In 1213, King John surrendered England to the papacy making it a Papal fief where the Pope would be paid annual tribute. However King Edward I did not act as a vassal to the Pope because he got into conflict with Pope Boniface VIII when he taxed the clergy and defied the Pope’s orders to end the war in Scotland.

Did England formally stop being a Papal fief by that time?

  • 1
    Some source say that King Richard I had to agree to become a vassal of the Emperor before being released in 1194.
    – MAGolding
    May 4, 2019 at 20:22
  • 2
    What is the source that says that? I thought that Richard I was released because a ransom was paid. May 4, 2019 at 20:41
  • 2
    @Jacob: Is an agreement to pay annual tribute distinguishable from a ransom?
    – Ben Voigt
    May 4, 2019 at 20:42
  • 7
    Yes, because a ransom is a one time payment May 4, 2019 at 20:55
  • 1
    Also worth being aware of the Statute of Praemunire of 1392 which suggested there might have been an issue, or at least Papal claims, before then
    – Henry
    May 5, 2019 at 12:28

2 Answers 2



From the point of view of the English king and parliament, England stopped being a Papal fief in 1365.

In 1365 parliament debated the latest papal request and concluded that John’s original surrender of the realm had been invalid since it had lacked the assent of the bishops. This marked the formal end to English recognition of the pope’s sovereignty.

As early as 1245, during the papacy of Innocent IV, Henry III protested (to no avail) the annual 1,000 marks which the Papal fief entailed, and there was at least some delay in payment. Also, towards the end of his reign, Edward I consistently did not pay, and nor did Edward II (despite promising to). Edward III made only a token payment and refused to acknowledge all outstanding payments.**

The papacy, on the other hand,

has never formally resigned its claim to tribute, census or overlordship.

The author of the article cited here, Professor Nicholas Vincent of the University of East Anglia, adds:

two further facts need to be borne in mind. Since Anglo-Saxon times, a levy known as Peter’s Pence had been paid by England to Rome, described as ‘census’ and implying subjection to the papacy, albeit collected from the English church rather than from the king.

This ‘census’ was still being paid as late as 1534, on the very eve of Henry VIII’s final breach with Rome. Secondly, before John’s actions of 1213, there were rumours, in England as well as Rome, suggesting that John’s father, King Henry II, had already acknowledged the pope not merely as his spiritual ruler but also as his feudal overlord.


The beginning: King John

The tribute which King John agreed to was 1000 marks, of which 700 was for England (which included Wales) and 300 for Ireland. In addition to this annual tribute and Peter's Pence, the Pope was also collecting

incidental levies made for different purposes, which from time to time called for an extraordinary demand for money, and which could not be covered by Peter's pence. Tallages for crusades, tithes, feudal fines, and subsidies fall in this group.

Source: Margaret Katherine Theilen, 'Opposition to Papal Taxation in England under Innocent IV' (Master's thesis, 1913)

First objections: King Henry III

Thus, unsurprisingly, 1365 was not the first time King and Parliament raised objections to the annual tribute. In the lead up to the First Council of Lyons in 1245 held by Pope Innocent IV, Henry III prepared a letter

setting forth an account of the "execrable extortions" of the pope and his legates and clerks.

the English were especially desirous of bringing up, was the abolition of the yearly tribute with which their kingdom had been burdened since 1213. A parliament was held in London respecting the action to be taken concerning it. They claimed that the general community of England had never consented to the cess, and begged to be relieved from the payment of the thousand marks a year.

Source: Theilen

The pope waved aside English objections. Theilen, citing the chroniclers Matthew Paris and Thomas Walshingham, says of the Pope's actions:

Near the close of the council, he informed the English representatives, that they would not obtain their demands. The agents departed in anger, vowing with "terrible oaths" that they would never pay the tribute or allow revenues to be extorted from their realm. Innocent patiently bided his time. Just before they departed for home, he summoned them before him, and forced each one of them to affix his seal to "that detestable charter of tribute to which King John, of unhappy memory," had agreed. The bishops who were become "inexcusably effeminate thru fear" did what he bade them "to the enormous prejudice of king and kingdom."

Thus, Henry III, despite his anger, continued to pay the tribute:

Both in 1246, and the two succeeding years, Innocent urged Henry to pay the yearly cess. In 1249 we find that only five hundred marks remain unpaid, showing that the feudal obligation of England was duly recognized.

