April 20, 2012 3 Comments
By Rob Packer
I’m currently in Yorkshire for a few days with my parents, but on our way up we took a detour to Lincoln, a historic town, whose name dates to at least Roman times: Lindum Colonia was a major Roman city on Ermine Street, the main road connecting London and York and that still follows its arrow-straight course north as the A15. Today the city is more isolated as the north-south routes have migrated westwards, but its past importance is more than visible in its enormous English Gothic cathedral.
Standing in the chapter house looking at stained glass depicting the history of the cathedral and city, I was surprised by just how important the place must once have been. The windows show kings holding parliaments, the cathedral’s occupation by the Pilgrimage of Grace in 1536—an uprising to protest Henry VIII’s break with Rome and the Dissolution of the Monasteries—and the foundation of two Oxford colleges (Lincoln and Brasenose; a third, St. Hugh’s, was founded for women by the daughter of a Bishop of Lincoln). The cathedral also contains a tomb for Eleanor of Castile, the queen of Edward I, who died in 1290. I was told her story as a child: after she died, her body was taken to Westminster and a bereaved Edward I built a cross in her memory at every town they stopped en route—the most famous being Charing Cross in London.
A more bizarre claim to fame is that it was maybe the first man-made structure taller than the Pyramids: from 1300 to 1549, its spire may have measured 160m—nearly double its current height—before it was blown off in a storm. It must have been a spectacular sight journeying across the plains and fens of Lincolnshire.
Surprisingly, the cathedral’s history sheds light on the Jewish history of England, characterized by violence and persecution like so many other European countries. The first Jewish communities came to England after the Norman invasion in 1066; just over a century later St Hugh of Lincoln (bishop 1186-1200) rescued Lincoln Jews from a mob—apparently risking his life.
Far more shocking is a small note about the story of Little Hugh, a ten year old, who went missing in 1255 and whose body was discovered in a well used by a local Jewish man. Over 90 members of the Jewish community were arrested and sent to the Tower of London, where 18 were executed for ritual murder—the ‘blood libel’ alleging that Jews used Christian blood for rituals. A shrine was later built for the “martyr” that became a place of pilgrimage and, according to Wikipedia, attracted pilgrims until the early 20th century. It has now been removed and condemned by the church (only) in 1955. The same Wikipedia article says that Hugh has been abolished: the note in the cathedral says that he was never canonized and also mentions that when the body was examined centuries later, it was—unsurprisingly—not mutilated.
English Jews were expelled a few decades later in 1290 and were invited to settle again in 1656 after the English Civil Wars. It is probably coincidence that Edward I enacted the Edict of Expulsion the same year that his queen died and he left behind one of the most famous monuments to love in England. It does, however, put a very different perspective on it.