Published by EH.NET (June 2005)

Roger Schofield, Taxation Under the Early Tudors, 1485-1547. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing, 2004. xvi + 297 pp. $74.95 (cloth), ISBN: 0-631-15231-8.

Reviewed for EH.NET by John Munro, Department of Economics, University of Toronto

The origin of this book was a doctoral dissertation, on “Parliamentary Lay Taxation, 1485-1547,” submitted to and accepted by Cambridge University many years ago (no date given). Since then Roger Schofield has obtained well-deserved international renown for his work and publications with the Cambridge Group for the History of Population and Social Structure, in particular in close association with Anthony Wrigley. The scholarly world is thus greatly indebted to his decision (at the urging of his now late mentor, Geoffrey Elton) to publish this important study on Tudor taxation under Henry VII and Henry VIII. His very considerable achievement, and indeed most important academic contribution, is to demonstrate how and why “taxation based on direct assessments of each individual was revived,” during the reign of Henry VIII, “after having been abandoned as unworkable in the fourteenth century” (p. 201). During the 150 years that preceded the accession of the first Tudor, the standard mode of parliamentary taxation had been the “fifteenth and tenth” [6.67% and 10.00%], as “the grant of a specified sum of money, fixed in 1334, and little altered thereafter, from every ‘vill’ and urban ward in the country;” it was “a very simple tax, of fixed yield … levied in the first instance,” on lands and moveables, “on communities rather than on individuals.” This study examines the continuation of this mode of parliamentary taxation under the early Tudors; but the chief focus of the book is on the new “subsidies,” as a radical fiscal innovation by which taxes were imposed on and collected from individuals, based on periodic assessments of not only their properties and moveables, but also their financial incomes from rents, profits, fees, annuities and — most surprisingly for this era — from wages as well (in many of the subsidies, at least). As Schofield demonstrates, Parliament granted such taxes — in both forms — only periodically and chiefly to finance the crown’s military requirements: thus, such taxes were levied in only 27 years or 43% of the regnal years for both monarchs.

Following a rather too brief introduction, chapter 2 analyzes the role and functions of Parliament in granting these taxes; chapter 3 analyzes the grants, levying, and collection of the “fifteenth and tenth,” based on local assessments of lands, goods, and chattels, demonstrating the inequities that had arisen in the preceding 150 years, without any adequate regional reassessments of wealth distributions among England’s 39 counties, and demonstrating, as well, the difficulties or inequities involved in determining how individuals were to contribute in fulfilling quotas assigned to the various “vills” and towns, and attendant problems of collecting these property taxes. Chapter 4 analyzes the “evolution of the directly assessed subsidy,” beginning with the poll tax on aliens (from 1488), and continuing with the initial failure (or partial failure) of the first major subsidy, in 1489 (but based on a parliamentary grant of 1472).

Finally, in 1513, Parliament was successful in establishing the final form of the directly assessed subsidy, i.e., based on individuals and not communities; and chapter 5 continues with the analysis of the “directly assessed subsidies, 1513-1547”: their administration, exemptions, objects and modes of assessment, rates of payments, and tax collections — especially in terms of the time allowed for levying and collecting the subsidies, given the exigencies of war finance. In many respects the 1513 subsidy — “the first major extension of the incidence of taxation since 1380” — established a fiscal ideal not always replicated in subsequent grants, as demonstrated in Table 5.7 (pp. 106-07). Three modes of graduated or “progressive” taxation were stipulated: (1) a tax on moveable goods, ranging from 1s 0d for assessments of ?2 to ?10 to sums of 53s 4d for assessments of ?800 and more; (2) taxes on non-wage annual incomes (commercial-financial), varying from 2s for a range of ?2 to ?10 to a maximum of 20s for incomes assessed at ?40 and more; and, as the most novel, (3) taxes on wages (for males over 15 years) ranging from a minimum of 4d on annual wages of just ?1 (240d) to a maximum of 1s or 12d on annual wage incomes of ?2 and over. It is worth noting here (and Schofield does not do so) that in this year an estimated annual wage income for a master mason or carpenter in Cambridge would have been ?5.25 (6d for 210 days) and ?7.00 in London (8d for 210 days).

