The Domus Conversorum: the personal interest of Henry III

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In 1232 a new kind of institution was born in London. It was called the Domus Conversorum and was to be a home for Jews converted to the Christian faith. The house was founded by King Henry III in New Street, which is now called Chancery Lane, and it previously occupied the site of the former Public Record Office. From 1232 until 1604 this house remained a home for converts, though it doubled as a receptacle for Chancery documents from the fourteenth century onwards. In the 1250s, the house may well have been overflowing with converts, because the king chose to send a number of them away to other religious houses across England. By the mid-fourteenth century the numbers had dwindled and the house was occupied by a small group of foreign converts and their fami? lies until the house closed at the beginning of the seventeenth century. At various times, especially in the early fourteenth century, the house was in financial hardship and near ruin. A number of converts died of starvation due to a disruption in the flow of funds from the Exchequer. By the fifteenth century the house contained a small number of inmates who were relatively well maintained, some with their own chambers and access to the garden, which boasted fruit trees that were the envy of the neighbors. Certainly the house did not offer the converts a luxurious existence, but it did offer some measure of security. The converts each received a weekly stipend of ten pence for men and eight and a half pence for women. Freedom of movement was allowed and several converts left the house but later returned and were re-admitted. If the converts had children after their baptisms, these children were often also accepted into the house and given a stipend, despite the fact that they were not themselves converts. In many ways this house is unique, but it is Henry IIFs interesting dedication to the convert cause that is also unique and has been overlooked.

The birth and life of the Domus Conversorum was made possible only by royal benefactors, Henry III being the first and most generous. But why did Henry decide to found a house for converted Jews in 1232? Nicholas Vincent has called Henry's grant of 700 marks a year, which he made at the foundation of the house, 'a lavish endowment at the best of times, and one which in the circumstances of 1232 was positively ridiculous'.1 Of Henry's other London foundations none received such an endowment sum. St Thomas of Acre received property in London, as did the Domus, and the Black Friars received some royal assistance, but nothing on that scale. Henry did seem to have an interest in rehabilitation since he founded two hospitals, that of hospital of St Anthony in the parish of St Benet Fink and St Mary Rouncivall near Charing Cross.2 There is no evidence that either received a large endowment from the king.

If anything, Henry's record on religious houses in

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