Most people recognize Richard the Lionheart and his brother John from the saga of Robin Hood. In these overly-romanticized tales, Richard is the hero king fighting in the Crusades, while John is portrayed as the money-hungry usurper. From the perspective of Jewish history, these royal brothers make a fascinating contrast in their treatment of the Jews:
Richard’s reign (1189-1199) began badly for his Jewish subjects. When a group of Jews (who had been banned from the coronation ceremony) tried to present the king with gifts, they were refused entry, and the crowd grew violent. When the violence turned into murder, robbery and forced conversions, Richard spoke out against the anti-Jewish rioting. In fact, he ordered the execution of several participants in the massacre. Before leaving for the Crusades (less than a year later), Richard ordered the Jews to be left in peace. Unfortunately, during his absence, this was not enforced, and there were a number of small pogroms, the worst being the Massacre at York in March 1190.
Because many of those who attacked the Jews did so in order to destroy any records of their debts to the Jews, Richard, upon his return in 1194, created the Ordinance of Jewry, which formed an exchequer system for recording and verifying Jewish loans.
King John assumed the throne in 1199. While he first protected the Jews of his kingdom, by 1205 he found himself heavily in debt due to his repeated attempts to recapture Normandy. He turned more and more to taxation, especially of his Jewish subjects – a practice which culminated in the Bristol Tallage: on 6 Cheshvan (November 1) 1210, John imprisoned the wealthiest Jews and demanded 66,000 silver marks in ransom. When Abraham of Bristol refused to pay his 10,000 mark share, John’s men extracted one tooth per day until he changed his mind. Abraham of Bristol lost 7 teeth.
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