What are Hearth Taxes? - Definition & History

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Nobody likes taxes, but they are a big part of history. In this lesson, we'll see what a hearth tax is and explore the most famous use of this system back in the 17th century.

The Hearth Tax

Taxes are a pain, but we should take a minute to recognize the real victims here: tax collectors. It can be so tedious to have to wander around the country, counting the people and deciding how much everyone owes. Luckily, history has provided tax collectors with an alternative to the systems that levy a tax on each individual. That alternative is a hearth tax, which is a tax on a fireplace.

In essence, the hearth tax was a medieval and early modern property tax. Rather than trying to tax each person individually, taxes were levied against a family unit, or all the people living under one roof and around the same hearth.

Hearth Taxes in European History

The concept of a hearth tax has ancient roots, dating back at least to the early medieval period and the Byzantine Empire. In the 8th century, the Byzantine emperors levied a property tax assigned to each family, which was calculated based on the number of oxen each family owned (which theoretically indicated the amount of agriculture they could produce). Abandoned properties were assigned to other farmers in the neighborhood to ensure that every piece of land was taxed.

Later European kingdoms also took on hearth taxes. The many medieval wars of both France and England were often paid for with property taxes upon households of the nation. The Catholic Church also levied a property tax known as Peter's Pence, which asked each household to contribute one penny every year to the Papal See. This practice seems to have been instituted around the 7th century, although England stopped paying it after leaving the Catholic Church in the 16th century.

The Hearth Tax of Charles II

There were many experiments with a property tax in European history, but when people talk about the hearth tax, they are almost always referring to the one implemented from 1662 to 1689 by Charles II, King of England.

Charles II of England

Charles II inherited the English throne after the English Civil War, during which his father was beheaded by Parliament. In 1660, he marched back into England and restored the monarchy, claiming his birthright to rule. However, he was restoring his authority over a nation that was politically fractured, devastated from years of warfare, and completely broke. He needed money in the royal treasury in order to rebuild England, and that meant taxing the English people.

Charles II's plan was to implement a poll tax or head tax that would levy taxes on each individual. However, he was presented a different solution by the British economist and theoretician Sir William Petty. Petty pointed out that people in England moved around frequently, conducting their business day-to-day, which gave them great opportunity to avoid head taxes and poll taxes. Instead, he proposed a tax on each hearth, since every non-destitute person had a permanent address, regardless of how much they traveled for their work.

Sir William Petty

A Tax on Occupancy

In 1662, Charles II implemented his hearth tax. The tax required the occupants of every house to pay two shillings per year for every hearth or stove in their home. One shilling was paid in March, and the other in September.

It's worth noting that you did not have to actually own the hearth in order to be taxed for it. Land ownership was still something largely exclusive to the upper class; the working class rented their homes from the aristocrats. So, the hearth tax was levied against the person occupying the home. If a house was unoccupied, however, then the owner/landlord was responsible for paying the hearth tax on that property.

Unlike many of the previous hearth taxes in history, Charles II's did have exemptions. If you were so impoverished that you were already exempt from paying local taxes to the parish or church, you were exempt from the hearth tax. Charitable institutions and industrial hearths were also exempt, although this caused some confusion. Blacksmiths claimed their forges counted as industrial hearths, and bakers claimed the same about their ovens, which meant they should be exempt from the tax. The government disagreed.

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