Why Did The Convocations Lose The Power To Tax?

In yesterday’s post about the relationship between the Convocations of Canterbury and York and Parliament, I mentioned that, in 1664, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Gilbert Sheldon, entered into a gentlemen’s agreement with the Lord Chancellor, the Earl of Clarendon which enabled Parliament to tax the clergy directly. Since this was one of the Convocations’ key powers, Sheldon’s move looks more than a little dodgy. In this post, I’ll discuss why he may have made that decision.

The agreement itself was verbal, so we can’t know the precise terms that the two men agreed upon.[1]  However, Norman Sykes has speculated that Sheldon may have been forced to choose the lesser of two evils. The subsidies paid by the clergy were based on valuations in the Valor Ecclesiasticus compiled under Henry VIII. The figures given in the Valor were considered outdated as early as the reign of Elizabeth I. While she briefly considered revaluing ecclesiastical property in order to increase the sums paid to the Crown as first-fruits and tenths, successive Archbishops of Canterbury dissuaded her from doing so.[2] The subject of revaluation was mooted again under Charles I, but despite his chronic financial woes, he decided against the project.[3] According to Sykes, Sheldon might have believed that allowing Parliament to tax the clergy would be better than allowing a revaluation of their property.[4] He may also have hoped to assuage complaints that the clergy weren’t paying their fair share of taxes.

While there is some evidence that Sheldon may have acted with the consent of at least some of the other bishops,[5] it’s not clear if either the Archbishop of York or the Convocation of York were consulted. This isn’t necessarily surprising, as the Northern Province was often treated as an afterthought by the government.[6]  

Not everyone was comfortable with Sheldon’s decision. The Bishop of London, Edmund Gibson, called it “the greatest alteration to the constitution ever made without an express law.[7]” Similarly, the nonjuring bishop and historian Jeremy Collier noted that “being in no condition to grant subsidies, and present the Crown, it is well if their Convocation meetings are not sometimes discontinued, if they do not sink in their significancy, lie by for want of a royal license, and grow less regarded when their grievances are offered.[8]

Interestingly, the first Act of Parliament to impose a tax on the clergy after Seldon’s agreement with Lord Clarendon contained a proviso that “no thing herein contained shall be drawn into example to the prejudice of the Ancient Rights belonging unto the Lords Spiritual and Temporal or Clergy of this Realm.[9]” While this theoretically left the door open for future Convocations to grant subsidies in the traditional way, this power was never revived. This is probably explained in part by the fact that the government became increasingly frustrated with Convocation over the course of the later 17th and early 18th centuries. From 1717 onward, the Convocations were only allowed to meet for formal business.[10] By the time they were revived in the mid-19th century, their powers of taxation had long since fallen into desuetude.


[1] Sir Robert Phillimore, The Ecclesiastical Law of the Church of England, 2nd edition, vol. 2 (London: Sweet and Maxwell Ltd., 1895), 1538.

[2] Norman Sykes, From Sheldon to Secker (Cambridge, 1959), 41-42.

[3] Sykes, 42.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] For example, when the Convocation of Canterbury passed a set of new canons in 1603, James I purported to apply them to the Northern Province by Letters Patent. This irked the Convocation of York, and they petitioned the king for permission to enact the canons themselves. This was duly granted, and the Convocation of York proceeded to rubber-stamp the canons made by their southern brethren.

[7] Phillimore, 1538.

[8] Jeremy Collier, An Ecclesiastical History of Great Britain, vol. 8 (London: William Straker, 1841), 466.

[9] “Charles II, 1664 & 1665: An Act for granting a Royall Ayd unto the Kings Majestie of Twenty fower hundred threescore and seaventeene thousand and five hundred Pounds to be raised leavyed and paid in the space of Three Yeares.,” in Statutes of the Realm: Volume 5, 1628-80, ed. John Raithby (s.l: Great Britain Record Commission, 1819), 525-552. British History Online, accessed May 6, 2020, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/statutes-realm/vol5/pp525-552.

[10] There was a brief return to activity between 1741-42.For a brief discussion of the strained relationship between Convocation and the government in the later 17th and early 18th centuries, see Phillimore, 1539-40.

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