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THE JEWS OF MEDIEVAL LEICESTER
by Oliver D. Harris.
This note was originally published as an appendix to Oliver D. Harris,
In Leicester, as in England more generally, much of the detailed history of medieval Jewry can only be traced through the affairs of those wealthier members of the community who were active as moneylenders, and whose dealings from time to time attracted the interest of the financial and legal arms of the state. The record is clearly incomplete and unbalanced, but these scattered insights into the lives of the affluent minority do at least give us some sense of a Jewish presence in particular places at particular times.
The earliest evidence we have for Jews in the town therefore dates from 1185, when we find mention in the pipe rolls of a pledge of 7 marks (£5 6s. 8d.) made by William de Georz to ‘the Jews of Leicester’.(1) The first Jew actually to be named is Aaron the Jew of Leicester, recorded in 1193 as owing sums totalling £21 17s. to the estate of the fabulously wealthy Jewish financier Aaron of Lincoln, who had died seven years earlier: it was by no means unknown for Jews to be borrowers as well as lenders of money, but it is also possible that the Leicester Aaron had been a local agent for his Lincoln namesake.(2) It was probably the same Aaron of Leicester whose son Samson witnessed a grant in Canterbury in c.1180; and very possibly again the same Aaron whose daughter Gigonia contributed to the Lincolnshire quota of the Jewish tallage of 1223, and whose son Fanlon, ‘a Jew of Canterbury’, is found acting as a moneylender in 1224.(3) A Jew named Josce of Leicester contributed to the Nottinghamshire quota of the 1194 tallage; and another named Benedict of Leicester is recorded as a moneylender in 1205.(4) The evidence of locative bynames does have to be used with caution, as, while they appear to suggest present or past residence, it has been argued in Jewish contexts that they may indicate no more than the use of a place for business purposes.(5) This point remains debatable, however, and does not invalidate the clear evidence that a small Jewish community existed in Leicester by the closing decades of the twelfth century. The settlement had been made without licence, but in 1226 Ranulf, Earl of Chester, who then held half the honour of Leicester, including the lordship of the town, obtained royal authority for the Jews to remain unmolested.(6) Joe Hillaby has suggested that the Jewish community of Warwick, which disappears briefly from the record in the 1220s, may have moved to Leicester, attracted by the greater level of protection offered by Ranulf: this must, however, remain speculative.(7)
Ranulf’s regime of benign paternalism was not to last, as his tenure of the half-honour was only temporary: he held it in custody for the young Simon de Montfort (seen as primarily a vassal of the French Crown, and so of questionable loyalty). Montfort recovered his estates in August 1231, and within a matter of months had issued a charter banishing Jews from living in the liberty of the town, ‘in my time or in the time of any of my heirs to the end of the world’.(8) His action, which he characterised as being ‘for the good of my soul, and the souls of my ancestors and successors’, was clearly fuelled by his own religious zealotry, combined with discontent at the economic power popularly conceived to be wielded by Jewish moneylenders. His views were probably shaped by increasingly hardline attitudes in France, where in 1217 his own mother had given the Jews of Toulouse a stark choice of conversion or death; and he may in addition have been swayed by the intellectual arguments of the scholar Robert Grosseteste, then archdeacon of Leicester.(9) The expulsion can also be seen as an ominous portent of events thirty years later, when resentment at financial indebtedness to Jews was one factor behind the baronial rebellion headed by Montfort, and when, in London and several provincial centres, his partisans looted Jewish property, destroyed Jewish records, and slaughtered Jews themselves.(10)
The Jews ejected from Leicester found refuge on the lands of Montfort’s great-aunt, Margaret de Quincy, the widowed countess of Winchester, who held the other half of the honour of Leicester. A territorial argument now surfaced between Simon and Margaret over the details of the partition of the honour (originally made in 1204-7): the point at issue was which of them lawfully held the eastern suburb of Leicester, the town’s communal bread-ovens (probably those outside the gates), the manors of Belgrave and Glenfield, and rents in Desford and Whetstone.(11) The matter was settled in January 1232, when the King decided in Margaret’s favour. While we cannot be certain, it seems likely that this dispute was triggered by the Jewish question, Simon’s intention of cleansing Leicester of its Jews having been undermined by Margaret’s provision of sanctuary on the town’s outskirts.(12) Archdeacon Grosseteste now stepped into the fray, penning a strongly-worded letter to Margaret on how the refugees should be treated. In a lengthy text replete with biblical quotation he argued vehemently that the Jews, as murderers of Christ and obdurate unbelievers, were cursed to wander the earth; and that it was a lord’s duty, while preserving their lives, to hold them in captivity, to prevent them from oppressing Christians through usury, and to steer them towards a livelihood founded on physical labour.(13) How far Margaret may have heeded this advice is unknown.
