Sunday, January 18, 2015

What’s in a Name?

by Darius Stransky

My series of books set mainly in thirteenth century England are entitled “The King’s Jew". Many times I am begged the question, “Who is ‘The King’s Jew’? Or, “What is ‘The King’s Jew’ and how did you come up with that title?

Well the answer is simpler than you, dear reader, may think.

Edward I
The main character in my work is Cristian Gilleson, and his life begins with an act of violence perpetrated on his mother. A fortuitous meeting with a young Edward (the future Edward the First) leads to a lifelong friendship, and the book opens at the end of the story with Cristian keeping vigil by his dead King’s tomb in Westminster Abbey on Friday, October 27th 1307 some sixty-odd years later.

But why The King’s Jew? I hear you ask again.

There is a sub-plot throughout the books concerning the treatment of the medieval Jews of England – I must not give too much away here! But it is worth considering the brief history of the Jews at the time.

The first main influx of Jews to England’s shores took place when William (the Conqueror) arrived in 1066. This community maintained a precarious existence in England from the close of the eleventh century to the end of the thirteenth when in 1290 King Edward I banished them from the land.

But why were the Jews here? The answer is simple – to provide money in the form of loans to the Norman and Plantagenet rulers. The Jews enjoyed virtually no rights except in connection with this limited function.

The thirteenth century churchmen believed that lending money to achieve interest payments was contrary to the perceived laws of God. Yet everybody needed to borrow money or mortgage lands at some time, so who better to be given the job than the Jews?

Outwardly the English Jew of the middle ages resembled his contemporaries. In the thirteenth century the most usual external garment was a hooded cloak, the typical pointed Jewish hat. The pileum cornutum (as prescribed by the Council of Vienna in 1267) was also worn. The superficial resemblance to the general population must have indeed been considerable in order to justify the Jewish badge, which was enforced in England by the Lateran Council of 1215.

A Jewish badge? I hear you cry. Marked out from the crowd? Now where have I seen / heard that before? Think 1939 to 1945!

In 1218 the famous William Marshal, 1st Earl of Pembroke ordered every Jew at all times to wear upon his outer garment a piece of white cloth or parchment whereby he might be distinguished from Christians; the sign was to take the form of the so-called tabula – the legendary shape of the Two Tablets of Stone which bore the Ten Commandments. William Marshal was guardian to the young Henry III.

Jew with a hat
This rule was endorsed in 1222 at the Council of Oxford when it was decreed that all Jews of either sex should wear on the breast a badge two fingers wide and four long of a different colour from the rest of the garment.Then in 1253 Henry III renewed the clause, ordering the tabula to be borne in a prominent position.

In 1275 my main character’s companion, King Edward I, ordered the ‘badge’ to be more prominent by stipulating the colour to be yellow and increased the size to six fingers long and three broad, cut in the same shape as before and worn over the heart by every Jew above the age of seven years. Two years later an inquiry was instituted into the manner in which this and other regulations were being obeyed. The result was seen in 1279 when orders were issued ordering Jewish women as well as men to wear the ‘Badge of Shame’.

The Synod of Exeter in 1287 renewed the injunction, and the time of the Jews in England was rapidly drawing to a close.
Yet consider this - In the so-called 'Laws of Edward the Confessor' the prevailing historical constitutional theory of the period is summed up as follows:
“All Jews, wherever in the realm they are, must be under the King's liege protection and guardianship, nor can any of them put himself under the protection of any powerful person without the King's licence, because the Jews themselves and all their chattels are the King's. If therefore anyone detain them or their money, the King may claim them, if he so desire and if he is able, as his own”.

In 1253 King Henry III (if you want to see what Henry was really like he plays a part in Book One) in his proclamation entitled 'Mandate to the Justices assigned to the Custody of the Jews' began the missive with the following injunction: “No Jew (may) remain in England, unless he perform the service of the King: and immediately any Jew shall be born, male or female, he shall serve Us in some manner.”

The simple matter is that the medieval Jew was the PROPERTY of the King. On one occasion King Henry III ‘sold’ the Jews to his brother Richard – in that way Henry received money, but Richard got to keep all the taxes levied on the Jews for the agreed term – Richard then taxed the Jews even more!

Between 1240 and 1260 Henry III turned more and more to his Jews for money when a relatively small Jewish population of around 5000 paid out more than £70,000. To do so they had to sell off many of their mortgage bonds at a discount to the vulture-like coterie of court insiders keen to enlarge their landholdings. As a rough guide that equates to around £570,800,000 now!

Then came the fateful day in 1290, when King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from England. The edict remained in force for the rest of the middle ages. It was not an isolated incident but the culmination of over 200 years of increased persecution. Oliver Cromwell permitted Jews to return to England in 1657, over 350 years after their banishment by Edward I, in exchange for finance. Thus the wheel turned full circle.

Now then – back to the question – ‘What’s in a name?’

A Jew meeting with his customers
As you can see the Jews belonged to the King. My main character Cristian Gilleson is a close friend of the King, but he has many enemies for Cristian is an enlightened individual who takes the treatment of the Jews to heart, and his detractors refer to him as a ‘Jew lover’. To care about the fate of the Jews in the thirteenth century was dangerous, and to be a ‘Jew lover’ and at the same time companion to a king earned Cristian the epithet “The King’s Jew”.

NB – The eBook currently sells for $5.50 but as a special offer to any interested parties it will be reduced to $3.50 for seven days from today.


Darius Stransky is a freelance columnist and author living in rainy Manchester in North West England. Book One of “The King’s Jew” - complete with five star reviews - is available in paperback or eBook. Book two in the series will be available from May this year and the final Book three at the end of 2015. He thanks his cat ‘Pippin’ for all her ‘purrfect’ support throughout the two years that went into creating these works.

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  1. Thanks for that potted history, Darius - most enlightening.

  2. Background info makes this even a more compelling read.

    Well done Darius.

    1. Many thanks James Brennan and I look forward to seeing your wonderful works as soon as possible. My best wishes to Lavelle's bar (hope I spelled that correctly - spell and spelled always confuse me - as does 'know' and 'now' how's that for an admission from a writer?)

  3. Fascinating. Thank you so much. I am working on a novel set in thirteenth century England so this was most interesting. I will now buy the first of your books!

    1. Thank you KH and I wish you every success with your project and look forward to any comments / questions you may have about "The King's Jew". Also - if I can help in any way just let me know. Best wishes to you and yours. Darius

  4. Great post, Darius. Very enlightening. So, Hitler wasn't original in his actions. Did you know, many Jews, fleeing the inquisition came to the Ottoman Empire and settled there, trading freely, over many centuries? They were free to practise their religion and still are. We currently have quite a significant rich Jewish community in the three biggest cities.

    1. Thanks Sebnem and thank goodness there are still some enlightened and safe places for people no matter their beliefs and practices.


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