The Spectator on Licoricia

About three minutes’ walk from my house in Winchester is Jewry Street. It runs from the Theatre Royal at one end towards the 13th Century Great Hall at the other. It’s a picturesque throughfare, dotted with cafés, restaurants, churches and a library. But despite its name, it is all but Judenrein.

I’ve lived in Winchester for almost 15 years. My grandparents brought their children up here. The air is clean, crime levels are low and there are many green spaces. It is often listed as the best place to live in Britain, especially for families. But the walk along Jewry Street has always given me a sense of eeriness.

Along the street lie unmarked locations of Jewish significance. The site of the synagogue – whose owner was lynched as part of a blood libel in 1236 – is now a small car park behind a bric-a-brac shop. At the end of the road used to stand the fortified Jews’ Tower, in which the community would take refuge during pogroms.Amid the modern preoccupation with colonialism and the slave trade, this difficult chapter in our island story remains obscure

This eeriness is familiar to me from visits to Germany and Eastern Europe. Many Jewish sites there are empty sockets, defined not by their presence but by their absence. You can feel the ghosts. In Koppenplatz, in the old Jewish quarter of Berlin, there is a sculpture called The Deserted Room. It comprises a table with two chairs, one of which is lying on its back as if somebody has been dragged away. It is about what has been taken from the world.

In 1290, England expelled its Jews. In one haunting incident, Jewish refugees on a ship from London to France were persuaded to stretch their legs on a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames. When the tide came in, the captain refused to lower the gangplank. They drowned, leaving him to sail home with their worldly possessions.

Amid the modern preoccupation with colonialism and the slave trade, this difficult chapter in our island story remains obscure. The official 3,000-word biography of Edward I on the Royal Family website, for instance, does not mention the fact that he expelled the Jews. It’s not like anybody’s making a fuss. As a community, Jews tend to keep their heads down. But we feel it.

Those brutal years occurred many centuries ago. Britain today is one of the most tolerant societies the world has ever known, and nobody is more grateful than the Jews. If it hadn’t been for Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion, however, our community in this country would almost certainly be larger and more vibrant. There would still possibly be a synagogue on Jewry Street. Less would have been lost from the world.

This week, the healing process started. A statue was erected on Jewry Street of a Jewish businesswoman called Licoricia, who was close to Henry III before she was stabbed to death in 1277, along with her toddler son. A carnival of Jewish dignitaries, from the Chief Rabbi to Simon Sebag Montefiore, descended on Winchester for the unveiling. Prince Charles, who had been scheduled to attend, was forced to pull out after catching Covid, so I was unable to bring the biography of Edward I to his attention. Nonetheless, I suspect there hadn’t been that many Jews in the city for 700 years (except, perhaps, at my family parties).

In the peace of this morning, with the colour and bustle of the event behind me, I walked along Jewry Street into town. Licoricia formed a striking silhouette against the bright blue sky. She had been positioned to gaze towards the site of her old house, several doors down from the carpark where the synagogue once stood, where its owner had been lynched. On her plinth was the Hebrew phrase from the book of Leviticus, ‘love thy neighbour as thyself.’ Her expression was defiant, as if looking death in the eye, and her son was glancing over his shoulder, as if at the coming expulsion. Or perhaps they were looking to the future.

I never expected to be so affected. The statue will change my sense of myself in the city, and it will change, I expect, my sense of belonging in this country. The same must be true for many Jews, especially the handful who live in Winchester. Memorials can never remove the suffering of the dead, but they can grant the living something important: acknowledgement.

Jake Wallis Simons