Lionel Cranfield became Lord Treasurer in the reign of James I. Cranfield was seen as a reformist in royal financial matters but he made many enemies, was successfully impeached and went into political obscurity.


Cranfield was born in 1575/76. His father, Thomas, was a merchant so Cranfield was born into a family involved in finance. In 1590, he started a seven year apprenticeship with an importer/exporter called Richard Sheppard. In 1597, Cranfield started his own business and in 1599 he married Elizabeth, the daughter of Richard Sheppard. Cranfield’s business success was recognised in 1602 when he was made a member of the Merchant Adventurers. From trading, Cranfield moved into financial speculation. In this he was highly successful and he made a considerable fortune. Cranfield developed a reputation for being ruthless in his financial dealings.


His first patron was the Earl of Northampton, Henry Howard, the Lord Privy Seal. Helped by Northampton, Cranfield entered royal service in 1613 as Surveyor-General of the Customs. His monetary ability brought him rapid promotion. However, he now came under the patronage of the Duke of Buckingham after the political demise of the Howard’s.


In rapid succession, Cranfield became Master of the Court of Requests (1616), Master of the Great Wardrobe (1618), Master of the Court of Wards and Liveries (1619), Chief Commissioner of the Navy (1619), Treasury Commissioner (1619), Privy Councillor (1620) and Lord Treasurer in 1621.


Such a rapid rise to power could only have been achieved with the help of Buckingham. While Buckingham had the ear of the king, Cranfield’s position was safe. However, Buckingham had made many enemies, principally Sir Edward Coke, and an enemy of Buckingham’s was likely to be an enemy of Cranfield’s.


Cranfield gave himself two tasks while he held such power. The first was to amass as much money personally as was possible. The second was to reform royal finances.


Cranfield was highly successful with the first but found the second all but impossible despite his proven financial ability. His efforts to reform James’s finances made him many enemies of his own.


James was an incorrigible spender who had little idea of financial reality. He believed that as king of one of Europe’s most wealthy nations, he should have as a right a constant flow of money coming his way. It is said that James gave out in gifts more in one year than Elizabeth did in her whole 45 year reign. Having come from impoverished Scotland, it must have been very tempting for James to believe that all his financial woes were solved when he became king of England. By the 1620’s, his financial problems had come to a head and Cranfield had the task of solving this them.


Cranfield faced two major issues. First, how to raise the revenue of the king and second, how to decrease James’s spending. Cranfield believed that the first was easier to achieve than the second. The only danger of raising royal revenue was that it might encourage James to spend even more! Cranfield came up against a major obstacle. Many people in government were taking a cut of royal revenue before it got to James. Corruption was rife and seen as almost normal in the court of James. Regardless of this, Cranfield set about reforming royal finances. He reduced pension payments, stopped perquisites, enforced payment of debts to the Crown, raised Crown rents, restricted encroachment onto royal forests and got better terms from farmers farming royal land. All this though was at a cost. Many influential men found that a soft form of revenue for them was either decreased or stopped and as a result Cranfield made many enemies.


Buckingham was at the head of a vast system of patronage that had made him very wealthy and influential. What Cranfield was doing with his reforms was undermining this system of patronage. Who would pay a bribe to Buckingham for a post that faced the real possibility of having cut or ended whatever perks were associated with that post? The reforms of Cranfield seriously undermined the whole patronage set-up that Buckingham had developed. The man who had been Cranfield’s main patron in his rise to power became his chief enemy and could count on many men to rally to his cause.


Cranfield found an unlikely ally in his fight with Buckingham – James. The king would not accept Buckingham’s plea that Cranfield should go. It is easy to understand why James took this stance – Cranfield was attempting to increase the revenue for a man keen to spend such revenue and was seemingly going to be successful at this.


Buckingham therefore took another course of action. Using the support of those men in the Commons who had seen their positions challenged by Cranfield’s reforms, Buckingham had Cranfield impeached by the Commons on the charges of bribery and extortion. Once impeached by the Commons, Cranfield had to stand on trial before the Lords. Even in this chamber he had made enemies and there would have been little doubt that he would have been found guilty. In May 1624, the man who wanted to end corruption and reform royal revenue so that the king became more financially solvent was found guilty. Cranfield was sent to the Tower of London – albeit briefly – and fined £50,000. He was stripped of all his offices. Cranfield’s fall from political power was very swift and he spent the rest of his life in the political wilderness.


Lionel Cranfield died on August 6th, 1645.

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