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Peter's Pence

  1. An ancient payment made more or less voluntarily to Rome, begun under the Saxons in England and seen also in other countries. Formally discontinued in England at the Reformation.
  2. A post-Reformation payment of uncertain characteristics, seen in some English manors into the 19th century.
  3. A revived custom of the Catholic church, formalised in 1871.


The ancient payment

The term Peter's pence, in its Latin form, is not seen until 1031, and the payment may not have had a single origin under the Saxons. Whether seen as a pious contribution, or merely a levy, it evidently underwent various changes both before and after the Norman conquest. It was applied as a 'penny per hearth' annual tax by the Normans to Ireland in the latter twelfth century under the Papal Bull Laudabiliter. The traditional scholarly view is summarised in Jacob's Law Dictionary [1] "Peter-Pence (Denarii Sancti Petri). Otherwise called in the Saxon Romefeoh, i.e., the fee due to Rome, it was a tribute or rather an alms given by Ina, King of the West Saxons, in his pilgrimage to Rome in the year 725. And the like was given by Offa, King of the Mercians, throughout his dominions, in 794. But it was said not to be a tribute to the pope, but for the sustenation [sic] of the English School or College at Rome. It was called Peter-pence because it was collected on the fesatday of St Peter ad Vincula [1 August], a penny for every house. King Edgar’s Laws contain a sharp Constitution[2] touching this money (Leg. Edg 78 c 4). It was prohibited by King Edward III and by Stat 25 Henry 8. But it was revived by 1 & 2 Philip & Mary and then wholly abrogated by 1 Elizabeth. Some sources give the Anglo-Saxon term Romescot instead of Romefeoh.[3]

The Offa story is elaborated in later accounts of unknown reliability:

Ethelbert, king of the East Angles, having reigned single some time, thought fit to take a wife; for this purpose he came to the court of Offa, king of Mercia, to desire his daughter in marriage. Queenrid, consort of Offa, a cruel, ambitious, and blood-thirsty woman, who envied the retinue and splendour of the unsuspicious king, resolved in some manner to have him murdered, before he left their court, hoping by that to gain his immense riches; for this purpose she, with her malicious and fascinating arts, overcame the king–her husband, which she most cunningly effected, and, under deep disguises, laid open to him her portentous design; a villain was therefore hired, named Gimberd, who was to murder the innocent prince.
The manner from in which the heinous crime was effected was as cowardly as it was fatal: under the chair of state in which Ethelbert sat, a deep pit was dug; at the bottom of it was placed the murderer; the unfortunate king was then let through a trap-door into the pit; his fear overcame him so much, that he did not attempt resistance. Three months after this, Queenrid died, when circumstances convinced Offa of the innocence of Ethelbert; he therefore, to appease his guilt, built St. Alban's monastery, gave one-tenth part of his goods to the poor, and went in penance to Rome–where he gave to the Pope a penny for every house in his dominions.[4]

The earliest documentary evidence concerning it is found in a letter written from Rome by King Canute to the English clergy in 1031. It was then a levy of one penny on each hearth or household of an annual rental of thirty pence or over. Regarded as a tax rather than an offering, payment was apt to be avoided, the more so as time went on. Indeed in the 13th century the revenue arising from it had been stabilised, on the basis of the assessment of a much earlier day, at the annual sum of £20 1s. 9d for the whole of England. Pope Clement pressed to have the levy paid on the (more rewarding) ancient basis of a penny from all households. By the 14th century, a standard sum, typically 5s. per manor or parish, was being forwarded to local church authorities for onward transmission. It appears that new tenants entering on a property which had historically been subject to a Peter's Pence levy did not always accept the obligation to pay.[5]

Older sources are often unclear in their references to Peter's Pence, and there was (and remains) a degree of local confusion between Peter's Pence, various hearth taxes (sometimes called smoke-money or smoke-farthings), and other ancient payments.

By the end of the 12th century, the English population had increased, so the ecclesiatical authorities were collecting more than the stabilised sum, and were keeping the surplus.[6]

It ceased to be remitted to the pope after 1320 [7], but seemingly this was not permanent. The exact reason for the 'prohibition' by Edward III mentioned above is unknown, but the threat of withholding payment of Peter's Pence proved more than once a useful waepon against recalcitrant popes in the hands of English kings. Thus in 1366 and for some years after, it was refused on the grounds of the pope's obstinacy[8] Evidently, however, the payment survived or was revived in some localities, because it was one of many payments abolished by Act of Parliament in the 25th year of Henry VIII's reign. The 1534 Act ('An Act for the exoneration of exactions paid to the See of Rome') specifically mentions Peter's Pence. Along with other payments, it was ‘never more to be levied … to any person’, indicating that the payment was to be extinguished completely and not diverted to crown use.

