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Kingdom of England Exchequer note, 5 Pounds, dated 6 August 1697

The Exchequer is a government department of the United Kingdom responsible for the management and collection of taxation and other government revenues. The historical Exchequer developed judicial roles. A similar office existed in Ireland during British rule from 1299 to 1877.

History of the Exchequer in England and Wales[edit]

At an early stage in England (certainly by 1176, the 23rd year of the Reign of Henry II which is the date of the Dialogue concerning the Exchequer[1]), the Exchequer was split into two components: the purely administrative Exchequer of Receipt, which collected revenue, and the judicial Exchequer of Pleas, a court concerned with the King's revenue. Following the proclamation of the Magna Charta, legislation was enacted whereby the Exchequer was charged with maintaining the realm's prototypes for the yard and pound. These nominal standards were, however, only infrequently enforced on the localities around the kingdom.

According to the Dialogue concerning the Exchequer,[1] an early medieval work describing the practice of the Exchequer, the Exchequer itself referred to the cloth laid across a large table, 10 feet by 5 feet (with a lip around the edge "4 fingers high"), upon which counters were placed representing various values. The name referred to the resemblance of the table to a chess board (French: échiquier).

The term "Exchequer" then came to refer to the twice yearly meetings held at Easter and Michaelmas, at which government financial business was transacted and an audit held of sheriffs' returns.

Under Henry I, the procedure adopted for the audit involved the Treasurer drawing up a summons to be sent to each Sheriff, which he was required to answer. The Treasurer called on each Sheriff to give an account of the income in his shire due from royal demesne lands and from the county farm. The Chancellor of the Exchequer then questioned him concerning debts owed by private individuals.[citation needed] The results of the audit were recorded in a series of records known as the Pipe Rolls.[2]

Until the 19th century, the records of the Exchequer were kept in the "Pell Office", adjacent to Westminster Hall. The office was so named after the skins (i.e., pelts) from which the rolls were made.[3]

After the Union[edit]

The Exchequer became unnecessary as a revenue collecting department as a result of William Pitt's reforms. It was abolished in 1834.[citation needed] Those government departments collecting revenue paid it directly to the Bank of England. Its metrological responsibilities were devolved to the Standards Department of the Board of Trade in 1866.

By extension, "exchequer" has come to mean the Treasury and, colloquially, pecuniary possessions in general; as in "the company's exchequer is low".

History of the Exchequer in Scotland[edit]

The Scottish Exchequer dates back to around 1200 and had a similar role of auditing and deciding on royal revenues as in England. The Scottish Exchequer was slower to develop a separate judicial role; and it was not until 1584 that it became a Court of Law, separate from the King's council. Even then, the judicial and the administrative roles never became completely separated into two bodies, as with the English Exchequer.

The term Court of the Exchequer was used of the Exchequer department only during the Scottish administration of Oliver Cromwell, between 1655 and 1659.

In 1707, the Exchequer Court (Scotland) Act 1707 (6 Ann. c. 53) reconstituted the Exchequer into a court on the English model with a Lord Chief Baron and four Barons. The court adopted English forms of procedure and had further powers added to it.

From 1832, no new Barons were appointed; and their role was increasingly taken over by judges of the Court of Session. By the Exchequer Court (Scotland) Act 1856 (19 & 20 Vict. c. 56), the Exchequer became a part of the Court of Session. A Lord Ordinary acts as a judge in Exchequer causes. The English forms of process ceased to be used in 1947.


The Exchequer was named after a table used to perform calculations for taxes and goods in the medieval period. The table was ten feet by five feet and had a raised edge or lip on all sides of about the height of four fingers to ensure that nothing fell off it. It was covered by a black cloth bearing green stripes of about the breadth of a human hand, in a chequer-pattern. The spaces represented pounds, shillings and pence.[1]

Exchequer of Ireland[edit]

The Court of Exchequer (Ireland) existed from about 1299 to 1877. It was abolished under the Supreme Court of Judicature Act (Ireland) 1877 and was merged, along with the Court of King's Bench (Ireland), the Court of Chancery (Ireland) and the Court of Common Pleas (Ireland), into the new High Court of Justice in Ireland (now replaced by the High Court).

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Dialogue concerning the Exchequer
  2. ^ Warren Governance pp. 73–74
  3. ^ Gentleman's Magazine, vol.5, 1836, pp.18-22

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]