1. The principal medieval national customs
The right to levy customs on imported or exported goods was one of the most ancient prerogatives enjoyed by English kings. The earliest evidence that such dues were regularly collected comes from the Pipe Rolls during the twelfth century. However, during the thirteenth and fourteenth century the customs were expanded to meet the cost of expensive foreign wars. A national custom, agreed by parliament, on wool (England's principal medieval export) was established by the end of the thirteenth century. Further customs - on cloth, wax and wine - were agreed during the course of the fourteenth century.
1.1 The ancient custom
This was imposed on all staple goods - principally wool, skins and leather, but also lead, tin, butter, cheese, lard and grease. It was a duty of 6s 8d on every sack of wool and every 300 (later 240) fells or skins and 13s 4d on each last (200 hides) of leather. From 1353 it was collected alongside the Subsidy. This was agreed by parliament and was a fluctuating charge on top of the Ancient or New Customs. It was finally fixed in 1471. In practical terms the accounts of these duties were amalgamated to form the Custom and Subsidy on Wool.
1.2 The new (or petty) custom
This was imposed upon foreign merchants in 1303 and required them to pay an extra 50% on top of the Ancient Custom. It was extended in 1347 to include imported cloth and was payable by aliens and denizens alike. Originally it included specific dues collected on wool, leather and wax (later collected with the Ancient Custom) and an ad valorem duty of 3d in the pound on all other wares.
1.3 Tunnage and poundage
Poundage was an extra ad valorem duty imposed on all non-Staple goods exported or imported by aliens or denizens (except the German Hanse merchants). Tunnage was a temporary levy on wine imports. From 1415 these duties were granted to the King for life.
This was the duty on wine imports that formed part of the Ancient Custom, but from the beginning of Edward III's reign it was collected by the King's Chief Butler. As this office was usually granted to a figure of national political importance, a deputy in each of the ports actually collected the butlerage.
As well as these national customs there was a wide range of local dues imposed by ports and local communities. These were either collected and disbursed locally, collected for the King and accounted for at the Exchequer or 'farmed' out for a fixed annual amount. Some of these records can be found at The National Archives, while others remain in county record offices.
2. The collection of the customs
The collection of the customs required an elaborate system of revenue collectors in the localities working in conjunction with the Exchequer. Customs posts were granted by the King and many such grants can be found enrolled on the Patent Rolls (C 66). Reference to newly appointed customs officials (because of their requirement to account at the Exchequer for the customs they collected) may also be found on the Fine Rolls (C 60). The series of enrolments is by no means complete. The list of E 122 can also be used as a means of identifying customs officials.
Fine rolls, C 60/8-C60/69 covering the period, 1216-1272, are available as facsimile images and searchable English translations at Henry III fine rolls as part of a free resource at King's College, London.
3. The customs' accounts: the particulars
It was normal practice for the Exchequer to send out books for the customs' officers of each port to enter the 'official' record of dues collected for that port. Three sets - the customers', controller's and surveyor's - were usually compiled. These recorded the number and names of ships using the port; the name of the master; date of arrival or departure; the name of the merchant in whose name the goods were shipped (with an annotation denoting denizen, alien or Hanse); each item of customable cargo, often with its value; and, in the case of the collectors' accounts, the amount payable. The extant books - relating to the Customs and Subsidy on wool, the Petty Custom and Tunnage and Poundage - form a very small sample of those originally made. They are to be found in the Particulars of Customs' Accounts in E 122. A small number of these have been printed (see below). This series also contains Exchequer type rolls drawn up after the audit of the accounts and before their enrolment. Accounts which survive in this form often give less information than the books of particulars. The list of E 122 is arranged by port, and then by date of account: see the series description for more information.
Other particulars can be found amongst the Exchequer Various Accounts in E 101. These include accounts for the collection of Butlerage from 8 Edw I; the wine accounts for Bordeaux; other customs' accounts relating to English possessions in France; the accounts for the collection of Ulnage (a subsidy on the sale of cloth first granted in 1353); and the collection of the subsidy on wool. The particulars of those local customs which were accounted for at the Exchequer can also be found in E 101 and among the Ministers' and Receivers' Accounts in SC 6.
4. The customs' accounts: the enrolled accounts
When summoned to the Exchequer to account for the customs under their charge, the officials would present their books or rolls of particulars for auditing. Once this was complete they would draw up a compotus, usually in the form of a roll, that would represent the final statement of their accounts for that period. This would in turn be enrolled, a process marked by a single vertical line drawn through the compotus. The enrolled accounts record the total quantities imported or exported and the value of the customs. Individual merchants only appear if they enjoyed some exemption from payment.
Until 1323 customs' accounts were enrolled on the Pipe Rolls in E 372 and a duplicate on the Chancellor's Rolls in E 352. After that they were enrolled on special 'foreign' rolls and form the Enrolled Customs' Accounts in E 356. A detailed explanation of the nature and scope of the enrolled customs' accounts can be found in the series description to E 356. Other enrolled customs' accounts (most importantly the collection of the customs and subsidy on wool by the merchants of the Staple from 1466 until 1531) are on the Foreign Account Rolls in E 364. Some accounts for duties on wine collected in ports in the Duchy of Cornwall can be found amongst the accounts of the Duchy in E 306. Records of customs after 1500 are in Declared Accounts in E 351, the Declared Accounts of Taxes in E 360 and the Declared Excise Accounts in E 139. Stray enrolments can be found in the Pipe Office, Miscellaneous Accounts in E 358. Enrolments of the state of the customs' accounts from the reign of Henry VII are in E 102. Numerous cases involving the defrauding of the customs revenue, either by individual merchants or customs officials, can be found on the Exchequer Memoranda Rolls in E 159 and E 368.
5. Further reading
N S B Gras, The Early English Customs Systems (Cambridge, Mass, 1918)
E E Power and M M Postan (eds.), Studies in English Trade in the Fifteenth Century (1933)
H S Cobb, 'Local Port Customs' accounts prior to 1550', Journal of the Society of Archivists (1955-9)
E M Carus-Wilson and O Coleman (eds.), England's Export Trade 1275-1547 (Oxford, 1963)
Printed customs' accounts can be found in:
E M Carus-Wilson (ed.), The Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Later Middle Ages, British Record Society, VII (1937)
D M Owen (ed.), The Making of King's Lynn: A Documentary Survey, British Academy, Records of Social and Economic History, IX (1984)
W Childs (ed.), The Customs' accounts of Hull 1453-1490, Yorkshire Archaeological Society 144 (1986)
H S Cobb (ed.), The Overseas Trade of London 1480-1, London Record Society (1990)
S H Rigby (ed.), The Overseas Trade of Boston in the reign of Richard III, Lincoln Record Society (2005)