The Martyrdom of Little St Hugh
Franciscans arrived in England five years before the death of St Francis in Italy. By 1224, there were Franciscans in Oxford and Cambridge, helping to establish those two places of theological learning. King Henry III, known by some as Henry the Pious, was impressed by the Franciscans and their friendly rivals, the Dominicans. In 1226, the King gave to the Franciscans in Cambridge half of a stone house which had belonged to Benjamin the Jew.
The Jews were tolerated in England, mainly as money-lenders to the aristocracy. Henry borrowed staggering sums, and was unable to repay them. He then devised heavy taxes on Jews as a way of getting out of debt. He had, for example, passed a law aimed at the wealthy Jews that gave him the right to huge taxes or fines from any man convicted of capital crimes.
The Franciscans were missionaries: they had a strong desire to convert the Jews, so they took a special interest in the Jewish community. Friars took the trouble to learn about their customs and literature, and follow the politics of the place of Jews in the English community. Franciscan Friar Roger Bacon, the famous intellectual, was given special responsibility for the converts from Judaism.
On 27th August 1225, the body of nine-year-old Hugh was found at the bottom of a well in Lincoln. A friar, sadly, was the first to accuse the Jews of kidnapping little Hugh and ritually executing him, using his blood to make matzos for Passover. Emotions flared all over England and Henry saw a chance. He thought he would ride public opinion and have ninety Jews convicted for the double crime of kidnap and murder. He arrested them, had them tortured and locked up in the Tower of London.
18 of the Jews hanged themselves rather than risk the anger of a Christian court-room.
Many Franciscans refused to be caught up in the angry outcry against the Jews. Risking their friendship with the volatile King, they pleaded in court for the release of the remaining Jews.
The crimes alleged, the Franciscans said, could not possibly have been committed by Jews. Eating blood in any form is comprehensively prohibited for Jews, and Passover takes place, not in August, but in March/April.
The pleas of the Franciscan friars did not succeed in gaining the Jews’ release. However, they were not hanged but kept imprisoned for many months while the Jewish community all over England gathered together a massive ransom payment for their freedom.
The Feast of the martyr Little St Hugh is July 27, a day on which we Franciscans can both repent the history of maltreatment and misunderstanding of Jews and recognise three Franciscan traits: firstly, the desire to understand people and respect every human being as made in God’s image. Secondly, as our Principles put it, the desire of Franciscans to ‘make our Lord known and loved everywhere’, and thirdly, even when faced with spectacular failure, the willingness to stand up for justice, particularly to take up the cause of those falsely accused.
If you’re interested in Little St Hugh and want to know more, read Robin R. Mundil, The King’s Jews: Money, Massacre and Exodus in Medieval England, London: Continuum Books, 2010, or, for Franciscan beginnings in England, relevant chapters in Maurice Carmody OFM, The Franciscan Story, London: Athena Press 2008.