It has become fashionable in recent years to quote Professor John Gillingham in describing King John (r. 1199-1216). That is: he was a ‘shit’. Ordinarily, with my historian’s hat on, I would attempt to argue that this was an oversimplification, or that he wasn’t all bad. In seeking to address John’s relations with the Jews, however, I cannot think of a sincere way to do that which I actually believe. This is despite my well known soft spot for John on the whole. Nevertheless, I thought that I would subject you, dear reader, to another tedious bit of my writing by outline of John’s relations with the Jews. So, Richard I, having been stupid enough to stand still in front of the walls of Chalus without any amour on, died on 6 April 1199. It was not immediately apparent who would succeed him. With the support of men such as William Marshal and Hubert Walter, however, King John was quickly crowned king of England. It took a bit longer to sort out affairs on the continent but effectively by May 1200, with the treaty of Le Goulet, John seemed to have things under control with his lands in France.
The first real evidence that we have on John’s interactions with the Jews comes from 1201. In that year, John issued a charter to the Jews which was basically a reiteration of the charters which Richard had issued in 1190. The only exception being that John’s was to all of the Jews of England and Normandy rather than just individuals. This was obtained by the Jews for the princely sum of 4,000 marks – though it was payable in four instalments. It is, however, important to note that it was conventional during this period for such a charter to be paid for. Two years later, in a letter addressed to the mayor of London, John reiterated his protection of the Jews (presumably in response to some kind of attack) by saying ‘If we had given our peace to a dog then it ought to be inviolably observed’. Historians have traditionally highlighted the language which was employed here, however, I’ve never associated John with tact, unless he had to use it. Consequently, I think that the fact that John was prepared to issue any kind of support to the Jews is important – even if the language used could have been better. What is more significant, for me, is that at roughly the same time, John was fast losing Normandy to Philip Augustus. Now, given that Anglo-Jewry was an off shoot of the Rouen Jewry, one would expect that the implications of this for the Jews had been widely examined. I don’t think that any satisfactory explanation of those implications has ever been given, however. This is not least because we know that the Jews had networks of communication with the Continent so this is an important oversight (though not one that I’m qualified to address).
Thereafter we know little of John’s relations with the Jews until 1207. In that year not only was a tallage of 4,000 marks imposed upon the Jews, but so was the demand of 10% of the value of all Jewish moneylending transactions. Another tallage followed in 1210. This year was described by Cecil Roth as a ‘black year for the Jews’ when the so-called Bristol tallage was levied. This was a demand for 66,000 marks, which is thought to have come because John was dissatisfied with the receipts which had come in 1207 (though it is difficult to say given the lack of sources). At this point, one cannot help but stop and remember W. L. Warren’s comments about John’s ingenuity, imagination and creativity when it came to extracting money out of people – here’s the masterclass. First, he ordered that every Jew in England should be arrested, male and female. Again it is difficult to say how far this was complied with, but it seems most likely to me that this was only done in the case of the leading members of each community. Having said that, however, it is not impossible that the order was carried out in full. Thereafter, a number of leading Jews either agreed to pay the sum that had been assessed upon them or were executed and had their goods confiscated. Famously (or perhaps infamously) one Jew from Bristol had one tooth removed daily until he agreed to pay (Matthew Paris tells us that he lasted seven days – OUCH!). This is the last major interaction that we know John had with the Jews. Certainly, chapters 10 and 11 of Magna Carta could be cited, but those were forced upon John – and in any event the barons weren’t particularly nice to the Jews either given that they tore down a number of Jewish houses in order to repair and reinforce the walls of London.