Early English Taxation

An essay by Raymond Makewell


This essay is an examination of the forms that taxation took and how it evolved in different situations during the Anglo-Saxon period.

Taxation can take many different forms in different contexts. As a general rule we consider taxation to be money, goods or labour compulsorily taken from elements of a community by the community as a whole, on a predetermined basis sanctioned by custom or law. Here the community as a whole is represented by a governing authority, naturally bound to act in the interests of the governed.[1]

When they arrived in England the Anglo-Saxons brought with them their religious customs from which they derived qualities such as loyalty and courage; they placed greater worth on gifts given as tokens of appreciation or respect than on the items’ material value or utility.[2] From their cultural background they inherited a legal system based on compensation for an offence.[3] Nationally they accepted government by a king restrained by a council of advisers, and for many issues they decided collectively on the course of action. The kingdom was divided into tribal groupings,[4] extended families, in which loyalty and protection could easily manifest; the families settled in small villages that provided mutual support. The Anglo-Saxon household remained independent and at least in the early centuries almost every household included slaves.

Civilisation and culture are subtle forces that govern the behaviour of nations without our being aware of them. But the institutions from nation to household require practical support from the individuals or groups they embrace. How that support is provided, who provides it and the ends to which it is directed are among the primary concerns of economists. Taxation is one means of providing that support. By considering the whole Anglo-Saxon period we can see other ways that support was provided.

The Earliest Anglo-Saxon Government

The Anglo-Saxon invaders of Britain regarded everything they seized by conquest as their common property, distributed as gift or reward from the king to individual soldiers when each new district was secured. ‘Property’ included the captured former inhabitants, their moveable possessions, their livestock, and their agricultural land.

The invaders shunned the towns and cities, settling in small villages usually composed of less than twenty households (hiwiscs). Each householder had an entirely private area around his house (a haga), usually bounded by a hedge, where he was absolute master, strips in the main field, for cultivation allocated by the village as a whole, access rights to the meadows for grazing sheep and cattle and access to the surrounding ‘forests’[5]to glean wild foods, cut timber for building and fire-wood, keep pigs and hunt.

The land required to support a household consisting of the haga, the strips for cultivation, the meadow and the forest, was referred to as a hide.[6]There was little specialisation and ultimately little difference between the incomes of families.

The sharing of fields and meadows clearly required communal government, and collective decisions were made at a village moot. Shared fields also involved collective construction and maintenance of fences, ploughs and other common facilities and no doubt everyone in the village contributed, but throughout the entire Anglo-Saxon period there is no suggestion of duty or compulsion being involved. Service was offered and this government required no taxation.

In a similar way support was provided for the district[7] and the nation as a whole when called for. The Anglo-Saxon tradition of loyalty to a leader allowed the military to be called as required without any suggestion of compulsion, even if leaving their fields involved a sacrifice.

The king was the personification of the power of the nation. He was surrounded by his counsellors and supporters. Together they were responsible for defence, justice and other aspects of national administration. In the earliest times the royal party was mobile, progressing in a broad circuit throughout the country. Initially the progress may have been irregular, but over time the circuit became predictable in both route and season. They were supported by hospitality provided communally in the villages through which they passed, and by hunting. No doubt this hospitality must at times have been abused and become a burden, an imposition or even plunder, but even in these conditions hospitality prevailed as the motive of the hosts.

The other major source of revenue was the proceeds of justice. The Anglo-Saxon system of justice stipulated that the offender compensate the victim, his household and the king for the loss that resulted from the crime, according to the rank the victim held in the society.[8] The amounts involved were large and the revenues significant.[9]

Mature Anglo-Saxon Government

Progressively the Anglo-Saxon kings established a base of operations, a capital. The hospitality provided by the villages to the king and his entourage was commuted to a food rent, a feorme.[10] It is clear that the feorme was unique to each village: a mixture of raw materials (grain and animals) and finished goods (cheese, honey, bread and ale). The village determined what contributions to the feorme were required from each household.

The feorme for each village was an absolute amount, collectable during good times and bad. With rising population and increasing stability the king was generally well provided for, although with the vagaries of warfare, plague and weather the provision of the feorme must at times have been onerous.

