Jews and castles in medieval England

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In 1201 King John granted his Jews a charter of liberties which begins: 'Know that we have granted to all Jews of England and Normandy that they reside in freedom and honour in our land and hold of us all that they held of King Henry our father's grandfather.' This indicates that the rights granted go back at least to the time of Henry I who reigned from 1100 to 113 5, within a generation of the Norman Conquest. The charter goes on to include the following passage: 'Jews shall not enter into any pleas save before us [which means that they should sue and be sued only in the royal courts] or before those who have ward of our castles, in whose bailiwicks [ballivis] Jews dwell.'1

I want to stress this matter of the jurisdiction over the Jews given to those responsible for royal castles, because the charter, dated in 1201, is later than the establishment of the Exchequer of the Jews, in which cases involving Jews were normally heard. H. G. Richardson has suggested by way of explanation that the charter reflects the conditions prevailing when the original charter was granted, and that it is a throw-back to the conditions which governed the Jewish community in Normandy before the Conquest; we indeed have evidence that Norman Jews were the responsibility of the castellans of ducal castles.2 We have no similar evidence of Jewish cases coming before castle courts in England, with the very important exception of the Court of the Constable of the Tower of London. But this charter of 1201 puts such emphasis on the castle as the focus of life for the Jewish communities of England that one is led to ask: how did the castle impinge on the life of the medieval English Jew? What image did it present - a question particularly significant today since castles are among the most prominent survivals of the world in which the medieval Jew lived.

I suggest that the castle presented three or possibly four aspects to the medieval English Jew. First, it was a refuge in time of trouble; second, it was the administrative centre from which their lives were governed; third, it increas? ingly became a prison in which they were detained; and possibly fourth, a 'private' castle - i.e., one in the ownership of a magnate, not the crown - would have been the residence of a potentially valuable client who would thus attract Jews to settle near it.

But first, we must try to define what a medieval English castle was and what was the distinction between royal and private castles. 'The castle was a Norman importation into England'3 - as indeed the Jews were. In Anglo-Saxon England

there were fortifications, of course, but they were essentially fortifications of settlements, garrisoned and supported by men and money from the surround? ing districts which they were designed to protect: they were communal fortifications for collective defence. It is true there were a few 'private' castles in England, intended to

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