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Scutage in United Kingdom

Scutage before the Carta Magna


The Crown did not always insist on personal service, but was frequently willing to accept a commutation in the form of a money payment. The subject of scutage is one of the most vexed of questions, all received opinions of yesterday having to–day been thrown into the melting pot. The theories of Stubbs and Freeman, once universally accepted, require substantial modifications.

Scutage Definition

Four propositions may be stated with some confidence:

  • (1) that scutage is an ambiguous term with a vague general meaning as well as a narrow technical meaning;
  • (2) that the importance of the changes introduced by Henry II. in 1156 and 1159 has been much exaggerated;
  • (3) that scutage was always in the option of the King, never of the barons, his tenants; and
  • (4) that at a later time, probably during John’s reign, scutage changed its character, and became, partly through altered circumstances and partly by the King’s deliberate policy, a much more burdensome exaction.

Each of these propositions requires explanations:

(1) The proper technical meaning of scutagium or “shield–money” is a money payment of so much per “shield” (that is, per knight’s fee) by a tenant in lieu of actual attendance in the army of his feudal lord: it is, as Dr. Stubbs explains,1 “an honourable commutation for personal service.” The word, however, is also more loosely used for any exaction assessed on a feudal basis, irrespective of the occasion of its levy; and, in this wider sense, includes feudal aids and other payments as well.

(2) Professor Freeman, Dr. Stubbs, and their adherents held that one of Henry’s most important reforms was the invention of scutage; that he allowed his Crown tenants at their discretion to substitute payments in money for the old obligation of personal service in the field—this option being granted to ecclesiastics in 1156, and to lay barons in 1159. Such a theory had a priori much to recommend it. A measure of this nature, while giving volume and elasticity to the resources of the Crown, was calculated subtly to undermine the basis of the feudal tie; but Henry, far–seeing statesman as he was, could not discard the ideals of his own generation: no evidence that he made any sweeping change is forthcoming.

On the contrary, his grandfather, Henry I, is shown by the evidence of extant charters to have accepted money in place of the services of knights when it suited him (notably from church fiefs in 1109),3 and there is no evidence (direct or indirect) to show that the grandson accepted such commutation when it did not suit him. Scutage was thus known in England half a century before 1156—the traditional date of its introduction.

(3) Further, neither before nor after the reign of Henry II. had the individual baron any option of tendering at his discretion money in place of personal service. The conclusions on this subject formulated by Dr. Horace Round lie implicitly in the examples from the Pipe Rolls stored in the famous work of Madox. From these it would appear that the procedure of the Exchequer of the great Angevin and his two sons might be explained in some such propositions as these:

(a) The option to convert service into scutage lay with the Crown; not with the tenants, either individually or as a body. When the King summoned his army, no baron could (as Professor Freeman would have us believe) simply stay away under obligation of paying a small fixed sum to the Exchequer. On the contrary, Henry and his sons jealously preserved the right to insist on personal service whenever it suited them; efficient substitutes were not always accepted, much less money payments.

(b) If the individual wished to stay at home he required to make a special bargain with the King, paying such sum as the King thought fit to demand and sometimes having to find a substitute in addition. Exorbitant sums (not properly “scutages” at all) might thus be extorted from stay–at–homes ne transfretent or pro remanendo ab exercitu—phrases which appear in the Pipe Rolls of Richard. A Crown vassal in John’s twelfth year made fine “that he might send two knights to serve for him in the army of Ireland.”1 In such cases, each baron made his own bargain with the Crown: a scutage, on the contrary, “when it ran in the land” was at a uniform rate.

(c) The tenant–in–chivalry who stayed at home without first making his bargain was in much worse plight. He had broken faith, and in strict feudal theory had forfeited his fief by failing to perform the service for which he held it. He was “in mercy,” and might be glad to accept such terms of pardon as a gracious king might offer him. Sometimes, quite small amercements were inflicted: the Abbot of Pershore in 1196 escaped with 40s: But the Crown sometimes insisted on total forfeiture.

It was the duty of the Barons of Exchequer to determine whether lands had thus escheated by default, and also to determine the amount of “forfeit” to be taken where confiscation was not justified or insisted on. The barons wished to refer such questions to the judicium parium.

