In 1635 Charles I faced a financial crisis. Unwilling to summon another Parliament, he had to find other ways of raising money. He decided to resort to the ancient custom of demanding Ship Money. In the past, whenever there were fears of a foreign invasion, kings were able to order coastal towns to provide ships or the money to build ships.
Charles sent out letters to sheriffs reminding them about the possibility of an invasion and instructing them to collect Ship Money. Encouraged by the large contributions he received, Charles demanded more the following year. Whereas in the past Ship Money had been raised only when the kingdom had been threatened by war, it now became clear that Charles intended to ask for it every year. Several sheriffs wrote to the king complaining that their counties were being asked to pay too much. Their appeals were rejected and the sheriff's now faced the difficult task of collecting money from a population overburdened by taxation.
In 1637 John Hampden was prosecuted for refusing to pay the Ship Tax on his lands in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. He appeared before the Court Exchequer and although he was found guilty, the publicity surrounding the case made him one of the most popular men in England.
Parliament abolished Ship Money in July 1641.
(1) Charles I, letter to the Sheriff of Anglesey demanding Ship Money (11th February, 1628)
Spain and France are joining together to root out our religion... They have a large number of soldiers in Brittany ready to invade us... The great business of providing money for ships, which used to be charged on the port towns and neighbouring shires, is too heavy for them alone, therefore the Council have cast up the whole charge of the fleet, and have divided it among all the counties.
(2) Thomas Knyvett, letter to his wife (11th November, 1637)
The business now talked on in town is all about the question of the ship money. The king is pleased to give way to those subjects that refuses to pay, whereof Mr. John Hampden is one, to have their counsel to argue the case in point of law in the exchequer chamber before all the judges, and Mr. St John hath already argued for the subject very boldly and bravely. Yesterday was the first on the king's part. I cannot relate any particulars because I heard it not. Although I was up by peep of the day to that purpose, I was so far from getting into the room that I could not get near the door by 2 or 3 yards, the crowd was so great.
(3) Sheriff of Flintshire, letter to the Privy Council (20th June,1640)
I cannot devise any way to get it (Ship Money) until corn harvest... Most of it is unpaid... whether poverty... a disease which hath been too long in this county... or the new charges for maintenance of soldiers, or the news of the Parliament's dissolution or other causes... I know not.