Post-classical history


Wars and taxes

War and taxation were inextricably linked in the medieval period. They were cause and effect in a way that is no longer applicable in an age when defence spending is only a twelfth of the total UK budget and three times as much is spent on healthcare.1 Medieval English monarchs could not legitimately demand direct taxes from their subjects except in extraordinary circumstances, which, in practice, meant only when the security of the realm was under threat. This might be interpreted fluidly to include embarking on aggressive wars abroad but the fundamental principle remained that direct taxation could only be required for military purposes. In the eyes of the tax-payer, therefore, there was a simple correlation between paying taxes and successful warfare; if that was broken by failed campaigns or, worse still, as in 1377, by enemy invasion, then the tax-payer did not blame the fortunes of war as soldiers were accustomed to do, but the incompetence and corruption of those in government who had misspent the taxes granted to them.

Equally fundamental was the principle, established during the early years of Edward III’s campaigns in France, that taxation could only be imposed with the consent of the king’s subjects represented in parliament. This gave the House of Commons, in particular, the leverage to hold the king to account and to demand reforms which the crown might find unpalatable but was compelled to accept if it was to receive the money it needed to prosecute its wars. John of Gaunt, for instance, presiding over the radical ‘Good Parliament’ of 1376 as ‘lieutenant of the king’, had been forced to receive the largest number of petitions ever sent by the House of Commons to a medieval monarch and to listen to outspoken criticism about royal maladministration. Worse still, because he needed the Commons to grant a new tax to pay for another expedition to France once the truce expired, he had been compelled to concede not only that a new council, named in parliament and from which he was himself excluded, should be appointed to advise his ailing father but also that the king’s mistress, chamberlain, household steward and a coterie of rich London merchants should be tried and sentenced by the lords in parliament on charges of financial corruption and illegal profiteering at the king’s expense. This innovation, later known as impeachment, meant that royal councillors and servants were no longer accountable solely to the king but were also legally answerable to his subjects represented in the public forum of parliament. These were bitter pills for a man of Gaunt’s autocratic tendencies to swallow and, to add to his humiliation, it was this same parliament which petitioned for Richard, the ‘true heir apparent’, to be brought before it and then, despite all Gaunt’s concessions, refused to grant him the tax he had requested – the first such refusal since 1325.2

Since the late twelfth century the usual way of implementing a direct tax had been to charge a fraction (usually a tenth in the towns and a fifteenth in the countryside) of the value of an individual’s movable goods. Until Edward III’s reign that value had been reassessed with each new imposition but the need to speed up and simplify the process had prompted the adoption of a new method of assessment in 1334: the king’s commissioners negotiated and collected a block payment from each town and village, based on its size and estimated wealth, but left the actual assessment of individuals and the collection of the tax to each community. The advantage of this system was that the crown knew in advance that each subsidy was worth approximately thirty-seven to thirty-eight thousand pounds and could plan its finances accordingly: in times of extreme emergency it could ask for (and sometimes receive) one and a half subsidies or even a double subsidy. The great disadvantage was that the level of the assessment had remained unchanged since 1334 and therefore did not reflect changes in demography, local economies or personal wealth.3

There was a general perception both in government and among landowners and employers that a large and increasing class of people was becoming wealthier but not shouldering its fair share of the tax burden. The 1370s would therefore see experiments in new forms of taxation intended to tap into these hidden reserves. The first of these was the parish tax of 1371, which was levied at the rate of 22s. 3d. on every parish in the kingdom, including those which were traditionally exempt from direct taxation because they were at the forefront of the war with France and Scotland, such as the Cinque Ports and Cumberland, or because they enjoyed privileged status, such as the county palatines of Chester and Durham. Nevertheless, it swiftly became clear that parliament had made a major error in its basic calculations: there were not forty-five thousand parishes in England and Wales, as originally estimated, but just over 8600, so the levy on each one had to be increased to 116s. The parish tax impacted most severely on areas like East Anglia which had the densest populations: by comparison with assessments for a normal subsidy Norfolk saw its contribution increase by thirty-four per cent, Essex by eighty-three per cent and Suffolk by a staggering 103 per cent. Not surprisingly there was a backlash: in Norfolk there were so many refusals to pay that £4674 16s. (the equivalent of 806 parishes) was still owing in January 1373 and local officials were told in no uncertain terms that if they did not cooperate with royal agents and collect the money due immediately ‘the king will be wroth with them as with men who rebel against him’. At Lakenheath, Suffolk, attempts to force reluctant villagers to pay by seizing their goods and chattels provoked a riot in which the collectors were physically attacked and driven empty-handed from the village; the role of the future chief justice Sir John Cavendish in punishing the rioters would not be forgotten a decade later when Lakenheath was once again a centre of revolt.4

Though the parish tax of 1371 had raised more money in a shorter time than a conventional subsidy it had provoked such universal hostility that the experiment would not be repeated. Nevertheless it had effectively proved that there was untapped wealth in the kingdom, particularly among those who earned wages, and that a more efficient means of taxing it was possible. The House of Commons therefore drew on its example in setting its next experiment, the first poll-tax, of January 1377. Like the parish tax, this was to be levied regardless of status, the only exemptions being for children under the age of fourteen and genuine beggars. Everyone else, male and female, from highest to lowest in the land, was to pay four pence per head. This was not a huge sum at a time when skilled workmen could expect a daily income of around five pence and even a simple labourer could earn three pence a day for ‘digging and collecting stones’. In the context of purchasing power, four pence could buy two and a half gallons of ale, or two hens, or a dozen eggs.5

The new tax was therefore deliberately set at a low rate and at an established level which the tax-paying population would have recognised.6 The differences were that now every adult, rather than only wealthier households, would have to pay and that, instead of being able to spread the payment over two instalments which were usually a year apart, the entire sum was due in cash at the exchequer on 6 April 1377. Parliament obviously felt that, with the threat of a renewal of open war with France looming, a simple poll-tax would be easier and quicker to assess and collect than a conventional subsidy.7

