Cistercian Exemption



history & archaeology

Nawton, York. Dec 17, 1856

Dear Dr Daubeny

  Mr Barr has shewn me a letter which he has lately received from the President of Corpus, by which it appears that the President has very much mistaken the meaning of some remarks made by Mr Barr respecting the Tytheability of certain lands in this Parish. As I have the pleasure of being personally acquainted with the President I shall be glad to be permitted through [p.2] you to explain the matter to him: There is a good deal of property in this neighbourhood which formerly belonged to the Cistertian [sic] Cistercian Order of Monks. The monks of this Order were formerly the occupants of Rivaulx [sic] Abbey, not far from here. The custom respecting these lands is that when they are in the hands of the owner they are not tytheable -- only when in the occupation of a Tenant. Such is the case as regards a good deal of property in the Nawton and Skiplam Townships, in the Parish of Kirkdale. Lord Feversham is the principal [p.3] owner of these lands, called Abbey Lands. Mr Duncombe his son is coming to reside in the Township (Nawton) & is about to take into his own hands certain fields which have been hitherto in the occupation of a Tenant & therefore tytheable but they will cease to be so at Lady Day next, when in Mr Duncombe’s own occupation. To this extent the amount of Tyet [sic] Tythe Rent Charge will be diminished, I cannot say exactly by how much. […] I think the President will be glad to be set straight on this [p.4] matter, and I hope you will excuse my troubling you with it. As the whole business about entering into a new Lease is in the hands of Mr Seaton I shall not venture to say more than that I think it will be to the Interest of the University to come to terms if possible.

Believe me

Dear Dr Daubeny

Very truly Yours

W. Kay

Dr Daubeny        Sealed        

The author of this letter was the Revd William Kay, Bachelor of Divinity, Master of Arts, of Lincoln College, Oxford. He was Vicar of St Gregory’s Minster, Kirkdale [‘this Parish’], from 1830. He was sometimes referred to as ‘Curate’ in the style of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (Give grace, O heavenly Father, to all Bishops and Curates), signifying a priest who has a parish in his ‘cure’ or care - the parish priest, the vicar.

Dr Daubeny:  Charles Giles Bridle Daubeny (1795-1867), distinguished chemist, geologist and botanist, was appointed (1834) to the Chair of Botany in the University of Oxford. Much of his research was carried out at the Botanic Garden (Lord Danby’s ‘Physick Garden’ to which Kirkdale’s tithes were appropriated). The University’s Herbarium linked with the Botanic Garden, and the plant genus Daubenya, a genus of bulbous flowering plants in the family Asparagaceae (Wikipedia), are named after him.1

The President of Corpus (that is, Corpus Christi College, Oxford) was the Revd James Norris, President 1843-72, a man ‘distinguished for his business ability’2 as evidenced in his long tenure of responsibility in the management of the University’s estates.

Francis Barr lived at South Holme, Slingsby, North Yorkshire, and leased (and sub-let) land in Kirkdale parish. He and John Barr agreed with the University a lease on land in Kirkdale for a 12-year period to date from 6 April 1845 (see further endnote 12 below). He also acted for a period as the University’s Agent, rendering accounts of income derived from the Kirkdale lands.

Daniel Seaton was a solicitor resident in York, acting on behalf of the University in affairs relating to Kirkdale. During 1856 and 1857 he was much involved in negotiations between the University and Mr Barr concerning Mr Barr’s lease on land in Kirkdale and the under-tenant to whom he leased land there.

The issue raised in this perhaps somewhat obscure letter - the issue which had temporarily confused President James Norris and on which Mr Kay thought the President would be grateful to be set straight - had been an issue of more or less bitter contention since the twelfth century and was still a contentious issue with the Inland Revenue as late as 1931. This 800-year-old issue was that of the Cistercian Exemption.

