Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The medieval exchequer at Carlow

The medieval exchequer at Carlow

Niall C.E.J. O’Brien


In medieval Ireland there was no fixed centre of government. No seat of government like a capital city which we would today think of as part of the furniture of a modern state. Instead the chief ministers and their civil servants travelled around the country conducting the various affairs of government. It was only the exchequer and the common bench which were normally located in Dublin, around the area of Dublin Castle. Yet even these were between 1361 and 1394 based in Carlow.[1] In this article we will record the history of the exchequer at Carlow and ask was this version of medieval decentralisation effective.

Yet decentralisation was not how officials in fourteen century Ireland saw the situation. Their idea of going to Carlow was to create a new capital. The choice of Carlow as the effective seat of government was made sometime before 1361. Dublin was the acknowledged seat of government since the early days of the Anglo-Norman invasion and many were happy to live and work there. The problem was the two areas of Leinster that remained under Irish control.

Land of Leinster

The Anglo-Normans had early in their invasion gained control of the much of Leinster. But two areas of the present day province stood out as Irish controlled districts: The Wicklow Mountains and the western fringes of Leinster bordering the Shannon. In the first area the Irish families of O’Bryne, O’Toole and MacMurrough, amongst others, were often attacked by the Anglo-Normans and the Irish were not too slow to return the visit. Yet still the newcomers failed to take control of the Mountains and Norman settlement seems to have stopped at the 600-foot level.

On the west side of Leinster, the newcomers initially made good settlements in modern Laois. Part of the area was included in Kildare and part in Kilkenny. Yet Irish families such as the O’More maintained a presence that grew as the English area declined from 1315. The further west into Offaly you went the less Anglo-Norman people you would find. Here families like O’Carroll, MacCochlan and O’Melaghlin kept up a real and ever present threat to the new order. Moving northwards into present day Westmeath and Longford other Irish families like McGeoghegan and O’Farrell came out from the declining Norman shadow as the fourteen century wore on. These Irish along the Shannon were aided and enbolded by a Connacht that from 1340 lost the little English identity that the Normans had earlier tried to impose.[2]

The location of Carlow was not just a convenient place from which to strike the Irish of the mountains or those along the Shannon but was a more natural place for the English to be. It was here along the Barrow River valley that the greatest colonisation of Anglo-Normans took place. Great towns like Kildare, Athy, Carlow, Kilkenny and New Ross grew up within its catchment area. This area from the motte of Ardscull, near Athy, to New Ross is known as the Carlow Corridor. One historian described the corridor as the cradle of the Anglo-Norman colony in Ireland.[3]

The exchequer moves to Carlow from Dublin

By September 30, 1361 Robert Holywood, one of the remembrancers of the exchequer, was already located in Carlow. He had with him a small armed force to defend the town and the exchequer offices within. A few days later, on October 19, the sheriff of Dublin was ordered to provide two strong carts to transport tables and other necessities to Carlow. Materials were also needed to rebuild the castle and provide further office accommodation for the exchequer.[4]

It was intended that during the Michaelmas term of 1363 that the common bench would relocate to Carlow. This decision was subsequently postponed as there were as yet no facilities to store the rolls in the town. Concerns were also expressed that the town was not a safe location for the bench as the Irish made frequent attacks. Further bad news came to postpone the transfer when the exchequer temporarily returned to Dublin.[5]

By 1364 the exchequer had returned to Carlow yet it was not a safe homecoming. The newly appointed treasurer, John de Troy, was given three men at arms and six arches for his protection. The patent roll said that this was for the duration of the war. Yet the same document freely admitted that ‘the place of the exchequer of Ireland at Karlak, being as it were on the frontier of the Irish rebels, there is no safe access to it by the king’s lieges’.[6]

