Archive for February, 2022

Oxford’s Black Assizes – The Curse of Roland Jenks

February 15, 2022

There are many stories surrounding Oxford Castle and Prison which have come down to us over the centuries – some raise uncomfortable issues of prejudice and miscarriages of justice, of censorship and harsh penalties for sinning against those in power and some which have been laced with superstition and paranormal activity.

C16th Bookbinder’s workshop

Roland Jenks was a bookbinder, living in Oxford during the reign of Elizabeth I – he was also a Catholic. Catholics were increasingly looked on with suspicion during Elizabeth’s reign due to the religious tensions unleashed by the Reformation which saw the persecution of both Protestants and Catholics by successive monarchs as political and religious factions gained favour and due to numerous plots to overthrown Elizabeth and replace her with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots. After Elizabeth was excommunicated by the Pope Pius V in 1570 when he issued the papal bull ‘Regnans in Excelsis’, fears of religiously fuelled rebellion against the state and the breakdown of order lead to harsher sentences and penalties for ‘recusants’ – Catholics who refused to comply with religious laws and those who spoke out against the state in any form. In the bull Pius called on English Catholics to repudiate the queen’s authority and disobey her laws:

“We charge and command all and singular the nobles, subjects, peoples and others afore said that they do not dare obey her orders, mandates and laws. Those who shall act to the contrary we include in the like sentence of excommunication.”

The effect of the bull was to increase latent tensions within society between Catholics and Protestants and to spur on disaffected Catholics to rebel against Elizabeth’s rule and assist in plots to overthrow her or even assassinate her. This inevitably lead to a climate of suspicion and fear in the country. Under the ever-watchful eye of Francis Walsingham, Elizabeth’s spy-master, the authorities were under orders to root out papists and bring them to justice in an effort to stamp out dissent. The country was nervous and booksellers were often in the forefront of the debate and in danger of being implicated in the dissemination of dangerous texts and seditious thoughts.

Regnans in Excelsis Papal Bull issued by Pope Pius Vth in 1570

In the years immediately preceding the arrest of Roland Jenks Elizabeth’s government had seen off the threat of the Revolt of the Northern Earls in 1569 when the Catholic Earls of Northumberland and Westmoreland attempted to rescue Mary, Queen of Scots from her imprisonment and put her on the throne in place of Elizabeth. They gathered an army of 6,000 soldiers in their attempt to return England to Catholicism but were quickly beaten by Elizabeth’s forces and 800 rebels were executed. Only a few years later the Ridolfi Plot of 1571 was uncovered. Roberto Ridolfi, an Italian banker, planned to assassinate Elizabeth and make Mary Queen. He had the support of King Philip II of Spain, the Duke of Norfolk, and Mary, Queen of Scots herself. The plot was uncovered by Elizabeth’s advisor, Cecil. Ridolfi and the Spanish ambassador were arrested and expelled from the country and Norfolk was executed as a result.

The English court went into mourning on hearing of the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris in 1572 when French Calvanist protestant Huguenots were murdered by a combination of state-orchestrated assassinations and mob violence which also spilled out into the provinces. Many Huguenots fled to England seeking refuge and religious toleration. We can only speculate on what Roland Jenks thought of all of this and whether he was torn in loyalty between his allegiance to the Pope and his duty to his monarch. Many Catholics were genuinely riven with conflicted thoughts and emotions and struggled to navigate a course that would allow them to be both good Catholics and good subjects. News of massacres abroad and the accompanying mis-information and propaganda on both sides of the religious divide fuelled distrust within communities and fear of similar atrocities being played out in towns like Oxford which had a high proportion of literate scholars and academics with access to potentially dangerous material.

Roland was perhaps unfortunate in getting caught speaking against the queen after he’d had a few drinks in the local tavern and found himself under arrest at Oxford Castle where he awaited trial until the next assizes were in session. Gaol fever, plague and diseases like Typhus were common in the unsanitary conditions, especially during the summer months where the overcrowded cells helped provide the perfect breeding ground for disease.

Poor Roland might have been feeling ill himself by the time he was called to trial in July 1577 before the judge and jury. There was little hope of a fair, impartial trial and he was found guilty of being ‘foul-mouthed and saucy’ after two days and sentenced to be pilloried by the ears for 3 days.

