There is a voluminous amount of records that record activities of English shipping in the period. Although each source category varies in its scale and scope they were all created to record the collection and issue of money. The database here provides a complete list of all the ships and shipmasters from the sources we have used. However, the records we have used are often incomplete or badly damaged in parts, and during the project The National Archives restricted access to a number of records they deemed too damaged to use. This means that coverage for overseas and coastal trade is not uniform across all ports. Records listed before 1565 (with rare exceptions) only record ships undertaking overseas trade.

The 'Navy Payrolls'

These are now stored in The National Archives (TNA) at Kew, mainly under the catalogue reference of E 101 (Exchequer, King's Remembrancer, Accounts Various) and E 403 (Exchequer of Receipt: Issue Rolls and Registers). Navy payrolls record the crown's wartime requisitioning and payment of merchant vessels and their crews. The naval records provide several pieces of information that make these an indispensable source of information for merchant shipping. They reveal, for each ship, its name and port of origin, the master's name and crew numbers, the dates it was in service, and often its tonnage. During the period covered by this research the regularity of campaigning and of accompanying bureaucratic procedures have resulted in the production of a huge corpus of surviving records.

Image from a navy payroll (E 101/53/39) recording ships requisitioned from some east coast ports that transported John Beaufort's forces from Portsmouth to Cherbourg in 1443.

For a discussion of these sources see Craig Lambert, Shipping the Medieval Military: English Maritime Logistics in the Fourteenth Century (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2011); Craig Lambert, Henry V and the Crossing to France: Reconstructing Naval Operations for the Agincourt Campaign, 1415 (Journal of Medieval History, 2016).

The National and Local Customs Accounts

The national 'particulars of accounts' are now stored in TNA under the catalogue reference E 122 (Exchequer: King's Remembrancer: Particulars of Customs Accounts). These documents, with a few minor exceptions, only record overseas trade. The kingdom was divided up into coastal zones with the leading port in each area designated as the 'head' port. The head ports in turn had jurisdiction over smaller ports in their zone which, if they were deemed large enough, had collectors of their own. For example, the collectors of customs at Exeter and Dartmouth also covered Barnstaple and Ilfracombe.

The E 122s are problematic as nominal details of ships and shipmasters were not recorded in a systematic way. Each head port developed its own way of recording the ships entering and leaving port. In many cases the clerk might simply record the name of a ship and its owner or master, without providing its home port; or a ship's name and its home port might be recorded but not the name of its master. The clerks working at some ports (such as Bristol, Exeter, Dartmouth, Poole, Plymouth, and Newcastle) did however record nominal details of ships, shipmasters, and home ports. However, sometimes a clerk would not record the name of a ship that sailed from the head port where the clerk worked. If this occurs and we can trace the home port of the ship in another source we have recorded this in the database. This affects a few dozen entries.

Exeter and Newcastle are unique because they also have a series of local port customs accounts which provide nominal data (Southampton, Great Yarmouth, and Bridgwater also have local port customs accounts but the recorded nominal data is not consistent). For Exeter these cover the whole period of 1400-1550 and beyond, although there are some significant gaps in the series. For Newcastle these survive for the period 1508-1511. These records are important because they record ships and taxation at a local level which is not found in the national records of the said ports. In the database the Exeter accounts are referenced as ECA (Exeter Customs Accounts) with the regnal year of the monarch they cover.

Image from National Custom Account of Newcastle (E 122/106/32) showing the Michaell of Newcastle commanded by Stephen Rutland leaving port on 4 February 1403..

Image from Exeter Local Port Custom Account (Devon Heritage Centre, Exeter: ECA 1423-1424). Showing the Cristofore of Portlemouth commanded by John Strange entered Topsham on 5 October 1423)

The Bordeaux Customs Accounts

These are now stored in TNA, mainly under the catalogue reference of E 101 (there is one book recorded under E 122/161/1 and fragments of another book are catalogued under EXT 6/156). These record the payment of customs duties by merchants shipping wine from Gascony (usually Bordeaux). For each shipment the number of tuns or pipes (measurements of wine) of wine exported by each merchant is recorded as are the details of each ship (its name, its master and its home port) that the wine was carried in and the amount of tax collected for each shipment.

Image from E 101/194/3 showing the Jesus of London commanded by Peter Johnson leaving Bordeaux with wine on 21 October 1443.

Port Books

The Port Books are now found in TNA series E 190 (Exchequer: Queen's Remembrancer: Port Books E 190). They replaced the particulars of accounts which now form TNA series E 122 (although some documents are catalogued under E 122 after 1565). From Easter 1565 when they were first introduced (until they gradually were phased out in the late eighteenth century) all information related to maritime trading voyages was entered into these blank parchment books, issued bi-annually to the head ports, and the largest ports under their jurisdiction, in sealed tin boxes from London.