Medieval exchequer at work 

Complaints and problems

Other exchequer officials complained about the scarcity of provisions and that the price of food was unreasonably high. During periods of high military activity like in 1306 and in 1362 the price of certain commodities like wine increased considerably. Lionel of Clarence had to introduce a maximum selling price for wine in 1362 at eight pence a gallon. Two years later in 1364 the government had to introduce an ordinance to regulate the price of corn, meal, peas, beans, salt and charcoal.[7] Despite these measures the cost of living in Carlow still generated complaints from exchequer officials. During the financial year 1364-1365 the government paid gifts and rewards to various ministers to compensate them for this high cost. This compensation was also to cover the loss incurred when Carlow was recently burnt and destroyed by the king’s enemies.[8]

In the following financial year further extra payments, amounting to £38 12s 6d were paid to fifteen exchequer officials. This equals to a 50% increase onto their normal annual fee and salary. Examples of such payments include John Hurst, chancellor of the exchequer, who got £1 13s 4d onto his annual fee of £3 6s 8d; Robert de Holywood, chief baron, got £10 onto his fee of £20 while Thomas de Quikeshull, chief engrosser, got an extra £5 onto his annual fee of £10.[9]

These wage increases did not solved the cost of living issues at Carlow. One could even say that the increases only encouraged local suppliers to increase their prices and so get the maximum amount of an official’s wages. In 1373 complaints were made that the sellers of bread, meat, beer, hay and wheat-straw were continuing to charge excessive prices. Female brewers were particularly singled out as leading the vanguard with high prices for poor product. It was said that these female brewers were selling weak beer at 1½d per gallon. Officials calculated that with the going price for oats and malt in the Carlow area it was possible to sell good beer for 1d per gallon. In response the barons of the exchequer issued an ordinance to set maximum selling prices for corn, poultry, eggs, hay and animal meat.[10]

This ordinance seems to have had limited effect or enforcement was not rigorous enough to effect change. In the financial returns for the year 1375-1376 we learn that life in Carlow was still a very costly affair. In response the government again increased wages. The wages of all exchequer officials with the exception of the treasurer were doubled after the move from Dublin to Carlow. This was because life in the marches was more expensive than if the exchequer stayed in Dublin. In the foregoing year, extra payments amounted to £77 18s 4d.[11] In the eight years to September 1384 a total of £865 12s 9½d was paid in extra wages to exchequer officials. This payment for the most part was to cover their stay at Carlow.[12] In the following eight months to April 1385 these extra payments amounted to £62 11s 1d.[13] The two years up to May 1388 saw £259 17s 6d paid in extra payments.[14] In the fifty months up to September 1393 £267 1s 8d was paid in extra payments to exchequer officials.[15]

Some of the report costs of the Carlow exchequer would have occurred even if the exchequer stayed in Dublin. For example in April 1385 there was included in the annual cost of parchment, wax and ink, a bill for new gates for the town of Carlow with new locks and other necessities.[16] The town may well have needed these new gates even if no government offices were within. If the exchequer stayed within Dublin such renewal and maintenance expenses would also have occurred.

Many years before, during the Bruce invasion of Ireland, Martin de Fyssacre was charge with five crossbowmen to defend the exchequer house because of a threat by Irish felons to burn the house. This charge cost £14 for the one year from April 30, 1316 to March 31, 1317.[17] During the War of Independence (1919-21) the Irish felons successfully burnt one the exchequer houses when they burnt the Custom House in Dublin.

Carlow Castle - home of the medieval exchequer

Difficulties of collect taxes

The more central location of Carlow in the English part of Ireland did not always help in the collection of taxes. In 1375 a jury swore that the citizens of Cork could not come to the exchequer without ‘a great posse of armed men’ because of various tribulations and ‘risks of the roads’.[18]

Many government and county officials gave various excuses over time, for not going to the exchequer at Carlow. In 1373 the new seneschal of Meath, James de la Hide, could not go to take his oath there because of the threat of imminent war in Meath. One of the barons of the exchequer, William de Karlell, had to go to Tristernagh to administer the oath.[19]