The Cistercian Order of ‘white monks’ (as they came to be called, after their dress which distinguished them from the black-clad Benedictines) was founded in Citeaux, France, in 1058, upon the initiative of a number of dissident Benedictine monks. These Benedictines had grown dissatisfied with the extent to which their own ancient Order had gradually departed from the austere manner of living which had characterised the earliest forms of monasticism based upon the Rule of St Benedict. Like the Desert Fathers of old, like John the Baptist, like Christ himself who fasted for forty days in the wilderness, as did Elijah and Moses before him, the first monks sought to associate spiritual devotion with a strict material asceticism; and this was one of the ideals to which the Cistercian Order committed itself to return. Alongside this, the Cistercians devoted themselves to the ideal of taking on manual labour as part of their objective of self-sufficiency. Like other Orders, they accepted gifts of land on which to build their monastery, farm sheep for wool and grow food, or from which to extract minerals, quarry stone and retrieve timber for building and repairs. However, initially at least, they would accept only undeveloped land. Land on which rent-paying tenants were already settled, mills which took tolls from tenants obliged by feudal laws to use them, manors with feudal rights which generated income or which bound tenants to give a certain number of unpaid working days to the lord, and churches owning the right to exact tithes from their lands, all these they (initially) declined to accept, partly on the grounds that such assets conflicted with the ideology of self-sufficiency, partly because their management would entail an inescapable engagement with the secular world and the risk of a corrupting materialism which monastic isolation was designed to avoid.

Initially, then, the Cistercian monastery might be distinguished by the sight of the white monks labouring in the fields, diverting streams through monastic water-systems, hauling timber from the woodlands, and suchlike physical, non-intellectual, non-scholarly activities, scheduled to alternate with the appointed hours of formal religious devotions. But it was not long before individual monasteries began to engage commercially with the secular world beyond their boundaries.

An interesting example relates to the market in wool. Traders in wool outside the monasteries were interested in buying up any surpluses the monks produced from their sheep-farming. Cistercian houses such as Byland Abbey (North Yorkshire) began to deal in the market, and built ‘woolhouses’ where not only was wool stored but facilities were provided for merchants to come and inspect the monks’ surplus produce and negotiate their price. Byland Abbey, distinguished for its wool production, for a time maintained a woolhouse in York, a city which had mercantile links by the Ouse and Humber rivers to continental markets.

Likewise, the Cistercian abbey of Rievaulx established ‘granges’ - farms they owned and managed themselves - where they grew food and raised sheep, cattle and horses, as well as producing various raw materials. Beyond supplying the monastic community at the mother house with its needs, they were expected to produce a surplus which could then be marketed to yield an income.

One part of the parish of Kirkdale which remained eligible for Cistercian Exemption through to the 20th century was at Skiplam. A scheduled site at the farm still named Skiplam Grange, situated above Hodge Beck not far north-west of St Gregory’s Minster, preserves an earthworks, associated buried remains and some above-ground remains of buildings from the grange maintained there by Rievaulx Abbey up to the date of the Dissolution.4

Drawn into such an international network of commerce, many Cistercian houses gave up their purist disavowal of secular capitalist engagement.

Wool-trading and the sale of surpluses from the monastic granges was straightforward when compared with a much more serious engagement with the secular feudal system which also developed apace. This was the Cistercian engagement with tithing.

As mentioned above, the early regulations of the Cistercian Order prohibited the acceptance or acquisition of developed land on which lived tenants with a liability to pay tithes. One alleged response to this situation was for some monasteries to acquire such land and then evict the tenants, thus retrospectively legitimising their acquired ownership of the land in question.

The situation was made more complex by the fact that the Cistercians claimed an exemption from paying tithes in circumstances where ordinarily they themselves would have been liable. They exercised this claim of exemption where the monks themselves were developing land their house had acquired. No doubt this was in origin a privilege granted in support of the Cistercian Rule’s commitment to keeping monastic communities solvent but also free of entanglement with feudal status and the feudal economy of lordship and serfdom. But critics claimed that this privilege was being exploited in conjunction with an outright breach of Cistercian Rule. Before the end of the 12th century furious written attacks upon the Cistercians were in circulation, alleging that - in breach of the commitment to acquire only undeveloped land - the monks were purchasing parish churches and their tithable lands, solely to acquire and withhold the tithes themselves. Critics accused them of outright theft through manipulation of their own regulations and of privilege accorded to them in good faith.

One body of Christians was thus seen to be unedifyingly preying upon another body of Christians - the white monks upon the parish priests and their flock; for land which attached to parish churches was intended to generate an income for the church out of which a parish could help pay a priest’s stipend, keep the church in good repair, meet levies from their archdeacons and bishops, and expend income charitably to the poor and needy. A typical example out of the many involved Biddlesden Abbey in Buckinghamshire. ‘In 1260 the vicar of Thornborough [Buckinghamshire] complained to the abbot that he did not receive tithes from the monastic lands in his parish; and the abbot, for the sake of peace, granted him three acres out of these, being careful however at the same time to assert the Cistercian privilege of exemption, and to explain that he and his convent did this of their own free will.5

The complaints from the parish priests and their bishops, and the clamour of the polemicists (some of whom, it must be acknowledged, were jealous members of rival Orders), on several occasions moved the Papacy itself to denunciation of such abuses and to threats of abolition of the Cistercians’ privileged exemptions and even to enactment of some small-scale limitation of the circumstances under which exemption could be claimed to apply.