It was a nasty sentence and Jenks knew he was in for a very unpleasant and painful experience, designed to humiliate as well as mutilate him for life. Anyone with a grudge against him or the wider Catholic community could take their revenge by hurling all sorts of rotting matter at him during the course of his public punishment and at the end of his three days he would have to cut himself free and leave part of his ears behind in order to end the ordeal. No wonder he decided to rail against his sentence and, according to contemporary accounts he cursed the judge and jury.

Curses were taken seriously in Elizabethan England, especially when delivered by someone who was already judged to be a threat to public order and so when the leading members of the trail began to fall sick and die shortly after the trial it appeared that Jenks had indeed used supernatural forces to be revenged on the court. The two judges, the sheriff, the court clerk and the jury all succumbed to the mysterious disease. Increasing panic spread among the protestant elite of Oxford when the death toll reached 300 people – all male members of the community who had sat in judgement on him. No women or children were taken ill and this was seen as further confirmation that Jenks had cursed those upright citizens who stood against his Catholicism and seditious views.

Very sensibly, as soon as possible Jenks escaped the country after his punishment and became a baker in France, where he lived until old age carrying the scars of his punishment with him for life.

The case of the ‘Black Assizes’ was to re-surface in 2004 when archaeologists discovered a mass burial site in a ditch next to the mound at Oxford Castle dating from the mid-sixteenth to mid-eighteenth centuries which contained the bodies of executed prisoners, some of whom displayed signs of dissection after death and had probably been victims of body snatchers. Analysis of the skeletal remains of some of those Elizabethans buried suggest that an outbreak of Typhus may have lead to their early deaths so perhaps the ‘curse of Roland Jenks’ was his unwitting role as an agent for spreading disease that he contracted whilst awaiting trial and spread through the courtroom rather than any divine intervention.

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2004/jan/11/artsandhumanities.research

https://wellcomecollection.org/works/x3psyxnc

https://www.historyextra.com/period/tudor/henry-viiis-savage-reformation/

file:///C:/Users/julia/Downloads/121-29-PB.pdf

https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/The-Huguenots/

https://link.springer.com/chapter/10.1057%2F9780230118553_4

https://www.ias.edu/ideas/2022/st-bartholomews-day-massacre

The Case of Mary Blandy: Guilty or Innocent?

February 9, 2022
Mary Blandy

“Alas! the record of her page will tell
That one thus madden’d, lov’d, and guilty fell.
Who hath not heard of Blandy’s fatal fame,
Deplor’d her fate, and sorrow’d o’er her shame?”
~”Henley,” anonymous 1827 poem

The case of Mary Blandy divides opinion even today. Was she an innocent victim of a confidence trickster who was used and abandoned to a miserable fate or was she complicit in the murder of her father? Was Mary innocent, naïve and manipulated, thrown to the wolves by her own father and set up for a tragic end or cold-hearted, an unnatural daughter and murderess who was rightly executed for a terrible crime?

Our response to a case like this probably says as much about us and our world view as it does about the available evidence left to us from the C18th court case, trial and execution records and contemporary attitudes to female murder suspects. There is a lot to unpack here in terms of gender roles, misogyny, social mores and changing attitudes towards female agency and issues of manipulation and coercion.

Francis Blandy was a wealthy lawyer and town clerk in Henley on Thames. He was a respected member of the local community and lived with his wife and only daughter, Mary, in Hart Street near the White Hart Inn. Mary’s baptism is recorded on 15th July 1720 at Henley Parish Church. Her mother educated Mary at their home and she was raised to be a well-mannered and accomplished young lady in the Anglican faith who should have looked forward to a comfortable, middle-class life of domesticity and respectable marriage.

The first blow to Mary’s hopes was contracting deadly smallpox which often left sufferers scared for life, if they survived the disease itself. In a society where female beauty was prized so highly in terms of making a good marriage, people would have sympathised with Mary but it would also have counted against her and literally marked her out as a negative quality through no fault of her own and severely damaged her marriage prospects.

Color illustration depicting smallpox pustules, shown on the face and hand of a woman, in profile, wearing a scarf, with inset close-ups to illustrate pustule stages, and their presence on the eyelid, from the volume “Contagious and Infectious Disease: measures for their prevention and arrest, small pox (variola), modified small pox (varioloid), chicken pox (varicella), cow pox (variole vaccinae), vaccination, spurious vaccination, ” authored by Joseph Jones, Edward Jenner, George Pearson, and William Woodville, 1884. Courtesy Internet Archive. (Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

As the years passed there was concern over whether Mary would ever marry despite seasons in fashionable resorts like Bath and visits to London which were used as an opportunity for Mary to meet potential suitors. There was enormous social pressure on young women to marry ‘well’. During the C18th there was very little prospect for genteel young women to earn their own living, tying them to either a husband, marriage and motherhood or to stay in their childhood home and become nurses to ageing parents. Financial considerations were often paramount, with parents arranging marriages to ensure their daughters were cared for and off their hands before they passed away.

