Imagine a smuggler of past centuries and you’ll probably find yourself picturing a scene out of the 18th century: perhaps a moonlit boat bringing brandy into a deserted cove, or armed revenue men raiding a hideout for contraband. Smuggling in the Tudor period, by contrast, was a much more commercial affair. The men who conducted it were mostly sober merchants, rather than desperate criminals, and their chief weapons were their account books and purses.
While smuggling has existed for as long as nations have taxed and regulated commerce England’s illicit trade grew into a major enterprise during Henry VIII’s reign. In the 16th century, Tudor monarchs, who ruled England, Wales and parts of Ireland, were unable to persuade parliame nt to raise taxes in line with inflation. So, in an effort to raise revenue, one of the tactics the Tudors adopted was to ban certain types of commercial activity, such as the export of grain, and then issue expensive licences to allow the trade to go ahead. The result was that it became very expensive to export these ‘prohibited’ wares.
Merchants reacted by turning to smuggling. Taking Bristol as a case study, and using the account books of wealthy traders to reconstruct their illicit operations, we can see that, initially, activity focused on the export of foodstuffs and leather, which could be very profitable. In the early 1540s, for example, merchants were making up to 150 per cent net profit on illicit exports of foodstuffs and 80 per cent on leather, at a time when their legal cloth exports were making barely anything.
What made the traffic in contraband easy was that the customs service was poorly integrated, under-resourced and venal. This meant that customs officers could be bribed, not only to refrain from searching a ship, but also to stop others from doing so. Or as one complainant put it, for a fee the officers would act as the merchants’ “warrant and defence and watches that no other person shall annoy them”.
For their part, the merchants were so confident that they wouldn’t be held to account that they recorded their fraudulent activities in their ordinary account books. Their sense of being ‘untouchable’ was normally justified, for they included many of the wealthiest and best-connected men in their communities. In Bristol, nine of the merchant-smugglers identified from the private accounts served as mayor, sheriff or MP of the city.
While government and parliament constantly decried the “covetous and greedy” behaviour of the merchants, in practice they achieved little. In great part, this was because corruption reached up to the highest levels of government. The customs officials whom the merchants bribed had to buy their posts from the lord treasurer of the exchequer.
And successive lord treasurers were willing to grant offices to men who could not possibly have profited from their ‘investment’ by legal means. Contemporaries were not blind to this. The astonishing wealth of customs officers was commonly remarked upon during the later 16th century, one observer cynically noting that it was a “marvel to all men how of so small wages or of other duties lawfully belonging to them they [the customs officers] can justly or honestly… become so rich”.
That the ultimate responsibility for this state of affairs lay at the doors of Elizabeth I’s chief ministers was also alleged. Sir Walter Ralegh, for instance, claimed that all three of Elizabeth’s chief ministers – Lord Burghley, Sir Francis Walsingham and Robert Dudley – had been ‘pensioners’ to the chief customs officer of London. This implied that he paid them an annual ‘fee’ to retain his office.
After 1558, smuggling spread to the two chief branches of English trade: the export of woollen broadcloth and the import of wine. In the case of broadcloth, a seven-fold hike in duties prompted merchants to smuggle. As for wine, the chief cause was an 18-fold increase in the tax, coupled with the crown’s refusal to raise the official price at which wine could be sold in England.
Since the new duties added 40 per cent to the cost of importing wine, these policies meant that it became almost impossible to be an honest wine merchant. This fostered a culture in which few merchants seem to have felt that there was anything wrong in seeking to “fleece and geld” the crown of its revenues. Or as one man put it, merchants came to hold that “deceit which is used towards the Prince… be no deceit at all.”
9 places linked to smuggling in the 16th century
The Matthew, Bristol
Where officials twice seized uncustomed goods
Built to celebrate the 500th anniversary of John Cabot’s crossing of the Atlantic in 1497, this replica caravel was fairly typical of the vessels that carried much of England’s illicit trade during the Tudor period.
Indeed The Matthew itself, which served as an ordinary commercial vessel when not exploring the New World, was no stranger to the smuggler’s trade, uncustomed goods being seized from it in both 1498 and 1500. Ships in this period were typically flat-bottomed and built to be able to withstand a twice-daily beaching when in port.
