What Was The Civil List?

The Civil List was until 2011 the annual amount paid to Sovereign that covered some of the expenses of the Sovereign’s duties and the upkeep of Royal Households. Like almost anything involving money the Civil List was a highly contentious issue and was one of the most partisan issues that divided the political elites of the early and middle Hanoverian period.

But how did the Civil List come into being and why was it such a contentious issue?

The answer to that can be found in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. The Revolution through Parliament’s voting on who the new monarch was showed that it, not the monarch could decide the succession to the Crown (something later codified in the Act of Succession of 1701) and as such confirmed Parliamentary supremacy in most matters. 

Consequently, many in Parliament came to view the financial independence enjoyed by King Charles II and King James II as the reasons behind why the revolution took place to begin with, and they wished to ensure that future monarchs could not operate without Parliamentary approval, hence they created the Civil List.  After nine years of fighting a foreign war, Parliament finally got their act together and in 1697 passed the first Civil List Act. This act set King William and Queen Mary’s peacetime revenue at £1.2 million per year with £700,000 of that to be used to cover the costs of civilian government alongside the payment of pensions and the costs of running the Royal Household. 

As Reitan noted in his seminal work, the Civil List Act as passed in 1697, gave the Crown financial independence and enabled them to still influence the running of government and the management of Parliament through offering pensions to select people and bribes to others who might be swayed to the monarch’s way of thinking. This was a huge benefit to the monarch, for though after Queen Anne, no monarch vetoed an Act of Parliament, both George I and II were able to usually get Parliament to vote in a manner that they wanted, through greasing their hands with cash.The list also enabled the monarch to make ambitious nobles and middle class men and women, theirs through offering them lucrative posts within the Royal Household, thus earning their family’s favour, and support for future measures.  

Of course, there were times when the monarch needed to go to Parliament to ask them to clear up some of the debt that had been incurred, as sometimes the revenues of the Civil List were not enough to meet the cost of running civilian government. Usually, Parliament tended to agree to pay off the debt or add more to the Civil List, especially if the monarch went at the beginning of their reign when there was a good feeling in the air and the politicians wanted to be on the monarch’s good side for the forthcoming election. Serious scrutiny of the Civil List usage only tended to occur if the monarch asked for a payment off a debt when the ministry in charge was in dire straits, or if those in government were not good managers. Both George I and II benefitted from having skilled manipulators in Walpole and the Pelham brothers to get Parliament on side. 

This all changed when George III ascended the throne. Reitan has noted how George III had been raised by the Leicester House set of his father’s friends and followers, who in their long years in opposition to George II had seen Frederick, Prince of Wales promise to have a fixed Civil List Revenue of £800,000 per year with any excess going to the public. When George III ascended the throne, he held those same beliefs and unfortunately agreed to the Civil List Act of 1760. Under this act, George agreed to surrender the hereditary Crown Estate to Parliament alongside the cost of paying for civilian government and in return, George III would receive £800,000 per annum from the Civil List. However, it was soon found that this was not enough to cover the cost of the Royal Family, and George had to go to Parliament to request that the debt be paid off. George’s early reign had been tumultuous and much was demanded of him before Parliament would eventually pay off the debt. When they did, a precedent had been set that would go onto influence future relations between Crown and Parliament, such as the debates over the Civil List in the late 1770s, which resulted in the King being lectured by both the Speaker of the House and Charles James Fox on the need for prudent financial management.

It was in the early 1780s that Edmund Burke presented before Parliament his Economic Reform Act. The Act  which was a consequence of the debates of the previous two decades reduced the expenditure of the Crown, by abolishing several useless offices  which were believed to be corrupt. The Act ensured that members of the Treasury had to come to Parliament when expenditure in the list exceeded the allotted amount, through ensuring that their salaries would be paid last, thus if there was no money to pay them, they would have to come to Parliament. This subsequently ensured that annual state expenditure for the monarchy was to be decided by the Treasury and presented to the Commons for review. It also established the precedent that the ministers were responsible to Parliament not the Crown.

Consequently, with Burke’s reform now firmly in place, the steady erosion of the Crown’s power over finance in government began, such that by 1830, when William IV ascended the throne, the new Civil List Act only covered the expenses of the Royal Household. Slowly but surely, Parliament began passing Acts which chipped away at what the Civil List was meant to cover. So that by the 1990s, the Queen had begun paying tax, and was left a mere shadow of a monarch as had been warned during the debates in the 1780s by Charles  Jenkinson. The Civil List was replaced by the Sovereign Grant in 2011 which continued the trend set by the Civil List Act of 1830. 

One can only imagine the consequences had George III not been raised under the Leicester House thought processes and taken what was his due in 1760, perhaps Republicans would have less ammunition in their arsenal.

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