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Forgetfulness in the First English Reformation? Tithes Forgotten

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  16 February 2023

University of Hertfordshire, Hatfield, Hertfordshire AL10 9AB;


Bequests for tithes forgotten were a staple component of orthodox wills in the early sixteenth century. Interestingly, this element appeared considerably less frequently in these documents in the diocese of (Coventry and) Lichfield and the archdeaconry of Leicester in the 1530s and 1540s. Two probable and possibly inter-related influences were at work: a change of perception of tithes from spiritual redemption to benefice income; and some remembered legacy from Lollard criticism of the purpose of tithes. This examination confirms the idea of a variety of responses in different locations, illustrated by those small adjustments which were achievable by testators.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2023

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The author expresses his gratitude to the editors and an anonymous reader for their prompting. Professor Robert Swanson, at an early stage of deliberation, discussed with the author the purpose of tithes. Only the author is, of course, responsible for the content of this article.


1 Palmer, R., Selling the Church: the English parish in law, commerce, and religion, 1350–1550, Chapel Hill, NC 2002, at pp. 100–11Google Scholar for absenteeism.

2 ROLLR, PR/1/1–6c, 251: John Spreges, Welham, 1529; John Luen, Hinckley, 1530; Lincoln wills , II: 1505–1530, ed. C. W. Foster (LRS x, 1914), 200; Lincoln wills, III: 1530–1532, ed. C. W. Foster (LRS xxv, 1930), 214.

3 SRO, B/C/11. References to these items are by name/place/date.

4 SRO, B/C/11: Em Blabe, Napton, 1539/40, and William Bratt, Colton, 1539, are examples.

5 Shagan, E., Popular politics and the English Reformation, Cambridge 2003Google Scholar.

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7 In general see Cooper, T., The last generation of English Catholic clergy: parish priests in the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield in the early sixteenth century, Woodbridge 1999, 34Google Scholar.

8 Ibid. 4; Fasti Ecclesiasticae Anglicanae, 1541–1857, X: Coventry and Lichfield diocese, London 2003, pp. vii–ix.

9 Haigh, C., Reformation and resistance in Tudor Lancashire, Cambridge 1975Google Scholar.

10 Cooper, Last generation, 3.

11 A list of families in the archdeaconry of Stafford, 1532–3, ed. A. J. Kettle (Staffordshire Record Society 4th ser. viii, 1976), 131–6. The ambiguity about the purpose of this listing makes it difficult to employ here.

12 Cooper, Last generation, 3.

13 Tyacke, N., ‘Introduction: re-thinking the “English Reformation”’, in Tyacke, N. (ed.), England's long Reformation, 1500–1800, London 1997, 132Google Scholar at pp. 14–15.

14 For the antecedents of this process, which expanded in the thirteenth century, and for the early history of tithes see Constable, G., Monastic tithes from their origins to the twelfth century, Cambridge 1964, 931Google Scholar, and Hartridge, R. A. R., A history of vicarages in the Middle Ages, Cambridge 1930, 162–88Google Scholar.

15 In the last instance the abbot of Kenilworth as rector of Hughendon in 1489 ‘non facit distribuciones inter pauperes parochianos sicut de jure deberet’ (‘did not make distributions among poor parishioners as he rightly should’): The courts of the archdeaconry of Buckingham, 1483–1523, ed. G. R. Elvey (Buckinghamshire Record Society xix, 1975), 4, 6, 8, 77, 104. For the expectation on religious houses see Constable, Monastic tithes, 201–8, 217–18, 227, 232.

16 For a suggestion that the causes about tithes were minimal and reflected general compliance see P. Marshall, Heretics and believers: a history of the English Reformation, New Haven, Ct 2017, 44–5, and Paula Simpson, ‘Custom and conflict: disputes over tithe in the diocese of Canterbury, 1501–1600’, unpublished PhD diss. Kent 1997. My approach is different, eschewing subtraction of tithes as ‘resistance’ (after James Campbell Scott) and concentrating on the earlier decades. For personal (non-agrarian) tithes see S. Brigden, ‘Tithe controversy in Reformation London’, this Journal xxxii (1981), 285–301.

