During the 16th century, the King of England Henry VIII raised a tax for everyone that had a beard.
The real mystery of Henry’s beard tax though, is whether it actually existed. Henry VIII has always been a rich source of material for urban legends – consider the early 20th century music hall song with the lines “I’m ‘Enery the eighth I h’am, ‘Enery the eighth I h’am, I h’am, I got married to the widder next door, she’s been married seven times before, and every one was an ‘Enery, wouldn’t have a Willie or a Sam…”
Our ‘Enery VIII, the genuine article, now stands accused of introducing a beard tax in 1535. Although the evidence for it is more scant than an actor’s day-old stubble under a celebrity barber’s razor, the idea of it is so appealing that it regularly turns up on various internet sites.
The fact that he’s still the source of urban legends in the 21st century would doubtless have pleased Henry’s ego. However, the National Archives claims no knowledge of such a tax. Perhaps the logistics of collecting it proved just too ticklish a problem.
What we do know is that beards were indeed a touchy business. Drake spoke of his expedition to Cadiz as “singeing the King of Spain’s beard” and Shakespeare’s King Lear includes the lines “By the kind gods, ‘tis most ignobly done/To pluck me by the beard”.
Apart from including one of the most ribald references to beards ever, Chaucer contains many descriptions of male facial hair, or the lack of it. From the daisy-white beard of the Franklin to the foxy red beard of the rambunctious miller with the wart on his nose, beards were indicative of both social status and character.
The term “making one’s beard”, which Chaucer used to imply trickery, might have arisen from that vulnerable moment when the barber takes control of his client’s beard in order to dress, or trim it. It’s not hard to see how having a man with a cut-throat razor (the clue’s in the name) shaving off one’s facial hair requires a moment of absolute trust between barber and client. Complicating it with the comment “The price of the Barbarossa lather ‘n trim doesn’t include tax, sir,” at a critical moment is just asking for trouble.