Thame Local History
What was Ship Money?

Ship Money was first used as a tax in the reign of Elizabeth I at the time of invasion threat from the Spanish Armada.

The crown levied the tax on the coastal towns of England where each town was required to supply ships and crews or to provide the equivalent in money to help the Queen pay for the defence of the country in an emergency.

In this case it was successful and the response was prompt and generous. The City of London supplied thirty ships when only fifteen had been levied.

King Charles I was in a desperate state in the early 1630s when his extravagances had led to him needing to resort to new and ingenious sources of income. His counsel suggested that Ship Money could be re-imposed and would not infringe the "Petition of Right" that he had agreed to earlier.

In 1634 Ship Money Tax was levied on the coastal towns and the City of London as before and raised 100,000 without too much protestation and the king was very pleased.

In the Autumn of 1635 the Tax was imposed on the whole country, including the inland counties and towns. Every part of the country was assessed that it should provide for ships and their crews or give an alternative sum of money.

Examples of the assessment are:

Small County: 80 tons shipping and 32 men or 600.
Large County: 1,200 tons of shipping and 480 men or 12,000.
London: 1,200 tons of shipping and 480 men or 19,000.
Buckinghamshire: 450 tons of shipping and 160 men or 4.500

The total for the whole of the country was.

19,860 tons of shipping and 8,062 men or 211,100.

On the face of it, if it was the whole country that was at risk then there may have been some justification to extend the tax to the whole country.

Yet there was very little threat to the whole country from the few pirates that were operating in the channel. Charles had never had any intention of handing all the money to the navy. Most of the money was destined for his treasury to support him and his court.

In practice the Lord Lieutenant of a county would apportion his levy down to the towns and parishes within his domain and each of the landowners would be assessed according their estate.

In this way John Hampden came to owe thirty one shillings and six pence in Great Kimble parish and twenty shillings in Stoke Mandeville parish. All together in his various holdings John Hampden had about twenty pounds to pay.

The tax, in the most part of the country, Englishmen treated in the same way as Englishmen normally treat tax. They pay up but have a right good moan. But there was a higher proportion than normal of non payers.

Writs were issued against non payers in 1635 and January 1636 and again in October 1636. In a test case, proceedings were taken against John Hampden in May 1637. John Hampden's case was that the tax to be legal must have Parliamentary consent and it most certainly did not.

The Crown's case however rested on the King having absolute power and the right to impose whatever tax he wished. The case was heard by twelve judges who gave their verdicts separately and independently over several months. It was therefore not until June 1638 that a final verdict could be pronounced:

Five judges were in favour of Hampden, but seven were in the King's favour.

The verdict and judgement effectively meant that the law could be used to support the King in his confiscation from his subjects of any property or goods that he wished.

It was not for another three years that the first sitting of the Long Parliament reversed this when it declared the tax to be "contrary to law".

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  Local History Research Group
  Thame, Oxfordshire, England