Henry II, Thomas Becket and the Building of Dover Castle
By John Gillingham
Published online, 2017
Introduction: As is well-known, the record of expenditure on building works contained in the pipe rolls of the English exchequer which survive in a virtually unbroken series from 1155-56 (the second Exchequer year of Henry’s reign) onwards, suggests that Henry II spent far more money on Dover castle than on any other building project. The total sum for his whole reign comes to approximately £6,440 – more than three times the amount recorded as spent on the next most expensive building project, Nottingham (£1816), and more than four times the recorded amount spent on such grand royal residences as Windsor (£1475) and Winchester (£1236).
But a caveat has to be entered here. Pipe roll totals are problematic. As Nick Vincent has observed, ‘as a means of assessing total income and expenditure…the pipe rolls of Henry II are no more informative than the accounts of Enron.’ Pipe rolls recorded only items that had to be accounted for at the court of the Exchequer. Very significant sums such as the profits of war and the income derived from gifts and the oiling of the machinery of justice were paid directly into the chamber, the financial office of the royal household, and are none of them recoverable from exchequer records.
Henry’s total income was certainly greater than the pipe roll total, and by an unknowable amount. So too was his expenditure. Pipe rolls recorded spending by sheriffs and other officials with local responsibilities, usually on the authority of a royal writ, from the money they had themselves collected. But large sums were also paid out of the king’s chamber without any need for an exchequer audit, and chamber records were neither as well developed as exchequer ones nor have they survived so well.
None survive from before John’s reign. The earliest fairly complete records of chamber disbursements, known as Mise Rolls, relate to the eleventh (1209-1210) and fourteenth year (1212-1213) of John’s reign. Since it made sense for expenditure on royal buildings to be made by local officials, it is believed that ‘the Pipe Rolls do record by far the greater part of royal spending on building.’