The Problems of Privilege: Being Exempt in 13th Century England

Ross Kennedy is a Ph.D. candidate in the History Department at the University of Glasgow. He is supervised by Dr Jochen Schenk and Dr Stephen Marritt.

At the Ecclesiastical History Society’s 2018 summer conference, I had the welcome opportunity of presenting on the topic of Templar Attorneys, a group of Templar brethren who were routinely tasked with appearing in the central royal courts in London on behalf of the master of the Temple. My experience of presenting to the Ecclesiastical History Society was exhilarating. It provided a warm and inviting forum for open discussion and insightful critique of a hitherto unexplored phenomenon, helping to shape my interpretations and focus my research. Following the lively reception of the paper, I was keen to highlight the broader body of PhD research from which it stemmed.

For my doctorate, I am researching the phenomenon of exemption, a ubiquitous feature of the medieval landscape. The Military Orders, in particular, are known for having enjoyed a privileged status thanks to the benefactions of the papacy and the secular rulers of Europe.[1] In England, for one, the Templars were given various charters by a succession of monarchs which, as Clarence Perkins observed in 1910, made them theoretically independent from the authority of others.[2] The reality, though, as Perkins and others have subsequently noted, was quite different, since prescribed rights did not always translate into practice.[3]

My PhD, “the practice of exemption in late-medieval England, c.1199-c.1307”, is investigating, from a variety of angles, the disparity between the theory of exemption and its application, using the plenteous records of English royal administration and the Common Law, in order to understand the nature of exemption as a concept in medieval English history. In so doing, I am attempting to formulate a picture of the Templars and Hospitallers amidst the political and legal history of England, from the succession of King John until the death of King Edward I. Some aspects of this research are briefly explored in this post, reflecting the early stage of the project’s development.

In 1304, King Edward I levied a tax, known as tallage, on his kingdom.[4] The Close Rolls, a series of enrolled letters, contain an entry about the Templars and their exemption from this tax, the contents of which raise various interesting points. In particular, light is thrown on the process by which exemption was negotiated and how this negotiation was informed by the differing interpretation of the charters.

To begin, the entry from the Close Rolls is here quoted in full:

The abbot of Barlinges, who asserts that he holds in frank almoin all his lands in (co.) Lincoln that his predecessors acquired by the charters of divers men, which charters the king has confirmed, has letters of respite addressed to Lambert de Trikyngham, Thomas de Burnham and Ralph de Littlebury, appointed to assess the tallage in co. Lincoln.

The master of the military order of the Temple in England, who asserts that he and his men ought to be quit throughout England of tallage by charters of the king’s progenitors, which the king has inspected, has like letters to Richard de Furneaus, Henry de Sutton, and Master Adam de Agmodesham in cos. Nottingham and Derby.

The said master has like letters to William de Carleton, William Haward, and Hervey de Staunton in cos. Norfolk and Suffolk.

The said master has like letters to the following:

Adam de Crokedayk, John de Kirkeby, and Michael de Hartcla, in cos. Lancaster, Cumberland, and Westmoreland.

Henry Spygurnel, Master John de Everdon, Walter de Mullesworth, and William de Rodeston in cos. Oxford, Berks, Bedford and Buckingham,

Boger de Hegham and Master Richard de Abyndon in the city of York.

Roger de Hegham, Walter de Glouc[estria), and John de Sandale in cos. Kent, Middlesex, London, Surrey, and Sussex.

John de Insula, Master Richard de Havering, and Ralph de Dalton in cos. Northumberland and York, except the city of York.[5]

As this source shows, exemption was not automatic. Rather, it had to be negotiated. A careful reading reveals something of the process. In response to the tallage levy, the master of the Temple came to the king and asserted that he and his men ought to be quit, according to royal charters issued by the king’s predecessors. This claim was assessed by Edward I who proceeded to inspect the evidence. The king’s response, following the inspection of the charters, was not accommodating of the Templars’ request. Instead of being granted full exemption from the tax throughout the kingdom, the Templars were given respite from immediate payment, and only in a select number of counties which were presumably chosen at the king’s discretion. That respite was given is indicated by the reference to ‘like letters’, an allusion to the letters of respite granted to the abbot of Barlinges. Some middling ground was reached, though not necessarily on terms satisfactory to the Templars.

These negotiations were shaped by the fact that the charters were open to interpretation. In the case above, the master’s expectations were clear as he asserted his right to have quittance throughout England. This claim rested on the vague language of King Stephen’s and Richard I’s charters, neither of which mentioned tallage but which instead stipulated quittance from ‘all exactions’.[6] The Templars, it seems, were freely interpreting ‘all exactions’ to include tallage. Though in all probability justified, this vague evidence was insufficient to convince Edward I, or at least insufficient to force his compliance with the claims being made. Ambiguity, unsurprisingly, could be a help as well as a hindrance during the negotiation process.

It was for this reason, at least in part, that what was given differed so markedly from what was claimed. Certainly, the Templars were left feeling dissatisfied as a result. Those places not included in the list of counties would be subjected to the tallage, constituting a blatant violation of the Order’s rights, at least as far as the master was concerned. For the king, the question probably centred on the extent to which his reasoning was legally justifiable.

The subsequent feelings of resentment were clearest in Bristol where, having been denied quittance and respite, the Templars’ tenants absconded payment.[7] Their failure to pay caused anger among the town burgesses, who petitioned the parliament of 1305 demanding that the Templars’ men be made to shoulder their share of the burden, especially since they regularly enjoyed the economic benefits of the burgh.[8] In response, the king ordered the distraint (temporary seizure) of the Templars’ goods, in order to strongarm them into making payment.[9] For the Templars, absconding payment was presumably deemed justifiable, on the strength of their charters which the king had denied.

What this episode, as a whole, suggests to me, apart from the obvious tension between an exempt institution, the royal administration and wider society, is a question of how exemption as a legal concept operated within a late-medieval legal framework. When the king refused total exemption, and when the Templars’ tenants absconded payment in full knowledge of their rights, the question of legality was presumably on their minds, as they assessed the extent to which their actions were justified and supportable in relation to the rights prescribed. To this question, and many others, I hope to provide answers over the coming years.


Ross S. Kennedy, University of Glasgow

[1] See, for example: H.J. Nicholson, ‘“Nolite Confidere in Principibus”: The Military Orders’ Relations with the Rulers of Christendom’, in P. Josserand, L.F. Oliveira & D. Carraz, eds. Elites et Ordres Militaires au Moyen Age: Rencontre Autour d’Alain Demurger (Madrid, 2015), pp. 261-276.

[2] C. Perkins, ‘The Knights Templars in the British Isles’, English Historical Review, (April, 1910), pp. 209-30.

[3] Nicholson, ‘Nolite Confidere’, 261-76; Perkins, ‘Templars in England’, pp. 209-30.

[4] Calendar of the Close Rolls, Preserved in the Public Record Office: Edward I, Volume 5, AD. 1302-1307, (hereafter: CCR), (London, 1908), pp. 201-2.

[5] Ibid.

[6] B.A. Lees, Records of Social and Economic History: Vol IX The Records of the Templars in England in the Twelfth Century: The Inquest of 1185, (London, 1935), pp. 137-142.

[7] C. Given-Wilson, (gen. ed.), The Parliament Rolls of Medieval England: Edward I, (Roll 12, membrane 135), (accessed 04/10/2018).

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

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