< Back

The Domus Conversorum: The Personal Interest of Henry III

Lauren Fogle

<plain_text><page sequence="1">Jewish Historical Studies, volume 41, 2007 The Domus Conversorum: the personal interest of Henry III LAUREN FOGLE 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 * Paper presented to the Society on 27 April 2006. I</page><page sequence="2">Lauren Fogle 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 London shows a disre? gard, if not a dislike, for Jews. Henry twice displaced synagogues to accom? modate religious houses. St Anthony's hospital was said to be on the site of a synagogue,3 and the friars of the Sack were given a synagogue in Coleman Street in 1271-2, after they complained that the Jews next door were praying too loudly. The Jews were allowed to rebuild elsewhere, but were also instructed to be quieter.4 In fact, Henry's overall attitude towards Jews was one of toleration combined with extreme exploitation. Though he never willingly sought their murder or harm (the attack on the London Jewry in 1264 being at the precise time when the king and the Lord Edward had fled the city and Simon de Montfort and his barons were in control), he taxed them into near bankruptcy and slowly but steadily removed their liberties. However, since Henry was a very pious man, as has been shown by David Carpenter, his aversion to Jews seems to fit the rampant anti Semitism of the time. It might even seem natural that such a king would wish to convert the Jews of his realm and would spend money in doing so. Up until 1232 England had converted Jews, mostly individuals who were persuaded by local clergy or the nobility and either supported by them or 1 N. Vincent, 'Jews, Poitevins, and the Bishop of Winchester, 1231-1234', in D. Wood (ed.) Christianity and Judaism (London 1992) 119-32. Henry's motive for founding the Domus Conversorum was not discussed in David Carpenter, The Reign of Henry ///(London 1996), nor in his The Minority of Henry HI (London 1990), nor in F. M. Powicke, King Henry HI and the Lord Edward: The Community of the Realm in the Thirteenth Century (Oxford 1947), though Powicke did mention the foundation of the house and remarked on Henry's 'Christian simplicity', p. 125. 2 W. Page (ed.) The Victoria County History of London (London 1909) 581, 584. Also see J. S. Cockburn, H. P. F. King and K. G. T. McDonnel (eds) VCH Middlesex, vol. 1 (Oxford 1969) 212. 3 This has been questioned by the compilers of the VCH London, since St Benet Fink was so far from the Jewry. However, the Jewry was porous and since Henry III did issue a mandate in 1253 that no synagogues could exist aside from the ones that dated from the reign of King John, it stands to reason that the Jews had indeed built further afield, thereby prompting the mandate. See Calendar of Close Rolls, 1251-1253 (London 1927) 312. 4 Calendar of Close Rolls, 1268-1272 (London 1938) 522. 2</page><page sequence="3">The Dorum Conversorum: The Personal Interest of Henry III left to starve as many were on the Continent. But what made Henry decide to found a house for these converts and provide for them with state funds? In other words, what prompted such a large-scale endeavor? Henry was deeply dependant on the Jews of England for taxes, so converting the entire population, if that were even possible, would have been difficult financially. This is perhaps where Henry's decision to confiscate the property and chat? tels of the converts makes sense. Henry was clearly going against canon law here; it was forbidden to take from converts since it was thought they would return to Judaism if they were left destitute. However, Henry was not going to leave them destitute, he was going to offer them a life in the Domus Conversorum, where they would not be rich (actually, quite poor), but they would have a home, clothing, food and instruction in the Christian faith. Did this justify going against the Pope's wishes? Certainly it allowed Henry simultaneously to encourage conversion, and to benefit from the converts' wealth. Since the Jewish identities of most converts remain obscured, it is not possible to study the financial assets of converts and contrast them with those of Jews who remained unconverted. If such a study was possible, we might be able to gage whether confiscating a Jew's entire wealth on his conversion was more profitable to the king than leaving the Jew uncon? verted, and therefore still lending money to the crown. The question is a universal one; does one leave money in the bank, where it can mature and grow, or does one withdraw it all at once, therefore avoiding any losses? One point stands out here. Of the major thirteenth-century financial and politi? cal Jewish leaders (i.e. the magnates), only one that we know of converted to Christianity. Elias l'Eveske, the appointed 'bishop' of the Jews in the 1250s, converted to Christianity with his sons shortly after a corruption scandal removed him from office and ruined his reputation.5 The wealthiest Jews of London and York, whose tallage payments accounted for very large percentages of the overall amounts, remained Jews. Perhaps Henry and his advisors targeted less wealthy Jews for conversion in order to keep the Jewish financial structure intact. Nicholas Vincent has suggested that it was perhaps Henry's guilt over allowing usury to enrich his coffers that prompted him to found the house of converts. He also pointed out the strife that existed at that time between the Church and the king, who was unable to find a suitable candidate to be Archbishop of Canterbury between 1231 and 1234. But ultimately, Vincent places much of the emphasis on Peter des Roches, the bishop of Winchester and educator/advisor to the king. Vincent had shown that des Roches had many dealings with Jews and profited from them as many others did.6 Des 5 Calendar of Charter Rolls, 1257-1300 (London 1906) 8,16. 