Desktop version

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

The Culture of Accountability at the Exchequer in the Late Twelfth Century

Accountability at the Exchequer could, however, be dismissed as mere, mean, bean counting—and sometimes was. In his Invectives (c. 1200—16), Gerald of Wales inveighed in just such terms against Hubert Walter (d. 1205), Chancellor (from 1199) and, as Archbishop of Canterbury (from 1193), a guilty party in foiling

Gerald’s attempts to become (Arch)bishop of St David’s.[1] Walter’s Exchequer training, said Gerald, being learnt 'where fiscal returns are tallied and totted’, provided no basis for properly responsible forms of office—such as the episcopacy.

That good man, namely the bishop-elect of Bangor, had been called from the cloister,

I from the schools, and whence the archbishop? From the Exchequer, and what is the Exchequer? It is the place in England where the public treasure is, that is, a four-square table in London, where fiscal assessments are tallied and totted. From this 'school’, from this 'gymnasium’, through all the grades of his rank was he called, like nearly all the English bishops, and there he grew old. From here he can reckon well, dispute well, since—for sure—he who can reckon well can philosophize well.[2]

Such sarcasm could not apply to Walter’s successor at Canterbury. Stephen Langton taught, like Gerald, at Paris as a master. But Langton too complained about bishops who were elected, not according to the Holy Spirit, but rather according to the 'spirit of the Exchequer in London’.[3]

More slippery are Walter Map’s scurrilous comments on the Exchequer in his Angevin satire, De nugis curialium (c. 1181—2 with later revisions). Map, a royal clerk and sometime royal justice (as was Richard of Ely), is writing of the Exchequer after it settled in London and received the institutional form Richard describes in the Dialogue. Talking ironically of the wider court, Map says it 'is milder than hell only in that those whom the court tortures can die’.[4] He describes at length the curial equivalents of Charon, Sisyphus, Ixion, Tityus, Belus’s daughters, Cerberus, and the perverted court judgements of its King Dis (Hades), and the judges Minos and Rhadamanthus (the latter two brothers who gave laws to humans and ended as infernal judges).[5] Map names the Exchequer as the one chink of light in this darkness: the only place where 'mother purse with her wrinkled mouth’ does not work miracles. The contrast Map draws between the rest of the court and the Exchequer is so extreme that irony seems at work. It is unclear, true, whether Map is distinguishing between the Exchequer as court or counting house, but the crown’s discretion to decide and vary the rate of debtors’ repayment at the Exchequer was one of its greatest political powers (as we shall see). It seems likeliest too then that Map was thinking of the Exchequer barons when he wrote:

I do not call them accountants [bursarios] whom the king has chosen to be the greatest of all, but [I do so call] those whom cupidity and office-holding [procuracio] has led to their own bench [of judgement]. Nor is it surprising if those whom Simon [Magus, seller of offices] promoted to rule, count for Simon. It is the custom of businessmen that what they buy, they sell.[6]

Mother Purse seems to have re-entered through the back door. It also seems odd for Map to claim that the reason for the Exchequer’s justice is that ‘the eye of the just king seems to be ever fresh there’, that Henry II’s proximity leads to prompt Exchequer judgement.[7] As Map would have known, and as Richard’s Dialogue describes, Henry II is the Exchequer’s absent centre. Everything is keyed to his interest but he is not there. Henry is no Alphonse II of Aragon (1162—96) where the king is so close he himself accounts.[8] Part of the point of the Exchequer was that, by the late twelfth century, it generally stayed put while the king itinerated. Map himself, just after this passage, notes how judges at (unspecified) courts encourage the king to be absent so as to profit the better from them. When it comes to the king’s fresh eye, Map implies the opposite of what he says about Exchequer justice.