In financial terms the first poll-tax was a success, raising around £22,580 from the laity alone, which was considerably more than the £18,500–19,000 from a comparable half-subsidy. It is clear even from the fragmentary evidence of the collectors’ records that the exchequer had also succeeded in drawing within its grasp thousands of people who had previously escaped its clutches. In Colchester, Essex, for example, many households included not only a husband, wife and adult children but also servants: Richard and Alicia Baker employed three male and four female domestics, while John Reek and his wife had eleven unnamed employees working for them, probably in their master’s workshops rather than on domestic tasks.8

The clergy were also liable to the poll-tax, though their consent had to be obtained from convocation, their formal representative assembly. In practice, convocation usually authorised the collection of tax from the clergy in conjunction with parliamentary grants, but this time there was strong resistance led by William Courtenay, bishop of London, who was himself of royal descent and had no fear of John of Gaunt. This culminated in a public clash between the two men when Courtenay presided over the meeting in convocation to which John Wyclif had been summoned to answer charges of seditious preaching. An Oxford scholar and former royal envoy, Wyclif had argued that secular government had the right to use Church property in time of need – a view so convenient for royal policy that Gaunt had brought him to London in the autumn of 1376 specifically to stir up popular anti-clericalism and put pressure on the clergy to be more generous in their financial dealings with the crown. Gaunt had no intention of allowing his protégé to be censured and therefore, together with his ally Henry, lord Percy, whom he had just appointed marshal of England, accompanied Wyclif to the hearing. Percy, in an act of calculated offensiveness, had his staff of office carried before him, which implied that Wyclif was under his protection and that the court was subject to his own authority. This attempt to intimidate the proceedings was no more successful than Gaunt’s subsequent angry threat to pull the bishop from his chair by the hair: in the end Gaunt simply stormed out of the building. The London mob reacted with fury at this insult to their popular bishop and, the next day, when rumours spread that Gaunt also intended to extend Percy’s powers as marshal over the city, threatening its powers of self-governance, full-scale riots broke out. Not content with simply attacking the obvious symbol of Gaunt’s wealth and prestige, his fabulous Savoy Palace, the mob sought out Gaunt himself. They found him dining with Percy at the house of one of Gaunt’s retainers and the pair narrowly escaped with their lives by fleeing across the Thames in a boat and taking refuge with the princess of Wales in her manor house at Kennington.9

In the circumstances it might not have been surprising if convocation had refused to cooperate in making a grant but the clergy had too much to lose to further antagonise the most powerful man in the land. Nor could they ignore the imminent threat of the renewal of war with France. Perhaps with Wyclif’s preaching in the forefront of their minds, the clergy offered a more generous tax than that provided by the laity. Instead of imposing a flat-rate poll-tax, however, they attempted a fairer solution. The wealthier clergy, including all holders of a benefice and all members of religious orders, without exception, were to pay twelve pence; every other cleric above the age of fourteen was to pay four pence, with the exception of the mendicant friars, who were the religious equivalent of ‘genuine beggars’ and therefore altogether exempt.10

As we have already seen,11 the untimely death of Edward III threw all the government’s military preparations into chaos and it was not until 1 November 1377 that an English fleet finally took to the seas – by which time the campaigning season was virtually over. The French had abandoned their siege of Calais but much of Gascony remained in their hands and the Franco-Castilian fleet, which had wreaked such havoc on the south coast, was moored just across the Channel at Sluys in Flanders. The king’s uncle, Thomas of Woodstock, had almost a hundred ships under his command, manned by some 3600 sailors and four thousand men-at-arms and archers, but his fleet was scattered by storms before he could attack the Castilians. All that this mighty force succeeded in doing was lifting the siege of the English garrison at Brest in Brittany and capturing eight enemy merchant ships.12

Even before Woodstock launched his expedition, the first parliament of the new reign had already met to respond to the invasion crisis. Not daring to risk further taxation experiments in such a grave situation, parliament had fallen back on the old tried and tested system, making a generous grant of a double subsidy of two-fifteenths and two-tenths which was to be paid into the exchequer by 2 February 1378. This was a huge amount of money, particularly following so closely on the heels of the poll-tax earlier in the year, and it was also to be collected in an unusually short period of time. The House of Commons therefore insisted that war treasurers should be appointed to receive and account for its expenditure ‘to the end that such money might be wholly devoted to the costs of the war, and not put to any other use’ – though more than fifteen thousand pounds in debts owed by the crown from the last expedition at sea were also to be paid from its revenues. The two members of parliament chosen as war treasurers, John Philipot and William Walworth, were both wealthy London merchants and highly experienced financiers. Though they had links to the court (not least as moneylenders to the crown) they had also been leading opponents of Gaunt’s attempts to ride roughshod over the city’s privileges and liberties. They could therefore be relied upon to resist any diversion of funds from the war effort.13

Money poured into the war chest from the subsidies but many cities and towns throughout the kingdom found themselves effectively taxed again as they were peremptorily ordered to build, at their own cost, thirty-one balingers, seagoing ships powered by between forty and fifty oars, which were to form the basis of a new royal navy ‘knowing assuredly that if by their lukewarmness the voyage be hindered or delayed the king will deservedly punish them’. Though the writs specifically commanded that the cost should fall on ‘the best, the most able and richest men of the city only, not charging other middling people of lower estate’, the governing elites within cities such as York, Norwich and London ensured that the financial burden of building, equipping and maintaining the vessels was spread as widely as possible. This was to become an issue of simmering discontent within urban communities, not least because, when the ships were not in royal service, they were returned to the place which funded them so that they could be used as trading vessels but, as we have seen, only a handful of the most powerful merchants engaged in overseas trade enjoyed the benefits of this concession. York, for instance, which in a fit of enthusiasm had volunteered a third ship in addition to the two demanded of it, soon found that the costs of maintaining them were such a drain on the city’s finances and so divisive a factor in civic politics that two of the balingers were sold off to private owners.14