As the feorme was formalization of hospitality, so service to the district, shire and nation by individuals became formalized as participation in the national militia, the fyrd,[11] and work on fortifications and bridges, which are described as necessary labours.[12] But by this time a class of Anglo-Saxons appeared, who as a result of the extremes of nature and human conflict, were no longer self-sufficient or free to farm their own land. Service to the village, district or nation was then associated with holding land and became the duties of free Anglo-Saxon men.

Was the system just? We can only speculate. The available evidence suggests that each village’s feorme reflected the natural advantages of the location. The villages closest to the royal circuit were probably those best sited and most firmly established in the country and so likely to pay a greater feorme. Collection of the feorme would have been more difficult in remote villages, which were probably exposed to all kinds of threats to their wellbeing. However it seems improbable that there was any system of review when situations changed, and what may have been just when the feorme was established may in new circumstances have been quite unjust. What service involved at the time was so well understood that no attempts were made to define it or how it operated, and no offence to the idea of justice was sufficient to warrant the attention of the Anglo-Saxon Chroniclers.

Changes in the Christian Era

The simple structure of Anglo-Saxon society changed with the arrival of Christianity in England in the year 597 and the introduction of the monastic movement. Monasteries were a form of land use unknown to the Anglo-Saxons. The monks were granted land, effectively a village or group of villages, and with it the associated feorme: a perpetual gift from the king. The monastery shared the same rights and duties within the village, with its own strips in the common field and its own stock in the meadow. Subject to there being some land available to work, the arrangement did not impose any additional burden on the other landholders in the village. In fact, all other things being equal, the larger community probably brought some advantages. The king’s associates, inspired by this example, lobbied for similar privileges. Land granted in this way became known as book land – bocland, and a particular holding become known as a manor.

The men holding these privileges, both lay and ecclesiastical, were in a position to offer support to others who had not been able to continue as farmers in their own right. The support was conditional: “If you labour in my fields, on my behalf, you can use some of my seed and plant a small area of land from which to feed yourself and your family.”

Society was now split three ways: the original land holding still existed, and those holding land in this manner were regarded as freemen. There was a very much smaller group who held book land, and were able to live on the efforts of others; and a significant and growing part of the population depended on some lord for an opportunity to extract a meagre living on someone else’s land. In time, much of the land which was not book land came to be regarded as the king’s land and was organized by him into manors. These manors also had a dependent population directed by a reeve[13] to yield as much profit as possible for the king.

Church Taxes

A number of taxation measures followed the introduction of Christianity. Some of these have curious names; the hearth penny, wagon scot, soul scot, church scot, Peter’s pence, and the tithe. Most of them began as contributions recommended for all Christians, then became religious duties incumbent on Christians, and finally mandatory taxes enforced by civil authorities. With the exception of the soul scot these taxes were only collected from free men, which is to say they were only collected from landholders.

The church scot was levied on all freemen in proportion to a man’s holdings. It was almost always levied in kind, typically in grain but occasionally one or more hens. The amount was always significant but varied enormously in different parts of the country, one record in Worcestershire shows it being a horse-load of grain per hide, another in Northamptonshire has it as a single quarter of wheat or rye. By the end of the Anglo-Saxon period the incidence of this charge had ceased to bear any close relation to agrarian facts. What was raised was intended from the outset to support a local priest. It may have satisfied this end at its inception, but two major factors corrupted the practice. Firstly, the revenue was collected by the ‘church’. In many cases the ‘church’ was owned by the holder of the manor,[14] who might simply regard it as another source of revenue. Second, as churches multiplied, the original church did not forgo its rights to collect the revenue when a new parish was established.

The soul scot probably originated from pre-Christian religious practice. It amounted to a death duty imposed on the estate of landless men bonded to a manor. It allowed the holder of the manor to choose the best item from the deceased’s estate and the local priest to choose his second best item. The family could keep what was left. It was nothing short of a cruel practice inflicted on the poorest members of society.[15]

Plough arms were a penny paid within a fortnight after Easter for each plough team in the parish.

The hearth penny was a penny that every free household had to send to the chief minster in the neighborhood on Holy Thursday.

Peter’s Pence is said to have originated when King Offa made a trip to Rome and offered the Pope a penny for each household in England. The single gift became a regular contribution, financed by a collection at local churches on the 1st of August each year.

