Sunday, 13 November 2016

(Jewish) OTD: 13 November


A lot of mythology surrounds Eleanor of Castile. In many ways she is portrayed as the Guinevere to Edward I’s Arthur (ignoring the whole Lancelot thing). What this hides, however, is that Eleanor was an incredibly astute business woman. In particular, she was a prominent figure in the trade of debts to Jews. Consequently, she earned the admission of such figures of the Archbishop of Canterbury and a little rhyme emerged around her: “The king desires to get our gold | the queen, our manors fair to hold”. A particularly vociferous business woman, when she had control of a debt she would usually demand repayment from the debtor or take control of the surety given for the debts which was usually land in the case of larger transactions (i.e. “our manors fair”). Whilst Eleanor was not unique in this respect, I can’t think of a single figure who comes even remotely close to her level. Eleanor did not only purchase debts, however, but rather used her relations with her husband to secure grants of debts. That is what four letters in the Close Rolls for 13 November 1275 detail. They each take the form of orders to the Justices of the Jews. The first, details that John de Burgh’s [de Burgo] (grandson of Hubert de Burgh) debts to all Jews in England were to be granted to Eleanor. This demonstrates perfectly Eleanor’s business savvy because de Burgh’s lands focused in Norfolk, close to some lands granted to Eleanor in her dowry, which suggests that this was targeted to strengthen and expand her holdings there.[1] Similarly, Eleanor had land holdings in Kent, so the fact that the second order is virtually the same in relation to Stephen de Leyburn, who had lands centred around Chatham in Kent suggests that the same thing was going on.[2] The third order is a little bit more complicated than the first two. It details that the debts which Edward had granted to Eleanor which Norman d’Arcy (de Arcy) were to be removed from the archa. Whilst it is possible that this was another strategic move, the fact that d’Arcy had gotten into a fair bit of trouble the previous decade for murder and rebellion could also mean that these were taken as payment for the king’s Grace and subsequently regranted to Eleanor.[3] Finally, the fourth letter relates to a specific debt of £450 owed by Stephen Cheindut to Manasser son of Aaron. This was an enormous sum, given that the average debt was for under £5. Whilst I’ve been unable to trace Stephen fully, I have come across him quite a few times before in terms of debts owed to different Jews. Ordinarily, it would be difficult to trace Manasser given that it was a fairly common name. The size of the transaction, however, rules out a lot of the obvious candidates. Consequently, I must tentatively conclude that this refers to Manasser son of Aaron, a Jew of London who was formerly a chirographer of London and who, during this period, conducted a number of large transactions.[4]

Calendar of the Close Rolls Preserved in the Public Record Office: Edward I, 1272-1279, ed. and trans. H. C. Maxwell Lyte (London, 1900), p. 221.

[1] Sara Cockerill, Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen (Stroud, 2014).
[2] Ibid.
[3] Paul Dalton, “Darcy family”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford, 2004), available online at accessed on 12 Nov. 16.
[4] Discussed in Joe Hillaby, “London: the 13th-century Jewry revisited”, Jewish Historical Studies, 32 (1990-1992), p. 126.

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