Universität KonstanzExzellenzcluster: Kulturelle Grundlagen von Integration

The King’s Jews

The Jewish Community of England caught up in the conflicts between Henry II and his Clerical and Lay Opponents, 1218–1266

Prof. John V. Tolan


The Jews of England were „The King’s Jews“, as many English monarchs asserted, and if this was true in many parts of Europe, it was particularly the case in England, from the time arrived in the entourage of William the Conqueror shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066 until their expulsion in 1290 by Edward I. They were so closely associated with royal power and royal finance that they became the frequent (and easy) targets of those who wanted to vent their anger against royal policies. England’s Jews benefited from privilege and suffered from persecution; they were protected by the very kings who extorted exceptional taxes from them and often imprisoned them when they were unable to pay.
This seemingly paradoxical mix of privilege and persecution of English Jewry occurs at a time of economic growth and political upheaval, particularly during the long reign of Henry III (1216-72). My project is to study the link between the state of English Jewry and the economic and political upheavals of the kingdom under Henry III.

The documentation on thirteenth-century English Jewry is both abundant and limited. Abundant, because a richly-documented royal bureaucracy kept close track of Jews’ economic activity (in particular money-lending) and their litigation against Christians. Yet the Hebrew documents from England are not numerous, and few of them directly describe the experiences of English Jews. Hence historians must construct the history of English Jewry principally through the documents of royal archives and Latin chroniclers.

In this book I will study the development of royal policy towards the Jews in Henry III’s reign and the affect that that policy had both on Jews and on Christians in England. In particular, I will look at how wide-spread resentment of Royal fiscal policy was one of the key factors that led to anti-Jewish violence and that eventually would provoke Henry’s son, Edward I, to expel the Jews in 1290.

There is no work which deals with this topic. There are several books tracing the general history of the Jews of Medieval England, often devoting a chapter to Henry III’s reign, from the classic surveys by Cecil Roth or Henry Richardson to more recent work by Robin Mundill and others. Several studies of local English Jewish communities deal, in lesser or greater detail, with Henry’s reign.
A number of scholars, most notably Robin Mundill, have dealt with the reign of Henry’s son Edward I (and the expulsion of 1290), while other recent work has focused on the reign of Henry’s predecessors, in particular his uncle Richard and his father John. Much important work has been done recently on the political and legal aspects of Henry’s rule, by scholars such as David Carpenter, Paul Brand, and Robert Stacey, with some attention paid to the role of Jews in the English legal and financial system.
There are recent editions of important Latin texts (in many cases by the above-cited scholars), and other texts that I will be studying in manuscript. The Hebrew texts of England have been the object of a recent study by Hans-Georg von Mutius and of an important edition and translation, to be published soon, by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger.
I am in touch with many of these scholars (notably Robin Mundill, Judith Olszowy-Schlanger and Paul Brand) whose help and advice has already proved crucial to my project.

Yet no historian has done what I propose to do: a detailed study of the place that Jews occupied in the politics and finances of Henry III and the precarious place that they held in English societies as religious minorities, royal protégés, and financial lenders.

This book will make an important contribution to the history of thirteenth-century England and to the history of Jews in Medieval Europe. It will also represent an important case study in the complexities of minority engagement in host societies and in the webs of dependence and violence to which they can become victim.