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 Medieval English Exchequer

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PostSubject: Medieval English Exchequer   Mon Oct 27, 2008 5:54 pm

Medieval English Exchequer

Description:
According to the Dialogue Concerning the Exchequer, the name referred to the resemblance of the table with that of a chess board.

“The Exchequer is an oblong board measuring about 10 feet by 5…with a rim around it about four finger breadths in height, to prevent anything set on it from falling off. Over it is spread a cloth, bought in Easter term, with a special pattern, black, ruled with lines a foot, or a full span, apart. In the spaces between them are placed the counters, in their ranks.

The accountant sits in the middle of his side of the table, so that everybody can see him, and so that his hand can move freely at its work. In the lowest space on the right, he places the heap of the pence; in the second the shillings; in the third the pounds…As he reckons, he must put out the counters and state the numbers simultaneously, lest there should be a mistake in the number. When the sum demanded of the sheriff has been set out in heaps of counters, the payments made into the Treasury or otherwise are similarly set out in heaps underneath. The lower line is simply subtracted from the upper.”

The Exchequer dates from around the Norman Conquest. However, prior to 1066, the Anglo-Saxon Treasury collected taxes (including the danegeld) and controlled expenditure.

The Exchequer consisted of several treasuries in which royal income was collected and any surplus was turned into gold, silver plate and jewellery. In addition, the Royal Seals, with which all documents were authenticated, were kept in the Treasury. The office of the Treasurer was located within the Exchequer, which managed and accounted for the royal revenue, as well as the collecting and issuing of money. Other departments checked receipts and expenditure.

In early Norman England (certainly by 1190) the Exchequer split into two sections - one was a purely administrative department, the Exchequer of Receipt, which collected revenue, and the other was a judicial department, the Exchequer of Pleas, which was a court concerned with the King's revenue.

Money received by the Treasury was recorded by using tallies. These were sticks approximately 8 inches long, on which notches were made of different sizes. The sizes of these notches was dependent upon the amount of money involved. The stick was then cut in two; one half was kept by the Exchequer and the other half given to the Sheriff as a receipt for the money.

Later, the "Exchequer" met twice yearly, at Easter and Michaelmas. At these times, government financial business was transacted and an audit was held of Sheriff's returns.

Under Henry I, the procedure for the audit adopted would involve the Treasurer drawing up a summons which would be sent to each Sheriff, which they would be required to answer. The Treasurer would call on each Sheriff to give account of Royal income in their Shire. The Chancellor of the Exchequer would then question them concerning debts owed by private individuals. The results of the audit were recorded in a series of records known as the Pipe Rolls.

The Exchequer wasn’t always effective at its job: in 1433, for example, war with France had led to a deficit of 30,000 – the equivalent of over 100 billion today.

Due to the Exchequer's ineffectiveness, it tended to be bypassed by later monarchs until it was reformed during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I by the Lord Treasurer Winchester and his successor, Lord Burghley.

The Scottish Exchequer:
This dates back to around 1200 and had a similar role of auditing and deciding on royal revenues as in England. The Scottish Exchequer was slower to develop into a separate judicial role, and it was not until 1584 that it became a court of law. Even then, the judicial and administrative roles never became completely separated into two bodies, as with the English Exchequer.

The Stuarts, however, were not particulalry adept at fiscal management, and their Treasurers couldn’t enforce control. War, inflation, corruption and extravagance led the Stuarts deeply into debt.

Treasurer & Chancellor of the Exchequer:
In Domesday Book, Odo the Treasurer and Hugh the Chamberlain, appear to have been the principal financial officers of Edward the Confessor; whilst Henry the Treasurer and Herbert the Chamberlain were the principal officers under William the Conqueror. It has been argued, however, that the responsibilities of these officials were mainly confined to custody of the royal treasure at Winchester.

The office of Chancellor of the Exchequer dates from about the 13th century. In the medieval Exchequer there was both a Treasurer and a Chancellor (the King’s Chancellor.) The Treasurer was responsible for superintending every department while the Chancellor acted as a check upon the accounts of the Treasurer. Over the years, the Treasurer and the Chancellor delegated more of their duties to, respectively, the Under Treasurer of the Exchequer and the Chancellor’s clerk.

In the reign of Henry III, the Chancellor’s Clerk became an officer of the court as the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Under Queen Elizabeth I, the Office of Under Treasurer was joined to that of Chancellor of the Exchequer.

King Charles II appointed a Commission to replace the Treasurer. George Downing, who built Downing Street, was appointed Secretary to that Commission and was instrumental in major reforms which led to the Treasury breaking away from the Exchequer (June 1667).

Sources:
"The Governance of Norman and Angevin England 1086-1272" by W.L. Warren (1987).
"The King's Household in England before the Norman Conquest" by L.M. Larson (1904).

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