Introduction to Tax Records in England

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A tax can be defined as a compulsory contribution to the support of government. “Until the nineteenth century local taxation was assessed and collected by traditional and haphazard procedures, and bore little relationship to the wealth of the country. It was assessed and collected by unpaid, and often inactive, officials. Amateur administrators did not relish contentious taxation procedures, and sought means by which to assess and collect local rates which did not normally include regular reassessments, or even efforts to tax on the legally required form of each man according to his ability.” (Beckett, page 1)

Before the English civil war (about 1642-1648), both revenue and expenditure were in theory divided into three separate sections. The total revenue was not derived from a system of taxes.

Revenue from Crown lands and feudal rights. This was a large portion of the total revenue. These monies were supposed to provide for the ordinary internal administrative expenditure of the State, and was not considered a tax revenue.

Revenue from Customs duties, i.e. "keeping of the sea," protection of merchants, defense of the realm [Navy]. This was not regarded as a national tax.

Revenue from direct taxes, levied usually on a grant of Parliament for a special national purpose, such as war.

The value of these records is in the evidence they provide, to place an individual in a specific parish at a given time. The subsidy rolls give information to help the researcher, but it was easy to escape assessment. There is evidence of widespread evasion and some rolls, upon investigation, appear to contain only a fraction of the population. Combined with other lists and returns, the local historian can study the changes in medieval population and wealth. One aspect of study can reveal the development of place-names and surnames, and their reflection on the development of crafts and trades. Names are of three types: those denoting a person's abode, those deriving from his status or occupation, or patronymics.

A variety of taxes were collected in England before 1800, records of which are found in county record offices, the Public Record Office, or other archives and libraries. Taxes were assessed for:

  • Free and Voluntary Present''''
  • Hearth Tax Each hearth or chimney in the household was assessed two shillings tax from 1662-1689, arranged by hundred. See Lewis' Topographical Dictionary for help in locating the name of the hundred that a place was in.
  • Poll Tax Assessed on all males over age 15 except beggars and monks, but the wealthy paid more than the poor (1377, 1379, 1381, 1660-1697). Not to be confused with poll books.
  • Marriage Duty 1695-1706 tax on bachelors, widowers, childless couples and for parish register entries. Few records survive.
  • Window Tax on each window in a dwelling from 1696-1851. The occupier paid the tax, not the owner.
  • Hair Powder Tax assessed on wigs worn by solicitors, judges, and others.
  • Monthly Assessment 1642-1680, each parish was assessed a tax. Records often do not give individual names, but only a total for the parish.


A subsidy is a tax imposed on persons according to the reputed value (moderate estimate) of their estates. The rate at one time was fixed as 4s for land and 2s 8d for goods. “Subsidy” is used to define a specific set of records as well as an umbrella name for a group of records.

Imposing a subsidy was the major way money was raised before the Civil War (1640's). By 1217, the King and his advisors realized that land ownership did not reflect the true wealth of the population. They decided to place an assessment (a percentage) on moveables owned by certain classes of people.

The subsidy was considered a direct tax, granted only for a short period, levied to provide for a special purpose of more or less intermittent occurrence. Following the Civil War (after 1660),there was a move from these occasional taxes to raise revenue for national purposes to the current system of taxes levied regularly to provide for all national needs.

“By the end of the thirteenth century, land was no longer the only indication of a person's wealth, so a new tax, called Lay Subsidy, was levied on movables. Assessors were appointed for each district and they appointed local collectors. Not every householder's name is to be found in the returns, because some were too poor to be taxed and clerical properties were assess and taxed separately....” (FitzHugh, p. 163)

Between 1290-1334, names of the people paying the tax, usually the freeholder, were entered on a roll. At the head of the roll, the rate of the tax was given, i.e. tenth, twelfth, fifteenth, or twentieth, depending on how much money the Crown needed for various campaigns in France, Scotland and Wales. The rolls consist of lists of names of inhabitants arranged village by village. Each name has a tax assessment (usually shown in Roman numerals), and a total for the village. From 1334 to about 1542, the total quotas were listed along with place names; no individuals were recorded. The Great Subsidy of 1524-5 lists all people over the age of 16 years with income from land or with taxable goods worth £2 per annum, or with annual wages of £1 or more. Clerical Subsidies were similar grant at the rate of 4s assessed on ecclesiastical preferments, and made by the clergy in Convocation and afterwards confirmed by Parliament. The most useful informative Lay Subsidies are for the years 1294-95, 1327-28, 1332-33, 1377, 1378-79, 1380-81, and 1522 until approximately 1660.

Lay Subsidy Rolls included the taxes assessed against the laity ("common" people). They consist of rolls of accounts, assessments, inquisitions, certificates and other documents bearing on the assessment and collection of the following items.

Hidage and carucage, on lands not held by military service

Tallage paid by the King's ancient demesnes, and by cities and towns

Scutages, in lieu of military service

Subsidies of a tenth, fifteenth, or other part on moveables

Poll taxes, per head on all

Hearth tax, 2s per year for each hearth, with some exceptionsSubsidy Rolls are housed at the Public Record Office in class E 179. Extant items cover the time period of about 1154 to 1700. They are sub-divided into two series: Lay and Clerical.

While the information given is simple and easy to read, many printed editions of the original subsidy rolls exist, leaving little need for the student to go to the originals. To find records in the Family History Library, use the Place Search in the catalog for England and the topics Land and Property or the topic Taxation. You may also find references by searching for a county name.

Additional Reading

  • Beckett, J.V. Local Taxation.London: Bedford Square Press, 1980.
  • Beresford, M.W. Lay Subsidies and Poll Taxes.London: Phillimore and Co., Ltd., 1963.
  • Bevan, Amanda. Tracing Your Ancestors in the Public Record Office.5th ed.
  • Cannan, Edwin. The History of Local Rates in England.2nd ed., reprint. London: P.S. King & Son, 1980.
  • Dowell, Stephen. A History of Taxation and Taxes in England.
  • Family History Library. England''Research Outline,'''pp.49-50'
  • FitzHugh, The Dictionary of Genealogy.
  • Gibson, Jeremy. The Hearth Tax, Other Later Stuart Tax Lists and the Association Oath Rolls.
  • Gibson, Jeremy and Dennis Mills. Land Tax Assessments c. 1690-c.1950.
  • Herber, Mark D. Ancestral Trails, pp. 413-22.
  • Kennedy, William. English Taxation 1640-1799.London: Frank Cass & Co, Ltd., 1964.
  • Richardson, John. The Local Historian's Encyclopedia.
  • Unwin, R.W. Search Guide to the English Land Tax.Page 1-8.
  • West, John. Village Records.Pages 42-9, 131-5, 144-57.