The Empty Exchequer
O NE OF THE LIVELIER of the anti-royalist 'secret histories' published during the Commonwealth was The History of Great Britain, Being the Life and Reign of King James First by the Puritan Arthur Wilson . Among Wilson's anecdotes is one, true in spirit if not in fact, of the thriftless generosity of King James. It tells how one day at Whitehall Sir Henry Rich, the handsome younger son of the Earl of Warwick, seeing three thousand pounds in coin being carried to the Keeper of the Privy Purse, whispered something to James Maxwell, a Scottish gentleman of the King's Bedchamber. King James overheard the sound and asked what had been said. He was told that Rich had wished that he had that much money. ' Marry, shalt thou Harry,' exclaimed King James, and at once ordered the bearers to carry the money to Rich's lodgings. Noting the amazed delight on the young man's face, he added, 'You think now you have a great Purchase; but I am more delighted to think how much I have pleasured you in giving this money, than you can be in receiving it.'
During his first months in England James, impressed by the apparent wealth of his new kingdom, indulged to the full his taste for lavish giving. Old friends from Scotland, new admirers in England, ambassadors from abroad, all flourished amid tile golden rain of the royal bounty. After all, a king was expected to be lavish in his giving. Prestige required a certain royal generosity. As one of James's councillors observed later in a memorandum about proposed economies, '...in kinges howses some kind of prodigalitie is not so much discommendable as a little sparing'.1 James, in the euphoria of his new English kingship, was hardly in the mood for sparing during the spring of 1603.
Disillusion soon arrived. The wealth of England, or at least that part of it the King could get his hands on, proved far from inexhaustible. By November the royal coffers were empty, the household officers unpaid, and the King's own guard ready to mutiny unless they received their money. For some time the storm signals had been flying. An estimate of the expenses for the year beginning on October 1, 1603, had given the alarming intelligence that, whereas the household expenses for the last year under Elizabeth had totalled about £47,000, for these twelve months they would probably amount to almost £93,000.