Jewish life in medieval England

Many of us in England like to think of ourselves as a fairly tolerant people, accepting of many traditions and ethnic groups. I would venture to say that this has some basis in truth, at least in contemporary Britain – it is true that if you go back a few decades, English society, unused to mass immigration, gave a frequently hostile reception to Caribbean and Asian immigrants. At any rate, when we hear the term ‘anti-Semitism’ we are most likely to think of Nazi Germany, or the Russian pogroms of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Yet in medieval England, Jews were persecuted and eventually expelled, left to wander the rest of Europe. (After they were allowed back in the 17th century, England became one of the better places in Europe to be Jewish, but that’s another story).

The first written record of Jews in England goes back to the reign of William the Conqueror. In 1070, William invited a group of Jewish merchants from Rouen to England, possibly to help the Crown in financial matters. The Jewish community grew over the next few centuries, during which time the discrimination against English Jews ebbed and flowed. At certain periods, Jews were better tolerated, often for policy reasons. They were granted a number of rights at various points. In Henry I’s reign, a royal charter ensured that Jews were permitted to buy and sell goods and property, to be tried by their peers, to swear oaths on the Torah rather than on a Christian Bible, and to move about the country without paying tolls. It should be borne in mind that a great many English peasants didn’t enjoy the last right, because of the restrictive feudal system which prevented much movement away from the lord’s estate.

By about 1140, Jews were to be found in many of the major English and Welsh towns: London, Oxford, Cambridge, Canterbury, Windsor, Reading, Winchester, Newport, Norwich, Bungay and Thetford. A number of Jews managed to do very well for themselves, at least in financial terms. Aaron of Lincoln, for instance, is believed to have been the wealthiest man in 12th-century England, perhaps even wealthier than the king. Testament to the wealth of certain individuals in the Jewish community is the Jew’s House in Lincoln, one of the earliest extant town houses in the country. Dating originally to the mid-12th century, the house is well-built out of stone, and has impressive features such as elaborate Romanesque windows.

Jew's House in High Street, Lincoln
The Jew’s House in Lincoln

However, for all the concessions granted to English Jews, their overall experience was one of discrimination and persecution. Numerous statutes limited their freedom of action, and they were never accorded the full rights of other English subjects. Petty legal discrimination abounded. For instance, before 1177, Jews were not permitted to bury their dead anywhere outside London, and in 1280 Edward I ordered that ‘Jews and Jewesses’ had to pay a special toll in order to cross the bridge at Brentford. Edward I also stripped Jews of their right to lend money, restricted their movements and activities, and forced them to wear a yellow patch on their clothing.

Frequently the king would seize Jewish assets simply because he needed money and could get away with it more easily than if he imposed onerous taxes on the whole population, which would run the risk of inciting rebellion. The persons and goods of the Jewish community in England were therefore rarely secure. One of the first such recorded incidents is when King Stephen burned down the house of Jew in Oxford when the man refused to pay a contribution to the royal expenses. Further incidents of intimidation and coercion followed. When negotiating an alliance with the Holy Roman Emperor in 1168, Henry II abducted the chief representatives of the English Jews and sent them to Normandy, imposing a land tax on the rest of the community to the value of 5,000 marks. Raising money for the Crusade against Saladin in 1188, Henry then demanded a quarter of all Jewish chattels for the purpose, a far greater proportion than was required of his Gentile subjects.

Jews were forced to wear special hats (England, 13th century)
Jews were forced to wear special hats (England, 13th century)

Persecution of the Jews grew increasingly serious, and indeed violent, towards the end of the 13th century. When Jewish moneylenders found themselves unable to fund the war against Wales in 1276, Edward’s response was brutal. He accused English Jews of disloyalty and enacted various punitive statutes. The heads of Jewish households were arrested, with over three hundred taken to the Tower of London and executed. On November 17, 1278, every Jew in England was arrested on suspicion of coin clipping and counterfeiting. Coin clipping was in fact carried out by Christians as well as Jews, but this little detail does not seem to have alleviated the Crown’s harsh treatment of the accused Jews. The Bury Chronicle records how:

“All Jews in England of whatever condition, age or sex were unexpectedly seized … and sent for imprisonment to various castles throughout England. While they were thus imprisoned, the innermost recesses of their houses were ransacked.” 

On a wider level, many English people were anti-Semitic as a matter of course, and augmented discriminatory laws with persecution of their own. Underpinning much of this was the contemporary Catholic attitude towards Judaism. Using the ancient idea that Jews were to be despised as ‘Christ-killers’, the medieval Catholic Church played a shameful role in inciting violence against Jews and their property. All over Europe, rumours abounded that Jews were the malevolent members of a great conspiracy against Christians. Jews were blamed for many unfortunate events; it was commonly believed, for instance, that outbreaks of plague originated from the wicked Jews poisoning wells.

13th century English caricature of the Jew Aaron, son of Satan
13th century English caricature of the Jew Aaron, son of Satan

This anti-Jewish sentiment periodically erupted into mob violence. For instance, when a rumour went around London in September 1189 that the king had ordered a massacre of the Jews, a frenzied mob set fire to houses in Old Jewry, killing those who attempted to escape. Further massacres followed at Lynn, Stamford Fair, Bury St Edmunds, and Lincoln, where the Jews only survived by taking refuge in Lincoln Castle.

The most infamous massacre took place in York in March 1190, on the night of the sabbath. Religious feeling was high at the time, as the crusaders were just preparing to leave on the Third Crusade, off to slaughter the Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land. Anti-Jewish violence in York was increasing, and Josce, the leader of the Jews in York, asked the warden of York Castle to shelter them and their families. They were duly accepted into Clifford’s Tower. However, crusaders surrounded the castle and demanded that the Jews convert to Christianity. The Jews’ religious leader, Rabbi Yomtov of Joigney, advised his flock to commit suicide rather than convert. The father of each family apparently killed his wife and children, beginning with Josce killing his wife Anna and their two children. Josce and Yomtov set fire to the wooden keep; the handful of Jews who did not kill themselves died in the fire, or were murdered by the rioters.

