Customs Accounts: Overview

The earliest accounts that record the cargoes of importers and exporters in England are local customs accounts, some of which were likely collected in the pre-Conquest period in kind, taking for example, a certain amount of fish from each cargo of fish imported through the port. Over time the owners of the custom–usually the lord of the port town, which could be the king, a secular lord, religious institution, or the town itself–began collecting more of the port tolls in cash, as outlined in the lists of port tolls that they kept. Very few local customs accounts survive; for examples, see the entries for Exeter and Sandwich in the Editions of Customs Accounts section.

The English overseas There are two main parts to the English overseas customs accounts. The enrolled customs accounts in The National Archives (TNA) in Kew, England in class E356 (with some in E372 and E364) are summary accounts assembled for each customs jurisdiction. They offer total sums collected from the different types of customs assessed in each port, along with notes about customs exemptions or reductions for that year,and the names of the customs collectors for each customs jurisdiction.  They are virtually complete from 1279 onwards.

These accounts have been edited and printed in 12 vols in The Enrolled Customs Accounts : (TNA: PRO E 356, E 372, E 364) 1279/80-1508/09 (1523/1524), ed. Stuart Jenks, List and Index Society, vols. 303, 306, 307, 313, 314, 319, 324, 334, 341, 344, 345, 348 (London, 2004-2017).

The areas covered by customs jurisdictions varied over time, but were usually centered on Boston, Bristol, Chichester, Exeter, Hull, Ipswich, London, Lynn, Melcombe/Weymouth, Newcastle, Sandwich, Southampton, and Yarmouth; see the Map of Customs Jurisdictions. For the different seaports within these jurisdictions over time, see E. M. Carus-Wilson and Olive Coleman, England’s Export Trade 1275-1547 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1963). The summary figures in this volume for wool and cloth exports were until recently used in all analyses of England’s export trade, but now need to be corrected by the figures in the List and Index Society volumes edited by Stuart Jenks.

The second type of overseas customs accounts are the particular customs accounts catalogued as Exchequer: King’s Remembrancer: Particulars of Customs Accounts, in TNA, class E122. They record details about the ships, merchants, customs, and cargoes imported and exported through English medieval ports. They only occasionally survive, and many are damaged or have large illegible or missing portions. Their format can also vary by port. Some list ships by the names of the shipmaster and rarely record the shipname or homeport, while others (notably Bristol) regularly note the ship’s destination or port of origin. For a list of the particular customs accounts in print and online see Editions of Customs Accounts.

The types of customs collected grew from the late thirteenth to mid-fourteenth century when the different customs records began to be consolidated into one particular account, a practice in place everywhere by the early fifteenth century. The one exception was the port of London which continued to keep separate particular accounts for each type of custom because of the size of its trade. The three London accounts are the: (1) wool customs and subsidy account; (2) petty customs accounts; and (3) tunnage and poundage account.

For a fuller description of the different types of customs and their archival classes, see the TNA Research Guide on Medieval Customs Accounts.