It is impossible to know what Mary’s parents thought about Mary’s situation and whether their actions were motivated by love and concern for her future or by desperation to see her settled as they aged or whether they considered her to be a burden. Some accounts suggest that Francis let it be known that Mary would have an enormous dowry of £10,000 as a means of attracting suitors; others suggest that rumour inflated the sum well beyond anything Francis could actually have bestowed on her and that he cared deeply for his daughter’s happiness.

Was Mary effectively put up for sale with a price tag around her neck by her own father and humiliated by this experience? How would she have felt to be considered so ugly that only a large financial inducement would persuade a man to offer her marriage and respectability? Did she deeply resent her father’s actions or were they both swept along by contemporary obsessions with wealth and status and the rumour-mill?

This is quite crucial in terms of deciding whether Mary’s relationship with her father had deteriorated even before William Cranstoun was introduced to her and might explain why she would have contemplated murdering her father. It also raises the question of whether Francis left Mary exposed to the attentions of a confidence trickster by effectively advertising her wealth and set in motion the events that would lead to her ruin.

Conversely, Mary may have been grateful to her father for offering such a sizeable dowry if she was keen to be married and move on with her life. Did she want children and the possibility of running her own household and was she conscious as the years went on that time was running out? Mary’s mother suffered from ill health and Mary might have worried what would happen when she died. Would she be trapped as her father’s companion and nurse forever?

A number of potential suitors did show interest in Mary but they were all rejected – this perhaps suggests that her parents were concerned to find the right man for their daughter or that Mary had more say in the matter than might have been initially considered. It might also indicate that Francis Blandy was holding out for a better match and wanted to climb the social ladder by arranging a marriage into the nobility which left Mary increasingly frustrated with her father and his ambitions as her youth was spent and her child bearing years ebbed away. Was she equally ambitious or would she have accepted one of these men quite happily if she hadn’t been blocked by her parent’s desire for a better connected son-in-law?

Lord Mark Kerr lived at The Paradise in Henley. He was extremely well connected and uncle of Lady Jane Douglas who was a rich heiress and Mary was invited to dine at his property. It was there that she was introduced to Captain, the Hon William Henry Cranstoun. Cranstoun was described by a contemporary as “remarkably ordinary, his stature is low, his face freckled and pitted with the smallpox, his eyes small and weak, his eyebrows sandy, and his shape no ways genteel; his legs are clumsy, and he has nothing in the least elegant in his manner.”

Perhaps Mary saw a kindred spirit in him; someone who had also been marked out by a cruel disease and unfairly judged for his physical appearance. Perhaps she was also, in part, attracted to his social status as the fifth son of a Scottish peer and his rank as a First Lieutenant of Sir Andrew Agnew’s regiment of marines who had fought at Culloden against the Jacobites.

Francis had turned away other soldiers before but the family seemed to have welcomed Cranstoun despite this and his modest personal wealth. Francis boasted of his noble connections and was perhaps willing to overlook the negatives in order to finally see Mary settled. He seems to have had no concerns over whether Cranstoun was more drawn to the dowry than the daughter.

In 1747, Cranstoun declared his passion for Mary and he was invited into the family home as an honoured guest and potential son-in-law. Cranstoun seemed to charm the family and provide the solution to their problem. When Mary’s mother fell ill she called for Cranstoun especially and he lifted her spirits. She remained under the spell of his charms to the end.

Francis was a businessman and experienced lawyer. He may have been blinded by Cranstoun’s aristocratic manners and his elevated connections in Scotland but it seems odd that he didn’t investigate more thoroughly before welcoming Cranstoun into his home and agreeing to his engagement to Mary.

The bombshell exploded when Francis was informed by Lord Kerr that Cranstoun was already married in Scotland to Anne Murray, a catholic and had fathered a daughter with her. Cranstoun denied this and said that Anne was only his mistress and he intended to appeal to the courts to prove that they had never been legally married. She was only after financial reward and he couldn’t marry her as she was a catholic and he was Presbyterian which was a huge impediment to any union.

