1. Why use this guide?
Use this guide to find out about the different forms of customs duty - a type of taxation - that were applied in the medieval period, how they were collected, and how you can search for relevant records.
The records are of most use in understanding and researching overseas trade and finance in this period, although people such as customs officials are sometimes mentioned by name.
2. Using our catalogue to find records
For tips on searching the catalogue, use the help page.
Use the advanced search function of our catalogue, with relevant keywords and dates, to identify the records that will help you with your research.
The catalogue contains descriptions of the documents we have rather than their content. Only a few documents are available to view online. To see most documents you will need to either visit The National Archives at Kew or pay for copies to be sent to you. Alternatively, you can pay for research.
3. The principal medieval customs
The right to collect customs on imported or exported goods was one of the most ancient prerogatives enjoyed by English kings.
The earliest evidence that such dues were regularly collected comes from the Pipe Rolls during the twelfth century. However, during the thirteenth and fourteenth century the customs were expanded to meet the cost of expensive foreign wars.
A national custom, agreed by parliament, on wool (England's principal medieval export) was established by the end of the thirteenth century.
Further customs - on cloth, wax and wine - were agreed during the course of the fourteenth century.
3.1 The ancient custom and butlerage
The ancient custom was imposed on all staple goods - principally wool, skins and leather, but also lead, tin, butter, cheese, lard and grease, from 1275.
It was a duty of
6s 8d on every sack of wool and every 300 (later 240) fells or skins
13s 4d on each last (200 hides) of leather
Butlerage was a duty on wine imports that formed part of the ancient custom, but from the beginning of Edward III's reign it was collected by the King's Chief Butler. As this office was usually granted to a figure of national political importance, a deputy in each of the ports actually collected the butlerage.
3.2 The new (or petty) custom
In 1303 the new (or petty) custom was applied to foreign merchants who had to pay an extra 50% on top of the ancient custom. In 1347 it was extended to include imported cloth and was payable by aliensalien - a person who is not a citizen of the country they are living in and denizensForeigners allowed certain rights in their adopted country.
Originally it included specific dues, paid by merchants to collectors in each port, on wool, leather and wax (later collected at the same time as the ancient custom) and an ad valorem dutyA duty which is graded according to the cost, or market value, of the article taxed of 3d in the pound on all other goods.
3.3 The subsidy
'The subsidy' was introduced in 1353 through the Statute of the Staple. Initially, it was a fluctuating subsidy on top of the ancient or new customs, but it became a fixed charge in 1471.
The accounts of these duties were amalgamated to form the Custom and Subsidy on Wool. They provide information about local officials who assessed and accounted for the duties and are a key source for the history of medieval trade.
3.4 Tunnage and poundage
Tunnage was a temporary levy on wine imports which was granted to the King for life in 1415.
Poundage was an extra ad valorem dutyA duty which is graded according to the cost, or market value, of the article taxed imposed on all non-staple goods exported or imported by aliens or denizens (except the German HanseAlliance of German merchant communities abroad, formed to protect their trading interests merchants).
4. Local taxes
As well as national customs there was a wide range of local dues imposed by ports and communities. These were either
- collected and disbursed locally
- collected for the King and accounted for at the Exchequer
- farmed outFarm comes from the Latin firma or fixed, and relates to the conversion of a tax or revenue stream into a fixed annual payment which is paid at set dates. for a fixed annual amount
Some of these records can be found at The National Archives. Miscellaneous accounts sometimes survive in the pipe rolls E 372, or on foreign account or subsidy rolls in E364 and E359 but they are very scattered. Other records are in county record offices.
