Dried grapes were a luxury product in medieval England, but in the sixteenth century they became more readily available. By 1600 around 1,000 tons of dried fruit were imported annually.
What does this have to do with taxation? Before 1640, customs were the most lucrative of the crown’s revenues. The first duties were voted by Parliament in 1275, as a contribution towards the cost of the navy, and it was eventually resolved that customs required parliamentary approval. By the fifteenth century they were voted to the monarch for life at the beginning of his reign.
Yet who set the tariffs? Legislation placed a 5% duty on most goods (as per modern WTO rules), but the valuation was provided by the merchant himself, under oath; even in an age which regarded perjury as a sin, this allowed room for creative accounting. In 1536 customs officials issued a ‘Book of Rates’, giving fixed valuations for the most widely traded goods. However, the galloping inflation of the 1540s devalued the customs yields, and in 1558 Mary Tudor – desperate for cash after the fall of Calais to the French – doubled most customs rates.
Under Elizabeth I, these fixed tariffs were quietly devalued by persistent inflation of around 2% a year. While the government was reluctant to provoke a political backlash by increasing rates, in 1596 a test case about a new duty on alum imports was heard in the Exchequer court. This failed to produce a definitive ruling, but may have provoked Parliament into a lengthy debate about tariffs during the passage of James I’s Tunnage and Poundage Act in 1604.
Dried fruit entered the political lists in 1605, when the lord treasurer, Thomas Sackville, earl of Dorset imposed a duty of 5s 6d/cwt on currants (a tariff of around 18%). The 50 or so merchants who imported currants were in a weak position, because they needed the crown’s support in disputes with their suppliers, the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Empire, so they paid under protest. However, in the autumn of 1605 the London merchant John Bate refused to co-operate, provoking a test case.
The House of Commons took up Bate’s cause in 1606, passing a bill requiring parliamentary approval for any ‘tax, imposition or charge’ upon trade. King James insisted the new tariff was ‘warranted by law’, but invited negotiation by conceding that this issue was ‘fit to be redressed’. No agreement was reached, and after the end of the parliamentary session, the case was heard in the Exchequer court. Sir Francis Bacon (for the crown) made an uncompromising case for customs being determined by the king’s ‘absolute power’, and the verdict delivered by Chief Baron Fleming in November, just before Parliament reassembled, was definitive: tariffs on imports and exports were justified by reason of state, of which the crown, not Parliament, was the arbiter.
Many politicians (especially lawyers) were furious about this ruling, particularly after ‘new impositions’ were placed on a wide range of goods in 1608. Two years later, when the crown needed Parliament to pass an ambitious programme of fiscal reforms, MPs insisted on debating the principle of impositions. The king would probably have been willing to concede parliamentary approval for future duties if Parliament endorsed the existing tariffs, but when the Commons concluded that impositions were illegal, he inevitably rejected their conclusions. MPs repeated the same debate in 1614, prompting James to terminate the session. When Parliament met again, in 1621, it was quietly agreed to lay the issue aside until after James’s death.
The dispute over currants had been defused in 1610, when the original imposition was reduced by 2s 2d/cwt (40%), but the additional tariff was reinstated in 1619. The Levant Company merchants paid, albeit under protest, but in the mid-1620s the wholesale price of currants doubled, squeezing profit margins. At this time, MPs planned to resolve the wider dispute over tariffs by issuing a new Book of Rates, but in 1628 the drafting committee gloomily reported this would be ‘a work of great labour’. During the same parliamentary session, Charles rescinded the extra currant imposition of 1619 as an inducement for MPs to vote him money, but once the subsidy bill had passed, he reinstated the additional duty, which provoked a handful of Levant Company merchants to refuse to pay.
The dispute spiralled out of control after Parliament was prorogued: on 13 August 1628 the Privy Council ordered that the refusal of any duty on currants would result in the seizure of the merchant’s entire cargo, not just an amount sufficient to cover the duty owed. Thereafter, about 15 Levant Company merchants refused to pay any duty on currants, and had their goods impounded by customs officials. By New Year 1629, with 1,300 tons of currants rotting in ships and warehouses, merchants reclaimed their goods, offering violence to customs officials who attempted to stop them. The Privy Council quickly suspended the order of 13 August, thereafter detaining goods only for non-payment of the 2s 2d/cwt duty, and referred the wider question of impositions to the forthcoming parliamentary session.
The crown’s attempt to table a new customs bill at the start of the 1629 parliamentary session was ignored by the Commons, while the complaints of the currant merchants were given priority. Despite attempts to patch up a compromise, a group of MPs locked horns with the king, who acknowledged that the customs officials had acted ‘by his own direct order and command’. As Charles ordered an end to the parliamentary session, Sir John Eliot provocatively claimed that some privy councillors were inciting the king to rule without Parliament. He was arrested, and a general customs strike seemed likely, but few merchants could afford a lengthy hiatus in their cash flow, and after some months of confrontation, the crown came to a settlement with the merchants in the wealthiest cartels. This allowed Charles to rule without recourse to Parliament for the next decade, during which time two of the most recalcitrant currant merchants languished in prison, for their continued refusal to pay their customs bills.