Taxation in medieval England

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The initial page of Corpus Christi College Cambridge MS 173, the Peterborough Chronicle, which contains the oldest surviving copy of Ine's laws.

Taxation in medieval England was the system of raising money for royal and governmental expenses. During the Anglo-Saxon period, the main forms of taxation were land taxes, although custom duties and fees to mint coins were also imposed. The most important tax of the late Anglo-Saxon period was the geld, a land tax first regularly collected in 1012 to pay for mercenaries. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the geld continued to be collected until 1162, but it was eventually replaced with taxes on personal property and income.


Britannia, the southern and central part of the island of Great Britain, was a province of the Roman Empire until the Roman departure from Britain in around 400 AD. The Emperor Honorius told the Britons in 410 that they were responsible for their own defence,[1] and from then until the landing of Augustine of Canterbury in the Kingdom of Kent in 597 as part of the Gregorian mission, little is known about Britain's governmental structures or financial systems.[2]

Anglo-Saxon England (597–1066)[edit]

The first unequivocal mention of taxation in Anglo-Saxon England comes from the Law of Æthelberht, the law code of King Æthelberht of Kent, which specifies that fines from judicial cases were to be paid to the king. No other forms of taxes are mentioned in Æthelberht's law code, but other forms of taxation are implied by the grant of an exemption from taxation given by another king, Wihtred of Kent, to a church. Other mentions of taxes are contained in the law code of King Ine of Wessex. Although other early Anglo-Saxon kings are not mentioned as collecting taxes, the medieval writer Bede does mention that land in Anglesey and the Isle of Man were divided up in hides, defined in Ine's law as a unit of land that could be used for collecting food and other goods from the king's subjects. A document from the 7th or 8th century, the Tribal Hidage, shows that much of the Anglo-Saxon lands had been divided into hides by that time. Charters from the time of King Offa of Mercia show that tolls were collected on trade, and it was during Offa's reign that coinage in silver pennies was first introduced into Anglo-Saxon England. Coinage became a royal right, and was probably introduced to make payment of taxes easier.[3]

The Viking expansion to England necessitated the payment of tribute to the invaders in an attempt to buy off the invasions. Kings in this time levied contributions from their subjects, to pay tributes and to fight the Scandinavian invaders. In addition to these contributions, King Edgar introduced a system where periodically all the coinage was recalled and reminted, with the moneyers being forced to pay for new dies. All profits from these actions went to the king, and were a royal right.[3]

The year 1012 saw the introduction of the geld or heregeld, which was an annual tax first assessed by King Æthelred the Unready to pay for mercenaries to fight the invasion of England by King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. Later, after the conquest of England by Sweyn's son Cnut the Great, the geld was continued. This was a tax based on the ownership of land, and was based on the number of hides owned. The amount due from each hide was variable. It was abolished by King Edward the Confessor in 1051, but was possibly reinstated in 1052.[4]

Norman and Angevin England (1066–1216)[edit]

There was no formal division between the household of the king and the government in the Norman period, although gradually the household itself began to separate from the government. Thus, income from taxation merged with other income to fund the king and the government without any distinctions such as in the modern world.[5] Under the Norman and Angevin kings, the government had four main sources of income: (1) income from lands owned directly by the king, or his demesne lands, (2) income that derived from his rights as a feudal overlord, the feudal rights such as feudal aid or scutage (3) taxation, and (4) income from the fines and other profits of justice. By the time of King Henry I, most revenues were paid into the Exchequer, the English Treasury, and the first records of the Exchequer date from 1130, in the form of the first surviving Pipe Roll for that year.[6] From the reign of King Henry II, Pipe Rolls form a mostly continuous record of royal revenues and taxation.[7] However, not all revenue went into the Exchequer, and some occasional taxes and levies were never recorded in the Pipe Rolls.[6]

Taxation itself took a number of forms in this period. The main tax was the geld, still based on the land, and unique in Europe at the time as being the only land tax that was universal on all the king's subjects, not just his immediate feudal tenants and peasants. It was still assessed on the hide, and the usual rate was 2 shillings per hide. In certain circumstances, however, taxation was assessed in terms of services rendered to the crown, such as avera and inward.[8]

Because the geld was assessed on landowners, it only applied to free men who owned land, and thus serfs and slaves were exempt. Other exemptions were granted to favoured subjects or were a right that went with certain governmental offices.[9] The geld was unpopular, and because of the increasing number of exemptions, yielded smaller amounts. During the reign of King Stephen, it is unclear if the geld was collected at all, as no financial records survive. However, when King Henry II came to the throne, the geld was collected once more.[10] After 1162, however the geld was no longer collected.[9]

Instead, a new type of tax was imposed starting in 1166, although it was not an annual tax. This was the tax on moveable property and income, and it could be imposed at varying rates. Likewise, the Saladin tithe, imposed in 1188 to raise funds for a proposed crusade by King Henry II, was levied at the rate of 10% of all goods and revenues, with some exceptions for a knight's horse and armour and clerical vestments. Also excluded were those who had pledged to go on crusade with the king.[9]

In 1194, in part from need to raise the huge sums required for the ransom of King Richard I who was captive in Germany, a new land tax was instituted. This was the carucage, and like the geld it was based on the land. The carucage was imposed six times in all, but it produced smaller sums than other means of raising revenue and was last collected in 1224.[9] In 1194, as part of the attempts to raise Richard's ransom, a 25% levy on all personal property and income was imposed.[9] In other years, other rates were set, such as the thirteenth imposed in 1207.

