The Most Famous Jewish Woman in Medieval England

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February 16, 2022

7 min read

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Why Britain just dedicated a new statue to commemorate the trailblazing Licoricia of Winchester.

Britain’s newest statue was unveiled on February 10, 2022 with a group of prominent faith leaders in attendance to honor the Medieval Jewish woman being immortalized. Prince Charles had planned to attend but was forced to withdraw at the last moment when he tested positive for Covid. He sent a message saying he was “desperately disappointed” to miss the event.

In the 1200s, Licoricia of Winchester was one of the wealthiest and most prominent women in all of England during her lifetime. She rubbed shoulders with royalty and occupied a place of prestige and importance in King Henry III’s court. When she died, news of her passing reached far and wide, far beyond England’s shores.

Jews in Medieval England

Little is known of Licoricia’s early life. She was born in the early 1200s and married a man named Abraham, son of Isaac. Abraham seems to have originated in Kent, and moved to Winchester, where there was a small Jewish community. There, he and Licoricia had three sons, Isaac (whose English name was Cokerel), Baruch (Benedict) and Lumbard; and a daughter named Belia.

New statue of Licoricia of Winchester

In the 1200s, Jews lived in England under the protection of the king and were considered the private “property” of the monarch. Jews were barred from most professions, forbidden from owning land, and largely forced into moneylending. When an English Jew died, their property and assets couldn’t be inherited by their children – all wealth was claimed by the crown. Beginning in 1194, King Richard I restricted Jews’ money-lending activity, restricting their business to a few official locations. Historian Richard Huscroft identified “six or seven” locales in all of England where Jews could legally conduct business. The towns of London, Norwich, Lincoln, and Winchester were among the first places designated; several more later joined the list.

Estimations of the number of Jews living in England vary widely, but it’s likely that the Jewish community in Winchester numbered no more than 80 people at the time Licoricia lived there. Most Jews lived clustered together in a central avenue called Jewry street. They were a close-knit group who supported and helped one another. Women as well as men worked in business, and some women formed business partnerships.

Life was incredibly hard for England’s Jews at the time. The first instance of a blood libel - where Jews were accused of killing a Christian child in order to use his blood in Jewish rituals - occurred in 1144 in the English town of Norwich. A second blood libel took place in 1255 - during Licoricia’s lifetime - when the body of a young child was found in a well in the town of Lincoln. The boy’s friends accused local Jews of kidnapping, torturing and murdering the child. Lincoln’s sheriff arrested over 90 Jews; 18 were executed. Both of the children at the centers of these blood libels were made into saints (St. William of Norwich and St. Hugh of Lincoln), stoking Christian hatred of local Jews still further.

In 1239, King Henry III ordered all of England’s Jews to turn over a third of their belongings and assets to the crown; Jews who couldn’t pay were imprisoned in the Tower of London while their property was seized. In 1253, all Jews in England were forced to wear a piece of cloth or parchment in the shape of two stone tablets on their clothes that represented the stone tablets that Moses brought down from Mount Sinai. Wealthy Jews could pay to avoid wearing this mark. (Historians speculate that Licoricia was among those Jews who avoided wearing the degrading garment.)

In 1265, during the unsuccessful rebellion of Simon de Montfrot against the king, fighting came to Winchester as King Henry III’s soldiers routed the rebellion. In the violence, many Christians in Winchester turned on their Jewish neighbors, attacking Winchester’s Jews and seizing their property. Licoricia, as well as some others of the town’s terrified Jews, managed to find refugee inside Winchester Castle. Those who couldn’t make it into the fortress in time were murdered. The survivors left the fortress after the siege and picked up the pieces of their lives, resuming business and communal life, but were left profoundly traumatized.

Building a Business Empire

It was against this turbulent and terrifying backdrop that Licoricia built her money-lending business, eventually becoming one of the wealthiest women in all of England.

The first historical documents that mention her date from early 1234, after the death of her husband Abraham. Licoricia remained in Winchester with her children after his death and continued in the family business of money-lending, going into business with another Jewish woman living in Winchester named Belia.

At some point Licoricia became acquainted with David of Oxford, another Jewish money-lender. He was one of the wealthiest Jews living in England. A communal leader, King Henry III used David to help him enforce his onerous taxes and regulations on England’s Jews. In the early 1240s. David was married to a woman named Muriel, who helped him in his business. But when he met Licoricia, David decided to divorce Muriel and seek Licoricia’s hand in marriage.

Muriel refused to accept the divorce. Two hundred years before, Rabbi Gershom of Mainz had ruled that a Jewish divorce could only be valid when both parties agreed. Muriel insisted that a Beit Din, a rabbinical court, hear her side and adjudicate in her marriage. As was the custom among English Jews at the time, Muriel and her family convened a Beit Din in France, where there was a larger and more scholarly Jewish community. The Beit Din ruled in Muriel’s favor, and a second Beit Din in Oxford threw out the divorce.

However, David was determined to obtain his divorce, and turned to King Henry III for help. King Henry III eagerly seized this chance to revoke the Jews’ autonomy in their civil and religious matters, and ordered his religious leaders to uphold the divorce, which they did. David set up a new house and allowance for Muriel, as Jewish law mandated he do after the divorce, and Licoricia and David soon married.

