PortCities London

The Customs Service

The need for a reliable tax

The revenue problem

Medieval kings faced the same problems that trouble governments of today - how to raise enough revenue to pay for such things as administration and defence. Despite a bewildering range of taxes, rulers were nearly always short of money.

Most taxes were difficult to collect, and people were not keen on paying. Unpopular taxes could lead to unforseen consequences, particularly where there was already general discontent.

Tax revolts

King Richard and his Council go down the Thames in a barge to confer with the rebels.
View full size imageKing Richard meeting the rebels of 1381. © NMM

Like its counterpart in the 1980s, the Poll Tax of 1381 was not a great success. The tax sparked off a huge Peasants' Revolt. Thousands of peasants marched on London, beheading the Archbishop of Canterbury along the way. They dispersed only when Richard II promised to consider their grievances.


Grievances over taxation also played a major role in the Jack Cade rebellion of 1450. This time, the rebels entered London and beheaded the Lord Treasurer.

In the 17th century, Charles I paid the ultimate price for his failure to solve the revenue problem. He upset Parliament and public opinion by using obscure taxes and forced loans to raise revenue. The strained relations with Parliament ultimately led to the Civil War and the king's execution.

The destruction of the American fleet at Penobscot Bay, 14 August 1779.
View full size imageThe destruction of the American fleet at Penobscot Bay, 1779, by Dominic Serres. © NMM
Resentment over taxes also played a major role in pushing the American colonists to declare independence in 1776. The British insisted that the colonists pay taxes for their own defence, but would not grant them a political voice in London. This caused tensions that led to the War of Independence and British defeat.


A convenient tax

A receipt from the Custom House, 1819.
View full size imageA receipt from the Custom House, 1819. © NMM

It was clear that a successful tax had to be easy to assess, easy to collect and difficult to avoid.

Customs duties - taxes on certain goods imported and exported by sea - proved the most convenient solution.


As early as the 14th century, customs duties yielded between one quarter and one half of all tax revenue. They were overtaken only by excise duties in the 18th century and income tax in modern times.



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