How Medieval Kings Paid for War

By John France

In 1242 Henry III of England raised a large army to protect his lands in France. It cost £40,000, roughly the same as the normal annual income of the crown. So how could such a sum be met?

It is important to understand royal income. The crown’s main source of income was the land which belonged to the king, his demesne. Good estate management and grants of market rights to towns could increase this income, and special privileges over, for example, fishing, could be sold. However income from land was tied to the agricultural cycle, which fluctuated according to climate, and was sometimes ravaged by hostile troops.


Other sources of income came from the king’s right to mint coins, which was very profitable, as was from dispensing royal justice. In addition, if a lord died with a child heir he had the right of wardship which enabled him to control the child’s estates until they became an adult. Similarly, kings could control the marriage of an heiress and found ways to make that a profitable venture for themselves.

If this was not enough, great lords and bishops could be persuaded to “lend” money to the king. The great lords often had to provide knights and soldiers to the monarch, but for English kings this could be converted to a direct payment known as scutage.


Then there was taxes. In 1205 King John (1199-1216) claimed a tax on movable goods which produced £60,000. Increasingly often an indirect tax was introduced, for example on English wool exports. Levying sums like this was dangerous because it affected large numbers of people and came on top of the regular royal impositions – this produced the notion of consent through what came to be called Parliament.

Borrowing money

To meet exceptional costs like war kings and great men had to resort to borrowing money. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries English kings turned to the Jewish community, but eventually they shifted to bankers in northern Italy. Between 1272 and 1294 the Ricciardi bankers of Lucca advanced £500,000 to Edward I of England. Edward III also borrowed on a huge scale from the Bardi and the Peruzzi of Florence. Quite often as security for these loans the bankers were allowed to collect the wool tax.

Edward III invades Scotland, from an edition of Froissart’s Chronicles

Loans to the government could be very profitable, with interest rates as high as 145%, though more normally between 14 and 66%. However, they were also very risky, and several of these Italian banks collapsed when the English kings failed to repay their loans. Loans continued to be the staple for financing war, but they were a massive weight upon medieval economies, especially as the cost of war increased.

Increasing costs

Technology produced better armour, most notably in the form of plate armour for men and horses. Footsoldiers, who in earlier centuries had been very lightly protected now came to war substantially armoured and they used new weapons like the pike. This growing complexity did not result in a reduction in the size of armies, but it did mean that preparations had to be even more extensive. Gunpowder weapons raised the stakes considerably. Powder was expensive; in 1370 the French paid 20 sous per pound, though by 1500 this had fallen by about three-quarters. Explosive power posed problems for the metallurgy of the age: in 1460 James II of Scotland, an enthusiast for cannon, was killed when one burst, as a Scottish historian recounted:


As the King stood near a piece of artillery, his thigh bone was dug in two with a piece of misframed gun that brake in shooting, by which he was stricken to the ground and died hastily.

Cannons were expensive. And it was not just cannon and powder which had to be bought. Skilled gunners commanded high pay, and fortifications had to be rebuilt against these new weapons. Moreover, naval warfare was becoming more common. Edward III mobilised over 700 ships for his invasion of France in 1346, while the French monarchy established a permanent galley yard on the Seine.

War, and its costs, brought problems and more war. France sought to annexe wealthy Flanders, provoking armed resistance during which in 1302 Flemish foot defeated a French knightly army at the Battle of Courtrai. The ambitions of the Hapsburgs provoked the Swiss revolt spearheaded by infantry armed with pikes. English ambitions to rule Scotland produced a permanent border war which lasted for centuries. Out of this English archers emerged and were deployed in combination with heavily armoured men-at-arms. This novel tactic was very effective, but it needed trained men. So the English crown paid notable soldiers to raise experienced Companies – this cost money. Taxation and military failure in France in 1358 produced the bloody peasant revolt called the Jacquerie. In England the Poll Tax of 1381 resulted in a savage rebellion.


War became a much more complicated and expensive business in the late Middle Ages. The knight remained very important, but an army now needed more and better-equipped engineers and specialist gunners, so the price of war, always high, escalated beyond what mere aristocrats could afford. This gave those kings who could afford these costs a strong bargaining power against their greater subjects. So the expense of war contributed to the rise of the state.

John France is Professor Emeritus of Swansea University and has been a Visiting Professor at West Point. His latest book is Medieval France at War: A Military History of the French Monarchy, 885-1305.

See also: Why Medieval Warfare was Expensive Business

Top Image: British Library MS Royal 20 E. III, fol.152v