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A medieval occupational pension

The IFoA’s Library has recently acquired a medieval document which is one of the earliest grants of an occupational pension on someone’s retirement.

22 JUNE 2017 | CHRIS LEWIN


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Medieval pension document

Roger of Rattlesden was the rector of the church of Cringleford, near Norwich. In July 1251, he was granted a pension of 40 shillings (£2) a year for life by the Bishop of Norwich, “taking pity on his old age so that in his final days (may this not happen) he is not forced to beg”.


The Bishop was Walter de Suffield and two years before this he had founded St Giles’s Hospital in Norwich. The foundation charter specified that under the master there should be four devout and well-instructed chaplains. The inmates were to include up to 30 infirm poor people, and three or four sisters over age 50 to take diligent care of the sick and infirm. Poor clergymen disabled by old age or permanent sickness were also to be admitted if they had no other support on which they could live, and would have suitable board and lodging in an honourable part of the house. Seven poor scholars, apt to learn, would be given their board at the hospital during term time.   Remarkably, the hospital survives in Norwich to this day, now known as the Great Hospital and fulfilling much of its original purpose, with dwellings for 108 elderly people. 
 
The foundation charter specified that the hospital would be endowed with some land and six churches. When the charter was approved by the Pope in 1255, it was stated that the churches had been purchased from laymen by the Bishop for the purpose and they would devolve to the hospital on the death of their respective rectors. Thereafter the churches would be supplied with vicars living on fitting stipends.

Transfer of churches

Before this time St Peter’s Church of Cringleford was owned by the local landowner, Sir Alex De Vaux, who would have ensured that the rector had food sufficient for his needs and probably a dwelling also. The Bishop now negotiated a deal with Sir Alex, under which the church and some land was sold to the Bishop and transferred by him to the hospital. The property was said to be worth 10 marks, or £6.13s.4d, per annum, which probably consisted mainly of rents receivable for the land. (Note: 13s.4d, or 13 shillings and four pence, was worth two-thirds of a pound, since there were 20 shillings to a pound and 12 pence to a shilling.) As part of the deal, Rattlesden voluntarily gave up his rights in the church and in return was awarded the pension, which we can see amounted to 30% of his previous income. This enabled the church to pass into the ownership of the hospital without waiting for his death.

Moorman (1945) discusses the common medieval practice of the appropriation of parish churches to provide finance for monasteries and other religious houses. The lay patron of a church, whose ancestors had founded and established it, would hand over all his rights to the monastery, which thereupon became the rector, making itself responsible for collecting the income and seeing that the church was served by paying a stipend to a vicar, who had permanent tenure. This often resulted in a substantial net gain to the monastery. Moorman states that by 1300, at least half of the parish churches of England had been appropriated, and that in 1222 the Council of Oxford decreed that the minimum stipend for a perpetual vicar should be five marks, or £3.6s.8d, a year. If this was the sum to be paid to Rattlesden’s successor (Bartholomew, who was appointed in 1253), the new hospital in Norwich would eventually benefit for evermore by the difference between this sum and the £6.13s.4d that the rectory was worth. However, in the short term, the hospital also had to pay Rattlesden’s pension, so while he was alive, the net benefit was only £1.6s.8d per annum.     

 A pioneering benefactor

There are interesting accounts of the life of Walter de Suffield, Bishop of Norwich, in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and in Blomefield’s History. After less senior roles in Paris, he was appointed Bishop in 1244. Quickly realising the need for a hospital in the city, he set about the complicated business of acquiring churches to help to put it on a firm financial footing. By the time he died in 1257 the task was complete and the arrangements had been approved by the Pope. An eloquent preacher, he clearly felt a great responsibility towards the poor, and during a famine he even sold some of his own goods to buy bread for them. In his will he left numerous bequests to the poor and several to the hospital.

We can compare the amount of Rattlesden’s pension with the few known examples of pensions awarded to other retired clergymen around this time – see Moorman (1945) and Lewin (2003). The earliest case is the retirement of Robert, Abbot of Glastonbury, in 1234 with an enormous pension of £60 per year. His successor, Michael of Ambresbury, retired at the end of 1252 with an even bigger pension of £160 a year, the manor of Mere, and an ample allowance of food each day from the monastic kitchens, though he only survived for six months. In 1286, Philip de Harwodelme, rector of Bigby, near Exeter, was so worn down by disease and old age that he was awarded £13.6s.8d per annum, payable out of the parish tythes. In 1294 Nicholas Thorne, the former abbot of St Augustine’s, Canterbury, who had retired to become an ordinary monk at Selby in Yorkshire, was awarded a pension of £6.6s.8d per annum by his former brethren at Canterbury. In 1309 William, vicar of Perran Zabulo, was very old and infirm and he was given £5.4s.0d per year for sustenance, while in 1326, John Mon, vicar of Kynstock was awarded £4 per annum.   

