Plantagenet Times: Edward I and Smuggling

In June 1239, Edward son of Henry III, and Eleanor of Provence, was born into the royal household.  During his early years, received a disciplined education in French and Latin with training in the arts and music, as was be-fitting a future King.

Edward received the gift; duchy of Gascony, parts of Ireland, Channel Islands and the Kings lands in Wales, from his father, in 1254.

Later that year Eleanor of Castile, the half-sister of Alphonso, King of Castile and Leon, married Edward in, an arranged marriage that suited both Henry III, and Alphonso, who were at war with each other.  Despite the political intentions, involved in their marriage, they were very much in love, so much so, she joined him on his many crusades.

Henry III died on the 16th November 1272, whilst his son Edward, was abroad fighting on his behalf, in the Holy Land.  Without opposition he succeeded to the English Throne, and at the age of 35, was crowned King of England, at Westminster Abbey on the 19th August 1274, along with his devoted wife Eleanor.

Following his ascension to the throne, fought many wars, in protection of his homeland, including those against Wales and Scotland, and used up a great deal of England’s funds in these battles.  Was known to borrow heavily from the English Jews, but in 1290 when the Jewish communities refused additional funds, Edward had them banished from England.

This led to high taxes being imposed on the English people, which brought large outcry’s, from the rich and poor alike, a decision, which was to change a way of life for centuries to come.

Parliament passed an Act, during Edwards’s reign, putting customs duty, on the export of wool, which was in great demand by Europe.  This was to be the first permanent customs system established in England.   The tax gradually rose, to help pay for the troops and fighting, which in turn led to smuggling.

The Customs Service initial responsibility was to collect the duties at the allocated ports, not to prevent smuggling.  In the Sussex area Chichester was the only port, where importing and exporting of goods was allowed. 

It was not long before merchants were landing produce at small ports, with few officials.

Some merchants, who were caught smuggling goods through the port of Pevensey, were put on trial at Rye in 1357, but still many more continued this practice.

By 1614, it was illegal to export wool, but this didn’t deter the smuggler, this just increased the price, and port officials were easily bribed.  But when the death sentence was imposed for exportation of wool, the smugglers started arming themselves, and the only way they could be stopped was by the force.

In 1671 during the reign of Charles II, the Board of Customs was created.

During the 1670’s, in the region of 20,000 packs of wool, were exported from Romney Marshes to Calais each year.  The smugglers had fast boats, fully armed to outrun the Revenue Service.

As each act was passed to prevent the export of wool, there were always officials waiting to be bribed. As was the case in 1698, when they tried to stop the sale of wool within a 15-mile area of the coast.

By 1714, smuggling of wool had become a large business, the demand was high, but the stocks were ever decreasing, leading to the French having to obtain their wool from Ireland.

In the 1730’s, major smugglers started working the area, with the import of Brandy and Tea, a trade that was to escalate over the years. Still there was never a shortage of French distilleries, opening up in Northern France to supply the English smuggler.

Between 1735 and 1749 the Hawkhurst Gang, (Holkhourst Genge), out of the village of Hawkhurst, became the most feared on the South Coast, with an army of 500 armed men.

Then in 1784 duty on French wines and tea was reduced, taking away the incentive, the market moved over to spirits and tobacco.

In 1831, the Coastguards took over policing the coast, and in 1833, following violent events at Pevensey, smuggling in the area ceased.

Another area well known for its smuggling links has to be Polperro on the Cornish Coast.  The high range of taxes, encouraged fishermen to supplement their income, by importing brandy, gin, tea and tobacco, brought across from Guernsey, during the latter half of the 18th century.

Smuggled contraband landed on remote coastal areas, would disappear into caves quickly, for fear of the Revenue Service. 

It wasn’t until the early 19th century, that the Government imposed heavy penalties on any one caught in the act of smuggling.  With the additional use of patrols on land or sea to catch offenders.

Collecting taxes has proved to be a major problem, more so since the relaxation of border controls in 1993, allowing larger amounts of alcohol and tobacco, to be brought into the UK from abroad.  But unscrupulous hauliers persistently smuggle in large quantities of contraband, as their forefathers would have done in the past.  Even though the penalties for being caught are stiff, they still continue!

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