Prior to the 1630’s, conflict with Spain had left royal finances in a desperate state. Not only did Weston succeed to two million pounds of debt1 when he became Lord Treasurer in 1628, but the vast sale of crown lands to fund this war had left the monarchy unable to live of its own, and thus when it became clear that Charles I could no longer rely on Parliament for income in 1630, he and his Council were forced to seek out new sources of revenue.
Through examination of the means by which former monarchs had raised money, Charles was led to the idea of reviving and financially exploiting feudal levies and rights such as ship money, distraint of knighthoods, wardships and forest fines. Although these taxes enabled Charles to raise enough income to sustain his rule until the outbreak of war with Scotland in 1638, it is nevertheless doubtful as to whether these new sources of revenue can be considered as effective, as whilst it they were financially successful, they were also highly politically costly, and can be seen as one of the key sources of friction between King and country.
Arguably the most controversial of the new sources of revenue that Charles raised during the 1630’s was that of ship money. Although ship money has long been recognised as a Crown right, with Professor Bard labelling it as an ‘antiquated imposition’2, the monies paid by the maritime community prior to the 1630’s were in fact a contributions to a ship levies, and the ships so levied were locally owned, meaning that after their required service was finished, they were returned.
Thus, in relation to the property of the subject, an evident difference can be seen between ship money and ship levy money, as not only did the ship money demanded by Charles I in 1634, 1635 and 1636 include inland counties, but it also required a direct payment from each country, over which sheriffs were appointed to supervise.
Initially ship money was seen as a one-off, and thus the majority of protests ‘concentrated on technical issues of rating and assessment’3, as each county was expected to pay a lump-sum which had to be made up by its inhabitants, who could not agree on how this should be fairly split up amongst them, or on the amount that their county was assigned to compared to other counties.
Indeed, the scope for such arguments was almost limitless, especially as it was not the justices of the peace who fixed individual rates, but sheriff of each county, who acted arbitrarily and alone. Not only was this problematic because the public saw this a an infringement of government by consent, but also because ‘some sheriffs and officers levied far more than [was] prescribed in the writ’4 in order to ensure that they collected their assigned amount and did not have to make it any deficiency from their own pocket.
Despite these administrative problems, Charles was able to collect 104,00 in 1634, and thus the first ship money levy must be recognised as a success. However, subsequent ship money writs increasingly displayed the gap in Charles knowledge as to how much his subjects would consent to be taxed, as the accumulating amounts that he demanded led to complaints from sheriffs that their counties were being asked to pay too much.
Charles rejected these appeals, and claimed that the collection of ship money was for national security and as a defence against the danger of pirates to commerce. However, as England at the time was at peace and, as Prynne argued ‘if the counties had furnished their own ships at the best and cheapest rates, the expense would have been very much less’5, the public realised that Charles intended to collect ship money every year, and began to dispute its legality.
It is evident that there was great attachment to the notion of taxation by consent and to Parliamentary statute as the ultimate source of law, and thus it was argued that Charles’ dispensation with parliamentary government meant that he was not at liberty to arbitrarily impose ship money. As a result, John Hampden, a Buckinghamshire gentleman refused to pay ship money and was thus brought to trial in the Court of Exchequer in 1637.
Although Hampden’s lawyer insisted that parliament was the proper body to vote taxation, Charles had twelve judges determine the legality of the levy, all of which he had hand-picked and owed their position to him or his father. The judges voted 7-5 in Charles favour, which although was a moral victory to the King, was a political loss as a win of such narrow margin from men who were under his influence and who had all agreed on the legality of ship money in 1634 did not escape the notice of the public, who continued to contest this outcome and the tax’s legality.
Indeed, Twyden’s long account of Kent’s reaction to the judges decision shows the scope of the debate present at the time, for although he states that some believed that ‘the declaration the judges had made was fully to the point and by that that the King had full right to impose it’, he also accounts for those that thought that ‘the king has no prerogative but that which the law of the land doth give’ and the argument of ‘how the king could have any necessity that has no enemy’6.
