John Hampden was adopted as a sort of patron saint of the Women’s Tax Resistance League and other suffragist groups who used or defended the tactic of tax resistance.

To explain why the Hampden legend had the sort of resonance it did, I’ll turn to Stephen Dowell, who tells the story in his A History of Taxation and Taxes in England ():

The famous ship writs of king Charles Ⅰ. formed an extra-parliamentary method of obtaining the result of a tax on property. They embodied the ultimate expression of the ingenuity of the king’s advisers in the invention of means to enable him to rule without a parliament.

It will be remembered that the position of the king as regards the levy of taxes on property was clear and acknowledged. Except in the case of the Jews, who had been liable to indefinite extortion at the hands of the king because they were permitted to be here solely at his will, and in the case of the tenants of royal demesne, who by reason of their relation to the king as their landlord, were liable to tallage when he was in debt — with these two exceptions, the king never had any right to take an aid or subsidy from the subject without the consent of parliament, unless it were for knighting his son, for the marriage of his eldest daughter, or to ransom his person, and then only to a reasonable amount. On any other occasion the grant was in the hands of parliament.

An acknowledgment of this right of parliament was implied in the terms used for the contributions in aid of the king, which were demanded as for “gifts” and “benevolences,” or under the specious pretext of “loans;” and these attempts at exaction and any tax of the kind had been suppressed by the Petition of Eight, to which the king had given his assent in .

There was nothing new in the use of ship writs. They formed a well-known means of getting together a navy in times of war. Before the invention of cannon there was little difference between any ship worthy to be called a merchant vessel and a ship of war; and in the times of the Plantagenets, when we had no permanent navy, when ships were wanted for war, the sea-port towns had been required to furnish their ships with men and equipment for the defence of the kingdom. A permanent navy, commenced by Henry Ⅷ., with the Regent and the Harry Grâce à Dieu, or “the Great Harry,” had been carefully increased by him and Elizabeth, who, to the “one and twenty great ships and three notable galleys, with the sight whereof and the rest of the royal navy it was incredible how much her grace was delighted,” added, after the breach with Spain, one large ship at least every year. But even after this formation of a permanent royal navy, it was from the merchant navy that two-thirds of the ships that formed the fleet against the Armada were derived; and they were the result of ship writs, issued according to precedent, to London and the other port towns, requiring them to furnish ships and their equipment for the defence of the kingdom. Thus also, in , the greater number (12 out of 18) of the vessels employed in the attack on Algiers — the only warlike operation by sea undertaken by James Ⅰ. — were ships hired from private merchants; and on this occasion the port towns had been required to provide ships, and ship money was levied for the purpose. And lastly, as late as in , when we were at war with Spain, the seaports had been required, after the dissolution of parliament, to provide and maintain a fleet of ships for three months.

But all these were war precedents, and applied only to the port towns; and Noy’s ingenuity in building upon them his famous superstructure consisted in drafting the preamble of the “new writs of an old edition,” so as to bring the case, as far as possible, within the precedents, and to prepare the way for a more extensive issue of writs throughout the kingdom, on the plan of the ship-geld of Anglo-Saxon times.

At this time, though England was at peace with other nations, a rising jealousy of the importance of the Dutch threatened at no distant date to lead to war with them upon the question of the close or open sea. War was going on between the Spaniards and French and the Dutch. While the Barbary pirates had extended their ravages upon our merchant ships even to within sight of our coasts. Such was the state of affairs. Noy made the most of them. He began by infusing a spirit of crusade into the business by stigmatizing the corsairs as “Turks, enemies of the Christian name;” grouped these “thieves, robbers, and pirates of the sea” together in bands; recited their capture of ships and men in the channel and their further preparations of ships “to molest our merchants and grieve the kingdom;” and, referring to the wars abroad and the possibility that we might be involved in them — “the dangers which in these times of war do hang over our heads;” thus presented a strong case for providing for “the defence of the kingdom, safeguard of the sea, security of the subjects, and safe conduct of ships and merchandise coming to the kingdom and passing outwards to foreign parts.” Then he went on to say — in allusion to the principle of the old ship-geld of Anglo-Saxon times, that the whole kingdom ought, it was true, to bear the burden of defence, but the maritime counties and towns were “more chiefly bound to set a helping hand, not only because they got more plentiful gain by the sea than others, but also because it was their duty of allegiance to defend the sea coast and keep up the honour of the king there,” for which reason writs were sent to them on this occasion.1