17 Borthwick Institute, York, CP.G.887. The anathema is repeated in another tithe cause: ‘graue periculum & aliorum in exemplum periconsissimum’ (‘serious danger and very dangerous example for others’): CP.G.65.

18 Lower ecclesiastical jurisdiction in late-medieval England: the courts of the dean and chapter of Lincoln, 1336–1349, and the deanery of Wisbech, 1458–1484, ed. L. R. Poos (British Academy Records of Social and Economic History n.s. xxxii, 2001). As well as the causes described below see pp. 297, 323, 336 (detinue of personal tithes), 362, 382, 408 (subtraction of tithes of wool and lambs in Leverington), 452, 475, 479, 488, 542, 556 (tithes of turves in Emneth).

19 The register of John Chandler, dean of Salisbury, 1404–17, ed. T. C. B. Timmins (Wiltshire Record Society xxxix, 1983), 9 (for example).

20 Ibid. 99, 108, 132.

21 Ibid. 128.

22 Ibid. 29.

23 Marshall, Heretics and believers, 45. This follows Houlbrooke's numbers for Norwich in the 1520s.

24 SRO, B/C/1/1, fos 235r, 247v, 255v, 270r, 281v, 304v, 306v, 310r, 318v, 330r; B/C/1/2, fos 67r, 75r, 80v, 85r, 93r, 94r.

25 SRO, B/C/1/2, fo. 80v.

26 Sheils, W. J., ‘The right of the Church: the clergy, tithe, and the courts of York, 1540–1640’, in Sheils, W. J. and Wood, D. (eds), The Church and wealth (Studies in Church History xxiv, 1987), 231–55Google Scholar.

27 For ‘improvement’ see P. Slack, The invention of improvement: information and material progress in seventeenth-century England, Oxford 2015, and at pp. 232–6 for agrarian development.

28 Marshall, Heretics and believers, 45.

29 R. Swanson, ‘Payback time? Tithes and tithing in later medieval England’, in P. Clarke and T. Claydon (eds), God's bounty? The Church and the natural world (Studies in Church History xlvi, 2010), 124–33. In particular, he discusses clerical derelicts who remain God's agents (p. 128), distributions to the poor (pp. 131–2) and Lollardy (p. 132).

30 SRO, B/C/11.

31 ROLLR, PR/1/1–6c, 251.

32 Courts of the archdeaconry of Buckingham, 30 (33), 156 (225), 389 (472).

33 Wills of the archdeaconry of Sudbury, ed. P. Northeast (Suffolk Record Society xliv, liii, 2001, 2010), I: 1439–1474; II: 1461–1474, i. 133 (230), 145 (245) 155 (260), 207 (352), 222 (378), 228 (387), 253 (426), 322 (545), 347 (595), 369 (629), 384 (650), 399 (668), 408 (682), 464 (767), 501 (819). Between 1434 and 1461 reference to welfare of the soul in such benefactions was inscribed in seventeen testaments.

34 Ibid. i. 77 (209), 177 (460), 231 (623).

35 SRO, B/C/11.

36 SRO, B/C/11: John Boydall, Willoughby, 1539.

37 Courts of the archdeaconry of Buckingham, 216 (301), 277 (366), 360 (439).

38 Wills of the archdeaconry of Sudbury, ii. 6 (10), 7 (11), 14 (25), 21 (39).

39 Ibid. i. 165 (435), 170 (446), 194 (507), 235 (633), 330 (929), 351 (1002), 411 (1201), 430 (1249), 447 (1285); Bedfordshire wills, 1484–1533, ed. P. Bell (Bedfordshire Historical Record Society lxxvi, 1997), 32 (50), 130 (213), 138 (225); Lower ecclesiastical jurisdiction, 296.

40 SRO, B/C/11.

41 Scarisbrick, J. J., The Reformation and the English people, Oxford 1984Google Scholar; Dinn, R., ‘Death and rebirth in late medieval Bury St Edmunds’, in Bassett, S. (ed.), Death in towns: urban responses to the dying and the dead, 100–1600, Leicester 1992, 151–69Google Scholar; Litzenberger, C., The English Reformation and the laity: Gloucestershire, 1540–1580, Cambridge 1998Google Scholar; and, more recently, Peters, C., Patterns of piety: women, gender and religion in late medieval and Reformation England, Cambridge 2003, 160–8Google Scholar.

