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Vyner [Viner], Sir Robert, baronetlocked

  • G. E. Aylmer

Vyner [Viner], Sir Robert, baronet (1631–1688), goldsmith and banker, was born in Warwick, the third son of William Vyner and his second wife, Susannah, née Fulwood. The Vyner family belonged to what their seventeenth-century contemporaries often called ‘the middling sort’, and their story illustrates the extent of social mobility: William's eldest son remained in the country and does not seem to have changed his status or radically improved his fortunes; the second son, Thomas, made a career in the church and ended his days as a doctor of divinity and dean of Gloucester. Robert was apprenticed to his father's half-brother Thomas Vyner (1588–1665) in 1646. He became free of the Goldsmiths' Company and his step-uncle's partner in 1656; a third member of the partnership conveniently died soon after this and Robert took over his share. He was involved in public finance under the protectorate, but on account of his relative youth less prominently so than his step-uncle. A year after Charles II's return he became the king's goldsmith supplying the royal jewel house (a branch of the royal household) over the next twenty-four years. In this way he must have enjoyed opportunities for patronage, being, through his office, in a position to commission silver plate and other gold- and silverware from master craftsmen in the Goldsmiths' Company. On the death of his step-uncle, Sir Thomas, in 1665, Vyner assumed sole control of the banking house, then at the Vine in Lombard Street, which had to be relocated after the great fire a year later. In addition he was made an overseer of Sir Thomas's will, but within eighteen months the latter's younger son and sole executor in turn died; Sir Robert then became executor of both their wills and was also effectively the heir to his cousin's estate. His wealth must have been very considerably increased as a result of this. During the years that followed, he came to be the crown's largest single individual creditor and one of the country's largest-scale private bankers. He suffered a liquidity crisis in 1667–8 because of the crown's growing indebtedness at the end of the Second Anglo-Dutch War; he made desperate appeals both to the king and to the leading minister of the time, Lord Arlington, the senior secretary of state, but it seems more likely that it was Edward Backwell who came to his help, returning his assistance provided two years earlier. By this time Vyner was one of the commissioners and farmers of the customs, and also the power behind the syndicate farming the unpopular hearth tax.

Having weathered one crisis Vyner appears to have gone on increasing his advances to the crown, these presumably much exceeding any credit balance on the private deposits in his hands. The only fragmentary ledger of his banking transactions known to exist covers three weeks beginning a few days after the great fire in September 1666, and it obviously cannot be taken as representative of his banking activities over a longer period. None the less a few facts stand out: his clients included the other goldsmith–bankers who were to be involved with him in the so-called ‘Stop of the exchequer’ just over five years later. These apart, the largest individual transactions recorded were with the famous firm of scriveners, Robert Clayton and John Morris, and with the excise farmers, but all manner of men, from Arlington himself to those of modest circumstances, dealt with him. The amount of cash left in hand at the end of each day's dealing varied greatly, from under £2000 to nearly £13,000, the average figure being just below £5000 and the median £3858.

