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Dublin, in the early 14th century was the primary city in the Anglo – Norman colony of Ireland. A cursory glance at the records from the time shows that merchants from all over Northern Europe were trading in Dublin. It was this trade that a one time mayor Geoffrey Morton would use to swindle huge amounts of money through fraudulent taxation nearly destroying Dublin’s economy in the process.
In 1308 the one time lord mayor of Dublin, Geoffrey de Morton applied for a license to collect the city’s murage tax. In the medieval period taxation was often privatised – the king granted a license to a private individual. In successfully seeking a murage tax Morton was gaining the contract to collect revenues to repair a section of city walls and a tower adjacent to the bridge over the Liffey.
Under the private tax collection scheme each license varied and Morton was successful not only to in gaining a license to collect the tax but also carry out the repairs. Being both the collector and builder Morton could abuse the situation but he went way beyond what anyone thought possible.
In his application he omitted to say that he was actually the tenant of the tower being renovated and under the conditions of the rent he was supposed to pay for its upkeep. Morton was about to swindle money out of people for a job he was legally obliged to pay for.
After being granted the license to collect tax Morton then went on to completely abused his position. He went as far as forcing merchants from England who had tax exemptions to pay the tax. This obviously led the merchants to stay away from Dublin, damaging the city’s economy. A later investigation determined Morton had damaged the city’s economy to the tune of £40 per year while he himself was taking in around £60. These sums would be in the thousands in today’s money.
Damaging the city’s economy coupled with having to pay the tax themselves provoked an inevitable response from the city’s citizens and merchants. In 1311 an investigative jury was established to look into the case. They examined several aspects of the situation including what works had actually been carried out on the walls.
Through the course of the investigation things were revealed to be far worse than just damage to the economy of the city. incredibly it emerged that Morton had actually damaged the city defenses rather than strengthening them. He had built himself a house that backed onto the city wall at Bridge Street from the money.
In the construction of his house he had weakened the wall and limited access to the top of the wall obviously hampering the cities defenses. This was an unbelievably stupid act – the walls of Dublin were for more than show in the 14th century – indeed within a few years Dublin was besieged by the army of Robert the Bruce in 1317.
As a result of this incredible greed and stupidity Morton was prosecuted in both a royal court in England and a local Dublin court. Unlike politicians of today Morton was forced to repair the damage to the walls from his pocket but unfortunately Morton’s crime and not the punishment established a trend in Irish politics.
This article is based on a longer article in Medieval Dublin II Connolly, P (2002) Medieval Dublin II, The rise and fall of Geoffrey Morton, mayor of Dublin, 1303-4 P233