Michaelmas or Rosh Hashanah? The Jewish Community in Angevin England: 1154 to 1216

Thursday 29th September  2011 marks a rare combination of two major religious festivals: it is both the Christian Feast-Day of Saint Michael and all Angels; and also the Jewish Festival of Rosh Hashanah (Jewish New Year). The Benedictus liturgy for Michaelmas Day goes as follows:-

“There was silence in heaven while the dragon waged war;

And Michael and his angels fought against him, and won the victory.”

Some medieval chroniclers, notably William of Newburgh, would doubtless identify ‘the dragon’ as the Jews of Angevin England, in his eyes constantly undermining the Church’s authority and influence among the people. In his generally favourable character assessment of King Henry II, William of Newburgh criticised Henry because he “gave undue encouragement”…. to …”that perfidious nation and enemy of Christians, the Jews.” [English Historical Documents, Volume II, page 402].

It would be a mistake to regard William of Newburgh’s anti-semitic views as being typical of the Angevin kings’ attitudes and policies towards their Jewish subjects in England. In fact, on the whole, the Angevin kings followed policies of enlightened self-interest towards the Jews of England, which in turn helped the Jewish Community of Angevin England to thrive and prosper between 1154 and 1216. Their successors were to be very different.

The Expansion of the Jewish Community in Angevin England (1154-1216).

  • As is well known, Jewish immigration into England began after the Norman Conquest, essentially as an off-shoot of the Rouen Community in Normandy: but it was a slow process, and by the 1140s, there still appeared to be no Jewish settlement in England outside of London. There then occurred a remarkable expansion of the Jewish Community in Angevin England, such that by about 1200, at the start of John’s reign, the Jewish population in Angevin England had increased to 5,000. Not only did the Jewish population increase appreciably, but it spread throughout England. Nonetheless, even at its height in 1200, the Jewish population constituted a mere 0.125% of the total population of Angevin England, then possibly as high as 4 million. This is far less than the percentages of main ethnic minorities in 21st century United Kingdom. The 2001 Census gives the following data for the main ethnic minorities in the UK:-

Indian background, 1,053,411 (1.8%);

Pakistani background, 747,285 (1.3%);

Afro/Caribbean background, 565,876 (1%).

  • In 1159, Henry II levied a tax (donum) on the English Jewish Community, which revealed that Jewish settlements in London still remained the main centre of the Jewish population in England; but that Jewish settlements had also spread to Eastern England (Cambridge, Thetford, Norwich and Lincoln). This geographical expansion of Jewish settlements continued apace In Angevin England during the next thirty-five years. In 1194, as one of his financial expedients to pay King Richard I’s enormous ransom, Chief Justicar Archbishop Hubert Walter levied a tax on the English Jewish Community, ‘The Capitula Iudeorum’. The receipt roll of Jewish contributions to this tax indicates the spread of the Jewish settlement in Angevin England between 1159 and 1194. Jewish settlements had spread northwards to York, southwards to Canterbury and Winchester, and westwards to Hereford and Exeter by the middle of Richard I’s reign; significantly linked to cathedral cities.
  • This expansion of English Jewry led to several notable English Jews emerging in Angevin England. Jurnet of Norwich and Aaron of Lincoln emerged as notable players on the English Political Stage in the second half of the 12th century: based on their extensive loans both to Henry II and his Tenants-in-Chief (lay and spiritual). At his death in 1186, Aaron of Lincoln was owed the fabulous sum of £15,000, by 430 persons. This colossal sum probably represented 7% of the entire total of currency in circulation at that time in Angevin England. It is no wonder that at his death, the Angevin monarchs had to set up a special division of the Exchequer just to manage it, naturally called ‘Aaron’s Exchequer.’ Bankers such as Aaron of Lincoln literally oiled the wheels of the Angevin economy: they were indispensible to it.

Why did the Jewish Community expand and prosper under the Angevin Kings?

