The Kings’ Dues

May/June 2021

(Top left and above left: Bridgeman Images; top right and above right: © The Trustees of the British Museum/Art Resource, NY)

Which came first, the taxes or the kings? It seems logical that in order for there to be taxes, there has to be some sort of central authority to administer them. But what if it were actually the taxes that were the kingmakers? That, according to zooarchaeologist Pam Crabtree of New York University, is what happened in the Anglo-Saxon period (A.D. 410–1066) in England. The end of Roman Britain and the demise of its towns and cities in the early fifth century A.D. left an administrative vacuum across the island. In the short term, people returned to a more self-supporting Iron Age lifestyle with no central government and focused on consuming the food and goods they produced locally. As the centuries went on, Crabtree explains, farmers began to produce agricultural surpluses, setting England’s inhabitants on a different course—one that included taxes. Soon, local chieftains began to claim these surpluses for their own enrichment. This eventually allowed them to declare themselves royalty. “Taxation is an important way in which this agricultural surplus can be mobilized,” says Crabtree. “The taxes and the kings grew in tandem and this led to the emergence of new kingdoms.”

One tax Middle and Late Anglo-Saxon kings relied on was called feorm in Old English. This was a tax paid to the king and his entourage as he traveled across his kingdom to settlements in royal territories known as vills. The tax consisted of a healthful variety of foodstuffs and animal products, including honey, pigs, and wool. In the Middle Anglo-Saxon period (ca. A.D. 650–850), kings also increasingly came to rely on tolls paid in coin—evidence of a return to a type of monetized economy that hadn’t existed since the Roman period—on goods coming through trading settlements known as wics or emporia. One such spot was Lundenwic, Anglo-Saxon London. These emporia eventually led to the rebirth of towns and cities. The Anglo-Saxons were so successful at collecting taxes that it may have spelled their downfall. “One of the main reasons why England was so attractive to the Vikings, and eventually to the Normans,” says Crabtree, “is because the country had become a very wealthy place.”

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