It all sounds highly implausible and all too common a case of a man seeking to throw off an inconvenient secret marriage and abandon a woman who he had left raising his child once a better prospect came along. Cranstoun suggested that Lord Kerr was trying to spoil his chances with Mary and ruin his reputation because of a falling out between them. He was the innocent victim of manipulation and character assassination and Francis seems to have believed him at first but he became increasingly disillusioned with his house guest and spent more time at the coffee house than at home before finally commanding Mary to break off all contact with Cranstoun and never see him again.

Mary was devastated. After finally securing the attentions of a suitable potential husband, having him accepted into her family and making plans for her marriage, she was now not only back to square one but her reputation was now compromised by association with a man who might be a liar and fortune hunter. Her heart had been broken and she longed to believe Cranstoun’s version of events.

If Francis had been taken in, why not Mary who had far less experience of the world than her father and was under enormous social pressure to secure a match. After so many long years of waiting, she had found a soul mate and the chance of a new life to see if all being snatched away from her. She must have been desperate and vulnerable at this moment. Was she also angry and resentful of her father’s command to drop her lover or even complicit in Cranstoun’s scheme to marry in secret in order to prevent their separation and rid themselves of her father’s disapproval?

Mary later swore that there had been a clandestine marriage between them which she believed to be legally binding which had taken place in London while she was visiting her uncle with her mother, who had taken ill. Mary had arranged a meeting with Cranstoun at a friend’s lodgings in St James’s Square, as her uncle had forbidden him entry into his house. They had eloped and married in secret.

On March 1, 1748, the Commissary Court decreed that Cranstoun and Anne Murray were legally married and ordered him to pay his wife an annuity of forty pounds, plus ten pounds child support for his abandoned daughter. He was also liable for all the legal expenses involved, which put him several hundreds of pounds out of pocket. Cranstoun appealed the decision, but it was dismissed. His reputation was tarnished, as was Mary’s by association. To pour salt on the wounds, there were other accusations against Cranstoun of mistresses and children he had tried to cover up.

To most of us, the warning bells would be ringing loud and clear by this point. Mary’s mother was terminally ill and clung to her belief in Cranstoun’s innocence to the very end, hoping that her daughter would be joined with the man she loved but Francis had finally seen the light. Mary’s mother died in September 1749. Due to her symptoms, which included intestinal inflammation, some people later thought that Mary had poisoned her too but there seems little motive as she mother was a defender of Cranstoun’s character and encouraged the match to the end. Cranstoun returned to Scotland to try to sort out his affairs with a large helping of Mary’s money to pay off his legal debts.

After her death, when Francis had hardened in his disapproval of Cranstoun and he had lost an advocate, Cranstoun suggested to Mary that he knew a means by which he could win her father round. He had heard of a ‘cunning woman’ in Scotland called Mrs Morgan who made love potions. If Mary could add a special powder to her father’s tea or food he would alter in his feelings towards them and support their union.

Love potions were commonly used in this period and despite much scepticism on the part of the public when the case came to court, it is feasible that Mary believed in the notion of a love potion and fell for Cranstoun’s scheme. Arsenic was used as a tonic and when taken in small doses it could perk up a patient so when her father first ingested the powder she may have observed a positive change in his demeanour and believed it was working.

Arsenic Poisoning symptoms

Cranstoun sent her love letters along with the special powder and certain Scottish pebbles which were fashionable at the time. He passed the powder off as something to clean the stones with but Mary followed his instructions and mixed it into her father’s tea or porridge. As the arsenic residue built up in Francis, he became increasingly unwell. Mary wrote to Cranstoun that the powder wasn’t working. This letter was used as evidence that Mary was impatient at the delay and wanted to run away to Scotland to be with her lover. Cranstoun replied that she needed to use more and that his mother was preparing a home for her in Scotland. This could be interpreted both ways – Mary needed to use more potion to win her father over and then she would be free to travel to Scotland or that she needed to increase the poison to be free of the impediment to their marriage.

Servants who drank from the remaining tea or porridge were violently ill. During the later trial it was noted that Mary sent remedies of white wine, whey and broth which were used against Arsenic poisoning to Ann Emmett, a charwoman who had been almost died after drinking some of Francis’s tea – was Mary aware of the contents of the powder all along or just using popular remedies for stomach pains and purging?