6 Vincent (see n. 1) 132. 3</page><page sequence="4">Lauren Fogle Roches was also one of the witnesses at the consecration of the Domus, which was administered by one of his suffragans, Bishop John Ardfert. However, there is no direct evidence that des Roches was particularly inter? ested in converting Jews or that he was the driving force behind the founda? tion of the Domus. In fact, had it been at the instigation of des Roches rather than of Henry himself, the funding of the Domus might well have slackened when des Roches died in 1238. But the majority of new funding for the Domus (apart from the initial grant of 700 marks) was granted by Henry and Edward after 1238, including the allocation of deodands and the chevage of the Jews of England. Deodands were items involved in a felony or a suicide, like a knife or a horse which were then sold and the profits returned to the king, who often granted them to pious causes.7 The chevage was a poll tax on all Jews of England over the age of twelve.8 Much of this money went directly to the house of converts, and it is not surprising to note that it was most unpopular with the Jews. On one occasion in 1290 a convert tax collector was attacked by a Jewish mob in Oxford while attempting to collect the chevage.9 Together, the deodands and the chevage were a lucra? tive source of funding for the Domus and, as previously stated, both were granted to the house after des Roches death. There is also no evidence that Henry made these grants to the Domus in des Roches' memory; in fact he not mentioned at all in relation to the house after his death. So if des Roches was an influence, but not a driving force, was it Louis IX of France who inspired Henry to make this foundation? To our knowl? edge, Louis had not made a similar foundation, nor had any other contem? porary monarch or leader, making the Domus Conversorum in London a unique institution. But Louis' piety is legendary, his crusading efforts and charity at home led to his canonization less than twenty years after his death. Again Vincent sees a connection, writing that 'Henry may have set out deliberately to emulate the French King's policy towards the Jews'.10 However, did Henry really follow Louis' example? Louis declared war on usury, confiscating Jews' property and chattels. He ordered them to return one third of the debts already paid to them and to forgive one third of the debts yet to be paid.11 Henry did nothing or the sort. He allowed usury in 7 A deodand was 'a personal chattel which was considered to be the immediate cause of death of its owner. As such it was forfeited to the king to be applied by him to pious uses'; see C. M. Barron, 'The Quarrel of Richard II with London, 1397-1397', in F. R. H. Du Boulay and C. M. Barron (eds) The Reign ofRichard II(London 1971) 176. 8 This tax was mentioned in the 1275 Statute of the Jewry, but may have existed previously. See P. Skinner (ed.) Jews in Medieval Britain (Woodbridge 2003) 74. 9 Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1281-12Q2 (London 1893) 397-8. 10 Vincent (see n. 1) 132. 11 R. Chazan, Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages (West Orange, NJ 1980) 283. 4</page><page sequence="5">The Domus Conversorum: The Personal Interest of Henry III order to collect increasingly higher taxes from the Jews. (Interestingly, his son, Edward I, used usury as the main excuse to expel the Jews from England in 1290.) Henry also confiscated the property and belongings of converts, something that was not in the French tradition (when King Philip Augustus expelled the Jews, he allowed converts to stay and keep their property).12 Louis also embraced high-profile converts like Paul Christian and encouraged him to preach to the Jews in 1268.13 Louis was not alone in his desire to support these converts who were willing to preach conversion directly to their former coreligionists. However, there is no evidence that Henry ever sought out Paul Christian, or Nicholas Donin, another convert and papal favourite, nor did he officially mandate that converts preach to the Jews of England. While Louis did seek to provide for converted Jewish children in group homes, the evidence suggests that he began this at least ten years after Henry founded the Domus.14 Moreover, the detente between Henry and Louis did not really occur until 1254, and officially only when the Treaty of Paris was ratified in 1259.15 Prior to that they were not the closest of allies, and their disputes over territory dated back to early in Henry's minority. Their relationship in 1232, the time of the foundation of the Domus, would not have been particularly close or friendly, and it seems unlikely that Louis influenced Henry either in this foundation or in his treatment of the English Jews throughout his reign. Another contemporary leader who may have had an impact on Henry's conversion policy was the Emperor Frederick II. As in England, the Jews of Germany were bound to the crown and the emperor felt he had complete jurisdiction over their social and economic affairs. In the 1230s, when the Jews of Fulda were accused of the ritual murder of Christian children, Frederick set up a council of nobleman and clerics to investigate the claims and recommend a verdict. This council convicted not only the specific Jews originally accused, but all the Jews of Germany, finding them guilty of ritual murder as a group. Frederick rejected this verdict and dismissed the council, before writing to various Christian monarchs asking them to send him their learned converts so they could testify to the impossibility that these Jews had committed ritual murder. Henry III is the only monarch whose reply is recorded. He sent two converts from London, who were well versed in Hebrew and the Talmud, and who argued successfully on the Jews' behalf, claiming that it was expressly against Jewish law to make blood 12 Ibid. 262. 