History Tax - The Ship Writs

History of Accounting > Tax History > THE SHIP WRITS
1034—1641.

The ship writs. Position of the king as regards the imposition of taxes upon property. The Petition of Right. Expedients for ohtaining revenue used during the personal rule of Charles 1. The king is desirous, in 1634, of increasing the navy. Noy frames the ship writs. Precedents for these writs in the times of the Plantagenets, the Spanish Armada in 1588, the attack on Algiers in 1018, and the war with Spain, 1020. Noy’s difficulty in draughting the first writs for maritime counties and towns. First issue of the writs in October, 1034. The amount raised by the writs. No serious opposition to them. Second issue of writs for inland as well as maritime counties and towns in Aug. 1635. The amount raised. Resistance to the levy. A case is submitted to the judges. Their opinion. Third and fourth issues of writs. Hampden’s case. Decision of the court. Fifth and sixth issues of writs. The short parliament. The long parliament, Sept. 1040. The Act against ship money.
The famous ship writs of king Charles I. formed an extra-parliamentary method of obtaining the result of a tax on property. They embodied the ultimate expression of the ingenuity of the king’s advisers in the invention of means to enable him to rule without a parliament.
It will be remembered that the position of the king as regards the levy of taxes on property was clear and acknowledged. Except in the case of the Jews, who had been liable to indefinite extortion at the hands of the king because they were permitted to be here solely at his will, and in the case of the tenants of royal demesne, who by reason of their relation to the king as their landlord, were liable to tallage when he was in debt—with these two exceptions, the king never had any right to take an aid or subsidy from the subject without the consent of parliament, unless it were for knighting his son, for the marriage of his eldest daughter, or to ransom his person, and then only to a reasonable amount. On any other occasion the grant was in the hands of parliament.
An acknowledgment of this right of parliament was implied in the terms used for the contributions in aid of the king, which were demanded as for ‘gifts’ and ‘benevolences,’ or under the specious pretext of ‘loans;’ and these attempts at exaction and any tax of the kind had been suppressed by the Petition of Eight, to which the king had given his assent in 1628.
In the period of the personal rule of king Charles without a parliament, 1629-1640, his officers strained to the utmost the feudal revenue from wardship and the incidents of the feudal tenures, which, in consequence of the difficulties in the way of carrying out the Great Contract in 1610, still continued in force; fines for knighthood were rigidly enforced; large tracts of land were claimed for the king, as in encroachment on the royal forests; monopolies were revived for companies established in evasion of the statute of monopolies; and projects for an excise were started. But all the methods enforced for obtaining money for the king failed to bring the total revenue more than up to the mark of the ordinary peace expenditure.
At last, in 1634, when additional revenue was required by the king, who was extremely desirous to increase his navy, the ship writs were devised as a means for the purpose by William Noy, a hard-headed lawyer, who formerly, when on the popular side, had introduced into the house of commons, in 1621, a motion for an inquiry into the monopolies, but who, subsequently, joining the king’s party, had been appointed attorney-general, in October 1631. He was already famous for his ‘project of soap’ to produce a revenue from this article by means of a monopoly to the corporation of soap-boilers.1
There was nothing new in the use of ship writs. They formed a well-known means of getting together a navy in times of war. Before the invention of cannon there was little difference between any ship worthy to be called a merchant vessel and a ship of war; and in the times of the Plantagenets, when we had no permanent navy, when ships were wanted for war, the sea-port towns had been required to furnish their ships with men and equipment for the defence of the kingdom.2 A permanent navy, commenced by Henry VIII., with the Kegent and the Harry Gr£ce a Dieu, or ‘ the Great Harry,’ had been carefully increased by him and Elizabeth, who, to the ‘ one acd twenty great ships and three notable galleys, with the sight whereof and the rest of the royal navy it was incredible how much her grace was delighted,’ added, after the breach with Spain, one large ship at least every year. But even after this formation of a permanent royal navy, it was from the merchant navy that two-thirds of the ships that formed the fleet against the Armada were derived; and they were the result of ship writs, issued according to precedent, to London and the other port towns, requiring them to furnish ships and their equipment for the defence of the kingdom. Thus also, in 1618, the greater number (12 out of 18) of the vessels employed in the attack on Algiers—the only warlike operation by sea undertaken by James I.—were ships hired from private merchants; and on this occasion the port towns had been required to provide ships, and ship money was levied for the purpose.1 And lastly, as late as in 1626, when we were at war with Spain, the seaports had been required, after the dissolution of parliament, to provide and maintain a fleet of ships for three months.2
1 Pout, p. -244. 8 Writ to London, A.d. 1335. Feeders, iv. 664.
But all these were war precedents, and applied only to the port towns; and Noy’s ingenuity in building upon them his famous superstructure consisted in draughting the preamble of the ‘ new writs of an old edition,’ so as to bring the case, as far as possible, within the precedents, and to prepare the way for a more extensive issue of writs throughout the kingdom, on the plan of the ship-geld of Anglo-Saxon times.1

1 The assessment was as follows:—
£48,550
Gardiner, P. Charles, i. 276.
