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Crucifixion and Conversion: King Henry III and the Jews in 1255
By David Carpenter
Henry III Fine Rolls Project (2010)
This paper is part of a collection of articles entitled “Fine of the Month”. Since December 2005, every month a member of the Project Team or other scholar has commented on material of particular interest in the Rolls.
Introduction: The supposed crucifixion in 1255 of a little Christian boy by the Jews of Lincoln, in macabre parody of the crucifixion of Christ, was for Jews and Christians alike, although for very different reasons, one of the most shocking events in the reign of King Henry III. For the Jews it had appalling consequences. One named Copin, who confessed to the crime, was hung, having first been tied to the tail of a horse and dragged for a long time through the streets of Lincoln, his body becoming broken and lacerated with stones. A little later, eighteen more Jews suffered the same fate in London. Meanwhile, the body of the ‘victim’ had been laid to rest by the dean and canons of Lincoln in the cathedral, where it performed miracles and became known as ‘Little Saint Hugh’. The episode inspired a contemporary ballad in 367 lines of French verse and took up no less than eight pages in the Burton annals, far more than were given to any other event in the reign of Henry III. Matthew Paris’s account took up three pages and appeared as a continuous narrative from June through till November, instead of being broken up, in his normal fashion, into a series of chronological bulletins interspersed with other information, a good indication of the story’s riveting effect.
The affair has excited less interest amongst some later historians. It was not mentioned at all by Sir Maurice Powicke in either his Henry III and the Lord Edward or The Thirteenth Century, his volume in the Oxford History of England, books published respectively in 1947 and 1953. It is mentioned in the more recent histories by Michael Prestwich and David Carpenter but there too could have been given more weight. In works about Jewish history and anti-semitism, on the other hand, the Lincoln crucifixion features at large, and, of course, is the subject of a fine article by Gavin Langmuir, published in Speculum in 1972. Langmuir (perhaps a little over critical) pointed to factual inaccuracies in the account of Matthew Paris, inaccuracies that is over and beyond his belief in, and detailed description of, the actual crucifixion. Paris was clearly wrong, for example, about the actual date of the boy’s disappearance. This, however, was a secondary theme. Langmuir’s main point was that Henry III’s trial and conviction of the Jews represented the first occasion on which any European ruler had affirmed the truth of such allegations. And even today, it gives one a start, to read in Henry III’s letters of this ‘horrible crime’ and of an ‘infant lately crucified’. All this added to the toxic mix of prejudice and profit which was to lead to the eventual expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. In securing Henry III’s damning verdict, Langmuir highlighted the devastating role played by the king’s steward, the knight John of Lexington, who examined Copin and extracted his confession. A central purpose of his article was thus to understand John’s role by considering his career and family background, hence the title of the article, ‘The Knight’s Tale of Young Hugh of Lincoln’.
The aim of this paper, split between two ‘Fines of the Month’, is to explore further the circumstances and causes of the king’s intervention through placing it within the context of the more general events of 1255. By looking at the pressures on Henry, as well as his pre-occupations and priorities in this year, we may get a little closer to understanding how and why events developed as they did with such terrible consequences for the Jews.