by Derek Taylor
One day in late June in the year 1215, a royal official escorted by an armed guard rode into the city of Lincoln in northern England, climbing the steep hill that leads to the castle walls and the towering cathedral. The official was carrying a small roll of parchment with orders to deliver it into the hands of the city’s bishop. It was one of thirteen copies of the Magna Carta, the Great Charter that King John of England had just been forced to issue by a group of rebellious barons—a document that today is revered across the world as the foundation of justice and freedom from oppression.
Lincoln was a prosperous place, and many of the houses the royal horsemen passed on the steep road—its name today is simply “Steep Hill”—were built of honey-colored stone, in contrast to the mud, straw and wooden dwellings more usual in 13th-century towns. Though not particularly grand in size, many of these houses were remarkable for the way their façades were decorated with intricate, interlocked carvings, their windows framed by little columns topped with stone acanthus leaves. You can still see two of these extraordinary buildings today. One, toward the bottom of the hill, is the oldest surviving domestic dwelling in Europe. It was built at least 50 years before the Magna Carta, and today is a restaurant called The Jews House. Steep Hill was home to one of medieval England’s largest Jewish communities.
Jews back then lived in towns, but were not considered to be of them. They were excluded from governance. And they couldn’t work as carpenters, weavers, goldsmiths or in any one of 40-odd other trades of the time. These trades required membership of a guild, which was rather like a closed-shop trade union, but closely tied to the Christian Church. There was one opening, however. The Church had banned Christians from practicing usury, the charging of interest on loans. But the great institutions of the Christian Church, as well as the Crown, the great noble families, and almost everyone, down to the humblest candle-maker, needed to borrow money from time to time. It was Jews who provided this vital financial service. And the Magna Carta had something to say about it.
Lincoln’s copy of the Great Charter, once safely delivered by the royal escort, was read out in public, probably on the steps of the cathedral beneath a network of wooden scaffolding—the building back in 1215 was still being repaired following an earthquake 30 years earlier. You can still see this same piece of parchment in the cathedral today. No doubt a Christian clergyman who knew the language translated the Medieval Latin, which few folk in the town would have understood. For the citizens of Lincoln, it was good news: the semi-independence, which the town had recently won in return for payments to the king, was confirmed. But when the leaders of the Jewish community found out how the Magna Carta affected them, they must have been dismayed.
Clause 10 said:
If anyone who has borrowed a sum of money from Jews dies before the debt has been repaid, his heir shall pay no interest on the debt for so long as he remains under age.
And the next one said:
If a man dies owing money to the Jews, his wife is not obliged to pay off the debt from her inheritance, and the man’s under-age children shall be properly provided for before any debts are paid from their inheritance.
It was an early and crude attempt at regulating the financial markets—not to make them run more smoothly, but to distort them to the advantage of borrowers, many of whom were barons. Furthermore, though not immediately obvious to our eyes today, these clauses were also aimed at the king himself. The reason lies in the peculiar relationship that existed between Jews and the Crown.
Jews and all they owned had come to be regarded as the property of the king. This meant that he could tax them at will and could seize the wealth of any Jew on his death—a clever arrangement, as far as the king was concerned, because it enabled him to share legitimately in the immense profits of a practice prohibited by the Christian church. So the clauses in the Magna Carta that restricted the Jews’ income from financial transactions also had the indirect effect of limiting the benefits the king could receive as the ultimate owner of Jews’ property.
But this bizarre relationship between Jewry and royalty was not without its benefits for Jews. The king offered his special protection to them. It was, after all, in his economic interest to do so. However, that protection could not always be relied upon.
Violent anti-Semitism flared up with alarming regularity in medieval England. One of the worst outbreaks came in 1190. In Lincoln, as in many other cities, a mob gathered in the streets and worked itself up into a frenzy of Jew-hating. As the rioters advanced on them, the Jewish inhabitants of Steep Hill grabbed what belongings they could, seized their children, and scrambled up the street to the gate of the castle and sought refuge in its great courtyard. There they were given royal protection until tempers outside cooled down.
The Jews of York, 70 miles north, were not so lucky. In a similar outrage in the same year, 150 of them met their deaths, either slaughtered by the mob, or so terrified of what would happen if they were caught that they killed themselves and their families.
So did the Magna Carta do anything to protect what we would call the human rights of Jews? The fact is that back in 1215, the Magna Carta was little more than upper-class Christian men looking after themselves. Its promise—that those who govern us should not punish us, nor harm us in any way, other than by the law of the land—didn’t apply to 75 percent of men living in the countryside outside towns like Lincoln. And women—like Jews—were entirely excluded. It took many centuries before the rights first written down in the Magna Carta became universal.
As for the two financial limitation clauses aimed at the residents of Steep Hill, there is no evidence that they had much practical effect. The loans business continued, with violent ups and downs, until 1290. In that year, Jews throughout England were rounded up and expelled from the country.
There was no protection for them from the Magna Carta.
Historian and journalist Derek Taylor’s book Magna Carta in 20 Places is available to readers at a special 30% discounted price of $24.50. Go to www.ipgbook.com and enter code MCTP30. Offer valid until December 1, 2015.