How to look for records of... Taxation before 1689

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1. Why use this guide?

This guide will help you to find records of medieval and early-modern taxation (13th century-1689). These records contain information on central government’s taxation process (assessment, collection, accounting and auditing) but also provide valuable insights into the population of medieval and early-modern England and Wales.

The primary source of information, and the focus for the advice in this guide, is the E 179 database, a resource created by The National Archives to provide detailed searching of series E 179.

The original documents which contain all this information can be difficult to read. You may find our online palaeography tutorials helpful when trying to read them.

2. Taxes in the medieval and early modern periods

Taxes on individuals during the medieval and early modern periods were levied to provide income for specific items of expenditure, such as military campaigns. Each tax was levied separately. Each grant or levy would specify the details of the individual tax, such as the income threshold, any exemptions, the tax rates, the number of instalments (known as ‘collections’), and the dates on which they were to be collected.

Taxes were generally granted by Parliament. However, they could be imposed directly by the monarch, such as feudal and prerogative levies, while others, such as forced loans and ‘benevolences’, were little more than official extortion.

3. The E 179 database

The E 179 database provides information on both lay and clerical taxation records in England and Wales (13th century-1689). By providing information on the nature and content of the majority of the records, the database helps you navigate the records relating to tax assessment and collection in England and Wales before 1689.

Names of individual taxpayers are not included in this database, but the database can be used to identify documents which contain names.

3.1 What can you find in the records?

Records cover:

  • fractional taxes (fifteenths and tenths 1134-1624)
  • poll taxes
  • subsidies
  • monthly and weekly assessments
Type of tax Type of information recorded
Fifteenths and Tenths (1334-1624) Records predominantly list only places and sums payable with a few exceptions. They may be of limited interest to historians and researchers
Poll taxes (from 1377) Essentially taxes levied on individuals rather than property or wealth, with everyone over a certain age, and not otherwise exempt, being liable to pay a given amount. Therefore surviving records generally include a rather higher proportion of the population, and surviving documents record the names of many individuals
Tudor and Stuart subsidies (1485-1689)
including ship money and hearth tax
A tax levied at a given rate (specified in the statute) on the value of an individual’s movable goods or their income from land (whichever greater). Early subsidies were granted at different rates, often with different thresholds meaning records vary greatly.The 1523 and 1543 subsidies had the lowest thresholds, and produced particularly detailed and full lists of taxpayers, large numbers of which survive in E 179. From 1563-1663 thresholds became fixed at a relatively high figure meaning assessments are less extensive but they are a useful source for tracing the fortunes of wealthier citizens. Ship money, introduced in 1634, has few surviving records. Those held by The National Archives are predominantly schedules of arrears from 1634-1635. Analysing them can provide useful insights into pre-Civil War politics. Monthly and weekly assessments followed, and these records contain lists of communities and amounts payable. Hearth tax see section 4 below

3.2 Limitations of the records

  • Surviving medieval taxation records relate entirely to England; the 1536 Act of Union brought Wales into the taxation system
  • Methods of central government taxation in this period underwent many changes so the types and styles of documents produced can vary greatly
  • Only certain taxes demanded detailed lists of individual taxpayers
  • The records will not provide a complete list of the population of a particular place/time, or necessarily an accurate reflection of wealth or status

3.3 How to search the records

The database is searchable by:

  • place (administrative divisions have often changed over time: basic details are in the E 179 database, and more specific information is available in reference works such as volumes of the Victoria County History and publications of the English Place-Name Society)
  • date
  • tax
  • document type

You cannot search by names of individuals, but the database can be used to identify documents which contain taxpayer names.

3.4 Reading the records: original documents and transcriptions

As the original documents can be difficult to read it is best to first consult the available transcriptions which exist for many of them, held in The National Archives’ Library. Details of these publications are usually given within the database.

4. Hearth tax 1662-1689

For the detail and quality of their contents, the hearth tax records in E 179 give an unparalleled insight into the composition and nature of 17th century communities, and are a useful supplement to other local records such as parish registers.

