Peterspence, otherwise known to the Anglo Saxons as “Romfeoh” or “Romescot”, is the name traditionally given to an annual contribution or tribute (originally of a penny from each householder holding land of a certain value) paid to the exchequer of the Holy See by various peoples of Christendom. In the Middle Ages this form of contribution seems almost to have been confined to England and some few other northern nations, and it was unquestionably in England that it took its rise. Neglecting some vague and unreliable traditions which ascribed the origin of “Romescot” to Ini, King of Wessex, in 727, we are possibly on firmer ground if we identify the beginnings of this contribution with a sum of 365 mancuses yearly, promised by Offa of Mercia, and confirmed to the pope’s legates at the Synod of Chelsea in 787. The promise is mentioned in an extant letter from Pope Leo III to Kenulf, Otto’s successor (Haddan and Stubbs, “Councils“, III, 445, 525; cf. ibid. 538). It is stated that the money was to be applied to the relief of the poor and to providing lights for the churches of Rome, and, rather strangely, nothing is said of the support of the Anglo-Saxon School (“Schooa Saxonum”) in the Borgo, which Pope Alexander II and later chroniclers closely associated with the beginnings of Peterspence. Again it seems certain that Ethelwulf after his visit to Rome with his son Alfred (c. 855) ordered that three hundred mancuses were to be sent to the Holy See each year (Asser, ed. Stevenson, 15, 211). Whether this was a new grant, or a confirmation of the tribute of Offa, is not clear (cf. Liebermann, “Ueber die Leges Eadwardi”, 55); neither is it certain whether this sum of 300 mancuses was to be provided out of the royal exchequer or collected in pennies from the people. We only know that not long afterwards, during the reign of Alfred, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle speaks of the conveyance to Rome of “the donation of the Wessex folk and their king” (cf. Chron. Aethelwardi, A.D. 888), and that in the code known as the “Dooms of Edward and Guthrum”, which no doubt represents the legislation of Alfred’s reign, we find for the first time explicit mention of “Romfeoh” as a contribution paid by the people. Under Edmund (941-46), at a great council of the clergy and laity held in London at Easter time, “Romfeoh” was declared to be one of the dues which must be paid by every man under pain of excommunication, and a later ordinance under Edgar speaks of it as the “hearth-penny” and enjoins with threats of heavy penalties that it must be paid by St. Peter’s Massday, i.e. “Lammas”, the feast of St. Peter’s Chains (August 1). That the tax was in fact collected and sent to Rome in coins of small value, archaeological evidence has proved. In 1883 a hoard of 835 coins was discovered in Rome, apparently near the site of one of the old papal palaces. Almost all these pieces without exception were Anglo-Saxon silver pennies, 217 of them bearing the imprint of King Edward the Elder, and 393 that of Athelstan, none of them being later than the year 947. There can be no doubt that this find represents an instalment of Peterspence sent to Rome just as it had been collected; and the conclusion is confirmed by some other archaeological discoveries of earlier date.
A remarkable letter of King Cnut, written from Rome in 1027 to his people in England, expresses in solemn terms his devotion to the Holy See and enjoins that Peterspence and some other ecclesiastical taxes should be paid before his return to England. “Cnut”, says Dr. Jensen, “undoubtedly renewed and confirmed the donation from England to the papal court on the occasion of this pilgrimage to Rome.” The manner of levying the tax is, however, imperfectly understood, for, as Liebermann has shown (Eng. Hist. Rev., 1896, p. 746), M. Fabre is mistaken in supposing that he has found the text of Cnut’s agreement in the “Liber Censuum”. In spite of Cnut’s good will, considerable negligence about the payment of Peterspence continued under the later Anglo-Saxon kings. After the Norman Conquest, St. Gregory VII addressed a formal demand to King William in 1074. “Concerning the Peterspence to be collected in England“, he wrote, “we charge you to watch over it as if it were your. own revenue.” After some delays the Conqueror wrote a conciliatory reply and, while refusing feudal homage to the papacy as not justified by any precedent, he formally recognized the claim to Peterspence and promised that the arrears should be made up. But though the contribution on the whole was paid, and though various efforts and accommodations were made by the popes and their representatives in England, it seems clear that the collection of Peterspence was at hardly any time carried out in a way that was satisfactory to the Holy See. Innocent III on January 28, 1214, wrote indignantly to the English bishops that “certain prelates having collected these pence [denarios] in our name have not been ashamed to retain the greater part for themselves. They paid us only 300 marks, usurping for their own use 1000 marks or more” (Potthast, “Regesta”, no. 2635). This language, as Dr. Jensen forcibly urges, seems inconsistent with the idea of any formal composition assented to by the Holy See, in virtue of which the popes agreed to farm the whole proceeds of Peterspence for a payment of 300 marks. It seems, however, that this annual payment of a sum of 300 (or more strictly 299 marks) was the solution practically arrived at, and we even know the proportions in which this amount was levied upon the different dioceses of England.