5. Collection of the customs
The collection of the customs required an elaborate system of revenue collectors in local areas working in conjunction with the Exchequer. The following record series contain useful material:
- C 66 - patent rolls. Royal grants for customs posts - collectors, surveyors and occasionally the auditors were sometimes enrolled on these
- C 60 - fine rolls. Some references to newly appointed customs officials can be found on these. This is because they had to tell the Exchequer about the customs they collected. Fine rolls for the period 1216-1272 (C 60/8-C60/69), are available and searchable online at Henry III fine rolls
- E 122 - Exchequer records. Some customs officials are named in the descriptions of these records
6. Customs' accounts: the particulars
6.1 The Exchequer sent out books for the customs' officers of each port to record the dues they collected. Three sets - the customer's, controller's and surveyor's - were usually compiled. These recorded
- the number and names of ships using the port
- the name of the master
- date of arrival or departure
- the name of the merchant in whose name the goods were shipped (with an annotation denoting denizen, alien or Hanse)
- each item of cargo that was subject to customs charges, often with its value and, in the case of the collectors' accounts, the amount payable
Only a small sample of books relating to the customs and subsidy on wool, the petty custom and tunnage and poundage have survived. They are in the Particulars of Customs' Accounts in E 122, and a small number have been printed.
This series also contains Exchequer type rolls which were drawn up after the audit of the accunts and before their enrolment. They give less information than the books of particulars. The files in E 122 are arranged by port, and then by date of account. The catalogue description explains the arrangement more fully.
Use the advanced search option in our catalogue to find relevant records. Search using the name of the port and the date and restrict your search to records within E 122. Sometimes customer names are listed in the catalogue description so a search of E122 using the name might be worth trying.
6.2 The Exchequer Various Accounts in E 101 include:
- accounts for the collection of Butlerage from 8 Edw I
- wine accounts for Bordeaux
- other customs' accounts relating to English possessions in France
- accounts for the collection of Ulnage (a subsidy on the sale of cloth first granted in 1353)
- collection of the subsidy on wool
- particulars of those local customs which were accounted for at the Exchequer - these are also in the Ministers' and Receivers' Accounts in SC 6
7. Customs' accounts: the enrolled accounts
The catalogue description of E356 gives useful background information to customs enrolled accounts.
Customs officials would account to the Exchequer for the customs under their charge by
- presenting their books or rolls of particulars for auditing
- drawing up a compotus, usually in the form of a roll, that would represent the final statement of their accounts for that period
- having the comptus enrolled - a process marked by a single vertical line drawn through it
The enrolled accounts record the total quantities imported or exported and the value of the customs. Individual merchants are only named if they were exempt from payment in a particular instance.
Until 1323 customs' accounts were enrolled on the Pipe Rolls in E 372 and a duplicate on the Chancellor's Rolls in E 352. From 1323 they were enrolled on special 'foreign' rolls and form the Enrolled Customs' Accounts in E 356.
Some of the key sources for enrolled accounts are
- foreign account rolls in E 364 - these include the collection of the customs and subsidy on wool by the merchants of the Staple from 1466 until 1531
- Duchy of Cornwall accounts in E 306 - these include some accounts for duties on wine collected in ports in the Duchy
- declared accounts 1500-1817 in E 351
- declared accounts of taxes from 1640-1822 in E 360
- declared excise accounts 1829-1849 in E 139
- stray enrolments in the Pipe Office in E 389
- miscellaneous enrolled accounts in E 358
- enrolments of the state of the customs' accounts from the reign of Henry VII in E 102
- cases of merchants or customs officials attempting to defraud the customs revenue on the Exchequer memoranda rolls in E 159 and E 368
8. Further reading
N S B Gras, The Early English Customs Systems (Cambridge, Mass, 1918)
E E Power and M M Postan (eds.), Studies in English Trade in the Fifteenth Century (1933)
H S Cobb, 'Local Port Customs' accounts prior to 1550', Journal of the Society of Archivists (1955-9)
E M Carus-Wilson and O Coleman (eds.), England's Export Trade 1275-1547 (Oxford, 1963)
Printed customs' accounts can be found in:
E M Carus-Wilson (ed.), The Overseas Trade of Bristol in the Later Middle Ages, British Record Society, VII (1937)
D M Owen (ed.), The Making of King's Lynn: A Documentary Survey, British Academy, Records of Social and Economic History, IX (1984)
W Childs (ed.), The Customs' accounts of Hull 1453-1490, Yorkshire Archaeological Society 144 (1986)
H S Cobb (ed.), The Overseas Trade of London 1480-1, London Record Society (1990)
S H Rigby (ed.), The Overseas Trade of Boston in the reign of Richard III, Lincoln Record Society (2005)