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Age of Invention: House of Hell
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As I mentioned in the last instalment of this series, in 1610 England’s king James I came perilously close to becoming financially secure. Had he reached a deal with the House of Commons, giving up a few of his prerogative royal powers in exchange for MPs voting him permanent annual taxes, he might never have had to summon a Parliament again. Had the “Great Contract” been agreed, Parliament might have inadvertently abolished itself.
This must have seemed an unlikely risk at the time, as Parliaments had been called so frequently over the previous few decades. Only one MP, Sir Roger Owen, warned that if they voted the king too much money, “then he shall not need a court of parliament”. He must have seemed like an alarmist. But he was was soon proved right. By the end of 1610, James’s disillusionment with the House of Commons was complete — it was, he said, after six years of fruitlessly wrangling for parliamentary taxes, like a “House of Hell”.1
So, despite failing to reach a permanent financial settlement, James decided to try to rule without it. His debts were huge, and his deficit substantial. But after the failure of 1610 he would do everything he could to never have to summon a Parliament again. Although he couldn’t actually afford it, he decided to try ruling as an absolutist monarch anyway — to embark on “personal rule”.
This extraordinary decision, to be an absolutist ruler without adequate financial support, would have dramatic consequences for England’s foreign policy, and perhaps on the whole balance of Europe too. James had already tried to reduce the costs of war when he came to the throne in 1603, by immediately concluding a peace with the vast Spanish Empire. Yet peace now became a necessity — if he couldn’t even plug the deficit during peacetime, he could not possibly pay for a war. Recognising this, Spain intervened freely in the affairs of the Protestant German states, confident that England would not be able to come to their aid.2
To make matters worse, James’s financial woes made him especially susceptible to foreign influence. A poor king could be bought. Some of the smaller but wealthier European dynasties began to offer James large sums for his children’s hands in marriage. In 1611, the duke of Savoy offered a vast dowry of £210,000 for his daughter to marry James’s eldest son and heir, Prince Henry. The notoriously wealthy grand duke of Tuscany even put in a bid for £300,000. France then offered £240,000 — not as high, but it had the greater status as a kingdom. Any of these amounts would have plugged the deficit for a few years, even if they were nowhere near to eliminating James’s debt.3 Yet Henry died in 1612 at the age of eighteen, before any match was agreed, and James’s new heir Charles was much younger and sickly. There was now no rush, so the bidding war ceased. Indeed, by 1616 Charles had given England’s rivals yet another way to influence its king. The Spanish Hapsburgs dangled the prospect of a gigantic dowry of £600,000, but dragged their feet in negotiations, keeping James focused for as long as they could on trying to keep them sweet.
In the meantime, with Henry’s death denying him an immediate windfall, James in 1613 turned Ireland. The Irish Parliament had not been summoned for over a quarter of a century, but it could be a way to reduce the costs of the occupation of Ireland and even raise some funds. The Parliament was initially a disaster. James had flagrantly gerrymandered a Protestant majority by chartering dozens of new towns, particularly in the English plantations in Ulster. Each new town was a borough constituency able to choose its own MPs, and James could even select their initial members — especially in cases where the towns were actually only tiny villages. In protest, the Catholic MPs refused to even recognise the new borough MPs, so each side elected their own Speaker. The Catholic Speaker was only forced out of the chair when the Protestant Speaker was hoisted onto his lap. Nonetheless, although James was legally entitled to create as many new boroughs as he liked, he soon compromised and in 1615 the Irish Parliament ended up voting him some cash.4
But the delays forced James’s hand, and in 1614 he briefly suspended his foray into personal rule by summoning the English Parliament again. He needn’t have bothered. Having embarked on personal rule, James had doubled down on legally dubious ways of raising cash, like imposing new customs duties without parliamentary approval — measures that had already been deeply unpopular with MPs in 1610. This time, the Parliament lasted just two months and two days before James dissolved it in a rage — the House of Hell had proved even more impudent than before. One of the veteran opposition leaders, Sir Edwin Sandys, went so far as to explicitly compare James’s impositions on trade to tyranny, before reminding the Commons that tyrants often met a bloody end. When the Parliament was dissolved, the king had MPs’ notes on impositions burned, and a few of the ringleaders were even briefly imprisoned.5 But with the dissolution of Parliament, which had not voted him any cash, he was still none the richer.