The writs were issued on .

There was no opposition to this levy, which, after all, was not an unprecedented charge, though some towns petitioned against what they regarded as an overestimate of the proportion of the whole amount to be paid by the town, and the citizens of London, who were charged with the payment of a fifth of the whole sum, remonstrated on the ground they had advanced in former times against tallage, of their peculiar privileges of exemption from such levies, by reason of their charter, their ancient liberties and acts of parliament. But a summons of the lord mayor before the council and a stormy meeting ended in the submission of the Londoners to obey the king’s orders in the matter.

The amount raised was £104,252, a sum obviously insufficient for any extensive increase of the navy, while the course of events on the continent increased the anxiety of Charles to strengthen his force at sea. He was now advised to advance in the business and carry the intention of taxing the whole kingdom into effect by means of a second set of ship writs, to extend to inland as well as maritime counties and towns; and in June, the lord keeper, Coventry, in the usual address to the judges of assize in the Star Chamber, previous to their going on circuit, informed them to that effect, and that the grounds on which the council had advised the step were that “since all the kingdom was interested both in the honour, safety and profit, it was just and reasonable that they should all put to their helping hands.”

Accordingly on , a second issue of ship writs was ordered, to extend to inland as well as maritime counties and towns.

In these writs the recital of the reasons for the issue was altered so as to suit the circumstances. They proceeded upon the old principle of the ship-geld of Anglo-Saxon times, that inasmuch as the burden of defence relates to all, it should be borne by all, according to the law and custom of England. A writ was sent to the sheriff of every county, and separate writs to a number of the principal cities and towns. The writs stated the tunnage of the ship or ships required and the place of rendezvous at a given date, and contained elaborate provisions for the apportionment of the expense between the different parts and towns in the county, the assessment of the contributories, and the collection of the rate. In substance the levy was an extra-parliamentary levy of a subsidy of a fixed amount for the purpose of increasing the navy; for it was not necessary to provide the ship itself or the men. A special commission was issued for the loan of ships and pinnaces of the king’s own to counties and towns unable to find them as required by the writs, and the arming and furnishing them in warlike manner with ordnance and munition of all sorts; and the treasurer of the navy was empowered to receive from the officers of the counties and towns, all moneys paid in for the said ships and service.

Although the whole sum to be raised was but £208,900, a sum less than the produce of three subsidies, this more extended application of the ship writs encountered opposition not only in inland counties, but also in maritime places where the previous levy had not been opposed. No doubt the new assessment involved in the levy tended to render the ship money unpopular throughout the country; for the contributories would have to expect that their assessments would be raised in the king’s subsidy books, and for all the different local levies of the period — for building houses of correction, for contributions for places stricken by the plague, rates for the poor, &c. And no doubt the people also resented the interference of the sheriff in the business. But it was not for these reasons only that ship money met with opposition. It was now opposed on principle. In Oxfordshire, in the hundred of Bloxham, where stands lord Saye and Sele’s castle of Broughton, the constables, evidently upon careful advice, refused to proceed to the assessment, on the ground that they “had no authority to assess or tax any man” and conceived the warrants sent to them did not give them any power to do so, and eventually sir Peter Wentworth, the sheriff, was ordered himself to make the necessary assessment. While troubles of the same kind occurred in Devonshire and other places.

