Longsword by David Pilling

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

The Jews and Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln

Life in thirteenth century England was dirty, disease-ridden and grim for everyone - even an Earl had little protection against toothache, and God help anyone who suffered a burst appendix - but one section of society had it worse than most. The Jews were a despised and exploited minority, barred from the majority of professions and tolerated for one reason only: their wealth. Moneylending, despite being perceived as glorified usury by Christians, was one of the very few livings a Jew was allowed to make in England.

The Kings of England were in constant need of cash, usually to waste on futile attempts to claw back the Angevin Empire, and the Jews were a useful source of income. If the King tried to tax his barons too heavily, the barons had the means to protest, but there was no-one to stand up for the Jews. Henry III (reigned 1216-1272) taxed them as unmercifully as any of his predecessors, and his reign witnessed a number of appalling attacks by Christians on Jewish communities.

A contemporary illustration of Jews being assaulted

It didn't take much to precipitate such attacks. Anti-Jewish propaganda was rife, one famous example being the case of Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln.

Hugh was the best known of the "blood libel" saints - Christian children whose mysterious deaths were attributed to the Jews - and just nine years old when he vanished in Lincoln on 31 July 1255. His body was discovered at the bottom of a well a few weeks later. A local man accused a Jew named Copin of having murdered the boy as part of an arcane rite and hidden the body. Copin was arrested and under torture confessed to the crime. Torture is always useful in that regard, and for good measure he was made to implicate the entire Jewish community of Lincoln. He was executed, but that wasn't the end of it.

Henry III

It was now that things got political. Six months before Hugh's death, Henry III had sold his rights to tax the Jews to his clever brother, the Earl of Cornwall. Realising his blunder, Henry compensated by making himself eligible to receive the money of any Jew implicated in a crime. The news of the murder of Hugh of Lincoln was a Godsend for the cash-strapped monarch, and ninety Jews were arrested in Lincoln and dragged to the Tower. Eighteen of them were convicted of taking part in a ritual murder and hanged. Henry duly confiscated their money and property. The rest were pardoned and released, probably because Cornwall could see his assets going up in smoke and intervened to spare their lives.

This, by the way, was the supposedly meek and mild Henry III, a good Christian and devoted family man, albeit a fairly inept king. Being a good Christian in those days meant you could be perfectly foul to anyone else and get away with it.

The story of Hugh's death quickly circulated around England, along with lurid details of what the 'evil' Jews had supposedly done to him that I won't repeat here. He became the youngest ever candidate for sainthood, and the 27th July was his feast day. However, his sainthood was never formally recognised by the Vatican and he was never included in the official roll of Catholic martyrs.

The atmosphere in Lincoln remained poisonous against Jews for decades after the death of Hugh, and the community was subjected to further attacks by the Disinherited under the command of Sir John Deyville, who I have talked about before on this blog. Deyville's reasons for attacking them were more practical: like many Christian knights, he was heavily in debt to Jewish moneylenders, and so he and his men deliberately destroyed the rolls and charters that were the only official evidence of those debts. They also murdered and abducted individual moneylenders and their families, hoping to make a fat profit by ransoming the wealthiest.

The attack on Lincoln features in my book, Nowhere Was There Peace, shortly to be released by Fireship Press. Unpleasant as it is to dwell on the suffering of the Jews in this period, I felt it should not be ignored or brushed aside. It also serves to shed an entirely different light on many of the historical figures of the time: Simon de Montfort, for instance, who like little Hugh also achieved a kind of sainthood after his death, was as infected with Anti-Semitism as any of his peers.


  1. I think that generally in the Middle Ages to be a good Christian meant to be anti-Semite. It must have come as something natural.
    The atrocities against the Jews occured during king Richard I's reign as well, having been triggered on the very day of his coronation. What followed was one of the most violent wave of anti-Semitism in the 12th century England. Especially in York, where the Jews attacked by the mob took refuge in the castle and then took their own lives... William Marshal's brother, John was involved. He was there to stop the riot, but instead he let the situation get out of the control. Terrible story.

    I've never heard of the Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln. Of his famous predecessor, yes, but of the boy- never. Thank you for yet one more precious nugget of information. I collect them all in my memory treasure chest :-)

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