Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain on Licoricia

Rabbi Dr Romain wrote this article in the Jewish Chronicle on 2 August 2019.

The wealthy widow who made her mark in medieval England

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.

Among the many disasters associated with the fast of Tishah b’Av is the expulsion of English Jewry

Maggie Carver’s speech at the unveiling of Licoricia of Winchester, 11 April 2019

View speeches of Maggie Carver and Cllr Roy Perry:

11 April 2019. Maggie Carver’s speech at the Unveiling of the maquette of Licoricia of Winchester, the Art Worker’s Guild.

Good afternoon everyone, thank you very much for coming.  For those of you who don’t know me, I’m Maggie Carver, Chairman of the Licoricia of Winchester Statue Appeal.  We are so glad to see you all here today.  We’ve been hugely encouraged by the amount of support we have had right across our Jewish community including leaders of the reform and liberal communities, some of whom are here today, and a letter of good wishes from Chief Rabbi Mirvis.  We’ve also had terrific support from the the arts, politics, and academic communities, the Archbishop of Canterbury and many others – Licoricia is already an inspiration.

Before I ask Councillor Perry to unveil the statue, Ian Rank-Broadly to tell you about the sculpture and William to brief you on fund raising, I thought, for those of you who are not familiar with Licoricia, I’d tell you a little bit about her and explain how the project started.

First of all, in case you were wondering, Licoricia’s name does indeed mean sweetmeat.  In a recent interview on Radio Solent with one of our trustees, Tim Dakin suggested that the modern equivalent might be Smartie or Opal Fruit – take your pick but unfortunately, I’m told licorice allsorts are not kosher.

Anyway, our Licoricia was a remarkable businesswomen who lived in mid 13th century Winchester.  She was one of a number of successful Jewish women engaged in financing.  Winchester was important at that time because it had Royal connections, a legacy of its recent role as England’s capital city and treasury.  There was a unique relationship between Jews and royalty.  Jews raised funds for the Royal family at regulated interest rates and for their part, the monarchy gave them some protection from persecution and levied special taxes on them.  One such tax of £2,500 from Licoricia with an added contribution of approximately £3,500 from her husband, David of Oxford’s estate, was used to build the inner sanctum of Westminster Abbey.  To give you some idea of the size of this donation, £10 was enough to pay for a fully equipped ship, so this would have been enough for a fleet of 600 ships – a whopping amount!

Our sculpture depicts Licoricia holding the hand of Asser, her son.  Asser followed his mother into the family business and is likely to have been forced out of the country with the rest of the community in 1290.  By this time the community had been forced into poverty and were no longer so useful to royalty.  They were not popular with parliament as they had given the monarchy an independent source of income and the church offered the King a huge sum of money to get rid of them.  A sad end to the community which remained banned until the seventeenth century.

The inspiration for erecting a sculpture began with a Winchester University project to produce a trail marking places that had been important for the medieval Jewish community.  This brought to light the fact that, apart from the name Jewry Street and the Great Hall, where Licoricia was engaged in business with the King and Queen, there was nothing tangible for people to see.

With encouragement from Hampshire County Council, our project for a sculpture was born.  We chose Licoricia because she was an unusual and outstanding character and because, thanks to Suzanne Bartlet, a remarkable person herself – the first woman leader of Hampshire County Council and a Jew – we have a book about her and setting her in the context of medieval Winchester.  We welcome her husband Leslie and friend Ruth here today.

We are ambitious for her effect on Winchester:

  • We want her to be a beacon of tolerance and diversity in the community
  • We want her to educate people about Winchester’s Royal past and its medieval Jewish Community
  • And we want her to be an inspirational woman who enhances the city by her presence.

I’d like to thank my fellow trustees, Danny Habel, Paul Lewthwaite, Tony Stoller and Laurence Wolff for all their hard work and much valued contribution so far and particularly my husband William who has done more than anyone else to make this happen.

We are very fortunate to have as our sculptor, Ian Rank Broadley.  Not only is he an eminent and outstanding sculptor but he has fully embraced this project and we are deeply grateful.

I would also like to thank Hampshire County Council for their wonderful support and help and Councillor Perry himself, leader of the Council, whose personal and substantial contribution to interfaith work in the area has been exceptional, making us feel a valued and welcomed part of the community.

Thank you Roy, over to you.

Successful unveiling in London of maquette of Licoricia of Winchester

Many thanks to all who came to the unveiling.  The event was a great success, with over sixty people attending, including leaders of the Reform and Liberal Communities, Jonathan Arkush and Gary Mond of the Board of Deputies, and with messages of support from Chief Rabbi Mirvis and the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Maggie Carver, Chairman of The Licoricia of Winchester Statue Appeal, introduced Licoricia and her importance to today. Cllr Roy Perry, Leader of Hampshire County Council unveiled the maquette, and internationally-renowned sculptor Ian Rank-Broadley talked about his own personal commitment to the project.  William Carver summarised the fundraising effort – £125,000 needs to be raised of which £20,000 has been donated so far.  Drinks and refreshments were enjoyed by all, in the historic atmosphere of the Art Workers’ Guild in Bloomsbury.  The event was covered on BBC South TV news this morning.

YOU ARE INVITED to the unveiling of Licoricia of Winchester statue maquette to occur on 11 April in London.

Please come to our unveiling in London!  The Trustees of the Licoricia of Winchester Statue Appeal will be unveiling the maquette of the statue of Licoricia of Winchester at the Art Workers’ Guild, 6 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AT on Thursday 11 April 2019.  The launch starts at 12.30pm and is expected to be over by 2pm.  It will be attended by the sculptor, Ian Rank-Broadley.  Drinks and light refreshments available. If you are able to attend, please RSVP to mail@licoricia.org, so we can anticipate numbers.