James I was not the first English monarch to experience financial trouble. Chief Minister Robert Cecil, the Earl of Salisbury, used numerous methods to bail out James who was a king who had little understanding of finance. Farming out custom dues and impositions were both used. Though they were successful in terms of the amount they raised for James, they both did not do a great deal to decrease the most pressing of James’s needs – reducing his overall royal debt. Robert Cecil was therefore forced into doing something he least wanted to do – sell off Crown lands – as he knew that once land was sold, it was lost to the Crown and future revenue collection.
Between 1603 and 1609 Crown land and property to the value of £400,000 had been sold. This so concerned Cecil, that he persuaded the king to entail the most valuable of Crown land and hand over its administration to the Privy Council. With a more concerted efforts in the collection of outstanding rent and debt, a total of £700,000 had been collected which should have had a significant impact on royal debt by 1610. However, for all the work done by Cecil, the Crown was still in debt to the tune of £160,000 by 1610. Cecil also had to cope with an extra £80,000 added to the total in 1610 as a result of James’s extravagent spending.
Cecil became Master of the Court of Wards on the death of his father, Lord Burghley. Cecil was therefore in a good position to increase revenue from this source. Wardship applied to those landowners who held their estates on a feudal tenure from the Crown. In theory anyone with a wardship was bound to provide military service to the Crown when it was required. However, this had all but died out by the time of James I. When a tenant of Crown land died and left an underage male heir, the boy became a ward of the Crown. The king/queen was meant to look after the boy until he came of age. However, in practice this responsibility of guardianship was sold off to the highest bidder who used his position to exploit the ward’s land to its greatest extent. The Crown then made more money by requiring the ward to pay for his land once he came of age.
On paper, this system of raising revenue greatly benefited the Crown. However, a wardship could have serious financial consequences for a family that came under its rules if the head of a family died early and left his estate to an underage boy. Lord Burghley made little effort to increase the amount of money that wardships could earn. In fact, he seemingly went out of his way not to anger the one major social/political group that the Crown needed on its side. In 1558, the amount raised by wardships was £20,000. By 1603 and the death of Elizabeth, this had slipped to just £14,000.
Robert Cecil took a different view. He saw wardships as a good source of revenue. He sort to modernise the system and bring the market value of a wardship up to date. The result of this was that by 1607, the revenue from wardships stood at £17,000 and in 1612, the year Cecil died, it stood at £23,000. In 1625, it was at £40,000. However, Cecil was astute enough not to want to alienate the social group his father had done so much to cultivate. In 1611, Cecil issued a new set of instructions via the Court of Wards that stated that the members of a ward’s family had to be given preference when the guardianship was up for sale.