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Function of the english exchequer in the 12th century

How and how well did the English Exchequer function in the twelfth century?

The English exchequer was the central board responsible for all in comings and out goings into the royal treasury. It arrived with the Normans and was the first system of centralized revenue extraction to appear that although crude was a direct predecessor to the modern one.

The information on how the Exchequer functioned as a method of institutionalised revenue extraction is from the ŒThe course of the Exchequer¹ written by Richard son of Nigel. The text provides a one sided argument into the merits of the Exchequer as Richard himself is the treasurer. The text is written in a typically classical dialogue style with a Œmaster¹ dictating to his Œscholar¹. Richard also presents himself as a well educated and intelligent man through his grasp of Latin and his quotations from Biblical and classical texts as well as alluding to philosophy through his talk of logic.

The interesting proposition therefore is who was interested in such a complicated text and why was it produced. The system of the Exchequer was a complex one that would have been understood by few at the time. By attempting to describe this system in a way that presents it as equitable, it could have convinced the Barons and others paying taxes of the validity and fairness of a system of which they would have had little comprehension. This would also be helped by Richards apparently good grasp of the area.

The Exchequer board was the highest office that could be obtained in the royal circle and was the most powerful and prestigious as it presided over all financial matters. It allowed records to be formed and general standards to be maintained. The ultimate power of the exchequer is aptly put in the text...¹where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.²

The Exchequer had a greater role than just recording revenue as it provided a forum where judgments could be made and disputes about financial matters could be settled. It also saw commands depersonalized through the use of writs which can be described as the Œroutinization of charisma¹ (Clanchy, 1979). The King no longer had to have any direct influence over a command and some form of general standard could be applied.

In command of the Exchequer was the Kings Chief Justiciar who was effectively second in command from the King. He presided over the whole board and was the only one besides the king himself who could reverse decisions once they had been made. Any writs from the treasury for payment and expenditure had to be authorized by him.

The exchequer was structured into a lower and higher board which contained various officials, Kings dignitaries, clerks and scribes to ensure that any decisions that were reached were recorded accurately. The members who played an active role in the exchequer were the tallies clerk who held all the counter tallies of receipt, an accountant who used the actual exchequer board and counters to record all financial in comings and out goings and the treasurer who recorded all goings on. Above all these men were scribes who recorded again precisely what was written down and to ensure that this was correct they checked it against each other at the conclusion of the session.

Other important officials that sat on the exchequer board were the chancellor 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 out payment to the kings various mercenaries and wage earners. Chamberlains performed the task of collating the account into a forel and then presenting them to the treasury on behalf of the sheriff of a particular county. There was a Marshall responsible for arresting any debtor who had failed to pay.

A significant part of the system were the tally sticks that were given as receipts for any payment. The sticks were notched in different ways according to the amount being recorded. This stick was then split in two with the 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 and in a time of relatively widespread illiteracy easier to understand. This simplistic method was very precise as can be seen by its continual use up until the nineteenth century.

The accounts were formed by a clerk who made out the account using coins for counters on the exchequer board which was essentially like an abacus. This appears to have been a very complicated process. The counters are placed in the desired position and then the figures were called out and recorded by a scribe which must have been extremely hard work. The treasury received all account from the sheriffs of different counties and were written onto a role. In all three separate roles were kept.

Being on the board of the exchequer appears to have involved long hours and a high degree of pressure. In the course of the exchequer it is stated that...²the treasurer, indeed, is beset by so many constant great cares and anxieties, that he cannot be blamed if sleep sometimes over takes him in the middle of it all.²

The general problems faced by the exchequer would best be summed up by the text...²Moreover, in human affairs scarcely anything is absolutely perfect.² The exchequer even if limited by technology capable of adding the figures was ultimately aided by its reliance on human endeavor. It appears that it functioned by accountability, that is each members accountability to another. This occurred from the scribes and the clerks right up to the chief justiciar and ultimately the King. The Exchequer functioned as a bureaucratic organization 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 in England but as a precursor to the modern state.


Clanchy M. T, From Memory to Written Record, 2nd ed. Cambridge 1989

Richard son of Nigel, The Course of the Exchequer, trans. C. Johnson, London 1950.

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