James' greatest problem was to address the crippling state of Crown finances coupled with the expectancy of a nation unprepared to meet the cost of its demands for intervention abroad to support the Protestant cause but willing to protest for it. Dependent on an antiquated and inadequate fiscal system, James never had enough to balance the books from his ordinary revenue. Following tradition since the medieval era, James was expected to 'live of his own', pay the huge costs of kingship from the ordinary revenue, with supplementary financial grants from Parliament in cases of great need, notably foreign war. The country as a whole, and the peerage in particular, was under-taxed, suffering a steady decline since the solvent days of Henry VIII. This was largely due to the fact that re-evaluations did not keep pace with inflation; thus the Crown suffered. The situation was compounded by corruption. In the provinces local assessors undervalued themselves and their peers (e.g. the Duke of Buckingham [Link to George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham] paid £400 on an annual income of over £20,000 in 1623). The government was therefore unable to tax the increased wealth of the richest section of the nation. With inflation the subsidy steadily declined in value; from around £1370,000 in 1558 to £72,000 in 1621. At the same time the cost of warfare and defences rose considerably. Everywhere the costs of government were rising, and the Crown struggled to meet the new figures.

Elizabeth's reign is highly deceptive; the Queen had managed to stay solvent only by parsimony - which created as many, if not more, problems than it solved. James could not govern in the same way, partly because he was a foreign king and the first of a new dynasty that needed to buy allegiance of the English political elite, and partly because of James' inherent extravagance. James was incapable of thrift. In addition James had a family in his household - Queen Anne and Prince Henry were also required to be as stately as the King. Renaissance kingship was costly and James was ushered into raising the costs of his household by his courtiers. Contemporaries seem to have recognised this, to a degree; Sir Francis Bacon [8] wrote to the king in 1612, 'it is no new thing for the greatest of kings to be in debt'. Early into James' reign the Earl of Shrewsbury remarked Elizabeth 'valued every molehill... as a mountain, which our sovereign now does not.'

[8. Sir Francis Bacon, 1561-1626 Statesman of Elizabeth I and James I, but also a lawyer and profound thinker, essayist and scientist whose ideas achieved European acclaim. His political career, after a difficult start, was marked by high government office in the service of the Crown - particularly under James I after the passing of his chief rivals Cecil and Coke from the scene. Bacon was impeached by Parliament for corruption and dismissed from office in 1621, his political career ruined (though he was pardoned in 1624), upon which he retreated to his country house to engage intellectual pursuits and scientific experimentation. Bacon's writings - particularly The Advancement of Learning (1605), Novum Organum (1620), and New Atlantis (1627) - embodied an ambitious programme for scientific research for the improvement of society. Bacon's ideas had a profound affect on mid-seventeenth century 'New Philosophy of Science' and the formation of the Royal Society, and on a wider level influenced the Scientific Revolution that captivated Europe during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.]

The lavishing of gifts and favours by the King is recorded in the Exchequer Accounts. There were always men such as Robert Carr, Buckingham or Lord Hay to lap up the generosity of the King's hand. Furthermore, James took little notice of warnings to curb his expenditure. The centre of government and patronage, the Court had to be magnificent to impress foreign envoys and lure potential office holders.

The traditional view of James I as a complete spendthrift can, then, be justified to an extent when placed in its historical context. As stated above, Renaissance kingship was unavoidably costly - lavishing money on art, architecture, court entertainment and courtiers was considered by contemporaries to be money well spent. Since the medieval period the English expected their kings to be generous. Robert Cecil stated that 'for a King not to be bountiful were a fault' in explaining James' hefty expenditure to the 1610 Parliament. To this Cecil may have added in retort to Parliament's critique that allowing for a century of inflation, James' spending was equal to that of Henry VII and even less than Henry VIII's had been.

Previous chapter Back Home Email this Search Discuss Bookmark Next chapter
Copyright: All texts on Bibliomania are © Ltd, and may not be reproduced in any form without our written permission. See our FAQ for more details.