In these circumstances the king caused a case to be submitted to the judges, in , for their opinion as to the legality of the levy and his power to enforce payment of the ship money, and the twelve judges, viz., the justices of the courts of king’s bench and common pleas and the barons of the exchequer, or ten of them according to some accounts, expressed and signed their opinion, in answer to the questions put to them, as follows:—

We are of opinion that when the good and safety of the kingdom in general is concerned and the whole kingdom is in danger, your Majesty may by writ under your great seal of England, command all the subjects of this your kingdom at their charge to provide and furnish such a number of ships, with men, victuals, and munition, and for such time as your majesty may think fit, for the defence and safeguard of the kingdom from such danger and peril; and that by law your majesty may compel the doing thereof in case of refusal or refractoriness.

We are also of opinion that in such case your majesty is the sole judge, both of the danger and when and how the same is to be prevented and avoided.

This opinion was, by command of the king, enrolled in the courts of chancery, king’s bench, common pleas and exchequer, and also entered among the remembrances of the court of star chamber; and thus fortified, he continued the levy of ship money. A third issue of ship writs, similar to those issued on , was ordered in , and they produced £202,240 And in there was a fourth issue of writs.

Although under the new assessments, the ship money was, certainly, more fairly assessed than any fifteenth and tenth or subsidy hitherto collected — for indeed, it was of extreme importance to the king that no fault to be found with the assessment or any detail of the tax should endanger the rapidity and ease of the collection — and although the amount levied was no more than about the annual average of the produce of the subsidies granted to the king by parliament in the earlier part of the reign, the opposition of the people to ship money increased on every occasion of a levy. Already Robert Chambers, a merchant of London, an old opponent of the imposts who had suffered imprisonment for his opposition, had endeavoured to test the legality of ship money in a court of law, but without success; for the court had refused to hear his counsel on the ground, as stated by sir Richard Berkeley, that “the question raised was one of government and not of law.” And now lord Saye and Sele, and John Hampden, a Buckinghamshire squire, determined to obtain a legal decision upon the point. The king, confident in the opinion expressed by the judges, had no reason to offer any opposition to the course proposed, and Hampden’s, made a test case, came on for hearing in the court of exchequer in .

In cases of great importance and difficulty arising in one of the three superior courts of law, it was usual to adjourn the case into the exchequer chamber, a court which, for this purpose, consisted of all the judges of the three courts. This course was taken by the barons of the exchequer in Hampden’s case. The case was argued solemnly for several days; and in the result, it was decided by a majority of the judges that Hampden should be charged with the sum assessed on him, the main grounds and reasons for the decision being those of the extrajudicial opinion of the judges in .

At last, the king was compelled to summon a parliament, , in order to provide for the expenses of the preparations for the campaign in Scotland. But this parliament, subsequently known as the short parliament, was dissolved as soon as it appeared probable that they would refuse to proceed at once to the question of supply.

In the king summoned a great council of peers and laid before them the difficulties of his case, and on their advice, summoned in , subsequently known as the Long Parliament. This parliament, after passing the Triennial Act and the Bill of Attainder against Strafford, settled the question of tunnage and poundage by granting the subsidy for a short term, and then proceeded to pass Acts against the ship money, distraint for knighthood and illegal impositions, and for ascertaining the bounds of the royal forests.

The Act against ship money, 16 Car. I. c. 14, entitled, “An Act for declaring illegal and void the late proceedings touching ship money and for vacating all records and process concerning the same” recites:—

“The issue of the ship-writs. The necessity of enforcing payment against sundry persons by process of law. The proceedings against Hampden. The hearing of the case and the decision of the judges that Hampden should be charged with the sum assessed on him. The grounds for that decision. The extrajudicial opinion given by all the judges on the case submitted to them in , and, That other cases were then depending in the court of exchequer and in some other courts against other persons, for the like kind of charge, grounded upon the said writs commonly called ship writs, all which writs and proceedings as aforesaid were utterly against the law of the land;” and enacts:—

That the said charge imposed upon the subject for the providing and furnishing of ships, commonly called ship-money; and the said extrajudicial opinion of the said justices and barons and the said writs, and every of them and the said agreement or opinion of the greater part of the said justices and barons, and the said judgment given against the said John Hampden, were, and are, contrary to and against the laws and statutes of this realm, the right of property, the liberty of the subjects, former resolutions in Parliament, and the Petition of Eight made in the third year of the reign.