This meant that a ship like The Matthew was capable of taking on or discharging an illicit cargo at any one of the 56 creeks and havens that lay under the jurisdiction of the port of Bristol. All it would have to do would be to slip into a creek at high tide, beach as the tide went out, take on a cargo and then steal away on the next tide.
The replica ship will be in Falmouth until early August, before returning to her ordinary berth in Bristol for the autumn and winter. When in the city’s harbour she can normally be found just outside M Shed – the Museum of Bristol. Visits when the ship is in harbour are normally free of charge.
The Port of Bristol
Where ships once picked up illegal consignments
While Bristol was a major locus for 16th-century smuggling, much of the activity took place in the Severn estuary, just below Avonmouth. Here, ships would take on illicit consignments dispatched on barges from warehouses up the river Severn.
For instance, the Bristol merchant John Smyth noted in his ledger that in July 1543 a consignment of leather, dispatched from Newnham, was laden on to two Spanish ships at ‘Kyttells Wood’, just beyond Portishead.
Any trip to Bristol should take in the ‘nails’ on Corn Street, where merchants agreed deals, and the Welsh Back, where the old Customs House was located. It was to the Customs House that the smuggler William Tyndall MP was called in 1558 when customs officers received a report of an illicit shipment of grain that Tyndall’s ship was dispatching. Yet the officers didn’t arrest the MP. Rather, they warned him of the accusation and urged him to take countermeasures.
Writing to his brother down at Kingroad, William told him that “I have had much talk with the customer and controller, who be honest men, but, being informed, must needs to what they would not willingly”. He thus prayed that his brother should get away with the consignment before the officers “must needs come aboard and, for their own discharge, do harm”.
Where marcher lords fought against crown duties
Long used to being independent of the exchequer, it took some time to persuade the Welsh ports to accept that they had to pay crown duties. When Londoner John Leek was dispatched there in 1563 to collect customs at the newly established port of Cardiff, he was twice thrown into prison by town authorities that refused to accept his powers. At Swansea it was asserted that “they were not bound to obey the laws of England except for trials of life and assizes of land”.
After a few years, the marcher lords who controlled the coast of south Wales were forced to accept the exchequer’s writ. However, for a long time, smuggling remained endemic to the region. Milford, in particular, was known for being “so large and secret” that there “men will do what they will”. Indeed, it was said to be “a great resort and succour of pirates… who the country cannot resist to lie at their pleasure”.
Tenby, just a few miles along the Pembrokeshire coast from Milford, was also a hotbed of smuggling in the 16th century. Today, its walled medieval town, promenade and sandy beaches, make it a popular tourist destination.
Where a small town became a hub of smuggling activity
The crown didn’t station customs officers in Wales until 1563 because it felt that the trade there was too small to make the expense of keeping officers worthwhile. Merchants were only required to pay duty on goods shipped in to Wales once they were taken across the border into England.
However, this policy created plenty of opportunities for fraud. Chepstow, in particular, lying on the Welsh border, became a centre for illicit activity. Goods could be dispatched there in large ships, broken down into smaller consignments and sent up or across the river Severn in small vessels – avoiding various types of duty in the process.
The medieval town of Chepstow is still walled in places and possesses a fine castle. A short walk from the castle car park will take you to the river where boats still tie up.
Axwater Creek and Uphill Village, near Weston-super-Mare, Somerset
Where customs officers feared for their lives
The innocuous creek of Axwater, spilling out into the river Severn a few miles below Weston-super-Mare, may not seem an obvious place for smuggling. Yet in the 16th century it was a place where customs officers feared to tread – one reporting in 1590 that he’d spent eight days there “amongst unruly men which have almost cost me my life”.
It’s not so perilous today. In fact, it’s a good location to visit if you want to get a sense of how even minor creeks in the Bristol Channel could be used for trade, as low and high tides transformed them from minors streams to waterways capable of taking large vessels.