Although there is debate between Fincham and Sharpe over how closely this account can be seen to represent the full cross section of opinion that existed, the record is nevertheless significant in that it demonstrates that despite Charles’ legal win on the question of ship money, without a ruling from parliament the public were not able to fully accept its legality.
Therefore, whilst it is evident that ship money as a source of revenue was successful in that it raised over 800,000 for the King during the 1630’s, overall it was a political disaster; possibly the decrease in the amount that Charles demanded in the levy of 1638 demonstrates his recognition of the damage that ship money had caused.
Another source of income that caused much contention was that of Knighthood fines, brainchild of Sir Robert Heath, which are significant in that they can be seen as the starting point from which the idea of exploiting antiquated laws in order to raise revenue originated. In December 1625 Lord Keeper Coventry reminded Charles of the custom of those eligible for knighthood presenting themselves at the coronation , but in the early years of Charles’ reign, there seems to have been no thought of actually inducing men to do so. However, by January 1630, a commission was appointed to call up and compound those who should have attended, although it has been argued that the idea for this fine had been suggested much earlier, due to a proclamation which had been made on the 30th January 1626 which summoned all those eligible to appear in London by 31st January; thus making it impossible for any to attend and be knighted.
In response to these defaulters, Charles sent personal royal letters to noblemen who headed up the commission in their counties expressing his disappointment and thus urging them to greater effort, and instructed his attorney to proceed against sheriffs who were not collecting the fines strenuously enough. The crude manner in which Charles rigorously enforced distraint of Knighthoods can be seen as a major factor in the distancing of King from country; even Clarendon, a firm royalist labelled Knighthood fines as ‘ill husbandry’ and ‘most grievous’8 due to the obvious manner in which it was exploited simply to bring in revenue.
Although by April 1635, knighthood fines had brought in £173,537; ‘the largest single source of extraordinary revenue other than the loan and the sale of crown lands’9, meaning that it was a success in terms of revenue collected, in terms of the damage done between Charles and his subjects, Knighthood fines can be seen as a step on the road to collapse; as Leonard argues, it ‘increased discontent without providing the government with the means to ignore it, as the Scottish wars proved’. 0 Forest Fines, which was enforced more rigorously during the 1630’s than they had been by any King for over three hundred years, can be seen as another feudal law that caused great friction between Charles and the public . The law itself stated that ‘the King may make a forest in all woods’, and that this designated forest may not be changed without permission, which included hunting foxes, felling wood, pasturing cattle, building or in any way encroaching upon it.
Gardiner and others have attributed the revival of this law to the Earl of Holland’s attempts in 1634 to unseat Lord Treasurer Weston by exposing his abuse of royal woodland in the forest of Dean11, although Hammersley argues that there can be little doubt that the revival of these laws was financially motivated12; as the timber required for naval purposes was if such exacting specifications that only large tracts of woodland could supply the required quantities, large forest fines were thus seen as a method of simultaneously protecting resources needed for national defence and increasing crown income.
Forest fines first began in the forest of Dean, which had in fact formerly been disbanded by the crown, which caused much dissent as the public had a unanimous detestation of enclosure, as they ‘looked upon open woodland as a gift, like wild berries and had not come to respect it as a private property of some value’13.
Although the poor who found themselves trespassers were fined merely shillings, much larger fines were adjudged against aberrant gentry and aristocracy, some of which’s family had regarded the forest land in question as their own for centuries, and thus took great offence, which caused Clarendon to criticise forest fines in his memoirs because of the manner in which it ‘lighted most upon persons of quality and honour, who thought themselves above ordinary oppressions and therefore like to remember it with more sharpness’14.
In 1634, upon hearing word that Gloucestershire lawyers were searching public records in the Tower of London for records of the borders of the forest of Dean, Sir John Finch, attorney general to the queen, emulated them and subsequently discovered an undated document of unknown origins which declared the set perambulations void.
