no longer give Lord Haw Haw a patent which meant every Tom Dick and Harriet had to buy leather from them, even patent leather, arf once more, – because leather was nothing new. If he’d invented polyester, THEN he could have had patent. So – problem sorted by parliament in 1624. Right?
Wrong, and I say again – Not. Because in their effort to raise money Weston and Charles looked for the loophole and dash it all they found it. Firstly, but dangerously, if anyone argued with the award of a monopoly Charles had it referred to prerogative courts – Star Chamber, chancery, which could be influenced by the king in spades. But more straightforwardly, the Statute of Monopolies referred to individuals; so if the favoured merchant or financier set up a little corporation – why, no problem, you can have a patent of monopoly, of course you can, not mentioned in the 1624 statute. Result? Once more the number of patents ballooned – for the selling of wine, playing cards, dice, specs, pipes, hatbands I mean the list goes on. There was one particularly unpopular one by a corporation set up by folks with known Catholic affiliations, given a monopoly to manufacture soap which turned out not only to be expensive but also rubbish. There was a London washerwoman who complained that the ‘Papist soap’ as she called it, didn’t clean things and burned her hand; to be fair a judge agreed the soap was
So bad that it could not be useful
Which doesn’t make a good advertising jungle. Eager not to lose the money from the monopoly, the government organised one of those public product trials – I’m amazed at this, it sounds so thoroughly modern. You know like a blind competition between Coke and Pepsi where the poor members of the public can agree they both taste like crap, pass me the Dandelion and Burdock. No, like a Persil advert against ‘another leading washing powder’. Anyway, they had a competition and hey presto! It was discovered that the new soap which, just co-incidentally, earned the government £20,000 a year, produced clothes ‘as white and much sweeter’. When people complained they might be slammed in jail; when 16 manufacturers complained about this hideous monopoly since they’d been doing absolutely fine with the old soap before, and no one’s hands got burned, the Attorney General brought a government action against them and fined the lot of ‘em for being moaning minnies.
Now, this particular clearly iniquitous monopoly was brought to an end in 1637, and I would like to tell you that good sense and fairness won out over tyranny in the minds of the king’s loyal ministers. But not a bit of it; the monopoly came to an end because the old soapmakers clubbed together, formed a new corporation and outbid the new guy. Which meant Charlie now scooped up £30,000 a year. I mean – it’s not good is it? But it all added up to Weston and Co. – to the customs dues was added £100,000 a year from monopolies.
To be fair monopolies were not always granted just to make a bob or two – or well, they might have been, but often it was to raise money while doing good – like Tommy Lehrer’s old dope pedlar, ‘doing well by doing good’. Which brings us to another source of angst, the Fenlands of Eastern England.
The Fens are a very unique part of England; I don’t want to bore you with holiday snaps & all, but when I were a lad and all that, we’d drive across the Fens to get to the Norfolk coast so that the north wind could strip the skin from our bones before we came home to landlocked Leicestershire to recover. It’s as flat as a pancake, dissected by arrow straight canals, ditches and unnaturally straight rivers; the fields are vast, and square, regular, the soil black and fertile. It is a landscape that would have looked utterly different to the way it looks now; this is where Hereward hid among the reeds way back when, swamps and marshes, where Ely was genuinely an island. I would love to see the fenlands as they once had been– it must have been a wildlife paradise.
Anyway, the life of people who lived there was highly adapted to their landscape of course; there was precious little arable, there was a lot of common land, where the locals could supplement their diets and incomes. They lived by hunting wildfowl, cutting reeds, fishing and trapping, and had developed all the skills and knowledge needed to live in that landscape, such as using stilts to move around. From the late 16th century, their landscape and consequently their lives, would be transformed; the experience of the low countries demonstrated how, through drainage schemes, the marshes could be drained, and the fertile soil formed from eons of mud and dead stuff could be exposed for tillage. Which does sound like a wizard idea, fair enough. It was often the Dutch who would be brought over to lead projects; in 1626, for example, Charles commissioned Cornelius Vermuyden to undertake work in the Isle of Axeholme, and he brought many Dutch workmen to help him.
