Although the poll tax was said to have been used all the back to ancient times, it’s most widely remembered in relation to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1381. According to Wikipedia: “The word ‘poll’ is an archaic term for ‘head’ or ‘top of the head’. The sense of ‘counting heads’ is found in phrases like polling place and opinion poll.” Well, that answers my question as to whether our current use of the word relates to its original use. Apparently so. But how did it set off the greatest rebellion of the middle ages and nearly bring down the monarchy?
From what I can gather, it was widely believed that the infamous Poll Tax was the first of its kind in Medieval England. In reality, there were three Poll Taxes between 1377-1381—each with its own experimental application, and each imposed to cover a shortfall caused by continual losses in the French wars. It could also be said the need for more taxes should be laid at the feet of inept and possibly corrupt royal ministers. Money was wasted shamefully in the early years of Richard II’s reign.
Ever since 1334, taxes were raised by the standard subsidy called “tenths and fifteenths”, which meant one tenth of the value of personal properties—called movables—for lay persons in cities, boroughs and royal demesne lands, and one fifteenth for rural counties. It was easier to tax the local community as a whole and leave it to the inhabitants to sort out the distribution. But by 1377, the government’s financial crisis was such that a new system of taxation had to be devised by Parliament, and they finally settled on the first Poll Tax, which would require a groat—or four pence—from each and every lay person over the age of 14, with the exception of public beggars. (The churchmen were taxed too, on a slightly different scale.) A simple laborer might earn three pence in a day and a skilled workman could earn five pence, so the tax was not too onerous except for the fact the poor man’s burden was much higher proportionally than a wealthy man. Nonetheless, the first Poll Tax was considered a success—raising £22,580 from the laity alone—and it temporarily eased the pressure. But not for long.
In 1379, England was in a panic because of a threatened invasion from France. Once again, the commons in Parliament decided to impose a second Poll Tax—this one to be implemented on a sliding scale, depending on the person’s rank. Here’s a sample from the thirty-three separate categories, drawn from RB Dobson’s The Peasants’ Revolt of 1381:
– The Dukes of Lancaster and Brittany, each: 10 marks (i.e. £6 13s 4d)
– Each earl of England: £4
– Each baron and banneret or knight who is able to spend as much as a baron: 40s
– Each squire not in possession of land, rents or castles, who is in service or in arms: 40d
– Each sergeant and great apprentice of the law: 40s
– Other apprentices who follow the law, each: 20s
– All other apprentices of lesser estate, and attorneys, each: 6s 8d
– Each alderman of London is to pay, like a baron: 40s
– All the municipal officers of large towns and the great merchants of the kingdom are to pay, like a knight: 20s
– Farmers of manors and parsonages, and great merchants dealing in stock and other lesser trade, according to their estate: 6s 8d
– Each married man, for himself and his wife if they do not belong to the estates above and are over the age of 16 years, genuine beggars excepted, is to pay: 4d
– Each foreign merchant of whatever condition is to pay according to his estate like the others above: 20s, or 6s 8d
This seemed more fair than a straight head count, but it ended up a miserable failure (blamed again on corrupt administration). It garnered about £22,000, half of what was expected “at a time when the half-year’s wages of English troops on an ill-fated Breton expedition exceeded £50,000” (Dobson, p.111). The money was gone in a heartbeat, the fleet languished in port before sailing late in the year only to be wrecked by storms, and the Scots were causing trouble on the border. The king’s jewels had already been hocked, the treasury was empty. According to Juliet Barker in 1381, The Year of the Peasants’ Revolt, “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.” Chancellor Scrope was obliged to resign in disgrace. Even though the ministers promised they wouldn’t call Parliament again for eighteen months, everyone knew they would have to renege.
Simon Sudbury, Archbishop of Canterbury was created new Chancellor, which proved to be the worst thing that could ever have happened to him. The poor man may have been a brilliant scholar and a devoted churchman, but he was most certainly not cut out to be a good administrator, which would be proven when they introduced the third, and most catastrophic Poll Tax in 1381. (Part Two)