And further, that all and every the particulars prayed or desired in the said Petition of Eight, shall from henceforth be put in execution accordingly, and shall be firmly and strictly holden and observed, as in the same Petition they are prayed and expressed. And that all and every the records and remembrances of all and every the judgment enrolments, entry and proceedings as aforesaid, and all and every the proceedings whatsoever, upon, or by pretext or colour of any of the said writs commonly called ship writs, and all and every the dependants on any of them, shall be deemed and adjudged to all intents, constructions and purposes to be utterly void and disannulled, and that all and every the said judgment, enrolments, entries, proceedings, and dependants of what kind soever, shall be vacated and cancelled in such manner and form as records use to be that are vacated.

  1. The attorney-general, “with his own hand” — according to Edward Hyde Clarendon — “draughted and prepared the ship writs” for the maritime towns and counties. “Noy,” writes Selden, in his Table Talk, “brought in the ship money for maritime towns, which was like putting in a little auger that afterwards you may put in a greater. He that pulls down the first brick does the main work; afterwards, it is easy to pull down the wall.”

Karl Marx, when he was on trial for his own tax resistance, referred back to Hampden, saying:

Far be it from me to deny that the English revolution, which brought Charles to the scaffold, began with a refusal to pay taxes or that the North American revolution, which ended with the Declaration of Independence from Britain, started with a refusal to pay taxes. The refusal to pay taxes can be the harbinger of unpleasant events in Prussia too. It was not John Hampden, however, who brought Charles to the scaffold, but only the latter’s own obstinacy, his dependence on the feudal estates, and his presumptuous attempt to use force to suppress the urgent demands of the emerging society. The refusal to pay taxes is merely a sign of the dissidence that exists between the Crown and the people, merely evidence that the conflict between the government and the people has reached a menacing degree of tensity. It is not the cause of the discord or the conflict, it is merely an expression of this fact. At the worst, it leads to the overthrow of the existing government, the existing political system. The foundations of society are not affected by this. In the present case, moreover, the refusal to pay taxes was a means of society’s self-defense against a government which threatened its foundations.

Benjamin Ricketson Tucker faced off in the pages of Liberty with a letter writer who contrasted Tucker’s hesitant tax resistance with that of Hampden’s. Some of Gandhi’s first writings on tax resistance also concerned Hampden:

At that time, King Charles was the ruler of England and he wanted to wage wars in foreign lands. As his treasury had become empty, he imposed Ship Money. Hampden, a rich gentleman of great prestige, saw that, if Ship Money were paid, the King’s demands would go on increasing and the people would suffer. He therefore refused to pay the tax, and many joined him in this. Though some of them agreed to pay the tax, Hampden remained firm and was prosecuted. The judges sentenced him, declaring that he had committed a crime in not paying the tax. Despite the sentence, Hampden did not pay the tax. Hampden and his companions went to jail and the people congratulated them. Like them, the people too remained firm. Many did not pay the tax and there was a great revolt. The King became nervous and the whole matter was reconsidered. It was realized that thousands of people could not be sent to jail. He therefore got the earlier judgment reversed by other judges and Hampden was set free. The seed of the struggle for freedom that he sowed grew into a mighty tree. As a result of the struggle he put up, Cromwell emerged and England acquired real power and the people were given a large share in the governance of the country. Hampden died fighting for his country; he remains immortal.

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