Taxation in England during the late medieval period

Dan Howard

Ad Honorem
Aug 2014
4,942
Australia
Taxation was universal. The contention was to whom those taxes were to be paid - the local lord or the Church. Some regions paid less rent/taxes than others but it was completely arbitrary. Some Bishops charged ruinous levels of taxation and kept it all for themselves, while others were more socially minded - charging less tax and spending more of their revenue on charitable programs in the community.

I live in a small village established in around 1150 by St Mary's Abbey York. Our History Group are about to start writing a publication which will try to bring to life the village from 1150 until 1485. As its Lord was an ecclesiastical one would it be taxed in the same way as a village of a secular Lord?
Taxation was completely arbitrary and would have changed constantly. You'd have to perform a survey spanning many years to get an accurate picture because taxes rarely remained fixed for long. IMO the best approach is to pick several specific years between the 12th and 15th centuries and write "snapshots" of what life was like during those particular points in time. It will let you cover the subject in more detail, bringing these people to life. If you tried to cover three centuries in one book, it won't be much different to all the other general medieval history books that are already available.
 
Last edited:
Jan 2019
15
York, UK
St Mary's York was founded in 1088 and was one of the wealthiest and most powerful Benedictine monasteries in England. They appeared a very "commercial" outfit with some more austere Monks leaving to set up in the wilds of the Yorkshire Dales and build Fountains Abbey
 
Feb 2017
247
Devon, UK
Whilst it was undoubtedly frivolous the Robin Hood reference earlier in the thread isn't too far off the mark when it comes to St Mary's. St Mary's Abbey, York features in one of the oldest extant Robin Hood ballads, 'A Gest of Robyn Hode'. It does not deal directly with taxation (which largely seems to be a peculiarly American obsession when treating the Robin Hood legend) but the Abbot and his staff are certainly involved in financial sharp practice in an attempt to obtain the lands of a poor knight, needless to say the are thwarted. Although the ballad doubtlessly reflects the wider (and growing) anti clerical sentiment of its time it would also suggest that by the mid fifteenth century St Mary's in particular had something of a reputation for acquisitive ruthlessness.

A Gest of Robyn Hode: Introduction | Robbins Library Digital Projects
A Gest of Robyn Hode | Robbins Library Digital Projects
 
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Tulun

Ad Honorem
Nov 2010
3,880
Western Eurasia
Taxation was universal. The contention was to whom those taxes were to be paid - the local lord or the Church. Some regions paid less rent/taxes than others but it was completely arbitrary. Some Bishops charged ruinous levels of taxation and kept it all for themselves, while others were more socially minded - charging less tax and spending more of their revenue on charitable programs in the community.



Taxation was completely arbitrary and would have changed constantly. You'd have to perform a survey spanning many years to get an accurate picture because taxes rarely remained fixed for long. IMO the best approach is to pick several specific years between the 12th and 15th centuries and write "snapshots" of what life was like during those particular points in time. It will let you cover the subject in more detail, bringing these people to life. If you tried to cover three centuries in one book, it won't be much different to all the other general medieval history books that are already available.
I don't know much about taxation in medieval England, but I assume since it was also a Catholic country, apart from the feudal taxes owed to and going to the landlord (be they secular or clerical), all peasants also had to pay the tithe (10%) to the Church too (even if their landlord was not a cleric), didn't they? And I guess there could also be a legal possibilitiy to levy extraordinary taxes or services (like during wars) to the king?
 
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Ichon

Ad Honorem
Mar 2013
3,717
I don't know much about taxation in medieval England, but I assume since it was also a Catholic country, apart from the feudal taxes owed to and going to the landlord (be they secular or clerical), all peasants also had to pay the tithe (10%) to the Church too (even if their landlord was not a cleric), didn't they? And I guess there could also be a legal possibilitiy to levy extraordinary taxes or services (like during wars) to the king?
I don't believe the Church collected 10% from tenants directly but from the landowners as otherwise way to easy to play each side against the other. Keep in mind the Church in many European states owned 20-30% of the lands with the amount fluctuating based on the power of the Church vs the nobility through time and some places did not develop a common tradition of large amounts of land being owned by the Church but it tended to accumulate as wills, bequests, and other things gave more land to the Church with every generation. For freeholders who did not have money the expectation was that 1/10th of their production or a combination of production and labor would be tithed to whichever Church group held the tithe in their local area.

There is actually a whole body of law dedicated to figuring how to calculate the 1/10th but generally it was accepted as being simply 1/10th of whatever a landowner collected during harvest as it was too hard to keep track of every egg, labor hours, etc.

Since the Church did not pay taxes and had tithe claim to 10% of the harvest plus a steady stream of income from all matters concerning the Church (baptism, marriages, funerals, wills) in effect the Church actually collected more income than most Kings in the medieval era.
 
Jan 2019
15
York, UK
As my village was part of a "five village" Manor (Spaunton) would the taxes be physically collected be they cash or kind via the Court Leet?
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,610
Dispargum
As my village was part of a "five village" Manor (Spaunton) would the taxes be physically collected be they cash or kind via the Court Leet?
Probably not. The court leet mostly dealt with misdemeanor criminal offenses and enforced community standards such as 'every serf is allowed to graze X number of cattle in the common pasturage.' If anyone grazed too many cattle, the court leet would make them stop. Taxes would most likely be collected by the lord directly or by a trusted agent. The court leet with their primitive juries were far too democratic for a lord to trust with his money.
 
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Jan 2019
15
York, UK
Just out of interest we still have a Lord of the Manor and I pay £14 a year fine for having a tarmac drive over "common land" thereby depriving the common stock from grazing :)
 
Jan 2019
15
York, UK
Taxation was universal. The contention was to whom those taxes were to be paid - the local lord or the Church. Some regions paid less rent/taxes than others but it was completely arbitrary. Some Bishops charged ruinous levels of taxation and kept it all for themselves, while others were more socially minded - charging less tax and spending more of their revenue on charitable programs in the community.



Taxation was completely arbitrary and would have changed constantly. You'd have to perform a survey spanning many years to get an accurate picture because taxes rarely remained fixed for long. IMO the best approach is to pick several specific years between the 12th and 15th centuries and write "snapshots" of what life was like during those particular points in time. It will let you cover the subject in more detail, bringing these people to life. If you tried to cover three centuries in one book, it won't be much different to all the other general medieval history books that are already available.
I get the impression that during this period there were no step changes in agriculture so with the exception of salient events such as famines, Black Death and the odd military conflict the man in the village would be unaware of significant changes. I agree taxation would change but would a villain notice as it would be so gradual.
 

Chlodio

Forum Staff
Aug 2016
4,610
Dispargum
During hard times, such as a famine, the lord might remit some of the taxes due as a way to help the community recover. He would have to be convinced that it was in his best interests to do so. For instance, if all of the serfs died, there would be no one to work the fields next year. Some Churchmen may have been more inclined to be charitable than secular lords.