How King Henry I made and blew a fortune

Judith Green reveals how a powerful medieval king raised enough money to splash out on God, wars, weddings and spices...
 
This article was first published in the February 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine
Henry I receives French envoys near Gisors, north of Paris, in this illumination
The year 1124 wasn’t a good one to be an English moneyer. Things started to go seriously wrong for the men who minted the country’s coins when King Henry I, the youngest son of William the Conqueror, found that the coins he needed to pay his knights at the end of a campaign in Normandy were of poor quality. So infuriated was Henry by this discovery that he sent orders to England that all moneyers should be punished – by losing their right hands and being castrated. His command was carried out by his chief minister, Roger, bishop of Salisbury, over Christmas that year.
 
Yet not every moneyer, it seems, was subjected to this hideous fate. We know this from an entry in the pipe rolls – the records of financial transactions, collated by the English Exchequer – for 1130. “Brand the moneyer accounts for £20 that he might not be mutilated with the other moneyers,” it declares. It’s the briefest of references to the moneyers’ ordeal but it proves that, for one of their number at least, this episode didn’t have the most painful of endings.
 
It is entries such as these that make pipe rolls such a valuable resource. Dating from the early 12th century, they are the record of annual accounts that were collated by sheriffs, the king’s principal financial officials in the counties. Each year the sheriffs had to attend a review of these accounts at the Exchequer (located in Westminster), which took its name from the checked cloth on the table round which the members of the court sat. Counters were set out on the cloth showing how much the sheriff had paid, and how much was still outstanding. The written record of that audit was recorded on rolls, which looked like sections of pipe.
 
So what do pipe rolls tell us about the wealth of Henry I? First of all, they reveal that £24,000 was paid to the Treasury as cash, or accounted for as expenditure in 1130. The largest single item came from royal manors, most of which provided a cash payment to the king as well as yielding produce. 
 

A hunting scene from the 11th century. Huntsmen, hawkers and forest wardens all appear on the pipe rolls in Henry I’s reign. (Bridgman Art Library)
 

Taxing times

 
The king also had important rights over towns and cities, and from the church. When bishops and abbots died, their revenues were paid into the Treasury until a successor was appointed. Henry could, of course, also levy taxes, of which the largest in 1130 was the famous Danegeld. By the 12th century this was no longer paid as tribute to the Vikings, but towards the cost of the monarch’s knights. 
 
Beyond land and taxation, the pipe rolls for 1130 tell us that the king could make plenty of money for, well, simply being king – and there were a number of ways in which he could do so. Justice was one of the king’s most lucrative sources of income. If, for example, you were caught hunting Henry I’s deer then – thanks to the forest laws introduced by his father, William I – you’d be hit with a hefty fine. And, if you needed permission from the king to succeed to large estates, to marry an heiress or a widow, the chances are you’d have to pay him for the privilege. 
 
The king was able to intervene in human relationships in this way because he was the overlord of the greatest magnates – and they, in turn, had similar rights over their tenants. This system was simply part and parcel of medieval ideas of lordship. 
 
The fines that the king levied on his subjects could be enormous – the equivalent to the annual proceeds of the king’s lands in two or three counties – so large, in fact, that they often had to be paid off in instalments. If the debtor was a royal favourite, the chances are he’d never have to pay the fine – though the debts still yielded rewards for the king, acting as a spur to loyalty.
 
Yet the monarch had to be careful not to alienate his most powerful subjects by levying fines too indiscriminately. Henry’s I grandson, Henry II, seems to have been so sensitive to the dangers of turning his subjects against him that he abandoned this form of raising revenues altogether. However, his son, King John, was far less squeamish about imposing fines – a policy that helped contribute to the Magna Carta crisis.
 

This illustration shows officers weighing coins at the Exchequer in the 12th century. (Alamy)
 

Out of favour 

 
Another valuable source of income for the king were the Jews. They had arrived in England after 1066 – probably from Rouen – and, by 1130, there was an important Jewish community in London. The pipe rolls give an insight both into their financial dealings and their vulnerability. 
 
The king was notionally the Jews’ protector, and the Jewish community could, in theory, enlist his help in collecting money that they were owed. However, the pipe rolls for 1130 reveal that, on their account, Jews owed £2,000 “for a sick man whom they killed”. This phrase suggests that Jews were already falling under suspicion of harming others, a dark foreboding of the accusation in King Stephen’s reign that they were responsible for the ritual murder of a child in Norwich.
 
