The Customs Accounts

by Maryanne Kowaleski

The enrolled and particular customs accounts

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. 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, see Bibliography/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.

Customs rates and exemptions

Customs varied over time since the Crown or Parliament granted exemptions and reductions to merchants from particular regions, usually as compensation for debts owed by the Crown or reparations for injuries down by the English in that region, but sometimes as a reward for service to the Crown. Since these exemptions or reductions affected what and how ships and imports were recorded in the E122 accounts, it is important to keep track of them.

They are outlined in detail in the Introductions of the List and Index Society volumes compiled by Stuart Jenks. An example of the complicated system of customs rates and exemptions for London in the fifteenth century is depicted in the table below.

Notes to Table of Overseas Customs in Fifteenth Century London

[1] For the complications regarding the collection in London of wool customs and subsidies that were assigned to refund the Staplers for their loans and paying the wages of the Calais garrison, see H. S. Cobb, ‘Introduction’, The Overseas Trade of London Exchequer Customs Accounts, 1480-1, London Record Society, 27 (London, 1990), pp. xvi-xv;  Jenks, Enrolled Customs, Part 8, p. iv.

[2] Collected continuously from 1275; Carus-Wilson and Coleman, England’s Export Trade, pp. 1-2, 194. 

[3] Collected continuously from 1303, but those for wool, wool-fells and hides collected with ancient custom in later years; ibid, pp. 2, 194.  That for wine collected and accounted for as ‘butlerage’ (along with prisage) by the king’s butler.

[4] An Anglo-Castilian treaty allowed merchants from Castile and León to pay all customs and subsidies (including poundage and tunnage) at denizen rates (including cloth exports, which were thus free of poundage).  In 1476,customs and subsidies due from them and merchants from the province of Guipúzcoa were reduced by half in London and some other ports; Jenks, ‘Introduction’, Enrolled Customs, Part 10,  pp. iv-v.

[5] Granted to king by parliament.  The rates fluctuated until fixed in 1471; Carus-Wilson and Coleman, England’s Export Trade, p. 194. For Hansa exemptions, see below, note 8.

 [6] Collected continuously from 1303; that for wool, wool-fell and hide exports and wine imports collected separately (above, note 3 and below, note 11). From the late 1450s, denizen imports and exports (especially cloth and tin) traded through alien factors were customed as alien; Jenks,’Introduction’, Enrolled Customs, Part 9, p. iv. For Spanish exemptions, see above, note 4. A 1468 treaty allowed Breton merchants to pay customs at denizen rates, which exempted them from poundage on their cloth exports and petty custom; Jenks, ‘Introduction’, Enrolled Customs, Part 10, p. v.

[7] Statute of 1491 aimed at Mediterranean sweet wines in response to Venetian customs on English exports of malmsey from Crete. Called ‘new customs’ of 1491 and assessed as part of petty customs, not tunnage; Jenks, ‘Introduction’, Enrolled Customs, Part 9, p. iv.

[8] Collected continuously from 1347. For Hanse customs exemptions and resistance to new impositions, see t h. Lloyd, England and the German Hanse 1157-1611  (Cambridge, 1992), pp. 32-4, 51-2, 75-8, 140, 143, 217, 269-71. The Hansa was exempted from the cloth custom in March1437, but this was suspended Sept. 1447 to Oct. 1449 except for merchants of Gdansk and Lübeck (privilege restored in Mar. 1456).  There was a further suspension in 1468 (except for Cologne merchants) to 1474; Jenks, ‘Introduction’, Enrolled Accounts, Part 9, pp. vii-xiii.

[9] Granted to king by parliament. First grant was in the 1340s, but in 1415 parliament began to make grants for life to the king; M.S.B. Gras, The Early English Customs System (Cambridge, Mass., 1918), pp. 81-4.  By c. 1480, the valuations had become standardized for many commodities; Cobb, ‘Introduction’, pp. xiii, xxv, n. 105. For Hansa exemptions, see above, note 8; for Spanish exemptions, note 4, above; for Veere exemptions, see Jenks, ‘Introduction’, Enrolled Accounts, Part 9, p. v.

[10] Above, note 9.

[11] From the late 1320s, the new (petty) custom on wine was collected by the king’s butler and came to be called ‘butlerage’; from 1303 prisage was commuted into a money payment for aliens, but denizens continued to pay in kind; Gras, English Customs, pp. 42, 66.

[12] Above, note 11.