Peter's Pence is payment made voluntarily to the Roman Catholic Church. It began under the Saxons in England and is seen in other countries. Though formally discontinued in England at the time of the Reformation, a post-Reformation payment of uncertain characteristics is seen in some English manors into the 19th century. In 1871, Pope Pius IX formalized the practice of lay members of the church – and "other persons of good will" – providing financial support to the Roman See.
The ancient payment (1031–1555)
The term Peter's pence, in its Latin form, first appeared in 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 by the Normans to Ireland as a 'penny per hearth' annual tax in the later part of the twelfth century under the Papal Bull Laudabiliter. The traditional scholarly view is summarized in Jacob's Law Dictionary Peter-Pence (Denarii Sancti Petri)[clarification needed] Otherwise called in the Saxon Romefeoh (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 725. The like was also collected by Offa, King of the Mercians, throughout his dominions, in 794. However, it was said to be not a tribute to the pope, but for the sustenation [sic] of the English School or College at Rome. It was called Peter-pence because a penny from every house was collected on 1 August, the feast day of St. Peter ad Vincula. King Edgar’s Laws contain a sharp Constitution touching this money (Leg. Edg 78 c 4).
Some sources give the Anglo-Saxon term Romescot instead of Romefeoh.
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. Cynethryth, consort of Offa, a cruel, ambitious, and blood-thirsty woman, who envied the retinue and splendor 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 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.
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 with an annual rental of thirty pence or more. 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 stabilized, 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 each household. By the 14th century, a standard sum, typically 5s. per manor or parish, was being given to local church authorities for forwarding. 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.
Older sources are often unclear in their references to Peter's Pence, and there was (and remains) a degree of local confusion between it, 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 ecclesiastical authorities were collecting more than the stabilized sum, and keeping the surplus.
It ceased to be remitted to the pope after 1320, but seemingly this was not permanent. The exact reason for the 'prohibition' by Edward III is unknown, but the threat of withholding payment of Peter's Pence proved more than once a useful weapon against uncooperative popes in the hands of English kings. In 1366 and for some years after, it was refused on the grounds of the pope's obstinacy 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 during Mary's reign, for instance in Rowington, Warwickshire, where the church accounts for 1556 record the collection of 54s. 4d., a considerable sum. 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". In Gloucestershire, a survey of the then royal manor of Cheltenham in 1617 asked tenants "whether there is 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 practices 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". This suggests that originally some 60 households contributed annually. The survey makes no mention of when in the year the payment was made, and whether the bailiff passed the money on or retained it on the lord's behalf. (Pre-Reformation practice in Cheltenham had called for payment - invariably of 5s. - on the accustomed date of 1 August, as above.). In Cheltenham manorial records, occasional references to properties being liable for Peter's pence are seen until as late as 1802, 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…."
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". 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
In 1871, Pope Pius IX formalized the practice of lay members of the Roman Catholic Church – and "other persons of good will" – to provide financial support to the Roman See. While the regular contribution goes to the local parish or diocese, Peter's Pence goes directly to Rome. Pius IX gave it his approval in the encyclical Saepe Venerabilis (5 August 1871). The money collected is today used by the pope for philanthropic purposes.
At present, this collection is taken each year on the Sunday closest to 29 June, the Solemnity of the Feast of Saints Peter and 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. The United States was the biggest donor, giving some 28% of the total, followed by Italy, Germany, Spain, France, Ireland, Brazil and South Korea. In 2008, donations totaled $75.8 million, $82,529,417 in 2009, $67,704,416.41 in 2010 and $69,711,722.76 in 2011.
- quoting from 1762 edition
- sic, meaning as yet unclear
- "Peterspence". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913.
- The Mirror of Literature, Amusement, and Instruction. Volume 10, No. 282, November 10, 1827.
- The Minchinhampton Custumal, in Transactions of the Bristol & Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, 1932
- Robert E Rodes, quoted in Clegg, Economic Decline of the Church in Medieval England, Simon Fraser University thesis, 1991 
- M.McKisack, The Fourteenth Century (1959) p. 283-4.
- Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911 edition
- 'From Hroca to Anne: being 1000 years in the life of Rowington', Joy Woodall (1974)
- Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science [etc], 1906, p. 521
- Gloucestershire Archives D855/M50
- e.g. National Archives SC6 852/19, bailiff's accounts for Cheltenham manor, 1438-39
- Gloucestershire Archives D855/M20
- Gloucestershire Archives, D855/M79-80
- Notes and Queries, 2nd Series, VII, 19 Feb. 1859
- Vatican: "An ancient custom still alive today".
- "Peter's Pence". United States Conference of Catholic Bishops.
- Joseph Cotterill, "Angels and debtors" Financial Times, July 5, 2012.