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Was the Reign of Henry Vii the Financial Highpoint of the Tudor Era?

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Henry VII came to the throne in 1485; in many ways his reign appeared vulnerable and his finances poor, however, when he died in 1509 he left his son Henry a sound fiscal legacy. However, was his reign destined to be the financial high point of the Tudor dynasty he founded? The accession of a strong king and the apparent conclusion of civil war meant many had high hopes that Henry VII could restore stability to the country. The situation was indeed improving – growing immunity to the Black Plague had insured steady, if slow, population growth. Henry wanted to maximise the potential economic wealth of the nation, and he did so in many ways including a major reform of the county’s financial administration, support of the gentry class as opposed to super-powerful magnates, and by keeping his nobles in line through his authority and the distribution of crown favours. His success in exploiting his estates and the feudal debts of his nobles is one of the key factors of his economic legacy.

However, while many admired his ruthless policies, others were not so complimentary. For many his collection of revenue from feudal sources and from the administration of justice “caused great discontent and earned Henry his reputation as a miser and extortionist”. By the end of his reign, Henry had succeeded in reversing the effects of the War of the Roses, created a solvent financial administration and had managed to increase his annual income by twofold. Henry knew that if he wanted to ensure a filled treasury and general economic stability and prosperity, he did not need to invent new sources of revenue, but instead focus upon receiving his proper due as monarch of the lands. To do this, Henry utilised a ruthless plethora of methods to obtain revenue, with the key methods being his administrative reforms, trade and the maximum acquisition of money through Ordinary and Extraordinary incomes. The steadily declining crown income had to be addressed, and Henry attempted to redress the issue through the shifting of financial administration from the ancient and inefficient system of the Exchequer to the more efficient and effective system that was favoured by his old Yorkist adversaries – the Chamber system.

The income of the Crown lands had been cut from £25000 under Richard III to £12000 at the start of Henry VII’s reign due to the inefficiency of the Exchequer, so it is clear that the reforms were desperately needed. Henry’s implementation of this system meant that his
treasurers would serve him directly and efficiently. Under Henry VII, the Chamber was overseen by Treasurers Thomas Lovell and John Heron and assisted by men such as Sir Reginald Bray, who were dedicated to improving the efficiency of the royal revenue. The Chamber took over nearly all aspects of financial administration, and its efficient procedures meant that money could be obtained when it was needed. Henry understood that owning land was a key to making money. Naturally, being the reigning monarch, Henry was the biggest landowner in the realm, and he wanted to increase the amount of land he owned to increase his income. He did this in many ways, both through escheats and acts of Attainder and through the 1486 Act of Resumption which returned all land granted away since 1455 to the king, which also served to depower many of the once powerful magnates such as Warwick the Kingmaker, an old enemy of Henry’s.

The Duchy of Lancaster set standards for the management of the royal estates, increasing its income from £650 to £6500 due to improved management and administration. Using similar methods, Henry was able to increase royal land revenue from £29000 to £42000 by the end of his reign. The Morton’s Fork policy was also used by Henry to increase his tax income. Customs dues were another major component of the national income. By the end of his reign, customs duties were a third of the total annual royal income, earning him £40000 a year. Henry built upon the modernised system put in place by Edward IV and he profited greatly, especially from duties on cloth, leather, wool and wine. While slightly less important in the Tudor age, Feudal dues were still a sizable part of Henry’s revenue. Wardship and Reliefs were the primary kinds, where Henry could gain income from lands that he maintained for lords too young to rule themselves, and money was also paid to the king when land passed hands.

Henry also had ways of keeping his nobles loyal and procuring money at the same time. Many nobles were made to swear money in return for their loyal service and duties to the king, and if they proved disloyal or failed to uphold promises, Henry could keep the money. These were important for Henry during the early years of his reign when his kingship was still fragile and needed to keep his nobles in line. For example, the Captain of Calais had to promise £40000 to perform his duties, and others such as Viscount Beaumont of Powicke were forced to swear £10000 in loyalty bonds. These Bonds and Recognisances earned Henry £35000 annually. Fines were also issued upon those Henry considered to have too many retainers, and Lord Burgavenny for example, was fined £5 for every retainer he had – the total fine came to £70505! Henry could further rely on other income sources, such as judicial revenue from court fines, church and parliamentary grants, and loans from nobles as extraordinary income to supplement his ordinary income. Henry also negotiated the 1492 “French Pension” in which Henry was paid an indemnity of £159000 and a yearly pension of £5000.

