Twelfth Century?How Well Did the English Exchequer Function in the Twelfth Century?The English exchequer was the central board responsible for all incomings and out goings into the royal treasury.
It arrived with the Normans andwas the first system of centralized revenue extraction to appear that althoughcrude was adirect predecessor to the modern one.The information on how the Exchequer functioned as a method ofinstitutionalised revenue extraction is from the ‘The course of the Exchequer’written by Richard son of Nigel. The text provides a one sided argument intothe merits of the Exchequer as Richard himself is the treasurer. The text iswritten in a typically classical dialogue style with a ‘master’ dictating to his’scholar’. Richard also presents himself as a well educated and intelligent manthrough his grasp of Latin and his quotations from Biblical and classical textsas well as alluding to philosophy through his talk of logic.
The interesting proposition therefore is who was interested in such acomplicated text and why was it produced. The system of the Exchequer was acomplex one that would have been understood by few at the time. By attemptingto describe this system in a way that presents it as equitable, it could haveconvinced the Barons and others paying taxes of the validity and fairness of asystem of which they would have had little comprehension.
This would also behelped by Richards apparently good grasp of the area.The Exchequer board was the highest office that could be obtained in theroyal circle and was the most powerful and prestigious as it presided over allfinancial matters. It allowed records to be formed and general standards to bemaintained.
The ultimate power of the exchequer is aptly put in the text…”where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.The Exchequer had a greater role than just recording revenue as itprovided a forum where judgments could be made and disputes about financialmatters could be settled. It also saw commands depersonalized through the useof writs which can be described as the routinization of charisma’ (Clanchy,1979).
The King no longer had to have any direct influence over a command andsome form of general standard could be applied.In command of the Exchequer was the Kings Chief Justiciar who waseffectively second in command from the King. He presided over the whole boardand was the only one besides the king himself who could reverse decisions oncethey had been made.
Any writs from the treasury for payment and expenditure hadto be authorized by him.The exchequer was structured into a lower and higher board whichcontained various officials, Kings dignitaries, clerks and scribes to ensurethat any decisions that were reached were recorded accurately. The members whoplayed an active role in the exchequer were the tallies clerk who held all thecounter tallies of receipt, an accountant who used the actual exchequer boardand counters to record all financial in comings and out goings and the treasurerwho recorded all goings on. Above all these men were scribes who recorded againprecisely what was written down and to ensure that this was correct theychecked it against each other at the conclusion of the session.Other important officials that sat on the exchequer board were thechancellor who was the keeper of the kings official signature, his seal.Another was the constable who had to witness all writs as well as sort outpayment to the kings various mercenaries and wage earners.
Chamberlainsperformed the task of collating the account into a forel and then presentingthem to the treasury on behalf of the sheriff of a particular county. There wasa Marshall responsible for arresting any debtor who had failed to pay.A significant part of the system were the tally sticks that were givenas receipts for any payment. The sticks were notched in different waysaccording to the amount being recorded.
This stick was then split in two withthe debtor receiving half and the other portion tied together to form totals.Receipts were probably given in this way as they were more likely to survive andin a time of relatively widespread illiteracy easier to understand. Thissimplistic method was very precise as can be seen by its continual use up untilthe nineteenth century.
The accounts were formed by a clerk who made out the account using coinsfor counters on the exchequer board which was essentially like an abacus. Thisappears to have been a very complicated process. The counters are placed in thedesired position and then the figures were called out and recorded by a scribewhich must have been extremely hard work. The treasury received all accountfrom the sheriffs of different counties and were written onto a role. In allthree separate roles were kept.Being on the board of the exchequer appears to have involved long hoursand a high degree of pressure.
In the course of the exchequer it is statedthat…”the treasurer, indeed, is beset by so many constant great cares andanxieties, that he cannot be blamed if sleep sometimes over takes him in themiddle of it all.”The general problems faced by the exchequer would best be summed up bythe text…”Moreover, in human affairs scarcely anything is absolutely perfect.
“The exchequer even if limited by technology capable of adding the figures wasultimately aided by its reliance on human endeavor. It appears that itfunctioned by accountability, that is each members accountability to another.This occurred from the scribes and the clerks right up to the chief justiciarand ultimately the King. TheExchequer functioned as a bureaucraticorganization with records being written and taxes collected in an organised,literate way and was not only a sign of the development of a feudal system inEngland but as a precursor to the modern state.ReferencesClanchy M. T, From Memory to Written Record, 2nd ed. Cambridge 1989Richard son of Nigel, The Course of the Exchequer, trans.
C. Johnson, London1950.History