Ship money was a tax, the levy of which by Charles I of England without the consent of Parliament was one of the causes of the English Civil War. The Plantagenet kings of England had exercised the right of requiring the maritime towns and counties to furnish ships in time of war; and the liability was sometimes commuted for a money payment.
Notwithstanding that several statutes of Edward I and Edward III had made it illegal for the crown to exact any taxes without the consent of Parliament, the prerogative of levying ship money in time of war had never fallen wholly into abeyance, and in 1619 James I aroused no popular opposition by levying £40,000 of ship money on London and £8550 on other seaport towns.
The fleet of Charles I during the first three years of his reign was, says Samuel Rawson Gardiner, "largely composed of vessels demanded from the port towns and maritime counties. The idea of universal ship money to be levied in every county in England seemed to him to be merely a further extension of the old principle." Accordingly, in February 1628, Charles issued writs requiring £173,000 to be returned to the exchequer by March 1 for the provision of a fleet to secure the country against French invasion and for the protection of commerce, and every county in England was assessed for payment.
This was the first occasion when the demand for ship money aroused serious opposition. Lord Northampton , lord-lieutenant of Warwickshire, and the earl of Banbury in Berkshire, refused to assist in collecting the money; and Charles withdrew the writs. It will be seen, then, that the statement of Henry Hallam that in 1634 William Noy, the attorney-general, unearthed in the Tower of London old records of ship money as a tax disused and forgotten for centuries has no real foundation. It was, it is true, the suggestion of Noy that a further resort should be had to this expedient for raising money when, in 1634, Charles made a secret treaty with Philip IV of Spain to assist him against the Dutch; and Noy set himself to investigate such ancient legal learning as was in existence in support of the demand.
The king having obtained an opinion in favour of the legality of the writ from Lord Keeper Coventry and the Earl of Manchester, the writ was issued in October 1634 and directed to the justices of London and other sea ports, requiring them to provide a certain number of ships of war of a prescribed tonnage and equipment, or their equivalent in money, and empowering them to assess the inhabitants for payment of the tax according to their substance.
The distinctive feature of the writ of 1634 was that it was issued, contrary to all precedent, in time of peace. Charles desired to conceal the true aim of his policy, which he knew would be detested by the country, and he accordingly alleged as a pretext for the impost the danger to commerce from pirates, and the general condition of unrest in Europe.
The citizens of London immediately claimed exemption under their charter, while other towns argued as to the amount of their assessment; but no resistance on constitutional grounds appears to have been offered to the validity of the writ, and a sum of £104,000 was collected.
On August 4 1635, a second writ of ship money was issued, directed on this occasion, as in the revoked writ of 1628, to the sheriffs and justices of inland as well as of maritime counties and towns, demanding the sum of £208,000, which was to be obtained by assessment on personal as well as real property, payment to be enforced by distress.
This demand excited growing popular discontent, which now began to see in it a determination on the part of the king to dispense altogether with parliamentary government. Charles, therefore, obtained a written opinion, signed by ten out of twelve judges consulted, to the effect that in time of national danger, of which the crown was the sole judge, ship money might legally be levied on all parts of the country by writ under the great seal.
The issue of a third writ of ship money on the 9th of October 1636 made it evident that the ancient restrictions, which limited the levying of the tax to the maritime parts of the kingdom and to times of war or imminent national danger, had been finally swept away, and that the king intended to convert it into a permanent and general form of taxation without parliamentary sanction. The judges again, at Charles's request, gave an opinion favourable to the prerogative, which was read by Coventry in the Star Chamber and by the judges on assize.
Payment was, however, refused by Lord Saye and by John Hampden, a wealthy Buckinghamshire landowner. The case against the latter (Rex v. Hampden, 3 State Trials, 825) was heard before all the judges in the Exchequer Chamber, Hampden being defended by Oliver St John. Hampden narrowly lost the case, and ship money continued to be levied, provoking yet more opposition, until, overtaken by events, it was repealed by the Long Parliament.