  • The expansion of Jewish populations in Angevin England reflected the great economic expansion that occurred in England in the second half of the 12th century. This half-century, 1150-1200, saw investment in towns, roads and bridge-building. Two modern historians, John Hatcher & Mark Bailey, have estimated that at the start of King Henry I’s reign, the amount of currency in circulation in England was no more than between £25,000 and £35,000. Such was the extent of the 12th century economic boom, that a hundred years later, at the beginning of King John’s reign, this total had soared to £250,000. (Hatcher & Bailey: ’Modelling the Middle Ages’ [Oxford 2001], page 138). By default, Jews had to engage in money-lending, so such an expansion in the money supply would obviously have benefitted them.
  • It also seems to be the case that the Jewish Community also benefitted from the policies of the Angevin Kings. In 1177, King Henry II greatly helped the English Jews by granting permission for Jews to have a cemetery outside the walls of every city in England. Not only did this reform indicate a positive attitude towards the Jews; but was also of great practical help to English Jewry, as previously they had had to bury their dead only outside Cripplegate in London. From 1170 onwards, Jews gained increasing access to the royal courts. This culminated in an important judicial eyre at the end of Henry II’s reign, in 1188. The Pipe Rolls indicate that Jews were involved in litigation before the justices in eyre in at least seven counties, including Devon, Kent, and even Northumberland.
  • King Richard I continued his father’s positive approach to his Jewish subjects of England (and Normandy). In March 1190, shortly after his accession, he granted a Charter to the Jews. This charter granted certain rights to the Jews of England and Normandy. For example, Clause Six of this Charter specifically allowed Jews to “go whithersoever they will with all their chattels just like our own goods and let no one keep them or prevent them.” Even so, as the first clause stated, Richard’s Charter of 1190 was essentially only reaffirming rights of the Jews previously endorsed by Henry II: “Just as the Lord King Henry, our father, granted and by his Charter confirmed to the Jews of England and Normandy, namely to reside in our land freely and honourably.”
  • The phrase: ’freely and honourably’ has a fine ring to it. Of course, both Henry II and his son Richard I were mainly acting out of self-interest in granting such concessions to their Jewish subjects. For example, Henry II had increasingly used Jewish moneylenders to finance his government after abandoning the geld tax in 1161/62. But then, all governments partly act out of self-interest. ‘Enlightened self-interest’ best sums up the policies of the Angevin kings to their Jewish subjects: and there is nothing wrong with that.

Anti-Semitism in Angevin England :1154 to 1216.

  • Despite the generally progressive policies of the Angevin monarchs towards their Jewish subjects, anti-semitism certainly existed in England between 1154 and 1216. Up to a point, the existence of anti-semitism in Angevin England can be easily explained. As Professor Bartlett has stated: “It is perhaps not surprising that a small, exclusive and culturally distinctive group, deeply involved in money lending, would stir up hostility on the part of the majority community.” (‘England under the Norman and Angevin Kings,’ [Oxford 2000], page 354.) Xenophobia was not exclusively directed against Jews in Medieval England, as Italians were later to face persecution in England in the Wars of the Roses. Indeed, William of Newburgh’s anti-semitic diatribe probably mainly reflected his general ‘anti-foreigner’ prejudices. According to him, the Irish were: “uncivilised and barbarous in their habits” (EHD, Vol. II, page 367). The French were: “by nature both fierce and arrogant.”(EHD, Vol. II, page 373.). As for the Scots, William of Newburgh was unrestrained in his criticism. They were “savage and cruel” (EHD, Vol. II, page 371); they were “barbarians….to whom no food was too filthy to eat, even that fit only for dogs.” (EHD, Vol. II, page 377). Regarded in this context, perhaps William of Newburgh’s anti-Jewish bigotry can be better understood.
  • Even so, there were undoubtedly outbreaks of anti-semitism in Angevin England. Such outbreaks often took the form of lurid stories of Christians being kidnapped by the Jews for ritual sacrifice. Such dreadful outbursts occurred at Gloucester in 1168, at Bury St. Edmunds in 1181, and at Bristol in 1183. Such lurid fabrications fanned the flames of anti-semitism in Angevin England, and were a disgrace to any civilised country. Even so, such slanderous episodes must be seen against the background of a generally positive period for Angevin Jewry. In any case, the Angevin monarchs took great care to douse the flames of latent anti-semitism in England: it was, after all, in their interests to do so.
  • The real anti-semitic explosion in Angevin England occurred in the first few years of Richard I’s reign. In the early part of 1190, a firestorm of anti-Jewish pogroms swept through Eastern England: King’s Lynn, Norwich, Stamford and Lincoln – reaching its climax in York in March 1190.