We hear nothing more of the community as such, but a few Jews with roots in the town are subsequently found elsewhere. Josce of Leicester was based in Nottingham in 1241-2; and Moses of Leicester appears in Lincolnshire in 1244.(14) Another (or the same?) Josce of Leicester was living in Canterbury, perhaps by 1249: he had died by 1254, but his sons, Aaron and Salle, became prominent in the Jewish community there.(15) Yet another Josce of Leicester was active as a moneylender in Kent and (again, if the same individual) in Warwickshire in the 1270s.(16) There is also evidence from this period of a few Jews living in other parts of Leicestershire. There seem, for example, to have been some in Market Harborough: the town bailiffs were found to have been usurping royal authority over them in 1274; and a few years later a Jew named Cressant of Harborough (Hauerberg’) was hanged for coinage offences.(17) Cressant’s execution was part of a wider clampdown on Jews for coin-clipping and forgery in the late 1270s and early 1280s, and at about this date a ‘treasure’ of silver plates and clippings worth over £15, discovered at Melton Mowbray, was treated as the hoard of a Jewish moneyer.(18) A mention of Solomon of Bosworth (Boseworth’) in 1279 indicates a Jewish presence in either Husband’s or Market Bosworth; while another of Abraham of Oakham (Ocham) in 1275 suggests there was at least one Jew in Rutland.(19) But the days of English Jewry were now numbered: Montfort’s action at Leicester had ushered in a series of local expulsions, Jews were subjected to increasing burdens, restrictions and abuses, and in 1290 Edward I expelled the entire community from the realm.(20) A convert to Christianity named Joan of Leicester was resident in the Domus Conversorum in London by 1280, and remained there for over sixty years until her death in the early 1340s: her son, William of Leicester, who had become a king’s clerk, also died there in 1349.(21) Another William of Leicester lived in the same institution from 1401 to 1417, but in this case was probably of Spanish origin.(22)
It is evident that Leicester’s Jewish community was always a small one. Even at its peak, it probably numbered no more than a handful of families. Leicester was never among those Jewish settlements formally recognised for purposes of taxation, or provided with an archa, a chest for the secure deposit of moneylending bonds, and in this it ranked well below its counterparts in, for example, Northampton, Nottingham, Warwick and Coventry.(23) It is also likely that Montfort’s expulsion was largely effective, and that in 1231, barely a generation after it had been established, the Leicester Jewry ceased to exist.
(2) PR 5 Rich. I, PRS n.s. 3 (1927), p. 105. The debt remained on the pipe rolls until 1199, when it was transferred to the account of Benedict of Talmont, further details of which do not survive. Aaron of Lincoln’s vast wealth had been confiscated by the Crown on his death. The one county roll of his bonds to survive is that for Rutland: TNA E 101/241/1; published with commentary in H.G. Richardson, The English Jewry under Angevin Kings (London, 1960), pp. 68-70; 115-7; 247-53.
(3) William Urry, Canterbury under the Angevin Kings (London, 1967), pp. 424-5. Nicholas Barratt (ed.), Receipt Rolls for the Seventh and Eighth Years of the Reign of King Henry III, PRS n.s. 55 (2007), p. 64. Ann Causton (ed.), Medieval Jewish Documents in Westminster Abbey (London, 2007), p. 30.
(4) I. Abrahams (ed.), ‘The Northampton “Donum” of 1194’, Miscellanies of the Jewish Historical Society of England, 1 (1925), pp. lix-lxxiv (at p. lxx). T.D. Hardy (ed.), Rotuli Litterarum Clausarum, 2 vols (London, 1833-44), 1, pp. 34-5.
(5) Richardson 1960, as n. 2, pp. 13-14. V.D. Lipman, The Jews of Medieval Norwich (London, 1967), pp. 19-22. V.D. Lipman, ‘Jews and Castles in Medieval England’, TJHSE, 28 (1984), pp. 1-19 (at pp. 3-4). Cf. the more sceptical views of R.R. Mundill, England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290 (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 22-5.
(7) Joe Hillaby, ‘Testimony from the Margin: the Gloucester Jewry and its Neighbours, c.1159-1290’, JHS, 37 (2001), pp. 41-112 (at pp. 59; 67-8). For the Warwick community, see VCH Warws., 8, pp. 486-7.