The Tithe, a tenth of the taxpayer’s income, was the largest amount collected by the church. This eventually absorbed the church scot. In the 7th century it was regarded as a religious duty incumbent as a matter of conscience on all Christians.[16] It was generally held that a man was free to devote his tithe to whatever religious purpose attracted him, such as maintenance of a priest. In the 8th century Archbishop Theodore ruled that the tithe could only be given to the poor, pilgrims and churches. At the end of the 8th century a legatine conference recommended that the tithe be enjoined on all men but although the kings acquiesced there is no evidence that they took steps to enforce it.

A mandatory tithe was intended to provide certainty for church revenues. Towards the end of the 10th century King Edgar introduced provisions to enforce the tithe and horrific penalties were extracted if it was not paid. The tithe, taken together with the other taxes, was a serious charge on the English peasantry. In good times the taxes could be borne, though perhaps not comfortably. In extreme situations such as war and famine the exactions were suspended, but between these extremes they were collected ruthlessly, at times depriving peasant households of their reserves or even of provisions for next season’s planting.

The Danegeld

It was into this complex set of taxation arrangements that the Danegeld was introduced – as an emergency measure. In AD 991 the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle recorded: ‘…in this same year it was resolved that tribute should be given,[17] for the first time, to the Danes for the great terror they occasioned by the sea coast. That was first 10,000 pounds. …’.[18] The English were given a year to pay.

The Danegeld,[19] was the taxation implemented to raise the 10,000 pounds’ weight of silver required. Each freeman in England was to contribute according the amount of land he held. The administration seems relatively straightforward. The number of hides in each shire and hundred had been estimated in the 7th or 8th century, and published in a document called ‘Tribal Hideage’. From this, or its like, it was possible to calculate an amount of silver required per hide, and an amount required from each shire and within the shire from each hundred. The administrators made it the duty of each shire to produce its allotted share, and similarly within the hundred. If within the hundred there was a shortfall then the rate for that hundred was increased, and similarly for the shire so that the exact amount required was collected. The exaction was ruthlessly enforced, and with little notice.[20]

The hide, on which the Danegeld was based, originally reflected a degree of equity in a society of equals. It was an allocation of land that would produce sufficient to support a farming household. But after many centuries each of these farms, although still on the original allocation of land, held different potential for production as a result of changing social and economic conditions.[21] Further, the estimates of the number of hides in each shire proved to be highly inaccurate and resulted in variation from one shire to another in the rate per hide for the geld.

The Danes came back from time to time to make greater demands, and each time the Danegeld was levied to purchase of peace. This continued until 1016. In 1012 an annual measure called a heregeld commenced.[22] The heregeld was to pay for a mercenary army to resist the Danes and continued until 1051. The ‘geld’ was re-introduced by William the Conqueror with exemptions for his principle landholders and the church.

Both the tribute given to the Danes, and the wages for the king’s mercenaries required that payment be made exclusively in silver.[23] It was silver that was collected for the Danegeld. In a largely self-sufficient agricultural society little coin was available to the majority of ordinary freemen, or even to many of the greater lay and ecclesiastical landholders. King Cnut ruled that anyone who had not paid the geld by the appointed time would forfeit his land to whoever paid the money to the shire reeve.[24] Among monasteries, some sold lands to raise their geld, others were forced to lease land, and yet others borrowed – although there are implications that there was insufficient money available to satisfy the demand for loans.[25] Some churches melted down goblets and crucifixes to meet the Danegeld. Even the king sold land to raise money for the geld, and in 995 the Archbishop of Canterbury was forced to borrow.

The difficulties faced by monasteries were also faced by lay landholders who had charters that could be used for sale or mortgage. The effect on holders of folk land – the English free peasants each holding a single hide – was not recorded, but it is reasonable to assume they were subject to the same pressures and were much more vulnerable. There can be no doubt that the demand for taxation in cash instead of kind changed the patterns of farming, and provided a huge incentive to the development of large-scale wool production in some districts.

Anyone who had accumulated coin before the Danegeld was in a powerful position, able to increase their landholding at the expense of those without money reserves,[26] and it is clear that a great deal of land changed hands during this period. Repetition of the geld exaggerated the situation, and those who held money became even stronger.


