Licoricia was a remarkable Jewess, both because of her love life and her business dealings. But whereas that may apply to many a Jewish woman today, she stands out as being one of the few of whom that could be said in medieval England.
Her story also epitomises the prosperity and gradual decline of the Jewish community, which culminated in one of her sons being hanged and the others banished in the expulsion of the Jews from England, one of the many tragedies connected with Tishah B’Av, which begins next Saturday evening.
The story of the Jews as a settled community starts after William I conquered England in 1066 and invited them over to help colonise his new kingdom.
This was the core factor behind both their rise and downfall: on the one hand they had the king’s protection; on the other hand, they were seen as interlopers, both foreign and the king’s agents. They were also of a different faith in a society where there was only one right faith.
In addition to this toxic mix, many Jews were moneylenders. This was because Christians were banned by canon law from offering loans with interest and so there was a vacuum in society. It enabled many Jews to make a living, but it came at the high cost of unpopularity when the debtors faced mounting interest, or could not repay their loans and had to forfeit their deposits.
This was the world into which Licoricia was born. We are not sure when, or where, but thanks to the painstaking research of the late Suzanne Bartlet, we know that she first appears in 1234 as a young widow, known as Licoricia of Winchester.
The toponym of Winchester is deceptive, as it does not necessarily indicate her birthplace, but could be where her main business activities lay and the place with which she was most associated.
What is crucial, though, is the fact that she was a moneylender, be it in her own right or having inherited her late husband’s business. It was because the king could tax the Jews directly as his “chattels”, without recourse to Parliament, that such close records of their dealings were kept.
As a result we know more about Licoricia than virtually the entire generation of her non-Jewish female contemporaries, who are lost to history and remain anonymous.
In theory, she should have worn the “Jew badge”, which in England took the form of the two tablets of stone. Introduced by Pope Innocent III in 1215, it suggests that, without it, you could not tell a Jew from anyone else. However, wealthy Jews were able to buy an exemption and it is likely she did so too.
She was not only an accomplished businesswoman, but an attractive widow, for another leading moneylender, David of Oxford, divorced his wife Muriel in 1242 in order to marry her.
Divorce was permissible, but unusual, in medieval Anglo-Jewry. However, it seems to have been without Muriel’s consent, as she tried to get the divorce rescinded by appealing to a beth din.
This led to a unique royal intervention in rabbinic rulings, as the king, Henry III, no doubt prompted by a lavish gift from David, sent a letter banning the rabbis from overturning the divorce or from forbidding David to marry Licoricia. The wedding went ahead.
As it happened, David died two years after the marriage, leaving Licoricia with an even more extensive portfolio of loans than before. He was buried in the Jewish cemetery in Oxford, which was later taken over by Magdalen College, and today it lies beneath the Rose Garden, close to the Oxford Botanic Gardens. No tombstones remain, although a memorial plaque has been placed on the site.
Licoricia stayed in Oxford until her death in 1277, when she and her housemaid were killed during a burglary at her home in Jewry Street. Such was her renown at the time that her death was reported to the Jewish community in Germany.
By then, Anglo-Jewry was suffering its own death-pangs. Edward I had introduced the Statute of the Jewry in 1275, which was an early experiment in social engineering. He prohibited Jews from lending money on interest and to turn instead to other trades.
However, a combination of economic restrictions and the social antagonism between Jews and Christians meant Jews were unable to make a success of their new businesses.
By 1290, the Jewish community was impoverished, the Church opposed them, the population at large resented them and they were no financial use to the king anymore. The edict of expulsion was signed on July 18, Tishah b’Av.
Licorcia’s descendants returned to France with the remnant of medieval Anglo-Jewry. Whereas the Spanish Jews, also expelled on Tishah b’Av two centuries later, kept their identity, the English ones disappeared from view. We still mourn them.
Dr Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and author of Confessions of a Rabbi
Licoricia statue appeal