Besides taxes on land and taxes on personal property, this period saw the introduction of taxes on trade. In 1202, King John imposed a custom duty of a fifteenth of the value of all goods imported or exported. It appears, however, that these duties were discontinued in 1206.[11]

Plantagenet England (1216–1360)[edit]

During the reign of King Henry III, the king and government sought consent from the nobles of England for taxes the government wished to impose. This led in 1254 to the start of the Parliament of England, when the nobles advised the king to summon knights from each shire to help advise and consent to a new tax. In the 1260s, men from the towns were included with the knights, forming the beginnings of the House of Commons of England.[11]

By the middle of the 13th century, the tax on moveable property had become fixed by convention at a fifteenth for those in the country, and a tenth for those living in towns. An innovation in 1334 was the replacement of the individual assessments by a lump sum assessment for each community.[11]

In 1275, King Edward I reestablished a customs duty, by setting a rate of a mark on each sack of wool (weighing 364 pounds (165 kg)) or 300 wool-fells, and a mark on a last of hides. Edward then added another tax, the maltolt, in 1294, on sacks of wool, which was in addition to the previous customs duty. These taxes were removed in 1296, but in 1303 they were reimposed but only on non-English merchants. Over the next 40 years, the maltolt was the subject of dispute between the king and Parliament, with the final result being that the tax was kept at a lower rate but that Parliament's consent was required to impose it.[11]

Late medieval England (1360–1485)[edit]

The revenues from the traditional sources of taxation declined in later medieval England, and a series of experiments in poll taxes began:[11] in 1377 a flat rate tax, in 1379 a graduated tax.[12] By 1381, the unpopularity of these taxes had contributed to the Peasants' Revolt. Later experiments in income taxes during the 15th century did not manage to raise the sums needed by the government, and other taxes, such as taxes on parishes, were attempted.[11]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Kirby Making of Early England pp. 13–14
  2. ^ Blair Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England p. 2
  3. ^ a b Lawson "Taxation" Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England
  4. ^ Keynes "Heregeld" Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England
  5. ^ Saul "Government" A Companion to Medieval England pp. 115–118
  6. ^ a b Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings p. 159
  7. ^ Coredon Dictionary p. 219
  8. ^ Darby and Campbell Domesday Geography of South-East England p. 72
  9. ^ a b c d e Bartlett England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings pp. 165–168
  10. ^ Huscroft Ruling England pp. 98–99
  11. ^ a b c d e f Saul "Taxation" Companion to Medieval England pp. 281–283
  12. ^ Speight Craven and North-West Yorkshire Highlands pp. 29–60


  • Bartlett, Robert (2000). England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings: 1075–1225. Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press. ISBN 0-19-822741-8. 
  • Blair, Peter Hunter; Blair, Peter D. (2003). An Introduction to Anglo-Saxon England (Third ed.). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-53777-0. 
  • Coredon, Christopher (2007). A Dictionary of Medieval Terms & Phrases (Reprint ed.). Woodbridge, UK: D. S. Brewer. ISBN 978-1-84384-138-8. 
  • H. C. Darby; Campbell, Eila M. J. (1962). The Domesday Geography of South-East England. Domesday Geography of England 3. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-04770-6. 
  • Huscroft, Richard (2005). Ruling England 1042–1217. London: Pearson/Longman. ISBN 0-582-84882-2. 
  • Keynes, Simon (2001). "Heregeld". In Lapidge, Michael; Blair, John; Keynes, Simon; Scragg, Donald. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. p. 235. ISBN 978-0-631-22492-1. 
  • Kirby, D. P. (1967). The Making of Early England (Reprint ed.). New York: Schocken Books. 
  • Lawson, M. K. (2001). "Taxation". In Lapidge, Michael; Blair, John; Keynes, Simon; Scragg, Donald. The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Anglo-Saxon England. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing. pp. 440–442. ISBN 978-0-631-22492-1. 
  • Saul, Nigel (2000). "Government". A Companion to Medieval England 1066–1485. Stroud, UK: Tempus. pp. 115–118. ISBN 0-7524-2969-8. 
  • Saul, Nigel (2000). "Taxation". A Companion to Medieval England 1066–1485. Stroud, UK: Tempus. pp. 281–283. ISBN 0-7524-2969-8. 
  • Speight, Harry (1892). The Craven and North-west Yorkshire Highlands. London: Elliot Stock.