42 For comparison of inventory valuation and religious bequests see also R. Lutton, Lollardy and orthodox religion in pre-Reformation England: reconstructing piety, Woodbridge 2006.

43 SRO, B/C/11.

44 SRO, B/C.10/II/2.

45 ROLLR, 1D41.

46 SRO, B/C/11: Robert Stubbes, Ellenhall, 1544.

47 C. Burgess, ‘“For the increase of divine service”: chantries in the parish in late medieval Bristol’, this Journal xxxvi (1985), 46–65.

48 Lincoln wills registered in the district probate registry at Lincoln, I: A.D. 1271 to A.D. 1526, ed. C. W. Foster (LRS v, 1914), 126; ii. 161, 200, 210; iii. 39, 44, 46, 47, 102, 136, 144, 156, 172, 214, 224–5, 229.

49 Ibid. iii. 106.

50 Ibid. iii. 188.

51 For the quality of the pre-Reformation clergy generally see P. Marshall, The Catholic priesthood and the English Reformation, Oxford 1994; for the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield in particular see Cooper, Last generation.

52 Haigh, C., ‘Anticlericalism and the English Reformation’, in Haigh, C. (ed.), The English Reformation revised, Cambridge 1987, 5674CrossRefGoogle Scholar, countered by D. Loades, ‘Anticlericalism in the Church of England before 1558: an “eating canker”?’, in N. Aston and M. Cragoe (eds), Anticlericalism, Stroud 2000, 1–17; E. Carlson, ‘Good pastors or careless shepherds? Parish ministers and the English Reformation’, History lxxxviii (2003), 423–36; P. Marshall, ‘Anticlericalism revested: expressions of discontent in early Tudor England’, in C. Burgess and E. Duffy (eds), The parish in late medieval England, Donington 2006, 365–80. For a somewhat contrary perception see R. Whiting, Local responses to the English Reformation, Basingstoke 1998, 29–33, and Shagan, E., ‘Anticlericalism, popular politics and the English Reformation’, in his Popular politics and the English Reformation, Cambridge 2003, 131–61Google Scholar. For some contention over the morality of the clergy in London see S. McSheffrey, ‘Whoring priests and godly citizens: law, morality and clerical sexual misconduct in late medieval London’, in N. Jones and D. Woolf (eds), Local identities in late medieval and early modern England, Basingstoke 2007, 58–60. The literature about levels of recruitment is summarised by C. Cross, ‘Ordinations in the diocese of York, 1500–1630’, in C. Cross (ed.), Patronage and recruitment in the Tudor and early Stuart Church (Borthwick Studies in History ii, 1996), 5–9. One implication is that there was a demand for priests and that the numbers of men becoming priests signified satisfaction with the clergy: Haigh, English Reformations, 37–8; C. Marsh, Popular religion in sixteenth-century England: holding their peace, Basingstoke 1998, 93; M. Bowker, The secular clergy in the diocese of Lincoln, 1495–1520, Cambridge 1968, and The Henrician Reformation: the diocese of Lincoln under John Longland, 1521–1547, Cambridge 1981; Haigh, Reformation and resistance. See also M. Zell, ‘The personnel of the clergy in Kent in the Reformation period’, EHR lxxxix (1974), 513–33.

53 For the possibility of radical scepticism see S. Reynolds, ‘Social mentalities and the case of medieval scepticism’, repr. in her Ideas and solidarities of the medieval laity, Aldershot 1995, 21–41 at p. 34 for doubt about transubstantiation.

54 Thomson, J. A. F., The later Lollards, Oxford 1965, 68–9Google Scholar, 74, 246–7.

55 The register of Thomas Langton, bishop of Salisbury, 1485–93, ed. D. P. Wright (Canterbury and York Society lxiv, 1985), 49–51 (419), 63 (459), 70–1 (484, 486), 75–82 (488, 490, 492, 495, 497, 499, 501, 503); The register of John Blyth, bishop of Salisbury, 1493–1499, ed. D. P. Wright (Wiltshire Record Society lxviii, 2015), 59–86 (319–46); A. Brown, Popular piety in late medieval England: the diocese of Salisbury, 1250–1550, Oxford 1995.