The subsequent subsidies, from 1514 to 1542, did not, however, replicate this structure; and those from 1514 to 1525 set merely a flat rate of 6d per ?2 of moveable goods, and 6 per ?1 of both annual commercial/financial incomes and annual wages. In subsequent subsidies, to 1542, the minimum assessments were set at ?20 or even ?50 (1527), without taxing wage incomes (and only alien non-wage incomes). Finally, Henry VIII’s last parliamentary subsidies, in the years 1544-47, did restore basically the same structure provided in the 1513 subsidy (with somewhat different rates). Schofield estimates that when the assessments were set at such high minimum rates (in 1525-42) only about 0.15% to 1.40% of the adult population was subject to taxes, and that in the other subsidies from one-third to one-half (averaging 40%) of the population was exempt from taxes.

The following chapters, though necessary for a complete understanding of the mechanics for and records of parliamentary taxation, will generally prove to be less interesting for most readers: chapter 6, on the procedures and records of the Exchequer; chapter 7, on the yield of taxes; chapter 8, on the efficiencies in collection, and popular opposition — only very rarely in the form of violent public protests (1489, 1497, 1536, and then only regional); and the concluding chapter 9, on “taxation and the political limits of the Tudor state,” which, along with chapter 7, are the most important in the second half of the book.

Particularly interesting are Schofield’s comparisons of the net tax yields from the old system of the “fifteenth and tenth” and the new system of subsidies: the former, producing generally stable yields, varied from ?27,700 in 1492 to ?35,800 in 1537 (an average of ?31,100); the latter, produced often wildly fluctuating yields varying from the extreme low of just ?700 in 1488 and a low of ?5,700 in 1526, to far higher yields of ?64,800 in 1525, ?74,600 in 1544, and the highest of all, ?109,000 in 1545-46. Some incomplete valuations of Tudor tax receipts had been published earlier; but Schofield corrects most of them, and, equally important, clearly distinguishes (in Table 7.1, pp. 170-72) between gross and net yields, after collection costs and exemptions (about 4.2%).

As a minor criticism, one might have wished more comparative evidence, in particular to compare the significance of these tax yields with other sources of crown or state revenues under the first two Tudors. The major such example is, of course, the Henrician Great Debasement of 1544 to 1551, which, according to Christopher Challis [The Tudor Coinage, Manchester, 1978, Table 6, p. 255], produced a net seigniorage profit of ?1,270,684.1, or an annual average of ?181,526 — well in excess of the most productive subsidies.

The most interesting feature of the concluding chapter goes beyond Schofield’s actual research, and thus beyond the reign of Henry VIII. He contends that, in the reign of Elizabeth I, the value of the assessments declined in both nominal and thus significantly in real terms, with the increased inflation of the later Price Revolution era. Furthermore, tax collections under Elizabeth ranged from just 25% to 51% of independent assessment valuations, compared to an average of 68% under Henry VIII. The chief cause of this discrepancy was a grossly unfair under-assessment of the peerage and upper classes, from “a combination of personal self-interest and the exigencies of patronage politics” that “conspired to undermine the directly assessed subsidy as a viable form of taxation under the later Tudors” (p. 217). If most historians consider Elizabeth to have been the much more enlightened monarch, Schofield contends that, in terms at least of parliamentary taxation, Henry VIII’s reign was the most remarkable of all the Tudors — and Stuarts — “for its sophistication and attention to the principle of distributive justice” — in essence, for its fairness; and that indeed his system of direct subsidies “was several centuries ahead of its time,” with this very short-lived partnership between a more enlightened upper class and the crown. Subsequently, Schofield observes (p. 201), “direct assessment was to be abandoned again in the mid seventeenth century, after decades of complaints over evasion and under-assessments [of upper-class incomes], and would not be revived until the very end of the eighteenth century,” during the Napoleonic Wars, and then only very briefly. The modern income tax was reintroduced, now on a permanent basis, only in 1842, with the Tory regime of Robert Peel: at the modest and flat rate of 7d per pound sterling, or 2.92%. A progressive income tax, on Henry VIII’s 1513 model, would not be achieved in Britain until the early twentieth century.

John Munro, Professor Emeritus of Economics at the University of Toronto, was the medieval area editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of Economic History , edited by Joel Mokyr (5 volumes, New York, 2004); and his recent publications include “The Medieval Origins of the Financial Revolution: Usury, Rentes, and Negotiablity,” The International History Review, 25:3 (September 2003), 505-62; and “Spanish Merino Wools and the Nouvelles Draperies: An Industrial Transformation in the Late-Medieval Low Countries,” Economic History Review, second series, 58:3 (August 2005), 431-84.