So pipe rolls tell us a good deal about the source of the king’s revenues. By studying a sequence of rolls we can also identify when and where royal officials were applying pressure. We can see, for instance, how legal reforms introduced by Henry II brought in more money. 
 
Before the survival of other kinds of administrative records, pipe rolls are also the only source of detail we have available to us about spending. For example, they record the money that sheriffs laid out as the royal court moved about the country, or crossed the Channel. A close inspection of the pipe roll for 1130 reveals that a good deal of the spending on food, spices and wine in that year was accounted for by the sheriffs of London.
 
The 1130 roll also tells us that the sheriffs were instructed to spend money on the Tower of London – which housed a number of distinguished prisoners, including Henry I’s cousin, the Count of Mortain, who was rumoured to have been blinded on the king’s orders. There is also a reference to spending on two arches of London Bridge, which linked the city with the thriving suburbs of Lambeth and Southwark. 
 
The king’s hunt was another major expense. Huntsmen and forest wardens figure on the rolls, as do hawkers. The best hawks came from Norway, via Lincoln, where a man name Outi accounted for 100 Norway hawks and 100 falcons. The trade is a reminder that, although Viking raids were on the wane, Viking traders were still very much in evidence at Lincoln and other ports along the east coast. 
 

Monied monarch

 
Henry I was renowned for his wealth. Even as early as 1087, when he inherited £5,000 from his father, he always seems to have had ready money at his disposal. Yet he also spent it. He invested huge sums in war, most of all in the capture and retention of Normandy. After he became king he launched a successful campaign to take over the whole duchy and, by 1104, we hear of him levying heavy taxes and taking large quantities of money across the Channel. 
 
Normandy’s defence continued to absorb resources, in campaigning, in subsidies to allies, and in defence. The frontiers of the duchy were ringed with castles, now increasingly being built in stone. 
 
Arrangements for the marriages of Henry’s son, William, and his daughter, Matilda, also came at a high price. In fact, it may have been the need to raise cash for Matilda’s wedding to the German king that led to the birth of the Exchequer in the form we see it in 1130. Henry also laid out great sums in gifts to churches, including the abbey he founded at Reading in the 1120s.
 
The royal court was a theatre of power and had to convey a sense of magnificence. On great occasions, such as the reception of the pope at Rouen in 1131, Henry I had to put on a good show. This meant that he needed a large retinue to accompany him on his progress across his kingdoms – something that was, in itself, a major logistical exercise. 
 
During the reign of Henry’s older brother, William, local people had been so frightened of the arrival of the court that they had run off and hid in the woods. Henry, it was said, made sure that its members paid for the provisions they’d taken. 
 
For this fascinating nugget of detail on the relationship between a medieval ruler and his subjects, we must again thank the pipe rolls. Yes, they are a unique record of royal finances but they are so much more than that: for they provide a priceless snapshot of English society in the early 12th century. 
 

Henry I: a brutal but capable ruler  

 
As the youngest of William the Conqueror’s sons, Henry may originally have been intended for the church, hence the care given to his education and the later nickname ‘Beauclerc’. However he was knighted before his father’s death and then had to make his way in the world. He got his big chance in 1100. His brother William Rufus was killed in a hunting accident in the New Forest, while his eldest brother, Robert, Duke of Normandy, was still absent on the First Crusade.
 

This 14th-century illumination shows the death of William II, shot by an arrow in the New Forest in 1100. William’s sudden demise gave his younger brother, Henry, the opportunity to seize power. (AKG)
 
Despite arguments for delay until Robert’s return, Henry was speedily crowned king. Six years later he defeated Robert and captured Normandy as well. After that, his chief aim was to ensure that his son William – and not one of Robert’s offspring – would follow him as king. In 1120 it looked as though he had been successful, only to have his hopes dashed when William and many of the court drowned in the wreck of the White Ship, the Titanic of the 12th century. 
 
Henry proved to be an able if fairly brutal ruler. His reign witnessed important developments in the way that England was governed and in the agents of government. His first marriage allied him with a descendant of the pre-Conquest kings and with the rulers of Scotland; his second proved childless. 
 
Most of his children were born outside marriage: he has the dubious record of the most acknowledged illegitimate children of any English king. He lived on into his 60s in relatively good health, and died in Normandy after eating a dish of lampreys against his doctor’s advice. His body was embalmed (not entirely successfully) for transportation to England, and was buried at Reading Abbey.
 
Judith Green is emeritus professor of medieval history at the University of Edinburgh. She is the author of Henry I: King of England and Duke of Normandy (CUP, 2009).
 
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