It was no less a figure than Pope Innocent III (among the most powerful of the medieval popes - and he who complied with King John’s request to annul the Magna Carta signed under duress by the king in 1215) who issued a letter ‘perhaps addressed to the Cistercian General Chapter, perhaps to the English abbots […] According to the pope, many complaints had been levelled against the order which up till then he had sought to hide, but now they had so increased that something had to be done. Tithes due from lands the monks cultivated themselves had not been paid, with the result that many parish churches were ruined; the Cistercians pressured and forced their neighbours to give or sell them property; they bought up or leased more land than they needed in order that the surplus might be farmed at profit; their business practices were reprehensible even to the laity; they acquired parish churches which they served; they accepted for burial the rich and powerful.6

Gerald of Wales, one of the most outspoken of the contemporary critics of the Cistercians, acknowledged that, in order to meet the obligations of their Rule, for example in providing  hospitality and maintenance for the poor, they required substantial estates and disposable surpluses of income. But, in his view, they were guilty of a damnable corruption in their resort to illegal methods and theft to fund their charitable work.7 In the heat of his indignation against them Gerald uttered the prayer often quoted thereafter: From the malice of monks, but especially the Cistercians, good Lord deliver us.8

The history of medieval Cistercianism in respect of its engagement with contemporary worldliness is too complex to track here and so I make do with a summary statement from Wikipedia’s Cistercians: ‘Relaxations were gradually introduced into Cistercian life with regard to diet and to simplicity of life, and also in regard to the sources of income, rents and tolls being admitted and benefices incorporated, as was done among the Benedictines. The farming operations tended to produce a commercial spirit; wealth and splendour invaded many of the monasteries, and the choir monks abandoned manual labour. The later history of the Cistercians is largely one of attempted revivals and reforms. For a long time, the General Chapter continued to battle bravely against the invasion of relaxations and abuses.

The English Cistercian houses were finally closed in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries (1536-41).

Returning now to Mr Kay’s letter, we find that certain Cistercian privileges were not deleted from law and custom and rendered obsolete with the closure of the monasteries for whose support they had first been devised. Mr Kay begs to remind the President of Corpus Christi College that the Cistercian privilege of exemption from tithes had survived the extinction of Cistercian monasticism itself, and had remained attached to the lands upon which Cistercian houses had once claimed tithe exemption in furtherance of their Christian mission - even though these lands had passed into secular ownership by the mid-16th century and were now, in 1856, three hundred years after the dismantling of the monasteries, being bought, sold and leased within an entirely secular economy, for economic gain.

Locally, in Kirkdale, as Mr Kay correctly informed President Norris, certain lands within the parish (such as those at Skiplam, as mentioned above) had been the property of the Cistercian Abbey of Rievaulx until that monastery was suppressed in 1538-39 and sold to lay landowners.10 Appropriately, they were known as the Abbey Lands. In 1856, the “principal owner” of them was Lord Feversham.11

The Vicar’s explanation states the particular situation clearly. Lord Feversham had previously leased out “certain fields” in this part of the Township of Nawton. These fields were tithable and had been yielding tithes to the University’s benefit. But now Lord Feversham proposed to take over the use of these fields for himself - or, more strictly, for his son, Mr Duncombe. Asserting the custom of Cistercian Exemption (whereby land owned and cultivated by the Cistercian monks of Rievaulx themselves was exempted from the liability to pay tithes), Lord Feversham - or rather, we may assume, his agent - made it known that the land concerned would accordingly cease to yield a tithe for the foreseeable future. It was this fiscal consequence, reported by Mr Barr, that perplexed President Norris, prompting the explanation of the Cistercian Exemption proffered by Mr Kay in his letter.12

Aside from the contractual issues touched on in endnote 12, one may wonder a little at the meek suggestion offered by the Vicar in conclusion of his letter to Dr Daubeny.

The moral justification for this Cistercian Exemption - which commonly deprived parish churches of income secured for them by the ancient and Biblically endorsed tithing-system - ceased to exist when the beneficiary, the monastic system, itself ceased to exist.

