The Records of Central Government in England and Wales: Clerical Taxes 1173-1664


Principal Investigators: Professor Bill Sheils, Dr Rosemary Hayes
Researchers: Dr Maureen Jurkowski, Ms Helen Watt


The records of clerical taxation held at The National Archives at Kew (accessible online at TNA, E 179) contain over 7500 individual items, bundles or files surviving from the late twelfth to the seventeenth centuries.

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They comprise a wealth of detail on the institutional, economic and social history of the medieval and early modern Church in England and Wales and on the prosopographical history of the clergy, and as such are important sources both for researchers interested in the history of the Church and its relations with the State and for historians working on governmental policy in regard to revenue raising and the varying regional and local responses to this aspect of state building.

This aspect of taxation, which covered a group of individuals and institutions representing almost one-third of the taxable wealth of the nation, has been relatively neglected in the recent literature on the fiscal state. The clergy were taxed separately until 1664, and the documents that survive in E 179 all relate to the process of accounting for these taxes at the Exchequer. The information varies from place to place and over time but most of the clerical subsidies are represented by surviving accounts in E 179 for most dioceses.

Comprehensive digital catalogue

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The availability of a comprehensive, on-line catalogue of the documentation in E 179 will provide the opportunity for comparative studies of different dioceses and for longitudinal studies of the Church at both local and national level to supplement the ‘snapshot’ views provided in studies of major surveys of clerical wealth and/or population such as the Taxatio of Pope Nicholas IV of 1291, the clerical poll taxes of 1377-81 and the Valor Ecclesiasticus of 1535.

The cataloguing project will thus provide the means whereby scholars can build on the important work already done on particular dioceses (McHardy on London and Lincoln, and Mackie on Carlisle for the late medieval church; Heal on Ely and Zell on Canterbury for the sixteenth century), by creating access to comparative data and opening up the opportunity for the study of long-term shifts in the nature and extent of ecclesiastical wealth, both locally and nationally. We still know comparatively little about such important trends, or about the impact that the great confessional break of the Reformation had both on the wealth of the Church and on the Crown’s capacity to raise revenue from it.

Key questions

In addition to these broader themes the project so far has raised a number of specific questions: the fourteenth-century York provincial returns have improved our understanding of the 1319 revaluation of northern benefices following the Scottish incursions and there impact on northern society, the unexploited records relating to the taxation of the unbeneficed clergy in the fifteenth century fill an important gap in our knowledge about this numerous and pastorally significant sector of the clergy which has only recently begun to attract the attention of historians, and the very detailed returns of the 1520s offer important and neglected evidence on the clergy, and particularly the distribution of beneficed and unbeneficed priests, within the parochial structure on the eve of the Reformation.

In addition the post-Reformation records show the importance of taxation as a duty under the Royal Supremacy to the earlier generation of Protestant bishops and how, as trust between the Crown and many godly protestants broke down, taxation itself became a matter of contention between some parish clergy and diocesan officials in the course of the seventeenth century.