Pension comparisons

It is striking that these pensions, although of differing amounts, were all greater than Rattlesden’s £2 per annum. This suggests strongly that he was not expected to provide for his own keep out of it.  The likelihood is, therefore, that he was awarded a place in the new hospital, where he would have received free board and lodging, though there is no surviving list of the people admitted which might have confirmed this. His pension would then have been available to him to buy luxuries, probably including new shoes, clothes and fuel for cold winter nights.   

Rattlesden’s pension may also be compared with the wage of a building worker, which was two pence a day for a thatcher, and double that sum for more skilled workers such as masons (Dyer, 1989). Assuming these men worked for six days a week, their average annual wage would have been between £2.10s.0d and £5 per annum.   

Much of the information in this article comes from a book by Francis Blomefield (1806). Although the book does not mention Rattlesden or his pension, the grant document does bear some annotations, probably by Blomefield, pencilled on its reverse. This is the only indication of where the document has been for the past 766 years. There are no known records of any pensions that might have been granted to the rectors of the other churches appropriated to the hospital.

A worthy addition to the Library

Despite the early examples mentioned, the grant of pensions to retired parish clergy does not seem to have commenced in earnest until around 1420. Instead the retiree could sometimes continue to live in the parsonage, which might be divided for the purpose between him and the new incumbent, who would be responsible for providing him with food. The other occupational group of people who could sometimes get pensions or free board and lodging in medieval times were public servants and their widows – see Lewin (2003).  
 
The hospital at Norwich was not the first in Britain to admit retired clergymen. Some years earlier, probably around 1240, a Hospital for Poor Priests had been founded at Canterbury. However, no record seems to have survived of whether pensions were granted to the inmates.

Actuaries have devoted enormous effort to the financing of occupational pensions since the late 19th century, and it is therefore fitting that the document awarding such a very early pension – perhaps the second-earliest known – should have a place in the Profession’s Library. As a result of gradual acquisitions over many years, the Library now has a historical collection of worldwide significance for the development of pensions, life assurance and actuarial science, which enables actuaries and others to look back over what has happened in the past before trying to peer forward into the future.



Acknowledgements

I acknowledge with grateful thanks the help I have received from Stewart Lyon, Derek Renn, David Raymont and Trevor Sibbett, as well as from Tom Townsend, Archivist at the Norfolk Record Office.

References

Blomefield, Francis. An Essay towards a Topographical History of the County of Norfolk, 12 volumes, 1806. The text can be accessed via the web-site British History Online.   Walter de Suffield’s life appears in vol.3, pages 486-92.

Moorman, John R.H. Church Life in England in the Thirteenth Century, Cambridge, 1945, pages 38-46. The pension awarded to Robert, Abbot of Glastonbury, in 1234 is mentioned on page 267, with further details on the website British History Online.
 
Dyer, Christopher. Standards of Living in the later Middle Ages, Cambridge, 1989, page 215.

Lewin, C.G. Pensions and Insurance before 1800 – a social history”, 2003.   Pages 21-56 deal with retirement provision in medieval times.

The Great Hospital at Norwich has its own website, which includes translations of many documents from its comprehensive archives: http://www.thegreathospital.co.uk/

Appendix

Translation of the pension document from Latin (by Doctor Butterfield, Cambridge University):
To all the Christian faithful who will see the present letters, Walter, by God’s grace Bishop of Norwich sends eternal greetings in the Lord. Since our beloved son, Roger of Rattlesden, once appointed rector of the Church of Cringleford in our presence, has resigned it into our hands of his own accord and absolutely, we, taking pity on his old age so that in his final days (may this not happen) he is not forced to beg, have decided to give the following decree, namely that through the hands of the Master of the Hospital of St Giles in Norwich for the time being he should receive 40 shillings sterling each year in perpetuity at the two synods of Norwich in equal portions from the property of the said church. In testimony of this event we have had our seal attached to this document. Sent at Blafeld [? = Blofield], 22 July in the seventh year of our pontificate.


Chris Lewin is a retired actuarial consultant