The servants began to be suspicious of Mary after they saw her putting something into her father’s food and they witnessed the violent reactions of anyone who had eaten or drank anything that Francis had ingested and the maid took the gritty residue that she found at the bottom of the cooking pot to a neighbour who called in the local pharmacist.

The servants finally alerted Francis to the possibility that Mary was poisoning him. Once he learned that Cranstoun was the source of the powder everything fitted into place. He confronted Mary who broke down and admitted to adding the powder and begged his forgiveness. It is very telling that Francis forgave her and called her a ‘love-sick girl’. He clearly thought that Mary was an innocent party in the affair and blamed Cranstoun entirely even as he lay dying in agony from the effects of the Arsenic.

Mary was first held under house arrest in her room while investigations were carried out. All harmful objects were removed, suggesting that some thought she might attempt suicide after her father’s death. It is unclear whether this was due to her mental state, guilt or desire to escape punishment for her crimes.

Mary pleads for forgiveness

Mary found her door unlocked on day and decided to take a walk in Henley but she had become the object of local hatred and was persuaded by an angry mob and had to seek shelter in a friend’s house. Perhaps she had been unaware prior to this incident of how she was viewed by the local population or how she would be perceived and judged more widely in society. Again, this might suggest a naivety on her part or lack of judgement which seems consistent with her blind faith in her lover and his version of events.

The inquest into Francis’s death concluded that he had been poisoned and Mary was conveyed to Oxford Prison to await her trial where she was put in leg irons to prevent an attempted escape although she enjoyed fairly comfortable conditions due to her comparative wealth and was treated well by her gaolers. Cranstoun had already fled to France to escape justice, leaving her utterly alone to face the full penalty of the law. he died penniless there in 1752 and never stood trial for his part in the murder.

Mary appeared at the assizes in Oxford in March 1752, before The Honourable Heneage Legge, Esq., and Sir Sydney Stafford Smythe. The trial was held at the Divinity School in Oxford as the Town Hall was undergoing building work at the time. The trial was note worthy because it was the first time detailed medical evidence had been presented in court on a charge of murder by poisoning and heard testimony by Dr. Anthony Addington who had conducted medical analysis of comparative samples to prove that the powder Mary had put in her father was arsenic.


Mary defended herself with the help of three counsels, with what has been described as “intelligence and zeal” denying any intention to harm her father and that she had believed the powder to be a love potion and administered it only to win her father’s approval for her relationship with Cranstoun.

The combined medical testimony and evidence supplied by her servants condemned her and she was found guilty of the murder. She requested a little time to set her affairs in order and remained composed throughout the six weeks that followed whilst the case became a ’cause celebre’ and was endlessly discussed in the papers and in wider society. Mary took this time to write a great deal in her condemned cell including “Miss Mary Blandy’s Own Account of the Affair between her and Mr. Cranstoun” which was described by Hoarce Bleakley as the “most famous apologia in criminal literature.”  She corresponded with various people and even had ladies to tea while she awaited her final fate, maintaining her innocence of the crime of murder to the end.

Given the evidence and testimony against Mary by the household servants and her initial attempts to destroy the love letters and remaining powder there was little hope for her not being found guilty by the court. Her actions certainly appeared suspicious and motivated by her desire to be with her lover at whatever cost. Her failure to connect the illness of the servants after ingesting the powder laced food and drink and her father’s deteriorating state with the harmful effects of the potion seem too wilful to prove innocence yet she seemed to trust Cranstoun so thoroughly that it is possible that she completely believed his version of events and doggedly pursued his instructions in the hopes of a happy ending.

Time was running out for Mary and she began to think about her final moments and the nature of a public hanging. She was concerned that the gallows would be so elevated that men in the crowd might look up her skirts as she died and famously requested ‘for the sake of decency, gentlemen, don’t hang me high’. On the eve of her execution she wrote the following:

‘I, Mary Blandy, do declare, that I die in a full persuasion of the truth and excellency of the Christian religion, and a sincere, though unworthy, member of the Church of England. I do likewise hope for a pardon and remission of my sins, by the mercy of God, through the merits and mediation of Jesus Christ, my most blessed Lord and Saviour. I do also further declare, that I did not know or believe that the powder, to which the death of my dear father has been ascribed, had any noxious or poisonous quality lodged in it; and that I had no intention to hurt, and much less to destroy him, by giving him that powder; All this is true, as I hope for eternal salvation, and mercy from Almighty God, in whose most awful and immediate presence I must soon appear. I die in perfect peace and charity with all mankind, and do from the bottom of my soul forgive all my enemies, and particularly those who have in any manner contributed to, or been instrumental in bringing me to the ignominous death I am so soon to suffer. This is my last declaration, as to the points therein contained; and I do most earnestly desire, that it may be published after my decease. Witness my hand, MARY BLANDY.’

