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The ‘sorry’ that makes no sense

19 August 2022

There’s a difference between understanding the past and apologising, argues Andrew Southam


The service of repentance in Oxford in May

The service of repentance in Oxford in May

THE Church of England is putting historical accuracy at risk by separating out the 800-year-old Synod of Oxford from the context of its times to explain the Jewish expulsion from England.

On Sunday 8 May, the Church during a service in Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford, an apology was offered on behalf of the Church for the 1222 Synod that persecuted Jews by imposing identifying badges, preventing social integration with Christians, increasing taxes, and prohibiting synagogue-building (News, 13 May).

Historical apologies are not new. For example, when visiting Greece in 2001, Pope John Paul II expressed regret about the Crusaders’ sack of Constantinople. But the question must be asked: what was the Church of England apologising for? Is the Church really implying that the Synod caused the Jewish expulsion in 1290? Or are they apologising for the whole nature of a medieval society? The first is inaccurate and the second is somewhat meaningless.

There is a significant difference between understanding the events of a remote past and apologising for them in a time when the Church of England did not even exist.

The point is that the Synod’s decrees do not by themselves account for Edward I’s expulsion edict some 70 years later. These religious laws must be set in their historical context to explain a medieval society in which Jewish persecution was already ingrained by the 12th century. The decrees were as much a symptom of a trend as a specific cause.


THE Synod of Oxford should, therefore, be seen as part of a nexus of events sweeping through England and Europe. This requires historical rigour to examine 200 years of history, entangling money-lending practices, the baronial struggles with the Crown and religious dispute, together with popular sentiment.

First, a prevalent strain behind the expulsion comes from the financial relationship between king and Jewish financiers. William the Conqueror invited over Normandy’s Rouen Jews to create a credit network from their sophisticated banking services and overcome the Church’s prohibition on money-lending by Christians. William needed income to secure his new kingdom after 1066, barons rich in land needed cash to buy goods, and knights needed to fund their military service, as did churches and religious houses their ambitious building schemes.

Second, as Jews grew wealthy and enriched the Crown, which even created a Jewish Exchequer, their financial practices built up resentment. Barons and knights grew angry towards outsiders owed money, as did popular sentiment against wealthy, seemingly privileged, non-Christian foreigners. Richard the Lionheart’s foreign ventures increased knights’ indebtedness to the Jews, who were squeezed for even more taxes by the heavy-spending Henry III, and forced to call in debts, which only exacerbated their unpopularity while straining their financial uses.

This resentment affected the barons’ constitutional struggle with the Crown. They incorporated a minor provision into Magna Carta, limiting Jewish powers over debtors and, 50 years later, used the Second Barons’ War under Simon de Montfort to attack Jews and destroy their paperwork of debts. De Montfort even declared all debts owed to the Jews cancelled when capturing Lewes in 1264.

Third, Pope Urban II’s 1095 preaching of the first crusade, to win back Jerusalem, caused crusading theology to mix with medieval superstition. The unexplained murder of 12-year-old William near Norwich, in 1144, fostered the first accusation that Jews were killing Christian children to use their blood in Passover rituals: the so-called blood libel. Retribution followed. Other 12th-century accusations ensued at Gloucester, Bury St Edmunds, Bristol, and Winchester.

London mobs attacked Jews attending King Richard I’s 1189 coronation, and there were other attacks in Lincoln and Colchester. The worst medieval anti-Semitic massacre occurred in 1190 in the keep of York Castle (reopened by English Heritage this April), when a mob attacked the city’s 150 Jewish population, causing many to choose suicide — an event 30 years before the Synod of Oxford.

Then, in 1215, the Fourth Lateran Council produced the restrictions that the Synod enacted in England seven years later. These restrictions fed into existing popular distrust of Jewish communities — the worst blood libel came when Lincoln’s population hanged 18 Jews for the death of “Little Saint Hugh”, in 1255.


AGAINST all these developments, King Edward I had little motivation to protect the Jews when the barons pursued their grievances in the late 13th century. A heavy tax burden and restrictive practices had reduced Jewish ability to lend money. Lombardy bankers, meanwhile, had devised a pawnbroking loan scheme that subverted the edict on interest and contributed to Edward I’s military campaigns. And Jewish banishment gave the King a huge financial incentive: in return for their expulsion, Parliament agreed a £100,000 tax, possibly the largest of the Middle Ages.

England was the first medieval nation to expel Jews uniformly. France waited another 16 years, and Spain 200 years, until 1492.

The Church of England’s intention of eliminating anti-Semitism is necessary and noble, but it cannot be achieved by apologising for an 800-year-old event ripped out from its context. The study of history is about explaining and understanding what happened and why rather than saying sorry for actions beyond anyone’s control today. Solving very real current issues with practical steps should be the focus.

Andrew Southam is a freelance history journalist and writer.

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