The rebuilding of the royal navy over the winter of 1377–8 should have meant that the government did not have to rely as heavily on seizing merchant ships and forcibly pressing them and their reluctant crews into service; significantly, at least one squadron in Woodstock’s expedition, under the command of lord Fitzwalter, had mutinied after being compelled to put to sea again in December. Nevertheless, though Gaunt himself was to lead the new campaign planned for 1378, lack of shipping again proved a stumbling block in mobilising the English armies. The earls of Arundel and Salisbury set sail with part of the expedition at the beginning of April but their attempt to land in Normandy was thwarted by local levies and they were worsted in an engagement at sea which resulted in the capture of Sir Peter Courtenay and his men. Delayed by the need to impress more ships and mariners, and by the desertion of many of his men who got tired of waiting to embark, Gaunt himself did not depart with the rest of the expedition until July. Following a similar course to the earls, he too tried and failed to land in Normandy, then made for Brittany, where he set siege to St Malo, on the Atlantic seaboard, only to abandon it five months later when he was unable to breach its defences. And while he was preoccupied in Brittany, the Franco-Castilian fleet took advantage of his absence to launch a series of raids on Cornwall which resulted in the burning and destruction of Fowey and other coastal towns, as well as many of the ships and boats upon which the locals’ livelihood depended, while many other places were forced to buy off their attackers by paying ransoms.15

The failure of Gaunt’s expedition was particularly unfortunate because it represented a change in tactical policy since the old king’s death which had genuine potential to alter the course of the war. Instead of employing only the aggressive old-style chevauchée, which, even in its heyday, could only achieve temporary success, the English had developed a new approach which might be called ‘fortress England’. Since its annexation by Edward III in 1347 Calais had helped to secure control of the English Channel and provided a bridgehead into France. The campaigns of 1378 (and possibly that of 1377) were designed to establish a series of similar English strongholds along the coast of northern France and Brittany: the fact that they did not do so was due to a failure in execution, not to the intrinsic value of the plan. Ironically, the only success was achieved through diplomacy with the installation of English garrisons in Brest and Cherbourg, both of which were formally leased to the English crown in 1378 by Charles of Navarre. Had Gaunt managed to take St Malo – and his persistence in besieging the place for five months is a clear indication that he appreciated its importance as part of the general strategy – then England would have controlled four of the most significant fortified ports on the northern seaboard of France. As Sir Richard Scrope, the steward of the royal household would try to explain to parliament, together with Gascony these overseas strongholds ‘are and ought to be like barbicans to the kingdom of England, and if the barbicans are well guarded, and the sea safeguarded, the kingdom shall find itself well enough secure; otherwise we shall never have tranquillity or peace from our enemies’.16

When parliament met again at the end of October 1378, however, it was in no mood to appreciate the niceties of a new long-term military strategy, particularly one which had signally failed to protect the realm against French attack. Complaints flooded in from all sides. Cornwall was not the only place to have suffered: the Isle of Wight had been raided again and declared itself surrounded by enemy ships committing arson and robbery; the commons of Kent petitioned that the great lords of their county did nothing towards its defence and left its castles and fortresses in disrepair, unprovisioned and lacking garrisons, putting them all at risk of French invasion; East Anglia complained that Norman balingers lying off the coast north of the Thames prevented fishermen, victuallers and merchants plying their trade; Cumberland added its voice to the litany by deploring the fact that the Scottish allies of France had committed such devastation that there were no English settlements left between Carlisle and the borders, and that Carlisle Castle, the last bastion protecting the kingdom, lacked both repairs and a keeper.17 All were seeking funds from the war chest to improve their defences. When told by the chancellor that it was empty and that the king needed a further grant of taxation to fill it again, the Commons flatly refused to believe him: ‘it seemed to them and was clearly the case that our lord the king was not in so great a need as he would have them believe’. They had only granted the double subsidy the previous year, they said, because they had been promised that they would not be taxed again ‘for a long time after’ and it was simply not possible that all the money had already been spent. They insisted on scrutinising the accounts of the two war treasurers, Philipot and Walworth, only to discover that some forty-six thousand pounds had been taken for maintaining the defences of Calais, Ireland and Gascony, together with the new garrisons in Brest and Cherbourg, ‘which were not the responsibility of the commons’. It had always been the case that the day-to-dayexpense of maintaining the kingdom’s defences came from the normal revenues of the crown, not direct taxation, and therefore the Commons indignantly refused to grant another subsidy. Their sole concession, which was perhaps an acknowledgement of the additional burden on the royal purse imposed by Brest and Cherbourg, was to increase export taxes on wool and allow a sixpence in every pound import and export tax on other merchandise, but even this was for one year only.18

The suspicion that Gaunt had been fiddling the figures was yet another blow to his reputation. Indeed, popular feeling against him was now running at such a level that the parliament had actually been held in Gloucester, rather than risk riots and confrontations in London. The failure of his most recent military expedition had not helped matters but it was the violation of the sanctuary at Westminster Abbey by his men which had provoked outrage in both Church and city. Gaunt had imprisoned two soldiers who had refused to surrender to him their hostage for a very valuable Aragonese ransom; in August 1378 they had escaped from the Tower and taken refuge in the abbey sanctuary, where they were pursued and one of them killed on the steps of the high altar during mass, together with a sacristan who had attempted to intervene on their behalf. Bishop Courtenay of London immediately excommunicated all those who had taken part in the murders but the response of the government was to claim that there was no right to sanctuary in cases of debt. When the abbot stood before the House of Lords to refute this, it was Gaunt’s controversial protégé, John Wyclif, who was once again brought forward to argue his patron’s corner, allegedly repeating for good measure his contention that in times of war the king had the right to confiscate Church property to pay for the realm’s defence.19 Though Gaunt was not personally responsible for the sanctuary affair, he was blamed for it, further poisoning his already fraught relationship with Londoners, the Church and bishop Courtenay in particular.

The refusal of parliament to grant any more direct taxation severely limited the options available to the government for the military campaigns of the forthcoming year. Again, this was unfortunate, as new opportunities opened up in December 1378 with Charles V’s decision to annex the independent duchy of Brittany. This threw the Bretons back into the arms of their exiled duke, who had been living in England since 1372. If an English army could help restore him and establish a cross-Channel alliance, the activities of the Franco-Castilian fleet could be severely curtailed. Since there was nothing left in the war treasury, the king’s ministers were forced to pawn the king’s jewels to secure loans from individuals and towns. They succeeded in raising almost fourteen thousand pounds, which was enough to finance a fleet to defend the sea and coasts, but not sufficient to fund a military expedition.

