Robbing Peter to pay Paul

People are often accused of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’; but who is the unfortunate Peter who is being robbed to pay the rather more fortunate Paul in this common phrase?

This week, two politicians have hit the headlines accusing the government of ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’. In America, the looming ‘fiscal cliff’ elicited the phrase from Virginia State Senator Adam Ebbin as he criticized plans to redirect money from the Commonwealth’s general fund.

Over in Australia, Labor’s immigration spokesman Scott Morrison highlighted the government’s plans to use money from the overseas aid programme to fund the costs of processing asylum seekers and told ABC television that the: “The government are basically robbing Peter to pay Paul here in terms of the aid program”.

It is a common idiom, used to describe the pointlessness of taking from one source to give another very similar one. But what is the etymological origin of the phrase? Put another way, who (or what) were the original Peter and Paul?

A splendid tale suggests an origin in rivalries between the capital’s historic twin cities of London and Westminster. The Collegiate Church of St. Peter at Westminster is more popularly known as Westminster Abbey. It was (and remains) the principal church of the royal city of Westminster.

Two miles north east of the Abbey lies the Cathedral Church of St. Paul the Apostle, or St. Paul’s Cathedral – the great church at the heart of the commercial City. The story goes that St. Paul’s Cathedral needed extensive repair work and, to pay for it, the wealthy Westminster Abbey was plundered. Or, put another way, St. Peter’s was robbed to pay for St. Paul’s.

Case closed? Maybe not. In Medieval London, there were at least two common church taxes – a tithe that went to the diocese (i.e. in the City to St. Paul’s) and a payment to the Pope in Rome known as Peter’s Pence (as the Bishop of Rome is the successor to St. Peter). Cash strapped Londoner’s favoured their local church over subsidizing a far-away pontiff and would therefore pay Paul’s Pence over Peter’s and again robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Another variant on this story is outlined in Peter Heylyn’s ‘Ecclesia Restaurata’:

“The lands of Westminster so dilapidated by Bishop Thirlby, that there was almost nothing left to support the dignity; for which good service he had been preferred to the see of Norwich, in the year foregoing. Most of the lands invaded by the great men of the court, the rest laid out for reparation to the church of St Paul – pared almost to the very quick in those days of rapine. From hence first came that significant by-word (as is said by some) of robbing Peter to pay Paul.” 

Unfortunately, the phrase is found in English texts dating back well before Bishop Thirlby and his days of rapine. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes an ecclesiastical tome known as Jacob’s well from the mid-15th century includes a variant of the phrase:

“To robbe Petyr & geve it Poule, it were non almesse but gret synne.”

The phrase is also found in other European languages (e.g. in French – découvrir Saint Pierre pour couvrir Saint Paul, or to strip Peter to clothe Paul and in German – Dem Peter nehmen und dem Paul geben), which suggests the phrase did not spring from a specific ecclesiastical rivalry. Instead, were these names used in the phrase merely because they were both familiar and alliterative?

Probably not. A Christian origin and meaning for the phrase is the most likely etymological root. St. Peter and St. Paul are often paired, with many churches being dedicated to SS. Peter and Paul. They share a feast day, the 29 June, and were both apostles of Christ. And this leads to the true meaning, and possible origin, of the phrase – the pointlessness of taking from one to give to another who is very similar

The medieval mind would have well understood the true pointlessness of robbing St. Peter only to give it to his co-religionist and fellow martyr St. Paul.

Meanwhile, as the phrase is popular with politicians, I’ll finish this post with a quote from George Bernard Shaw:

“A government that robs Peter to pay Paul can always depend on the support of Paul.”

George Bernard Shaw, Everybody’s Political What’s What? (1944)

With thanks to Conor and Caroline McNally for the original idea!

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