The geld was introduced to deal with an emergency, and what was envisaged initially as a once-only situation. The expeditious manner of assessment was particularly suitable given the time limit imposed by the Danes. The ability of any individual to pay varied with the rate per hide levied in his district, the productiveness of any particular farm and how much coin the landholder had previously accumulated. Failure to pay had catastrophic consequences. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle of 1052,[27] describes the geld as a tax that distressed the nation. Archbishop Wulfstan writing in 1014 describes it similarly.[28]

The geld was based on a measure of land, but on a unit of measurement that had long since ceased to have any practical meaning. Effectively it was a system of arbitrary taxation, the weight of which may have been unavoidable, but the distribution served only to magnify the disparity between rich and poor and shift the basis of wealth from land to money. Support of government throughout the Anglo-Saxon period had gradually changed from a system primarily based on gift and hospitality to system based on mandatory extraction of wealth wherever it could be found.


[1] The governing authority might be a king, a council or a gathering of the whole community. All of these existed in different situations in the Anglo-Saxon context.

[2] Qualities of all the peoples who worshipped the Norse Gods.

[3] The principle of weregeld, or ‘man price’ was widely practiced among the Germanic tribes.

[4] Tribal groupings were still evident in the 7th and 8th centuries but these in due course were replaced administratively by shires and hundreds.

[5] The term ‘forests’ indicated areas ‘outside the fence’. It was not limited to areas of trees.

[6] The Anglo-Saxon term is related to hiwisc above.

[7] Referred to as a hundred in later texts. Chasing and capturing felons is one of the functions of district organisation.

[8] The earliest examples we have are the Laws of King Ine (reigned 688-695). The penalties are expressed in monetary terms, but it seems unlikely payment was expected in money.

[9] The earliest law codes show the amounts of compensation in monetary terms even before coins were being produced.

[10] One example of a food rent that has survived is the presumably sixty families living on the sixty hides of land at Westerbury on Trym who were required to supply the king each year with: two tuns full of clear ale, one cumb full of mild ale, one cumb of full British ale, seven oxen, six wethers, forty cheeses, thirty ‘ambers’ of rye corn, and four ‘ambers’ of meal.

[11] Administratively the fyrd was called out at the district level, the hundred; many of these other duties were handled at the district level.

[12] These duties first appear in the 8th century.

[13] A reeve was an official, or manager. A shire reeve later became known as a sheriff.

[14] And built by himself or his forbears.

[15] The justification was that this would compensate the holder of the manor for the loss he incurred as a results of the man’s death.

[16] In the 7th century Christians would have made up only a small proportion of the population.

[17] The Anglo-Saxon word used in the chronicles is ‘gafol’ meaning tribute.

[18] The pound here is weight of silver.

[19] The Anglo-Saxon word ‘geld’ derives from ‘geldan’ meaning, to pay, restore, make an offering, serve, or worship.

[20] The geld is presumed to be based on the hideage system for the Danegeld and is known to be based on the hideage system for the heregeld.

[21] Any examination of the Domesday book shows the variations of the value of land. Under the first few entries for the Abbey of Westminister for instance, the 1st entry has 10 hides with a demesne of 5 hides and was worth £30; the 3rd entry has 9 hides with a demesne of 4 hides and a value of £8; the 4th entry has 8 hides with a demesne of 4 hides and a value of £13.

[22] An army tax.

[23] There was very little gold in England at this time. The silver might be coin, bullion or finished goods.

[24] The provision under Cnut’s laws probably existed before and after his reign.

[25] Specific examples are cited in ‘The collection of the Danegeld and the Heregeld in the reigns of Aethelred II and Cnut’ by M. K. Lawson in The English Historical Review No CCCXCIII – October 1984. The majority of these, are as would be expected records from religious institutions, and these almost always where the relevant land was subsequently recovered.

[26] Irrespective of whether they had accumulated reserves in other forms such as seed for future planting.

[27] The ‘D’ text, ‘And in the same year King Edward abolished the tribute, which King Ethelred had before imposed: that was in the nine-and-thirtieth year after he had begun it. That tax distressed all the English nation during so long a time, as it has been written; that was ever before other taxes which were variously paid, and wherewith the people were manifestly distressed.’.

[28] Wulfstan, Archbishop of York, Sermo Lupi ad Anglos.