Sources for the study of deserted medieval settlements – medieval taxation records

Nothing is certain but death and taxes…. or so the saying goes… and though we all may dislike paying tax, the record of such payments afford interesting insights into many aspects of everyday life. The wealth of taxes raised by the crown throughout the medieval period can provide an indication of population size and wealth as well as some of the names of the population.

Saying that though, as with all the sources of information about medieval population, it is never that easy. Taxation records do not necessarily record the total population, just those with enough assets to be taxed. Every taxation was set out with its own criteria and these might not apply to everyone, and as in the present day there was much avoidance – this is nothing new. Many of the tax records for the medieval period can be found in the National Archives in Kew. Many of them are located in the section E179 – also known as the ‘King’s Remembrancer, particulars of account and other records relating to lay and clerical taxation’. An online search facility allows you to search for a place-name and to show which taxations records are present for. This does not give you the amount but its presence on the document.

Another factor that needs considering is the survival of records, not all taxation records survive for all counties and not all areas are taxed in the first place. This means getting a full picture of the entire country can be difficult. The records chosen by the Beresford’s Lost Villages website are those that are available in published form and provide a complete a record as possible for the entire country. They stretch from the early fourteenth century through to the sixteenth century thus covering the key period when most settlements should have been in existence to be classed as a medieval village but also into the period where a decline may have started. It is unfortunate that no real nation-wide survey is available between Domesday (1086) and the early fourteenth century although on occasions they are available for small regions. Finally when a place-name is mentioned in the taxation what does it represent? In some regions this will be a single nucleated village, others it may be the name of a village which also includes other smaller hamlets and outlying settlements. Then in other areas it may a region with no nucleated settlement at all. A place-name in the taxation records does not necessarily equate to a nucleated village on the ground.

The main taxations used are the Lay Subsidy taken in 1344, Poll Taxes in 1377, 1379 and 1381, Lay Subsidies in 1524, 1525 and 1543, a record of number of households in each diocese in 1563.

Lay Subsidy of 1334
The Lay Subsidy of 1334 records one of the special taxes granted by Parliament to the Crown to help with the extra expenses incurred arising from continued troubles with France and Scotland (Glasscock 1975). The tax was upon personal wealth, the value of an individual’s movable goods rather than their land and buildings, and was applied only to the laity (Glasscock 1975). Different payment fractions occurred in different subsidies, but that for the 1334 subsidy was levied at a fifteenth of the value from rural areas and as a tenth of the value from the boroughs and areas of ancient demesnes (Glasscock 1975). This followed not long after a 1332 tax which used the same fractions, but the 1334 tax differed in the fact that the sum paid was a figure that was agreed on by the local community involved. The amount could not be less than that paid in 1332 and was negotiated between the community and the appointed tax officials (Glasscock 1975).

Many subsequent taxes were based on the 1334 figures, and so lose their value in assessing any changes that have occurred in the population; as Glasscock (1975: xvi) notes: ‘within a very short time the tax ceased to bear any direct relationship to the lay wealth and taxable capacity of the country’. However, due to the fact that any gaps in the 1334 record can be filled by any subsequent records that were based on the 1334 tax, this lay subsidy is one of the most complete records of taxation from the fourteenth century for the country as a whole. There were a number of items that were not taxable in the 1334 subsidy, including clerical property that was included in the 1291 taxation of Pope Nicholas, as well as locally argued exemptions, mainly relevant to the Cinque Ports (Glasscock 1975). Although this record does not provide population numbers, or exact wealth, it provides an overview of possible surplus wealth of the region in the fourteenth century and can be used to compare the fortunes of different settlements.

Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381
During the later fourteenth century, fifteenths and tenths (subsidies) were still collected as in 1334, but experiments took place at attempting to tax individuals rather than their wealth. The Poll Tax of 1377 introduced a per capita levy, which was to be repeated in 1379 and 1381, although by this time the old habits were returning, with the collectors instructed to base the amount collected on the wealth of the individuals (Fenwick 1998). The 1377 Poll Tax was collected from every layman and woman over the age of fourteen who was not a mendicant, at a rate of one groat (fourpence) (Fenwick 1998). The Poll Tax of 1379 introduced a scale of payments from fourpence to ten marks, to be collected from every lay married and single man and every single woman over the age of sixteen (Fenwick 1998). The Poll Tax of 1381 was collected from every lay man and woman of fifteen years and over at a rate of three groats (one shilling), but in order that the rich should help the poor, everyone was ‘charged according to his means’, with the resulting total number of shillings from any one vill being equivalent to the number of taxpayers (Fenwick 1998: xvi). The clergy were exempt from the Parliamentary taxes, although there was an attempt to remove the other exemptions that had previously existed for the lay subsidies, but with varying degrees of success (Fenwick 1998).

The Poll Tax of 1377 did not require detailed records to be kept of individuals who were taxed; only the numbers of individuals and the amount due were noted, but more detailed records were kept for the taxes of 1379 and 1381 (Fenwick 1998). The survival of the poll tax documents varies across the country.  Two values are recorded – the number of individuals taxed and the total amount. All the surviving records have been published in three volumes by Caroline Fenwick (Fenwick 1998, 2001, 2005).

Lay Subsidies of 1524, 1525, and 1543
The collection of the rates as set down by the Lay Subsidy of 1334 continued until 1623 and became known as ‘the fifteenth’ (Hoyle 1994). During the Tudor period the lay subsidy was revived, running alongside that of the fifteenth. This new subsidy was based on either income from land, other income, or goods or wages, with each payee only being taxed on one category (Hoyle 1994). Early records of the Tudor lay subsidies contain little information on the amounts taxed at certain villages – they only show the amount collected by different tax collectors. In 1523 an act was passed allowing four lay subsidy payments in the subsequent years. The records were expanded to include information on which towns, parishes or other taxation unit had provided which amount. As such, in the first payment of the four in 1524, the information on individual taxpayers was included (Hoyle 1994, Sheail 1998a). The subsidies of 1524 and 1525 recorded every man who was worth more than £1. The later two surveys changed the criteria to men who earned more than £50 in a year (in 1526) and those who were rich in moveable goods (in 1527). The rates at which individuals were taxed depended on a number of factors, shown below.

1s in the pound: Annual income of land and other sources
1s in the pound: Capital value of moveables worth £20 and upward
6d in the pound: Capital value of moveables worth £2 and upward to £20
4d in the pound: Capital values worth £1 and under £2
4d paid: Those aged 16 years and above and who earned wages of and in excess of £1 a year

The records for the 1524/25 subsidies are one of the most complete and useful surveys, and Sheail (1998a, 1998b) has attempted to produce calculations from the different surveys of the period to provide combined figures for individual vills. As with all the tax records, there are numerous problems using the data, such as the omission of much of the clergy and those valued at under £1, but as Sheail (1998a: 36) concludes, the study of the survey of specific counties and hundreds overcomes some of the issues as ‘they were surveyed by the same men and consequently have a greater degree of uniformity’.

For a number of counties Sheail also presents the figures from subsidies in the 1540s (from 1543, 1544 or 1545) but only the number of people assessed, not the amount of money requested. Although this later survey has often been cited as being superior to the earlier 1524/25 surveys, the record is not complete and is much damaged (Sheail 1998a).

Diocesan Returns of 1563
The Privy Council commanded in 1563 that every bishop should provide an outline of the administrative structure of their dioceses including a list of the number of households in every village and hamlet in each parish (Dyer and Pallister 2005). It is not fully understood why these data were required but suggestions include the idea of quantifying the number of potential almsgivers available for contribution to poor relief (Dyer and Pallister 2005).

Although all 26 dioceses returned an initial report of the administrative structures, they did not have to reply instantly with the number of households. So unfortunately some returns have only survived in partial form and have no lists of households available. Only 12 dioceses have the list of households surviving, and it has been suggested that the missing ones were lost en masse at some point in the past (Dyer and Pallister 2005). Records survive for Bath and Wells, Canterbury, Carlisle, Chester, Coventry and Litchfield, Durham, Ely, Gloucester, Lincoln and Worcester as well as the Welsh dioceses of Bangor and St David’s. There are no records of households from Bristol, Chichester, Exeter, Hereford, Llandaff, London, Norwich, Oxford, Peterborough, Rochester, St Asaph, Salisbury, Winchester and York. On some occasions a later record for 1603 does survive. As with all such records there are instances of rounding of numbers, errors in copying and other general issues. Tests of comparison with other localised records of households from around the same period show a surprising similarity which confirms the usefulness of these records (Dyer and Pallister 2005).

These are just a few of the sources that can be used to study medieval settlements and future posts will look at other sources.


Dyer, A. and D.M. Palliser 2005. The Diocesan Population Returns for 1563 and 1603. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fenwick, C.C. 1998. The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381, Part 1, Bedfordshire-Lincolnshire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fenwick, C.C. 2001. The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381, Part 2, Lincolnshire-Westmorland. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Fenwick, C.C. 2005. The Poll Taxes of 1377, 1379 and 1381, Part 3, Wiltshire-Yorkshire. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Glasscock, R.E. 1975. The Lay Subsidy of 1334. London: British Academy.

Hoyle, R. 1994. Tudor Taxation Records: a guide for users. London: PRO Readers’ Guide 5.

Sheail, J. 1998a. The Regional Distribution of Wealth in England as Indicated in the 1524/5 Lay Subsidy. Volume 1. London: List and Index Society Special Series 28.

Sheail, J. 1998b. The Regional Distribution of Wealth in England as Indicated in the 1524/5 Lay Subsidy. Volume 2. London: List and Index Society Special Series 29.

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