As Scrope, now elevated to the role of chancellor, admitted, the government had no option left but to go back cap in hand to parliament. In April 1379, just five months after the dissolution of the previous one, a new parliament gathered at Westminster. An emollient Scrope volunteered the receipts and expenses of the war treasurers for public scrutiny and asked the Commons to discuss diligently how the kingdom’s defence might best be funded ‘with the least harm, injury and burden being inflicted on you and [the king’s] good people’.20 He got his money but not without making concessions. In return for the abolition of the export taxes granted in October and the appointment of a committee with power to investigate the expenditure of the royal household, the parliament of April 1379 voted not for a subsidy, but for a second poll-tax. Like the previous clerical poll-tax, this was not to be levied at a flat rate but according to rank or profession. Thirty-three separate categories were listed in the detailed and highly complex schedule drawn up and approved by parliament, beginning with the dukes of Lancaster and Brittany, who were each to pay £6 13s. 4d., followed by the justices of the King’s Bench and Common Pleas and the chief baron of the exchequer at five pounds, and earls, their widows and the mayor of London at four pounds each. Landowners, merchants (including foreigners) and lawyers of every degree were carefully assessed and rated, as were the franklins, pardoners and innkeepers familiar from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Anyone, male or female, who did not fall into one of the defined ranks was to pay the lowest rate of four pence and genuine beggars were once again exempted. The collectors were to deliver the payments in cash at the exchequer on 24 June and 1 August 1379. Convocation granted a similarly graduated poll-tax for the clergy, rising through fifteen categories from the four pence due from the humblest clerks to the £6 13s. 4d. payable by the two archbishops.21

Though this second poll-tax has rightly been hailed by historians as a progressive and more equitable attempt to distribute the tax burden across the social classes, it should not be forgotten that, in most cases, it also substantially increased the amount payable by each individual. Apart from those aged between fourteen and sixteen, who were now excluded altogether, and married couples in the lowest category liable, whose contribution was halved, everyone else, including some of those at the lower end of the social scale, saw their assessment increase. Chaplains reliant on wages, rather than a benefice, for instance, saw their poll-tax liability multiply sixfold, from four pence in 1377 to two shillings in 1379, while innkeepers could end up paying ten times more than they had done in 1377. The sliding scale was also something of a blunt instrument since it relied more on status than actual income. Though some categories allowed for varying degrees of wealth by offering alternative assessments, such as ‘a sergeant or franklin of the country’, who was to be charged either forty or eighty pence ‘according to his estate’, this qualifier left plenty of room for manoeuvre by both tax-payer and tax-collector.22

Whether it was the complexity of the second poll-tax or, as the government suspected, widespread under-payment and evasion, its results were disappointing. Only about twenty-two thousand pounds was delivered to the exchequer from both laity and clergy alike – less than half the amount expected and considerably less than half the amount it would cost to finance a full-scale military expedition to Brittany. Having promised to send an army of two thousand men-at-arms and two thousand archers, whose wages would have cost at least fifty thousand pounds, all the government could now afford was a mere thirteen hundred men, only half of whom were men-at-arms.23 Like its predecessors, this expedition too was cursed by bad luck and mismanagement. Delayed first by the need for the proceeds of the poll-tax to arrive at the exchequer, it was then unable to sail owing to unfavourable winds which kept the ships pinned in their ports. For several weeks, therefore, the soldiers were forced to kick their heels in Hampshire, where they camped wherever they pleased, helped themselves to the goods and chattels of the local people and, if Walsingham’s diatribe is to be believed, to the local women too. It was not until the first week in December that the expedition was finally able to sail and by then it was too late in the season. Just as in 1377, it was hit by winter storms which scattered the fleet, wrecking nineteen ships carrying horses in Mount Bay, Cornwall, and the rest off the Irish coast. The admiral, Sir John Arundel, was drowned, together with most of his men, and not a single ship reached its destination.24

Monastic chroniclers, like Walsingham, saw the disaster as God’s punishment for the sinful behaviour of the army before it set sail, but public opinion was equally convinced that it was all the fault of government mismanagement and corruption. Over a quarter of a million pounds had now been spent on the war in the two and a half years since Richard’s accession – yet there was virtually nothing to show for it. Parliament, and the House of Commons in particular, was determined to hold the government to account. The writs summoning a new parliament were issued less than five months after the dissolution of the previous one and before Arundel’s expedition set sail; by the time it met at Westminster in January 1380 the full extent of the debacle was clear. Significantly, after the customary first petition from the Commons that the liberties of the Church and state should be confirmed, the next was from the people living near the coasts of Hampshire, as well as those of Norfolk, Suffolk, Kent, Sussex, Dorset, Devon and Cornwall, complaining of the robberies and destruction committed by soldiers on their way overseas and demanding that the leaders of such expeditions should be forced to pay damages. There were also petitions from the towns and boroughs which had not yet received a penny in repayment of their loans to the king the previous year, and from ship-owners protesting about the damage and dilapidation caused to their vessels ‘on account of numerous and lengthy seizures’ for various expeditions ‘without any payment received from the king’.25

When Chancellor Scrope repeated his now tediously fam iliar statement that the treasury was empty and urged the need for more money to finance the war, he met with a barrage of outspoken criticism. Through their Speaker, Sir John Gildesburgh, the Commons insisted that the thirteen-year-old Richard II was now of age to rule for himself. They therefore demanded the abolition of his entire royal council and its replacement by the usual five principal officers of state, who should be appointed in parliament and remain in office until its next meeting. Another commission was also to be appointed to audit all the king’s accounts since his accession, both personal and state, and remedy any faults or negligence discovered there. When all these terms were met, including the replacement of Scrope as chancellor by Simon Sudbury, archbishop of Canterbury, the Commons reluctantly granted a further one and a half subsidies to be collected by 23 April. Though generous, this concession was subject to extraordinary conditions: the half-subsidy was not an outright grant, only a loan; no parliament was to be held again for at least eighteen months so that there could be no further direct taxation in that time; and the receipts of the subsidy were to be spent solely on financing a new expedition to Brittany. Though the Speaker was clearly articulating the concerns and demands of the Commons, and a new expedition to Brittany remained the top military priority, Gildesburgh’s advocacy was not entirely transparent. Unusually for a Speaker, he was sitting for the first time as a member of parliament and, though his military career dated as far back as the Crécy campaign, he had not been knighted until 1378 while serving in Thomas of Woodstock’s retinue during a previous unsuccessful Breton campaign. Woodstock had already been chosen as the leader of the new expedition and Gildesburgh, the earl’s tenant and retainer, therefore had a vested interest in ensuring that it was properly financed and organised: he was even appointed one of the receivers of the subsidy.26