For her execution, she chose “a black crape sack, with her arms and hands ty’d with black paduasoy ribbons.” 

She was hung on 6th April 1752, that being Easter Monday in that year either in the Castle Yard next the old Castle Mound or on a mount at the Westgate of the city, still proclaiming her innocence to the watching crowd and thankfully she lost consciousness quickly and died bravely. Her remains were conveyed to Henley where she was interred at the parish church next to her parents the following day.

Although her contemporaries continued to believe her guilty of the murder, Victorian reassessments were more forgiving and tended to focus on her naivety and the romanticism of the love potion narrative. The fact that her father seemed to forgive her actions and saw her as a victim of Cranstoun’s schemes has been increasingly used to argue that Mary was innocent and the real villain was always her unscrupulous lover who left a trail of heart hearts behind him, abandoned her as he had abandoned his true wife and daughter and tried to flee from the consequences of his actions.

http://www.capitalpunishmentuk.org/blandy.html

https://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng250.htm

https://juliabracewell.com/cruel-or-stupid-the-tale-of-mary-blandy/

https://www.drugtimes.org/drugs-chemistry/the-case-of-mary-blandy.html

http://berkshirehistory.com/bios/mblandy.html

http://www.murderpedia.org/female.B/b/blandy-mary.htm

https://www.darkoxfordshire.co.uk/explore/mary-blandys-house/

https://lewiswalpole.wordpress.com/tag/mary-blandy/

https://www.fulltextarchive.com/page/Trial-of-Mary-Blandy1/

Medieval Jewish Settlements in Oxford

February 1, 2022
The Crypt at Oxford Castle – built on Anglo-Saxon foundations

The first Jewish settlers arrived in Oxford not long after the Norman Conquest, around 1075AD residing in the commercial heart of the city at St Aldates which became known as Great Jewry Street, close to the original C8th oxen ford from which the settlement got its name and inside the line of the Norman city walls shown on the map below. They engaged in the usual commercial activities allowed during the medieval period – trading, medicine, pawn-broking and money lending. It is estimated there were around 90 Jewish families in Oxford in this phase. They were the only Jewish community mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086.

The Jewry was located on St Aldates within the city walls

Why did the Jews settle in Oxford at this time? It is thought that William the Conqueror encouraged Jewish re-settlement from Rouen in order to build a network of trading links and credit throughout his domains. They may have been encouraged or compelled to move and settled first in London and then moved to towns like Oxford where they were royal wards – under the direct protection of the monarch and exempt from certain tolls. The presence of the castle may have been another factor in the choice of Oxford as Robert D’Oyly held it for the crown and therefore it offered some protection to them as royal wards. In return the king could extract special taxes or ‘tallages’ from his Jewish wards and they were often under pressure to assist the monarch in raising funds for building projects, royal dowries or military campaigns.

There is evidence of good relations between the first Norman kings and their Jewish communities; William Rufus saw the value in fostering the Jewish presence in England and prevented the pogroms seen in France and the Rhineland which preceded the First Crusade of 1096 and engaged in religious debates at court where he suggested he might convert to Judaism if they had the better argument. Henry I continued to support the community and reiterated their privileges and protections but during the Anarchy when trade was severely disrupted and the highways became dangerous and lawless, many Jews abandoned trading enterprises in favour of money-lending in an effort to survive the instability of the civil war.

Aerial view of the Carfax showing the site of Aaron’s house which was burned by King Stephen in 1142

Aaron son of Issac had a property on the junction of St Aldates with the Carfax (under the current Edinburgh Woollen Mill Shop) which was burned during King Stephen’s attack on Oxford in 1142. Stephen used threats to extort money from the Jews of Oxford who had already paid Matilda to fund her campaign before she was besieged by Stephen at Oxford Castle. He threatened to burn the whole of the Jewish settlement to the ground if they didn’t finance him. It must have been a very insecure and frightening experience for the Oxford families as lawlessness was rife and the usual protections offered by the crown were withdrawn. If ‘God and his angels slept’ for the Christian community, it could only have been even harder for the Jewish communities to endure twenty years of fractured government, sporadic violence and constant economic upheaval.