English wool was a valuable commodity and Henry was keen to promote trade, negotiating successful treaties with France. Spanish Trade was also lucrative, since the betrothal of Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon gave Henry special trade rights with Spain. He endorsed successful trade with the Italian state of Florence in 1490. By the time of his death Henry VII received an annual income of approximately £114000, almost double the amount at the start of his reign. He had overseen a major overhaul of the national financial system and had streamlined revenue efficiency through ruthless exploitation of his lands and nobles, and left a sound economic system in the hands of his son Henry VIII. In comparison to the later Tudor monarchs, England under Henry VII was flourishing in the lack of inflation, lack of war and administration by able men. However, historian John Guy argues that “Henry VII’s financial success is vastly overrated: 1. Crown income is £113,000 per annum at the end of the reign; 2. But it was £120,000 per annum under Richard III;

3. And £160,000 per annum under Edward III. “
Guy’s analysis is further supported by the fact that his income was still not impressive by monarchical standards – the kings of France at this time, Charles VIII and Louis XII, alone earned £800000 annually, which was eight times Henry’s! On top of this, some historians such as Duncan Radway and Mansell Baker have argued that while modern interpretations of Henry VII’s reign are seen as positive, contemporary sources often point to the contrary, quoting contemporary Italian merchant Giovanni de Bebulcho who claimed that Henry was “more feared than loved, and this because of his greed.” This contemporary interpretation seems like a much more realistic view, as while Henry’s reign was indeed prosperous, this was partly due of the ruthless exploitation of his land and nobles to gain as much revenue as possible, which was not looked on favourably by many critics of the age. Judging on the evidence, the modern interpretation of Henry as an unsuccessful ruler must be dismissed under these circumstances due to the evidence which suggests the kingdom was flourishing under his rule, and thus John Guy’s argument should be ignored.

Henry VIII received an inheritance of £1250000 from his father to help him secure the throne, and this would have proven useful in the hands of any other man, but with Henry VIII’s love of extravagance, power and grandeur, it had the opposite effect. This extravagant attitude is reflected in historian Chris Truman’s account of his personality: “In contrast to his father, Henry VIII was viewed as a man who expected to enjoy himself. He dressed in colourful clothes, enjoyed wearing jewels, ate and drank well and spent money with abandon.” Unlike his father, who took a very “hands on” approach to management of his kingdom, Henry VIII wasn’t very interested in the intricacies of ruling, and was happy to leave administration to his trusted advisors and nobles of office, while he pursued his hobbies of hunting and other regal pastimes. Henry was a lover of palaces, and he spent lavishly on constructing forty three (in comparison to his father’s twelve palaces) of them and filling them with two thousand tapestries – his most outrageous example of this was at the Field of Cloth of Gold, where Henry built an entire palace, especially for his meeting with the king of France, that was only lived in for two weeks – his father would have been turning in his grave at such financial frivolity!

He furthermore spent vast sums on the national navy, increasing the royal fleet from five ships to fifty three by the end of his reign. He is often considered by modern minds to be a frivolous “Playboy King”, the image of whom is supported through Chris Trueman’s comments on his behaviour. However, upon further evaluation another image of Henry VIII can surface, as evidenced by Professor Ronald Hutton who states that “He had a real understanding of fortification, ballistics and shipping, and could discuss mathematics and astronomy on equal terms with experts. His court was a model of decorum compared with most others in contemporary Europe, those who frequented it being forbidden to brawl, duel or appear in public with their mistresses.” On the other hand, there is greater evidence to suggest support for the views of Trueman over Hutton, since many of the views against the “Playboy King” are largely sweeping and vague in comparison to evidence to the contrary, thus it is wise to ignore the revised interpretation.