Clifford's Tower, York Castle
Clifford’s Tower, York Castle

The history of the Jewish community in medieval England ended suddenly when King Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, which exiled between 4,000 and 16,000 Jews from the country. A number of Jews favoured by the monarchy were permitted to sell their properties before leaving, but more often, Jewish goods and property were confiscated by the Crown. With a few exceptions, Jews did not return to England until Oliver Cromwell invited them back in 1655.

Jewish expulsions in Europe, 1100-1600

Blood feud in early medieval Francia

Francia was the largest and most sophisticated kingdom in early medieval Europe, lasting from the 5th to 9th centuries. At it greatest extent, Francia was twice as large as modern France, stretching from the Pyrenees to Bavaria, from Rome to Saxony. It was huge and unwieldy. Given this, how was a Frankish king supposed to maintain law and order? It seems almost an impossible task. This was a time when horse and rider was the fastest method of communication, and local lords were not always willing to tolerate royal control. As the king could not possibly micro-manage everything, Frankish law and order depended upon complicated local systems of justice which interpreted and enacted the major bodies of centrally composed law codes, with more or less success.

Blood-feud – or the threat of it – was an integral part of maintaining law and order in early medieval Francia. Frankish law presents blood feud as a legitimate way of redressing wrongs; families were allowed to violently avenge insults and injuries perpetrated on a kin member. The mentality behind this sort of retribution is very much of the “eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth” variety. Law codes make it clear that no-one was to interfere in blood vengeance; there is a clause in Lex Salica which forbade killing any man ‘whom his enemies have left mutilated [at a crossroads]’, and any violation of this law incurred the not inconsiderable fine of 100 solidi.

Clearly, vengeance killing was seen as a potent form of justice and a means of recovering a family’s honour, but the fact that it was codified in law seems rather an attempt to regulate killing than to encourage it at all costs. It may be that the threat of ‘mutually assured destruction’ was designed to act as a brake upon lethal crime. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill has argued that the kings of the “Barbarian West” sanctioned blood feud in their law codes as a means of preserving peace in their realms for want of anything better.

Frankish territories from 481 to 814
Frankish territories from 481 to 814

However, this is not exactly what we think of as ‘blood feud’ today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a feud as “a state of prolonged mutual hostility, typically between two families or communities, characterised by murderous assaults in revenge for previous injuries”. Blood-feud as defined in Frankish law, however, was a specific remedy used to avenge one deed. There is no indication that, after the vengeance had been carried out, the family and friends of the victim had any right to continue committing acts of violence against the offender.

The historian David Halsall has attempted to pin down the exact nature of Frankish blood feud as opposed to ‘true’ blood feud, by differentiating between tactical violence and strategic violence. Tactical violence, he maintains, aims directly at the resolution of a dispute, whereas the latter aims not at terminating the dispute directly, but rather at drawing attention to it. Blood vengeance as defined in Frankish law would appear to fit the former definition, whereas the latter approach (strategic violence) seems better suited to the modern understanding of ‘true feud’. I’m not sure how helpful the terms ‘tactical’ and ‘strategic’ are – they are linguistically interchangeable – but Halsall’s differentiation is nonetheless quite useful.

In a further departure from the classic definition of blood feud, it is clear from Frankish law codes that killing the offender was not supposed to be a measure of first resort. The Lex Salica, a major body of Frankish law, clearly stipulated that the punishment for homicide should be compensation first and foremost; only after a lengthy process of ritual and court appearances should the murderer be killed as compensation, and that only if he could not pay the fine. In 6th century Francia, vengeance could not be exacted until the local count or judge had found in favour of the wronged party. For instance, in the famous feud of Sichar and Chramnesind (585-87), Chramnesind forfeited half of the compensation otherwise due to him, for attacking Sichar’s household contrary to the findings of the tribunal.

In a tight-knit community it may have been more sensible to settle for compensation, since although a dead body restored honour and justice for the victim’s kin, it could not buy seed and livestock like monetary compensation (weregild) could. It would, however, be misleading to suggest that all families of the victim were more eager for money than vengeance. Stephen White, who studied violence in the Touraine around 1100, found that aggrieved parties delayed or rejected compromise and compensation for quite lengthy periods. This allowed them to make the most of their opponent’s contrition, and capitalise upon the community’s awareness that they had suffered a wrong and had the right to avenge it.

King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction
King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction

The blood vengeance in early medieval Francia which most closely paralleled the modern definition of blood feud was waged by the Merovingian royal family. Since the king was above the law, and given that the Merovingians often feuded with dynasties in other countries where the same law codes did not apply, one cannot say that Merovingian vengeance attacks were part of a progression of penalties as outlined in the Frankish law codes. Rather, they fit the pattern of classic blood feud in that they often involved a lasting state of hostility between families or family members. Halsall’s argument seems apt here: he observes that a ‘true feud’ is very difficult to terminate, and almost never ended through violence, because the feuding groups are perpetually in a state of  debtor and creditor; every time the debt of blood is paid off on one side, the roles and relationships are reversed, and it keeps on going.

The Merovingians were very into blood feud even by the standards of medieval royal dynasties. They tended to attack opponents in order to avenge insults to their kin. Such feuds could stretch out over generations. Gregory of Tours records Queen Chrotechildis, a Burgundian by birth, urging her sons to avenge the deaths of her parents on the murderer’s sons (her nephews Sigismund and Godomar). It seems that in royal circles, not engaging in blood feud to avenge a kinsman’s death was seen as positively shameful. The mid-9th century Gesta Dagoberti recounts how, supposedly, the sons of Sadregisil did not manage to obtain their heritage because they had not avenged their father’s murder.