Desperate, James was reduced to pleading for charity, starting a “benevolence”, or donations drive. The uptake was unenthusiastic, however, as many of the gentry bristled at the expectation that they pay according to their status. This donations drive seemed suspiciously similar in its methods to how Parliament raised taxes. Faced with outright opposition, as well as a lack of enthusiasm, it raised a paltry amount.6
More seriously, James started to liquidate many of his assets. He entered an ever-worsening spiral, sacrificing recurring annual income for up-front injections of cash, which then worsened his deficit later on. From the perspective of European diplomacy, James’s fire sale seemed to mark a complete English withdrawal from continental affairs. In 1616 he even sold Vlissingen, Briel, and Fort Rammekens — English-garrisoned towns on the Dutch border with Spanish-ruled Flanders. These three “cautionary towns” had been acquired over thirty years earlier by Elizabeth I, as security for a loan to the Dutch Republic in its fight for independence from Spain. They were also of strategic significance, guaranteeing Anglo-Dutch friendship and providing a potential landing point for English troops. But James could not afford it. Although the Dutch still owed the English a princely overall sum of £600,000, after the cost of supporting the garrisons it represented a steady trickle into James’s treasury of just £13,000 per year. So he gave up the towns and discharged the debt for just £213,000.7
The asset liquidation had domestic results as well. James bridged the recurring deficits by selling off his lands, not only harming his long-term revenues, but enriching a whole new class of money-savvy courtier — much like the opportunistic “oligarchs” who benefited most from the privatisations in the crumbling Soviet Union. In the 1600s and 1610s, the likes of Walter Cope, Arthur Ingram, and Lionel Cranfield managed the sales of the king’s lands, also creating syndicates to buy up the plots that they suspected were being undervalued. They were extraordinarily corrupt by modern standards. But they seemed a necessary evil.
“Ingram and his fellows are odious men”, Sir Walter Raleigh wrote, “but it is better for a prince to use such a kind of men”.8 As expert extractors, they were given responsibility for enforcing laws punishable by fines, for selling licences in regulated trades, raising the rents from the Crown’s estate, rooting out tax evaders, and collecting the king’s impositions and feudal dues. They were, in other words, royal prerogative finance personified. And because James effectively contracted them by granting them patents, they were the people who ultimately brought patents into disrepute.
By 1620, when events in Europe took an unexpected turn and James’s hand was forced, the pent-up hatred of personal rule — and of patent monopolists in particular — would finally be unleashed. The first major reforms of the patent system were nigh. With the dramatic precedents that they would set, England in general would never be the same again. But more on that next time.
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Parliament did actually vote him some occasional “subsidies” between 1604 and 1610, but these were nowhere near enough.
Clare Jackson, Devil-Land: England Under Siege, 1588-1688 (Penguin UK, 2021), p.151
T. W. Moody, ‘The Irish Parliament under Elizabeth and James I: A General Survey’, Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy. Section C: Archaeology, Celtic Studies, History, Linguistics, Literature 45 (1939), pp.41–81.
Maija Jansson, ed., Proceedings in Parliament, 1614 (House of Commons) (American Philosophical Society, 1988), p.xvii
Simon Mark Healy, ‘Crown Revenue and the Political Culture of Early Stuart England’ (Birkbeck College, University of London, 2015), pp.179-181
Andrew Thrush, ‘The Personal Rule of James I, 1611-1620’, in Politics, Religion and Popularity in Early Stuart Britain: Essays in Honour of Conrad Russell, ed. Thomas Cogswell, Richard Cust, and Peter Lake (Cambridge University Press, 2002), p.92. The original ask was £250,000 but it was negotiated down. Jackson, p.153
Sir Walter Raleigh, The prerogative of parlaments in England proued in a dialogue (pro & contra) betweene a councellour of state and a iustice of peace (1628), p.53