Revenue and the sheriffs
“We are of course aware” wrote Richard FitzNigel, the kings treasurer “that kingdoms are governed and laws upheld primarily by prudence, fortitude, moderation and justice, and the other virtues which rules must strive to cultivate.
But there are times when money can speed on sound and wise policies, and smooth out difficulties …”
The sheriffs were an important part of the Kings revenue generating system.
- The Kings demesne lands – Sheriffs would contract to manage one or more of the Kings manors for a fixed annual fee – known as a farm
- The various taxes which were collected by the Sheriffs, and
- The fines and fees paid in connection with the justice system, which was largely managed by the Sheriffs in the shires
The Sheriffs work was mostly administered through the Exchequer, an offshoot of the treasury, the first great office of state to separate from the Kings Household and settle in Westminster, in the time of King Henry I. It also had a judicial function but was mainly a revenue court with the ‘Barons of the Exchequer’ as Judges.
The duties of the Exchequer
The main duties of the Exchequer were to
- Draw up the summonses which set out the items on which the sheriffs were expected to account
- Deal with examining the sheriffs when they came to the Exchequer in answer to the summons
- Keep a check on the work of the sheriffs generally and decide if they had done anything wrongly, and to
- Keep records
As mentioned previously, twice a year Sheriffs would be summoned to the Exchequer. It was a formal occasion.
The examination of the Sheriffs
The Exchequer table was large, as it had to accommodate many people. At the head sat the Justiciar, the President of the Board, together with various other senior officers including, sometimes, the Chancellor.
Down one side sat the clerks in charge of the rolls and down the other the clerks who did the reckoning with the counters. At the foot of the table sat the hapless sheriff with his clerk.
Also present, although not at the Exchequer table itself, were senior officers of the Kings household – the Chamberlains, the Constable and the Marshal.
Their job included witnessing documents, producing writs and tallies and taking charge of ‘delinquents’. These were those who did not satisfy the court. Sometimes (depending on their rank) they were imprisoned – the Marshal had the responsibility for dealing with this.
A chequered cloth (from which the Exchequer derived its name) was spread on the table (although from some records it seems as if it could have been the table itself which was chequered). Counters were laid on this, representing sums of money, so that people could see and understand at a glance the account that was being audited.
One by one the sheriffs would be called to account for their finances, submit their actions to judgment and receive instructions. It was a nerve racking experience. Indeed one Sheriff in Henry I’s day made a name for himself just because he was able to appear with a smile on his face. Clearly this was unusual.
A careful record was kept by the clerks of the Exchequer of all that transpired.
Creating order out of Sheriff chaos
The task of the annual audit was to make sense of payments “which reach the treasury in different ways, are due on different accounts, and are demanded of the sheriffs in different fashions”.
This included investigations into the management of the farms, the collection by the sheriff of tax, and also for debts to the King by private individuals.
The Exchequer never forgot a debt. Even if it was accepted that the debtor was unable to pay, the debt would be recorded in the Exchequer records called the pipe rolls. Then if the land ever reverted to the King, for example by escheat or during the wardship of an heir, (as discussed here) the debt could be recouped.
The decline and resurrection of the Exchequer
In the time of Henry I, the Exchequer was very efficient. However although it apparently still functioned during the difficult reign of King Stephen, it became a shadow of its former self, and the income plummeted.
One of the most important tasks for Henry II when he came to the throne, was to restore the Exchequer to its former glory.
Perhaps the biggest problem he encountered was that they no longer had any experienced officers. Henry II had to beg his grandfather’s treasurer, Bishop Nigel of Ely, to come out of retirement and advise him on the proper procedures.
Bishop Nigel was not keen and Henry had to ask him several times before he finally agreed. However under his guidance the Exchequer recovered its former efficiency and the income increased.
Bishop Nigel died in 1169, but his son Richard (Richard FitzNigel or FitzNeal) was appointed treasurer and held this post for nearly 40 years.
The Exchequer, maybe because it was so crucial to government and maybe because it was the only government office which remained in one place rather than moving around with the King, is the source of some of the best records from this time. In particular the pipe rolls and the book written by Richard FitzNigel on the work of the Exchequer.
The Pipe Rolls
The pipe rolls are the records kept by the clerks of the Exchequer recording the annual audit of the sheriffs accounts. They form the earliest and longest continuous running record of government that we have.
The very earliest to survive is from 1129-30 in the reign of King Henry I, although it is clear that they were well established by that time. There is then a break (doubtless many records were lost during the confusion of Stephen’s reign) followed by a more or less unbroken series from 1155-56 up until 1833. A period of some seven hundred years.
They are called the pipe rolls after the “pipe” shape formed by the rolled up parchments on which the records were originally written.
They were kept in Henry’s time in the Treasury, along with Domesday and other important records, as they were needed by the Exchequer clerks for their work. Today they are housed in the National Archives office in Kew, and many of them have been published by the Pipe Roll Society and various other county record societies.
Dialogues de Scaccario – by Richard FitzNigel
Another extremely important source of information about the workings of the Exchequer during this time is the Dialogues de Scarrario.
‘I was sitting one day at my turret window overlooking the Thames when someone approached me and said very earnestly “Master, have you not heard that knowledge and treasure buried away are both useless?” “Yes.” I said. And he want on “Why then do you not teach others that knowledge of the Exchequer for which you are famous, and put it into writing least it die with you”
An extract from Dialogues de Scaccario, the book written by Richard FitzNigel about his work, which is in the form of a discussion between a master and student. As you can image, this unique book has been hugely helpful for historians researching the period.
The pipe rolls and the Dialogues are the main reason why historians know more about the workings of the Exchequer than the other areas of government and justice. Then, as now, the Treasury and Exchequer were the bed rock on which the other areas of government rested.