TOLLS AND CUSTOMS Florilegium Urbanum

Keywords: medieval economy towns cities taxation tolls customs administration officers commerce revenues charters privileges exemption smuggling police

 A cost of doing business 

The levying of taxes on commercial activities – sometimes on the goods imported into or exported from towns, sometimes on transactions themselves (or the privilege of being assigned a place at which to conduct transactions) – was commonly one of the sources of income used by an urban community to help pay the fee farm upon which urban trading privileges and powers of self-government were dependent. Likewise, it became in the Late Middle Ages an important source of revenue for the king, capitalizing on the growth England's involvement in international trade. Such impositions were understood by merchants and lesser traders as a normal feature of commerce, but were not liked, for they were just another cut into profits; since the interests in favour of such taxes were stronger than those in favour of free trade, various ploys, both legal and illegal (notably selling elsewhere than at a market), were tried in an effort to to escape payment.

 Local tolls 

It is not clear how ancient were impositions of tolls on commercial goods, although stray references in Domesday and a statement within the compilation of mostly Anglo-Saxon laws known as the Leges Henrici Primi suggest that it was a common urban characteristic before the Conquest; certainly the regulation of imposts at the key port of London was a matter of concern both for the citizens and the king. A rather speculative case for widespread toll collection in the Saxon period has been laid out by Neil Middleton ["Early medieval port customs, tolls and controls on foreign trade", Early Medieval Europe, vol.13 (2005), pp.313-58.] Among the earliest liberties which townsmen sought to acquire from their post-Conquest overlords were confirmations of the right to impose tolls (although in most cases collection must have been considered part and parcel of the right to hold a market or fair), exemptions from paying tolls, and penalties on those who evaded paying. This indicates that at least some kinds of tolls predated urban self-government; and there are a number of tolls with Anglo-Saxon names. The revenue from tolls — along with stall-site rentals and fines from breaches of market regulations — was one reason why lords were motivated to foster the development of settlements, through the introduction of official markets and fairs, or even to found new towns. Although there was no nationally standardized rate, impositions did not vary greatly from one town to another; competition between markets, the risk of driving away customers, and oversight by the Crown (which, post-Conquest, licensed markets, and could suspend the licence of any that overstepped the mark) resulted in the long-standing local tolls representing, by the late thirteenth century at least, only a very small percentage of the value of the trade goods on which they were imposed. It was more the volume of traffic that generated revenue, though amounts were generally modest. Yet since the rights of a market-holder included in effect a monopoly over trade taking place within the surrounding region (for, from about 1200, licensing of new markets was conditional on their core catchment area not overlapping that of an existing market) tolls must have seemed, at the outset, a guaranteed steady income.

The value of this income was, however, gradually offset as it became a standard feature of borough charters (beginning, unsurprisingly, with London) for the recipient to be granted exemption from urban tolls elsewhere. If the king were the lord of the borough, he could make this exemption applicable to all the other towns of which he was lord throughout the kingdom. A town with a lesser lord could win exemption from only the smaller number of towns with the same lord, unless that lord could acquire an extension from his own lord, the king. Particularly in the thirteenth century, this led to disputes between boroughs, as the right to collect tolls on one side and the right of exemption on the other came into conflict. Courts had to resort to determining which chartered grant had chronological precedence. Urban authorities must have had some means of keeping track of which towns were exempt, which not. We know of lists of such towns compiled by Southampton and Exeter, for instance, while some towns made and filed reference copies of the exemption grants to others.

As well, they needed some means of identifying whether a given trader was an enfranchised member of an exempt town. One of the reasons urban authorities compiled lists of freemen, or members of the merchant gild, was because those individuals were exempt from tolls. Exemption from toll provided a significant advantage to enfranchised members of the community, the lower overhead allowing them to sell more competitively; it was an incentive for residents to purchase the franchise, thereby providing revenue for urban administration. Not surprising then that town authorities made efforts to acquire and defend exemption privileges. Since lists of freemen were not available to the towns that traders visited, a claim by an individual trader to be exempt may have rested upon a solemn personal oath, or on corroboration from fellow traders from his home town or from residents of the visited town who knew the trader. In the absence of clear evidence, towns were inclined to exact toll and let the aggrieved trader try to claim it back in the courts. Towards the close of the Middle Ages we find examples of letters testimonial issued by borough authorities to identify specific merchants as being citizens, although these may have been only in exceptional cases of individuals who had experienced difficulties in the past.

