Friday, 13 October 2017

Medieval Taxation

Death and taxes are life’s only certainties.

In the UK today there are many taxes, but the big three are income tax, VAT (a sales tax that is widely but not universally applied), and National Insurance (effectively extra income tax, but I think pensioners don’t pay it).

None of these existed in the medieval world. Income tax was only brought in by Pitt the Younger as a temporary measure (ahem) to ensure we had sufficient funds to fight Napoleon.

How did medieval monarchs get the money necessary just to fund the day-to-day expenses of the state, as well as the huge sums essential for castle-building, going on crusade or that age old expense of war with France?

The king was the greatest landowner in the country, which meant he had, on a personal level, a vast income from rents and the like. However, this was not enough to cover significant expenditure. There were a range of smaller taxes and tolls (not all going to him directly) which I’ll mention below, but the quickest way to raise cash was a general levy on wealth.

This might be levied at a rate of a tenth of a man’s total assets. So, if you had £100 of goods, it’d be £10. Needless to say, this was not a popular thing. In fact, it could often be very, very difficult to get such a levy approved by the nobility and clergy (the degree to which their consent was legally required varied over the medieval period, but given how many rebellions there were it was never a good thing to repeatedly piss off your own nobles).

One of the reasons King John was and is so reviled is the amount he taxed. John, when not starving prisoners to death, was a devious taxman and worked out he could make a lot of cash without needing to curry favour with the nobility simply by hiking the fines for various transgressions. He did this to punitive levels, and mulcted huge sums from his people. He got a lot of money, and resentment, this way.

Edward I, the grandson of John, had a rather clever idea which worked very well for a number of years. The big export of England was wool, and Edward arranged for the customs to be handled by Italian bankers who, in return, ensured the king always had access to credit. It was mutually beneficial, as the bankers got steady income from a guaranteed source and the king could get ready cash very quickly whenever he needed it (until the bankers over-stretched themselves elsewhere and the arrangement collapsed, but that was hardly Edward’s fault).

Knighthood could be a punishment. This sounds odd, but knights were sometimes defined by wealth (an order might go out commanding every man worth £40 or more to turn up at a given time and place to be knighted). As knights, they’d be expected to fight for the king when required, for a certain length of time, and perhaps furnish a few soldiers themselves. Needless to say, many men were not taken with this idea. Scutage was a way around this problem. From the Latin ‘scutum’ (shield), the term means cash given in lieu of fighting, enabling the king to hire mercenaries and enabling the reluctant knight to avoid going to war. Once again, John got quite a lot of money this way (and yet more resentment).

There were also a number of tolls applied to pay for various things. Pontage was a toll for the repair and maintenance of bridges, stallage was a toll for stallholders in the market, pavage for roads, murage for walls and wharfage for, er, wharves.

It’s interesting that the medieval form of taxes focused on assets and specific actions. There was no attempt to tax income, and it’d be hundreds of years before income tax, now the mainstay of the tax system, came into being. The overall tax burden on people was generally low, but their overall prosperity also wasn’t great, healthcare was often actively harmful, and a bad harvest would see thousands die.

Of the two certainties, taxes were lower than today, but death was eminently more commonplace.



  1. Death more common place? Well yes, but then again no. In the millennia before antibiotics diseases which we now pretty much shrug off could cause massive fatalities (e.g. bubonic plague) and life expectancy in the middle ages is often quoted as being something like 30-40 years. However, dig a little deeper into those figures and a somewhat different picture emerges.

    If one strips out the deaths of infants and children than actually life expectancy was not much less than it has been until the last seventy years. Essentially if he/she could survive to the age of about five then the medieval person (of whatever station in life) had as good a chance of living to 70 as someone born in the late 19th century.

  2. You're right that the bulk of the difference is infant mortality and pestilence... but those figures still count.

    From the early 1200s to 1377, we only had four kings, and three of them had great longevity (the other one might have too, had he not been such an oaf).