Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Question from Mary R - Wealth and the Elizabethans

My question is about what Elizabethans did with their wealth (besides building E shaped manor houses:)

I've read that they displayed their riches by exhibiting and using gold plates and goblets set with precious stones,and also sewing pearls etc. into their garments. The explanation given for this was that there were no banks. Were goldsmiths not yet common? When did the practice of putting ones money with a goldsmith and thus accruing interest begin?


Laura said...

Money lending for profit, or usury, was hugely frowned upon by Christians and it was mainly Jews who engaged in such practices because they weren't permitted to engage in more honorable trades, though it was frowned upon, it was a common enough practice that it enabled Jews to earn a living.

Because usury was uncommon, and frowned up (which is not to say that Christians didn't take advantage of them, just that they frowned upon and would often use the prohibition again usury to avoid repaying their Jewish lenders)there wasn't a banking system which offered interest, since the interest earned from various savings accounts comes from the interest charged to borrowers on loans.

Gold smiths were common, as many people wore their wealth, and there are many listings in Henry VIII's accounts of fees paid to gold smiths for the creation of jewelry for his mistresses and wives.

Cloth of gold was one of the many ways that Elizabethans and their forebears wore their wealth, as well as hoods and hats decorated with diamonds, pearls and other precious stones. Other fabrics, such as velvet, and silk were also costly displays of wealth. Jewelry was another way they flaunted their wealth.

kb said...

I agree with Laura regarding the Elizabethan view of usury. If you look at the first act of Merchant of Venice you will see this in action. Shylock complains that Christians undercut his business because they lend money without charging interest.

I am unaware of the practice of leaving money with goldsmiths as a way to pseudo-bank wealth.

It was common to leave funds with friends or trusted persons if you felt you couldn't keep the money safe. Germaine Greer discusses this in some detail in the book Shakespeare's Wife.

It is my understanding that wealth was kept in the house, in safes, converted to material culture, i.e. plate and jewelry,, etc.

kb said...

Although there were banking houses on the continent. You could deposit funds with a banking house in one city and then have a letter of credit drawn up which would be honored by a branch of the same house in another city. The banking house branches were run by family and extended family members. Unfortunately I don't know a great deal about this.

Lara said...

(I'm posting this for PhD Historian who was having trouble with the comment page)

Laura is absolutely correct regarding people placing valuables with goldsmiths and jewelers for safekeeping prior to the emergence of modern-style banks. Goldsmiths were among the few who owned large stationary safes or vaults, whereas sixteenth century moneylenders and 'bankers' (such as the famous Fugger family) tended to use smaller portable strongboxes and dealt mostly in paper notes of exchange rather than coin. The transition from goldsmiths to bankers occurred in the middle and late 1600s. See Frederick George Hilton Price, A handbook of London bankers: with some account of their predecessors, the early goldsmiths (London: Leadenhall Press, 1890-1.
KB is also correct that wealth was often converted into jewels and other material cultural objects that retained their value despite age and use, such as dishes and other decorative objects made of gold and silver (aka 'plate'). Most large houses had a small portable strongbox, but non-movable 'safes' in the modern sense were limited to goldsmiths and the larger banking houses in London.
'Wealth' in the sixteenth century was gauged a little differently than it is today. Where a wealthy person today might have bank accounts with large sums of money deposited and available as ready cash, that was not usually the case in the Tudor era. The Tudor wealthy did keep ready cash or coin, but not in large amounts. Indeed, most wealthy people of that period owed far more money than they had available in coin. That is why you often read about nobles selling portions of their plate and jewels, or selling lands ... they need to turn those things into cash in order to pay a debt. 'Wealth' was gauged by possessions, both land and objects, not by available cash.
PhD Historian

Marilyn R said...

Hi Mary

Here are a few notes from my ongoing(but nearly finished!!) research on the downfall of the Howards living at Norfolk House, Lambeth, following the arrest of Katheryn.

The King's man, Wriothesley, goes to see what he can find when Agnes, the Dowager Duchess, has been taken away for questioning.It always surprises me how much ready cash she had in the house.

December 11th 1541
‘2000 marks more than will defray these households’ has already been found at Norfolk House, but the plate found so far is not worth more than 600-700 marks and the jewels found are ‘very base’. Money and plate to be taken to Westminster Palace for safe keeping.
The old lady of Norfolk is committed to the Tower accused of misprision of treason; the King is to be informed that her interrogators will do their best to get her to confess to the things testified against her and ‘cough out’ more. She reveals she has a further £1000 hidden at Norfolk House.

December 12th
Wriothesley and Pollard expect to be another 3-4 days at the Duchess’s house, for she has 'besides good stuff, much trash, baguaige and many odd ends'. Wriothesley finds the hidden £1000 and more plate.