In 1619 the city of Exeter paid 500/.’ towards suppressing pirates’ Hamilton, Quarter Sessions, p. 64.
1 See, as to the ships required from Exeter, viz., two ships ol’ JOO tons •with twelve pieces of ordnance and 132 men. Ibid. p. 110.
At this time, though England was at peace with other nations, a rising jealousy of the importance of the Dutch threatened at no distant date to lead to war with them upon the question of the close or open sea.2 War was going on between the Spaniards and French and the Dutch. While the Barbary pirates had extended their ravages upon our merchant ships even to within sight of our coasts. Such was the state of affairs. Noy made the most of them. He began by infusing a spirit of crusade into the business by stigmatising the corsairs as ‘Turks, enemies of the Christian name ;’ grouped these ‘thieves, robbers, and pirates of the sea’ together in bands; recited their capture of ships and men in the channel and their further preparations of ships ‘to molest our merchants and grieve the kingdom ;’ and, referring to the wars abroad and the possibility that we might be involved in them—’the dangers which in these times of war do hang over our 1 icads ;’ thus presented a strong case for providing for ‘the defence of the kingdom, safeguard of the sea,
1 Ante, p. 10.
2 A brief statement of the purport of Hugo Grotius’ treatise, ‘ Mare Ijiberum, sive de jure quod Batavis competit ad Indicana commercial Dissertatio,’ 1612, and W. AVelwood’s treatise, ‘De Dominio Maris,’ 1615, in answer, is given in Anderson, Commerce, ii. “55-57. As to Selden’s Mare Clausum, 1635, see ibid. ,361; and for Sir P. Medow’s Summary thereof, ibid. iii. 345, Appendix.
security of the subjects, and safe conduct of ships and merchandise coming to the kingdom and passing outwards to foreign parts.’ Then he went on to say—in allusion to the principle of the old ship-geld of AngloSaxon times, that the whole kingdom ought, it was true, to bear the burden of defence, but the maritime counties and towns were ‘more chiefly bound to set a helping hand, not only because they got more plentiful gain by the sea than others, but also because it was their duty of allegiance to defend the sea coast and keep up the honour of the king there,’ for which reason writs were sent to them on this occasion.1
The writs were issued on October 20, 1634.2 There was no opposition to this levy, which, after all, was not an unprecedented charge, though some towns petitioned against what they regarded as an overestimate of the proportion of the whole amount to be paid by the town, and the citizens of London, who were charged with the payment of a fifth of the whole sum, remonstrated on the ground they had advanced in former times against tallage, of their peculiar privileges of exemption from such levies, by reason of their charter, their ancient liberties and acts of parliament. But a summons of the lord mayor before the council and a stormy meeting ended in the submission of the Londoners to obey the king’s orders in the matter.
1 The attorney-general, ‘with his own hand ‘ — according to Clarendon—’draughted and prepared the ship writs’ for the maritime towns and counties. ‘Noy,’ writes Selden, in his Table Talk, ‘brought in the ship money for maritime towns, which was like putting in a little auger that afterwards you may put in a greater. He that pulls down the first brick does the main work; afterwards, it is easy to pull down the wall.’
* For the form of writ, see Rushworth, ii. 257. Noy died before the issue of the writs. .
The amount raised was 104,252/., a sum obviously insufficient for any extensive increase of the navy, while the course of events on the continent increased the anxiety of Charles to strengthen his force at sea. He was now advised to advance in the business and carry the intention of taxing the whole kingdom into effect by means of a second set of ship writs, to extend to inland as well as maritime counties and towns; and in June, the lord keeper, Coventry, in the usual address to the judges of assize in the Star Chamber, previous to their going on circuit, informed them to that effect, and that the grounds on which the council had advised the step were that’ since all the kingdom was interested both in the honour, safety and profit, it was just and reasonable that they should all put to their helping hands.’1
Accordingly on August 18, 1635, a second issue of ship writs was ordered, to extend to inland as well as maritime counties and towns.