With exemption from tolls being a common royal grant to boroughs, it seems likely that those paying the tolls were largely residents of non-urban settlements, town-dwellers who had not taken out citizenship, and foreigners. Similar exemptions were granted to religious houses, whose lay tenants might also claim to be under this umbrella — another source of dispute with borough authorities. This left tolls clearly imposable only on residents of non-ecclesiastical manors. Yet, even in those cases, tolls were not applicable to necessaries bought for personal or household use (or, by extension, bought by a servant for his lord's use), but only to goods that the purchaser was intending to resell; however, at some towns it was necessary, or at least less trouble, to purchase membership (or some equivalent with limited privileges) in the franchise or the gild, in order to be assured of this particular exemption being accorded without hassle, while non-citizen residents of a town might be able to buy an annual licence to trade toll-free — Both routes to exemption are evidenced, for example, in the corporate revenues of Ipswich. Disputes over payability of tolls sometimes revolved around whether goods were being purchased for household sustenance or for resale, and tolls were perceived by the populace as essentially a tax on mercantile activity (that is, for-profit transactions). Market-founders must have envisaged as their principal source of revenue the tolls collectable on relatively large volumes of goods that merchants traded. But the growing, and occasionally fraudulent, affiliation of merchants with toll-exempt corporations gradually cut into the expected profits.

Lists of the tolls payable on different kinds of goods have survived in a number of towns' records, and a few of these are reproduced here. There are fewer records of specific collections (i.e. listing payments by specific individuals over a set period); perhaps such detailed itemized records were not commonly kept, although such that exist give no internal evidence of being exceptional, and there must have been some method of issuing some kind of receipt, tally, or other proof-of-payment to those who had paid, particularly in cases where individuals apparently could pay a one-time toll to cover multiple shipments over a period of time. There does not seem to have been any kind of national standard defining how much toll should be paid on particular types of goods; yet, although this was presumably left up to local authorities to decide, the amounts levied seem to be broadly similar from town to town – possibly there was some form of consultation between towns on the matter.

These local tolls might be collected at the main points providing entrance to and exit from a town – and were an incentive to reinforce such points of entry/egress with barred gates. However, tolls could also be paid directly to borough officials within the town, such as at municipal buildings called "tollbooths", or in the marketplace and at harbourside (tollbooths were often set up in such locations); in these cases, a buyer was going to have to prove to the wardens of the exits from town that toll had been duly paid on any goods they were carrying out – or prove that the goods had been purchased for personal use, rather than resale. Collectors therefore issued receipts authenticated with a seal.

Beyond the standard local import/export tolls, which could apply to merchandize regardless of whether it was to be sold in the location where toll was demanded or was just passing through, special additional tolls often existed or arose later; for example:

Some of the above could be imposed only by specific permission of the lord of the borough, for a set period, typically just a few years, but equally typically renewable. The burden of these tolls fell largely on the shoulders of outsiders; so, again, towns tried to obtain exemptions for their citizens. Certain other exactions, such as stallage (the right to present wares for sale on a market stall), were in their origin a kind of toll, but came to be treated more along the lines of what we would today consider as licence payments, since they were not necessarily based on the volume or value of the goods for sale and they might be purchased to cover an extended period. Towns appointed minor officers to take responsibility for collection of tolls. As time wore on, some experimented with farming out the revenue sources – i.e. leasing the revenues to an individual for a set period, in return for a lump-sum payment negotiated in advance (e.g. at Ipswich); it was expected that this would provide a reliable income while reducing administrative costs, although farmers were not always able to meet their commitments. The depopulation resulting from plague in the second half of the fourteenth century reduced trade and were one factor in making tolls an even less lucrative revenue stream than in earlier times.

Paying toll Paying toll
Tolls were collected at convenient points of entry or exit of towns, such as gates and bridges.
(click on the images for more information)

 National customs 

As the system of royal administration became more complex, more assertive, and more truly national in scope, a second system of customs collection was created. Ancient customs such as lastage and scavage, which had often come into the hands of local lords, were supplemented by royal prises – notably on wine, which took the form of an in-kind exaction of wine for the king's use. In the early thirteenth century, King John introduced a monetary duty on imports and exports and appointed a corp of officials to collect the new tax, but this experiment lasted only a few years. Experimentation was resumed in the latter part of the century and led to (1275) a duty on wool, woolfells and hides which lasted through the rest of the Middle Ages. This was part of Edward I's efforts to regularize the system of customs duties on international trade, both in terms of the collection mechanism -- division of the coastline into thirteen regions, each encompassing two or more ports and managed from a headport which was the base for a staff of collectors and associated officials -- and in terms of providing a steady flow of revenues into the royal coffers. Imposition of additional customs followed and, by mid-fourteenth century had more or less consolidated into a set comprising:

In the 1350s further amalgamation took place.