What this suggests is that the abolition of the royal council and the change in government personnel also paved the way for a reversal of recent military policy. Instead of crossing the Channel from Devon to Brittany, as originally planned, Woodstock’s army of 5200 men would now sail from Dover to Calais at the end of July. The earl would then lead an old-fashioned chevauchée which would take him south to Troyes then in a loop skirting south of Paris before travelling west to meet the duke of Brittany at Rennes. Shortage of shipping alone cannot explain this change of plan: though ferrying batches of men and horses across from ports in Hampshire or Devon to Cherbourg would have taken longer than doing the same from Dover to Calais, it would have saved the army over three hundred miles and some two months of overland travel through hostile territory. The only explanation would seem to be that Woodstock hankered after the glory days of his father’s reign and sought to replicate their success by re-adopting their methods. The fact that he was accompanied by Sir Robert Knolles and Sir Hugh Calveley, two professional soldiers and brothers-in-arms, who had spent several decades fighting in France and Brittany, is also telling. The route of Woodstock’s chevauchée was almost identical to that taken by Knolles in his expedition of 1370, and the result was similar: a French army shadowed him most of the way but refused to give battle, denying Woodstock his chance of glory. By late September, when he finally arrived in Brittany, his presence was an embarrassment to the duke: Charles V of France had died on 16 September, opening up the possibility of concluding peace with his successor, Charles VI. Rather than send the English army home, or to overwinter in Gascony, the duke hedged his bets by directing them to lay siege to Nantes in the south-west corner of the duchy: far enough away to avoid antagonising the French but close enough at hand to be recalled should his negotiations fail. Woodstock had envisaged spending the winter overseas – his contract of service was for one year – but Nantes was well fortified and any siege was likely to be long and expensive, particularly as Woodstock had no ships to blockade its port and needed reinforcements. More money would be required from England’s empty war coffers if his siege was not to fail.27

In fact, only a month into his campaign, it had already become clear to the government that the receipts from the subsidy would not fully fund Woodstock’s expedition. Moreover, an escalation in cross-border hostilities between the Percy and Douglas families threatened to end the Anglo-Scottish truce which had been in place since 1369. In October 1380 John of Gaunt therefore led a large army to the northern borders which, if negotiations failed, was to invade Scotland. This, too, cost money which the exchequer and war treasury simply did not possess. The king’s ministers therefore had no option but to renege on their promise of a tax-free eighteen months. Less than six months after the previous parliament had ended, the writs were issued summoning a new one to meet at the beginning of November. Perhaps anticipating trouble in London, but also to enable Gaunt to attend, it was held in the Midlands, at Northampton. Archbishop Sudbury, as chancellor, pleaded the pressing financial need: the king was contractually obliged to pay Woodstock’s army for the next six months; he could not afford to redeem the jewels he had pledged to fund Gaunt’s expedition to Scotland; the wages of soldiers at Calais, Brest and Cherbourg were more than nine months in arrears; investment had to be made for the safeguarding of the sea coasts before the enemy’s galleys descended once again. ‘For the love of God’, Sudbury urged the Commons, ‘avoid all extraneous topics which might provoke rancour or conflict, and deal effectively with this’.28

Sir John Gildesburgh, reprising his role as Speaker, responded by urging the government not to demand more than was absolutely necessary, adding that the common people ‘were now too poor and in too weak a state to shoulder any greater burden’. When Sudbury informed the Commons that the government needed £160,000 – the equivalent of four and a quarter subsidies – Gildesburgh replied that this was ‘quite outrageous, and altogether beyond them’. Eventually, however, a compromise was reached in which the Commons reluctantly offered one hundred thousand pounds on condition that two-thirds of this sum was to be paid by the laity and one-third by the clergy. How to obtain such enormous sums was another matter. The Commons sought the advice of the lords in parliament, who suggested three alternatives: another subsidy, but this was not recommended because it weighed heaviest on the poor and would take too long to collect; a new excise duty on buying and selling merchandise within the kingdom, though no one could predict its likely yield so its potential could not be estimated; or, as the lords themselves concluded, ‘the best and the easiest course’ would be to levy another flat-rate poll-tax. The Commons were clearly unhappy but could see no other solution. So they granted the notorious third poll-tax, which turned out to be the spark that would ignite the greatest popular revolt in English history.

The third poll-tax was to be levied on every man and woman in the kingdom over the age of fifteen, including those living within traditionally exempt areas, the only exception being ‘genuine beggars’. The terms of the grant hint at some of the problems encountered with its predecessors, whose records the collectors were specifically prohibited from re-using in making their assessments. As before, the tax was to be levied from individuals only where they were resident, but now it was specifically stated that all craftsmen, labourers, servants and other laymen living in the households of lay or ecclesiastical employers were liable; even royal household servants could not escape on the grounds that their permanent homes were elsewhere or that they enjoyed privileged status. Another clause, stating that, unlike previous poll-taxes, ‘it should be charged only on persons who are now living’, suggests one of the more ingenious ways that corrupt collectors had increased their takings in the past. In another lesson learned from the second poll-tax, complex graduated tax bands were dropped in favour of a universal rate, as the lords had suggested, though their advice that it should be levied at a crippling sixteen or even twenty pence a head was rejected in favour of twelve pence per person. This was still a great deal of money but, more importantly, it represented a major shift in the fiscal burden away from the wealthiest and on to the shoulders of the poorest in society: every single person who had been wealthy enough to fall within one of the defined categories of the 1379 poll-tax would now pay less, while those who had been too poor to qualify for the higher rates then would now see their individual assessments triple and, in the case of married couples, rise sixfold. The hardship was increased by the speed with which the tax was to be paid: two-thirds of the money was to be collected by 27 January 1381, the remaining third by 2 June 1381. These timings could not have been more insensitive, especially for those who earned their living from the land, since they coincided with the straitened months of winter and early spring, when food stores were running low and seasonal labour for wages was not available. Taxation was normally collected at the end of September, after the harvest had been gathered in, and even previous poll-taxes had been levied between May and September, when work in the fields was most needed and best rewarded. The new poll-tax was to be paid in the wake of a particularly bad harvest and during one of the worst winters in living memory: its timing was therefore particularly onerous.29

