On July 9, 1976, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II visited Trinity Church as part of her trip to the United States for the nation’s Bicentennial of American Independence celebration. The Queen, however, was not simply visiting Trinity to take in its architecture or to wander through its churchyard, as many visitors do today. Rather, Queen Elizabeth II was at Trinity that day to symbolically collect 279 years of back rent in the form of 279 pepper corns (yes, like those used in a pepper grinder).
It is stated in Trinity’s charter of 1697 by King of England, William III, that the grant and conveyance of the rights, properties and privileges recited therein was made subject to the payment to the heirs and successors of the said William III of a yearly rent of “One Pepper Corne.”
This may seem like an extremely small sum to pay for rent, but it was standard in English law for both parties entering into a contract or agreement to provide the other party some token sum—no matter the value of the items being exchanged. A peppercorn was often used as a yearly rent when the owner of the land wanted to provide the land as, essentially, rent-free.
Seeing as how the yearly rent listed in Trinity’s charter had never been demanded or paid, Trinity’s then-rector, Ray Parks, presented Queen Elizabeth II with the 279 peppercorns—one for each year of Trinity’s existence up to that point—which she graciously accepted on the steps of Trinity Church. Dr. Parks expressed to Her Majesty the perpetual gratitude of the Rector, Churchwardens and Vestrymen of the Parish of Trinity Church in the City of New York for the generous benefactions to this parish of her illustrious predecessors, William III and Queen Anne.
Video of that transaction can be seen here.