Under Queen Mary, Henry VIII's reformation legislation was overturned. On 16 Jan 1555, royal assent was given to 'An Act, repealing all Statutes, Articles, and Provisions, made against the See of Rome, sithence the 20th Year of King Henry the Eighth; and for the Establishment of Ecclesiastical Possessions conveyed to the Laity' (1 & 2 Philip & Mary c.8). This did not mention Peter's Pence specifically. There is isolated evidence that in some parishes, payment of Peter's Pence did indeed resume under Mary, for instance in Rowington, Warwickshire, where the church accounts for 1556 record the collection of 54s. 4d., a considerable sum.[9] Mary's Act was in turn repealed by the 1559 Act of Supremacy, under Elizabeth.

Post-Reformation practice in England

Despite the unequivocal abolition called for by the 1559 Act, payments termed Peter's Pence undoubtedly continued in England in the succeeding centuries. In one Devon parish, there is a record that in 1609-10 'besides 2s. for Peter's farthings there is a payment of 2s. for Peter's pence'.[10]. In Gloucestershire, a survey of the then royal manor of Cheltenham in 1617 asked tenants whether is there not duly continued and paid certain moneys called peter pence; if not when did they discontinue and what was the sum of them and to whom was it paid? - as if there was known to be varying practice in the land. The reply given was and the moneys called Peter Pence are commonly every year paid unto the Bailiff and are not discontinued to their knowledge, and the sum of them by the year is 5s. or thereabouts, as they think [11] This suggests that originally some 60 households contributed annually. The survey makes no mention of when in the year the payment was made, and it leaves unanswered the question of whether the bailiff passed the money on, or retained it on the lord's behalf. In Cheltenham manorial records, occasional references to properties being liable for Peter's pence are seen until as late as 1802[12], but there is no direct evidence of any actual payment.

An Act of Parliament obtained in 1625 to clarify manorial customs in Cheltenham acknowledges the continued existence of Peter Pence: And be it enacted … that the said copyholders … shall … hold the said customary messuages and lands of the said manors severally and respectively, by copies of court-roll to them and their heirs, by suit of court, and by the yearly rents, worksilver, Peter-pence, and Bead Reap-money, to be paid severally and respectively as heretofore….[13]

In the absence of wider research, it is uncertain how exceptional the situation in Cheltenham may have been. It is possible that the label Peter's pence had been transferred to some other type of household or hearth tax. Some evidence for this comes from references in Minchinhampton (Gloucestershire) churchwardens' accounts of 1575 to ‘Peter-pence or smoke-farthings’ expended at the time of the bishop’s visitation in the summer. Smoke-farthings are glossed as a composition for offerings made in Whitsun week by every man who occupied a house with a chimney, to the cathedral of the diocese in which he lived; and that though Peter's pence was abolished in 1534, ‘on the grant of those monasteries to whom they had by custom become payable, they continued payable as appendant to the manors etc of the persons to whom granted’ [14]. Before the Reformation, the lordship of the manor of Cheltenham had been held by the Abbess of Syon. It is plausible therefore that as both the pious payment of Peter's Pence and the secular manorial fees had once gone to the same institution, the former came over time to be regarded as part of the latter.

The revived Roman Catholic custom

Peter's Pence is the practice of lay members of the Roman Catholic Church - and "other persons of good will" - providing financial support to the Roman See. While the regular tithe goes to the local parish or diocese, the Peter's Pence goes directly to Rome. It was formalised in 1871 by Pope Pius IX who gave it his approval in the Encyclical Letter Saepe Venerabilis (5 August 1871).[15] The money collected is today used by the Pope for philanthropic purposes.[16]

At present this collection is taken each year on the Sunday closest to June 29, the Solemnity of both Saint Peter and Saint Paul, according to the Roman Church. According to the report, in 2007, donations amounted to $79,837,843. In 2006 it was $101,900,192. United States was the biggest donor, giving some 28% of the total. It was followed by Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Ireland, Brazil and Korea.

See also


  1. ^ quoting from 1762 edition
  2. ^ sic, meaning as yet unclear
  3. ^ "Peterspence". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.  
  4. ^ The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction. Volume 10, No. 282, November 10, 1827.
  5. ^ The Minchinhampton Custumal, in Transactions of the Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1932
  6. ^ Robert E Rodes, quoted in Clegg, Economic Decline of the Church in Medieval England, Simon Fraser U thesis, 1991 [1]
  7. ^ M.McKisack, The Fourteenth Century (1959) p. 283-4.
  8. ^ Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911 edition
  9. ^ 'From Hroca to Anne: being 1000 years in the life of Rowington', Joy Woodall (1974)
  10. ^ Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science [etc], 1906, p. 521
  11. ^ Gloucestershire Archives D855/M50
  12. ^ Gloucestershire Archives D855/M20
  13. ^ Gloucestershire Archives, D855/M79-80
  14. ^ Notes and Queries, 2nd Series, VII, 19 Feb. 1859
  15. ^ Vatican: "An ancient custom still alive today".
  16. ^

External links



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