Moaning about the rates? Try it six centuries ago

PUBLISHED: 13:33 19 May 2006 | UPDATED: 21:52 28 May 2010

IF there s anything we love grumbling about its rates and taxes. Some think paying local rates is an imposition as English as the rose. For anything that we don t like inevitably there will be a whipping post, usually some poor fellow of administrative st

IF there's anything we love grumbling about its rates and taxes. Some think paying local rates is an imposition as English as the rose.

For anything that we don't like inevitably there will be a whipping post, usually some poor fellow of administrative status.

Perhaps we should not be too hard in our condemnation. If we lived in March four to six centuries ago, one would occasionally think ill of Vestry (council) but would not dare to say anything. Appointed men scrutinised the running of March, and the church holding the purse strings were quietly criticised as well. It imposed tithe, a 10 per cent tax on virtually everyone and everything.

In modern times rates account for numerous services we wouldn't want to be without. As yet we are not charged for furniture, garden tools, wheelbarrows, lawn mowers, lawns, flowers fruit trees, sheds and soft water tanks. But don't hold your breath and whatever you do, do not mention this to Gordon Brown.

From the 14th century up to the 19th century the lives of March tenants were shackled to the dues and demands of Holy church. Call it rates if you like. In some places abroad modernised tithe is still the norm. If a tenant had a wife he was charged 2d; for every child he was charged a penny. If he had a hearth and a ready supply of firewood the tenant paid one penny.

Everyone had hens and ducks and these were tithed, owners giving two eggs for each hen and every cockerel and drake, three eggs. A new-born foal accounted for a penny. For every cow giving milk at Whitsuntide, from 1528, tenants carried milk to the south porch of St Wendreda's Church for the person or his assign to receive.

A tenant with 10 tithe calves had to pay 8d, the 10th calf being given to the parson on Mayday.

Sheep were the main feature at livestock markets and should tenants sell any they paid half a penny in tithe for each.

Even in harvest time tenants paid tithe when fruit was picked and root crops taken up.

Geese were a fen speciality and for every 10 young geese counted at Whitsuntide and for all odd geese counted above 10 he paid a halfpenny. In the cornfield the parson's man placed a stick in every 10th sheaf claiming it for the church.

Tithe was regarded as a manorial imposition made worse by every fit man being obliged to give a boon day (free work) to the Lord of the manor. If a tenant worked on the fields the lord had to provide him with food and drink. Likewise, if a tenant worked unpaid in his master's brewery he was given victuals, usually bread and cheese washed down with beer.

Should a tenant become ill, his neighbour was expected to do free work in his place and if a man died his widow was obliged to take on the task. There were no benefits or handouts.

When we think of how it used to be, compare medieval life with our own times and remember that one of our politicians once said " We never had it so good." In some ways I suppose he was right.

Even so, our tenant ancestors never borrowed money, didn't get into terrible debt, were free of the burden of plastic cards and grew their own garden crops.

They knew where they stood, accepted their lot and loved it in simple terms. They had no choice like us.

TREVOR BEVIS, St Peter's Road, March.

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