Each liable householder was to pay one shilling, twice a year, for each fire, hearth and stove in each dwelling or house. The tax’s complex administration meant assessment and collection methods changed radically over time.

The majority of the surviving documents are from 1662-1666 and 1669-1674 when the tax was administered directly by royal officials rather than private tax collectors. Documentation also varies regionally. The Centre for Hearth Tax Research has produced some selected indexes of names which can be downloaded. See the further reading section for more details.

Key hearth tax documents Further information
Assessments and returns They contain:
– the names of individual householders (sometimes with their status or title)
– the number of chargeable hearths, often with the amount payable and occasionally comments- potentially names or number of those exempt
Exemption certificates They contain:
– the names and assessments of people who were exempt in a given area, providing useful details to supplement assessments- exemptees included: those too poor to contribute to poor and church rates, or whose property was worth less than 20 shillings/ year
Search:
– by county – also by place name (parish or hundred) for the following counties: Bedfordshire, Berkshire, Buckinghamshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, London, Middlesex, Norfolk, Suffolk and Warwickshire

5. Clerical taxation

From the mid 13th century until the Reformation the tenth was the standard fractional levy. The 1291 assessment for the tenth collected became the basis of all clerical taxation until the Reformation. Many annotated copies of this assessment, used by the collectors gathering later taxes, survive. A variety of other subsidiary documents also survive in series E 179, as well as assessment documents for other types of taxes such as poll taxes paid by the clergy in 1377 and 1379-1381.

Clerical grants of subsidies were always requested from both provinces of the clergy, and separate taxes, although generally concurrent, would be granted from both Canterbury and York.

At the Reformation, the clerical taxation system was overhauled completely. In 1534, under the Act of First Fruits and Tenths, a permanent tenth was collected annually from the clergy. This resulted in a new valuation called the Valor Ecclesiasticus. Documents for these are in series E 331-E 344 and E 347.

Most of the post-Reformation documents in series E 179 comprise certificates listing the names of stipendiary clergy who were required to pay a graduated poll tax, or identifying exempt benefices. In 1641, the clergy were taxed with the laity until the Restoration, and in 1664 they agreed to be included in all future grants of taxation made by Parliament.

6. Other records at The National Archives

The records of the Exchequer (E) at The National Archives include series containing documents relating to the assessment, collection and accounting of central government taxation.

The account rolls in E 359 and E 360 contain details of the overall sums collected for a particular tax, and although they rarely include the names of any individual taxpayers, they do give details of the final amounts raised from particular counties, cities, boroughs and other taxation areas.

E 115 and E 179 contain many certificates of residence which were drawn up to reduce the risk of double charging. Covering c1547-1685, they are indexed alphabetically by personal name.

Find contact details for archives elsewhere using Find an archive.

7. Pre-1332 records

Limited records exist for this period but documents relating to medieval feudal taxes are printed in Inquisitions and Assessments Relating to Feudal Aids, 6 vols (HMSO, 1899-1920).

8. Further reading

Most of the following recommended publications are available in The National Archives’ Library.

J Gibson, The Hearth tax and other later Stuart tax lists and the Association Oath Rolls (FFHS, 1996). A county by county guide to The National Archives and non-National Archive sources

RW Hoyle, Tudor Taxation Records (PRO, 1994)

M Jurkowski, C Smith and D Crook, Lay Taxes in England and Wales, 1188-1688 (Public Record Office, 1998). Provides a general overview of medieval and early-modern taxation, together with details of the terms of individual taxes

H Maxwell-Lyte, Inquisitions and assessments relating to feudal aids, 6 volumes (HMSO, 1899-1920). Includes details of medieval feudal taxes

ELC Mullins, Texts and calendars: an analytical guide to serial publications (Royal Historical Society, 1958; reprinted 1978), and Texts and calendars II: an analytical guide to serial publications, 1957-1982 (Royal Historical Society, 1983), also updated since 1982 online

Websites

Hearth Tax Online run by the Centre for Hearth Tax Research. Their publications page lists volumes published by the British Records Society, of both exemption certificates and assessments

London hearth tax on British History Online