A 13thC Jewish woman: Licoricia of Winchester

Thank you to William Carver of The Licoricia of Winchester Appeal (mail@licoricia.org) for this blogpost. The story of Licoricia of Winchester provides a window into the 13th century world and offers a story that can build coherent knowledge from the later to the earlier middle ages. Her story also illuminates the story of Jewish people in England in the period and is therefore an important addition to a more diverse curriculum.

Licoricia was a remarkable Jewish businesswoman, wife and mother who lived in Winchester in the 13th Century.  Robert Stacey of Washington University has described her as ‘the most important Jewish woman in thirteenth century England’.  A statue has been erected of her in Winchester which HRH Prince Charles visited in March 2022.  She is a gateway into the forgotten Jewish community of the time with important lessons for today.  

Why she is important as a historical topic in her own right

She is important in her own right because of who she was, what she represents and what she achieved against great difficulty and danger.

She was a Jew, part of a persecuted minority, and she personally experienced this persecution, which increased through the thirteenth century to a climax in 1290.  Her first husband Abraham was accused of child-murder (a common prejudice of the time).  She was young about the time of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), and the Council of Oxford in 1222, middle-aged when Henry III’s ‘Statute concerning the Jews’ was promulgated in 1253 and elderly at the time of Edward I’s Statute of the Jewry of 1275 (all enacted progressively severe anti-Jewish measures).  She experienced the sacking of Winchester’s Jewry by the French in 1217.    She became a leader of her community with its synagogue on her land, and like many Jews was held hostage in the Tower of London whilst money was raised to pay the increasingly heavy levies on her community.  She probably paid fines not to wear the tabulae, badges which Jews were required to wear because of church pressure.  She will have taken refuge in Winchester Castle when Simon de Montfort destroyed Winchester’s Jewry in 1265.  In 1277 she was murdered at home in Jewry Street for unknown reasons.  

Her family was also persecuted.  Her second son, Benedict, became probably the only Jew allowed to become a guildsman in Europe, and was appointed ‘Keeper of the Queen’s Gold’ (Edward I’s Queen, Eleanor of Provence, was entitled to ten per cent of all Jewish fines, tallages and confiscated property, including those of executed people).  Despite or perhaps because of this, he was murdered as part of the 1277 coin-clipping pogrom.  Her youngest son Asher, was probably forced out of England by Edward I, along with the rest of the English Jews, in 1290 – England was the first country to do this. Graffiti, probably his, but subsequently lost, was found in Winchester Castle in the seventeenth century by John Selden.

She was a woman.  It was very unusual and dangerous for a commoner woman to run such a significant business and work closely with the king.  Her danger is illustrated by the coercion used against her to extract funds – she was held hostage in the Tower of London several times to do so – and by the execution of her son Benedict.  She raised funds for Henry III and Queen Eleanor as well as local and national projects including the Edward the Confessor chapel at Westminster Abbey.  She was also a single mother after she was widowed soon after the birth of her youngest son, Asher.  This would have brought its own pressures to bear.

She was highly educated and this was key to her success.  Her education was unusual for the time, but more common amongst Jews, who have traditionally highly valued literacy – she probably spoke French, English, Latin and Hebrew, and was well-versed in law and finance – and this was key to her success.  

Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis said at the unveiling of Licoricia in February 2022 (attended by leaders of the Jewish, Anglican, Catholic, Orthodox, Quaker, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh and Bahai communities) that ‘the story of Licoricia shines a light on the nature of the medieval Jewish community.  Despite living in a society which was frequently hostile to Jews, Licoricia was totally committed to raising her family, building a successful enterprise and contributing to the prosperity of the country.  The statue sends a powerful message today about the importance of hard work, being generous, and respect for all people’.  

What she reveals about her world

England was diverse eight hundred years ago.  Jews were part of the English community from 1067 until 1290, having arrived after the Norman Conquest in 1066. They contributed to the building of iconic places of worship such as Westminster Abbey and Lincoln Cathedral, castles like the Tower of London, as well as to trade and culture.  When Licoricia’s second husband David died, she had to pay £3,800 towards the Edward the Confessor chapel in Westminster Abbey; David Carpenter has estimated annual royal income at about £25,000 in the thirteenth century).

It has been estimated that the Jews contributed between a seventh and a tenth of royal income in the thirteenth century.  The Jews formed a private income for the king and queen, whose property they were, and who protected the Jews when it was in their interest to do so.  

Only a small number of Jews however were top financiers, and there was competition from the Christian population despite the efforts of the church to discourage this activity.   The Jews were restricted in the jobs they could do – work they were allowed to undertake included doctors, teachers, scribes, poets, vintners, metalworkers and tradesmen.  Three quarters of the Jewish population eked out a living at the lower end of the urban scale; in general, Anglo-Jewry was no richer and no poorer than the Christian community.

Many prejudices against the Jews were seeded in the Middle Ages, and watered by the church. Such prejudices included deicide, the killing of children (blood libel) and the exaggerated association of Jews and money. These prejudices led to marking through badges and clothing, attempts at conversion and attacks.  The first example of blood libel came from Norwich in 1244, and it spread throughout Europe and still exists today.  Badges, an antecedent of the Nazi yellow star, were introduced by the Catholic church in its Fourth Lateran Council (1215) and were intended to make Jews and Muslims more easily distinguishable from Christians as a prevention against miscegenation.  This was adopted by the 1222 Oxford Synod, which also, inter alia, prevented Jews from entering churches, hiring Christians as servants or wetnurses, or building synagogues in places where they were not already settled.

England was the first country to expel its Jewish population.  As Rebecca Abrams writes in her new book, by 1290 the Jews were ‘decimated in number and financially ruined’, as a result of ‘ruinous royal taxation, civil war, mob violence and judicial murder’.  

Links to educational material

Hampshire’s History and Curriculum Centre have developed five lessons on Licoricia.  A three lesson enquiry enables students to discover what the extraordinary life of Licoricia of Winchester reveals about medieval society and how it treated its Jewish community. They explore how the experience of medieval Jews changed over time and why. Students can also examine how and why Licoricia’s perceived significance has changed over time. A second, two lesson enquiry, explores the medieval history of Winchester to discover what it reveals about the experience of the Jewish minority who lived there. It provides a meaningful local study and familiar context in which to learn about the attitudes, power structures, relationships and events that affected their lives. 

Edexcel has included her in their resource booklet

Some lesson material has been kindly developed by Mr Chris Zieba of Bitterne School, Southampton.  Please see https://licoricia.org/schools/

Background:  

The medieval Jews

The population of Winchester’s Jewish community in the 13th century was around 200 (larger than today), and that of the entire population about 0.25%, similar to today.  

By 1189 there were 24 major Jewries outside of London, as well as many smaller communities.   Winchester had recently been the capital of England and close links were maintained with the French possessions of the Angevin and Plantagenet kings.

For more information please see www.licoricia.org or Rebecca Abrams’ new book, Licoricia of Winchester:  Power and Prejudice in Medieval England.

The statue of Licoricia in Winchester

The unique statue of Licoricia stands near where she lived, on Jewry Street.  She is depicted with her youngest son Asher (whose name means “happy”) who is aged about five years old. 

At the base of the statue is written “Love thy neighbour as thyself ” from the Jewish Bible (Old Testament) Leviticus ch.19 – a message which is shared by Jews, Christians and Muslims. 

The statue is located at Winchester’s ARC on Jewry Street where there are rooms available for school parties.  It can be included in Winchester’s medieval Jewish trail to make a fascinating day out.

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