Could he afford it? – Bryan Dunleavy
Much of the discussion about the canal has assumed that it was constructed on the orders of the 3rd earl of Southampton. Around 1605 the earl got interested in iron production and he set up two plants – one at Sowley on the Beaulieu River where pig iron was made fro ironstone gathered from Hengistbury Head, and a second furnace and iron mill at Funtley to refine the pig iron into wrought iron. Since that whole operation depended on water transport, it must be assumed that the river was at least navigable up to Funtley. It must also be assumed that the Funtley location could readily call upon a large supply of wood.
If we take those assumptions on board then it must be clear that the river was navigable at least up to 1611. If indeed it was dug in 1611 then perhaps it was made necessary due to silting of the main river channel, but let us put that issue aside for the moment and concentrate on money matters.
Whenever it was built the canal would have been, on the face of it, an expensive undertaking. It is two miles long and was probably dug to a depth of 6 or 7 feet. It has been estimated that some 30,000 cubic metres had to be moved. Ken Groves estimated that it would take 100 men a whole year to complete the project. If payment to a labouring man was £5 a year then the total labouring bill would be in the region of £500. That amount was not unaffordable for the earl.
The founder of the family fortune, Sir Thomas Wriothesley, made a great deal of money in government service at the court of King Henry VIII. In the late 1530s and throughout the 1540s he was able to invest that money in land and at his early death in 1550 he was a very wealthy man. His son and heir was able to call on an annual income of between £2000 and £3000.
When the 2nd earl came of age in 1566 he was able to call on a large fortune and he proceeded to spend it in ways that emphasised his own magnificence. Gervase Markham observed that ‘his muster roll never consisted of four lackeys and a coachman, but a whole troupe of at least a hundred well-mounted gentlemen and yeomen.’1 In addition he was engaged on a great building enterprise at Dogmersfied, the former palace of the Bishop of Wells. When his short and frenetic life came to an end in 1581 he was able to bequeath £2000 as a marriage portion for his daughter and set aside £1000 for his funeral and a further £1000 for the splendid tomb that sits in St Peter’s Church. But he was also in debt, despite selling two manors in Devon and Dorset for a total of £4532, so the estate of the eight year old third earl was encumbered from the outset.
The wardship system for minors placed the estate in trusteeship until the heir came of age. The ward enjoyed the profits but in general (and certainly in this case) the estate was well enough managed.
When the young man came of age in October 1594 he did come into a large fortune, which he then spent indiscriminately. By the time he ended up in the Tower for his part in the Essex rebellion he was effectively broke.
As early as 1595 he was selling assets to fund his extravagant lifestyle. Two remaining manors in Devon were sold to Thomas Arundel of Wardour for £5,000 in 1595. In 1596 he sold the manor of Faringdon Episcopi for £4,100 and in 1598, Robert Bold, who became the mayor of Portsmouth in 1613, scooped up Portsea and Copnor for £1,500. The sale continued. Sir Thomas Fleming was able to buy North Stoneham for £5,000 in 1599 and in 1600 he parted with a manor in Long Sutton, Somerset for the sum of £4,900. At this same time he also sold Corhampton and Bighton in Hampshire, although in the two last cases there are no figures of record. Without those two he raised the staggering sum of £20,500.
More money came into the coffers through offering very long leases for a large fine and very low rent. Micheldever was let in 1595 for the lives of three young children (thus at least 30 years) for a fine of £650. In 1599 he granted a 33 year lease on some pasture at Beaulieu and in 1600 he let the house, rectory and mills at Beaulieu for 60 years. The fine is not known, but one assumes it was a large one.
Even so, he was still carrying a debt burden of £8,000 in 1601.
In 6 years he had depleted his inheritance by about one third. The very considerable land acquisitions accumulated by the 1st earl had been lessened and his annual income was probably reduced to about £2,000 a year. His mother, the dowager Countess, was still alive and drawing her one-third, He allowed his wife an annual income of £312 and because of charges against outstanding loans it has been estimated that his actual disposable income in 1601, was £319.2 For a man of his standing this was a pittance.
He was lucky.
Soon after James I came to the throne in 1603 he was released from prison. Better still, James looked on his kindly and gave him the farm for sweet wines, which had previously been enjoyed by the earl of Essex. This may have been worth up to £2500 a year, effectively doubling his annual income. He was also awarded the captaincy of the Isle of Wight, estimated to be worth 6,000 crowns a year. He was even more favoured in 1611 when James awarded him a pension of £2,000 a year.
So in answer to the question posed at the head of this article, the answer is affirmative. He had money to spend and as a more sober character perhaps in his 30s, was willing to spend it in less frivolous ways.
He appears to have been an intellectually curious man, evidenced by his interest in Shakespeare and other poets in the 1590s and later in promoting colonies in North America. Closer to home he took little interest in traditional land rentals and was quite content to leave such matters in the hands of his stewards. New projects energised him. He was aware of the successful ironworks owned by his good friend the earl of Rutland in Yorkshire and resolved to do the same in Hampshire, as noted above. He was further attracted by the idea of a tin plate mill, which he helped establish at Wickham.
Given his predisposition to new ventures it would be entirely consistent with his character to plunge enthusiastically into its construction. He could afford to pay for it in 1611, although probably not after that as he was committing more and more to the Virginia project.
1Cabala Sine Scrivia Sacra, London, 1663, p. 178. Gervase Markham, honour in his Perfection, London, 1624, p. 20
2Laurence Stone. Family and Fortune, Studies in Aristocratic Finances in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries. Oxford: 1973. p. 219.