Desktop version

Home arrow History arrow Officers and accountability in medieval England : 1170-1300


The late twelfth-century English Exchequer had a formidable reputation. Both a court and the counting house,[1] historians have described it as ‘the most relentless financial system in Europe’, the ‘gyroscope that kept the whole structure of [English] government and administration on an even keel’, the ‘eye of the storm’.[2] The bare mechanics of shrieval accountability at the late twelfth-century Exchequer worked as follows.[3] Written summonses to account specifying the amount due were issued in advance of the two sessions at Easter and Michaelmas. These went out to sheriffs, other royal agents, and those with significant royal debts or agreements.[4] Half the sheriffs’ ‘farm’ was due at the Easter ‘view’, the sheriff then receiving notched wooden tallies indicating the amount actually paid in to the Treasury. He would bring these, his summons, royal writs authorizing expenditure, his receipts, and cash at Michaelmas for the final account which was taken at the Upper or Greater Exchequer at Westminster.[5] It was from this complex mix of wood, parchment, and coin that the final reckoning was made. If it all tallied with the Exchequer’s record of what the sheriff owed, the accountant was deemed quit. Debts frequently rolled on into successive accounting years, however.

The English king therefore had a complex set of moneys to spend. He might have feudal dues (wardships, proffers for marriages), or moneys arising from the county plumbing that underlay England and through which law and administration flowed (as with the diocesan grid in the religious sphere). The English combination is unusual in Western Christendom in the twelfth century.[6] Administratively England was bigger than France, in that the directly administered French royal domain was much smaller than the area where the English king had legislative, judicial, and fiscal rights.[7] The French royal domain (before John’s loss of Normandy in 1204) ran only from Evreux, north of Paris, south down to Orleans, with Sens in the west, and the bubble around Bourges furthest south.[8] Size-wise England contrasts also with the county of Flanders, the core of the Aragonese crown, and Sicily: that is, the other major Western European principalities with advancing administrative machinery in the late twelfth century.[9] In England, by contrast too with Flanders or France, payments were made solely in cash by the late twelfth century.[10] In Flanders, sheep were still being brought into localized collection points for comital assessment.[11] It was the particular balance struck between tallies, writs, and receipts held by shrieval-accountants and records held centrally at the Exchequer that allowed the system to reconcile shrieval action and royal order while avoiding hideous over-sophistication. England was complicated.[12]

  • [1] The first reference to the (barons of the) Exchequer exemplifies this mix; a writ exempting StMary of Lincoln from the 3s. hide tax of 1110, Regesta Regum Anglo-Normannorum 1066—1154, #963. Select Cases in the Exchequer of Pleas provides a valuable introduction to the court side of theExchequer, esp. xxxix, xliv, liii—liv.
  • [2] First quote, R. W Southern, The Making of the Middle Ages (London, 1953), 180; following quotes, Warren, Henry II, new edn. (London, 1991), 315, 316. The historiography of thetwelfth-century Exchequer is large. Editions of DS provide bibliographies, as do many newer PipeRolls editions (e.g. PR 1221). The last monograph was Reginald L. Poole’s The Exchequer in the TwelfthCentury (Oxford, 1912); see also F. Liebermann Einleitung in den Dialogus de Scaccario (Gottingen,1875). More recent studies include H. G. Richardson, ‘Richard fitz Neal and the Dialogus de Scaccario’,EHR 43 (1928), 161—71, 321—40; H. G. Richardson and G. O. Sayles, The Governance of MediaevalEngland from the Conquest to Magna Carta (Edinburgh, 1963), passim; and Green, Government ofEngland, esp. 38—50. For sharp commentary see Clanchy, England and its Rulers, 54—9, and FromMemory to Written Record' England 1066—1307, 3rd edn. (Chichester, 2013), passim; John Hudson,‘Administration, Family and Perceptions of the Past in Late Twelfth-Century England: RichardFitzNigel and the Dialogue of the Exchequer’, in Paul Magdalino (ed.), The Perception of the Past inTwelfth Century Europe (London, 1992), 75—98, and The Formation of the English Common Law: Lawand Society in England from the Norman Conquest to Magna Carta (London, 1996), 151—5.
  • [3] For the 1170s, DS, II.ii, at 72—5. I have preferred to use the 1983 edn.; for discussion of the2007 edn. see Nicholas Karn’s review in EHR 126 (2011), 408—10. For clear summaries of proceduresee David Carpenter, Struggle for Mastery: Britain 1066—1284 (London, 2003), 152—4, and Green’sintroduction to PR 1130, new edn., ix—xv, xxiv—xxxi; Stacey, Politics, Policy and Finance, 201—5.
  • [4] DS, II.ii at 69.
  • [5] 54 For partial Exchequer mobility in the early thirteenth century, see Holt, ‘Philip Mark’, 10—12.
  • [6] The practical question of the English monarchs’ management of proportionately greaternon-feudal revenues can also be usefully compared to other monarchs vis-a-vis theoretical ideas of‘public vs. private’ management of regnal assets.
  • [7] 56 A wonderful extended consideration making this amongst other points is ch. 7 of Maddicott’sOrigins of the English Parliament, here 381—2, 389. On the reach of French royal authority, as distinct from legislative reach see Andre Gourons remarks in ‘Royal Ordonnances in Medieval France’, inAntonio Padoa-Schioppa (ed.), Legislation and Justice (The Origins of the Modern State in Europe, 13thto 18th Centuries) (Oxford, 1997), 57—71 at 59—61. Gouron argues that the former is visible by themid-twelfth century, the latter by the early thirteenth.
  • [8] Map 12, New Cambridge Medieval History, iv. c. 1024—c. 1198, part II, ed. J. Riley-Smith andD. Luscombe (Cambridge, 2004), 550—1. Comment on the smallness of the domain and hencethe ease of supervising regional administration in John W. Baldwin, The Government of PhilipAugustus: Foundations of French Royal Power in the Middle Ages (Berkeley, Calif., 1986), 44.
  • [9] 58 T. N. Bisson, The Medieval Crown of Aragon: A Short History (Oxford, 1986), 91; the combinationof Catalonia and Aragon from 1134 under Ramon Berenguer IV and Petronilla of Aragon, 31—48.
  • [10] 59 DS, I.vii at 40—1.
  • [11] 6° A. Verhulst and M. Gysseling (eds.), Le Compte General de 1187, connu sous le nom de «GrosBrief, et les institutions financieres du comte de Flandre au XIIе siecle (Brussels, 1962), passim. Verhulstand Gysseling argue that payments were made both in kind and in coin (54—8). See Bryce Lyon andAdriaan Verhulst, Medieval Finance: A Comparison of Financial Institutions in Northwestern Europe(Bruges, 1967), 20—2 for the centres, 29, 36—8 for renders in kind.
  • [12] 61 Over-sophistication could occur, as under the Exchequer baron Richard of Ilchester (d. 1188):he introduced the copying of summonses, a practice abandoned because of the proliferating records it led to. DS, II.ii at 74—5.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics