- The History of England Vol V Charles I (Tonnage and poundage) by David Hume
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The History of England Vol V
Charles I
Tonnage and poundage

by David Hume

But the great article, on which the house of commons broke with the king, and which finally created in Charles a disgust to all parliaments, was their claim with regard to tonnage and poundage. On this occasion, therefore, it is necessary to give an account of the controversy.

The duty of tonnage and poundage, in more ancient times, had been commonly a temporary grant of parliament; but it had been conferred on Henry V. and all the succeeding princes, during life, in order to enable them to maintain a naval force for the defence of the kingdom. The necessity of levying this duty had been so apparent, that each king had ever claimed it from the moment of his accession; and the first parliament of each reign had usually by vote conferred on the prince what they found him already in possession of. Agreeably to the inaccurate genius of the old constitution, this abuse, however considerable, had never been perceived nor remedied; though nothing could have been easier than for the parliament to have prevented it.e By granting this duty to each prince, during his own life, and, for a year after his demise, to the successor, all inconveniencies had been obviated; and yet the duty had never, for a moment, been levied without proper authority. But contrivances of that nature were not thought of during those rude ages: And as so complicated and jealous a government as the English cannot subsist without many such refinements; it is easy to see, how favourable every inaccuracy must formerly have proved to royal authority, which, on all emergencies, was obliged to supply, by discretionary power, the great deficiency of the laws.

The parliament did not grant the duty of tonnage and poundage to Henry VIII. till the sixth of his reign: Yet this prince, who had not then raised his power to its greatest height, continued, during that whole time, to levy the imposition: The parliament, in their very grant, blame the merchants, who had neglected to make payment to the crown; and though one expression of that bill may seem ambiguous, they employ the plainest terms in calling tonnage and poundage the king’s due, even before that duty was conferred on him by parliamentary authority.f Four reigns, and above a whole century, had since elapsed; and this revenue had still been levied before it was voted by parliament. So long had the inaccuracy continued, without being remarked or corrected!

During that short interval, which passed, between Charles’s accession and his first parliament, he had followed the example of his predecessors; and no fault was found with his conduct in this particular. But what was most remarkable in the proceedings of that house of commons, and what proved beyond controversy, that they had seriously formed a plan for reducing their prince to subjection, was, that, instead of granting this supply during the king’s life-time, as it had been enjoyed by all his immediate predecessors, they voted it only for a year; and, after that should be elapsed, reserved to themselves the power of renewing or refusing the same concession.g But the house of peers, who saw, that this duty was now become more necessary than ever to supply the growing necessities of the crown, and who did not approve of this encroaching spirit in the commons, rejected the bill; and the dissolution of that parliament followed so soon after, that no attempt seems to have been made for obtaining tonnage and poundage in any other form.NOTE [U]

Charles, meanwhile, continued still to levy this duty by his own authority; and the nation was so accustomed to that exertion of royal power, that no scruple was at first entertained of submitting to it. But the succeeding parliament excited doubts in every one. The commons took there some steps towards declaring it illegal to levy tonnage and poundage without consent of parliament; and they openly showed their intention of employing this engine, in order to extort from the crown concessions of the most important nature. But Charles was not yet sufficiently tamed to compliance; and the abrupt dissolution of that parliament, as above related, put an end, for the time, to their farther pretensions.

The following interval, between the second and third parliament, was distinguished by so many exertions of prerogative, that men had little leisure to attend to the affair of tonnage and poundage, where the abuse of power in the crown might seem to be of a more disputable nature. But after the commons, during the precedent session, had remedied all these grievances by means of their petition of right, which they deemed so necessary; they afterwards proceeded to take the matter into consideration, and they showed the same intention, as formerly, of exacting, in return for the grant of this revenue, very large compliances on the part of the crown. Their sudden prorogation prevented them from bringing their pretensions to a full conclusion.