Thankfully the re-establishment of firm centralised rule under Henry II enabled the Jewish community in Oxford, as elsewhere to recover from the hard years of civil strife but they were still under the threat of religious persecution and during the C12th many Jewish communities in England and across Europe were massacred due to false accusations of child murder. The ‘blood libel’ began in Norwich in 1144, when a disaffected Jew concocted a sinister story of a Jewish rite where a Christian child was abducted and crucified during the festival of Passover. Rumours spread and re-surfaced whenever a Christian child went missing or was murdered and the local population looked for a scapegoat. There were massacres of Jews in various cities during the 1180s and 90s, most notoriously at Clifford’s Tower in York where the victims committed suicide rather than surrender to the mob that had encircled them. Jews were also accused of poisoning wells and desecrating the host.

The 25 towns which held the archae

Crusading fervour did nothing to assist relations between Christians and Jews during this period. Richard I continued to offer nominal protection and established special Jewish exchequers begun in his father’s reign to protect records of Jewish property and money lending as each massacre had provided a useful excuse for burning evidence of all debts owed to the victims of the violence. 25 towns were to hold ‘archae’ – official chests with Christian and Jewish key holders where copies of all Jewish transactions were lodged for safe keeping. The archa in Oxford was held at the castle. Richard would need his Jewish financiers even more when he was captured on his return for the Holy Land and his mother had to raise an enormous ransom to free him. The Jewish financiers were expected, once more, to pay large sums to the crown to effect his release.

Archa – a lockable chest which held copies of all Jewish transactions

King John was equally persistent in taxing the Jews to pay for the dowry of his daughter, Princess Joan and the crushing Bristol Tallage fell heavily on the Jewish community, leaving many impoverished and without recourse to justice.

1207 Confirmation of Henry I’s liberties to the Jewish population in the reign of King John

Due to the preservation of monastic records by the Oxford colleges, we have an especially good record of the Jewish community in Oxford during the medieval period, including a roster of all Jewish households in the C13th which recorded about 250 individuals and provides a fascinating window into their world. The remains of a vaulted ceiling can be found under the current town hall which belonged to one of the five large properties in the Jewry. Excavations on St Aldates have unearthed various objects which belonged to Oxford’s Jewish residents such as a stone lamp, storage jars and the base of a stone cross with Old Testaments scenes. More recent excavations have found evidence of kosher food practices.

Between 1170 – 1220 there were around 100 Jewish people in a city of about 2,000, and they owned perhaps as many as 100 to 150 properties.

Coppin of Worcester founded a Jewish synagogue on the site of the current Tom Quad at Christ Church in 1228 for the Jewish residents and they acquired land to the east of the town for a Jewish cemetery. There is a memorial plaque in the rose garden beside the Botanical Gardens which marks the site.

Jacob of Oxford bought the land for Merton College, one of the earliest colleges in Oxford, was established in the 1260s. Balliol College and Christ Church were also endowed with properties that were originally owned by the city’s medieval Jews. Students would often pawn their books to local Jewish moneylenders in order to fund their studies and entertainments. In 1244 there was a riot amongst the students over how many of their books were being held as surety for their debts. The chancellor of Oxford, Robert Grosseteste set up a university-run loan chest, called St Frideswide Chest, to enable students to borrow money without jeopardising their studies and banned them from pawning their books to the Jewish money lenders.

David, Licoricia and Asher

David of Oxford was a highly successful businessman with a large property on St Aldates under the site of the current Town Hall. He sought divorce from his wife Muriel as she was unable to give him children and after a lengthy legal dispute, which even involved the intervention of King Henry III who prohibited the Beth Din from opposing the marriage, he married Licoricia of Winchester who’s father was a wealthy member of Winchester’s jewry. Licoricia was already a widow with three sons and a daughter when they married and she would become the most wealthy and influential Jewish woman in society. Although her marriage to David only lasted two years before his death in 1244, she had a son called Asher by him who would leave his only mark on history. Licoricia was confined the Tower of London whilst the crown established the worth of David’s estate and she was compelled to pay substantial death duties in order to inherit his estate (part of which paid for the construction of the shrine of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey). Licoricia was an adept business women and returned to Winchester where she continued to finance the court and royal family for thirty years and became a conduit for the Jewish population to have their grievances heard by the king as she was often at his court when he came to Winchester. There were several Jewish business women operating like Licoricia at this time. Sadly Licoricia was to become the victim of her own success. She was found be her daughter Belia with multiple stab wounds in her home along with her Christian maid Alice of Bicton in 1277. Three men were implicated in her murder but none were ever tried or brought to justice for her murder.

