Ship money, in British history, a nonparliamentary tax first levied in medieval times by the English crown on coastal cities and counties for naval defense in time of war. It required those being taxed to furnish a certain number of warships or to pay the ships’ equivalent in money. Its revival and its enforcement as a general tax by Charles I aroused widespread opposition and added to the discontent leading to the English Civil Wars.
After bitter constitutional disputes, Charles dismissed Parliament in 1629 and began 11 years of personal rule; during this time, deprived of parliamentary sources of revenue, he was forced to employ ship money as a financial expedient. The first of six annual writs appeared in October 1634 and differed from traditional levies in that it was based on the possibility of war rather than immediate national emergency. The writ of the following year increased the imposition and extended it to inland towns. The issue of a third writ in 1636 made it evident that Charles intended ship money as a permanent and general form of taxation. Each succeeding writ aroused greater popular discontent and opposition, and upon the issue of the third writ John Hampden, a prominent parliamentarian, refused payment.
His case, brought before the Court of Exchequer in 1637, lasted six months. The judges, headed by Sir John Finch (later Baron Finch), decided 7 to 5 in favour of the crown; but the highhanded opinions of Finch provoked widespread distrust of Charles’s courts, whereas the narrowness of the decision encouraged further resistance. Charles’s writs of 1638 and 1639 fell far short of their goal. In 1641, by an act of the Long Parliament, ship money was declared illegal.