Roleplaying Medieval Royal Government
Government in twelfth century England was a complex yet well-oiled machine. This is particularly evident in the vast revenue that the likes of Henry II and his successors, Richard I and King John, were able to amass, as well as the numerous, contemporary records of government that exist to this day. As part of the Angevin England (1128-1216) Level 5 module Abby Armstrong, CCCU PhD student in the Department of History, is helping to teach this semester, she wanted the students to gain a sense of the scale and intricacies of the functioning of royal government. To do this, Abby set up a role playing task where she and the students simulated the Exchequer.
The exchequer was responsible for collecting and auditing royal revenue. Twice a year (at Easter and Michaelmas) the king’s sheriffs were summoned to Westminster to account for royal income in the shires. Much of our understanding of how the Exchequer functioned comes from the late twelfth century Dialogue Concerning the Exchequer (Dialogus de Scaccario) written by Richard fitz Nigel. This was the key text assigned in advance as reading for the seminar. Each student was given a role in the preceding seminar and was told to use the primary source to discover what their role involved and where they sat at the Exchequer table. Some of the more illustrious figures, such as the justiciar, chancellor and chamberlain, were also asked to work out their other roles in government, as many were also key figures within the legal system and the king’s household. In addition, two scribes were appointed from the Chancery, or the king’s writing office. These scribes issued royal requests and demands, predominantly of a financial nature, which the king would make on his sheriffs and they would have to account for at the Exchequer. Instead of a king heading the government, I took on this role of authority as queen.
At the start of the seminar, the tables were arranged to try and replicate the exchequer table with the exchequer cloth, the large grid, used like an abacus, to calculate the sums passing through the exchequer, in the centre. The students were then asked to sit around the exchequer table according to their role, and to give a brief description of their function.
[My simplified version of the Exchequer table]
The next step was then put these roles into practice. The sheriff of Kent was summoned to the exchequer with their bags of cash. As the calculator tallied up the sums paid for the farms in Kent (the revenues from the royal lands and manors in the county), it soon became apparent that the sheriff was short. Much to the dismay of those in the room who wanted to lock up the sheriff, in stepped the chancery scribes. They produced letters to explain the sheriff’s shortfall. These royal requests ordered the sheriff to spend money on the queen’s behalf, such as on repairs to Dover castle or for providing transportation for the queen’s crossing of the Channel. These letters were then sealed close with my queen’s seal and sent to the sheriff, while a copy of the request was recorded on the close roll. These letters close meant that the sheriff had paid their account in full and was quit. The sheriff then received a receipt of his payments in the form of a tally stick. This was a piece of wood with a series of notches representing the sum paid, or in our case a strip of paper with notches. This process was closely monitored by the justiciar, chancellor, constable, chamberlain and marshal, while the treasurer informed their scribe and the chancellor’s scribe so that every stage and detail could be recorded on the pipe roll and chancellor’s roll.
Yet this was not the end of the sheriff’s accounts. The sheriff had another bag of cash remaining. This came from their role in collecting fines made to the king. Fines were offerings made by individuals to the king to secure his favour or to purchase certain rights. I particularly enjoyed the audible gasps around the room as I, the queen, charged a number of fictitious widows hundreds of pounds in order for them to remain a widow or to purchase the guardianship of their children, known as wardships. (I am particularly looking forward to discussing King John’s treatment of widows and use of fines later in the module, especially the extortionate fine of 20,000 marks, equivalent to over £13,000, levied upon Geoffrey de Mandeville for his right to marry King John’s first wife, Isabella, countess of Gloucester.) These fines were recorded by a chancery scribe on a fine roll before I sent my sheriffs to chase up the payments. The sheriffs then accounted for a number of these payments at the Exchequer, dutifully recorded on the pipe roll and chancellor’s roll. However, as the sheriff returned the payments, it became apparent that some individuals were repaying in instalments, for example the fictitious Isabella of Rochester who was fined £300 so that she could remain a widow. Isabella paid £50 per year. This introduced the students to the tactic of indebtedness used by the Angevin kings in the central Middle Ages to exert further their control and authority.
After the sheriff surrendered their revenues to the exchequer, the cash was then passed on to the knight silverer. It was their role to assess the standard of the coins. The currency we were dealing in at our exchequer was chocolate coins. These were submitted to vigorous testing by the knight silverer who reliably informed the exchequer that having taste tested the money, it was ‘top quality silver, delicious’. This was seconded by the treasurer once the cash was passed into their hands.
The enactment of the exchequer step by step allowed the students to ask questions and for me to elaborate further on certain aspects and roles. I believe that by getting the students to enact these roles, rather than merely reading about them, they gained a greater sense of how everything functioned and fitted together. By the end of the seminar, the students and I had produced a pipe roll, chancellor’s roll, close roll and fine roll, all sources used to piece together the running of medieval government. Also my queenly coffers were full to the brim, until I paid my loyal exchequer members for their services! Overall, a highly profitable first year to Queen Abby’s reign.
Abby Armstrong is in the third year of her PhD in History. The title of her thesis is ‘The Daughters of Henry III’. As part of her scholarship, Abby is helping to teach on the Level 5 module: Anarchy, Law, War and Tyranny: Angevin England (1128-1216).