Henry VIII was also a fond follower of the medieval ideals of glorious battle and war, and led various (costly) campaigns against the French and Scottish over the course of his kingship. In 1512 he was only too happy to embark on a war against France to help his Spanish allies (through his marriage to Catherine of Aragon), in which he sent ten thousand men to invade France which ended in disaster. He later invaded in person and had some success, and when the Scottish upheld the Auld Alliance the English were able to push them back. Nevertheless, ultimately the war accomplished little and cost much. A similar story can be found when in 1523, emboldened by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, Henry invaded France again (against the advice of his advisor, Cardinal Wolsey) but was repelled easily; nevertheless, despite the fruitlessness of his mission Henry wished to invade again but couldn’t due to lack of funds and resources.

However, arguably the most costly wars of Henry VIII’s reign were the wars of 1542 and 1544, where Henry invaded Scotland during the “Rough Wooing” in order to obtain a marriage between his son Edward and Mary of Scotland, where he beat the Scottish but were unable to force them to obedience, and when he invaded France with the intent of capturing Boulogne. These wars cost Henry in excess of £3000000, and Henry was forced to raise taxes incredibly high and sell off a sizable portion of the monastic lands he had obtained through the Dissolution of the Monasteries in order to pay the war bill. The expensive wars and careless expenditure meant that Henry VIII was forced to debase the coinage three times over his reign, and by 1551 the value of coinage was worth ¼ to 1/6 of its original value before the debasements began in 1521. The result was rapid inflation and coin hoarding that would last into the reign of Edward VI until it was corrected by Northumberland’s recoinage.

These distasteful effects of his rule support Trueman’s view of Henry that he was careless and complacent with his money financial policies. On the other hand, some historians such as Philip Edwards claim that “much of this [view] was dependant on hostile comments of the poet John Skelton”. However, given the lasting effects of his rule, it is likely that the traditional view is sounder in this case Henry’s own annual income of around £100000 remained fairly steady throughout his ruling period, but its worth was significantly eroded by inflation largely caused by his own deeds. Henry also become increasingly reliant on benevolences from the people to fund his wars, but often these extra taxes were not sufficient as shown through the case of the unpopular Amicable Grant in 1525. However, the situation was kept from further deterioration by Henry’s later advisor Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell was an excellent bureaucrat and was responsible for legislation that improved the quality of exported cloth, resulting in a twenty five percent increase in cloth exports from 1533-34, for legislation that fought against enclosure by limiting the number of sheep a man could own, and most importantly, for reorganising the collection of revenue into distinct “courts”.

Cromwell aimed to make financial revenue collection more efficient by creating courts to deal with a specific area of revenue, such as the Court of General Surveyors which was charged with overseeing the Crown lands, and the Court of Augmentations which dealt with the Monastic lands. In comparison to his father, Henry VIII’s financial policies were often disastrous and would cause long term inflation and price rises. His expensive wars were in stark contrast to the avoidance exercised by Henry VII, and his economy was plateaued seemingly only through able advisors like Cromwell. Contrary to popular thought, however, some views of Henry show him as being an able king who was in control of his subjects, such as John Guy who argues that “Henry directed policy and his ministers and officials were allowed freedom of action only in accepted limits.” and Peter Gwyn who insists that “Henry was in control from the start” When Henry VIII died in 1547, his son Edward faced a tough situation that was made worse by a certain Duke of Somerset… Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset became Lord Protector of England under Edward VI through the controversial manipulation of Henry’s will, which Seymour a position of great power over the king and the country.

His egotistical invasion of Scotland and subsequent repelling by the French cost over £300000 and accomplished nothing, and Seymour had to surrender Boulogne to France. Furthermore, the economic situation was dire under Seymour, with food prices in 1547 fourty five percent higher than in 1540 under Henry VIII which increased again by ten percent in 1549, sluggish exports due to war disruption and inflation continued to increase just as the value and silver content of coins were decreasing. This poor economic situation also led to widespread unrest (Kett’s Rebellion), unemployment and vagrancy, which Seymour’s unpopular Vagrancy Act failed to deal with. Seymour’s unwise policy of seizing Chantry wealth to be melted into coinage was also a factor in this financial crisis. He even had the cheek to ignore the sound analysis of Thomas Smith, who saw debasement as the cause of inflation, and instead Seymour chose to blame greedy enclosurers for the problems! After the ousting of Somerset, John Dudley Duke of Northumberland took control and worked to fix the problem of the economy. He inherited a severe financial crisis from Somerset – the household had to borrow £50000 annually just to exist.