The Tower of London

Licoricia had another child with David, a son named Asher (known in English variously as Asser, Sweteman or Sweetman), but her marriage to David was short lived: David died in 1244, after only two years with Licoricia. Upon his death, all of his business records were taken to London to the Scaccarium Judaeorum, the special court in which Jewish business dealings were scrutinized and regulated. Licoricia was immediately looked at with suspicion. While the business was being assessed, in order to prevent Licoricia from interfering in any way, authorities arrested and imprisoned her in the Tower of London.

The Tower was a fearsome prison for English Jews. It is where 18 Jews accused of ritual murder were executed. Yet the Tower had also served as a refuge to local Jews during violent anti-Jewish pogroms. A number of Jews were murdered during King Richard I’s coronation in 1189, so before his coronation in 1216, King Henry III took steps to protect local Jews, allowing them to take shelter in the Tower of London.

There are records of Jewish prisoners in the Tower of London paying their jailors to obtain kosher food, and of Jewish prisoners paying bribes to be allowed to observe Yom Kippur in the prison. It’s possible that Licoricia engaged in similar bribery during her imprisonment there, while David’s business affairs were settled.

Starting Over as a Single Woman

When David’s business records were finally released, the authorities offered Licoricia the chance to buy back David’s outstanding loans at the exorbitant price of 5,000 marks. She somehow raised the money and went into business for herself. (In a particularly insulting gesture, most of her fee went to a special fund to build a new shrine to Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.)

Licoricia took her children and returned to Winchester. There, she built up an even larger money-lending business. She lent funds directly to King Henry III, and visited his court whenever he visited Winchester. She also lent money to members of his royal court, to Queen Eleanor, and to local business people and farmers as well. She likely was outgoing and gregarious, with a winsome personality that drew people of all social classes to her and engendered trust. Legal records at the time record Licoricia’s business dealings across a wide swath of southern England over the next 30 years, usually in partnership with her sons. She lent to rich and poor alike, and also extended credit to her fellow Jews, helping support businesses. In time Licoricia became an intermediary between the Jewish community and the crown.

In 1258, Licoricia’s close business relations with King Henry III led to her being imprisoned in the Tower of London for a second time. Belia, the woman who’d worked with Licoricia as a business partner years before, wished to give a gold ring to King Henry III, perhaps as a bribe or to curry favor with the monarch. She entrusted it with her good friend Licoricia to deliver, but disaster struck. The ring disappeared and one of Licoricia’s neighbors, a woman named Ivetta, accused Licoricia of taking it. Once more, the authorities threw Licoricia into the Tower of London while the matter was investigated. Ivetta was eventually found to be the thief and, and King Henry III ordered Licoricia to be released. (The ring was never found.)

Licoricia’s Murder and the Decline of English Medieval Jewry

One day in 1277, Licoricia’s daughter Belia went to visit her mother and was confronted by a horrific sight: Licoricia and her Christian maid, a woman known as Alice of Bicton, lay dead in the house, both stabbed to death. A large amount of money was gone, presumably stolen by the murderers. Local authorities identified three men as possible culprits and brought them to trial, but a jury acquitted all three. (Conveniently, they named a man who’d left the city and who couldn’t be traced as the prime suspect.) Licoricia’s sons Cokerel and Sweteman later tried to bring civil case against the three men who likely murdered their mother, but with the legal system stacked against Jews, they were unsuccessful.

The 13 years following Licoricia’s death were crushing for England’s Jewish community.

When King Henry III died in 1272, King Edward I ascended the throne and faced increasing pressure from indebted aristocrats to end Jewish money-lending. In 1287, he ordered England’s Jews to pay an enormous tax of 20,000 marks to the crown. In Winchester, the entire Jewish community was imprisoned in Winchester Castle until the onerous tax was raised. Licoricia’s youngest son Asher was amongst them. While imprisoned, he carved a message in Hebrew into his prison cell’s wall: “On Friday Eve of the Sabbath in which the parsha Emor is read, all Jews of the land of the isle were imprisoned. I, Asher, inscribed this….”

The unveiling of the statue at in Winchester

Licoricia’s son Benedict became the only Jewish guildsman in all of Medieval England. He amassed great wealth and was the only English Jew accorded the same rights as an English subject given to Christians. But even this couldn’t save Licoricia’s family from the terrible fate of all English Jews. Another son was executed for the crime of coin-clipping, an accusation that was frequently leveled at English Jews, often baselessly. (Coin clipping was shaving off small amounts of coins and melting down the resulting stolen metal scraps.)

In 1290, all of England’s approximately 3,000 Jews were expelled from the country and banned from ever returning. (Jews were only allowed to live in England once more in 1656.) Licoricia’s descendants, like most of the English Jews, likely moved to France.

Licoricia’s Statue

Licoricia’s new statue depicts her standing erect and looking bold, holding the hand of one of her young sons. The base is inscribed in Hebrew and English with the words from Torah: “Love thy neighbor as thyself” (Leviticus 19:18). It’s a beautiful statue and fitting tribute to a woman who helped support her Jewish community, and who deserves to be remembered today.

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