England's Last Poll Tax

Conrad Russell examines the evil reputation attached to the poll tax.

The English cannot normally match the historical memory of the Irish. The evil reputation attaching to Poll Taxes is one of the very few exceptions to this principle. A casual study of this summer's British newspapers, reporting the Thatcher Government's plans to replace property rates in Britain with 'a community charge' levied on an individual headcount (or 'poll') basis, shows that the evil reputation of the Poll Tax of 1380 and its association with the subsequent Peasants' Revolt, lives on. However, it was not, as is frequently asserted, the last English poll tax, Another was levied – in 1641. It may be interesting to look at what happened in 1641, to see what those responsible for that Poll Tax learnt from their predecessors' errors.

The men responsible for the 1641 poll tax were well aware of the evil associations of the tax they were levying: Sir Edward Coke, for example, had used it as one of his standard examples of the consequences of 'pressing the people above their abilities', and the men who introduced the 1641 poll tax had served their political apprenticeship under Coke. They were well aware that they were doing something dangerous, and the interest of the 1641 poll tax centres on the efforts made to avoid the disaster which had overtaken the previous one. They avoided rebellion (no one has yet attempted to blame the poll tax for the Civil War), but the question remains whether the efforts to soften the impact of the 1641 poll tax may have done more fiscal harm than political good.

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