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Medieval Taxes


As today, Taxation in medieval kingdoms was the system of raising money for the Crown to pay governmental expenses.

In England, Dduring the Anglo-Saxon period, the main forms of taxation were land taxes, although custom duties and fees to mint coins were also imposed. The most important tax of the late Anglo-Saxon period was the geld, a land tax first regularly collected in 1012 to pay for mercenaries. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, the geld continued to be collected until 1162, but it was eventually replaced with taxes on personal property and income.

The Viking expansion to England necessitated the payment of tribute to the invaders in an attempt to buy off the invasions. Kings in this time levied contributions from their subjects, to pay tributes and to fight the Scandinavian invaders. In addition to these contributions, King Edgar introduced a system where periodically all the coinage was recalled and reminted, with the moneyers being forced to pay for new dies. All profits from these actions went to the king as a royal right.

1012 saw the introduction of the geld or heregeld, which was an annual tax first assessed by King Æthelred the Unready to pay for mercenaries to fight the invasion of England by King Sweyn Forkbeard of Denmark. After the conquest of England by Sweyn's son Cnut the Great, the geld was continued. This was a tax based on the ownership of land, and was based on the number of hides owned. The amount due from each hide was variable. It was abolished by King Edward the Confessor in 1051, but was possibly reinstated in 1052.

There was no formal division between the household of the king and the government in the Anglo-Saxon or the Norman period, although gradually the household itself began to separate from the government. Thus, income from taxation merged with other income to fund the king and the government without any distinctions such as in the modern world.

Under the Norman and Angevin kings, the government had four main sources of income:

  • income from lands owned directly by the king, or his demesne lands,
  • income that derived from his rights as a feudal overlord, the feudal rights such as feudal aid or scutage
  • taxation, and
  • income from the fines and other profits of justice.


By the time of King Henry I, most revenues were paid into the Exchequer, the English Treasury, and the first records of the Exchequer date from 1130, in the form of the first surviving Pipe Roll for that year.

From the reign of King Henry II, Pipe Rolls form a mostly continuous record of royal revenues and taxation. However, not all revenue went into the Exchequer, and some occasional taxes and levies were never recorded in the Pipe Rolls.

Taxation itself took a number of forms in this period. The main tax was the geld, still based on the land, and unique in Europe at the time as being the only land tax that was universal on all the king's subjects, not just his immediate feudal tenants and peasants. It was still assessed on the hide, and the usual rate was 2 shillings per hide. Because it was assessed on landowners, it only applied to free men who owned land, and thus serfs and slaves were exempt. Other exemptions were granted to favoured subjects or were a right that went with certain governmental offices.

The geld was unpopular, and because of the increasing number of exemptions, yielded smaller amounts. During the reign of King Stephen, it is unclear if the geld was collected at all, as no financial records survive. However, when King Henry II came to the throne, the geld was collected once more. After 1162, however the geld was no longer collected.

In 1194, in part from need to raise the huge sums required for the ransom of King Richard I who was captive in Austria, a new land tax was instituted. This was the carucage, and like the geld it was based on the land. The carucage was imposed six times in all, but it produced smaller sums than other means of raising revenue and was last collected in 1224.

A new type of tax was imposed starting in 1166, although it was not an annual tax. This was the tax on moveable property and income, and it could be imposed at varying rates. In 1194, as part of the attempts to raise Richard's ransom, a 25% levy on all personal property and income was imposed.[

In other years, other rates were set, such as the thirteenth imposed in 1207. Likewise, the Saladin tithe, imposed in 1188 to raise funds for a proposed crusade by King Henry II, was levied at the rate of 10% of all goods and revenues, with some exceptions for a knight's horse and armour and clerical vestments. Also excluded were those who had pledged to go on crusade with the king.

Besides taxes on land and taxes on personal property, this period saw the introduction of taxes on trade. In 1202, King John imposed a custom duty of a fifteenth of the value of all goods imported or exported. It appears, however, that these duties were discontinued in 1206.

During the reign of King Henry III, the king and government sought consent from the nobles of England for taxes the government wished to impose. This led in 1254 to the start of the Parliament of England, when the nobles advised the king to summon knights from each shire to help advise and consent to a new tax. In the 1260s, men from the towns were included with the knights, forming the beginnings of the House of Commons of England.

By the middle of the 1200s, the tax on moveable property had become fixed by convention at a fifteenth for those in the country, and a tenth for those living in towns. An innovation in 1334 was the replacement of the individual assessments by a lump sum assessment for each community.

In 1275, King Edward I reestablished a customs duty, by setting a rate of a mark on each sack of wool (weighing 364 pounds (165 kg)) or 300 wool-fells, and a mark on a last of hides. Edward then added another tax, the maltolt, in 1294, on sacks of wool, which was in addition to the previous customs duty. These taxes were removed in 1296, but in 1303 they were reimposed but only on non-English merchants. Over the next 40 years, the maltolt was the subject of dispute between the king and Parliament, with the final result being that the tax was kept at a lower rate but that Parliament's consent was required to impose it.

Revenues from the traditional sources of taxation declined in later medieval England, and a series of experiments in poll taxes began to be imposed in 1377. By 1381, the unpopularity of these taxes had contributed to the Peasants' Revolt. Later experiments in income taxes during the 1400s did not manage to raise the sums needed by the government, and other taxes, such as taxes on parishes, were attempted.

In addition the Church levied a range of oppressive taxes, fees and levies.



More on Life in a Medieval Castle


Introduction to Life in a Medieval Castle

Rooms in a Medieval Castle


Officers & Servants in a Medieval Castle

Medieval Clothing

Medieval Food & Cooking


Medieval Drinks


Medieval Gardens

Medieval Warfare:


Medieval Taxes

Medieval Games & Pastimes

The Feudal System



Rivers & Fishponds

Mills: Windmills and Water Mills


The Great Hall at Christ Church College, Oxford




A baker with his assistant. As seen in the illustration, round loaves were among the most common.



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