The York Pogrom, 15th/16th March, 1190

  • Excavations of the medieval Jewish burial ground in York, undertaken in the 1980s, have revealed a fairly large Jewish population in York in the later 12th century of between 150 and 250 persons. This thriving community was led by two great financiers, Benedict and Josce, in addition to a well-known scholar, Rabbi Yomtob of Joigny. The York mob, made up of workmen, youths, knights and even clerics, went on the rampage and destroyed Jewish houses in the city on 15th March. The anti-Jewish mob had been whipped up into a mood of religious fervour because of the local preparations for the Third Crusade. This was bad enough; but worse was then to follow.
  • When the Jews of Lincoln and Stamford had been attacked, they had sought refuge in the local castles. The beleaguered Jews of York did the same, and sought refuge in the royal castle of York (Clifford’s Tower). The warden (castellan) of the castle was then absent. On his return, the beleaguered Jews, distrusting the warden’s integrity, refused to admit him to the castle. The warden therefore appealed to the Sheriff of Yorkshire, who called out the local militia of knights to attack the castle. It may well be at this stage that the sheriff was trying to restore law and order, but the mob joined the militia; and the sheriff was unable to discipline the mob, which now even brought up siege machines to storm the castle. Having neither sufficient food nor weapons, some of the Jews inside the castle now accepted self-martyrdom. They preferred to die at the hands of their friends and family, rather than trust to the good intentions of the mob. The rest accepted the besiegers’ offer of Christian baptism, and surrendered, whereupon, they too died; but this time at the hands of the mob. The York massacre was one of the worst atrocities in medieval England.


Why was there this firestorm of anti-semitism in Angevin England in 1190?


  • The Jewish persecutions of 1190 in Angevin England were wholly exceptional in their violence. Like the mob riots that similarly affected English cities in August 2011, they were inexcusable. However, in contrast to the riots of 2011 in England, the riots of 1190 were explicable.
  • The 1190 anti-semitic riots in Angevin England were at least partly the product of religious bigotry inflamed by the Third Crusade. This explosive situation was further fuelled by the government instability of the period September 1189 to June 1190.
  • After his consecration in September 1189, Richard I moved swiftly to join the Third Crusade (leaving England on 11th December 1189). Desperate to finance his participation in the Third Crusade, Richard appointed the wholly unsuitable Hugh de Puiset (Bishop of Durham) as co-justicar. Hugh de Puiset had bribed Richard to obtain the coveted post of co-justicar; but at least Richard also appointed William de Mandeville as the other co-justicar, who would presumably act as check on de Puiset. However, in November 1189, William de Mandedville died, leaving Hugh de Puiset as sole justicar. The result was predictable. Hugh de Puiset now clashed with the Chancellor, William Longchamps, leading to a decline in government efficiency; making it easy for latent anti-semitism to assert itself throughout the country. The final government blunder occurred in the spring of 1191, when both Hugh de Puiset and William Longchamps were in Normandy
  • Local anti-semitic bigots then exploited this instable political situation by fomenting anti-Jewish riots for their own ends (again, similar to the mob riots in England in August 2011). Chief among these bigots was a particularly odious creature, Richard Malebisse of York. His nefarious role in the York Pogrom of March 1190 was certainly influenced by the fact that he had had to borrow heavily from Aaron of Lincoln in 1182.