His foreign policy was regarded as “craven but practical” and he endeavoured to keep the country out of war. Much of his legislation was passed to soothe financial wounds, such as repealing the unpopular Vagrancy Act and making it illegal to charge excessive interest on debts. Furthermore, he assembled a team of able bureaucrats to administer finance. They managed to slow inflation through recoinage with fine currency and started to reform financial institutions, such as the scrapping of the now obsolete Court of Augmentations. Northumberland’s rule saw an improvement from the disastrous rule of Somerset, but he fell with the failure of his mismanaged coup d’état of Mary. However there would be mixed financial fortunes in the reign of Mary I after the early death of the young Edward VI. The traditional opinion of Somerset as being the “Good Duke” and Northumberland as being the “Bad Duke” is completely reversed when evaluating their rule through a financial filter.

Modern interpretations come from historians like John Guy, who states that Somerset was “vacillating, self-willed and high-minded…’sugar-coating his natural severity with talk of clemency and justice.’” Overall, Mary had a fairly poor financial record. Her reign saw a decline in the Antwerp cloth trade (perhaps due to European markets being saturated with English cloth) and unfortunately severe rains that led to widespread flooding and famines. A war with France in response to a coup led by Thomas Stafford also led to the loss of Calais, England’s last possession on the continent, and was considered one of Mary’s biggest regrets. Furthermore, her marriage to the Spanish king Phillip should have theoretically increased English access to Spanish wealth in the New World, but this failed to materialise. This combined with the collapse of exports in 1551 meant that Mary had to focus on finding new markets to exploit. Expeditions to open up trade were funded, such as that of Richard Chancellor’s expedition to find a “North East Passage” to China beyond Scandinavia, but ended up in the White Sea around northern Russia. Because of this discovery, the Muscovy Company was formed and dominated English trade with Russia.

Similarly, adventurers like John Lok and William Towerson attempted to establish trade in Africa. English cloth was traded for Moroccan sugar and saltpetre and for gold along the Guinea Coast. Also during her reign a new Book of Rates was written to increase customs revenue and new recoinage plans were drawn up in 1557, but these would only come into effect during Elizabeth’s rule.So ultimately, while Mary’s rule is largely considered financially poor, actions were being taken during her reign that would be profitable under Elizabeth, which is a key factor of this period of history: reform. Since Mary died without issue, the throne was reluctantly left to her protestant sister Elizabeth, commonly remembered as one of the, if not the, greatest ruler of England. However, the financial and economic situation during her reign does not reflect this. While she was indeed a strong ruler for most of her rule, her financial policies left much to be desired. She was quite miserly with her expenditure as a monarch, much like her grandfather Henry VII, but unlike him she lacked the reforming and exploitative drive that defined his rule and made him prosperous.

Elizabeth was also not keen on taking on new financial ideas unlike her sister Mary, and despite the high inflation she did not increase customs rates. Furthermore, Elizabeth’s core income would start to decrease as she sold land to pay for the conflict with her old brother-in-law, King Phillip of Spain. Elizabeth’s campaigns in Ireland was likewise expensive, and the high war taxes coupled with the fragile economic situation, bad weather and poor harvests resulted in famine and high food prices. The coinage reforms laid out under Mary also came into effect, this slowed inflation but was essentially negated by the demands caused by a 40% rise in population over her reign: food and goods – food prices increased by 75% and manufactured goods increased by 45% in price. This population boom inevitably led to unemployment and vagrancy, and measures were taken to try and deal with this, such as the Poor Law, which aimed to find simple work for those impotent poor who were disadvantaged and for them to be cared for by a Poor Rate levied on local households. The Statute of Artificers passed from 1558-1563 also served to tackle unemployment through enforcing mandatory 7 year apprenticeships in a trade, replacing the old feudal craft
guilds. Generally, Crown revenue did increase during Elizabeth’s reign (although not as much as inflation).

