History of Peter's Pence

AN annual tax of one penny for every house in England, collected at Midsummer, and paid to the Holy See. It was extended to Ireland under the bull granted by Pope Adrian to Henry II. The earliest documentary mention of it seems to be the letter of Canute (1031), sent from Rome to the English Clergy and laity. Among the "dues which we owe to God according to ancient law," the king names "the pennies which we owe to Rome at St. Peter's" (denarii quos Romae ad Sanctum Petrum debemus), whether from towns or vills." It may hence be considered certain that the tax was deemed one of ancient standing in the time of Canute, but its exact origin is variously related. West Saxon writers ascribe the honor (for it was regarded as an honor by our forefathers) of its institution to kings of Wessex; Matthew Paris, who represents Mercian traditions, gives it to Offa, king of Mercia. Malmesbury makes Ethelwulf, the father of Alfred, the founder; so that the same king who instituted tithes would on this view have established "Peter's Pence." But a writer very little later than MalmesburyHenry of Huntingdonattributes the grant to Offa, king or Mercia, who "gave to the Vicar of St. Peter, the Bishop of Rome, a fixed rent for every house in his kingdom for ever." Matthew Paris, in his "Two Offas" (printed by Wats), gives the Mercian tradition in an expanded form. Offa, visiting Rome in great state, besides other munificent offerings, burdens his kingdom with the "Romscot," which is to be paid to the Roman Church for the support of the English school and hostel at Rome. It was to be one silver penny (argenteus) for every family occupying land worth thirty pence a year. On the other hand, Layamon, the poet (writing about 1209, among West Saxon traditions), ascribes the institution to Ina, a king of Wessex. No certain conclusion can be arrived at; but, on the whole, it seems probable that the "Rom-scot" owed its foundation to Offa, with whose prosperous and successful reign the initiation of the thing would be more in keeping than with the troubled times of Ethelwulf, although the latter may well have consented to extend that which had been before only a Mercian impost to the West Saxon part of his dominions.

The "alms," sent by Alfred to Pope Marinus, who then "freed" the English school at Rome, were probably nothing more than arrears of Peter's pence, the receipt of which made it possible for the Pope to free the inhabitants in the English quarter, and the pilgrims resorting to it for hospitality, from all tax and toll. Geoffrey Gaimar is responsible for the curious statement, that in consideration of the Peter's pence (the "dener de la meison") given by Canute, the Pope made him his legate and ordered that no Englishman charged with crime should be imprisoned abroad, or exiled, but should "purge himself in his own land."

It is probable that there was at all times great irregularity in the payment of the Romscot. It is recorded to have been sent to Rome in 1095, by the hands of the Papal nuncio, after an intermission of many years. Again, in 1123 we read of a legate coming into England after the Rom-scot. From 1534 it ceased to be rendered.

The tribute, or cess, of l,000 marks (700 for England, 300 for Ireland), which King John bound himself and his heirs to pay to the Roman see, in recognition of the feudal dependence of his kingdom, was of course wholly distinct from the Peter's pence. After being paid by Henry III. and Edward II., but withheld by Edward I. and Edward III., it was formally claimed with arrears, in 1366, by Urban V.

The Peter's pence of modern days is a voluntary contribution made by the faithful, and taken up under the direction of their bishop, for the maintenance of the Sovereign Pontiff.

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