When the monasteries ceased to exist, many parish churches which for centuries had been owned and maintained by a monastic house (as the Augustinian canons of Newburgh Priory had owned and maintained St Gregory’s Minster for some 400 years) lost their tithes to lay owners to whom such churches and their tithable lands were sold at the dissolution of the monasteries. Thus the tithes due to St Gregory’s Minster were diverted to the maintenance of Lord Danby’s Physick Garden in Oxford; and thus, the successive incumbents of Kirkdale struggled to cope on an inadequate stipend and little income from which to maintain the church and the provision of pastoral care. Mr Kay had a fine opportunity here to do a little wringing of consciences: instead he mildly ventured to say no more than that he thought it would be to the interest of the University to come to terms over this claim of Cistercian Exemption, if possible.

Twenty years earlier, in 1836, Parliament had acted to modernise and standardise the tithing system. The Church’s ancient entitlement to receive tithes from leasing out its lands had, in many cases, passed into the hands of the laymen who had purchased such lands from the Crown following the Reformation and the Dissolution of the monasteries in the mid-16th century. By the 19th century, some of such tithes were still levied in kind, as a proportion of crops yielded, livestock reared and sold, woodland cultivated, etc., as they had traditionally been paid. Tithe barns associated with medieval churches are a relic of that system of payment in kind. Others had been commuted to a payment of money, in a sum negotiated between the parties involved. Needless to say, disputes were regularly provoked by a season of bad harvests, the incidence of livestock disease, fluctuations in the national and local economy such as growing industrialisation and agricultural depression, and other variable causes including religious dissent. Tithing had become a highly contentious and sometimes inflammatory issue.

The 1836 Act for the Commutation of Tithes in England and Wales required that all tithes be paid in monetary form - the valuation to be reached by agreement between the parties involved or, if necessary, determined by Parliament’s appointed commissioners. In connection with this huge exercise, tithe maps were drawn identifying owner, tenant, and tithe owner, recording precise measurements of land and listing and stating the function of buildings. Documents relating to the Commutation in Kirkdale survive in the University Archive and in the National Archives. Some old anomalies escaped rectification, some new ones were created, for example by arbitrary variation in the criteria for valuation between regions. And through all this, the custom of the Cistercian Exemption survived unscathed and was still available for Lord Feversham to claim benefit of, in 1856.

Thus the system of tithing survived to complicate land transactions and exasperate those dealing with land, whether as owners or sellers or buyers, through until towards the middle of the 20th century. On  March 4th 1931, for example, H. M. Inspector of Taxes, Oxford 1st District, wrote to the Secretary of the University Chest: ‘I understand the University itself are [sic] owners of Tithes in the District of York. May particulars be supplied, please, of these Tithes’ - a request so blandly simplistic that the Clerk of Accounts sounds almost indignant when he replies by return post on March 6th, pointing out that the ‘commuted’ tithe values (those arrived at by the Commutation process) were no better than meaningless - because of the dogged survival of the Cistercian Exemption:

Dear Sir,

Botanic Garden Estate.

In reply to your letter of the 4th inst. respecting

tithes in the County of York, I have no doubt your enquiry

relates to the tithes of the parish of Kirkdale, Yorks.

These tithes are very complicated, a large portion of them

being held by the University under [‘the’ inserted] ancient

Cistercian system under which no tithes are payable when

the land on which they are charged is in the occupation of the owner.

The commuted amount of the tithes is therefore useless

as a basis of assessment as many of the tithes are now

never received. I think the best thing I can do is to

forward your letter to the University Agents, Messrs. Gray

and Dodsworth, Solicitors of York, and ask them to give

you the information you seek as far as it lies in their

power to do so. I may remind you that any Income tax

charged under Schedule A on these tithes is recovered

by the University.

  Yours faithfully.


   Clerk of Accounts,

   for Secretary.

The tax issue was duly sorted out, but again in 1936 the Cistercian Exemption continued to claim the officials’ time and patience in explaining once again what it was all about - a chore all the more exasperating because it was not income, but loss of income which was occupying their attention. This time it was the University Chest whose Secretary wrote to the Secretary of The Tithe Redemption Commission - a Commission set up by Government to facilitate (at last) the termination of the tithing system. The University Chest pointed out an apparent oversight in the Report of the Royal Commission on Tithes, namely that no provision appeared to have been made for the class of tithe arising from the application of the Cistercian Exemption.

