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. This time he extended the levy to inland counties as well, on the grounds that "the charge of defence which concerneth all men ought to be supported by all." (1)
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. (2)
Gerald E. Aylmer has argued that ship money was in fact a more reasonable tax than the traditional forms of collecting money from the population. Most king's had relied on taxes on movable property (a subsidy). "Ship money had in fact been a more equitable as well as a more efficient tax than the subsidy because it was based on a far more accurate assessment of people's wealth and property holdings." (3)
John Hampden was a strong critic of the king and in the House of Commons he had said that his actions was undermining the Protestant religion. "The alteration of government... goes no less than the subversion of the whole state? Hemmed in with enemies; it is now a time to be silent, and not to show his Majesty that a man that has so much power uses none of it to help us? If he be no papist, papists are friends and kindred to him." (4)
At the beginning of 1637, twelve senior judges had declared that, in the face of danger to the nation, the king had a perfect right to order his subjects to finance the preparation of a fleet. Hampden decided to use the Ship Tax as a means of challenging the king's power by failing to pay just one pound of what he owed. (5)
In November, Hampden was prosecuted for refusing to pay the Ship Money on his lands in Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire. The court case was a test of power between sovereign and subject. The judges voted seven against five in favour of conviction but the publicity surrounding the case made Hampton one of the most popular men in England. (6) More importantly, if "ship money was legal, non-parliamentary government had come to stay". (7)
Oliver Cromwell, who was Hampden's cousin, was a strong opponent of the Ship Tax. He argued that such a tax was "a prejudice to the liberties of the kingdom" and that there should be no taxation without the consent of Parliament. One of the critics of the tax said "he knew no law besides Parliament to persuade men to give away their own goods". Cromwell agreed and said he was "a great stickler" against the tax. During this period Cromwell developed a local reputation among those opposed to Charles's government. (8)
Diane Purkiss, the author of The English Civil War: A People's History (2007), has argued that by his actions, Hampden had successfully portrayed Charles as "a tyrant" and after the court case many people refused to pay the tax. For the sheriffs and constables forced to collect small sums such as a penny from the poorest people, life became nearly unbearable. (9)
The struggle against the Ship Tax continued in the House of Commons. This was led by John Pym, a Puritan, who was a large landowner in Somerset. He was known for his anti-Catholic views and saw Parliament's role as safeguarding England against the influence of the Pope: "The high court of Parliament is the great eye of the kingdom, to find out offences and punish them". However, he believed that the king, who had married Henrietta Maria, a Catholic, was an obstacle to this process: "we are not secure enough at home in respect of the enemy at home which grows by the suspending of the laws at home".
Pym was a believer in a vast Catholic plot. Some historians agree with Pym's theory: "Like all successful statesmen, Pym was up to a point an opportunist but he was not a cynic; and self-delusion seems the likeliest explanation of this and his supporters' obsession. That there was a real international Catholic campaign against Protestantism, a continuing determination to see heresy destroyed, is beyond dispute." (10)
Puritans and many other strongly committed Protestants were convinced that Archbishop William Laud and Thomas Wentworth, the Earl of Strafford, were the main figures behind this conspiracy. Wentworth was arrested in November, 1640, and sent to the Tower of London. Charged with treason, Wentworth's trial opened on 22nd March, 1641. The case could not be proved and so his enemies in the House of Commons, lead by Pym, resorted to a Bill of Attainder. Charles I gave his consent to the Bill of Attainder and Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, was executed on 12th May 1641. (11)
The removal of Stafford meant that the Puritans could now change the laws that they hated and Parliament abolished Ship Money in July 1641. They also stopped Charles from forcing people to buy knighthoods. (12)
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.
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.
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.