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
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.