Most people know that that the laity once supported the clergy in their parish through the payment of the tithe, meaning a tenth of their annual income. But it is probably less well-known that medieval clergy also paid taxes, some to the Bishop and some to the Pope. One form of taxation was known as the Fructus Primi Anni, meaning ‘fruits of the first year’, otherwise known as First Fruits. Clergy that received benefices as rectors, vicars or parish chaplains (curates) were required to pay a part of their first year’s income, a kind of medieval income tax.
During the last two years of his life Bishop Godfrey Giffard was ill and unable to deal with the necessary work of the Diocese. Prior John de Wyke wrote to the Archbishop complaining that Bishop Giffard had received ‘a very large amount of money’ from the Fructus tax but had failed to use it in maintaining the Cathedral fabric and repairing the ecclesiastical houses. This letter is dated 1302 and is Document 57 in the famous Worcester White Book.
Other documents in the White Book witness a significant moment in the history of relations between the Papacy and the English Church. In 1306 Pope Clement V claimed all the First Fruit taxes for himself for the next three years. Document 385 is another letter from Prior John, this time to the Dean of Campden (Chipping Campden today), written on behalf of William Testa and William Gerald de Sora “chaplains of the Lord Pope and principal collectors of the fruits of the first year.” The letter goes on:
We strictly enjoin and command you to cite all rectors and vicars, and all the religious of whatever order, and all the Hospitallers, Templars, and all others who are known to hold ecclesiastical benefices within the boundaries of your Deanery, and all of those who since the kalends of February last (1st February) have received benefices that they appear before us.
The penalty for non-payment of this tax was excommunication! And there were further demands for payment of benefits received by clergy over “legacies not clearly left . . . pecuniary fines in aid of the Holy Land . . . payments from wills and vows.” And at the end of the letter there is a sharp reminder: “What you do in this business you are to certify me by your letters in full detail.”
It is interesting to note the reference to Hospitallers and Templars, meaning members of the Orders of Knights Hospitaller or Templar. In the very next year, 1307, King Philip IV of France began persecuting the Knights Templar on the grounds of alleged usury, heresy and immorality. Pope Clement did nothing to prevent this persecution and in 1311 he abolished the Order altogether.
You may be wondering what happened to the funds raised by this tax in later years. An Act of 1534 transferred payments of the First Fruits and other taxes to the Crown. In 1703 it became known as Queen Anne’s Bounty and the income was used for the benefit of clergy in poorer livings.
The translations from the White Book are taken from the volume written by Canon Wilson and also a part of the Cathedral Library collection: The Worcester Liber Albus, Glimpses Of Life In A Great Benedictine Monastery In The Fourteenth Century, James M Wilson D. D. (London, 1920)