Like bankers in all ages, the London goldsmiths aimed to charge higher rates of interest to borrowers than they themselves had to pay to depositors; likewise, to make use of the overall credit balance in their hands at any given time to make further loans or to invest in other projects. Again, as with all banks, this depended on confidence in their creditworthiness and on their not suffering either unexpected major withdrawals or unanticipated large-scale defaulting by ‘bad’ debtors. Lending to English monarchs, as to other rulers and governments, had always been a risky business. For Vyner and his contemporaries the risks were much increased as a consequence of the system of Treasury orders and assignments devised by Sir George Downing and implemented from 1665 to 1666. This attempt to establish a system of short-term royal paper credit was a success, but not in the precise way which Downing and the politicians who backed him had intended. They had hoped that large numbers of reasonably affluent private individuals would lend money to the crown on the security of hypothecated future revenues—secured initially on parliamentary taxes, and latterly also on the crown's ordinary or ‘regular’ income from customs, excise, and the hearth money. In practice, however, most such lenders rapidly reassigned their orders for repayment to one or more of the goldsmith–bankers, whose exposure thus grew indirectly as well as by their own direct advances to the crown. So when the king's inner circle of advisers persuaded him to avert a general bankruptcy while preparing for the Third Anglo-Dutch War, by the Stop of the exchequer in December 1671 – January 1672, they were hit disproportionately hard. It is not the case that all issues of money were suddenly cut off: that would have been royal bankruptcy indeed. Some payments were actually made to Vyner immediately following the Stop. None the less the cessation of all hypothecated payments on orders either assigned or reassigned, initially for one year and later extended to two years, cut the ground from under the bankers and imperilled them with their own creditors. In the first series of calculations of how much was owing by the crown to individuals or syndicates among the goldsmiths, Vyner's total was omitted, presumably being too complicated to work out in the time available, but when these debts were first refunded in 1674 by establishing a 6 per cent annual payment (of the capital sums owing in January 1672 plus the interest which had accrued since then), he was reckoned to be owed over £400,000. This was a truly colossal sum for that date, equivalent to well over one-third of the total amount owing to all the bankers, or—to give another measure of comparison—more than one-third of the total annual income supposedly settled on Charles II by parliament in 1660–61 but not in fact attained (war taxation apart) until well into the 1670s. It was equivalent to the yield of five pre-civil war parliamentary subsidies, or to the entire unprecedented, once-for-all grant made to Charles I in 1641–2, levied on the whole of England and Wales.

It is remarkable that Vyner remained technically solvent until 1684, though his surviving papers show him borrowing on bond like any other impecunious character of the day: under this system the debtor and/or his securities committed themselves to pay twice (or nearly twice) the sum being borrowed if this was not repaid by a fixed date, usually, though not invariably, one year ahead. The king, or rather his ministers, tried to get the letters patent under the great seal (originally of 1674, revised in 1677) for the 6 per cent repayment by annuity turned into an act of parliament in 1678, in order to put the bankers' own provisions for the repayment of their respective creditors beyond the possibility of challenge in the courts; but deadlock between the two houses prevented this. In his first general attempt to settle with his creditors made in 1681 Vyner offered to pay four-fifths of what he owed them by instalments out of the king's annuity to him; the remaining one-fifth was to be found out of his own estate within one year. By 1684 it appears that about 40 out of the original 158 creditors had agreed to this and the offer had still not been implemented. It seems to have been these forty who shared the costs of the proceedings leading to the commission of bankruptcy which was issued against him in that year. How much had been extracted from his estate by the time of his death in 1688 is not clear; the crown's annuity was then stopped, but pressure for a final settlement evidently continued, for in 1699, fifteen years after his bankruptcy and eleven after his death, a private act of parliament (modelled on that passed for Backwell's creditors the year before) was at last passed; under its terms, if two-thirds of the creditors, in numbers and in the value of their claims, agreed to settle, the minority would have to accept the same conditions or else forfeit any claim on the estate thereafter—an interesting use of statute to override or prevent ordinary legal process at either equity or common law.

Vyner was knighted in 1665; he was created a baronet in 1666, the year in which he also became an alderman. He was high sheriff of London in 1667, having to obtain a special pardon on account of his formal responsibility for the escape from one of the city prisons of a convicted counterfeiter of the royal seal. Notwithstanding the crash of 1672, he was chosen as lord mayor in 1674, and—according to oral tradition—entertained the king with embarrassing conviviality. He undertook more than one confidential mission overseas, on the crown's behalf, in order, so it was said, to evade his creditors at home. In 1665 he married Mary Hyde (d. 1675), daughter of John Whitchurch of Walton, Buckinghamshire, and widow of Sir Thomas Hyde, bt, a wealthy Hertfordshire landowner (not related to the earl of Clarendon or the other Wiltshire Hydes); she was said to have brought him a very large additional fortune during her lifetime.