Map’s criticism of the king’s judges and officers is that what should not be bought and sold, is. Gerald and Langton are critical of the norms characterizing one set of officers (Exchequer men) infecting another (bishops). Gerald does not esteem the skills cultivated at the Exchequer. Langton does not like how its spirit (‘culture’ we might say) seeps out to other institutions. The fairness of these subjective, select complaints is not the issue. What matters is that their bite came from the easy presumption that others would recognize the verdict. If the Dialogus says that ‘Clearly the exchequer stands by its own laws (suis legibus), not rashly, but on the advice of the great’, it is clear how some perceived the spirit of those laws, as well as the motivations of the great.[9] The culture—specifically the culture of accountability—at the Exchequer had a very particular reputation amongst Richard of Ely’s late twelfth-century contemporaries.

The Exchequer structured the accountability of sheriffs to a very great degree. The Dialogue of the Exchequer offers a view of why the Exchequer mattered, and what it was interested in. It is an exceptional, some would say distorting, text speaking specifically to late twelfth-century Exchequer practices. A dialogue between an experienced Exchequer magister (i.e. ‘Richard’) and his neophyte discipulus, prefaced with a dedication to Henry II, it describes first the approach of the Exchequer, then the tasks and officers of the lower Exchequer of receipt (book 1), and then the tasks and officers of the upper Exchequer (book 2).

Richard’s views on Exchequer practice were doubtless one of many (he acknowledges that by framing his tractatus as a dialogue with an over-assertive Exchequer discipulus). But given his office and its forty-odd-year duration, Richard’s opinions must express an influential view of what the Exchequer thought worth privileging, and what it did not, when it held sheriffs to account.71

  • [1] On Gerald and St David’s, see Michael Richter, Giraldus Cambrensis: The Growth of the WelshNation, rev. edn. (Aberystwyth, 1976); Robert Bartlett, Gerald of Wales: A Voice of the Middle Ages,repr. edn. (Stroud, 2006), 44—53.
  • [2] Gerald of Wales, De Invectionibus , ed. W. S. Davies, YCymmrodor 30 (1920), 97. Cf. 114—15.See also C. R. Cheney, Hubert Walter (London, 1967), 97—9.
  • [3] 64 In a commentary on Numbers 27: 17—19 concerning the selection of priests in BNF Lat. 14415fo. 242vb, cited by Buc, Ambiguite du livre, 62. Cf. Peter of Blois, Tractatus de institution episcopi inPL, 207, cols. 1097-12 at 1107.
  • [4] De nugis curialium, ed. M. R. James, rev. C. N. L. Brooke and R. A. B. Mynors, OMT (Oxford,1983), 500 (§5.7). Map’s original incomplete version was drafted c.1181-2. See now Bjorn K. Weiler,'Royal Justice and Royal Virtue in William of Malmesbury’s Historia Novella and Walter Map’s DeNugis Curialium’, in Istvan P. Bejcy and Richard G. Newhauser (eds.), Virtue and Ethics in the TwelfthCentury (Leiden, 2005), 317-39; and Weiler, 'The King as Judge: Henry II and Frederick Barbarossaas Seen by Their Contemporaries’, in Patricia Skinner (ed.), Challenging the Boundaries of MedievalHistory: The Legacy of Timothy Reuter, (Turnhout, 2009), 115—40.
  • [5] Fittingly, Rhadamanthus figures in one of Plato’s extended discussions of euthyna when discussing how perjury is common and oaths no longer effective (Laws XII, 945b—949c at 948b—e).
  • [6] De nugis curialium, 508 (§5.7).
  • [7] De nugis curialium, 508 (§5.7). David Carpenter suggests Map may be suggesting the vigilance of the Exchequer on behalf ot the king, though Map has some satirical goal here.
  • [8] First person singular accounting by King Alphonse II of Aragon: Fiscal Accounts of Catalonia,ii. ##27, 33, 35, 46 (examples from 1174—83). See also ##41, 42. For accounting by Peter II(1196—1213) see ##115, 120, 122, 128 (examples from 1205—9). See also Fiscal Accounts of Catalonia,i. 84—5, 142. One could also compare Waces image of Richard II of Normandy—see p. 100.
  • [9] 7° DS, Dedication, 3.
< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >

Related topics