Sometimes avenging an injured family member was linked with ideological considerations. For instance, King Childebert invaded Spain in 531 after hearing from his sister Chrotilda that her husband, Amalric of the Visigoths, was grossly mistreating her due to her Catholic faith (Amalaric was an Arian). Childebert defeated the Visigoth army and Amalaric was assassinated after fleeing to Barcelona. Unfortunately, Chrotilda herself never made it back to Paris, dying of an unknown cause en route, but the victory presumably enhanced Childebert’s reputation. Ideological concerns aside, the Merovingians also used blood feud for less exalted ends. One such case developed in the aftermath of a lurid royal scandal involving King Chilperic I (c.539-584). Chilperic murdered his wife, Galswintha, on the instigation of his mistress Fredegund, apparently strangling her in bed. Chilperic’s brothers saw their chance and decided to ‘avenge’ Galswintha by killing Chilperic. This, of course, left the throne open to them, and had the added bonus of being able to steal Galswintha’s dowry  in the process.

Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha. 14th century
Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha. 14th century
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha










We start to see an end to vengeance killing as an official form of justice under Charlemagne, who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. He opposed blood feud as part of his campaign against any violence not committed by royal consent. His Capitulare Missorum Generale attempted to ban all blood vengeance. Any attempt to settle a dispute had to be conducted through the medium of Charlemagne’s own officers. A murderer had to agree to pay compensation and the victim’s relatives had to accept it, once paid. Anyone taking vengeance of their own would be punished. It’s impossible to know how strictly these laws were followed; Francia was a huge realm and royal powers to enforce such regulations were limited. At any rate, perhaps it is not too much to see Charlemagne’s laws against blood feud as the beginning of the medieval expansion of more centralised royal justice. It was, however, not until the Holy Roman Empire’s Reichstag in 1495 that the right of waging feuds was totally abolished, with the Imperial Reform proclaiming an “eternal public peace”.


  • Fischer Drew, Katherine (ed.). Lex Salica, 1991, University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Halsall, Guy. ‘Reflections of Early Medieval Violence: The Example of the “Blood-Feud” Memoria y Civilización 2 (1999), pp. 7-29


“The Bank of Mum and Dad”, funding students since 1200

Although European society has changed hugely since the Middle Ages, some documents and objects from the time still have the power to speak straight down the centuries and demonstrate that despite radically altered worldviews, we do have things in common with our medieval ancestors. I was reminded of this when I came across a collection of model letters dating from 1200 to 1250, which contained templates for students to send to their parents. The style may be formal and full of allusions to Christian and classical literature, but the content is strikingly similar to students’ emails to parents today. The writer tends to slyly work his way from affectionate greetings and assurances of his hard work, to earnest requests for money or other commodities. Take this early 13th century model letter as an example; my favourite part is when the student says he “cannot now specify” his expenditure:

“B. to his venerable master [father] A., greeting. 
This is to inform you that I am studying at Oxford with the greatest diligence, but the matter of money stands greatly in the way of my promotion, as it is now two months since I spent the last of what you sent me. The city is expensive and makes many demands; I have to rent lodgings, buy necessaries and provide for many other things which I cannot now specify. Wherefore I respectfully beg Your Paternity that by the promptings of divine piety you may assist me, so that I may be able to complete what I have well begun. For you must know that without Ceres and Bacchus, Apollo grows cold. Therefore, I hope that you will act in such a way that, by your intercession, I may finish what I have well begun. 

Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin
Students in the 2nd half of the 14th century, by Laurentius de Voltolin

Clearly the desired response to such a missive would be affectionate, containing liberal promises of monetary aid. However, medieval writers seem to have taken delight in composing parental reproofs full of withering put-downs. In one model answer from a collection in Franche-Comté, an exasperated father writes:

“To his son G. residing at Orl
éans P. of Besançon sends greetings with paternal zeal. It is written, ‘He also that is slothful in his work is brother to him that is a great waster’. I have recently discovered that you live dissolutely and slothfully, preferring license to restraint and play to work and strumming a guitar while the others are at their studies, whence it happens that you have read but one volume of law while your more industrious companions have read several. Wherefore I have decided to exhort you herewith to repent utterly of your dissolute and careless ways, that you may no longer be called a waster and your shame may be turned to good repute.”

Although these are model letters, we find their content replicated over and over in the following centuries in individually composed letters. Take, for instance, a 1762 letter from Jeremy Bentham to his father, written whilst he was a student at Queen’s College, Oxford. It is startlingly similar, except that he asks to be sent some tea and sugar, not money. Bentham reasons that these commodities are much cheaper in London, thus presenting his request in the light of economical living, although a cynic might view this as a mere ploy for a free home care package!

Bentham's letter of February 5th 1762 to his father
Bentham’s letter of February 5th 1762 to his father

Dear Papa
Queen’s. February 5th 1762.
I hoped to have had the pleasure of hearing from you before now; but as that could not be, I flatter myself I shall not be disappointed of an Answer to this, when it comes to hand. I have the Satisfaction of telling you that I go on briskly in Homer, doing generally a book in two days, which is no very inconsiderable thing, to do exclusive of the College-business. – You cannot expect a long letter from a place so destitute of Novelty as this is, all the news there is here is that the College is not only as full as it can hold but even fuller, there having come 3 or 4 in the little time that I was absent, one of whom his name is Piers; whose father is a wholesale grocer in London; which puts me in mind of my wants, which I hope you will supply; you may guess I mean Tea and Sugar; or else I must be forced to get some here at half as much again as you can get it me for; I have been forced to live upon my Friends these 2 or 3 days. Pray give my duty to Grandmama and love to brother Sammy, and fulfill the expectations of
Your dutiful and affectionate Son
J. Bentham”


Vladimir the Great: pagan, philanderer, saint

An 1889 depiction of St Vladimir the Great
An 1889 depiction of St Vladimir the Great

St Vladimir of Kiev, or Vladimir the Great, as he is also known, is one of the most unlikely saints in the Christian calendar. He is still venerated today as the father of Christianity in Russia and the Ukraine, yet for much of his life he was the very stereotype of a pagan king: bloodthirsty, lecherous and fratricidal. Vladimir was born in 956 to Prince Sviatoslav of Kiev and his housekeeper Malusha. Norse sagas claim that Malusha was a prophetess who lived to the age of 100. Sviatoslav was the ruler of the Kievan Rus, a loose federation of East Slavic tribes in Europe which existed from the late 9th to the mid-13th century. Sviatoslav also had two legitimate sons, Oleg and Yaropolk.

