The Great Contract of 1610 was the idea of Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury. The Great Contract was meant to have put the chaotic finances of James I on an even keel. In return for an annual sum of money in each year of the king’s reign, the Great Contract stated that James would abandon his traditional feudal rights as king of England.
When Salisbury introduced the idea of the Great Contract in February 1610, he stated that the scheme had two aims. The first was to allow James to pay off all royal debt. The second was to allow James to live in the manner that befitted a king of England. Salisbury mentioned figures that would have startled many – the royal debt stood at £300,000; £150,000 was needed for the Royal Navy and another £150,000 would be needed for a contingency fund. On top of this, James required £200,000 a year to enable him to live a suitable lifestyle.
In return, the Great Contract would allow for James to give up ten feudal rights that all monarchs had enjoyed once they had come to the throne. There was no indication that the scheme involved wardships as too many important families had a vested interest in keeping these. The House of Commons did question the exclusion of wardships but Cecil, possibly because he was Master of the Court of Wards, informed them that they should accept what was offered “because they were never offered before by any king of this realm unto his subject.”
However, Cecil did leave his options open as he told the Commons that if they gave a sensible price for the inclusion of wardships, they could be included in the Great Contract. On March 26th, 1610, the Commons did give a price for wardships – £100,000 a year. It took James nearly a month to reject this figure that was well below what Cecil had initially told them was required – £200,000. In April, Cecil informed the Commons that their figure was unacceptable but that if they upped it to £200,000 not only would wardships be included in the Great Contract but also purveyance. The Commons did not take up this idea.
Parliament gave the whole issue another airing in June. This time they wanted an accurate valuation of not only wardships but also the value of the ten feudal rights that Cecil had agreed could go in return for an annual settlement for the Crown. Not all MP’s were happy with regards to this new approach as some, like Sir John Neville, argued that if the Great Contract was accepted it would become the norm for the monarch to ask each Parliament for an increased subsidy to maintain his/her support. However, despite these reservations, the Commons appointed a committee to look into the issue.
On June 11th, 1610, Cecil addressed a conference. It coincided with the planning to make Prince Henry Prince of Wales. Cecil used this as an example of just how much money the monarchy had to spend to maintain the standards the public would require. He also made it known that the annual figure that would be required to support the king would be £240,000 each year. However, Cecil was an astute politician and he told MP’s that the best way forward was for them to use the summer Parliamentary recess to go back to their constituencies to find out the opinions of those in the constituencies. This way any decision made could be seen as representing all rather than the minority. Cecil was banking on the hope that the people, as opposed to obstreperous MP’s, would instinctively gravitate towards their monarch and their opinion in support of the Great Contract would pressurise the Commons into accepting it.
However, despite the work of Cecil, the Commons was less than compliant after the figure of £240,000 a year was announced. Their primary reason this time was the king’s unwillingness to listen to their grievances. As a result of the work done by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Julius Caesar, this issue was also settled and James agreed to hear MP’s grievances on July 7th and James gave a partial response to them on July 10th. On July 16th, Parliament offered James £180,000. On the following day Cecil told the Commons that James would accept £200,000 a year and this became the agreed figure. This was in return for the abolition of wardships, purveyance and the seven other prerogative revenues as stated by Cecil. No mention was made as to how the £200,000 was to be raised though it was accepted that it would not be on beer and bread or on the ‘labouring poor’. Parliament then recessed for the summer.
When the Commons reconvened it became obvious that a large minority in the Commons were not happy to support the Great Contract – despite a majority of about sixty supporters in July. Cecil was not sure that support for it would continue and he had to use all of his Parliamentary skill to convince the Commons that the way ahead was to support the Great Contract. Cecil told MP’s in the Commons:
“You are wise and able to consider what it is to leave a king in want, an exhausted treasure, a decayed revenue, the flowers of the crown chopped." Cecil agreed that the Great Contract was “a child born after much difficulty, a king full of much apprehension, a Lower House full of much doubt."
The Commons decided that they would request that the king consider their list of grievances – especially their concerns over Impositions. Many MP’s had returned to the Commons after the recess with the same story – that Impositions was the one single issue that most concerned their constituents. Before MP’s in the Commons could properly organise themselves, James summoned their leaders to him. He complained that they were too slow in their decision making and that he lay “a-bleeding" and that his honour lay “a-bleeding". James also told the leading MP’s that what they were doing – delaying a much needed decision – was a “disgrace". James told the MP’s that he was prepared to honour any commitments he had made as long as they did the same. The only thing he was not prepared to tolerate was further delay.
Rather than gain the support of at least some of the leading MP’s, the approach adopted by James only served to anger many. Certainly the accusation of dragging their feet did not go down well with them.
James made a final attempt to persuade the Commons on November 6th. He made it clear that if the Commons wanted Impositions drawn into the Great Contract, he would have to be suitably compensated. To an extent James was willing to give as long as the Commons suitably paid him for the loss of Impositions and other traditional sources of income. Such arguments did not win over the Commons and on November 9th, the Commons announced that they would not proceed with the Great Contract. Cecil announced his plan for a mini-contract, but this did not get off the ground such was the hostility engendered by the whole idea.
James blamed Cecil for the failure of the Great Contract. If Cecil was guilty of anything, it was his failure to read the mood of Parliament and to keep believing that he could get the Commons to agree to the contract. The whole process did nothing to further the relationship between James and Cecil as the king blamed his chief minister for making public the king’s weak financial position. The whole process did nothing to cement any positive relationship between James and the Commons – and his reign had another fifteen years to run. It certainly caused much anger among certain MP’s against the king. Ironically, even the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Sir Julius Caesar, admitted that the Great Contract would never have solved the king’s financial woes and that if it had been implemented, the Great Contract would only have delayed the inevitable. Caesar wanted James to fully exploit his prerogative revenues and he worked out that these were worth £85,000. However, James fell between both stools – the Great Contract never came into being and his prerogative revenues were never fully exploited – hence the financial predicaments he faced for the rest of his reign.