Magna Carta Octocentennial: The Jewish Connection.

magna_carta_fullOn June 15, 2015 England (and many other English-speaking countries) will celebrate the eighth centennial of one of the most important historical documents of the Western World namely “Magna Carta Libertatum” or in English, “Great Charter of Liberties” {of England}. This is usually shortened to just ‘Magna Carta’ and it is specifically England, rather than Great Britain or the United Kingdom, as these two latter entities did not exist in 1215 only coming into being in 1707 and 1801 respectively. Plans are well advanced for lavish celebrations financed by funding from the National Lottery and will also include many media programs, books and events for this landmark occasion. Postage stamps and a coin (which however erroneously shows King John signing with a quill pen instead of impressing his signet ring into wax) have been issued. So what exactly is being celebrated?

On that date (according to the Old Style Calendar) in 1215 on a water meadow named Runnymede alongside the River Thames near Windsor and under the auspices of the Archbishop of Canterbury, England’s senior cleric, King John reluctantly met up with his powerful but recalcitrant feudal barons. They were rather less than pleased with their king who had led them to defeat against the French at the battle of Bouvines which had resulted in the loss of many of the barons’ French possessions.

In addition John’s autocratic and arbitrary rule was beginning to verge on tyranny. The barons presented the king with a number of demands which was ground-breaking at a time when the natural order of things was that monarchs ruled by Divine Right, a doctrine which enjoyed the backing of the Church. This was at a time when the Church forbade vernacular translations of the Bible. Why? Because it knew that knowledge is power and this was far too dangerous to be put in the hands of the common people. They may have read for instance, of God telling Samuel that the people were rejecting Him in seeking to appoint a human king. Far too seditious to the ruling establishment by half! The correct order of things was the sovereign making known his requirements from his subjects and not the other way about. The barons however saw their action as nothing less than the forging of a new relationship between the king and his people or at least its upper stratum.

The document itself contained some 3,500 words in Latin and was written on calfskin. It was not, at the time of its writing, divided into separate clauses (the clause numbering system, giving a total of 63 clauses, in use today was only devised in 1759.) The charter required John to proclaim certain liberties and to renounce the use of arbitrary power. For instance it demanded that no free-born man as opposed to a serf, that is a person in bondage to an overlord, could be convicted of an offence except by a jury of his peers. The precepts of the charter were to be administered by 25 neutral barons.

Much of this is well-known but what is perhaps less so is that among the clauses are two which specifically refer to Jews and these are what became clauses 10 and 11. Clause 10 states (in modern English) ‘If anyone who has borrowed money from the Jews any sum, great or small, die before the loan be repaid, the debt shall not bear interest so long as the heir is under-aged , whosoever tenant he be and if that debt fall into our hand (i.e. the king) we will not take anything except the principal sum contained in the agreement.”

Clause 11 says “and if anyone die owing a debt to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt; if the dead man leave children under age, they shall be provided with necessaries in keeping with the holding of the deceased and the debt shall be paid out of the revenue, reserving however service due to overlords; and debts owing to others than Jews shall be dealt with in the same manner.”

This was by no means the first legal document in medieval England to mention Jews as there is a wealth of such documentation in the Public Record Office at Kew in London. These include Plea Rolls (so-called because they were in scroll form) concerning debt defaults and trespass, Patent Rolls for licences and Close Rolls reflecting orders to Jewish Exchequer officials or the king’s sheriffs (shire-reeves or officials responsible for enforcing the law in each county). Pipe Rolls and Receipt Rolls are full of details of payments by Jewish communities and individuals. Most important though was the system known as Archa (meaning a chest) whereby each town with a sizeable Jewish population was required to keep a proper record of financial transactions involving Jews.

There is some circumstantial evidence that there were Jews serving in the Roman Army in the province of Britannia but it was not until 1070 that we have any written records of organised Jewish life in England. Jews had originally been invited over from Rouen, part of his French possessions, by King William I known as the Conqueror, four years after the Norman Conquest of 1066. William’s purpose for their admittance was to provide finance for the king’s projects and to boost trade in his new possessions. William knew that these Jews had wide European connections as they had been living there for 1,000 years and crucially, access to capital.

Christians were forbidden by Canon Law to lend money at interest, a practice known as ‘usury’. As non-Christians, Jews were not subject to Canon Law and only forbidden by Jewish Law from exacting interest from other Jews. They thus served a useful purpose in providing finance for an expanding economy. Money-lending was one of the few professions open to Jews who were forbidden to own land and debarred from the trade guilds, entry to which required the taking of a Christian oath.

They were however liable to heavy taxation and monetary confiscations on flimsy excuses whenever the king needed money, a fairly frequent occurence. Because debtors are traditionally supplicant when requesting a loan but contemptuous of the creditor at payback time, popular hatred against Jews grew. When the lender is excoriated by the Church as a ‘Christ-killer’ and userer, then that contempt is greatly magnified.