In these writs the recital of the reasons for the issue was altered so as to suit the circumstances. They proceeded upon the old principle of the ship-geld of Anglo-Saxon times, that inasmuch as the burden of defence relates to all, it should be borne by all, according to the law and custom of England. A writ was sent to the sheriff of every county, and separate writs to a number of the principal cities and towns. The writs stated the tunnage of the ship or ships required and the place of rendezvous at a given date, and contained elaborate provisions for the apportionment of the expense between the different parts and towns in the county, the assessment of the contributories, and the collection of the rate.1 In substance the levy was an extra-parliamentary levy of a subsidy of a fixed amount for the purpose of increasing the navy; for it was not necessary to provide the ship itself or the men. A special commission was issued for the loan of ships and pinnaces of the king’s own to counties and towns un-i able to find them as required by the writs, and the arming and furnishing them in warlike manner with ordnance and munition of all sorts; and the treasurer of the navy was empowered to receive from the officers of the counties and towns, all moneys paid in for the said ships and service.2
1 Kuahworth, ii. 204-8..
Although the whole sum to be raised was but 208,900/., a sum less than the produce of three subsidies, this more extended application of the ship writs encountered opposition not only in inland counties, but also in maritime places where the previous levy had not been opposed. No doubt the new assessment involved in the levy tended to render the ship money unpopular throughout the country; for the contributories would have to expect that their assessments would be raised in the king’s subsidy books, and for all the different local levies of the period—for building houses of correction, for contributions for places stricken by the plague, rates for the poor, &c. And no doubt the people also resented the interference of the sheriff in the business. But it was not for these reasons only that ship money met with opposition. It was now opposed on principle. In Oxfordshire, in the hundred of Bloxham, where stands lord Saye and Sele’s castle of Broughton, the constables, evidently upon careful advice, refused to proceed to the assessment, on the ground that they * had no authority to assess or tax any man ‘ and conceived the warrants sent to them did not give them any power to do so, and eventually sir Peter Wentworth, the sheriff, was ordered himself to make the necessary assessment. While troubles of the same kind occurred in Devonshire and other places.
1 ‘De warranto speciali Thome Domino Coventry, Custodi Magni Sigilli Angliae.’—Foedera, xix. 658 et seq.
3 Foedera, xix. 697-9. For the instructions and directions from the lords of the council for assessing and levying the ship money against the next spring, sec Ilushworth, ii. ^o9″64. For the particulars of a writ of this issue, see Appendix IV. p. 263.
In these circumstances the king caused a case to be submitted to the judges, in February, 1636, for their opinion as to the legality of the levy and his power to enforce payment of the ship money, and the twelve judges, viz., the justices of the courts of king’s bench and common pleas and the barons of the exchequer, or ten of them according to some accounts, expressed and signed their opinion, in answer to the questions put to them, as follows:-~
‘We are of opinion that when the good and safety of the kingdom in general is concerned and the whole kingdom is in danger, your Majesty may by writ under your great seal of England, command all the subjects of this your kingdom at their charge to provide and furnish such a number of ships, with men, victuals, and munition, and for such time as your majesty may think fit, for the defence and safeguard of the kingdom from such danger and peril; and that by law your majesty may compel the doing thereof in case of refusal or refractoriness.’
‘We are also of opinion that in such case your majesty is the sole judge, both of the danger and when and how the same is to be prevented and avoided.’1
This opinion was, by command of the king, enrolled in the courts of chancery, king’s bench, common pleas and exchequer, and also entered among the remembrances of the court of star chamber; and thus fortified, he continued the levy of ship money. A third issue of ship writs, similar to those issued on the second occasion in 1635, was ordered in August 1636, and they produced 202,240/. And in September 1637 there was a fourth issue of writs.2
Although under the new assessments, the ship money was, certainly, more fairly assessed than any fifteenth and tenth or subsidy hitherto collected—for indeed, it was of extreme importance to the king that no fault to be found with the assessment or any detail of the tax should endanger the rapidity and ease of the collection —and although the amount levied was no more than about the annual average of the produce of the subsidies granted to the king by parliament in the earlier part of the reign, the opposition of the people to ship money increased on every occasion of a levy. Already
1 Rush-worth, ii. 355.
* Foedera, xx. 56; Commission for ships in aid, Jan. 31, 1637, ibid, and Foedera, xx. 169; Commission for ships in aid, Dec. 28, 1037, ibid. 184.