When Charles opened this session, he had foreseen, that the same controversy would arise; and he therefore took care, very early, among many mild and reconciling expressions, to inform the commons, “That he had not taken these duties as appertaining to his hereditary prerogative; but that it ever was, and still is, his meaning to enjoy them as a gift of his people: And that, if he had hitherto levied tonnage and poundage, he pretended to justify himself only by the necessity of so doing, not by any right which he assumed.” i This concession, which probably arose from the king’s moderate temper, now freed from the impulse of Buckingham’s violent counsels, might have satisfied the commons, had they entertained no other view than that of ascertaining their own powers and privileges. But they carried their pretensions much higher. They insisted, as a necessary preliminary, that the king should once entirely desist from levying these duties; after which, they were to take it into consideration, how far they would restore him to the possession of a revenue, of which he had clearly divested himself. But besides that this extreme rigour had never been exercised towards any of his predecessors, and many obvious inconveniencies must follow from the intermission of the customs; there were other reasons, which deterred Charles from complying with so hard a condition. It was probable, that the commons might renew their former project of making this revenue only temporary, and thereby reducing their prince to perpetual dependence; they certainly would cut off the new impositions, which Mary and Elizabeth, but especially James, had levied, and which formed no despicable part of the public revenue; and they openly declared, that they had, at present, many important pretensions, chiefly with regard to religion; and if compliance were refused, no supply must be expected from the commons.

It is easy to see in what an inextricable labyrinth Charles was now involved. By his own concessions, by the general principles of the English government, and by the form of every bill, which had granted this duty, tonnage and poundage was derived entirely from the free gift of the people; and, consequently, might be withdrawn at their pleasure. If unreasonable in their refusal, they still refused nothing but what was their own. If public necessity required this supply, it might be thought also to require the king’s compliance with those conditions, which were the price of obtaining it. Though the motive for granting it had been the enabling of the king to guard the seas; it did not follow, that, because he guarded the seas, he was therefore entitled to this revenue, without farther formality: Since the people had still reserved to themselves the right of judging how far that service merited such a supply. But Charles, notwithstanding his public declaration, was far from assenting to this conclusion, in its full extent. The plain consequence, he saw, of all these rigours, and refinements, and inferences, was, that he, without any public necessity, and without any fault of his own, must of a sudden, even from his accession, become a magistrate of a very different nature from any of his predecessors, and must fall into a total dependence on subjects, over whom former kings, especially those immediately preceding, had exercised an authority almost unlimited. Entangled in a chain of consequences, which he could not easily break, he was inclined to go higher, and rather deny the first principle, than admit of conclusions, which to him appeared so absurd and unreasonable. Agreeably to the ideas hitherto entertained both by natives and foreigners, the monarch he esteemed the essence and soul of the English government; and whatever other power pretended to annihilate or even abridge the royal authority, must necessarily, he thought, either in its nature or exercise, be deemed no better than a usurpation. Willing to preserve the ancient harmony of the constitution, he had ever intended to comply, as far as he easily could, with the ancient forms of administration: But when these forms appeared to him, by the inveterate obstinacy of the commons, to have no other tendency than to disturb that harmony, and to introduce a new constitution; he concluded, that, in this violent situation, what was subordinate must necessarily yield to what was principal, and the privileges of the people, for a time, give place to royal prerogative. From the rank of a monarch, to be degraded into a slave of his insolent, ungrateful subjects, seemed, of all indignities, the greatest; and nothing, in his judgment, could exceed the humiliation attending such a state, but the meanness of tamely submitting to it, without making some efforts to preserve the authority transmitted to him by his predecessors.

Though these were the king’s reflections and resolutions before the parliament assembled, he did not immediately break with them, upon their delay in voting him this supply. He thought, that he could better justify any strong measure, which he might afterwards be obliged to take, if he allowed them to carry to the utmost extremities their attacks upon his government and prerogative.k He contented himself, for the present, with soliciting the house by messages and speeches. But the commons, instead of hearkening to his solicitations, proceeded to carry their scrutiny into his management of religion,l which was the only grievance, to which, in their opinion, they had not as yet, by their petition of right, applied a sufficient remedy.
[e] Parl. Hist. vol. viii. p. 339, 340.

[f] 6 Henry VIII. cap. 14.

[g] Journ. 5 July, 1625.

[NOTE [U]] The reason assigned by Sir Philip Warwick, p. 2. for this unusual measure of the commons, is, that they intended to deprive the crown of the prerogative, which it had assumed, of varying the rates of the impositions, and at the same time were resolved to cut off the new rates fixed by James. These were considerable diminutions both of revenue and prerogative; and whether they would have there stopped, considering their present disposition, may be much doubted. The king, it seems, and the lords, were resolved not to trust them; nor to render a revenue once precarious, which perhaps they might never afterwards be able to get re-established on the old footing.

[i] Rushworth, vol. i. p. 644. Parl. Hist. vol. viii. p. 256, 346.

[k] Rushworth, vol. i. p. 642.

[l] Idem, ibid. p. 651. Whitlocke, p. 12.
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