Taxation in the Middle Ages (Classroom Activity)

People have always disliked the idea of paying taxes. This was especially true in the Middle Ages when most people had little say in how taxes should be spent.

The idea that people should pay a tax called a tithe (10 per cent of the annual produce of land or labour) to support their local minister and parish church was established in the 8th century. In the 10th century a law was introduced to impose penalties for non-payment.

In the early Middle Ages taxation was based on the ownership of land. However, by the 13th century many people became rich from trade rather than from land. As these wealthy merchants did not own a great deal of land, kings began to impose taxes on trade. For example, in 1275 King Edward I put a tax of 6s.8d. on every sack of wool that was exported to other countries.

Taxes were also imposed on movable property. People had to have their property valued by tax officials. They then had to pay a percentage of it (usually about 10%) to the king.

This tax created a great deal of bad feeling. It was claimed that people sometimes bribed the tax official to assess the property below its real value. In this way, it was argued, the rich were often able to use their wealth to avoid paying taxes.

The rich also complained about the movable property tax. They believed it was unfair that people with goods worth less than 10s did not have to pay the tax.

The vast majority of taxes went on military spending. This meant that during wars, taxes were often increased. People were usually willing to pay these taxes if they believed they would benefit in some way, for example, farmers being defended from French raiders or traders having their exports protected from enemy ships.

Edward III died in 1377. His ten-year-old grandson, Richard II, now became king of England. John of Gaunt, Richard's uncle, took over much of the responsibility of government. He was closely associated with the new poll-tax (a tax on every adult) that was introduced in February 1377. Four pence was to be taken from every man and woman over the age of fourteen.

In 1379 Richard called a parliament in an attempt to raise money to pay for the war against the French (later known as the Hundred Years War). After much debate it was decided to introduce a second poll tax. It was to be a graduated tax, which meant that the richer you were, the more tax you paid. For example, John of Gaunt had to pay £6.13s.4d., whereas a poor peasant was only charged 4d.

The proceeds of this tax was quickly spent on the war or absorbed by corruption. In 1380, Simon Sudbury, the Archbishop of Canterbury, suggested a new poll tax of three groats (one shilling) per head. Another change in the tax was that everybody had to pay the same amount. Most peasants at this time only had an income of about one groat per week. As everybody over the age of fifteen had to pay the tax, large families found it especially difficult to raise the money. For many, the only way they could pay the tax was by selling their possessions.

The peasants felt it was unfair that they should pay the same as the rich. They also did not feel that the tax was offering them any benefits. For example, the English government seemed to be unable to protect people living on the south coast from French raiders.

John Ball toured Kent giving sermons attacking the poll tax. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, heard about this he gave orders that Ball should not be allowed to preach in church. Ball responded by giving talks on village greens. The Archbishop now gave instructions that all people found listening to Ball's sermons should be punished. When this failed to work, Ball was arrested and in April 1381 he was sent to Maidstone Prison.

Primary Sources

John Wycliffe

(Source 1) John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster, the man blamed for the Poll Tax (c. 1620)

(Source 2) King Edward I introduced a movable property tax of 15%. A song called, Against the King's Taxes, was written about the tax and sung by wandering minstrels (c. 1300)

It obliges the common people to sell cows, vessels, and clothes... Half of what is raised in the kingdom does not come to the king Since he has not the whole, as it is given to him, the people is obliged to give more. For the taxes which are raised are not all given to the king.

(Source 3) Richard FitzNeal, Dialogue Concerning the Exchequer (c. 1180)

Money is necessary, not only in time of war, but also in time of peace. For... revenue is spent on the fortification of towns, the payment of wages to the soldiers... for the maintenance of the realm, weapons of war... churches are also built by devout kings.

(Source 4) John Wycliffe, sermon (c. 1380)

Lords do wrong to poor men by unreasonable taxes... and they perish from hunger and thirst and cold, and their children also... And in this manner the lords eat and drink poor men's flesh and blood.

John Wycliffe

(Source 5) Pieter Brueghel the Younger, The Payment of the Tithes (c. 1620)


(Source 6) Details of some of the amounts in shillings and pence that people had to pay as a result of the Poll Tax in 1379.

Duke of Lancaster (133s 4d)
Archbishops (133s 4d)
Bishops, Abbots and Priors (80s)
Barons and Knights (40s)
Alderman (40s)
Great Merchants (20s)
Squires (20s)
Monks and Canons (3s 4d)
Lesser Merchants (2s)
Men and Women over 16(4d)

(Source 7) Rolls of Parliament (1380)

The lords and commons are agreed that... three groats should be given from each lay person of the realm... who have reached the age of fifteen - except for genuine beggars who will be charged nothing... each person shall be charged equally.

(Source 8) Extract from poem about the 1380 Poll Tax (c. 1381)

A man with goods worth forty pounds has to pay twelve round pence. And another, brought to the ground by poverty, has to pay as much.

(Source 10) J. F. C. Harrison, The Common People (1984)

From about 1369 the war went increasingly badly for the English, producing little to show for its enormous expense. Indeed, the enemy was now able to raid and loot towns on the south coast, and there was fear of a French invasion. The government, hard-pressed to know where to turn for money to continue the war, levied three poll-taxes in 1377, 1379 and 1381. When the returns for the 1381 poll-tax were in, it was apparent that there had been widespread tax-evasion, and commissioners were therefore appointed to enforce payment of the full tax.

(Source 11) Dan Jones, Summer of Blood: The Peasants' Revolt (2009)

In the Parliament... held in Westminster in January and February 1377, they proposed a poll tax. Four pence was to be taken from every man and woman over the age of fourteen. This was a huge shock: taxation had never before been universal, and four pence was the equivalent of three days' labour to simple farmhands at the rates set in the Statute of Labourer.

(Source 12) Charles Poulsen, The English Rebels (1984)

There was a maximum payment of twenty shillings from men whose families and households numbered more than twenty, thus ensuring that the rich paid less than the poor. A shilling was a considerable sum for a working man, almost a week's wages. A family might include old persons past work and other dependents, and the head of the family became liable for one shilling on each of their 'polls'. This was basically a tax on the labouring classes.


Questions for Students

Question 1: Study source 4. Select a passage where Wycliffe expresses an opinion on taxation. Explain how Wycliffe attempted to persuade people that it was wrong to tax poor people.

Question 2: Give as many reasons as you can why the king and his parliament imposed taxes. Which of these reasons do you think the king thought was the most important?

Question 3: What kind of different taxes were imposed during the Middle Ages? Explain the type of taxes that would have been particularly disliked by the following groups: (a) large landowners; (b) wool merchants; (c) poor peasants.

Question 4: Explain the differences between the poll tax of 1379 and the poll tax of 1380.

Question 5: What did the author of source 8 think about the 1381 poll tax? Would everyone in England have agreed with him?

Question 6: "Change always means progress." Is this statement always true? Answer this question with reference to the introduction of the Poll Tax.

Question &: Select sources from this unit that helps to explain why the poor hated having to pay taxes. What other types of sources might help you answer this question? Comment on the advantages and disadvantages of using the sources you have suggested.

Answer Commentary

A commentary on these questions can be found here.