When Licoricia of Winchester, an English moneylender who counted among her clients Henry III and members of his court, was found murdered in her home in 1277, news of her death circulated widely, even reaching Jewish communities in Germany. The level of interest generated by Licoricia’s killing reflected her unique position in medieval English society: “She was Jewish, she was rich [and] she was a woman,” biographer Rebecca Abrams tells Catherine Pepinster of Religion News Service (RNS). “All three might have led to her death.”
Now, approximately 745 years after Licoricia’s murder—amid a worrying uptick in anti-Semitism across Europe—a statue of the Jewish businesswoman is set to be installed in her home city of Winchester, where organizers hope it will “promote tolerance and diversity in today’s society” while shedding light on an oft-overlooked chapter in local history, according to a statement. Sculpted by British artist Ian Rank-Broadley, the six-foot-tall bronze statue depicts Licoricia, whose name means “sweetmeat,” holding the hand of her youngest son. The phrase “Love thy neighbor as thyself” is engraved on the sculpture’s stone plinth in English and Hebrew.
“In many ways, [Licoricia has] always been there, but she’s been hiding in historical documents and books, and it’s the first time, if you like, that she has appeared in three dimensions on the streets of Winchester where she lived,” Rank-Broadley tells Mathilde Frot of the Jewish Chronicle.
Licoricia was, in the words of historian Robert Stacey, “the most important Jewish woman in medieval England.” She lived during a time of rampant anti-Semitism, when Jews were legally considered the personal property of the crown—a status that afforded them protection but left them vulnerable to heavy taxation. As Abrams wrote for History Extra in 2019, Jews made up just 0.25 percent of England’s population at the end of the 12th century but provided 8 percent of the royal treasury’s total income. Jews also faced restrictions on what jobs they could pursue and found themselves subjected to prejudice on a daily basis. (Moneylending was a leading occupation for medieval Jews, as Christians viewed lending money for interest as a sin.) Growing anti-Jewish sentiment sparked by the Crusades, false allegations of “blood libel” and financial instability culminated in Edward I’s expulsion of England’s Jews in 1290.
Born in the early 13th century, Licoricia first appears in the historical record in 1234, when she was a young widow with three sons and possibly a daughter. Writing for the Jewish Women’s Archive (JWA), scholar Cheryl Tallan and Suzanne Bartlet, author of a 2009 book on Licoricia, note that she soon established herself as one of Winchester’s wealthiest Jewish moneylenders. In 1242, Licoricia wed her second husband, the similarly successful financier David of Oxford. When David died just two years later, Henry III had Licoricia imprisoned in the Tower of London to prevent her from interfering while royal accountants assessed his estate. (Per a 2004 article in the journal of Jewish Historical Studies, the crown often seized one-third of deceased Jews’ property as a “‘relief’ or death duty.”) The king only authorized Licoricia’s release after adding 5,000 marks to the royal treasury—a substantial sum that went largely toward construction of a chapel at Westminster Abbey.
This otherwise inauspicious event marked the beginning of Licoricia’s fruitful relationship with Henry, who supported her when she tried to reclaim debts and offered her an exemption from additional taxes, according to Historic Royal Palaces. JWA points out that Licoricia’s “ease of access” to the king also proved beneficial to the Jewish community, with other Jews relying on the moneylender to intercede with him on their behalf. The businesswoman loaned money to the elite, including the king and other members of the royal family, nobles, and the Church, and less affluent members of society alike, offering financial aid to fellow Jews, small landowners and farmers.
Unfortunately for Licoricia, her 1244 stint in the Tower wouldn’t be her last: In 1258, a neighbor accused the moneylender of stealing a gold ring intended for the king. Licoricia was sent to the Tower while the matter was investigated and only released after the neighbor who’d accused her was identified as the actual thief.
In 1277, Licoricia’s daughter, Belia, discovered the bodies of her mother and a Christian servant, Alice of Bickton, in Licoricia’s Winchester home. Each had suffered “a blow to the chest made by a knife, to the heart,” as one chronicler wrote at the time. Authorities indicted three suspects believed to have attacked the women during a botched burglary or business transaction but found the men not guilty, instead accusing a saddler who had left the city. Two of Licoricia’s sons attempted to bring a new case against the men but were unsuccessful; her murder was never officially solved.
As Stephen Oryszczuk reports for the Jewish News, Rank-Broadley’s statue of Licoricia—scheduled to be unveiled by Prince Charles on February 10—presents her as a wealthy medieval woman clad in ornate clothing and a headdress. Though most English Jews were required to wear badges denoting their religious identity, Licoricia appears without one, as Jews with financial means could pay for an exemption from the regulation. In her right hand, the businesswoman holds a demand for tallage, or taxation—an allusion to the increased taxes leveled against English Jews throughout the 13th century.
“[Licoricia’s] story … epitomizes the prosperity and gradual decline of the Jewish community, which culminated in one of her sons being hanged [for coin clipping] and the others banished in the expulsion of the Jews from England,” wrote Jonathan Romain for the Jewish Chronicle in 2019.
Jews were only readmitted to Britain in 1656, 366 years after their expulsion in 1290.