Episode 9: Richard the warlord imposes new taxes

King Richard introduced new taxes, pillaged and killed the Jews for their money, and the wealthy merchants of London forced the poor to pay the taxes the rich should have paid.

Money was the most pressing issue for Richard, and we noticed in the last episode that, in only two years, as much as 1,100,000 marks in specie had been shipped from England to France to pay for the king's war of re-conquest.

He had a survey carried out on his own manors: their size, population, the number of beasts, the land under cultivation, the money paid into the treasury in rents and other dues. He wanted to know who, among the nobility, during his detention in Germany, had paid fees for escheat, inheritance, and marriage. He also wanted to know who actually paid towards his ransom, and who only made empty promises. Doubtless, the latter would be pursued.

This exposed those who had failed to pay anything and the fines were swingeing. Richard investigated the Jews, and other money lenders. This would have revealed what was owed by whom, to whom. One can almost hear his advisers telling him that, anyone with money to lend, was almost certainly not meeting his obligations to the king's revenue.

Then as now tax avoidance was evidently common, for ordinances promised enormous fines for those who sought to conceal anything. Fines were also laid on the Angevin empire in France. A novel money-raising device was found in the striking of a new royal seal by which grants, agreements, immunities, court judgments were confirmed.

A charter with the previous seal appended to it was no longer valid. Any man of property, therefore, was obliged to pay for a new grant with the new seal. Many prelates and barons were subject to annual services to one another, and especially to the king. Hugh, bishop of Lincoln, gave Richard a thousand marks in silver in 1196 to be released of the annual gift, by which he held his cathedral church.

This ancient gift was of a richly decorated cloak lined in sable fur, and presented to the monarch at Christmas. Even now, only the wives of Russian oligarchs can probably afford such an expensive fur. By this payment, Bishop Hugh obtained liberty of his own church, which may seem extraordinary in the twenty-first century when churches are seldom subject to secular imposts.

Another Bishop Hugh, this time of Coventry, in the same year, compounded with the king to be received back into favour with the payment of five thousand marks. In the previous year, Prince John had been received back into his brother's favour for his behaviour during Richard's incarceration. He got the earldom of Gloucester back and several honors, and a cash gift of 8,000 pounds, but he did not receive back the castles he had forfeited.

These would have to wait until John inherited the throne. We get a rare view of the treatment of the poorer sort of folk in the town in 1196. The London baronage and wealthy merchants made sure that the money levied on the city would be paid by the poor - journeymen, servants, market stall holders, and the like which produced disorder. Their cause was taken up by a lawyer, William Fitzsbern.

This was not at all appreciated by the king, the barons, and rich merchants, and the city authorities seized William. Some kind of trial was held and he was sentenced to death. He was consequently tied to a horse's tail and dragged through the streets of London - probably along what is now Oxford Street - to Tyburn where he was hanged, and where executions were held in the capital until 1783. The year, Roger of Howden tells us, was also one when there was 'a great famine and mortality among men.'

In 1198, Richard demanded three hundred knights for duty in France or a scutage - money in lieu. Since a knight's daily wage was three shillings, this tax may have raised more than 16,000 pounds. The king also laid the heaviest tax yet on land at five shillings a hide, a rate of 25 percent. The barons were authorized to collect the money from the tenants on their estates.

No reason is given for this concession to the lords of the soil, but a fair guess, I think, would be that to have imposed this on the barons themselves would have led to significant unrest among the powerful in England when the king was about to leave the country for France. The collection of the money by the landlords also enabled them to profit from the tax by collecting more than was demanded. Well, they were peasants, nobodies in the medieval scheme of things. I don't say that with any rancour or sensoriousness.

It appears to me to have been a fact of life that few, including the peasantry, considered particularly strange. Such attitudes among the poor might have started to change by the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, but that uprising was whipped up by clever leaders, and was soon over.

Everything that might bring in money was investigated: whether widows had compounded for marrying as they wished. The fine was to be extracted on behalf of our lord the king. Paths and rough roads, belonging to the king, that had been stopped up, were to attract fines by those who had committed this offence. Such paths may have been in the royal forests and were intended to be kept clear for chasing quarry on horseback. Whether treasure troves had been declared, valued, and the king's share received. Local knights in each county were to carry out these inquiries, no doubt taking a consideration for themselves as there was no other source of payment for their time and effort. Their activities and success rates were to be checked.

As the chronicler said: Inquiry is to be made, if all appear, who such person is, and what is his name, for it is by these and other vexations, whether justly or unjustly, that all England has been reduced to poverty from sea to sea. The chief justice of the king's forests were to array the archbishops, bishops, earls, barons, knights and freeholders to hear the king's commands.

In the first place, our lord the king gives notice that if any shall commit any offence against him, relative to his venison, or his forests, in any way... it is his intention that the full punishment shall be inflicted on them, as in the days of Henry, the grandfather of our lord the king, that is to say, they are to lose their eyes and their virility... They were to be blinded and castrated.

For most of the twelfth century, the population had been growing and encroachments into the royal forests occurred, the land cleared and put down to cultivation (these were known as 'assarts'). Kings had been taking over land for forests since William Rufus, who created the New Forest in south-west Hampshire, and it was called 'New' because it was new.

Henry I and Henry II continued this; the troubled reign of King Stephen saw the encroachments that, fifty years later, were to attract the most barbarous punishments under the Lionheart. But even the baronage were irritated by the growth of the royal forests. After all, like royalty, they enjoyed the chase with bows and arrows, and hounds.

While the forest laws were spruced up, the religious orders refused, in 1198, to pay the land tax of five shillings a hide. The royal government very effectively neutalized such disobedience by issuing an edict stating that if anyone in the kingdom should commit an offence against a priest or a monk, no proceedings would be taken against them.

If, however, a priest should offend against a layman, the cleric was immediately to be brought to book. The churches paid the land tax. In essence, the king refused justice to one group of people and ended the tax strike. But, of course, the withholding of justice is no way to run even a medieval country.

Little noticed at first, in 1198, a new pope was elected in Rome, who would turn out probably to be the most powerful pope ever to occupy the papal throne. He was Innocent III. Richard was too busy to notice as he re-took territories taken from him by Philip II while a prisoner of the emperor.

© Robert Smith, Manorial Society of Great Britain