Perhaps in order to prevent family infighting, Sviatoslav decided to entrust parts of his realm to his sons during his lifetime. Kiev, as the most important city, was given to the eldest son, Yaropolk, and Vladimir received the fiefdom of Novgorod. Sviatoslav did indeed manage to remain at peace with his children – no small feat in medieval Europe – but upon his death in 972, civil war broke out between Oleg and Yaropolk. Vladimir was forced to flee to Norway in 977. He gathered together an army of Norse warriors in order to take back Novgorod, but his ambitions ranged beyond the re-taking of his own territory. Probably he saw the disunity of his brothers as a chance to gain ultimate control of the Kievan Rus. He was unwittingly helped in his attempt by Yaropolk, who murdered Oleg; now only one brother stood between Vladimir and the crown. Vladimir’s military campaign against Yaropolk proved very successful; within a year he managed to subdue the major towns and seize Kiev. He had Yaropolk assasinated and declared himself the ruler of all Kievan Rus.

A gold coin of Vladimir the Great
A gold coin of Vladimir the Great

Although Vladimir was an illegitimate usurper, he managed to retain his power. His early reign was marked by licentious behaviour, strong expansionist policies and the persecution of Christians. On the first point, his philandering tendencies, when combined with ultimate power, led many women to miserable fates. When he was on the way to attack Yaropolk with his Norse warriors back in 977-8, Vladimir decided that he wanted to marry Rogneda, the daughter of Rogvolod, Prince of Polotsk. She refused to ally herself with a man born of a bondswoman (referring of course to his illegitimacy), at which insult Vladimir attacked Polotsk, killed Prince Rogvolod and abducted Rogneda. His brutal behaviour continued when he reached Kiev.After he had Yaropolk murdered, Vladimir proceeded to rape his newly-widowed sister-in-law. Since the paganism practised by many Kievan Rus allowed polygamy, in the ten years before he converted to Christianity Vladimir is said to have had 800 concubines and numerous wives. After his conversion, Vladimir seemed content to have one wife at a time, but for now he enjoyed all the benefits of paganism. Although Christianity had been spreading in the region for some decades, Vladimir remained uncompromisingly pagan. He erected many heathen statues and shrines to the gods, and turned a blind eye to the periodic outbursts of mob violence against Christians.


A fanciful depiction of Vladimir's abduction of Rogneda. ~ By the Ukrainian artist Anton Losenko (1770)
A fanciful depiction of Vladimir’s abduction of Rogneda. ~ Anton Losenko (1770)

However, it seems that in the late 980s, Vladimir started to turn his attention to religion and mull over alternatives to the paganism of the Kievan Rus; partly, perhaps, because envoys from surrounding kingdoms kept on urging him to convert to their particular faith. Thus, according to the early Slavic Primary Chronicle, after consulting with his nobles, Vladimir sent envoys throughout the civilised world to judge first hand the major religions of the time; Islam, Judaism, Byzantine Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. The Primary Chronicle describes the results of the embassies as follows.

Of the Muslim Bulgarians of the Volga, the envoys reported that there was no gladness among them, only sorrow and a great stench. The Primary Chronicle writer also noted that Islam was an unattractive religion due to its taboo on pork and alcoholic drinks; Vladimir is supposed to have remarked on the occasion, “drinking is the joy of all Rus. We cannot exist without that pleasure”. As for Judaism, we are told that Vladimir viewed the Jews’ loss of Jerusalem as a sign that they had been abandoned by God.

Finally there were the embassies to Christian lands. The Rus emissaries found no beauty in the gloomy Roman Catholic churches in Germany, but were highly impressed by the pomp and circumstance of the Byzantine Orthodox Church. Speaking of a magnificent religious service at the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they wrote home to say “we no longer knew whether we were in heaven or earth…such beauty, we know not how to tell of it. We only know that God dwells there among the people, and their service is fairer than the ceremonies of other nations”. Of course, this source is highly unreliable as it was written by a Christian scholar after the Kievan Rus were Christianised, but it nevertheless makes for an interesting tale. At any rate, it seems that Vladimir found Byzantine Orthodoxy an attractive prospect, all the more so because of the potential political gains of an alliance with the Byzantine Empire.

Vladimir choosing a religion ~ Ivan Eggink (1822)
Vladimir choosing a religion. ~ Ivan Eggink (1822)

The actual events surrounding Vladimir’s conversion are rather hazy, with Kievan and Arab chroniclers giving quite different accounts. The Primary Chronicle says that Vladimir decided to seize the Byzantine town of Chersonesos in a bold move to show his strength and force the Emperor’s hand. Vladimir proceeded to demand the hand of in marriage of Emperor Basil’s sister, Anna, threatening to advance on Constantinople if his proposition was denied. He was granted Anna’s hand on the condition that he would convert and Christianise his people. Arab sources, on the other hand, link Vladimir with the major rebellion which Basil faced in 987. According to numerous Arab chroniclers, Basil turned to his erstwhile enemy Vladimir for help in quelling the uprising. The Kievan ruler agreed to assist Basil on condition of a marital tie. Once the wedding arrangements with Anna were finalised, he sent the emperor 6,000 soldiers and was baptised at Chersonesos.

The baptism of Vladimir at Chersonesos. ~Viktor Vasnetsov (1890)
The baptism of Vladimir at Chersonesos. ~Viktor Vasnetsov (1890)

However it came about, the fact that Vladimir managed to marry the Emperor’s own sister is truly astounding. Never before had a pagan barbarian married a Byzantine princess; matrimonial suits from French kings and German emperors had hitherto been peremptorily rejected. By all accounts the 27-year-old Anna was very unwilling to marry Vladimir. She was, after all, required to leave behind her luxurious life in a magnificent Christian city, in order to travel to wild barbarian lands with a king who was only newly-baptised and already had hundreds of wives and concubines (whom he promptly disowned). Nevertheless, her own inclinations were sacrificed in the interests of state policy, and she spent the journey to her new home in great distress.