Her son Asher also suffered from persecution and was imprisoned with his brothers during coin clipping arrests, leaving his lament on the walls of his prison cell at Winchester Castle.

The new statue of Licoricia and Asher which is due to erected in Jewry St Winchester in 2022

Once the university was established, the Jewish community acted as money lenders to the scholars and landlords, with an estimated 10% of rented rooms being owned by Jewish landlords. Archaeological excavations in the Jewry area suggest that some of the Jewish residents may have been engaged in producing coinage and that there was a secret tunnel which connected their properties in St Aldates to the Castle – perhaps in order to transport coinage there for safe keeping. Oxford’s Jews also sought protection within the castle walls on several occasions when anti-Semitic violence threatened them.

‘Excavations in 2015 from the old Jewish quarter included vessels that had been used for smelting metals, supporting theories that the Oxford Jewish community was involved in both the procurement of bullion for the Royal Mint and the actual production of coins. Earlier excavations revealed that houses in the Jewish quarter were connected by underground passageways, possibly designed for the safe traffic of money to and from the castle mint.’ https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/the-jews-of-medieval-england/

Pressure on Jewish communities was becoming more intense due to a number of factors. Christian money-lenders began to operate in competition, taxes were heavily applied and new laws were passed in 1269 which limited Jewish property ownership to their own houses and those rented to other Jews. Their children could no longer inherit their property and in 1275 they could no longer lend money. They were being backed into an impossible situation and many resorted to crime in order to survive.

In 1278 293 Jews were convicted of coin clipping and were hanged in the Tower of London. In 1290 Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the country by 1st November. Those who remained either converted to Christianity or kept their identities secret. Many thousands fled to Europe but faced further hardship and persecution there as other European countries followed suit in expelling their Jewish populations too.

It was a sad end to the thriving Jewish community in Oxford which had benefitted both Jewish and Christian townspeople alike. Many scholars had learned Hebrew from the community including Roger Bacon who had great admiration for the Jewish scholars he engaged with. Students had been glad of the credit extended to them and for Jewish landlords who had provided accommodation during their studies. The Jewish business people of both genders had brought prosperity to the town and the crown had ruthlessly taxed and exploited their royal wards over several hundred years from the Norman Conquest onwards; often turning to their Jewish subjects at times of financial crisis and using their wealth to finance royal dowries, military campaigns and building works.

The Jewish population certainly left a fascinating legacy in Oxford in terms of physical remains and artefacts but also in terms of learning and economic achievements which add to the rich history of the town.

https://www.oxfordchabad.org/templates/articlecco_cdo/aid/450812/jewish/A-Brief-History-of-Jews-of-Oxford.htm

https://www.oxfordjewishheritage.co.uk/projects/oxford-castle-safe-haven-for-the-jews/154-oxford-castle-safe-haven-for-jews#:~:text=Oxford%20Castle%20and%20the%20Jews%20The%20relationship%20of,outbreaks%20of%20anti-Semitic%20violence%20threatened%20the%20Jewish%20community.

https://www.thisisoxfordshire.co.uk/news/19852816.oxford-walk-discover-citys-jewish-heritage/

https://www.oxfordjewishheritage.co.uk/oxford-jewish-heritage/medieval-period-c1075-1290/personalities/284-licoricia-of-winchester

https://www.historyextra.com/period/medieval/the-jews-of-medieval-england/

https://www.ashmolean.org/jewish-journey

http://www.oxfordhistory.org.uk/city_wall/index.html

https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol4/pp300-304

https://www.oxfordjewishheritage.co.uk/oxford-jewish-heritage/medieval-period-c1075-1290/narrative/285-oxfords-medieval-jewish-quarter-archaeology

https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/oxon/vol4/pp3-73

https://www.oxfordjewishheritage.co.uk/notable-jews/medieval-period/136-roster-of-medieval-jews#:~:text=%20Roster%20of%20Medieval%20Jews%20%201%20Josce,Bundy%20jury%20of%2012%20Jews%20which…%20More%20