Funding the defence of the realm (or not…)

As questions of defence spending continue to be discussed in the chambers of Westminster, here Dr Hannes Kleineke, editor of our Commons 1461-1504 project, looks into 15th century attempts to secure more money for this purpose, to varying degrees of success…

The story of the rise of the English Parliament is inextricably interwoven with the Crown’s acceptance in the 13th century that it should not in ordinary circumstances tax its subjects without the prior assent of the community of the realm. Hand in hand with this went an understanding that the King could only make such demands on its subjects on particular grounds. By the later Middle Ages it was accepted that taxation voted by Parliament should be applied to the defence of the realm, although it was understood that this included the King’s possessions on the European mainland.

Grants of taxation nevertheless remained controversial:

I pray God send you the Holy Ghost among you in the parliament house, and rather the devil, we say, than you should grant any more taxes!

John Paston wrote to his brother, Sir John, then a Member of Parliament, in March 1473 (Paston Letters and Papers ed. Davis, i. 361)

This was particularly the case when the war was going badly. In the aftermath of Henry V’s great victory at Agincourt in 1415 the Commons readily acquiesced to a string of taxes to fund fresh expeditions to France. Yet, just a few years later, as England’s French territory was lost piecemeal in the reign of Henry VI, the Commons increasingly pushed back. Wherever possible, they looked for taxes to be levied in the form of customs duties on imports and exports, or on any foreigners living in England. As for direct taxation, the Commons sent Henry VI’s finances into a tailspin by authorising repeated rounds of government borrowing, while delegating the task of agreeing the taxation by which these loans might be repaid to their successors in future Parliaments.

Battle of Agincourt
early 15th c.
via WikimediaCommons

The memory of ever fresh taxes being poured into an apparent black hole as Henry VI’s French territory crumbled away was still fresh when Edward IV replaced him on the throne in March 1461, and the Commons in the Parliament that met at Westminster in November of the same year were no doubt relieved not to be asked for money in support of the new King’s ongoing fight against residual Lancastrian resistance to his rule. Just two years later, however, King Edward could point to the threat of a Scottish invasion in support of the restoration of Henry VI to request a grant of money from Parliament. In June 1463 the Commons agreed, on condition that the tax was to be used for the defence of the realm and for no other purpose. The bulk of the money was to be levied on the basis of a long-established assessment that determined how much every locality in England owed. A supplement, by contrast, was to be raised in the form of a special income tax on everybody who owned either lands returning annual revenues in excess of £1, or moveable goods worth more than £6 13s. 4d. More than half of the money was to be collected that same summer, and Parliament went into its summer recess on 17 June.

Edward IV

In the event, the projected Scottish campaign never took place, and the King instead used the money to pay the wages of the garrison of Calais, and to cover other routine expenditure. He clearly anticipated trouble, for when Parliament reassembled at York on 4 November, he sent the archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Bourgchier, to face the Lords and Commons, with instructions to prevent the assembly from any elaborate discussion by an immediate fresh prorogation until the following year.

The second half of the taxes granted earlier was to be collected about that same time, and the matter had clearly already been on the minds of the Commons, so they were ready for the King. Before the archbishop could send them packing, they found time to agree that their earlier grant of the income tax had been no grant at all, but merely an expression of intent. The chastened King had to agree to forego this special levy, as well as delaying the payment date of the remainder of the money from November to the following spring.   

Edward IV was not slow to learn his lesson. For the next four years, he did not approach Parliament for another grant of money, and when he eventually did so in May 1468, he took care to put the Commons in a good mood with plenty of blandishments and news of a royal wedding, that of the King’s sister Margaret to Charles the Bold, duke of Burgundy.


Find more blogs from our Commons 1461-1504 project at the Commons in the Wars of the Roses page.

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