Lessening of payments: Kings Edward I & II

Edward I (1272-1307) paid at least some of the tribute until the late 1290s - he had good relations with Pope Gregory X (1271-76) who was a personal friend and, being the foremost European warrior king of his time, was the 'great hope' of the Popes to lead another crusade to the Holy Land. Payments stopped around 1297; his son and successor Edward II duly acknowledge as much:

In 1317 Edward II acknowledged that the annual feudal tribute of 1000 marks had not been paid for twenty-four years, and his agent undertook solemn engagements to pay off the arrears by installments. This promise was never fulfilled.

Final refusal: King Edward III

His son and successor, Edward III, was only marginally less tardy in making payments. Although he did pay 1,000 pounds in 1333 (note: the Catholic Encyclopedia says the last payment was in 1343), the English kings were clearly loosening their ties to Rome:

From the time he governed Edward had steadily refused to pay tribute to the Pope or acknowledge him as his overlord. So Urban V sent in the reckoning : One Thousand Marks Annual Tribute with Thirty three Years of Arrears at Compound Interest.

...if his vassal, the King of England, ... did not honour his bond by a prompt settlement in full, Edward would be cited to appear in person before his overlord at Avignon. The Pope being resident in French territory made his demand peculiarly exasperating to English pride.

Unsurprisingly, coming in the midst of the Hundred Years' War between England and France, this papal demand did not go down well. In fact, demand for payment resulted in Peter's Pence not being paid 'for a while':

This claim was emphatically rejected by Parliament, and the papal suzerainty renounced. For a while even the payment of Peter's pence was discontinued. It was possibly on this occasion, but more probably in 1374, that Wycliffe was employed by the King to write an answer rebutting the papal claim. The papal power over the English Church was clearly being loosened.

Source: M. W. Patterson, 'A History of the Church of England'(download PDF)


tl; dr

No, Edward III paid a token tribute of £1,000 in 1333 (in expectation of receiving papal favours in return).

In 1365, the English parliament debated the latest papal demand for tribute. They concluded that John’s original surrender of the realm to the Pope had been invalid, since it had lacked the assent of the bishops. From the perspective of the English, that meant that England had never actually been a Papal fief in the first place.

Since no English king paid tribute to the Pope as vassal after that date, 1365 would seem to be the year that England ceased to be a Papal fief.


When King John surrendered England to the Papacy in 1213, he also agreed to pay an annual tribute to the pope of 1,000 marks (1 mark was worth 13 shillings and 4 pence). This tribute was never paid regularly, although it was paid from time-to-time into the fourteenth century.

"... of our own good and spontaneous will and on the general advice of our barons we offer and freely yield to God, and to SS Peter and Paul His apostles, and to the Holy Roman Church our mother, and to our lord Pope Innocent III and his catholic successors, the whole kingdom of England and the whole kingdom of Ireland with all their rights and appurtenances ..."

"... As a token of this our perpetual offering and concession we will and decree that out of the proper and special revenues of our said kingdoms, in lieu of all service and payment which we should render for them, the Roman church is to receive annually, without prejudice to the payment of Peter's pence, one thousand marks sterling five hundred at the feast of Michael and five hundred at Easter that is, seven hundred for the kingdom of England and tree hundred for the kingdom of Ireland, subject to the maintenance for us and our heirs of our jurisdiction, privileges, and regalities."

  • Concession of the Kingdom to the Pope made by King John before Pandulf, the Papal legate at Dover on 15 May 1213, and renewed at London, before Nicholas, Bishop of Tusculum, on 3 October 1213

Note that this explicitly excluded the payment of Peter's Pence.

In return, the Pope issued a Papal bull placing England under his protection.

It was on the grounds that England was a Papal fief that Pope Innocent III issued a Papal bull on 24 August 1215 declaring Magna Carta to be null-and-void. The reasoning was that the charter would have violated his rights as feudal lord.

King John's son, Henry III, enjoyed close relations with the papacy throughout his reign, with Papal legates at his court (like Pandulf Verraccio) having right of veto on many matters.

However, as you note, John's grandson, King Edward I, and great-grandson, King Edward II, did not enjoy such cordial relations with the Pope. As you say, in part this was about the king's right to tax the English church, and also over their continuing wars in Scotland. However, matters were certainly not helped by the Pope's perceived (and perhaps unsurprising, given the Papal exile in Avignon) partisan support for the kings of France in dealings between the two kingdoms.

Payment of Tribute

It seems that tribute was paid (at least intermittently) during the reign of Henry III.

However, as a result of the increasing distance between the English kings and the Papacy during the reigns of Edward I and Edward II, payment became less frequent, and no tribute at all was paid between 1300 and 1330.