What was the response of Richard I’s Government to these pogroms?

If Richard’s misgovernment had been partly to blame for the wave of anti-Jewish riots, it took immediate restorative action to remedy the situation:-

  • In May 1190, Chancellor Longchamps arrived in York to try and restore order; which he did with varying levels of success. He imposed swingeing fines on the murderers, and even confiscated lands. Richard of Malebisse had his lands confiscated, but they were later restored to him (though he was then kept on a fairly tight leash by Richard’s government). The York Jewish Community revived.
  • In June 1190, Hugh de Puiset was dismissed as justicar, and William de Longchamps combined this role with his existing position of Chancellor. This expedient was not satisfactory, and real improvement did not occur till the appointment of Archbishop Hubert Walter as justicar in December 1193, a position he held till 1198. In 1194. The whole process of Jewish money lending in the provinces was reformed, to prevent the kind of destruction of records that had taken place in 1190. From now on, the contracting of loans and their repayment was to be confined to seven English towns, and their repayment was to be supervised by designated officials: two Christian, two Jewish, and a clerk of the central justices.

Decline of the English Jewish Community under King Henry III (1216 to 1272


  • In 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council, convened by Pope Innocent III, ran to 71 canons. Two of these canons promulgated severely discriminatory measures against European Jews. Canon 67, referring to the “dishonesty of the Jews”, greatly restricted their money lending activities. Canon 68 was probably even harsher. It required Jews to wear distinctive dress in public, thereby establishing a virtual system of apartheid against the Jews.
  • In 1216, with the death of King John, the Angevin Empire had run its course. John’s successor, his son, King Henry III, began to implement anti-Jewish measures in England, building on the initiative of the Fourth Lateran Council.
  • In 1239, his government restricted the taking of interest for only six months, thereby severely curtailing Jewish financial activities (and therefore their livelihood). In the same year, Henry III effectively nullified Richard I’s 1190 Charter of the Jews by confining Jews in their existing place of residence for a year.
  • 1255 was a turning point in the government sanctioned anti-semitism in England. King Henry III personally ordered the execution of 19 Jews in Lincoln on the spurious charge of kidnap and crucifixion of a little Christian boy,
  • By the mid 13th century, government backed discrimination had clearly spiralled into persecution. Faced with this government sponsored anti-semitism, the English Jewish Community greatly declined. By the mid 13th century, the Jewish population in England had declined to between 3,000 and 5,000. By the beginning of King Edward I’s reign (Henry III’s heir), the Jewish population had declined still further to roughly 2,000. The stage had been set for the final expulsion of the English Jewish Community, which occurred in 1290 -a major loss to the English nation.


Seen in retrospect, Angevin England represented a period of progress and expansion for European Jews. If not exactly a ‘Golden Age’ for European Jewry; the Jews still thrived and prospered in England between 1154 and 1216. The Angevin Kings deserve credit for the parts they played in making this cultural blossoming possible. Self-interest may well have been the prime stimulus motivating Henry II, Richard I (and John). Even so, one likes to think that part of the motivation for their generally progressive policies towards their Jewish subjects was a genuine desire to advance the status of Jews throughout the Angevin Empire. The Angevin kings demonstrated that the religious cultures represented by the Festivals of both St. Michael and Rosh Hashanah could  profitably co-exist. In this way, as in others, the Angevin Empire was certainly a ‘Golden Age’ for England.

(If readers wish to learn more about the Jewish Community in Angevin England, I would always recommend the path-breaking work written over fifty years ago by H.G. Richardson: ’The English Jewry under Angevin Kings’, published by Methuen in 1960 – though unfortunately it can be hard to obtain, being out of print.)


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Filed under Angevins, Anglican Saints, British Kings and Queens, Church of England, English Jewry, Henry II, History, Jewish festivals, Jewish History, King John, Medieval History, Richard I, Yorkshire

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