In the light of the rebellion which followed its imposition, contemporaries and historians have been quick to blame the royal ministers and parliament for setting such an iniquitous tax. Yet the Commons did not really intend that everyone should pay the same universal rate. The figure of twelve pence a head had been adopted simply because it was three times the rate levied in 1377, which had produced around £22,580: it could therefore be expected to raise the £66,666 13s. 4d. that the Commons had now offered the crown. The other advantage of the twelve pence figure was that it also represented a shilling, making it mathematically quicker and easier for collectors and auditors to check that the correct amount had been brought in: a town like Colchester, Essex, for example, which declared 1609 inhabitants over the age of fifteen should have paid a straight 1609s. (£80 9s.), without any of the awkward odd pennies which made accounting for earlier poll-taxes so complicated. As the wording of the 1380 grant makes clear, however, this was to be a poll-tax in name only: following the same principle as the subsidy, each town or village was to be assessed to pay a total sum, based in this instance on the size of its population, and then ‘each lay person will be charged in accordance with his means … those of adequate means helping those of lesser means as far as they are able’. The problem was that no instructions were given as to what the boundaries for requiring or giving assistance were to be, or how, if necessary, richer men were to be coerced into paying more than their personal liability to help their poorer neighbours. The only guidance was that no one was to pay more than twenty shillings (one pound), or less than four pence for himself and his wife. So once again, in a worthy attempt to mitigate the effects on the poorest, the Commons had introduced an element of variability into the equation which unscrupulous tax-payers and tax-collectors could both exploit.30

Throughout all the parliamentary proceedings in November 1380, no one had mentioned the government’s breach of its promise to have an eighteen-month tax amnesty (at least as far as the formal record was concerned), but the Commons clearly felt implicated in the crown’s bad faith. In a remarkable condition attached to their grant they distanced themselves from its implementation by insisting that ‘the knights, citizens, and burgesses who have come to this present parliament are by no means to be made collectors or controllers of the aforesaid sums’. Since they were precisely the sort of people who would normally have taken on such a role, and indeed many members of parliament had served as collectors and controllers for previous poll-taxes, this was a significant abdication of responsibility for implementing the levy that they had granted and suggests, at the very least, an awareness that the new tax was likely to be extremely unpopular.31

One of the reasons for this, apart from the financial hardship it would cause, was the entirely justified suspicion that John of Gaunt had designs on its proceeds. The government could demonstrate that it needed around £110,000 to meet its defence commitments, including the further expenses of Woodstock’s campaign, yet archbishop Sudbury had requested £160,000. He made no reference as to why the additional fifty thousand pounds was needed, but it would appear to have been earmarked to fulfil a treaty commitment, made just a few months earlier, for military aid to Portugal. This was part of Gaunt’s grand scheme to further his personal ambitions in Spain and he was already planning to lead an expedition there in person. By hiding its costs within the general demand placed before the Commons, Gaunt could avoid having to make a separate plea to fund it. His presence at the parliament, albeit only in its later stages, might thus be seen as an attempt to intimidate its members; likewise, the Commons’ refusal to grant any more than a hundred thousand pounds, and their pointed insistence that it should be spent only on Woodstock’s campaign, the defence of the realm and safeguarding the seas, might be regarded as a deliberate refusal to finance Gaunt’s expedition. The members of the Commons, many of whom were merchants and financiers themselves, were clearly financially astute enough to recognise that Sudbury’s claim that the king had received ‘nothing’ from the export taxes on wool was untrue; the outbreak of civil war in Flanders in 1379 had indeed impacted on the wool trade but it had only reduced sales by about a third, not wiped them out completely, as the request for, and grant of, another extension to the export taxes demonstrates. There is therefore no reason to assume that the Commons were unable to see through Sudbury’s financial sleight of hand on behalf of the duke, particularly as they put on record the fact that ‘they feel greatly aggrieved … by the multitude of wars resulting in unsustainable costs’ and petitioned the king to remedy this, ‘since the commons are unable to sustain further such burdens’.32 If this was intended as a warning shot across Gaunt’s bows, it passed unheeded.

The government was in such a hurry to get the money in that it issued the writs commissioning the assessors and collectors of the new poll-tax for each county or large urban area on 7 December 1380, the day after parliament ended, only then to be obliged to rescind eighty-three inappropriate appointments, including one of a man who turned out to be a prisoner in Winchelsea jail. Separate commissions were also issued at the same time to smaller groups of men who were to ‘survey and control’ the assessments. The actual door-to-door job of assessing and collecting the money owed was given to sub-collectors who were men with local knowledge – the constable and two men of each township and the mayor, bailiffs and two other men of each city or borough. All the information they gathered between them, including the names of each individual tax-payer and the amount levied from him or her, was to be recorded in indentures, one copy of which was to be kept by the collection commissioners, the other to be presented at the exchequer in the palace of Westminster. The government’s determination that there should be no evasion or fraud was further demonstrated by the appointment on 2 January 1381 of commissions of inquiry, headed by the most senior royal officials in each county,the sheriff and escheator, who were to draw up their own separate records of all the eligible taxpayers in their area and send them to the exchequer: to prevent collusion, they were expressly forbidden from communicating ‘in any way’ with either the collectors or controllers of the poll-tax. Perhaps because they did take this short cut, a month later many of the sheriffs were fined for making false returns.33