(4) Scutage tended continually to become more burdensome:

  • (a) With new inventions and more complicated fashions in arms and armour for man and horse, and increased rates payable for the hire of mercenaries, the expenses of a campaign steadily increased. It was not unnatural that the normal rate of scutage should increase in sympathy. Under Henry the recognized maximum had been two marks, the exact equivalent of 40 days’ wages at the normal rate of 8d. per diem.5 Usually he was content with a smaller sum per knight’s fee: 20s., 13s. 4d. or even 10s. being sometimes taken.
  • (b) A second method of increasing the yield of scutage was to readjust the assessment on which it was based, by increasing the number of contributory knights’ fees. Henry II. in 1166 had invited his unsuspecting barons to furnish him with details of the number of knights actually enfeoffed on their lands both before and after the death of his grandfather; and then treated the latter as a sort of unearned increment, the benefit of which should be shared by the Crown. The amount of servitium debitum as previously reckoned was increased by the addition of the number of knights of the novum feoffamentum, that is, of those created subsequent to the death of Henry I. The basis of assessment thus fixed in 1166 remained unaltered at John’s accession.
  • (c) The third respect in which scutages tended to become more burdensome was in their increased frequency. This was, in part, a consequence of the growth of the Empire of the Kings of England, bringing with it a widening of interests and ambitions, and an increase in the number and expense of wars. Much depended, however, on the spirit in which this feudal prerogative was used, on the amount of consideration given to the needs and interests of the barons. Neither Henry nor Richard seems to have regarded it as other than an expedient to be reserved for special emergencies, not as a permanent source of revenue in normal times.

Henry II

Henry II seems to have levied money in name of scutage only when actually at war—on seven occasions in all during a reign of thirty–five years; and only once at a rate exceeding 20s., if we may trust Mr. Round,2 and that when he was putting forth a special effort against Toulouse. Richard I., rapacious as he was, levied, apparently, only four scutages during ten years, and the rate of 20s. was never exceeded even in the King’s hour of urgent need,—in 1194, when the arrears of his ransom had to be paid and preparations simultaneously made for war in Normandy.

If it can be shown that John altered established usages under every one of these heads, breaking away from all restraints, and that too in the teeth of the keen opposition of a high–spirited baronage whose members felt that their pride and prestige as well as their money–bags were attacked, a distinct step is taken towards understanding the crisis of 1215. Such knowledge would explain why a storm, long brewing, burst in John’s reign, neither sooner nor later; and even why some of the disreputable stories told by the chroniclers and accepted by Blackstone and others, found inventors and believers.

It is here maintained that John did make changes in all of these directions; and, further, that the incidence of this increase in feudal burdens was rendered even more unendurable by two considerations:—because at his accession there remained unpaid (particularly from the fiefs of the northern knights) large arrears of the scutages imposed in his brother’s reign,1 and because in June, 1212, he drew the feudal chain tight by a drastic and galling measure.

That John elevated scutage from a weapon reserved for emergencies into a regular source of revenue, and that he raised the rate demanded beyond the recognized maximum of two marks, becomes apparent from a glance at the table2 of scutages extorted during his reign:

First scutage of reign— 1198–9 — 2 marks per knight’s fee.
Second scutage of reign— 1200–1 2 marks per knight’s fee.
Third scutage of reign— 1201–2 2 marks per knight’s fee.
Fourth scutage of reign— 1202–3 2 marks per knight’s fee.
Fifth scutage of reign— 1203–4 2 marks per knight’s fee.
Sixth scutage of reign— 1204–5 2 marks per knight’s fee.
Seventh scutage of reign— 1205–6 20s. marks per knight’s fee.
Eighth scutage of reign— 1209–10 2 marks per knight’s fee.
Ninth scutage of reign— 1210–11 2 marks per knight’s fee.
Tenth scutage of reign— 1210–11 20s. marks per knight’s fee.
Eleventh scutage of reign— 1213–14 3 marks per knight’s fee.

It will be seen that, in his very first year, John took a scutage at two marks per scutum. Next year he wisely allowed a breathing space; then without a break in each of the third, fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh years of his reign, scutages were extorted in quick succession at the same high rate. Fines, in addition to this scutage of two marks, were exacted from those who had not made the necessary compromise for personal service in due time.

