Taxation in the 14th Century

Each year the king of England attempted to raise about £100,000 in taxes. A large amount of this money went on military spending. The king also used taxes to build castles and palaces and to pay the wages of his servants.

At the beginning of the 14th Century, taxes were imposed on movable property. People had to have their property valued by tax officials. They then had to pay a percentage of the value (most years it was 10%) to the king. People who owned property valued at less than £10 did not have to pay the tax.

The rich thought it was unfair that most people did not pay the movable property tax. In 1334 Parliament managed to persuade King Edward III to change the tax system. The king's taxes were now imposed on communities rather than individuals with property. Under this new system of taxation, it was the lord of the manor who decided how much each individual in the village should pay in tax (lay subsidy).

In January 1377, King Edward called a parliament to raise money to pay for a new army to attack France. After much debate it was decided to introduce a poll tax (a tax on every adult). Every adult in England had to pay 4d. to the king.

People paid the tax because they were concerned about the growing power of the French. During the summer of 1377, the French made landings on the south coast. As well as occupying the Isle of Wight, the French sacked Rye, Lewes, Folkestone and Portsmouth.

Edward III died in June, 1377. Edward's eldest son, the Black Prince, was already dead, so the throne passed to Richard, his ten year old son. However, as Richard was so young, his uncle, John of Gaunt, made all the important decisions.

In 1378, John of Gaunt led an expedition to France, but returned three months later without success. The following year, John of Gaunt asked parliament to impose another poll tax. Parliament decided that it was going to be a graduated tax, which meant that the richer you were, the more tax you paid.

The money raised by the poll tax was used to pay for another attack on France. This time the invasion was led by John of Gaunt's younger brother, Thomas of Woodstock. Once again the English army was unsuccessful. In 1379 plans were made to take another army to France. Money was also needed for an army to defend the English border against the Scots.

In December, 1380, parliament decided that the people of England would have to pay another poll tax (to be collected in March, 1381). This time the rate was increased to 12d. (a shilling) per head. Another change in the tax was that everybody had to pay the same amount. As everybody over the age of 15 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.

Primary Sources

(A) Details of how much people had to pay as a result of the Poll-Tax in 1379.

dukes and archbishops£6 13s. 4d. great merchants£1 0s. 0d.
bishops and abbots£4 0s. 0d.monks and priests3s. 4d.
dukes£2 0s. 0d.people over 154d.

(B) John Wycliffe, sermon (1381)

Lords do wrong to poor men by unreasonable taxes... the poor perish from hunger and thirst and cold... In this manner, the lords eat and drink poor men's flesh and blood.

(C) Adult population of England as recorded in the Poll-Tax returns of 1377 & 1381.

Total adult population1,355,201896,481

1. Describe the movable property tax. Did the following groups like or dislike the movable property tax: (a) large landowners; (b) poor peasants?

2. Draw a table showing: (a) how much poll tax Hugh, Earl of Stafford had to pay in 1379 and 1381; (b) how much poll tax you had to pay in 1379 and 1381.

3. Explain the main difference between the poll taxes of 1379 and 1381.

4. What did the author of sources B think about the 1381 poll tax? Would everyone in England have agreed with him?

5. Study source C. Would it be correct to say that the population of England dropped between 1377 and 1381?