Customs duties, political grievances and cross-border relations: an early Stuart perspective

In today’s blog Dr Vivienne Larminie, assistant editor of our Commons 1640-1660 project, takes a look at the debates over customs and trading duties during the reign of Charles I. Clearly it is not just in the 21st century that cross-border trade was a contentious issue…

Customs have long been at the heart of political debate. In the early seventeenth century, tariffs on trade, and in particular duties on imports, were vital to government revenues, while demands from localities and trade guilds for protection against the influx of foreign commodities at prices which might undercut native cloth, gunpowder or metalwork production surfaced in many petitions to Westminster. When in 1625 Parliament declined to rubber-stamp Charles I’s authority to levy ‘tunnage and poundage’ – hitherto a formality at the beginning of each new reign – the issue became a contentious bargaining-chip.

Charles I, Anthony van Dyck,
National Trust, Philipps House via ArtUK

Parliament sought first a guarantee that its grievances would be redressed. Among these was the manner in which the duties themselves were imposed. Like other contemporary governments, the English crown privatised the collection of dues. In return for undertaking to pay the king an annual rent and sometimes also an up-front sum, individuals, or more usually syndicates, were granted the rights to ‘farm’ the customs. The prospect of making large fortunes encouraged aspirant investors. Contracts were regularly re-negotiated to accommodate changes of circumstance and personnel. Thus, for example, following the death of one of their number, in December 1627 Sir John Wolstenholme and his partners obtained a two-year renewal of their grant of the ‘great customs’, for which they were to pay £150,000 a year. Three months later this was reduced to a one-year grant for £140,000 for as long as war continued with France and Spain – since the conflict tended to depress trade.

But alongside these overarching arrangements were many concessions on particular commodities granted as rewards to courtiers or to interested parties, which created complications and anomalies, compromising the farmers’ profits and creating resentment among taxpayers. For instance, in 1636 Nowell Warner was granted a 21-year monopoly on exporting lampreys to the United Provinces (now the Netherlands) on payment of 20 marks (£13.67) a year to the customs farmers, while Dame Barbara Villiers, widowed sister-in-law of the king’s deceased favourite George Villiers, 1st duke of Buckingham, received half of the fines imposed over the previous seven years on those who had imported gold and silver thread without paying customs.

Confrontations over customs between crown and Parliament reached crunch point, when the Long Parliament got underway late in 1640. Soon the ‘customers’ were under attack. Sir John Wolstenholme died in 1639, but his son (Sir) John Wolstenholme, who had taken over his interest, and the rest of his syndicate were accused of owing nearly £580,000 to the king and ‘commonwealth’. On 1 June 1641 the Commons resolved that Wolstenholme and his partners ‘who have raised monies from the subject under pretence of custom by colour of [their crown] grant, over and above that 3 pence in the £ paid by merchant strangers, and such duties upon wines as are anciently due to the king by law, are delinquents’ [Proceedings of the Long Parliament, iv. 672]. The penalty was to be confiscation of their estates, although this was commuted to a £150,000 fine. When civil war broke out in 1642, with that fine not fully paid, the customers faced a dilemma over whether to support the king, who might reimburse them for money they had lent him, or Parliament, which was in a position to seize their estates after all.

Meanwhile, other aspects of customs engaged Parliament. Foreigners were expected to pay higher rates of duties than natives – an incentive for those who settled permanently to seek naturalization. But the king could grant dispensations. In 1637, cloth dealer John Frederick obtained one from Charles I having demonstrated that he was ‘a freeman of the company of Barber Surgeons, born in London & the son of a free denizen [i.e. immigrant with leave to remain], principal surgeon to queens Elizabeth & Anne [James I’s consort], & himself conformable to the laws of the kingdom & principal man in bringing in the new drapery of making Hanscott sayes, to export goods paying customs as an Englishman & not as an alien’ [A Calendar of the Docquets of Lord Keeper Coventry, 286]. Since the accession to the English crown in 1603 of James VI of Scotland, Scots had aspired to share the trading privileges accorded to the king’s other subjects. In 1632, during the period of his rule without Parliament, Charles had issued a declaration aimed at ‘enabling the king’s subjects to trade within his dominions without being further charged of customs’, with no more duties being ‘demanded of Scots trading in England & Ireland than are paid by the English & Irish’ [ibid, 20].  But those south of the border objected, partly because it had no endorsement from Parliament.

By the time Parliament met again in 1640, Scotland and England were at war, and there was a Scottish army of occupation in Northumberland and County Durham. This both necessitated the calling of Parliament and ensured it could not readily be dissolved by the monarch. The politics of negotiating a peace between the two countries were immensely complicated: it was in the interest of MPs who wished to continue sitting so as to get other grievances redressed, both to cultivate friendship with the Scots and to prolong the conflict. From the Scottish perspective, their strategic advantage provided leverage to secure benefits they had long sought from alliance with England. As reported to Parliament in March 1641, among the proposals advanced by the Scottish commissioners in London were clauses related to naturalization, customs, freedom of trade, a common coinage, and fishing. However, much water was to flow under the bridge before the 1707 Act of Union formally addressed such matters.


Further reading:

A Calendar of the Docquets of Lord Keeper Coventry, eds. J. Broadway, R. Cust and S. Roberts (List and Index Society, 2004)

Proceedings in the Opening Session of the Long Parliament: House of Commons, ed. M. Janson (7 vols., Yale Center for Parliamentary History: University of Rochester Press, 2000)

Journals of the House of Lords and Journals of the House of Commons, both available via British History Online

A further biography of Sir John Wolstenholme is being prepared by the House of Commons 1640-1660 section.

Follow the work of our Civil War project via the James I to Restoration section of our blog.

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