What became Vyner's country seat, the mansion house of Swakeleys near Ickenham, Middlesex, had been built in the 1630s by a future royalist lord mayor. It was inherited by one of his daughters, who married the republican politician Sir James Harrington, bt, who added embellishments to the interior of the house. Although he was attainted, imprisoned, and degraded to plain Mr Harrington after the Restoration, his wife somehow retained this property, which was bought by Vyner in 1665, presumably with his own wife's marriage portion. The daughter of her first marriage, Bridget Hyde, was also a considerable heiress. In January 1675, during his mayoralty, Vyner became a trustee to enforce the proposed marriage settlement between her and Peregrine Osborne, Lord Dunblane, second son of the lord treasurer, the earl of Danby. This became an extraordinary and embarrassing cause célèbre. The bride was held to have already entered into a form of marriage, at the age of twelve, with a plebeian relative. The courts took until 1682–3 to reach a final decision, the rival claimant to Bridget Hyde's hand (and fortune) having even then, it was said, to be bought out by the father-in-law to be, though by then Danby himself was in the Tower and Vyner on the eve of his own bankruptcy. Meanwhile, his wife having died on new year's day 1675, Vyner's stepdaughter was living with him at Swakeleys when she was abducted at pistol-point by a gang headed by a minor functionary of the royal bedchamber acting on behalf of Dunblane's rival, the girl's alleged husband. She was rescued in east London and restored to her stepfather's care, but just as the length of the matrimonial case reflects on the legal system, so the virtual pardon of the page of honour involved seems a reflection on Charles II's way of conducting business, almost reminiscent of his relations with the notorious Colonel Thomas Blood. A further legal agreement between Vyner and Danby survives from 1680. While there is some evidence of their relations having been strained at times, the whole affair emphasizes that Vyner moved in court circles to an extent which marked him out from the other goldsmiths—indeed, from most other financiers and merchants of his day. The only child of his own marriage, Charles Vyner (1667–88), predeceased him by a few months, Vyner according to hearsay dying of a broken heart in consequence of this loss. He died at Windsor on 2 September 1688 and was buried at St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London on the 16th.

His son's death caused Vyner to make a new will. All his properties and possessions were to be sold by his executors to the best possible advantage. Out of the proceeds his creditors were to receive 30 per cent of what he owed them, provided they accepted this offer and remained bound by it; the other 70 per cent owing to them was then secured on the 6 per cent annuity, payable to him out of the excise revenue until the king's debt to him was fully discharged. Out of the overplus on the estate, however much or little that might turn out to be, one-quarter was reserved to his executors—his nephew Thomas, son of the late dean of Gloucester (Sir Robert's elder brother Thomas (1629–1673)), and Francis Millington (1637–1693) (husband of Sir Robert's eldest brother Samuel's daughter, Martha), his one-time business partner and fellow customs commissioner; of the remaining three-quarters, £100 was reserved for each of his two nephews, the sons of his eldest brother, Samuel (the stay-at-home Warwickshire branch of the family), while each of the four great London hospitals was to receive one-tenth (that is, three-fortieths of the total); the residuary legatees in equal shares were his four nieces and his other two nephews. Any legatee going to law with the executors was automatically to forfeit the whole of her or his share. Assuming that the terms of the will were observed, this explains how the residue of the estate descended through the dean's son, Thomas, and negates the claim by a latter-day descendant of Vyner's elder brother that their line had been cheated of their inheritance; if the terms of the will were not carried out, then this must remain an open question. It was the dean's grandson, Robert (1685–1777), who became the owner of Swakeleys, which in 1741 was sold in order to enlarge the estate in Lincolnshire, where this branch of the family was very well established during the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Their descendants then moved from Gautby in Lincolnshire to Newby Hall in the West Riding of Yorkshire later in the nineteenth century. The family's funeral monuments remained at Gautby, whither they had been removed from the City; the famous equestrian statue, originally commissioned for the king of Poland whose agents were unable to pay for it and which was then bought by Vyner, who had it shipped back to England and altered to represent Charles II, having been removed from the City during the eighteenth century and then erected at Gautby, was taken to Newby when the family moved there.

Sir Robert's place in the long-term development of banking is hard to assess. In one sense he was obviously the forerunner of those financiers of the 1680s and 1690s who made possible the establishment of the Bank of England and the national debt. It might equally be argued that the Stop of the exchequer, into which the crown was tempted by the vulnerability of Vyner and the other goldsmiths, served to delay such changes by twenty years. Whichever view is preferred, there can be no doubt of his pre-eminence as a financier of the Restoration era.


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