These were big projects, they couldn’t be carried out by locals or individual farmers making gradual improvement on a human scale. To pay for all the work, the building of dykes, digging of…dykes – rubbish word, a contronym I now understand, the straightening of rivers and all – big companies, called Adventurers were put together with contracts, led by major landowners like the earl of Bedford. The deal was often that the adventurers in return would get a portion of the improved land; the crown would get paid for the rights to do the work, of course. The landowner might lose some land but what the heck – now they’d have much improved land suitable for tillage and in the end they’d make a bundle. It’s a win win situation, everyone’s happy!
Well no, of course, someone had to pay the price and guess who that would be? Let me think now…oh yes, that would be the ordinary folk, making their living in ways that may not have changed very much since pre-roman times, making use of common land to fish, to graze cattle, cut peat. The monied of the world didn’t think a lot of these folk living and their ancient ways and to be fair the fenlanders didn’t think much right back at them; the antiquarian William Camden wrote of them as
A kind of people according to the nature of the place where they dwell, rude uncivil and envious to all others whom they call upland men
Another described them as a
thriftless race whose only strong passion was a love of freedom
Which sounds rather romantic. Their common rights really, really complicated the situation; so often they were just rolled over – oh well, can’t deal with that, let’s just ignore the difficult thing. Courts called courts of the Sewers were put together, which contrived to fine any community it deemed was ‘hurtfully surrounded’ by marshland, taxing them for allowing such a situtation, then declaring the unpayable tax when it inevitably fell into in arrears and confiscating the land. Not every court was prepared to play ball but many did. The net result of most of these projects, even if relatively sensitively done, was that the ordinary inhabitants often ended up with less land, since it went to the Adventurers, and lost the common rights on which they depended. There were riots and sabotage; the Fen Tigers became known for smashing dykes, filling in…the other type of dyke, destroying channels. The aim of Fenland projects was improvement right enough and in the end wonderful agricultural land was revealed – but a way of life was destroyed in the process, and many lives ruined. So when the civil war began to emerge, many of the noblemen and kings who had encouraged the projects were not popular. It is unsurprising how fervent fenland folk would be for the cause of parliament.
It also gives us a chance to have a bit of a peek at Oliver Cromwell, a small landowner living in Ely at this time. In 1637 the Earl of Bedford was behind a massive project in his neck of the woods, the Great Levels. The story goes that it was Cromwell who agreed to fight the good fight on behalf of the commoners threatened by the development; he swore to tie the adventurers up in legal cases, and promised to stop any work from happening for 5 years at least. This is sort of an event which in a muddled way made it into the film Cromwell trying to prevent an improvement made by the Earl of Manchester – which he did but that was much later 1641. This has been taken as evidence of Cromwell’s famed identification with the common man, with a sense of the traditional social contract and social justice; his detractors certainly didn’t like it; one of them described Cromwell as
Especially made choice of by those ever endeavoured the undermining of regal authority
Later his enemies were to refer to him as the Lord of the Fens – it was not a compliment, it was ridicule.
Now as is the way of these things, it’s not fashionable to imagine great men who become protector of the realm and supposedly a tyrant and a man responsible for at least for many deaths in Ireland to be seen to be down with the ordinary folk and in possession of a social contract; and there is no doubt that later in his career Cromwell would support drainage projects – though he also insisted that a fair deal be arrived at for the commoners displaced. So historians have identified holes in the story – there’s only one source for much of it; so, the most positive story most historians appear to be able to live with is one where Cromwell did indeed lead the protest and legal resistance – but as part of a consortium of local worthies including the likes of the Bishop of Ely. Still, Cromwell surely remains even then on the side of the oppressed.
One more word on the fens. It’s a bit of a theme I think about Charles that it’s not necessarily what he did, but why or how he did it. He wasn’t too careful about whom he selected for these projects and how they behaved, as long as the money and improvement followed. In Lincolnshire, then, a project was brought forward by one Anthony Thomas. In 1629 the local Court of Sewers actually objected to the project, on account of the fact that the adventurers were both corrupt and incompetent – one of those might be acceptable, 2 was frankly careless. So the Jury rejected Thomas’ scheme, justice could be done. But Charles simply ordered it to go ahead anyway, by his own authority. The letter he sent, marked with his signet, said
We be constrained to interpose our regal power and prerogative…to force forward and adverse men to give way to that which is for the public good
So much for due process; for Charles, the law must bend to the royal will. So much also for good government; the commissioners refused nonetheless to go ahead – so he sacked them and had them replaced with yes men who would. When Thomas claimed the project was finished, Charles gave him 24,000 acres of land. Two years later it turned out that, in line with Thomas’ incompetence, the project wasn’t finished and was a mess – Charles got to find out because the local inhabitants objected and raised petitions for redress. So obviously, fired and warned of the truth by the people for whom he believed himself a father, Charles went into punishment mode. But the people he punished were not the wrongdoers like Thomas – it was his children, the local inhabitant who had objected. This is what you call the exercise of arbitrary power, and the reality that fathers can be tyrants too.
