In the civil service of the United Kingdom, Her Majesty’s Exchequer, or just the Exchequer, is the accounting process of central government and the government's current account i.e. money held from taxation and other government revenues in the Consolidated Fund. It can be found used in various financial documents including the latest departmental and agency annual accounts.
It was the name of a British government department originating in the Anglo-Saxon period of England and responsible for the collection and the management of taxes and revenues; of making payments on behalf of the sovereign and auditing official accounts. It also developed a judicial role along with its accountancy responsibilities and tried legal cases relating to revenue.
Similar offices were later created in Scotland around 1200 and in Ireland in 1210.
The Exchequer was named after a table used to perform calculations for taxes and goods in the medieval period. According to the Dialogue concerning the Exchequer, an early medieval work describing the practice of the Exchequer, the table was large, 10 feet by 5 feet with a raised edge or "lip" on all sides of about the height of four fingers to ensure that nothing fell off it, upon which counters were placed representing various values. The name Exchequer referred to the resemblance of the table to a chess board (French: échiquier) as 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.
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.
According to the Dialogue concerning the Exchequer, in the late twelfth century there were competing views as to the origins of the English Exchequer, with some arguing that it was an Anglo-Saxon institution and other that it post-dated the Norman conquest, but none arguing that it originated in Normandy. By the time of the Dialogue, however, there was an exchequer in Normandy.
It is unknown exactly when the Exchequer was established, however it is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, where it is recorded that £132,000 left the Exchequer between the years 991–1012 as payment to the Scandinavian attackers. It survived the Norman conquest of England as William the Conqueror consolidated control of his new Kingdom.
The earliest surviving record of the Exchequer is from 1130, in the reign of King Henry I, in the first surviving Pipe Roll for that year, which also shows continuity from previous years. Pipe Rolls form a mostly continuous record of royal revenues and taxation; however, not all revenue went into the Exchequer, and some taxes and levies were never recorded in the Pipe Rolls.
Under Henry I, a procedure adopted for the audit involved the Treasurer drawing up a summons to be sent to each Sheriff, who was required to answer with an account of the income in his shire both from royal demesne lands and from the county farm (a form of local taxation). The Chancellor of the Exchequer then questioned him concerning debts owed by private individuals.
By 1176, the 23rd year of the Reign of Henry II which is the date of the Dialogue concerning the Exchequer, the Exchequer was split into two components: the purely administrative Exchequer of Receipt, which collected revenue, and the Exchequer of Pleas, a law court concerned with the King's revenue. Appeals were to the Court of Exchequer Chamber. Following the proclamation of Magna Carta, legislation was enacted whereby the Exchequer would maintain the realm's prototypes for the yard and pound. These nominal standards were, however, only infrequently enforced on the localities around the kingdom.
From the late 1190s to the expulsion of the Jews in 1290, there was a separate division for taxation of Jews and the law-cases arising between Jews and Christians, called Exchequer of the Jews (Latin: Scaccarium Judaeorum).
Through most of the 1600s, goldsmiths would deposit their reserve of treasure with the Exchequer, sanctioned by the government. Charles II "shut up" the Exchequer in 1672, forbidding payments from it, in what Walter Bagehot described as "one of those monstrous frauds... this monstrous robbery". This ruined the goldsmiths and the credit of the Stuart Government, which would never recover it. In 1694, the credit of William III of England's government was so bad in London that it could not borrow, which led to the foundation of the Governor and Company of the Bank of England.
The records of the Exchequer were kept in the Pell Office, adjacent to Westminster Hall, until the 19th century. The office was named after the skins (then "pells" or pelts) from which the rolls were made.
In the 19th century, a number of reforms reduced the role of the Exchequer, with some functions moved to other departments. The Exchequer became unnecessary as a revenue collecting department in 1834 with the reforms of Prime Minister William Pitt, who also served as Chancellor of the Exchequer. The government departments collecting revenue then paid it directly to the Bank of England, with all money previously paid to the Exchequer being credited to the Consolidated Fund.
In 1866, the Standards Department of the Board of Trade took over metrological responsibilities and audit functions were combined with those of the Commissioners for auditing the Public Accounts under the new post of Comptroller and Auditor General. The name continued as the Exchequer and Audit Department from 1866 until 1983 when the new National Audit Office was created.
In modern times, "Exchequer" has come to mean the Treasury and, colloquially, pecuniary possessions in general; as in "the company's exchequer is low".
The Scottish Exchequer dates to around 1200, with a similar role in auditing and 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 were never completely separated as with the English Exchequer.
In 1707, the Exchequer Court (Scotland) Act 1707 (6 Ann. c. 53) reconstituted the Exchequer into a law 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. This was done in Section 19 of the Act of Union 1707
From 1832, no new Barons were appointed; their role was increasingly assumed 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 of Ireland developed in 1210 when King John of England reorganized the governance of his Lordship of Ireland and brought it more in line with English law. It consisted of the Superior Exchequer, a court of equity and revenue akin to the Exchequer of Pleas, and the Inferior Exchequer. The latter were the treasurers who handled all logistics from collecting the money (Teller or Cashier), logging it (Clerk of the Pells) and signing money orders accepting or paying money. It was managed by its own Chancellor of the Exchequer of Ireland and Chief Baron of the Irish Exchequer.
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).