However, she failed to increase feudal dues or customs, and she made increasingly frequent sales of royal land. This meant that the crown became increasingly dependent on direct taxation, parliamentary grants and forced loans. Elizabeth’s general miserliness with her expenditure did not improve her situation as a whole, but by pulling her purse strings tighter she was able to leave her successor James I with a relatively smallish debt of £300000, however it is arguable that this frugality and poor monetary reward of her servants led to an increase in corruption. Elizabeth often made up for this though through the reward of less financially stressful offices, such as knighthoods, discount leases and stewardships of royal land.

The Tudor age is considered one of the defining eras in English history, facilitating a transition from the elder governments of the feudal, medieval past to the gateway of a centralised and more modern England. The advances in thought, religion, technology and power had all served to make England a much stronger power in Europe. However, it was also ultimately wracked by inflation, high prices, debasement, debt and unemployment brought about by the poor choices made by the likes of Henry VIII and Somerset and exacerbated by the actions and circumstances of others such as Mary and Elizabeth. The success, reform and efficiency of Henry VII’s rule were not matched by the policies of his successors, and even though in comparison to other European monarchs of the period he was a small earner, England ultimately enjoyed a financial high point under his rule when compared to the other members of his dynasty.


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http://www.britannica.com/shakespeare/article-44835. Last accessed 5th Nov 2012. [ 4 ]. Chris Trueman. (2012). Henry VII and Ordinary Revenue. Available: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/henryvii_ordinary_revenue.htm. Last accessed 7th Nov 2012. [ 5 ]. Duncan Radway & Mansell Baker. (2008). Henry VII and Finance. Available: www.forwardtothepast.co.uk/year12/16thengland/…/finance.doc. Last accessed 30th Nov 2012. [ 6 ]. John Guy. (2012). Henry VII: Founder of Stability or Incompetent Monarch?. Available: http://www.tudors.org/asa2-level/48-henry-vii-founder-of-stability-or-incompetent-monarch.html. Last accessed 8th Nov 2012. [ 7 ]. Duncan Radway & Mansell Baker. (2008). Henry VII and Finance. Available: www.forwardtothepast.co.uk/year12/16thengland/…/finance.doc. Last accessed 30th Nov 2012. [ 8 ]. Chris Trueman. (2012). Henry VIII – The Man. Available: http://www.historylearningsite.co.uk/henry_viii.htm. Last accessed 12th Nov 2012. [ 9 ]. Prof. Ronald Hutton. (2011). Henry VIII: Majesty with Menace. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/tudors/majesty_menace_01.shtml. Last accessed 8th Jan 2013. [ 10 ]. Johann Peter (J.P) Sommerville. (2012). Henry VIII and Wolsey. Available: http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/361/361-06.htm. Last accessed 18th Nov 2012. [ 11 ]. Johann Peter (J.P) Sommerville. (2012). Henry VIII – The Final Years. Available: http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/361/361-10.htm. Last accessed 18th Nov 2012. [ 12 ]. Lara Eakins. (2012). Debasement. Available: http://www.tudorhistory.org/glossaries/d/debasement.html. Last accessed 25th Nov 2012. [ 13 ]. Philip Edwards (2001). The Making of the Modern English State 1460-1660. Basingstoke: Palgrave. 99. [ 14 ]. Weir, Alison (2002). Henry VIII: The King and His Court. Random House Digital, Inc. [ 15 ]. G.R Elton (1991). England Under the Tudors. New York: Routledge. p64-68. [ 16 ]. John Guy (2000). The Tudors a very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p22 [ 17 ]. Edwards, P (2001). The Making of the Modern English State 1460-1660. Basingstoke: Palgrave. 99. [ 18 ]. Johann Peter (J.P) Sommerville. (2012). Edward VI & Somerset. Available: http://faculty.history.wisc.edu/sommerville/361/361-11.htm. Last accessed

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