For a good view of Axwater, climb up to St Nicholas church in Uphill, then drop down to stroll along the beach or past the moored boats, stranded on the sand at low tide.
Custom House, near Billingsgate Market, London
Where the crown attempted to curb smuggling in the capital
By the 16th century, London was by far the biggest port in the country. Much of the port’s trade was illicitly loaded and unloaded at ‘blind quays’ and private landing stages, from where goods could be moved to storehouses further into the city.
To counter such frauds, in the 1570s George Needham, a persistent critic of the customs service, proposed plans to build a major new customs house, with facilities to handle all of London’s trade. The expense was great, however, and resistance fierce – particularly from those who stood to lose from the move.
Most of London’s early modern trade was loaded and unloaded in the ‘Pool of London’, between London Bridge and the Tower. The Custom House there was subsequently rebuilt many times. Although the current house was only constructed in the 19th century, it is, nevertheless, one of the few buildings in the vicinity that still act as a reminder of a time when this stretch of water was the busiest in the world.
Custom House, King’s Lynn Norfolk
Where a famous smuggler became mayor
King’s Lynn was one of the chief outlets for East Anglia, which had long been England’s leading grain producer. This, combined with the region’s proximity to the Netherlands, made the port a natural focus for the illicit grain trade.
What’s more, after 1558 it seems that much illicit cloth was also loaded at King’s Lynn for export to the Low Countries, thereby circumventing the monopoly that the London-based merchant adventurers had over this trade.
One of the best-known cases of smuggling in Tudor England relates to a merchant from King’s Lynn called Francis Shaxton. He is perhaps a rare example of a smuggler who was actually caught and ended up confessing to at least some of his crimes. His indiscretions included the use of forged customs certificates and illicitly exporting both cloth and grain.
Despite all this, Shaxton was elected mayor of the town after his conviction. This is a fine illustration of the extent to which local communities felt that defrauding the crown was not a particularly serious matter.
Dockside, Hull East Yorkshire
Where customs officers fought a battle they simply couldn’t win
During the late Middle Ages and on into the early modern period, Hull grew from a mere outport of York to a major port in its own right. Yet, as with London, the nature of the harbour loaded the dice firmly in favour of the smugglers.
During Lord Burghley’s tenure as lord treasurer (1572–98) the customs officers of Hull complained that they found it impossible to properly police the traffic of goods because there were “43 several places of charging and discharging of merchandise at wharfs and cranes belonging to the merchants”.
The officials appealed for the establishment of one large wharf for overseas trade, with a new customs house adjoined. This, the officers suggested, should be called the ‘Queen’s Wharf’ in honour of Elizabeth. However, their pleas were ignored, and Hull didn’t get an official dock until the late 18th century. While this did come to be called ‘Queen’s Dock’, it owed the name to a visit by another monarch – Victoria.
Visitors can still wander around the Museum Quarter, including the city’s Maritime Museum, as well as its docks.
Youghal, County Cork Ireland
Where ‘Anglo-Irish’ traders did business with Europe
Before Ireland’s Nine Years’ War (1594–1603), much of the country was independent of England. The most loyal parts of the island were in the south and east, which was occupied by the descendents of the medieval colonists who had come over in the 12th and 13th centuries.
The ‘English in Ireland’, as they liked to be known, traded with both Britain and the continent. However, tensions between this colonial community and those in England rose during the second half of the 16th century, because the ‘Anglo-Irish’ remained Roman Catholic after the Reformation. This created some strange anomalies. For instance, during the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585–1604, Spain allowed merchants from Ireland to continue to trade freely with Iberia, which allowed them to become intermediaries between England and Spain. All sorts of illicit, or semi-illicit, activities grew up around this trade. Indeed, at this time many English merchants sought to trade with Spain by pretending to be Irish – not always successfully.
Youghal is one of a number of ports (also numbering Wexford, Waterford, Dungarvan, Cork and Kinsale) along Ireland’s south-east coast where many people would once have deeply resented being called ‘Irish’.
Evan Jones is author of Inside the Illicit Economy: Reconstructing the Smugglers’ Trade of Sixteenth Century Bristol (Ashgate, 2012)