Robert Chambers, a merchant of London, an old opponent of the imposts who had suffered imprisonment for his opposition, had endeavoured to test the legality of ship money in a court of law, but without success; for the court had refused to hear his counsel on the ground, as stated by sir Eichard Berkeley, that ‘the question raised was one of government and not of law.’ And now lord Saye and Sele, and John Hampden, a Buckinghamshire squire, determined to obtain a legal decision upon the point. The king, confident in the opinion expressed by the judges, had no reason to offer any opposition to the course proposed, and Hampden’s, made a test case, came on for hearing in the court of exchequer in November 1637.
In cases of great importance and difficulty arising in one of the three superior courts of law, it was usual to adjourn the case into the exchequer chamber, a court which, for this purpose, consisted of all the judges of the three courts. This course was taken by the barons of the exchequer in Hampden’s case. The case was argued solemnly for several days; and in the result, it was decided by a majority of the judges that Hampden should be charged with the sum assessed on him, the main grounds and reasons for the decision being those of the extra-judicial opinion of the judges in February 1636.
A fifth issue of writs, in 1638, was followed by a sixth, in November, 1639.1
1 According to Best’s Farming Book, p. 161, the township of Elmswell, which by custom was assessed to the subsidies at 101., was assessed to the ship money, March 30, 1640, at 61. 10s. The whole beacon— Baynton beacon, a Yorkshire name for a division of a wapentake or hundred—was assessed ‘towards the building of two ships of 480 ton apiece’ at 210/. 18*. 7d. Elmswell was always charged in bonis, that is, at the rate of 2s. 8d. to the subsidy, a payment of 61. 10s. would, therefore, represent about five subsidies on the old assessment. Two ships of 480 tons at 10/. the ton would be 9,600/. for the county, the amount charged on Yorkshire in the List of Distribution, though for a single ship of 960 tons.
A list of the distribution of ships to the several counties of England and Wales, with their tonnage and men as the same was ordered to stand in the year 1639, is given in Appendix V. The charge is calculated at 10/. per ton, viz., for a ship of 400 tons, 4,000/. The proportion of men to tonnage was always two men to every five tons.
At last, the king was compelled to summon a parliament, April 1640, in order to provide for the expenses of the preparations for the campaign in Scotland. But this parliament, subsequently known as the short parliament, was dissolved as soon as it appeared probable that they would refuse to proceed at once to the question of supply.
In September the king summoned a great council of peers and laid before them the difficulties of his case, and on their advice, summoned in November the fifth, subsequently known as the Long Parliament. This parliament, after passing the Triennial Act and the Bill of Attainder against Strafford, settled the question of tunnage and poundage by granting the subsidy for a short term, and then proceeded to pass Acts against the ship money, distraint for knighthood and illegal impositions, and for ascertaining the bounds of the royal forests.
The Act against ship money, 16 Car. I. c. 14, entitled, ‘An Act for declaring illegal and void the late proceedings touching ship money and for vacating all records and process concerning the same’ recites :—
The issue of the ship-writs. The necessity of enforcing payment against sundry persons by process of law. The proceedings against Hampden. The hearing of the case and the decision of the judges that Hampden should be charged with the sum assessed on him. The grounds for that decision. The extrajudicial opinion given by all the judges on the case submitted to them in February 1636, and, That other cases were then depending in the court of exchequer and in some other courts against other persons, for the like kind of charge, grounded upon the said writs commonly called ship writs, all which writs and proceedings as aforesaid were utterly against the law of the land ;’ and enacts :—
‘That the said charge imposed upon the subject for the providing and furnishing of ships, commonly called ship-money; and the said extrajudicial opinion of the said justices and barons and the said writs, and every of them and the said agreement or opinion of the greater part of the said justices and barons, and the said judgment given against the said John Hampden, were, and are, contrary to and against the laws and statutes of this realm, the right of property, the liberty of the subjects, former resolutions in Parliament, and the Petition of Eight made in the third year of the reign.
‘And further, that all and every the particulars prayed or desired in the said Petition of Eight, shall from henceforth be put in execution accordingly, and shall be firmly and strictly holden and observed, as in the same Petition they are prayed and expressed. And that all and every the records and remembrances of all and every the judgment enrolments, entry and proceedings as aforesaid, and all and every the proceedings whatsoever, upon, or by pretext or colour of any of the said writs commonly called ship writs, and all and every the dependants on any of them, shall be deemed and adjudged to all intents, constructions and purposes to be utterly void and disannulled, and that all and every the said judgment, enrolments, entries, proceedings, and dependants of what kind soever, shall be vacated and cancelled in such manner and form as records use to be that are vacated.’1

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