Poll Tax

Poll Tax by definition is a "tax, of uniform amount levied on each individual, or 'head' " [1] and dates back to 14th century England. To better understand the history of the tax, we must take a moment to look back further in history to the origins of feudalism. William the Conqueror brought to England in his Norman Conquest, order and an accounting system the world had never seen before. His Domesday Book is clear evidence of the meticulous record of land, holdings and livestock. This record would lead to the first national land-tax (geldum), to be paid on a fixed assessment of such properties. Thus began taxation in England.

But, by the late medieval period England's traditional revenue sources based on structures that dated back to the Domesday Book had declined so much that a new method of taxation was required.

Richard II (1367-1400)

The first poll tax was levied in 1377 by King Richard II to raise necessary monies for military expeditions on the continent. This first poll tax was a flat fee of one groat (four pence) on each person and essentially an experiment to raise funds. Fine tuning was needed and in 1379 the second poll tax was a graduated tax based on a schedule.

To make matters worse the young 14 year old King Richard II relied on his advisors John of Gaunt, Simon Sudbury (Lord Chancellor and Archbishop of Canterbury) and Sir Robert Hales (Lord Treasurer, responsible for the poll tax). None of these men were popular and many saw them as corrupt officials, exploiting the young King.

The third poll tax in 1381 was a blended tax, allowing some of the poor to pay a reduced rate, but others who were equally poor had to pay the full tax, prompting calls of injustice. This tax was set at three groats (about 12 pence or one shilling).

Peasants' Revolt

"Of the poll taxes in English history, the most famous was the one levied in 1380, a main cause of the peasant's revolt of 1381 led by Wat Tyler" [2]

By June 1381, people of England had three poll tax assessments in less than four years (1377, 1379 and 1381.) There seemed no end in sight for these assessments and each was higher than the last. Rebels from Kent joined Wat Tyler on his march to London. Jack Straw's "Men of Essex" began a march of their own and they too arrived in London. For the most part, protests were controlled, but an attack on John of Gaunt's home was vicious. Some say that the leaders met with the young king on June 14th, but if they did the outcome was dubious. Promises were made by the young king. While the meeting took place, rebels stormed the Tower of London killing those who hid there including the Lord Chancellor and Lord Treasurer. The rebel leaders were all killed and the king quickly revoked all the concessions.

The name Peasant's Revolt is a bit misleading as many middle and some upper class people supported the revolt either directly or indirectly. Accordingly, most believe that this revolt led England out of serfdom and away from feudalism.

Poll taxes through History

Poll Tax has continued in many forms through to modern history. In the United States a similar tax based on the right to vote was struck down in 1964 with the 24th Amendment. In the United Kingdom, the UK Poll Tax Riots of 1990 led to the downfall of Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.



  1. ^ Aguilar-Cauz, Jorge President, The New Encyclopedia Britannica, 15th Edition, Volume 9 pp. 567 ISBN 1-59339-292-3
  2. ^ Ibid, p. 567
  3. ^ Swyrich, Archive materials