Some excuses for not going to Carlow did have some merit. In the spring of 1374 the sheriffs of Cork and Limerick said they could not come to the exchequer because of local wars and the dangerous roads. These excuses didn’t always have firm foundation. An inquiry by the exchequer found that no wars of consequence occurred in those counties and the bishop of Limerick was able to get to Carlow without too great a difficulty. Yet by May serious war gripped Limerick and Clare.[20]

Carlow in the land of war

During the 1370s the peaceful life around Carlow became threatened once again by the rebel Irish nations of MacMurrough and O’Byrne. In 1373 MacMurrough attacked Carlow and took the constable of its castle prisoner. Reinforcements were ordered by the council to Carlow while Robert de Assheton, chancellor of Ireland and justiciar made a parley with the Leinster Irish.[21] The treasurer, Master John Colton ordered that Roger Gabiard and 23 companions stand guard in a ward at Carlow from October to December 1373 to defend the town and the exchequer within. This cost amounted to £31 16s in wages at 6d per day.[22]

In those troubled times, payments to officials were delayed in processing while extra money had to be paid to exchequer officials at Carlow. During the financial term of 1372-1375, Master John Colton, treasurer of Ireland, was paid £100 to cover arrears in his annual pay of £40 plus extra money for his expenses while at Carlow. In the same financial term, a total of £245 11s 3½d was paid to ministers as an extra to their normal pay because they attended the Carlow exchequer.[23]

Other exchequer officials gave what was to them very costly support to the exchequer at Carlow. In the financial year 1375-1376 we learn that William, son of Simon Lawless, clerk, had supported the exchequer for the past seven years, both in vacations and when open for business. This support was providing six horse and foot soldiers to defend the exchequer and the wider population. During the recent attack on Carlow, William’s house and goods were burnt with the result that William couldn’t maintain himself or his men. The government granted him £6 13s 4d as compensation and as a reward for past services.[24]

Approaching the end days at Carlow

In November 1386 Arthur McMurrough was admitted to the king’s peace and the exchequer at Carlow could do their job without threat of war. McMurrough was to pay 20 marks per quarter while at peace. Some of this money arrived at the exchequer and when in October 1390 McMurrough again was admitted to the king’s peace some hopes of better times to come were raised. Yet no sooner was this done than life came crashing down again. By July 1391 a year of arrears was due and McMurrough broke the peace. In that year we are told that McMurrough and O’Kerwill planned a general conquest of County Carlow.[25]   

Cost of the exchequer staying in Dublin

Having observed the costs and extra costs of the exchequer at Carlow it is well to note that there were costs in having the exchequer in Dublin also. Despite the size and aura that surrounds the place and name of Dublin Castle, the exchequer did not meet in the facility. Instead it operated from buildings in the suburbs. During times of conflict bags carrying documents and coffers had to travel between the castle and the exchequer twice a day. In the Michaelmas and Hilary terms of 1317 this travel cost 11s 4d. In quieter times the bags were only carried at the beginning and end of each term at a cost of only 1s.[26]

Following the burning of the Dublin suburbs by the Scots in 1316 the exchequer started from Easter term 1317 to rent some houses in the city centre from Robert de Wyleby at £5 per annum.[27] Robert de Wyleby was an important person in medieval Dublin. He first appears as a citizen in 1282 and by 1311 was a witness and member of the commonalty.[28]

This situation continued for many years. Robert de Wyleby was paid rent from Easter 1317 to the start of 1331.[29] From Easter term 1331 Alice, the widow of Robert de Wyleby continued to receive the rent of £5 for the few houses.[30] The records show that Alice de Wyleby got £2 10s in the Easter term and another £2 10s in the Michaelmas term of each subsequent year from 1331 to 1339.[31]

The records between 1339 and 1346 do not record any rent paid for buildings used by the exchequer. In the period from Christmas 1346 to Easter 1347 Walter de Istelep was paid £2 for rent while from June 24, 1347 to Michaelmas 1347 John Taillour received £2 rent for the exchequer houses.[32] There after John Taillour got the rent. The amount of this rent varied through the years. In 1347-49 John Taillour got £6; in 1349-50 £5; in 1350-56 £24 (i.e. £4 per year); in 1356-57 £4; in 1356-58 £6 (still £4 per year); in 1358 £2; and in 1359-60 £4. With the exchequer move to Carlow the rent fell in 1360-61 to £2.[33]

