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A Very Brief History of the Tithe

Victuallers / CC BY-SA (

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 (

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 almost everyone was a farmer], you were required to give a tenth part of your annual output to the rector of the parish [see below]. No matter what you produced ,every tenth bushel of wheat or oats or barley or every tenth lamb, or calf or piglet or pail of milk – all had to be given to the rector.

Originally the tithe was paid “in kind” which meant that real bushels of wheat , or lambs etc etc were paid to the church and it was to house this produce that massive tithe barns were built. In later centuries payment in kind was replaced in favour of a monetary payment equivalent to the value of the produce it replaced. These compositions, as they were known, were accompanied in some cases by what was called a ‘modus’. This was an ancient payment made in lieu of specific tithes – most commonly milk. They were so old that nobody could remember when they were established [if you could remember then they were no longer moduses] and over the centuries their value to the tithe owner was greatly reduced. They were loathed by the church.

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’. Whether the church was Roman Catholic or Protestant, the organised church in England was supported by the tithe. Only the dissenting churhes lost out as they could not claim the tithe and so the Church of England became phenomenally rich as we will see. Today the tithe  is as relevant as the Dodo.

For the first five hundred years or so of the Christian church, tithes were not paid, indeed Christ himself said little about tithes, and that which he did say was somewhat condemnatory.

As the church grew it required money and it’s focus turned to the old testament. It was noted that one of the tribes of Israel, the Levites, had been paid a tithe by the other tribes of Israel. The Jews had many offerings to make to God but the levitical tithe [as it would become known] had three purposes ; to support the priests of the temple in Jerusalem, to maintain the temple 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 partially successful. Needing the support of the Church ancient Kings were often ready to agree to their payment – the laity were not so keen and it was not until the country was ‘united’ under 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. From the first the great lords, on whose land the produce of the earth was grown, were free to appropriate [give] the tithes of their manors [including the tithes of their tenants]  to whomever they wanted and this was mostly to the abbeys, priories, convents, colleges of priests, and so on. It was assumed that these powerful institutions had the most clout with the Divine. Until their dissolution in the 16th century, 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 most were remote from the parishes. How then was the care of the souls of the laity to be undertaken? From the first some parishes had their own churches, funded by the lord of the manor, but their introduction was slow and 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 the 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.

The question then arose as to how these vicars were to be paid. The monasteries were naturally reluctant to let the tithe go and so allowed for the diversion of a small, or lesser portion, of the tithe to go to the vicar. This led to the idea of ‘Great tithes’, payable to the rector, whilst the vicar got the small, or vicarial tithes. Curates occasionally got got the vicars share but usually were on a fixed stipend.

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. Even so about a third of the land fell into lay hands and a new class of tithe owner was created – the lay impropriator. At this point we should mention another piece of ecclesiastical property known as the advowson.

Lords of the manor as well as being able to decide who would receive the tithes of his manor or parish also acquired what was known as  the right presentation. Essentially he could choose who he wanted as the clergyman in his parish. This individual had of course to be ordained and approved by the bishop but rarely did the bishops object. The advowson was very valuable – particularly to families who had spare sons. By purchasing the advowson a family could ask the bishop to appoint one of their offspring as the rector of a parish and he would then be supported by the parishioners for the rest of his life. Sorted. On occasions the owner of an advowson could ask for a non family member to be appointed ; perhaps the best example of this in fiction comes from Sense and Sensibility by Jane Austen. Colonel Brandon appoints Edward Ferrers            [ Hugh Grant in the film] to a parish , the advowson of which Brandon owns.

After the Dissolution then Tithe owners, ecclesiastical rectors or lay impropriators could be any of the following :

  1. The local Bishop or one of the many clergyman [prependaries] who he employed to run diocesan affairs.
  2. Tithe farmers. These individuals or groups of people ‘farmed’ the tithe, which is to say that they undertook to collect the tithe for the official rector. Suppose the value of the tithe was £10. These farmers might pay £9 to the rector and pocket the £1 as their fee.
  3. Rectors who were effectively appointed by the owners of the advowson of the parish. Whilst many of these advowsons were owned by the Bishop , large numbers were in private hands and could be bought and sold.
  4. Lay improprietors. These ranged from individuals to Oxford and Cambridge Colleges. When the lands of the monasteries had been sold it might be expected that the tithe which arose from those lands would be paid to the new Church of England. Henry VIII however allowed the new owners to retain the tithe for their own use. These lay improprietors had no ecclesiastical responsibilities in the parish they simply took the money. 

Oddly it is not uncommon to find that these lay impropriators were in fact clergyman. Knowing how the system worked the cleryg were able to exploit it to their advantage. The rector of the parish of Warmwell, for example, was one George Pickard. As rector of Warmwell he was entitled to the tithes of the parish of Warmwell but in addition he was also the lay improprietor in the parishes of Charminster and Stratton that had at one time been monastic lands. Even though Pickard was a clergyman he claimed the tithes of these parishes not because he was a clergyman but because, through a lucky stroke of fortune, he happened to be the lay impropriator at Charminster and Stratton.

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 –, Public Domain,

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 amongst the laity. 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, these are tangible objects just like , jewellry or houses or cars which we can understand as being ‘property’.

The ‘right to claim the tithe’ as a piece of property is a more difficult notion to grasp since it involves a legal notion and not a tangible object. The nearest modern equivalent is income tax : try telling the HMRC that the tax you owe is not their property!

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 and rejected 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.