Once Vladimir got back to Kiev, he embarked on his program of Christianisation with great energy. He ordered pagan shrines and statues to be smashed and burned with the same enthusiasm as he had built them in the first place. He baptised his twelve sons and many of the nobility. In an iconic scene from the Primary Chronicle, Vladimir sent a message one day to all the residents of Kiev, “rich, and poor, and beggars, and slaves” to come to the river Dnieper, lest they risk becoming the “prince’s enemies”. A large number of people did turn up, and they were baptised en masse by Orthodox priests who had been brought in from Chersonesos for the occasion.

The great baptism of Kiev was followed by similar ceremonies in urban centres around the country. Notwithstanding the official endorsement of Christianity, there was resistance to the new religion. Frequently, officials were obliged to use violence in order to get people to convert. For instance, Vladimir’s uncle, Dobrynya, apparently had to force the people of Novgorod into Christianity “by fire”, whilst the local mayor ‘persuaded’ his compatriots to convert “by the sword”. Paganism did persist for a long while, surfacing during the Upper Volga Rising and other protests.

The baptism of Kievans. ~ Klavdiy Vasilievich Lebedev (19th century)
The baptism of Kievans. ~ Klavdiy Vasilievich Lebedev (19th century)

As for Vladimir, he poured his energy into expanding his dominions and founding numerous schools, monasteries and churches. In his later years he lived at relative peace with his neighbours in Poland, Hungary and the Czech lands. Unfortunately he could not achieve harmony in his own family; he had constant trouble with his rebellious eldest sons. Like his father, he had already parcelled out various fiefdoms to his sons, having given Novgorod to his eldest, Yaroslav. However, for reasons which remain unclear, Yaroslav revolted against his father and refused to render either service or tribute. Though relatively old at 57, Vladimir prepared to march against his disobedient son and take back Novgorod. However, he fell ill on the journey and died. Vladimir was canonised and is still venerated today as the man who turned Russia and Ukraine into Christian countries.

Johann Struensee, the German doctor who ruled Denmark

Following several festivethemed posts, a three week Christmas break and the latest installment of Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, now for something completely different. For most people in the Anglo-Saxon world at least, Danish history is a blank, perhaps filled in only by vague memories of Hamlet’s line “something is rotten in the state of Denmark”. I’m going to write about one of the most significant figures in 18th century Danish history and possibly one of the most intriguing political figures I have ever come across: Johann Friedrich Struensee. Struensee was a man of contradictions; an intelligent and witty German doctor who believed passionately in Enlightenment ideals, yet an arrogant man who ruled Denmark as a dictator, supplanting a mentally ill king whilst having an affair with his queen.

Before I talk about Struensee in particular, here is some background. Denmark in the 1760s was a backward country. The rest of Western Europe was creaking its way towards Enlightenment. England had an emerging parliamentary democracy, and even in absolutist France writers and thinkers such as Voltaire and Rousseau were changing the way people viewed the world around them. Denmark was still a feudal state marked by oppression of the peasants and strict censorship. Denmark’s problems were compounded by the fact that its king, Christian VII, was not fit to rule. It’s not clear exactly what was wrong with him; probably he suffered from mental illness. His physical and mental health had been damaged by the brutal treatment meted out to him by his childhood custodian Count Reventlow, who had him cruelly beaten and debauched until he was so sunk into depravity that he was scarcely responsible for his own actions.


King Christian VII of Denmark
King Christian VII of Denmark

In the hope that a wife might be a good influence on the unstable king, Danish ministers married him off in 1766 to the 15-year old Caroline Mathilde, the youngest sister of George III. During the short honeymoon it seemed that their hope might be realised; Christian was attentive to his new wife and on his return evidence of his natural good nature showed in a desire to better the lot of the peasant both on his own estates and in the rest of Denmark. The recovery was, however, shortlived. He soon plunged once more into the wildest excesses, giving himself up to drunken orgies and visiting the taverns and brothels of Copenhagen. Christian and his drinking companions would go around smashing windows and creating disturbances, to the disgust of the inhabitants and the despair of the ministers. Meanwhile, the queen was left in lonely confinement, neglected and cruelly treated by the king. After the sickly crown prince Frederick was born in 1768, the king grew even worse; his periods of lucidity became less frequent, and he developed a fierce hatred towards his wife.

Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark
Queen Caroline Mathilde of Denmark
Scene from the marriage of Christian and Caroline, November 1766
Scene from the marriage of Christian and Caroline, November 1766











It was at this point that Johann Struensee entered Danish history. Struensee was a German doctor who in the late 1760s was working as a public physician in Altona, near Hamburg. His pitiful income wasn’t enough to support his lifestyle expectations, so he had to supplement it with private practice. It was in ministering to the rich and powerful that Struensee came into contact with a circle of aristocrats living in Altona in exile from the Danish court at Copenhagen. His sparkling wit, elegant manners and Enlightenment principles commended him particularly to two exiled Danish courtiers, Enevold Brandt and Count Rantzau. In Struensee, Brandt and Rantzau saw not only a fellow idealist, but the perfect means of getting themselves back into favour at court. At the time, the court was looking for a physician to attend Christian on his forthcoming tour of Europe. Rantzau saw his chance, and recommended Struensee for the post. When Struensee received the appointment in April 1768 (somewhat surprisingly considering his unconventional methods and suspicious political views), Brandt and Rantzau expected that he would use his new influence to get them once more promoted into court circles.