Two-thirds of the poll-tax revenue was due at the exchequer by 27 January yet, despite all the government’s efforts to ensure transparency, speed and accuracy, the results were significantly less than had been anticipated and certainly not enough to finance the preparations for sending reinforcements to Woodstock in Brittany. On 20 February, therefore, the very day that new contracts were being signed for the expedition, the king’s ministers brought forward the date for the payment of the final third of the poll-tax from 2 June to 21 April. Even though the government was aware of the shortfall, and of its public commitment to spend the money only on the Breton campaign, by the end of February it was also pressing ahead with payments for Gaunt’s expedition to Portugal, the leadership of which he had now delegated to his youngest brother, Edmund of Langley.34 Yet the incontrovertible evidence from the returns to the exchequer was that the number of eligible tax-payers had fallen significantly in the four years since the first poll-tax: in Essex they had reduced from 47,962 to 30,533; in Kent from 56,557 to 43,838; in Norfolk from 88,797 to 58,714; in Suffolk from 58,610 to 31,734.35 Even though the exchequer normally excluded ‘paupers’ from tax liability, as well as the ‘genuine beggars’ specified by parliament, this dramatic drop in numbers could not be explained away simply as the result of so many of the rural population falling into destitution because of the bad harvest and severe winter. Nor could it be blamed on unusually high death rates, since there was no outbreak of plague or other natural disaster, nor even on the rise in minimum age for eligibility from fourteen to fifteen. The obvious conclusion, which the government was able to reach because it had the records of the previous poll-taxes readily available for comparison in the exchequer, was that there had been widespread fraud and evasion on a massive scale.

The problem was that local communities had no incentive to submit to an accurate census: it was cheaper and simpler to pretend that the poor did not exist, rather than to admit their presence, which then forced everyone else to shoulder the extra burden of paying all or part of their poll-tax for them. An improbably high number of dependent relatives, particularly females, were therefore simply omitted from the record. This deception must have been countenanced by the local assessors and collectors, who, as members of the local parish, village or town themselves, had to live with their irate neighbours, and answer to them, on a daily basis. And it was not just a few isolated examples of passive resistance but a nationwide act of defiance, with the poorest areas of the country revealing the steepest falls in recorded numbers of eligible taxpayers: fifty-four per cent allegedly vanished between 1377 and 1381 in both the North Riding of Yorkshire and Devon, for instance, and as many as sixty-five per cent in Cumberland and Cornwall. Even in the wealthy south-east, where there was a thriving market economy to compensate for agricultural dependency, around a third of the taxable population apparently disappeared.36

The government could have responded to this unprecedented act of mass resistance by accepting that the poll-tax was a failure and scaling back its military plans. There were actually very good reasons to do so. The Scottish threat had evaporated even before parliament had granted the third poll-tax, John of Gaunt having successfully negotiated a peaceful resolution in November 1380 and renewed the truce until 1 June 1381. More significantly, before the first tranche of the tax was due at the exchequer, Thomas of Woodstock’s campaign in Brittany was also over. On 6 January 1381 he had been obliged to abandon his siege of Nantes, having lost a fifth of his men and almost all his horses. Nine days later, the duke of Brittany made his peace with Charles VI of France, promising to get rid of his English allies who had supported him for so many years and to ‘damage them in every way possible’. This unexpected act of treachery made redundant not only Woodstock and his army but also the poll-tax which had been granted specifically to fund their campaign. A furious Woodstock accepted the inevitable with bad grace and by early March agreed to leave Brittany in return for a payment from the duke of £8333, just over half of it in cash, and decamped to Brest to await shipment home. Yet despite the finality of these arrangements, the government in England inexplicably pressed ahead with its plans as if nothing had changed. In February two thousand reinforcements for the army that was now disbanding were recruited to serve under Sir Thomas Felton, paid their advance wages and ordered to muster at Plymouth and Dartmouth ready for embarkation; on 15 March a royal official was sent to Brest with a new war chest, filled with the proceeds of the poll-tax, and orders to use it to persuade those English soldiers still left in the duchy to stay on until June. It was all wasted money and effort. Many of the men had already deserted, including Hugh Calveley’s company, which had left the previous month, and no one, including Woodstock himself, could see any purpose in remaining any longer than was absolutely necessary to secure shipping home. Woodstock was among the last to leave, taking ship from Brest on 30 April and arriving at Falmouth on 2 May with nothing to show for his expensive campaign except disaffected troops and huge personal debts which were still unpaid in 1388.

In a further ludicrous twist to an absurd story of military, political and financial incompetence, he returned to find the new recruits for his abandoned campaign, now leaderless since Felton’s death on 26 April, still waiting for transport in Devon and expecting to join him in Brittany. Even now the government was unwilling to cut its losses and send them home: perhaps thinking that it might divert them to Gascony, or even join them to the three thousand troops already mustering in Dartmouth for John of Gaunt’s Portuguese expedition, it left them unemployed and increasingly fractious until June, when orders were finally given that they should disband.37

Since the military situation no longer demanded the levels of expenditure originally anticipated, the king’s council could justifiably have abandoned its attempt to enforce further collection of the poll-tax. Yet it did nothing of the sort. Instead, oblivious to the groundswell of popular resentment, it decided to turn the screw. Since it held the local collectors responsible, openly accusing them of omitting or concealing large numbers of taxpayers, ‘some deliberately, some through negligence and others through favour’, the council decided to institute a countrywide investigation, led by new commissioners, to rectify the problem and enforce proper collection. On 16 March, therefore, it began by issuing nine commissions addressed to the sheriffs of Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, Essex, Hertfordshire, Somerset, Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire. These were followed on 3 May by further commissions for Kent, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Devon, Cornwall, the West Riding of Yorkshire and finally, on 20 May, for the city of Canterbury. Each sheriff was assigned several named local gentry, who were often also justices of the peace, to act with him, a royal clerk from the exchequer or chancery to record their findings and a sergeant-at-arms from the royal household to enforce their decisions. They were given detailed instructions on what they should do, including travelling in person from place to place throughout the county to inspect all the existing assessments, make their own inquiries to verify who should have paid the tax and draw up written lists of those who had evaded payment. Perhaps in an attempt to give greater clarity to the vague exchequer term ‘poor’, and to avoid subjective judgements as to who should be placed in the exempt category, the description of those who did not have to pay was expanded from ‘genuine beggars’ to include ‘and those who survive solely by alms’. It was no longer sufficient to be scraping together a pittance: one had to be totally dependent on the generosity of others for the necessities of life to avoid paying the tax. ‘In this way’, the commission stated emphatically, ‘no lay person in the county shall be omitted at all’. Anyone who resisted paying, or hindered the reassessment in any way, was to be arrested and imprisoned.38

