This blog was written by Dr Edward Taylor, Library Assistant at the House of Lords Library.
I recently gained the opportunity to volunteer for the Collection Care team at the Parliamentary Archives. One of my tasks was to audit a collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century manuscripts that need to be prepared for the Archives’ impending relocation to Kew: a set of 33 parchment documents listed as ‘Subsidies of the Clergy’ (HL/PO/JO/24). These reflected a thorny issue for early modern government: how should the clergy be taxed? This might appear an arcane subject, but in fact provides an interesting window into the tumults and transformations of early modern English history.
Parliament had been regarded as the proper body through which the monarch could levy extraordinary grants of taxation (known as ‘subsidies’) on the general population since the fourteenth century, but this right did not extend to taxing the clergy. This was because the clergy had a separate representative body, known as Convocation – actually Convocations, as there were separate assemblies for the two provinces of Canterbury and York that constituted the Church in England – which had the power to authorise equivalent grants of clerical taxation to the crown.
When Henry VIII established royal supremacy over the Church in the 1530s, however, he also assumed authority over Convocation, which was no longer permitted to make decisions without royal assent. This meant that Convocation’s grants of clerical taxation were now expected to be ratified by Act of Parliament. The manuscripts in the Archives’ collection are the papers, or ‘public instruments’, that were drawn up by Convocation and laid before Parliament as part of this confirmatory legislative process. This explains how they have ended up in the Parliamentary Archives.
The manuscripts date from between 1543, towards the end of Henry VIII’s reign, and 1628, in the reign of Charles I, although a majority – 18 of the 33 – are from the time of Elizabeth I. They relate to subsidies granted by both Canterbury and York. One notable absence is any manuscripts from Mary I’s reign, when papal supremacy was restored and the need to ratify clerical subsidies in Parliament was briefly terminated.
My first task was to unfold each manuscript carefully – using nitrile gloves, as is best practice when handling parchment – and lay leather-covered weights in suitable places to prevent it folding back on itself. I then had to measure the dimensions of each manuscript, which will be used by the conservators to inform decisions about their long-term storage.
Many of the subsidy manuscripts take the form of individual parchment sheets, or ‘membranes’ – the biggest of which, the York subsidy of 1576, is over 2.6m long! Others are formed of pairs of membranes, usually attached at the base, and a few are small stitched booklets (see images). The booklets sometimes carry a title, written in manuscript on the cover. The 1597 York subsidy, for instance, is headed ‘Tria subsidia Regiæ Ma[iesta]ti per prælatos & cleru[m] Ebor[acensis] prouinciæ Nono Die Decembris Anno D[omi]ni 1597 concessa’ (‘Three subsidies granted to Her Royal Majesty by the prelates and clergy of the province of York, 9 December 1597’).
Let’s take the 1576 York subsidy as an example to illustrate what these manuscripts contained. It begins with an address, in Latin, to the monarch – ‘Illustrissimæ … Elizabethæ’ – that formally notes that the instrument granting the subsidy has been agreed in Convocation. It is presented in the name of the dean of York, Matthew Hutton. Normally the archbishop’s name would be given here, but there was no sitting archbishop at the time of the subsidy; the previous incumbent, Edmund Grindal, had recently been translated to Canterbury and a new archbishop had yet to be installed.
The bulk of the document that follows is in English, and explains in detail what the ‘prelates and Cleargie’ have agreed: why the subsidy has been granted, how much is being levied and on whom, any exemptions, and how it is to be collected. The text concludes with another Latin passage that dates the instrument and orders it to be issued, followed by the signatures of many notables of York, headed by the dean.
Two of the most striking features of the manuscript occur at the end. At the foot of the text, below the signatures, is the attesting statement of the notary public, William Fothergill – the official who drew up the document – accompanied by the notary’s mark. Each notary had his own mark, often with an elaborate geometric pattern and Latin motto, which acted as a kind of ink seal to authenticate the document. Fothergill’s motto was ‘Testimonium Veritati P[er]hibeo’: ‘I bear witness to the truth’.
The subsidy manuscripts contain a variety of intricate and interesting notary marks. Others include those of Thomas Redman, John Jurent and John Drake (see images).
The final feature is the wax seal, attached to the base of the manuscript with a parchment tag, which also authenticated the document. This seal on this manuscript is fragmentary – unsurprisingly, given its weight and exposed position.
Other seals on subsidy manuscripts are better preserved. Three of the best are Edmund Grindal’s seals as archbishop of York (1571) and archbishop of Canterbury (1581), and Edwin Sandys’s seal as archbishop of York (1585) (see images). But owing to the fragility of all of the seals, another of my tasks was to note their condition and dimensions so they can be given appropriate protective packaging.
The mechanisms for clerical taxation changed during the seventeenth century. From 1610, under James I, the subsidy manuscripts no longer functioned simply as documents laid before Parliament – as they had under Henry VIII or Elizabeth I, when a separate Act of Parliament was passed to confirm the subsidies – but now became Acts of Parliament themselves. A title and preamble were added on a separate parchment sheet attached to the front of the manuscript, and the subsidy then went through the normal parliamentary stages. The Canterbury subsidy of 1610, for example, carries the title ‘An act for the confirmacion of the Subside granted by the Clergie’, and the statement of Royal Assent – ‘Le Roy remerciant les Prélats accepte leur benevolence, et ainsi le veult’ (‘The King thanking the Prelates accepts their benevolence, and thus wills it’) (see image).
The last manuscripts in the collection date from 1628, during the tempestuous early years of Charles I’s reign. The Canterbury subsidy of that year was addressed to ‘Serenissimo … Carolo’, with the Latin letters decorated, uniquely in the collection, with gold.
Convocation and Parliament did not meet during the 1630s, during Charles I’s ‘personal rule’, but both were convened in 1640, when the king had become desperate for money. That parliament, known as the Short Parliament, was famously dissolved after three weeks without making a grant of taxation. Unusually, however, Convocation continued to meet for a few weeks afterwards, and granted the king some much-needed clerical taxation – but without a confirmatory Act of Parliament (hence the absence of a 1640 subsidy manuscript in this collection).
Up to this point, the process for confirming clerical subsidies in parliament had usually been a mere formality. However, the fact that Convocation was prepared to grant the king funds at a time when Parliament was not made this a controversial move. When a new parliament, the Long Parliament, assembled later in the year, it expressed outrage about Convocation’s actions, which were seen as undermining Parliament’s constitutional position. This contributed in no small part to the downfall of the Church of England that followed in the 1640s, as England descended into civil war.
During the civil wars and interregnum of the 1640s and 1650s, there were no convocations and no clerical subsidies. The Restoration saw a brief revival of the old system in 1663, but it was dropped a year later, and henceforth the clergy were taxed alongside everyone else. The subsidy manuscripts therefore provide a window onto an important period, between Reformation and Restoration, when the clergy had a complex, ambivalent status in national life, neither fully a separate estate nor fully part of the wider population.
Patrick Carter, ‘Parliament, Convocation and the Granting of Clerical Supply in Early Modern England’, Parliamentary History, 19:1 (2008), 14-26
Maureen Jurkowski, ‘The History of Clerical Taxation in England and Wales, 1173-1663: The Findings of the E 179 Project’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History, 67:1 (2016), 53-81
Peter Marshall, Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation (2017)