During the 8-month tour, Struensee gained Christian’s confidence and affection. The two of them discussed literature, philosophy and art, and went out drinking and whoring (unobtrusively). Danish ministers were pleased with Struensee’s influence on Christian, who began making fewer embarrassing scenes. In fact, the tour was a resounding success. The young king showed himself a charming and amusing guest; at parties and functions he was the centre of gaiety. What lay behind this improvement? Struensee had been in constant attendance during the entire tour. He seems to have made sure that the king was only seen in his best moods; his dark depressions and manic episodes were confined to the private sphere. There has been much conjecture about how Struensee achieved this apparent miracle; historians have suggested the use of anything from magnetism to concentrated doses of coca bean (i.e. cocaine).

Johann Struensee
Johann Struensee

Upon the court’s return to Copenhagen in January 1769, Struensee was appointed personal physician to the king and in May he was given the honorary title of State Councillor, which advanced him to the class of the third rank at court. Perhaps it was now that he started to envisage his role as a political advisor leading Denmark towards enlightenment. However, if he wanted to climb to the top of the greasy pole and have real influence on policy, he had to overcome two major obstacles. Queen Caroline and the long-serving chancellor Bernstoff were both opposed to Struensee. Bernstoff was worried by the German doctor’s radical ideas, and the Queen mistrusted him and his influence on her husband.

Bernstoff would prove impossible to placate, so Struensee turned his attentions to the queen. She was neglected and lonely and he now seemed to be one of the few people who paid her attention and tried to help alleviate her troubles. Struensee effected a partially successful reconciliation between Caroline and Christian; under his influence, the king ceased to treat Caroline with his previous contempt. A successful inoculation of the sickly crown prince in May 1770 against the smallpox epidemic ravaging Copenhagen further increased Struensee’s influence, and around this time he began a a clandestine relationship with the queen.

Now that the king and queen were both on his side, Struensee had the necessary political leverage to climb even higher. He kept on gaining promotions but generally kept a low profile as he started to take over the political machine. Once the king had dismissed Bernstoff in September, Struensee’s second obstacle was eliminated. However, by the end of 1770 he had grown impatient with the slow and conservative workings of the Danish government, and abolished the Council of State. He then appointed himself privy counsellor, thereby consolidating his power and starting the period generally referred to as the “Time of Struensee”. His official duty, which was to present reports from the various departments of state to the king, was much more influential than it may seem.

Struensee in 1771
Struensee in 1771

As King Christian was hardly responsible for his actions, Struensee was able to dictate whatever answers he pleased. Struensee really became Denmark’s king in all but name in July 1771 when he was appointed a “Geheimekabinetsminister” with the authority to issue orders which were to have the force of royal ordinances, even if unprovided with the royal sign-manual. The king was now effectively sidelined and was discouraged from interfering in state affairs. Between December 1770 and January 1772 Struensee pushed ahead with his Enlightenment project and issued no fewer than 1069 cabinet orders; a rate of more than three a day. Reforms initiated by Struensee during this period included:

  • Abolition of torture
  • Abolition of unfree labour
  • Abolition of the censorship of the press
  • Abolition of capital punishment
  • Abolition of the practice of preferring nobles for state office
  • Introduction of a tax on gambling and luxury horses to fund the nursing of foundlings
  • Ban of the slave trade in the Danish colonies
  • Removal of penalties against those who produced illegitimate children
  • Criminalisation and punishment of bribery
  • Re-organisation of judicial institutions to minimise corruption
  • Re-organisation and reduction of the army
  • Reform of the state-owned medical institutions

Struensee’s reforms were undoubtedly very forward looking; Voltaire himself sent a letter to congratulate Struensee and the king on their progressive. He seems to have genuinely believed in the vision of an enlightened Denmark where serfdom could be abolished and the tyrannous partnership of the church and the aristocracy broken in order to make way for the ‘free-thinking’ bourgeoisie. Yet however laudable his aims, his style of governance left much to be desired. Struensee simply didn’t seem to care that he offended the very people who he needed on his side. He rode roughshod over Danish customs and traditions, and insisted on conducting all his business in German. In order to ensure obedience, Struensee would dismiss entire staffs of public departments without pensions or compensation, and substitute them with nominees of his own who in many cases were inexperienced men who knew little or nothing of the country they were supposed to govern.

An 1873 depiction of the court in the "Time of Struensee". The intimacy between Caroline and Struensee is unmistakeable, whilst the king's alienation from state affairs is symbolised by his lounging in the background playing idly with a parrot; like him, it is a captive creature. Dowager Juliana Maria stalks in the background, observing the affair and perhaps already planning her coup
An 1873 depiction of the court in the “Time of Struensee”. The intimacy between Caroline and Struensee is unmistakeable, whilst the king’s alienation from state affairs is symbolised by his lounging in the background playing idly with a parrot. Queen Dowager Juliana Maria stalks in the background, observing the affair and perhaps already planning her coup

Public opinion began to turn against Struensee in the autumn of 1771, spurred on by the flood of anti-Struensee pamphlets (an ironic result of his abolition of censorship). The populace resented the intrusion of this foreigner into the highest levels of government and disapproved of his affair with the queen. Anger on the last count came to a head  in July 1771 when the Queen gave birth to Louisa Augusta, who was clearly Struensee’s child (portrait comparisons show a strong resemblance). At first the king refused to recognise the girl as his own, but Caroline and Struensee overcame this effort to show a will of his own. Rumours began to spread that Struensee had the king locked up and even that he had murdered him in order to maintain his own power. Opposition was growing from both inside and outside the palace.

Aristocrats who had been summarily dismissed from lucrative state offices, and whose property and influence were hard-hit by Struensee’s egalitarian-minded reforms, were fuming with resentment. Even Brandt, Struensee’s closest political ally, was becoming disaffected. In a letter asking Struensee either for a greater salary or a resignation from court, Brandt was scathing: “No despot ever arrogated such power as yourself, or exercised it in such a way. The King’s pages and domestics tremble at the slightest occurrence: all are seized with terror. They talk, they eat, they drink, but they tremble as they do so. Fear has seized on all who surround the minister, even on the Queen.”. The general ill-will which had been smouldering throughout the autumn of 1771 at last found its expression in a secret conspiracy headed by Count Rantzau, whom Struensee had neglected, and the Queen Dowager Juliana Maria, who wished to wrest power away from both the king and Struensee and divert it to herself and her son.

