Scutage: The Knight’s Tax of Feudal England

Medieval Feudal England Tax Knight

Feudal England

As has been discussed in an earlier installment of Huddleston Tax Weekly, taxes have not always been associated with calculators, receipts and refund checks. In point of fact, the history of tax is replete with all sorts of high-powered phenomena – armed rebellions, popular revolts and regime transformations. Here at HTC, we think it is pretty clear that taxation has evolved for the better; but, though this may be the case, we also think it is important to occasionally take a glance at the old tax practices of the past. By examining the history of tax we can be certain to avoid past mistakes; we can also get a sense of where some of our tax terminology comes from.

Beginnings

Like the geld, scutage was a medieval tax issued and collected principally in England. Scutage originally developed as a payment made by possessors of knight’s fees to opt out of military service. Feudal law enabled knights to acquire “fees” (sections of land) in exchange for military service. Knights who wished to avoid military service began offering sums of money to tenants-in-chief as a means of “buying out” of their obligation.

Scutage existed in this form as early as 1100 (the beginning of the reign of Henry I). Payments made by knights were useful to the crown in part because mercenaries became common during this era.

Decline

Though scutage initially developed as a straightforward transaction between knights and their tenants-in-chief, the English crown gradually began to extend scutage beyond this original purpose. The crown started to levy the tax on specific areas and at various points in time; importantly, the tax ceased its function as a monetary payment in exchange for release of military service. The king began to demand excessive sums from the population and as a consequence a rebellion broke out in 1215. This rebellion eventually led to the proclamation of the Magna Carta. Among other things, the Magna Carta attempted to prohibit the English crown from demanding oppressive sums in the form of scutage.

Scutage endured up to the reign of Edward III (ruled from 1327-1377). By that time, it had become common practice for scutage to be imposed by tenants-in-chief on their under-tenants. Under feudal law, the practice of subinfeudation allowed tenants-in-chief to give portions of their land to others in exchange for services (or payments). By the reign of Edward III, subinfeudation was so widespread and so rampant that assigning liability for scutage among the various under-tenants of a fee became a near impossible task. Under-tenants had already been absorbing the costs of scutage for centuries, but an excess number of under-tenants per fee made it difficult for this process to continue.

Though scutage gradually fell by the wayside, the English crown was not dismayed by its disappearance: the king simply used other tools to collect funds from his subjects.

Image credit: PhillipC

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Seattle CPA+John Huddleston has written extensively on tax related subjects of interest to small business owners. He is a graduate of Washington State University and the University of Washington School of Law.

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