13 Ibid. 14 See A. Bruel, 'Notes de Vyon D'Herouval sur les Baptises et Les Convers et sur Les Enqueteurs Royaux au Temps de Saint Louis et de ses Successseurs', in Bibliotheque de TEcole des Chartes, 28 (1867) 609-23. D. Carpenter, The Struggle for Mastery (London 2003) 34^ 15 D. Abulfia, Frederick II: A Medieval Emperor (London 1992) 244-5. 5</page><page sequence="6">Lauren Fogle sacrifices. Frederick was convinced and issued a privilege in favour of the Jews of Germany in 1236 which forbade all people, including clerics, to make charges of this kind against Jews.16 This episode shows that Frederick regarded converts as an effective weapon not only in the conversion of other Jews, but in helping to rule out these grandiose ritual-murder accusations that could cause violence and destabilize the potentially lucrative Jewish community. But interestingly Henry III seems to have been the only monarch to send converts to Frederick, indicating both that he had learned converts to send and that he agreed with Frederick's emphasis on their testimony. However, this entire event took place several years after Henry founded the Domus, making it impossible that Frederick's public highlighting of the importance of converts could have influenced Henry at the time of the foundation. In fact the monk who recorded Henry's sending of the converts to Frederick, Albert des Trois Fontaines, also wrote of Henry's establishment of the Domus, which means that Henry's actions had made news in France by 1241, when Albert's chronicle was finished.17 However, there was an event in Henry's early life that may have been the catalyst for his decision to found the Domus. In 1216, two weeks after his coronation, he went to Bristol with his guardian, the papal legate Gualo. Though Henry was only nine years old he accompanied Gualo to a council that was held to inspect the work of the Kalendars Guild, a religious frater? nity that had founded a house for converted Jews in the city around 1154.18 Henry and the legate granted the guild a charter of confirmation 'in consid? eration of the ancient and kindly duties it fulfilled'.19 This, perhaps more than any other factor, may have influenced Henry's desire to contribute on a greater scale to the effort to convert the Jews. There is therefore every reason to believe that Henry III founded the Domus Conversorum as a result of his own pious motives and experiences as a child in England, and was not strongly influenced either by his royal advi? sors or by his contemporaries in Europe. He was personally involved in the conversion process from time to time, bestowing his name on one convert, Henry de Winchester, and later knighting him.20 He was present at the baptisms of several others, for example Philip the Convert in 1234 near 16 See T. C. Van Cleve, The Emperor Frederick II of Hohenstaufen (Oxford 1972) 36-8. 17 M. Bouquet, Recueil des Historiens des Gaules et de la France, vol. 21 (Paris 1855) 607. 18 F. B. Bickley (ed.) The Little Red Book of Bristol (Bristol 1900) 208. See also, Michael Adler, The Jews of Medieval England, (London 1939) 183. There is very little information about this house of converts, but it is thought to have been on a small scale and nothing like the Domus in London. 19 Bickley (see n. 18) 208. 20 T. Rymer (ed.) Foedera, Conventiones, Litterae, et Cujuscunque Generis Acta Publica vol. 1, part 2 (London 1816) 557. 6</page><page sequence="7">The Domus Conversorum: The Personal Interest of Henry III Reading, and even visited the Domus personally to help end a dispute among the converts.21 At least in early years the king himself decided which converts were admitted to the house, also suggesting a keen interest on his part.22 In addition to his attention to the affairs of the house Henry had several converts in his service as couriers, messengers and sergeants-at arms. It was often pointed out by subsequent kings, when they made grants to the Domus, that they did so in memory and respect of the wishes of their predecessor, Henry III. Though Henry did not follow the papal instruc? tions regarding the conversion of Jews, since he confiscated the property of converts, he did initiate a policy which not only had no real model, but enjoyed little support among the English public. We have no evidence of Londoners leaving money or possessions to the converts in their wills, and even well-documented delinquency on rent and quit rent payments to the Domus Conversorum, so much so that the warden of the house had to get the Mayor and sheriffs of London involved on more than one occasion.23 Despite Henry's encouragement, the convert cause was not one to stir the hearts of the English people. This perhaps makes Henry, and the founda? tion of the Domus, seem even more isolated, and maybe explains why this foundation has been so overlooked when assessing Henry's royal legacy. 21 Calendar of Close Rolls, 1231-1234 (London 1905) 415; F. Devon (ed.) Issues of the Exchequer (London 1837) 503. 22 Calendar of Close Rolls, 1237-1242 (London 1911) 97. 23 Calendar of Close Rolls, ijg6-ijgg (London 1927) 268. 7</page></plain_text>