The Chest’s Secretary took, as it were, a deep breath and embarked upon the explanation yet one more time:

The tithes of Kirkdale, Yorkshire, were given to the University by Henry, Earl of Danby in 1643 for the benefit of the Botanic Garden. In 1916 some of the land subject to tithe was put up for auction by the Earl of Feversham and the particulars of sale stated that when the owner occupied the Farm tithe was no longer payable. Enquiries were immediately made by the University and the Tithe Award and plan were inspected , and it was found that an acreage of 346 Acres charged with tithe at £71 was definitely stated to be exempted from tithe when in the occupation of the owners thereof. At the moment the University is drawing no payment from tithe to the awarded amount of £60 owing to this provision. The University assumes that this is not likely to be an isolated case. Although the tithes are not payable at the moment the University retains its interest in them since if the ownership of the land should ever pass from the occupier, the tithes would become payable again. The University would be glad to be informed how the redemption of tithe of this class will be dealt with.

The University was duly informed that this class of tithe was indeed covered in the proposed new law. But it was not to be long before the University took a very radical step. The lands were sold off, though the University retained the Patronage of St Gregory’s Minster itself - the right to present the incumbent. To this, however, was appended the obligation to keep the chancel of the church in good repair. One of the last documents relating to Kirkdale in the Archive is an official printed notice from The Tithe Redemption Commission, dated 3rd October 1945. This Commission was set up by the Tithe Act 1936. The notice proposes, in accordance with the Tithe Act legislation, to determine the proportion of the University’s liability for the repair of the chancel. A typed note added to the document states: ‘The Commission observe from the Secretary’s letter dated 2nd December, 1938, that the University of Oxford accept sole liability for the repair of this chancel.’ [‘The Secretary’ is the Secretary of the University Chest Office]. This topic may well be taken up again in some later Snippet …


1. I am grateful to University Archivist Simon Bailey for helping to clarify this name and identify the person named.

2. ‘Corpus Christi College', in A History of the County of Oxford: Volume 3, the University of Oxford, ed. H E Salter and Mary D Lobel (London, 1954), pp. 219-228. British History Online. [accessed 15 January 2019].

3. Where there is now a placename in the form of ‘X-le-Willows’ (such as Barton-le-Willows near the Augustinian Kirkham Priory and Thorpe-le-Willows near Cistercian Byland Abbey; both a few miles north of York) there is likely to have been a monastic ‘woolhouse’ - the word eventually becoming corrupted to ‘willows’.

4. For fuller information see:  It is generally held that it was the Cistercians who pioneered the development of ‘granges’ but that the system was quickly taken up by other Orders.

5. 'Houses of Cistercian monks: The abbey of Biddlesden', in A History of the County of Buckingham: Volume 1, ed. William Page (London, 1905), pp. 365-369. British History Online [accessed 22 January 2019]. The manuscript source is London, British Library MS Harleian 4714, f. 133d.

6. Brian Golding (University of Southampton), in a conveniently accessible online article: ‘Gerald of Wales and the Cistercians’ in Reading Medieval Studies 1995, p. 8.

7. Golding, op. cit., p. 11.

8. Cited Golding, op. cit., p. 5, after Gerald of Wales (Giraldus Cambrensis: Opera, IV (Speculum Ecclesie), 160, 8-9, ed . J. S. Brewer, Rolls Series, 1873).

9. Accessed 21 January 2019.

10. Maps relating to land surveys and tithes associated with the University’s holdings in Kirkdale are preserved in the University Archives. Tithe maps for Nawton (1845) and Skiplam (1845) are held by The National Archives, Kew. Tithe maps for other areas of the parish of Kirkdale held in The National Archives include Muscoates (1846), Bransdale West Side (1845) and Welburn (1848). Also in The National Archives are Enclosure Records for Wombleton, Nawton and Harome (1816).

11. A research resource of very great value are the catalogued records listed as  ‘Feversham/Duncombe of Duncombe Park, Helmsley’ in the North Yorkshire County Record Office.

12. The “Lady Day next” mentioned in Mr Kay’s letter as the day on which tithes would cease to be payable on the land in question, would be 25 March 1857 - the first of the four quarter-days of the year. This was the same day as that upon which Mr Barr’s 12-year lease of Kirkdale land, granted by the University in 1845, would expire. We might guess that he was personally affected by this negotiation: was he the Tenant whom Lord Feversham was preparing to displace?

Primary Sources and Bibliography:

Oxford University Archives; Will of Sir Henry Danvers (Lord Danby); documents of the University Registry and the University Chest relative to the Vicarage of Kirkdale.

Brian Golding,,_Gerald_of_Wales_and_the_Cistercians.pdf (Accessed 20 January 2019).

Roger J. P. Kain and Richard R. Oliver, The Tithe Maps of England and Wales (Cambridge, 1995).

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