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A Very Brief History of the Tithe

Victuallers / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

This grouping of three porcelain figures, the rector, the farmer with his tithe pig and the farmer’s wife, with the baby, was extremely popular in the 18th century. It was based on an old story of the farmers wife who was determined not to give up the family’s’ tenth pig, unless the parson took her tenth child as well. “Zounds, Sir, quoth she, no Child, no Pig” Victuallers / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Tithe Pig

The cartoon that says it all. The lazy, gout ridden Rector; his agent with his snout in the trough, reading a note of the ‘Estimate of the tythes of the parish’; his rotund house keeper, dog, cat and the ‘Church’ in the background , all getting fat on the work of the gaunt, harassed farmer on the right. Thomas Rawlinson Tithe Pig 1790 ish. Metropolitan Museum of Art under Creative Commons.

With the exception of a few rural historians, cartographers and genealogists, most people today have never heard of that “tenth part of the annual increase of the produce of the land, the stock upon the land and the personal industry of the inhabitants” [1] known to countless generations as the tithe. In simple terms, as a farmer [and in those days everyone was a farmer], whatever crop you grew or whatever animals you bred a tenth part had to be given to the rector of the parish [see below]. Every tenth bushel of wheat or oats or barley or every tenth lamb, or calf or piglet all had to be given to the rector.

For over a thousand years though, it was of immense importance in the life of this country and if it were possible to make a film of the history of the country, the tithe would have a good claim to be the ‘Best Supporting Actor’. This may seem an extravagant claim but if it does it is because we have forgotten the central role of the church in national life throughout our history. The tithe was the first form of income tax and it was paid not to any form of secular government as we are used to today, but to the church; put quite simply, the tithe built the vast edifice that was to become ‘The Church’, Catholic or Protestant, in England and Wales. Today it is as relevant as the Dodo.

It got off to a slow start as, for the first five hundred years or so of the Christian church, tithes were not paid, indeed Christ himself had said little about tithes, and that which he did say was somewhat condemnatory.

As the church grew it required money and it noted that one of the tribes of Israel, the Levites, had been paid a tithe by the other tribes to maintain the Temple, to support the priests and to give alms to the poor. It did not take long for the developing Christian church to see themselves in the same role as the Levites and soon found reasons in the bible why, by divine law, the tithe should be paid by the faithful.

Once discovered the tithe was not likely to be given up, for, as one 19th century critic of the tithe, himself a clergyman, noted “Tithes were too profitable a source of revenue to be ignored in the Christian Church.”[2] The Church exerted great influence on the secular rulers to make it’s payment compulsory and in this they were successful but it was not until the reign of King Athelstan in 927 that collection of the tithe could be enforced.

The tithe was always paid to the Rector of the parish which was simply the person, or organisation, legally entitled to claim the tithe. The great lords, on whose land the produce of the earth was grown, were free to appropriate [give] the tithes of their manors to whomever they wanted and this was mostly to the abbeys, priories, convents, colleges of priests, and so on who presumably had more clout with the Divine. Until their dissolution, the monasteries were the main recipients of the tithe.

Although there were some eight hundred large monasteries at the time of the dissolution the fact remained that they were remote from most parishes. Some parishes had parish churches but it was not until about the 13th century that the monasteries [under pressure from the Pope] were made to provide substitute priests to look after care of souls [as it was known] in the parishes. Substitute in Latin is ‘vicarii’ and so we arrive at the term Vicar; others below them in the pecking order were also charged with the care of souls [curatus in Latin] and became known as curates. Vicars were generally paid for by diverting a small, or lesser portion, of the tithe from the Rector to the Vicar and this led to the idea of ‘Great tithes’ payable to the rector whilst the vicar or curate got the small, or vicarial tithes.

After the dissolution of the monasteries the King appropriated the monastic lands releasing some four million acres of agricultural land [3]. Contrary to popular belief this land did not all go to Henry’s cronies instead the majority, perhaps two thirds of the land, together with its tithes, was given by Henry to support his newly established church.

About a third of the land fell into lay hands and a new class of tithe owner was created – the lay impropriator. The monasteries, so long as they farmed the land themselves, had never paid tithes. With their lands sold off the same rule applied to the new lay owners of the land, on condition that they too farmed it directly. So much land was released though that it was not usually possible for a single landowner to farm it directly. Instead he rented it to tenants who promptly became liable to pay the tithe but they paid it not to the church but to the lay impropriator. He or she had no ecclesiastical responsibilities but was still able to claim the tithe.

Oddly it is not uncommon to find that these lay impropriators were in fact clergyman. Knowing how the system worked they were able to exploit it to their advantage. The rector of the parish of Warmwell, for example, was one George Pickard. As rector he was entitled to the tithes of the parish of Warmwell but in addition he also owned land in the parishes of Charminster and Stratton that had at one time been monastic lands. Pickard chose not to farm the lands in these distant parishes himself and as a result his tenants had to pay him the tithe even though he had no ecclesiastical responsibilities in the parishes. Pickard claimed tithes not only as the ecclesiastical rector at Warmwell but as the lay impropriator at Charminster and Stratton.

By the 19th century the range of people or corporations who could claim the tithe was considerable. In his tithe commutation work John Martin dealt with rectors who were clergymen, lay impropriators, prebendaries at the local cathedrals, the Masters and Fellows of a Cambridge college, Eton College [4] and individuals who had no right to claim the tithe per se but who leased the right from the Bishops of Salisbury and Bristol cathedrals.