Because they were such a revenue-producing asset, Henry I who reigned 1100-1135 and was the fourth son of William the Conqueror, deemed it expedient to put ‘his’ Jews (they were officially Crown property) onto a proper legal footing. He issued a Royal Charter of the Jews and its seven clauses became the template for for all subsequent versions of this document.

Although King John set his seal to Magna Carta, it did not last long and was soon annulled by Pope Innocent III who was incidentally the pope who convened the Fourth Lateran Council. It was this gathering that first mandated identifying badges for Jews, a fateful precursor of things to come. It also forbade Jews, as supposed ‘blasphemers of Christ’, to attain public office as this would give them power over Christians. When John died a year later, his son Henry III was still a minor and so the government appointed one William Marshall as his regent. The government re-issued a watered-down version of the document in a bid to get the barons onside. This later version omitted any mention of Jews as these references were considered prejudicial to the Exchequer nor did they appear in any of the further re-issues. The amended document formed part of the 1217 Treaty of Lambeth following the First Barons’ War.

Each monarch re-issued the charter although as the English Parliament grew in power its practical importance diminished. Its principles were raised at crucial points in English history such as the English Civil Wars of 1642-49 and the Glorious Revolution of 1688. It also greatly influenced the American colonists and subsequently the United States Constitution which is why the memorial at Runnymede was erected in 1957 by the American Bar Association.

Of the original thirteen or so copies of the 1215 document, four survive. Two are in the British Library and one each is in Lincoln and Salisbury Cathedrals. Of these four, only one (in the British Library) has the Great Seal of England still attached although it is fire-damaged. The size and text of all four differ slightly from one another. There are however various copies of later versions in existence including a 1297 copy in the National Archives of the United States of America in Washington DC. Only three clauses of Magna Carta remain on the statute book of the United Kingdom today. These refer to the ancient liberties of the Church of England, those of the City of London and the right to due process of law for all citizens charged with a crime.

As for the Jews of medieval England, after their 220 year sojourn in the kingdom they were expelled in 1290 by King Edward I. After having been taxed to excess and suffering just too many confiscations, England’s Jewish community was now increasingly impoverished. The Statute of Jewry had been passed in 1275 and forbade Jews to lend money at interest and this reduced the community to small-time peddling. Some moneylending however did continue clandestinely or under the guise of trade deals but this was very dangerous and could attract the death penalty. The big-time lending was now being done by the Knights Templar whose wealth and power was in the ascendency.

England’s Jews had simply outlived their usefulness and the king knew his decision would be popular with both people and Church. Edward’s decree was one of of Royal Prerogative and not an Act of Parliament. The Edict of Expulsion was proclaimed on July 18th of that year which just happened to be Tisha B’Av. This gave the estimated 2,500-5,000 community until the Christian holy day of All Saints (November 1st) to quit the realm. They had endured persecution, massacres in both London and York and the first blood libel and ritual murder accusations, soon to be taken up enthusiastically elsewhere.

As an interesting aside, the Thirteenth Century ‘Jews Court’ in Lincoln saw the re-commencement of synagogue services in 1992 by the Lincolnshire Jewish Community, a Liberal congregation, more than seven centuries since Jewish worship last took place there. This is situated on the aptly named Steep Hill and right next door to the ‘Jews House’ which is reputedly the oldest inhabited house in England and is now a restaurant of the same name.The Jews House & Jews Court, Lincoln.

Officially there were no Jews at all in the realm after November 1st except those in the ‘House of Converts’ which the Church ran to encourage apostasy. It is known though that secret Jews were living in England during this period. One, Sir Edward Brampton alias Duarte Brandao ostensibly a ‘New Christian’, was made governor of Guernsey under Richard III. Another Dr. Rodrigo Lopez was physician to Elizabeth I but hanged for allegedly plotting to poison her.

Contrary to popular belief, there was never a formal ‘re-admittance’ of Jews into England. Such a plea to the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, during the English Commonwealth following the Civil Wars was submitted by Rabbi Menassah ben Israel of Amsterdam and was debated in the Council of State but no firm conclusion was reached. Intriguingly, the record of deliberations on that request has been torn from the Council’s minutes book by person or persons unknown. Jews already living there simply ‘came-out’. No Act of Parliament was required as the 1290 expulsion was not by Parliament but by royal decree and only affected those Jews living in England at that time. No move to expel them was initiated and British Jews mark 1656 as the date of the community’s re-establishment although no official document supports it.

Magna Carta has profoundly influenced Western thought and culture and will be rightly commemorated this summer in the English-speaking world. Hebrew Scripture, through its adoption by the Christian Church, is inextricably woven into this thought and culture. This, together with the important role played by the numerically small but highly significant Jewish population of medieval England, provide an indelible connection with the long history of the Jewish People.

About the Author
Brian Fink is a retired bookseller and publisher's agent, and does voluntary work and tutor English to students to help in their matriculation exams.
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