The purpose of customs was, in some cases, to protect domestic industry and commerce by imposing a surcharge on commerce conducted by foreigners, but in others simply to raise revenue for the king. The customs system, together with other legislation, helped English merchants win control of English commerce away from foreigners – with the exception of the favoured Hanseatic merchants – but this did not endear the customs to those English merchants who had to pay them, nor to foreign merchants.

Although 1275 marked the beginnings of a permanent national system of customs administration, with a certain number of ports designated as collection centres, customs collection was initially in the hands of existing royal officials, or farmed out to private individuals or consortia. In the fourteenth century, however, the designated ports became involved in choosing, or nominating, local collectors along with other officials responsible for related duties, such as searchers (one of whose duties was to prevent the import of counterfeit coinage or unlicensed export of gold and silver), and troners and weighers (whose work was necessary to the estimation of the volume of goods imported/exported and therefore the amount of customs due). Nonetheless, these officers remained answerable to, and paid by, the king. The 1330s and '40s saw further experimentation with farming out the customs to private consortia, because the king needed money for the French war. Alongside these efforts was the development of the staple system – whereby one or more of the larger towns in England or on the continent were designated (the designations chopping and changing every few years) as points through which all exports of wool, and sometimes other merchandize, had to pass, to facilitate oversight and control of the trade and collection of customs. the first staple was set up in 1313 at St. Omer, as a diplomatic tactic to deny Flanders, then involved in a dispute with England, easy access to English wool. Following the failure of the monpolistic consortia, in 1353 the staple system was reformed and a number of domestic staples were designated and given new administrative machinery, though later Calais would become the preferred choice for the staple system.


Although the term "smuggling" was not in use in the Middle Ages, attempts to evade tolls and customs were rife. Sufficiently so that the central government appointed officers known as searchers, charged with combatting smuggling, and others known as controllers, to keep a duplicate copy of customs records as a check on the honesty of the collectors. While foreign merchants appear to have felt it wiser to purchase exemptions from customs, English merchants who knew the lie of the land better tried a number of strategies for avoiding payment. There was a long shoreline, and very few royal officers to patrol it.

One strategy might be to try to land goods elsewhere than at ports where customs were collected, or similarly to sneak goods into, or through, a town without passing a checkpoint. Another was to suborn collectors – easier for merchants who were themselves in such office; but for those who were not, the officer was often one of their colleagues, a fellow entrepreneur who might be receptive to an under-the-table arrangement. There appears to have been a good deal of corruption in the customs service, in terms for example of embezzlement, bribery, or complicity in smuggling, although we are perhaps somewhat biased because surviving documentation tends to focus on the dishonest, rather than the honest, officials. But by 1390 the level of suspicion was such that a royal statute prohibited customs collectors and controllers from owning ships or from entering into freighting contracts with ship-owners, and required that each pair of collectors be men from two different towns, to reduce the chance of collusion; at the same time the king cancelled any lifetime grants of the office and required that appointees serve only while he remained satisfied with their performance. In 1410 hostelers were banned from holding customs offices, on the grounds that they might be tempted to assist their hostelry guests to evade customs. This endemic problem, stemming fron the spirit of entrepreneurialism and self-help that underlay medieval society, was not so easily solved, however. Those two measures were reaffirmed in a statute of 1442, which specified additional restrictions: customers were not to engage in commerce either as merchants in their own right or as factors on behalf of others, nor were they to own wharfs or quays where cargoes might be unloaded, and they were not to act as hosts of foreign merchants.

A further strategy for customs evasion was for resident merchants to pretend that the goods of outsiders were their own, and therefore not subject to tolls. The numerous by-laws against this offence (see examples at Ipswich, Maldon, Norwich, and Yarmouth) are themselves an indicator of how prevalent was this form of evasion.

 Further reading 

BAKER, Robert. "The English Customs Service, 1307-1341: A Study of Medieval Administration," Journal of the American Philosophical Society, new series, vol.51, pt.6 (1961), 3-76.

GRAS, Norman Scott Brien. The Early English Customs System, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1918.

MASSCHAELE, James. Peasants, Merchants, and Markets: Inland Trade in Medieval England 1150-1350. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1997.

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Created: August 18, 2001.
Last update: January 6, 2018
© Stephen Alsford, 2001-2018