Episode 5: How to pay for war

In the early decades of the Norman monarchy, kings had vast lands they could distribute liberally to loyal followers, but by the time of the first Plantagenets - Henry II, Richard the Lionheart, and John - these lands were much reduced. How did they pay for war?

I am having to jump back and forth among the later years of the 12th century to prepare viewers for the main event - the reign of King John and Magna Carta.

In the Middle Ages, as now, everything depended on money: nothing changes. The cost of running a medieval country was enormous, especially one engaged in so much war as English kings were. It has been calculated that the Crown's ordinary annual revenue was about 26,000 pounds from traditional sources - royal lands, wardship and marriage, profits of justice, imports and exports, particularly wool, fines, or amercements.

By the time John came to the throne in 1199, ordinary revenue is a misnomer because extraordinary revenue had been required to satisfy the needs of Henry II and particularly those of the Lionheart. Special circumstances had become commonplace. The problem with royal lands was that, since the time of the Conqueror in the eleventh century, much of these had passed out of the Crown, mostly by grants to followers or to buy support. Sales accounted for some losses of property.

Some land came back by forfeiture or escheat (escheat is a term for 'want of an heir'). It may interest British viewers to hear that 'escheat' is still known to the Law, and comes into action when a person dies intestate without any known heirs.

There is a whole department in the British Treasury, known as the Treasury Solicitor Bona Vacantia. Bona vacantia is a Latin term, meaning having 'good emptiness', so the Treasury can claim the asset and sell it for cash. The Lionheart had sold so much Crown land to fund his crusade to the Holy Land that, by the time of John's accession in 1199, revenue of 2,000 pounds a year had been lost from Crown property and passed into private hands.

By the end of the twelfth century there was also the Great Inflation, in which prices had risen by two or three times as much as in the reign of Henry II who had died ten years before. The medieval mind had no conception of inflation. Other than for special items (such as Richard the Lionheart's ransom) - it was expected that a king would 'live of his own'.

This expression is found in the writings of the great seventeenth century lawyer, Sir Edward Coke, when the early Stuart kings, James I and Charles I, were also expected to live of their own. Charles I's reign ended in the cataclysm of a desperate civil war, the king's execution, and the declaration of a republic.

There is a clear parallel with the baronial plots in the early thirteenth century that compassed the assassination or deposition of King John before Magna Carta. I love the expression 'to compass the death of the king' which seems to have originated in the fourteenth century.

By 1355, even to think of killing the king became treasonable by an Act of Parliament. King John is sometimes known as John Lackland, and the epithet is wrongly attributed to him for the lands he lost in France in the first years of his reign. He had been known as 'Lackland' as a child since he had not received very much in manors and estates, compared with his older siblings.

This was unwisely put right by his brother, Richard the Lionheart, when he became king in 1189. Henry II had, in fact, made his youngest son lord of Ireland and had him crowned king of Ireland in 1177. In 1185, Prince John, as king of Ireland, crossed over to his new fief, no doubt to see what could be made from it financially.

Not much had changed since the English invasion in 1169, and when John arrived sixteen years later, English rule was hardly consolidated, except around Dublin, where an area known as the Pale had been established. The word 'Pale' comes from the word 'pallisade'.

Ireland was not conquered for centuries, and any man going there was expected to take whatever he could at the point of his sword. On arrival, not very surprisngly, John 'thought (it) fit to shut up everything in his own purse, and was unwilling to pay the wages of his soldiers,' according to one of the chroniclers at the time.

This reduced the number of his troops rapidly, so he made some local dispositions of those knights who would stand their ground, and went back to England - presumably with most the money. Twenty years had still to pass before John became king, and he was already known for his intense avarice, in a family noted for this Mortal Sin.

This is a trifle unfair considering the state of Ireland at the time. As Henry II's sons grew up, they quarrelled with each other, and with their father. First, the eldest son, Henry, was crowned by his father in 1170 and was known as the 'Young King.' He ended in rebellion against his father. The Young King died of dysentry in 1183.

In 1185, Richard, later the Lionheart, seized his brother Geoffrey, made duke of Brittany by the king. The duke had failed to return some property to their mother Eleanor of Aquitaine. Henry II had to intervene to restore the peace. In 1188, the king arrived in Le Mans, capital of Maine, and ordered everyone to makeover a tenth of his revenues in that year towards his proposed crusade, a project, of course, that the king was far too old to undertake.

He was backed by the Church whose prelates threatened to excommunicate anyone who failed to make his contribution. Similarly, anyone who was in debt who volunteered for the crusade, was exempted from interest payments, so long as he was going on crusade. But officials never looked too closely into this so long as the king and they received a consideration for their trouble.

There is an excellent example, from September 1189, of how profitable royal excuse from the crusade could be. Roger of Howden wrote: 'Richard, king of England, sending his envoys to Pope Clement, obtained from him letters patent, that such persons as he should think fit to excuse (from crusade) and leave in charge of his dominions, should be exempt from assuming the Cross and proceeding to Jerusalem; by which means he obtained an immense sum of money.' It was evidently a money-spinner.

Similar exemptions for cash, or for favour were granted to conscripted men in the First and Second World Wars under colour of a medical disability, or being in a reserved occupation. A tenth of the value of all property was taken by Henry II in England in 1188. The king sent his officials and clerks throughout the land, causing all the richest men in York, London, and the biggest cities and towns to attend on certain days with the money in specie.

If any failed to show up, they were sought, clapped in irons, and imprisoned until the last farthing had been wrung from them. King Philip of France carried out a similar exercise in his territories. He was also joining the crusade.

When Richard the Lionheart succeeded as king of England in 1189, his brother Prince John was the greatest recipient of earldoms, lands and manors, and the county of Mortain in France. He needed a vast stack of gold and silver if he was to fund his crusade to Jerusalem 2,000 miles away and the cost of getting there.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain