For centuries, people have questioned the taxpayer’s role in funding the British royal family. During the reign of the Stuarts in the 17th century, that role was challenged to an extreme as a series of spendthrift monarchs treated their subjects like a bank that was always open to fund their lavish lifestyles.
James I of Scotland and England was the definition of the poor little rich prince. Son of Mary, Queen of Scots, James had essentially been orphaned as a baby, when his father Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley was murdered and his mother imprisoned. He ruled over the warring, cash-poor nation of Scotland from the age of one and inherited the throne of England in March 1603 when the childless Elizabeth I died.
The first ruler of the Stuart dynasty, James was overwhelmed with the riches he encountered in England and started spending like the absolute monarch he was.
As historian Adrian Tinniswood writes in Behind the Throne: A Domestic History of the British Royal Household: “Household economy—economy of any kind, in fact—was not James I’s strong point.”
King James I Levies Multiple Taxes
James and his wife, Anne of Denmark, immediately began spending like they had just won the lottery. As C.N. Trueman notes in James I and Royal Revenue, the King excused his spending by saying he was “like a poor man wandering about forty years in a wilderness and barren soil, and now arrived at the land of promise.”
The Crown obtained money from a variety of revenue streams. There was “ordinary revenue” from the crown lands, court fees and monopolies. There were numerous taxes levied on British subjects—from custom duties on all movable goods to taxes on landowners, merchants, and tenant farmers. The Crown was also allowed to buy all food and goods at reduced prices under the much- hated system of purveyance.
But it was not enough. “By mid-September 1603,” writes Tinniswood, “when the king and queen were on progress through Wiltshire, Berkshire, and Oxfordshire, spending on the household looked as though it was reaching a rate of £100,000 a year, twice the amount that Elizabeth had spent. ‘Think what the country feels,’ wrote secretary of state Robert Cecil.”
The country—making its voice heard through the increasingly vocal House of Commons—reacted angrily as James levied new taxes to fund new peerages for his Scottish favorites, servants for his large family, a new luxurious wardrobe, and endless banquets. Queen Anne’s beloved court masques (entertainments) were particularly expensive. The highly problematic Masque of Blackness cost an estimated 8.5 million pounds ($11,750,400) in today’s money. According to Tinniswood, “by the time it was staged there were widespread grumblings of discontent at the lavish expenditure involved.”
When James didn’t get money he requested from Parliament, the unpopular King placed custom duties and taxes on middle-class merchants without their consent. He also took advantage of the popularity of his teenage heir, Henry, the future Prince of Wales.
“In 1609, the cash-strapped James I resurrected an all-but-forgotten feudal levy, ‘anciently due by the common law of England,’ which could be exacted for Henry’s knighting when he reached the age of sixteen,” Tinniswood writes. “The proceeds from this tax went towards paying James’s debts.”
READ MORE: Why We Pay Taxes
Parliament Tries to Reign in Royal Spending
It was still not enough. In 1610, Secretary of State Robert Cecil proposed “The Great Contract” to Parliament in an attempt to rein in royal spending. The proposed contract would give James a guaranteed, taxpayer-funded income of 200,000 pounds a year, and in exchange he would give up some royal rights. But the King balked at giving up privileges like purveyance, and the House of Commons worried about raising taxes yet again, so no deal was ever made.
By 1620, courtier Lionel Cranfield, who became Lord Treasurer, was attempting to put the King’s disastrous finances in order. Household expenses were cut by around 50 percent, but Cranfield’s overall corruption made Parliament’s already terrible relationship with the Crown even worse.
There was also the problem of Charles, the new Prince of Wales (Henry had died in 1612), who was gallivanting around Europe, spending a fortune on fine art and decorations. According to historian Breeze Barrington, author of the article How Charles I Lost his Head over his Lust for the World’s Greatest Art Collection, “An accounts book from the year 1623 documents vast sums of money spent on elaborate clothing, jewels and art, as well as an elephant and camels.”
Charles’s actions were deeply upsetting to his equally irresponsible father. “James wrote to his son begging him to come home, telling him that the royal purse was empty,” Barrington writes.
Only two years later, Charles ascended the throne upon his father’s death. His spending would be as out of control as his parents, and lead to dire consequences.
“He would continue to spend vast amounts of money on art, clothes and court entertainments,” Barrington writes. “He would ostracize an already distant parliament, and within four years of becoming king engage in an 11-year personal rule under which he would impose unpopular and barely legal taxes on his people.”
Charles I Executed
This abuse of the public purse enraged commoners and aristocrats alike, particularly the King’s use of “forced loans.” These loans were little more than a shakedown of landed gentry. Charles also hit merchants with exorbitant custom duties on goods that were not sanctioned by Parliament. This mismanagement led to 76 gentlemen being imprisoned for refusing to give the King money for his pet projects and wars.
All these actions led to the public rethinking the role of monarchy in their country. English general and statesman Oliver Cromwell leveraged discontent with the crown and led Parliamentary forces in overthrowing the king.
In 1649, Charles I was executed outside the banquet hall of the Palace of Whitehall. For 11 years, Great Britain had no monarch. Cromwell became Lord Protector of England and held the post until his death in 1658. After Cromwell’s son assumed his father’s role for a brief period, Charles II, was called back from exile and ascended the throne in 1660. King Charles initially promised to put an end to “those excesses which were known to be in great offices.”
But the pull of glamour and glory was too great—as it would be for all the male Stuart rulers. Soon Charles II was infuriating the public with his lavish spending (and cadre of mistresses and illegitimate children), and the cycle began again.