For centuries the tithe was tolerated; the sting of payment on occasion being salved by the vicar providing a dinner. The best known accounts of these were given by the Revd. James Woodforde [5] in the 18th century.

James Woodford by his nephew Samuel Wikipedia By Samuel Woodforde – http://www.woodforde.co.uk/, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4413671

His diary is a fascinating read, pleasingly human, and he himself seems a decent sort of Vicar, this from December 2nd 1777

This day being my Frolic for receiving money for Tithe and Glebe the following Parishioners dined with us . Mr Dade, …[a whole list of names follows]….. Mr Peachman with his Friend a young man Mr Herring, and Mr Galland came to us for Dinner. I gave my Parishioners for dinner a good Rump of Beef boiled, a Leg of Mutton rosted [sic], a Ham boiled, vast quantities of plumb and plain Puddings and Roots. I gave them to drink Wine and Punch in plenty. They all stayed with me till about 10 in the evening and then they all went to their respective homes. They were all well pleased and merry and tolerably sober….Harry Dunnell had the ague in the evening. My People today drank 6 bottles of Rum, of Wine 5 Bottles and of Ale great quantities. I received today for Tithe £204 17s. .. We did not get to bed to-night till near 1 o’clock. I gave to my Servant Maid Sukey 2/6d I gave also to my Servant Willm Coleman 2/6d They having had a good deal of trouble today and did everything entirely to my satisfaction.”

His frolics did not always work out so well as in this example from 1781 ..

They all dined and some stayed till very near 12 at Midnight. Stephen Andrews and John Pegg very soon got quite drunk by strong Beer. The latter was quite beastly so and spued about the Passage. Very shameful in him.”

He clearly regretted his own behaviour as,

“the company was late in dispersing and he notes “It was rather too late before they went but they waited to see the end of the [Punch] Bowls. NB I filled the Bowls rather too full this year.”

This picture of ‘Merrie England’ did not last. As economic conditions deteriorated during the late 18th century relationships between church and the public they were supposed to serve deteriorated. There were any number of points of conflict but as this is a Brief History we must simply say that by the early 19th century the tithe had become increasingly unpopular. The prime economic activity until the mid 19th century throughout the country was the production of food and as a result, the tithe was effectively a form of income tax. It produced phenomenal riches for the church. In 1831 The Extraordinary Black Book, not exactly a fan of the church it must be said, estimated that the income from the tithe was between five and six million pounds; a staggering three hundred and thirty million pounds in today’s money.

It was hardly likely that the church would willingly give up this money voluntarily but by the 19th century the tithe had become intensely unpopular, it was, as one of the leading expert on tithe history named it “The Contentious Tithe”.[6]

The amount of tithe generated by a parish varied according to it’s size and agricultural practices and this resulted in massive disparities in clerical incomes, indeed in 1704 a special fund – Queen Anne’s bounty- had to be set up to help poor clergy. It was found that just under a half of all clergymen earned eighty pounds a year or less, whilst others earned thousands of pounds. Considering the average agricultural wage in Dorset in the early 1800’s was about £25 per year this was still generous.

The problem for State, Church, Landowners and tenants was that the right to claim the tithe was regarded as property. We can readily understand why real piglets, bushels of wheat etc. might be considered as property and it was hardly a surprise that the Church did not wish to reform the system of tithes, but it was this notion of the right to claim the tithe as property that preserved it throughout the long centuries. [7]

By the 1830’s however such was the discontent with the tithe that, according to Evans, the church had never been closer to disestablishment. It was clear that something had to be done. In each of the parliamentary sessions of 1833,1834,1835 and 1836, a major Bill to commute tithes was introduced by the government of the day, but all failed except the last. In June 1836 the new government of Lord John Russell succeeded in passing the Tithe Commutation Act. Politicians then were little different to today’s politicians as the Act was virtually the same as the one introduced the previous year by the then Prime Minister, Robert Peel.

The Tithe Commutation Act abolished the biblical tithe -that tenth part of the annual increase of the produce of the earth and so on – and replaced it with a ‘tithe rent-charge’ which fluctuated with the price of corn. When reading the parochial agreements you will often see references to the tithe being ‘extinguished’. In a strictly limited, semantic way, this is true, but what was not abolished was the idea of a tax, payable by landowners, to support the church. The tithe was not abolished, it was just replaced.

Next             Pre-Commutation Work

Previous      Inclosure Parish by Parish


1 Blackstone Commentaries on the laws of England 1753

2 A History of Tithes Rev H W Clarke 1894

3 God’s own Acres Land Vol 20 2016

4 Founded by Henry VI Eton College was endowed with the tithe of numerous parishes.

5 Woodforde James The Diary of a Country Parson . Edited John Beresford 1926

6 Evans Eric J The Contentious Tithe: Tithe Problems and English Agriculture, 1750-1850 pub 1976

7 No property owner could countenance the abolition of any form of property. When slavery ended it was not by the abolition of slaves as property but by the provision of compensation to the slave owners for the release of their ‘property’ from slavery. Likewise when the tithe was finally abolished in 1936 it was not truly abolished so much as replaced by another form of property – an annuity.