BENEVOLENCE (Lat. bene, well, and volens, wishing), a term for an act of kindness, or a gift of money, or goods, but used in a special sense to indicate sums of money, disguised as gifts, which were extorted by various English kings from their subjects, without consent of parliament. Among the numerous methods which have been adopted by sovereigns everywhere to obtain support from their people, that of demanding gifts has frequently found a place, and consequently it is the word and not the method which is peculiar to English history. Edward II. and Richard II. had obtained funds by resorting to forced loans, a practice which was probably not unusual in earlier times. Edward IV., however, discarded even the pretence of repayment, and in 1473 the word benevolence was first used with reference to a royal demand for a gift. Edward was very successful in these efforts, and as they only concerned a limited number of persons he did not incur serious unpopularity. But when Richard III. sought to emulate his brother's example, protests were made which led to the passing of an act of parliament in 1484 abolishing benevolences as "new and unlawful inventions." About the same time the Chronicle of Croyland referred to a benevolence as a "nova et inaudita impositio muneris ut per benevolentiam quilibet daret id quod vellet, immo verius quod nollet." In spite of this act Richard demanded a further benevolence; but it was Henry VII. who made the most extensive use of this system. In 1491 he sent out commissioners to obtain gifts of money, and in 1496 an act of parliament enforced payment of the sums promised on this occasion under penalty of imprisonment. Henry's chancellor, Cardinal Morton, archbishop of Canterbury, was the traditional author of a method of raising money by benevolences known as "Morton's Fork." If a man lived economically, it was reasoned he was saving money and could afford a present for the king. If, on the contrary, he lived sumptuously, he was evidently wealthy and could likewise afford a gift. Henry VII. obtained considerable sums of money in this manner; and in 1545 Henry VIII. demanded a "loving contribution" from all who possessed lands worth not less than forty shillings a year, or chattels to the value of £15; and those who refused to make payment were summoned before the privy council and punished. Elizabeth took loans which were often repaid; and in 1614 James I. ordered the sheriffs and magistrates in each county and borough to collect a general benevolence from all persons of ability, and with some difficulty about £40,000 was collected. Four counties had, however, distinguished themselves by protests against this demand, and the act of Richard III. had been cited by various objectors. Representatives from the four counties were accordingly called before the privy council, where Sir Edward Coke defended the action of the king, quoted the Tudor precedents and urged that the act of 1484 was to prevent exactions, not voluntary gifts such as James had requested. Subsequently Oliver St John was fined and imprisoned for making a violent protest against the benevolence, and on the occasion of his trial Sir Francis Bacon defended the request for money as voluntary. In 1615 an attempt to exact a benevolence in Ireland failed, and in 1620 it was decided to demand one for the defence of the Palatinate. Circular letters were sent out, punishments were inflicted, but many excuses were made and only about £34,000 was contributed. In 1621 a further attempt was made, judges of assize and others were ordered to press for contributions, and wealthy men were called before the privy council and asked to name a sum at which to be rated. About £88,000 was thus raised, and in 1622 William Fiennes, 1st Viscount Saye and Sele, was imprisoned for six months for protesting. This was the last time benevolences were actually collected, although in 1622 and 1625 it was proposed to raise money in this manner. In 1633 Charles I. consented to collect a benevolence for the recovery of the Palatinate for Charles Louis, the son of his sister Elizabeth, but no further steps were taken to carry out the project.
See W. Stubbs, Constitutional History of England, vol. iii. (Oxford, 1895); H. Hallam, Constitutional History of England, vol. i. (London, 1855); T.P. Taswell-Langmead, English Constitutional History (London, 1896); S.R. Gardiner, History of England, passim (London, 1893).
Note - this article incorporates content from Encyclopaedia Britannica, Eleventh Edition, (1910-1911)