The appointment of the reassessment commissions would make the third poll-tax the most personally intrusive of all medieval taxes. The specific injunction that old records, such as those for the subsidy or previous poll-taxes, were not to be used had already meant that local assessors were supposed to start from scratch with their door-to-door enquiries. These had been followed up by the independent shrieval investigations, which had provided the exchequer with a second set of records, and now, for the third time, royal officials were to come into the localities and draw up their own lists of individuals who were liable to be taxed. Such scrutiny was unprecedented and unwelcome, not least because it produced a written record of the names, status and occupations of all adults and identified where they lived – a written record that was to be preserved outside the local community and could be used for future oppression. In the past the king’s financial demands had been met by community agreement and based on peer assessment of householdwealth: now not even the humblest cottage could escape visitation and the officials counting the number of inhabitants and deciding whether they were eligible to pay were increasingly strangers. The enormous resentment caused by their power is typified by the story of John Legge, a royal sergeant-at-arms from the king’s court in London appointed to the Kent commission, who is alleged to have taken his diligence in determining the age of young people to extraordinary and prurient lengths: ‘horrible to relate, [he] shamelessly lifted the young girls to test whether they had enjoyed intercourse with men’. Of course our monastic chronicler reveals his naivety in assuming that sexual activity could be determined by such actions, but it is possible that Legge used pubic hair as the test for females being over the age of fifteen. (For boys less invasive methods were available since they had been registered in their local tithing from the age of twelve.) Whether the story is true or not, Legge’s notoriety was such that he would be specifically targeted and executed by the rebels in the days to come.39

As the commissioners made their returns to the exchequer the scale of the under-assessment by local collectors became clear. In almost every case where the comparative figures survive, the reassessors located substantially more tax-payers – though still nothing like the numbers who had paid their dues in 1377. The Norfolk commissioners pulled in an extra 8005 people and therefore an additional £400 5s. in cash; in Suffolk they discovered 12,901 hitherto hidden taxable persons and increased the take by £1173 19s. What also emerged from the commissioners’ findings was that the people missing from the original assessments were, by and large, the poorest in their areas – though not poor enough to qualify as living entirely on charity. In Gloucestershire, for example, the reassessment identified a further 5663 tax-payers beyond the 22,194 originally listed: where the detailed records survive they reveal that every one of the new entries, without exception, was assessed at the full twelve-pence rating, even though all were described as labourers and servants and many of them as ‘impoverished’ for good measure. That this may have been intended as punishment for evading the original payment is suggested by the figures for the little town of Lechlade. One hundred and fourteen people in the town had previously paid the third poll-tax, of whom nineteen had contributed over the odds, the largest sum, twenty pence, being paid by the boat-owner Geoffrey Cook; seventy-four people had paid their standard twelve pence but twenty-one, most of whom were also labourers or servants, had paid less than their official dues. Twenty-four ‘impoverished labourers and servants’ were now added to the taxable population by the reassessors; thirteen were male, eleven female, all were apparently single and at least four of them were identified as children of previously taxed couples. With no wealthier townsmen to share their burden, the unfortunate newly ‘found’ twenty-four had to pay their tax in full, even though the servant of Richard and Margery Mulleward therefore ended up paying two pence more than either of his employers.40

Lechlade was by no means an isolated case and there must have been many thousands of people up and down the country who shared their sense of grievance, perhaps even more so when they had made their payments in good faith and then discovered that their neighbours had been let off more lightly. In Suffolk, for instance, all the sixty-four eligible artisans, labourers and servants living in Chevington had to pay twelve pence each, yet just five miles away, in Brockley, a village of some seventy people, twenty-two individuals of the same status paid between four and ten pence.41 The reason for this discrepancy was that Chevington had only one person, an unmarried farmer, who was capable of paying more than his due (two shillings), whereas Brockley had eight married couples who jointly contributed sums ranging from 2s. 4d. to six shillings. The artisans, labourers and servants of Chevington therefore had every reason to be angry that they had been forced to pay more than their luckier neighbours in Brockley. The sense of injustice worked both ways, however, for the eight married couples at Brockley had been obliged to bear the additional burden of paying part of the tax for a third of their fellow villagers. This might not have mattered so much for the gentry, William and Elizabeth de Walsham and John and Beatrix de Somerton, who paid six shillings and 5s. 6d. respectively, but for the ‘squeezed middle’, such as the farmers John Shortnekke, Thomas Alston and Geoffrey Alisander, who were liable for 2s. 6d. for themselves and their wives, and the smith Simon Smyth and the labourer Geoffrey Soneman, who paid 2s. 4d. for themselves and their wives, finding those extra pennies might have caused considerable hardship, as well as a sense of resentment, which might help to explain why so many of those who took up arms in the following weeks were from just this class of people: not the poorest members of society but those who, through their own efforts or those of their families, had managed to build up a larger than average landholding or a modestly successful business.

For the ordinary men and women labouring in the fields, plying their trade in the towns or working in the service of others, there can have been little connection between the money they were being forced to pay in taxes and the prosecution of a remote war against France. For those who lived in the southern and eastern coastal counties and therefore suffered from the Franco-Castilian raids, attacks on their shipping and the equally disruptive passage of English troops through their regions, the war was more real but the disconnect even greater. The disastrous military campaigns of the decade had failed in their primary purposes of protecting the realm or advancing the war against France. It must have seemed to many of those struggling to earn their livings and feed their families that their hard-earned money was being seized only to finance the personal ambitions of powerful princes. And it should not be forgotten how much and how often they had had to pay. At least one direct tax, and sometimes two, had now been collected in every single year since Richard II’s accession in 1377. This was unprecedented. What made it even more onerous was the fact that between 1357 and 1371 the country had enjoyed fourteen years without any direct taxation at all being levied on the laity. The next five years had seen the imposition of the parish tax in 1371 and the grant of a double subsidy in 1373, but annual taxation was a phenomenon only introduced with the new reign. Three and a half subsidies and three poll-taxes had been levied in five years to pay for the defence of the realm. Of all medieval monarchs only Henry V would be able to sustain similar levels of taxation, receiving eight and a third subsidies in the five years between 1414 and 1419 – but he had Agincourt and the conquest of Normandy to justify such extraordinary impositions on his subjects.42 Richard II had nothing. His subjects did not blame the boy-king personally but they were about to hold his advisers and his officials to account in the most brutal way possible.

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