December 21st
The King orders the latest plate and money to be bagged and sealed in chests and taken to Westminster. Wriothsley has already found the Duchess’s hidden £800 at Norfolk House. By now 5000 marks in coin and £1000 of plate are being stored at Westminster Palace; Wriothesley is extremely anxious and ‘would sleep better’ if someone else could be assigned responsibility for its safe-keeping, or if the King would have it taken to Greenwich Palace where he is staying.

(According to the National Archives currency converter, £1,000of 1540 would have spending worth in 2005 of £307,560 But how can we compare spending now with then?)

February 13th 1542
Marillac writes to Francis I and comments on the Dowager Duchess of Norfolk’s valuables and the precariousness of her position now that the Bill has become an Act of Parliament.
‘As to the old Duchess of Norfolk, some say she shall die, others that she shall keep perpetual prison... All her goods are already confiscated, and are of marvellous value, 400,000 or 500,000 cr [crowns - this would seem to be very much exaggerated], for ladies in this country succeed for life to the movables of their deceased husbands.'

A crown was 5 shillings, so the lower estimate would have been £100,000, which seems hugely over optimistic.I haven't had chance to work out properly the modern equivalent of Marillac's claim yet - which is not really possible - but with the National Archives converter it might be in the region of £30,756,000 - depending on the criteria you use.

Mary R said...

Laura, kb and PhD Historian: Thank you for your knowledge, research, and insights. Marilyn R, it was incredibly generous of you to share your notes on this subject with me. Thank you and thank you again!

Marilyn R said...

Hi Mary

Thank you for that – it’s always nice when someone takes the trouble to thank you for the effort.

I was in a hurry when I posted and hadn’t read the previous posts thoroughly. Katheryn’s ‘ex’ Francis Dereham left his savings of £100 with her for safe-keeping when he went to Ireland, which is a good example of what kb says about leaving valuables with a friend.

I still have some way to go on this and, as I said, I’m always surprised how much money Agnes had in the house. If by 11th December there are already 2000 marks (£1,333) MORE than needed to pay off the costs of the households – plural, so if it means her son’s houses at Reigate and Lambeth and her daughter’s in Southwark, as well as Norfolk House itself – just how much had actually been found?

The £800 she confessed to having hidden, on top of the £1000 already found by Wriothesley, was revealed by her on 20th December when she was terrified out of her wits and sobbing on her knees in the Tower.

(I love the ‘...good stuff, much trash, baguaige and many odd ends.)

Mary R said...

Marilyn, I find your topic of the downfall of the Howards very interesting. The family as a whole was amazingly resilient. When Henry VII did his "purge" of the nobility, (after the Battle of Bosworth) it was a Howard who survived it.When Anne Boleyn was condemned, the Howard faction survived that, too.

I regret to say that I don't a lot about what happened to the Howards after the downfall of Katherine Howard. Was Agnes Howard the same Duchess of Norfolk who was so abused by her husband and his mistress, Bess Holland, the laundress? If so, you'd think that Henry VIII might have had a little pity; but then, with Wriothesley involved, pity was probably out of the question:) Please let me know how your work is progressing and any pending publication!

Marilyn R said...

The Mowbrays, the original dukes of Norfolk, are really my special area, so my Howard knowledge is more limited. When the fourth Mowbray duke died, his little daughter and sole heir was snapped up by Edward IV for his younger son; she was five and he four when they married. She died aged nine and he, one of the Princes in the Tower, disappeared with his brother two years later. The Mowbray inheritance then went to her two nearest male relatives, one of whom was Lord John Howard, made Duke of Norfolk by Richard III in a new creation. He was killed at Bosworth and his son, the Earl of Surrey, is the surviving Howard you mention in your post.

Surrey and his first wife, Elizabeth Tilney, were the parents of Anne Boleyn’s mother, Katheryn Howard’s father and the 3rd Duke of Norfolk, the one who abused his wife with Bess Holland. Elizabeth Tilney died in 1497 and within 6 months Surrey, then aged about 50, married her young cousin Agnes Tilney, who in time would be step-grandmother to Anne Boleyn and Katheryn Howard, the latter living with her at her mansions in Horsham and Lambeth. The dukedom was restored after Flodden and the second duke died in 1524, leaving Agnes a fabulously wealthy middle-aged Dowager Duchess of Norfolk, much to the chagrin of the new 3rd duke, her stepson, who was older than she was.

When the Howard inmates of Norfolk House were carted off to the Tower, even a hard man like Wriothesley felt compassion for the women of the household and after their guilty verdict wanted to visit them and offer them some hope, but Henry refused to let him.

If you go to you will see how I got started on the Howards through the Mowbrays. (An overhaul of this site is long overdue and will be done when my book ‘The Mowbray Legacy’ is reprinted, which starts at the beginning of October.) The work on the Howards stems from my interest in Norfolk House, which was associated with the Mowbrays, and it was originally intended as an appendix to the revised Mowbray book, as was the research on Lady Anne, the Mowbray heiress. However, both took on a life of their own and will be published shortly as separate books. (If you want a reminder ask Lara to give you my email address.)