Sunday, November 03, 2013

The English Civil War
The Money Background

Battle of Naseby 1645

The English Civil War (1642-1646) is perhaps one of the most discussed and debated subjects in the historiography of English history; it is also one of the areas most afflicted, yes that is the word, with myth. This includes myths of origin. Here I will discuss some of the background to the English Civil War.

In an older posting I discussed a book concerning the judicial farce and kangaroo court known as the Trial of Charles I.1 Here I will discuss, briefly the financial background to the English Civil War, or perhaps more accurately The English Revolution.

The basis for the English Revolution was bluntly money, or to be more accurate lack of money. In this case the institution lacking money was the monarchy. And it was the efforts of the British monarchy to remedy this situation that played a role, a very powerful role, in precipitating the English Revolution.

The origins of this problem are quite simple in that in the Middle Ages, parliaments, or estates would grant Kings money in exchange for handling grievances. This process got the nobility involved in both accessing and collecting taxes and brought them into government. Unfortunately it also created a situation ripe for conflict between King and the estate / parliament. The result was that Kings over time emancipated themselves from depending on estates / parliaments and created and administered their own taxation systems etc., independently of such bodies in most of Europe.2 

In England most of the day to day and yearly expenses of government were paid for by the revenue from the estates of the crown and certain other monies, via certain kinds of taxation, totally under the control of the crown. However extraordinary expenses, such as wars etc., required additional revenue. Hence the calling of Parliament to grant revenue via taxation to the crown. The need for the local notables to agree to the taxes requested made the crown dependent on such parliamentary grants. The cost however was having to deal with complaints and grievances articulated through Parliament and further having to deal with Parliamentary interference and investigation of Crown policy. This was frankly irksome to the Crown.

The result was that English rulers traditionally did not like to call into session parliament, made every effort to control and manipulate it and strove for fiscal independence of it.3   

In fact on several occasions English rulers came close to being able to dispense with parliament altogether. However the circumstances most relevant to this posting started more than 150 years before the English Revolution started.

In 1485 Henry VII defeated and killed Richard III at Bosworth Field and became King of England. His regime was peaceful and almost completely war free. Henry VII spent much of his time increasing Crown revenue. In fact he was so successful that he was able to not just increase Crown revenue to the point of being able to pay all the ordinary expenses of the Crown but also to accumulate a huge cash reserve. Basically Henry VII could dispense with Parliament. He quite simply didn’t need it. Further his expansion and use of various Crown prerogatives, (Rights and powers of the Crown), massively increased Crown revenue.

During the reign of Henry VII’s son Henry VIII, to this was added the mass confiscation of Church and Monastic property. The stage seemed set for the establishment in England of Royal absolutism and the disappearance of Parliament as a body of any significance.

That was not to be. And it was not to be simply because Henry VIII in order to give legal cover to several of his actions, like making himself head of the Church in England, confiscation Church property etc., had such acts made legal through Acts of Parliament. After all Parliament was basically Henry VIII’s instrument in those cases and gained nothing from that. No what was important was that Henry VIII spent the huge reserve that his father built up, spent the confiscated Church properties in a series of long and ruinously expensive foreign wars. That gained England nothing but expense and made the King dependent on Parliament much of the time for money.

After Henry VIII’s death expensive wars that gained nothing continued into the reigns of his son Edward VI and daughter Mary I. The result was that by the beginning of Elizabeth I’s reign the English Crown was in extremely poor financial shape. Although Elizabeth was able to significantly increase Crown revenue, such as to in ordinary years pay government costs and have a small surplus. There was little leeway and the Crown in cases of war was absolutely dependent on Parliament for additional revenues to fight wars.

It was this dependency along with the fact of Parliament’s reluctance to really heavily tax to pay for war that explains Elizabeth’s highly conservative, from a financial point of view war with Spain. Even so the financial position of the crown did erode slightly during her reign due to the long war with Spain.