The primary reason for the introduction of the Port Books was financial, an attempt by the crown to increase revenues from the customs duties. Whilst London was heavily regulated due to its proximity to the centre of government the collection of duties outside the capital was often at best lacklustre or at worst corrupt. In an attempt to counter this problem, the crown appointed three customs officials in each head port, (the Customer, Controller, and Searcher), each of whose job was to record the trade of the port and ensure that the others were not taking bribes and under-recording trade. The government also required that detailed information on each ship, shipmaster, tonnage, cargo, merchants using the vessel, and details of the voyage, were to be recorded, effectively ending the haphazard methods of record keeping that had developed in each port.

As a source the Port Books can be problematic. The fact that the three customs officials in each head port duplicated each other's work means that if one is not careful when using them it is possible to double or triple count each voyage within a port. They also, whilst perhaps reducing corruption and customs evasion, did not eliminate it entirely. But used with care the detailed information they provide on ships, voyages, and the shipboard communities, means that they are the best records for studying the activities of the English merchant fleet, particularly for coastal trade which was systematically recorded for the first time. They also are the first records of English trade in which the use of English predominates. Read more on the Port Books.

(E 190/1128/7: Bristol Port Book: showing that the Fawcon (36 tons) of Bristol commanded by John Slighe came into port from SanlĂșcar de Barrameda on 17 April 1566)

Ship Surveys

There are numerous ship surveys surviving over this period but the most systematic was compiled in 1572. This is now stored at TNA in the collection of records known as State Papers. The importance of this survey is that it provides the key pieces of nominal data (ship name, master's name, home port) needed to investigate the English merchant fleet. Thomas Colshill was responsible for producing this survey, which by his own account amounted to a record of 'the number of ships and vessels and the masters' names being in all the ports and creeks within the realm of England and trading the wave of merchandise as shown by the custom accounts'. The image below shows part of the first page of the ship survey.

Additional Information

Where possible all references contain folio (for books) or membrane (for rolls) numbers. For books we have used 'r' to denote the front piece of the page (i.e. E 190/1128/1 f.1r) and 'v' to denote the reverse of the page (i.e. E 190/1128/1 f.1v). We have used 'd' to denote the reverse side of membranes (i.e. E 101/53/39 m.1d). There are some problems with folio and membrane numbers and in some cases there are more than one. Some Port Books for example have the original Roman numeral at the bottom and a later addition of Arabic numbers at the top. With rolls there is often no membrane number provided. There is sometimes damage to manuscripts which make it difficult to know the exact folio or membrane. In the case of Exeter local port customs many of the fifteenth century documents are mixed up with different regnal years (and in some cases multiple monarchs) contained with the same manuscript. Where possible we have used membrane and folio numbers as they appear in the manuscripts. However, the date of the entry or exit of the ship provides the most accurate way of locating any entry.

Ship tonnages, though appearing prior to 1565 in some naval records, were only systematically recorded in customs accounts with the introduction of the Port Books. There is much debate as to what this figure represents (such as weight or carrying capacity of the vessel in Bordeaux wine tuns). It is also important to note that the figures given were often at variance for the same vessel. For example, the Ellen (Helen) of Liverpool, commanded by Thomas Mason is recorded on several occasions in 1572-73 at 24, 26, and 30 tons. These figures should therefore be used with caution.

Suggested Further Reading

For national customs accounts see N. B. Gras, The Early English Customs System: A Documentary Study of the Institutional and Economic History of the Customs from the Thirteenth to the Sixteenth Century (Oxford, 1918); Susan Flavin and Evan. T. Jones eds. Bristol's Trade with Ireland and the Continent: The Evidence of the Exchequer Customs Accounts: Bristol: (Bristol, 2009); Wendy Childs ed., The Custom Accounts of Hull, 1453-1490 (Leeds, 1986); J. Wade ed., The Customs Accounts of Newcastle upon Tyne 1454-1500, Surtees Society, vol. ccii (Woodbridge, 1996).

On local port customs see Maryanne Kowaleski, The Local Port and Customs Accounts of Exeter 1266-1321 (Exeter, 1993) and C.M. Fraser, ed. The Accounts of the Chamberlains of Newcastle Upon Tyne, 1508-1511 (Newcastle, 1987).

On port books see Neville, J. Williams, The Maritime Trade of the East Anglian Ports, 1550-1590 (Oxford, 1988).