Edward III paid tribute of £1000 in 1333, and that is the last payment for which have a record (although we do have copies of demands for payment from the Pope).

The parliamentary debate in 1365 was prompted by a Papal demand for the arrears of tribute that remained unpaid. As the Rev. M.W. Patterson put it in his 1929 History of the Church of England:

In the year 1365 the Pope was injudicious enough to demand the arrears of the tribute promised by King John for himself and his successors. This claim was emphatically rejected by Parliament, and the papal suzerainty renounced.

  • p156

Since no English king paid tribute to the Pope as vassal after that date, 1365 would seem to be the year that England ceased to be a Papal fief.

Rejection by Parliament

As I understand the argument, Parliament acknowledged that King John was free to surrender the kingship (i.e. abdicate), but he could not change the succession, and so 'bring his realm under the subjection of another', without the approval of the barons and the bishops (the Councils that were the precursors of Parliament). They also noted that John had surrendered the kingship under duress.

While the Pope may have been head of the church, he had no formal position in the Councils of England. Since John didn't have the approval of the bishops, when he surrendered the kingship, Parliament effectively asserted that his infant son (Henry III) had automatically become king, and not the Pope.

The following extract from Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England describes how Edward III put the Pope's demand to Parliament, and records their response:

... After which both houses proceeded to nominate receivers and tryers of petitions as usual, and adjourned to the next day, when the chan. in the presence of the king, lords, and commons, spoke again and told them, "that he had the day before informed them in general, of the occasion of their meeting, and that now they should know it more particularly; the king having a matter of great importance to communicate to them. His maj. had lately received notice, that the pope, in consideration of the homage which John k. of England, had formerly paid to the see of Rome, and of the tribute by him granted to the said see, intended by process to cite his maj. to appear at his court, at Avignon, to answer for his defaults, in not performing what the said king, his predecessor, had so undertaken for him and his heirs, kings of England. Whereupon, the king required the advice of his parl, what course he had best take if any such process should come out against him." The bps. lords and commons, desired until the following day, to give in their answer; when, being again assembled, after full deliberation, they declared as follows, “that neither king John nor any other king could bring himself, his realm and people, under such subjection, without their assent; and if it was done, it was without consent of parl, and contrary to his coronation oath; that he was notoriously compelled to it by the necessity of his affairs and the inquity [sic] of the times; wherefore the said estates enacted, that in case the pope should attempt any thing by process, or any other way, to constrain the king and his subjects, to perform what he says he lays claim to, in this respect, they would resist and withstand him to the utmost of their power.”

This parl, continued to sit till the 11th of May ...

Payment of Peter's Pence was also suspended for a time under Edward III in the 1520s. Wikipedia notes that:

In 1366 and for some years after, it was refused on the grounds of the pope's obstinacy.

Payment would also be withheld by later kings as a means of applying pressure to the Pope. However, apart from these interruptions, Peter's Pence continued to be paid by the English Church until it was abolished altogether by the Reformation Parliament in 1534.

Further sources

  • Thanks. Still, your conclusion "1365 would seem to be the year that England ceased to be a Papal fief" may be factually right - but this doesn't appear to be legally sound: If you assume that the bishops' consent would have been necessary, England had never been a Papal fief in the first place, otherwise claiming incorrectly a formal defect wouldn't have meant an end to this status. May 5, 2019 at 13:21
  • @FrankfromFrankfurt And to the best of my knowledge, the Papacy has never resigned its claim. A useful analogy might be the Treaty of Troyes. This stated that Henry V & his heirs would inherit the French crown upon the death of Charles VI of France. The Dauphin claimed the treaty was invalid, and went on to defeat the English (& their French supporters) to become Charles VII of France. Despite this, English monarchs continued to claim the French throne until the Act of Union in 1800. May 5, 2019 at 13:55
  • @sempaiscuba I don’t understand the argument that consent of the bishops was necessary since the Popes both back then and today have supreme authority over the Catholic Church so why would he need bishops consent to accept a surrender of kingdom? May 9, 2019 at 19:14
  • @JacobHarrison I've edited the info from my last comment into the answer, and included an additional reference for you. May 10, 2019 at 0:41
  • @sempaiscuba When King John surrendered to the papacy, it was before the signing of Magna Carta which increased the power of the councils. Was it part of English law before the Magna Carta that the king couldn’t bring the realm under the subjection of another without consent from the councils? What part of the coronation oath did John violate? May 10, 2019 at 15:57

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