The Queen-Dowager showing the portrait of her only son hereditary prince Frederick
The Queen-Dowager showing off the portrait of her only son hereditary prince Frederick

The palace coup took place on 16th January 1772 in the early hours of the morning, during a masquerade ball. Struensee, Brandt and the Queen were arrested in their respective bedrooms and charged with plotting to murder the king, who was the next morning driven around Copenhagen in order to prove his ‘rescue’, to great public rejoicing. In the ensuing trial, Struensee defended himself with considerable ability, but the authorities were determined to make an example of him; he was executed on 28th April together with his long-time supporter Brandt. They were beheaded, drawn and quartered in front of a crowd of 30,000. Caroline was separated from her children and sent to live in exile.

Struensee is arrested in his bedchamber
Struensee is arrested in his bedchamber
Struensee's execution: he was beheaded, drawn and quartered
Struensee’s execution: he was beheaded, drawn and quartered









Fearing for her life, she appealed to her brother King George III of Great Britain for help. The nature of her disgrace was such that she could not receive asylum in England, but he did offer the castle at Celle, in the Hanoverian territories, for her use. Caroline lived only a few years, dying aged just 24. Back in Copenhagen, King Christian was as powerless as before, and the government reverted to a regency led by the Queen Dowager. Under her leadership Struensee’s reforms were rolled back, which proved just as unpopular with the Danish populace as Struensee had been. However, in 1784 Caroline’s son Frederick was able to regain power for his father, and the Queen Dowager’s faction was overthrown. Struensee’s early educational influence on Frederick showed itself when he succeeded to throne in 1808 and reinstated many of Struensee’s reforms, even doing what Struensee had not managed to do – abolish serfdom.

Princess Louisa Augusta in 1791: she bears a striking resemblance to Struensee
Princess Louisa Augusta in 1791: she bears a striking resemblance to Struensee
A drawing made by King Christian after the deaths of Brandt and Struensee, on which he writes "Ich hätte beide gern gerettet" ("I would have liked to have saved them both")
A drawing made by King Christian after the deaths of Brandt and Struensee, on which he writes “Ich hätte beide gern gerettet” (“I would have liked to have saved them both”)


Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, Vol. V

Here is Vol. IV Part II of William Thackeray’s Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, a satirical series published in Punch magazine in 1842. Here, the fictional amateur historian Miss Tickletoby gives a unique, unintentionally hilarious and staunchly monarchist take on the years following the Norman Conquest of 1066, starring “Prince Shortlegs”…
Harold being dead, His Majesty King William – of whom, as he now became our legitimate sovereign, it behoves every loyal heart to speak with respect – took possession of England, and, as is natural, gave all the good places at his disposal to his party. He turned out all the English noblemen from their castles, and put his Norman soldiers and knights into them. He and his people had it all their own way; and though the English frequently rebelled, yet the King managed to quell as such disturbances, and reigned over us for one-and-twenty years. He was a gallant soldier, truly – stern, wise, and prudent, as far as his own interests were concerned, and looked up to by all other Majesties as an illustrious monarch.
But great as he was in public, he was rather uncomfortable in his family, on account of a set of unruly sons whom he had – for their Royal Highnesses were always quarrelling together. It is related that one day, being at tea with her Majesty the Queen and the young Princes, at one of his castles in Normandy (for he used this country to rob it chiefly, and not to live in it), a quarrel ensued, which was certainly very disgraceful. Fancy, my darlings, three young Princes sitting at tea with their papa and mamma, and being so rude as to begin throwing water at one another! The two younger, H.R.H. Prince William and H.R.H. Prince Henry, actually flung the slop-basin, or some such thing, into the face of H.R.H. Prince Robert, the King’s eldest son.
His Royal Highness was in a furious rage, although his brothers declared that they were only in play; but he swore that they had insulted him, and that his papa and mamma favoured them and not him, and drawing his sword, vowed that he would have their lives. His Majesty with some difficulty got the young Princes out of the way; but nothing would appease Robert, who left the castle vowing vengeance.This passionate and self-willed young man was calling Courthose, which means in French short inexpressibles, and he was said to have worn shorts because his limbs were of that kind. Prince Shorts fled to a castle belonging to the King of France, who was quite jealous of Duke Robert, and was anxious to set his family be the ears; and the young Prince began forthwith robbing his father’s dominions, on which that monarch marched with an army to besiege him in his castle.
Here an incident befell which, while it shows that Prince Robert (for all the shortness of his legs) had a kind and brave heart, will at the same time point out to my beloved pupils the dangers – the awful dangers – of disobedience. Prince Robert and his knights sallied out one day against the besiegers, and engaged the horsemen of their party. Seeing a warrior on the other side doing a great deal of execution, Prince Robert galloped at him sword in hand, and engaged him. Their visors were down, and they banged away at each other, like – like good-uns [Hear, hear]. At last Prince Robert hit the other such a blow that he felled him from his horse, and the big man tumbling off cried, “Oh, murder!” or “Oh, I’m done for!” or something of the sort. Fancy the consternation of Prince Robert when he recognized the voice of his own father!
He flung himself off his saddle as quick as his little legs would let him, ran to his father, knelt down before him, besought him to forgive him, and begged him to take his horse and ride home. The King took the horse, but I’m sorry to say he only abused his son, and rode home as sulkily as possible. However, he soon came to be in a good humour, acknowledged that his son Prince Shortlegs was an honest fellow, and forgave him; and they fought some battles together, not against each other, but riding bravely side by side.
So, having prospered in all his undertakings, and being a great Prince and going to wage war against the French King, who had offended him, the famous King William I of England, having grown very fat in his old age, received a hurt while riding, which made him put a stop to his projects of massacring the Frenchmen, for he felt that his hour of death had come. As usual, after a life of violence, blood, and rapine, he began to repent on his death-bed, uttered some religious sentences which the chroniclers have recorded, and gave a great quantity of money which had been robbed from the people to the convents and priests.
The moment the breath was out of the great King’s body, all the courtiers ran off to their castles expecting a war. All the abbots went to their abbeys, where they shut themselves up. All the shopkeepers closed their stalls, looking out for riot and plunder; and the King’s body being left quite alone, the servants pillaged the house where he lay, leaving the corpse almost naked on the bed. And this was the way they served the greatest man in Christendom!
[Much sensation, in the midst of which the Lecturer retired].