By the time we start talking about selling monopolies, I don’t know about you, but I am starting to get an image of Charles, Treasurer Weston and Chancellor of the Exchequer Cottington digging around desperately in the back of the sofa for a few mouldy pennies; because this sort of thing does not sound like the structured, reliable income the likes of which we are used to governments having these days. Well of course things were different back then, but I think the metaphor has some relevance; the structured income should have been coming from parliament. In order to make ends meet, rather than trying to impose modern direct taxes such as existed in France and Spain, Charles the traditionalist went back to work and sweat his medieval rights. There’s a good reason for that – he could prove that, even if antiquated and covered in dust, they were legit. And because imposing direct taxes could lead civil war or at least fury, but to be fair to Charles its vanishingly unlikely he even considered such a thing at this stage.
So what else was down the back of the sofa? Well do you remember ages ago, middle ages, we talked about how a law was passed requiring knights to come forward and be knighted – and therefore to own up to their military and political obligations; or else they would be required to pay a fine? We did talk about it – can’t remember when, but cross my heart and hope to die we did. Over a hundred years since it was last used though. Distraint of knighthood it was called. And Charles now revived it; if you hadn’t come forward to be knighted, and you had income of £40 or more, then you’d need to cough up a fine. And let me tell you, £40 in Charles’ reign was worth a lot less than it had been in Henry VII’s reign. In 1630 special commissioners were sent round the country rattling the collecting tin, and 9,000 landowners were caught by it, yes 9,000. In five years, they found £173,000 that way. People paid up because it was clearly legal – but there was a blizzard of complaints and claims for exemption, and people grumbled – legal, but not fair.
Then there were forest rights. The royal forest was pretty insignificant by this time; what there was had largely been sold off by James I, and enclosed by the landowners that bought them, very often diddling ordinary people as per normal, out of their rights of common. Where have you heard that before? As a result, there were multiple enclosure riots between 1626 and 1632, particularly in Wiltshire and the Forest of Dean. Then cover me with honey and call me supper, Charles decided to fine everyone who had transgressed Forest laws, setting the extent of royal forest as though it was the middle ages; so people were fined when they didn’t even know they lived in something that had ever been royal forest. I mean it is a real stretch – and in the middle ages, the royal forest at its greatest extent had covered 1/3rd of England. But despite the level of irritation, discombobulation and open-jawed disbelief it caused, we are talking the law of diminishing returns here This particular outrage raised only £80,000 in return for the burning of a good deal of political capital and goodwill.
More medieval and feudal rights were to follow though; remember Wardship and how much we used to talk about that? At the start of the reign it raised £45,000 a year; by the end of £84,000. It has to be said that Robert Cecil had tried very hard to do a deal to bring these antiquated feudal incidents to an end, in return for a regular, assured income, if you remember his Great Contract; both James and Parliament were to blame for failing to make that work. To an extent, the gentry of England were eating the pudding they themselves had baked. And then another one we used to talk about – purveyance – people had always hated that, the right of the royal household to requisition the goods they wanted – and then pay pants for it.
None of these individually quite had what it takes to induce rebellion; they were each relatively small, and dispersed, so it was difficult to get angry enough to man the barricades, or big enough for people to get together – there were without doubt complaints and anger, but nothing quite to focus on. But nor were these impositions enough to provide a long term future for financing English government, and it wasn’t just the Privy Council who knew it; the Venetian Ambassador didn’t mention sofas but did say that all these fines were
Good for once only and states are not maintained by such devices.
So, something more substantial was needed; and so something more substantial we shall have, which we will talk about next week. And up to the ockey of history will step a man whose reputation remains unvarnished by the later history of the Civil wars, probably partly because he had the good sense to die early. In 1637 it was this man whose stand first gave a voice and a focus to protest when in 1637, a refusenick, who stood firm against the largest of the King’s money raising ventures, Ship Money.