When James VI of Scotland became James I of England, upon the death of Elizabeth I, he found that Crown revenues were woefully insufficient for his purposes. The result was a chronic deficit. Further the occasional wars James I got involved with did not help. The result was a dependence on Parliament for extra cash.4

The result was that James I had an acrimonious relationship with the various Parliaments called during his reign. Frankly he found it frustratingly difficult to get parliament to agree to the taxation necessary for his foreign policy or to pay for the now indispensable English fleet. The attitude of Parliament seemed to be that the King should live within his income, and carry out an adventurous foreign policy in support of Protestantism abroad and of course pay for the fleet using his income. Bluntly this was simply impossible. The bottom line Parliament wanted those things but did not want to pay for them. And bluntly the King needed additional income and so required Parliament to approve of the necessary measures. Thus James I was continually financially stymied and the debts of the crown increased significantly.5

By the time James I died in 1625 the situation was messy and complicated. And not helping matters was the fact that while crown revenues hardly grew, costs via inflation etc., had increased significantly over the period of James I’s reign, much more than revenue. So bluntly the screw on royal finances had increased.6

Into this perilous situation stepped James I’s son Charles I. Like his father Charles I got involved in some foolish expensive foreign wars and like his father he was plagued by a nobility and Parliament that was constantly demanding English support for Protestants abroad and a large naval presence and yet was unwilling to pay for it via agreed on taxes.

Now Charles after a few really bad years that further added to the royal deficit, tried to raise funds through Parliament but found them, if anything, even more difficult than under his father. Further he found that Parliament was demanding rights of overseeing and to some extent controlling royal expenditure in exchange for voting funds. Further they still demanded that the King pay for an adventurous foreign policy, which Parliament wanted along with a big fleet, out of his own revenue. Not surprisingly Charles I was not happy. For Parliament was demanding powers which frankly had zero historical basis, So he dispensed with Parliament altogether for over a decade.

Instead Charles I decided to use the powers of the Crown to raise revenue. He and his advisers swiftly found out that there was a large reservoir or prerogatives and latent powers available to the Crown to raise revenue. Including the infamous ship money. And best of all these avenues of revenue raising did not need Parliamentary sanction in the least. They potentially opened the way top solving the chronic money problems of the monarchy.

From a legalistic point of view it appears the Charles I made every effort to ensure that his acts were indeed within his powers, and had a firm legal basis. Thus Charles I made fuller use of Crown powers that had fallen out of use and prerogatives that in the past had been used more sparingly.

Thus the infamous ship money tax which while a tradition of long standing and usable by the Crown without reference to Parliament. Ship money was the practice by which the King or Queen could require that coastal ports and districts outfit ships for the King or Queens service. Money could be paid to the Monarch in lieu of actual service. Charles found that this was a good way to raise money, further he found out that it was his prerogative to assess it not just on coastal districts and ports but on inland areas also. The idea was to use ship money to pay for the English fleet.7

And it wasn’t just ship money that Charles I used to raise revenue, only this was perhaps the most lucrative and deeply resented, to a large extent because of the ham-fisted way it was collected.

Still Charles I just might have been able to rule without Parliament and set up the basis for an absolute English Monarchy except thrown into the chronic money problems that necessitated the calling of Parliaments if extraordinary expenses were required, which is why Charles I during this time period tried to stay out of foreign wars, was the issue of religion. 

At another time I will go into this further.

1. See Here.

2. In France especially the Monarch was able to get financial independence. See Goubert, Pierre, Louis XIV and Twenty Million Frenchmen, Vintage, New York, 1968.

3. See for example Queen Elizabeth and her Parliaments, Somerset, Anne, Elizabeth, Fontana Books, New York, 1991.

4. Wedgewood, C. V., The King's Peace 1637-1641, Collins / Fontana Books, London, 1955, Royle, Trevor, Civil War, Abacus, London, 2004, pp. 1-18.

5. Wedgewood.

6. IBID, Royle, pp. 18-38, Rodger, N. A. M., The Safeguard of the Sea, HarperCollins Pub., London, 1997, pp. 377-384.

7. IBID.

Pierre Cloutier. 

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