When the exchequer went back temporarily to Dublin in 1363 John Taillour got the rent he previously received and arrears since Easter term 1361 which amounted to £8 in total. In 1364 the exchequer relocated to Carlow again and John Taillour received no money for renting houses to the exchequer.[34]  
The exchequer leaves Carlow

The exchequer stayed in Carlow until 1394. On October 2, 1394, King Richard II arrived at Waterford. Here he stayed for three weeks before moving northwards along the Carlow Corridor. On October 28 he attacked the MacMurrough in the woods around Leighlin and two days after the Irish of Leinster submitted.[35]

Richard summoned a parliament for Dublin on December 1. We have no account of its deliberations. Before the parliament met an executive decision had already been made to remove the exchequer and common bench from Carlow to Dublin.[36]

The exchequer stayed in Dublin for many of the succeeding years as the area under its effective control decreased. Sometimes it did venture out beyond the city walls. The financial accounts for 1444 to 1446 record that the exchequer held proceedings at Drogheda. It appears the exchequer stayed there for three days at a cost of £26 15s 9d. This cost did not include wages but rather referred to the material costs such as carting the books from Dublin and building facilities in the town along with pasturing five cows for the three days among other items.[37] 


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[1] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland (Ernest Benn, London, 1980), p. 160
[2] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, pp. 286-7
[3] Linda Doran, ‘Lords of the river valleys: economic and military lordship in the Carlow Corridor, c.1200-1350: European model in an Irish context’, in Lordship in Medieval Ireland: Image and Reality, edited by Linda Doran and James Lyttleton (Four Courts Press, Dublin, 200), p. 99
[4] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 287
[5] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 287
[6] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Edward III, 1364-1367, p. 23; Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 287
[7] Philomena Connolly, ‘The Irish Memoranda Rolls: Some Unexplored Aspects’, in the Irish Economic and Social History Journal, vol. 3 (1976), p. 67
[8]Philomena Connolly (ed.), Irish Exchequer Payments (Irish Manuscripts Commission, Dublin, 1998), p. 516; Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 287
[9] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 524
[10] Philomena Connolly, ‘The Irish Memoranda Rolls: Some Unexplored Aspects’, in the Irish Economic and Social History Journal, vol. 3 (1976), p. 67
[11] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, pp. 539-40
[12] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 542
[13] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 544
[14] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 545
[15] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 547
[16] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 544
[17] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 240
[18] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 295
[19] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 302; Elizabeth Dowse & Margaret Murphy, ‘Rotulus clauses de anno 48 Edward III – a reconstruction’, in Analecta Hibernica, no. 35 (1992), p. 118
[20] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 303
[21] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 302
[22] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, pp. 530, 539
[23] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 532
[24] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 537
[25] Charles McNeill (ed.), ‘Harris Collectanea’, in Analecta Hibernica, No. 6 (1934), p. 447
[26] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, pp. 242, 250
[27] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 255
[28] John T. Gilbert (ed.), Calendar of Ancient Records of Dublin (19 vols. Dublin, Joseph Dollard, 1889-1944), vol. 1, pp. 106-7, 110-2
[29] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, pp. 259, 262, 268, 275, 278, 284, 286, 292, 300, 304, 312, 316, 323, 331-2
[30] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 338
[31] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, pp. 338, 344, 348, 367, 372, 382, 388, 401, 612, 619
[32] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 424
[33] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, pp. 389, 430, 439, 477, 490, 503, 508  
[34] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, pp. 510, 514
[35] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 327
[36] Jocelyn Otway-Ruthven, A history of Medieval Ireland, p. 327
[37] Philomena Connolly, Irish Exchequer Payments, p. 583

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