56 Register of John Blyth, 60 (319).

57 Ibid. 71 (330).

58 Lollards of Coventry, 1486–1522, ed. S. McSheffrey and N. Tanner (Camden 5th ser. xxiii, 2003), 14, 17, 20–1, 130, 145, 153, 165, 231, 233 (rejection of the sacrament and the special powers of the priesthood).

59 Ibid. 72.

60 Ibid. 223.

61 E. A. Wrigley and R. S. Schofield, The population history of England, 1541–1871: a reconstruction, Cambridge 1989 edn, 114; Phythian-Adams, C., Desolation of a city: Coventry and the urban crisis of the late Middle Ages, Cambridge 1979, 210Google Scholar.

62 The diocesan population returns for 1563 and 1603, ed. A. Dyer and D. M. Palliser (British Academy Records of Social and Economic History n.s. xxxi, 2003), 214. The Coventry figures seem to be defective.

63 J. Fines, ‘Heresy trials in the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, 1511–1512’, this Journal xliv (1963), 160–74. For Kent see Kent heresy proceedings, 1511–12, ed. N. Tanner (Kent Records xxvi, 1997).

64 Lollards of Coventry, 1486–1522, 5–6.

65 R. G. Davies, ‘Lollardy and locality’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 6th ser. 1 (1991), 191–212.

67 Register of John Blyth, 72 (330). There are other specific mentions of benefice income at 61 and 79.

68 Lower ecclesiastical jurisdiction, 331, 349, 362, 368, 416, 483, 527, 536, 551.

69 Moore, A. P., ‘Proceedings of the ecclesiastical courts in the archdeaconry of Leicester, 1516–1535’, Associated Architectural Societies’ Reports xxviii/1 (1905), 154Google Scholar.

70 Ibid. 155.

71 G. W. Bernard, The late medieval English Church: vitality and vulnerability before the break with Rome, New Haven, Ct 2012, 182, 277 n. 115.

72 Marris, P., The politics of uncertainty: attachment in private and public life, London 1996, 1Google Scholar.

73 Buchanan, I., Michel de Certeau: cultural theorist, London 2000, 87, 98CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

74 J. Ahearne, Michel de Certeau: interpretation and its other, Stanford, Ca 1995, 161.

75 ‘But it [observation of practice] leaves open (even if this seems obvious) the question of the interpretation to be assigned to them [practices]’: M. de Certeau, The writing of history, ed. T. Conley, New York 1988 edn, 139 and the subsequent comments at pp. 140–1.

76 Margaret Archer might describe this process as social morphogenesis: Culture and agency: the place of culture in social theory, Cambridge 1988, 167–8.

77 Dickens, A. G., Lollards and Protestants in the diocese of York, 1509–1558, Oxford 1959Google Scholar; Hudson, A., The premature Reformation: Wycliffite texts and Lollard history, Oxford 1988Google Scholar; D. Plumb, ‘The social and economic status of the later Lollards’, and Frearson, Michael, Evans, Nesta and Spufford, Peter, ‘The mobility and descent of dissenters in the Chiltern Hundreds’, in Spufford, M. (ed.), The world of rural dissenters, 1520–1725, Cambridge 1995, 103–31Google Scholar, 273–331. For the limited extent of evangelicalism see Marshall, P. and Ryrie, A., ‘Introduction: Protestants and their beginnings’, in Marshall, P. and Ryrie, A. (eds), The beginnings of English Protestantism, Cambridge 2002Google Scholar.

78 Here, I rely on A. Wood, The memory of the people: custom and popular senses of the past in early modern England, Cambridge 2013, 22–9 (‘memory studies’ and ‘social memory’).

79 Ibid. 19.

80 P. Ricoeur, Memory, history, forgetting, trans. K. Blamey and D. Pellauer, Chicago, Il 2004, 337 (‘retention memory’); Cubitt, G., History and memory, Manchester 2007, 76–7Google Scholar; Connerton, P., How societies remember, Cambridge 1989, 23CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Misztal, B., Theories of social remembering, Buckingham 2003, 256–7Google Scholar (conditions for ‘social amnesia’).