Relaxing and Straining the tension

These scutages were collected with increasing difficulty, and arrears accumulated; but the spirit of opposition increased even more rapidly. In 1206, apparently, the breaking point was almost reached.1 Accordingly, in that year, some slight relaxation was allowed—the annual scutage was reduced from two marks to 20s. John’s needs, however, were as great as ever, and would prevent further concessions, unless something untoward happened. Something untoward did happen in the summer of 1207, when John quarrelled with the Pope. This postponed his quarrel with the baronage. John had, for the time being, the whole of the confiscated property of the clergy in his clutches.

The day of reckoning for this luxury was still far distant, and the King could meanwhile enjoy a full exchequer without goading his Crown tenants to rebellion. For three years no scutage was imposed. In 1209, however, financial needs again closed in on John, and a new scutage of two marks was levied; followed in the next year actually by two scutages, the first of two marks against Wales, and the second of 20s. against Scotland. John had no sense of moderation. These three levies, amounting to a total of five–and–a–half marks per fee within two years, strained the tension almost to breaking point.


During the two years following (Michaelmas, 1211, to Michaelmas, 1213) no scutage was imposed. John, however, although he thus a second time relaxed the tension, had no intention to do so for long. On the contrary, he determined to ascertain if scutages could not be made to yield more in the future. By writs, dated 1st June, 1212, he instituted a strict Inquest into the amount of service exigible from every estate in England. Commissioners were appointed to take the sworn verdicts of local juries as to the amount of liability due by each Crown vassal.

Mr. Round considers that previous writers have unaccountably ignored the importance of this measure, “an Inquest worthy to be named in future by historians in conjunction with those of 1086 and 1166,”3 and describes it as an effort “to revive rights of the Crown alleged to have lapsed.” John intended by this Inquest, the returns to which were due on the 25th June, to prepare the necessary machinery for wringing the uttermost penny out of the next scutage when occasion for one again arose. That occasion came in 1214.

Up to this date, even John had not dared to exact a rate of more than two marks per knight’s fee; but the weight of his constant scutages had been increased by the fact that he sometimes exacted personal services in addition, and that he inflicted crushing fines upon those who neither went nor arranged beforehand terms of composition with the King. Miss Norgate (123) describes the exactions supplementing the scutages: “These scutages were independent of the fines paid by the barons who did not accompany the King on his first return to Normandy in 1199, of the money taken from the host as a substitute for its service in 1201, of the equipment and payment of the ‘decimated’ knights in 1205, and the fines claimed for all the tenants–in–chivalry after the dismissal of the host in the same year, as well as of actual services which many of those who had paid the scutage rendered in the campaigns of 1202–4 and 1206.”

Thus insidiously throughout the entire reign, the stream of feudal obligations steadily rose until the barons feared that nothing of their property would be saved from the torrent. The normal rate of scutage had been raised, the frequency of its imposition had been increased, the conditions of foreign service had become more burdensome, and the objects of foreign expeditions more unpopular; while attempts were sometimes made to exact both service and scutage in the same year. The limit of the barons’ endurance was reached when, under circumstances peculiarly inauspicious, John, in May, 1214, demanded a new scutage at the unprecedented rate of three marks on every fee, grounded doubtless on the searching inquest of 1212.

This outline of the history of scutage makes plain that grievances connected with its abuse formed one of the chief incentives to the insurrection that resulted in the winning of the Great Charter.

Source: Part II. Magna Carta: A Commentary on the Great Charter of King John, with an Historical Introduction, by William Sharp McKechnie (Glasgow: Maclehose, 1914).

See Also

Magna Carta
History of Magna Carta in the English Encyclopedia
English Court System in the Legal Encyclopedia
Feudal Rival Courts
Suit and Service
Feudal Aids
Royal Courts

English Old Law: Scutage in the Past

The name of a tax (see more about this popular legal topic in the U.K. encyclopedia) or contribution raised for the use of the king’s armies by those who held lands by knight’s service. [1]


Notes and References

  1. Partialy, this information about scutage is based on the Bouvier´s Law Dictionary, 1848 edition. There is a list of terms of the Bouvier´s Law Dictionary, including scutage.

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  • Article Name: Scutage
  • Author: Nathan Rivera
  • Description: Scutage before the Carta Magna Introduction The Crown did not always insist on personal service, but was frequently [...]

This entry was last updated: April 6, 2020

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