Finch caused scandal with his usage of this dubious document to challenge the set boundaries of Dean, which allowed Charles to enlarge the forest and thus collect more fines for encroachment, but which damaged the Kings political standing with the public, who once again saw his methods as crude and exploitative as they appeared to serve neither policy nor justice.
Although Hammersley argues that as a method of raising revenue, the restoration of forest laws was moderately successful, Sharpe contradicts this by stating that the amount was not enough to ‘compensate for indignation engendered’15, and thus forest fines must be seen as only of limited success. Monopolies, which involved selling rights over certain goods to businessmen, can be seen as another example of a new source of revenue utilised by Charles during the 1630’s which irritated the public due to the manner in which administrative government was exploited by private businesses.
By 1640, the Long Parliament complained that monopolists were like ‘the frogs which fell upon Egypt’16, in that they were everywhere; a sentiment that was widespread throughout England. Although some of the projects and patents propounded during the Personal Rule were financially motivated, it is evident that others arose from genuine inventiveness or governmental desire to regulate a trade. 7 However, usually the reality of monopolies fell short of the promise, and the profits that were made at the expense of the public did not benefit the treasury, thus exacerbating the irritation such schemes caused; Wentworth described them as ‘the very scandal of his Majesty’s affairs and the reproach of all his ministers’18. Perhaps the most infamous scandal of Charles reign , and one that can be seen as an example of the problems with monopolies as a whole, was the soap patent.
In January 1632 the rights over the production of soap was handed to the Westminster Soap Makers, and their competition was suppressed via a royal proclamation which banned the old soap which had been made with fish-oil. The King maintained that his reasons for endorsing the Westminster Soap Makers was to foster an English manufacture that would set the poor to work, although it was clear that some profit was envisaged as the new company promised £4 per ton of soap that was sold. 9 However, the ‘catholic soap’, so called because the most prominent members of the company were all seen as cryptocatholics, failed to sell, despite a later proclamation which allowed the Westminster Soap Makers to use fish-oil in their soap-making in the same way as the old soap makers had been prohibited from. As no real profit materialised from this patent, Charles was seen as pursuing an inefficient and corrupt policy at the expense of the public who were having to pay inflated prices for soap, which led to a questioning of Charles’ right to give one company sole patent over products.
Asch argues that monopolies and patents were not an effective source of revenue, as the onlcwy lasting effect that they had was to ‘increase the King’s unpopularity by alienating vested interests without solving the crowns financial problems’20. Thus it is evident that the soap patent, and indeed monopolies in general were not an effective source of revenue because, as with many of Charles’ other money-making schemes, the King showed himself to be politically inept at judging the worth of the income in relation to its cost on public mood.
Overall it is evident that during the 1630’s, Charles main means of raising new sources of revenue was via the revival and exploitation of obsolete laws, combined with the extensive application of existing laws. As Sharpe argues, instead of looking forward or across overseas to continental practice, Charles looked to the past for inspiration. However, this method of increasing income was highly politically costly, not least because the legality of many of these revived feudal fines was widely disputed, and without Parliament to settle the matter, debate could not be halted.
A key example of this is ship money; despite the King winning his case against Hampton in a legal court, the public remained dissatisfied with this outcome. Although it is clear that these sources of revenue were effective in that they enabled Charles to raise enough income to sustain his rule until the outbreak of war with Scotland in 1638, they must also be recognised as one of the key reasons for the breakdown between King and country, as many of the fines were crudely implemented and left the impression that Charles was abusing his prerogative power, to the extent that even royalists such as Clarendon and Wentworth voiced criticism.
Therefore, whilst Charles gained financially from these new sources of revenue, his political standing suffered hugely as a result, and thus it must be recognised that Caroline fiscal expedients were truly ‘false mines for obtaining money’21, because their political cost was so much higher than their financial value.