“This murdering play”: the violent origins of English football

Football in the form that we recognise today didn’t really begin to coalesce until the 16th and 17th centuries, but English references to games of “fote-ball”, “fute-ball”, “ffootballe”, and so on, start in the late medieval period. At this early stage there were few, if any, regulations. There was no set number of players and no clearly marked out pitch. The game involved an unlimited number of people, which could number several hundreds on the annual Shrovetide football match between neighbouring towns and villages. If that many people were involved, the area played on could cover several miles and the game could last for hours or even days.

The aim was to drag an inflated pig’s bladder to the marker in the opposing side’s town or village. Sometimes the mob would attempt to kick the bladder into the balcony of their opponents’ church, something which the local priest probably didn’t appreciate (unless, of course, he was also playing). It’s not surprising that without solid rules or a referee, the game could easily become nasty. Punching, biting, kicking and tripping up your adversary were all, in theory, allowed. A large-scale local football game must have been a flashpoint for inter-community tensions, as well as the perfect excuse to beat up that loathsome neighbour of yours under the cover of sport.

Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent) was the most popular day for football matches in medieval and early modern England. Here, in The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), Pieter Breughel the Elder portrays a Dutch celebration of Shrovetide.
Shrove Tuesday (the last day before Lent) was the most popular day for football matches in medieval and early modern England. Here, in The Fight Between
Carnival and Lent (1559), Pieter Breughel the Elder portrays a Dutch celebration of Shrovetide.

The authorities didn’t turn a blind eye to this violence. Indeed, the earliest references to football are to be found in official legal documents relating to football-related fatalities. A Cornish plea roll from 1238 mentions a man named Roger who was accused of striking a fellow player with a stone, a blow which proved fatal. Forty-two years later at a game in Ulgham, Northamptonshire, a player was killed as a result of running against an opposing player’s dagger. These are dry accounts yet, clearly, football-related violence involved much personal tragedy, particularly when a death was accidental.

In 1321 William de Spalding, a canon of Scoldham monastery, accidentally murdered his lay friend William in a game of football. As de Spalding was kicking the ball, his friend ran against him and wounded himself on a sheathed knife which de Spalding was carrying. He died within six days. William de Spalding was distraught, and applied for and was granted a papal dispensation to absolve him of all blame. The dispensation read, “no blame is attached to William de Spalding, who, feeling deeply the death of his friend, and fearing what might be said by his enemies, has applied to the pope”.

The next few centuries saw numerous attempts to ban football. The game was generally frowned upon by the authorities as it distracted men from their archery practice, created a lot of noise, resulted in damage to houses and crops and was potentially fatal. In 1314 Edward II was so concerned about the rowdy and violent consequence of football matches that he got the Mayor of London to ban it in the city on his behalf, saying:

“Forasmuch as there is great noise in the city caused by hustling over large foot balls in the field of the public from which many evils might arise which God forbid; we command and forbid on behalf of the king, on pain of imprisonment, such game to be used in the city in the future”.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, it seems that football was very popular among university students. The first reference to it being played at university is a 1555 decree by St John’s College, Oxford, which bans the game. Given that this was the year of the college’s foundation, it is possible that football had such a bad reputation that it was forbidden preemptorily. Other Oxford and Cambridge colleges soon followed suit.

St John's College, Oxford, the first Oxbridge college to ban football (in 1555). © Caecilia Dance
St John’s College, Oxford, the first Oxbridge college to ban football (in 1555). © Caecilia Dance

By 1500, football was looking more like the game we know today. A late 15th century Latin account of a football game in Cawston, Nottinghamshire, says that “throwing [the ball] into the air” was prohibited and that the players were supposed to kick the ball with their feet to opposing goals. The game was nevertheless still very rough. At a match in Somerset in 1508, Thomas Bryan accidentally fell onto his knife, and died immediately. The official verdict, that he killed himself “by misfortune”, was an important distinction to make in an age where suicide was considered a terrible sin. A Yorkshire death record from 15 years later reads, “John Langbern of Allerston was playing football with Roger Bridkirk of Allerston, labourer, and many others…Roger fell on top of John and crushed his body by misfortune, so that John immediately died”. As in the case of William de Spalding, “there was no malice between them”; this was an unfortunate accident.

As with almost any popular pastime in the medieval and early modern periods, football came in for a a lot of criticism. One 15th century description of football laments its violent nature, whilst the Tudor diplomat and scholar Sir Thomas Elyot dismissed the game as “beastly fury and extreme violence whereof proceedeth hurt; and consquently rancour and malice do remain with them that be wounded”. Most virulent of all was the Puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbes. Stubbes was the author of The Anatomie of Abuses (1583), a polemic which attacked every imaginable aspect of popular culture. Football was not excluded from Stubbes’ righteous wrath; he abused the immoral game of football at length. This extract from his book shows how much football has changed since the late 16th century:

“Football may rather be called a friendly kind of fight than a play or recreation; a bloody murdering practice than a fellowly sport or pastime. For doth not everyone lie in wait for his adversary, seeking to overthrow him and to pitch him on his nose…by this means sometimes their necks are broken, sometimes their backs, sometimes their legs, sometimes their arms…sometimes their noses gush out with blood, sometimes their eyes start out…Is this murdering play now an exercise for the Sabbath day?”