Another point to be noted is that both before and after the surrender of the kingdom by King John, who made England the fief of the Holy See (see England), a certain confusion seems sometimes to have existed between Peterspence and the feudal tribute, called in Latin census, which was paid as the price of the papal protection. The two, however, were really quite distinct. In 1317 Edward II acknowledged that the annual feudal tribute of 1000 marks had not been paid for twenty-four years, and his agents undertook solemn engagements to pay off the arrears by instalments. This promise was never fulfilled. Edward III paid this tribute for a time, but would not accept any responsibility for any outstanding debts. After 1343 no further payments were made, and in 1366 the tribute was formally repudiated, and abolished by Parliament. On the other hand the sum of 300 marks, which was annually due to the pope as Peterspence, can be shown to have been collected and sent at least intermittently down to Henry VIII‘s breach with Rome. It was abolished in 1534, and though temporarily revived under Mary, it was not found possible at that time to levy it throughout England.
In Sweden, Norway, and Iceland, countries whose religious traditions can be shown in a number of different ways to have been borrowed from England, it seems clear that a contribution of a penny from every household was made not unwillingly. Adrian IV, who before he was made pope had visited Scandinavia and regulated the payment of this tax, desired also, if we may accept the authenticity of the Bull, “Laudabiliter”, to extend it to Ireland. In any case there had no doubt existed in Rome, from the time of Gregory VII and probably earlier, some vague tradition that this payment of a denarius per household had been sanctioned by Charlemagne. But in many parts of the world, as, for example, Portugal, the Two Sicilies, Poland, etc., it is not always easy to distinguish the Peterspence proper from the feudal tribute above referred to, which was the price of papal protection.
The payment of anything resembling Peterspence seems nowhere to have survived the Reformation. But at the time when Pius IX, driven from Rome by the Revolutionaries, took refuge at Gaeta, the Comte de Montalembert is said to have taken the lead in organizing a Catholic Committee in France, which, working in harmony with the bishops, was eventually successful in collecting a very substantial subsidy for the pope under the name of the “denier de Saint Pierre” (Daux, p. 46). Others assign the beginnings of the work to a voluntary contribution organized at Vienna in 1860 by the “Confraternity of St. Michael” which spread first to Ireland and then to the rest of the world. Certain it is that already in the sixties large amounts were being sent to Rome as Peterspence from France, Belgium, Germany, Ireland, and many other countries. Since the occupation of Rome by the Italian Government and the rejection by Pius IX of the Law of Guarantees, the sums paid as Peterspence have become one of the principal sources of income of the Holy See. Accurate statistics are wanting, but it was stated in 1866 that the total receipts under this one head amounted to about £360,000 ($1,800,000) annually. At one time after the occupation of Rome something near £800,000 ($4,000,000) is said to have been sent to Rome as Peterspence in one year; but these figures have very much fallen off of late owing to the persecution of the Church in France and the severe strain now made upon the resources of Catholics in that country. For the most part the contributions made under this head are sent to Rome through the bishops, but in the collection of funds the most important part of the work is done by various “Peterspence Associations”, that of St. Michael and that of “Le Denier de Saint Pierre” being the best known. The members of these organizations pledge themselves to make some very small minimum contribution; they solicit the subscription of others; and they unite in certain exercises of piety, which are richly indulgenced.