(8) The charter is now Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester and Rutland BR I/1/11: published in Nichols 1795-1811, as n. 6, 1/1, Appx, p. 38 (text); and in S. Levy, ‘Notes on Leicester Jewry’, TJHSE, 5 (1908), pp. 39-41 (text, translation and photograph, but misdated to post-1253). Cf. J.R. Maddicott, Simon de Montfort (Cambridge, 1994), pp. 15-17. The charter is undated, but (as Maddicott shows) must have been enacted between August 1231 and October 1232. If the expulsion sparked the dispute between Simon and the countess of Winchester it can have been enacted no later than January 1232.
(9) N.C. Vincent, ‘Jews, Poitevins and the Bishop of Winchester, 1231-1234’, in Diana Wood (ed.), Christianity and Judaism (Oxford, 1992), pp. 119-32 (at p. 131). Monique Zerner, ‘Lépouse de Simon de Montfort et la croisade albigeoise’, in Jean Dufournet, André Joris and Pierre Toubert (eds), Femmes: Mariages-Lignages, XIIe-XIVe siècles: Mélanges offerts à Georges Duby (Brussels, 1992), pp. 449-70 (at pp. 461-2). R.W. Southern, Robert Grosseteste: The Growth of an English Mind in Medieval Europe (2nd edn, Oxford, 1992), p. 246.
(10) Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England (3rd edn, Oxford, 1964), pp. 61-4. P.R. Coss, ‘Sir Geoffrey de Langley and the Crisis of the Knightly Class in Thirteenth-Century England’, Past and Present, 68 (1975), pp. 3-37 (at pp. 30-2). Joe Hillaby, ‘London: the 13th-Century Jewry Revisited’, JHS, 32 (1990-2), pp. 89-158 (at pp. 134-7). Maddicott 1994, as n. 8, pp. 268; 315-6. Mundill 1998, as n. 5, pp. 41-3.
(11) CCR, 1231-4, pp. 18-19. For the partition of the honour, see Levi Fox, ‘The Honor and Earldom of Leicester: Origin and Descent, 1066-1399’, Engl. Hist. Rev., 54 (1939), pp. 385-402 (at pp. 391-4); VCH Leics., 2, pp. 83-4; and PR 11 John, PRS n.s. 24 (1946), pp. 24-5. For the ovens, see C.J. Billson, Mediaeval Leicester (Leicester, 1920), pp. 129-30; and VCH Leics., 4, pp. 43-4.
(13) H.R. Luard (ed.), Roberti Grosseteste, Episcopi Quondam Lincolniensis Epistolae, Rolls Series (London, 1861), pp. 33-8; translated in L.M. Friedman, Robert Grosseteste and the Jews (Cambridge, Mass., 1934), pp. 12-18. For commentary, see Southern 1992, as n. 9, pp. 244-9; and D.J. Wasserstein, ‘Grosseteste, the Jews and Medieval Christian Hebraism’, in James McEvoy (ed.), Robert Grosseteste: New Perspectives on his Thought and Scholarship (Turnhout, 1995), pp. 357-76.
(15) Causton 2007, as n. 3, p. 31. CPREJ, 4, pp. 139-47. Michael Adler, Jews of Medieval England (London, 1939), pp. 70; 75-8. Z.E. Rokeah, ‘Some Account of Condemned Jews’ Property in the Pipe and Chancellor’s Rolls’, pt 3, Bull. Inst. Jewish Stud., 3 (1975), pp. 41-66 (at pp. 45-6).
(18) Z.E. Rokeah, ‘Some Account of Condemned Jews’ Property in the Pipe and Chancellor’s Rolls’, pt 2, Bull. Inst. Jewish Stud., 2 (1974), pp. 59-82 (at p. 82). Rokeah 2000, as n. 102, pp. xvii-xviii; 274. For the background, see Z.E. Rokeah, ‘Money and the Hangman in Late-13th-Century England: Jews, Christians and Coinage Offences Alleged and Real’, JHS, 31 (1988-90), pp. 83-109; 32 (1990-2), pp. 159-218.
(20) Roth 1964, as n. 10, pp. 57-90. Vincent 1992, as n. 9. R.C. Stacey, ‘1240-60: a Watershed in Anglo-Jewish Relations’, Historical Research, 61 (1988), pp. 135-50. Mundill 1998, as n. 5, p. 265 (for other local expulsions) and passim.
(23) For general patterns of Jewish settlement, see Richardson 1960, as n. 2, pp. 1-22; V.D. Lipman, ‘The Anatomy of Medieval Anglo-Jewry’, TJHSE, 21 (1968), pp. 64-77; Mundill 1998, as n. 5, esp. pp. 17-26; 129-30; 286-90; and Joe Hillaby, ‘Jewish Colonisation in the Twelfth Century’, in Patricia Skinner (ed.), The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives (Woodbridge, 2003), pp. 15-40.
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