Who killed Licoricia of Winchester? A Medieval Murder Mystery

Posted by Sara M. Butler, 10 February 2023.

Statue of Licoricia of Winchester and her son Asher. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Today marks the one-year anniversary of the unveiling of the statue of Licoricia of Winchester (d. 1277), a Jewish moneylender and businesswoman who rose to great success in thirteenth-century England. A widowed mother with at least four, possibly five, children, she drew clients from royalty, nobility, and the church, and traveled extensively for business dealings in Bedford, Hampshire, Norfolk, Oxford, Surrey, Warwick, and Wiltshire. The statue raised in her honor stands outside The Arc on Jewry Street in Winchester, close to the medieval Jewish Quarter. In one hand, she holds a tallage, a demand for taxes imposed by the king upon the Jewish community and symbolic of the extraordinary financial oppression of the Jews by the crown. With the other, she grasps the hand of her young son Asher, who looks distractedly behind him and holds a dreidel. The presence of the young boy in this memorial is a useful reminder that the success of medieval women was accomplished despite having young children to look after while conducting business. Around the base of the statue is engraved a quotation taken from Leviticus 19:18, “Love thy neighbour as thyself,” a reference to the increasingly hostile times in which she lived, leading up to the expulsion of the Jews from England in the year 1290.

The inspiration for the statue and the hard work that it took to raise the necessary funds should be credited to the Licoricia Appeal Project (licoricia.org), a non-profit organization founded in 2018 with the goal of making England’s Jewish history more visible to a modern audience. Accordingly, much has been done to illuminate the life and activities of this fascinating woman, including a 2021 Oxford Dictionary of National Biography entry and two recent popular histories dedicated to telling her life story.[1]

While much has been done to bring Licoricia’s remarkable life into focus, her death still remains very much a mystery.  What we do know is that she was murdered, although the circumstances surrounding her death remain quite murky.

Here is a translation of the record that appears in the eyre rolls, recounting the death of Licoricia and her maidservant, Alice of Bickton, in the spring of 1277: 

Licoricia the Jewess and Alice of Bickton, her servant, were killed in the house of the said Licoricia, each having a wound in the chest with a knife all the way to the heart and Belia daughter of the said Licoricia [was] the first finder, came [to court], and was not suspected. It was testified by the twelve [jurors] that one Ralph of Chishall a saddler of Winchester, killed the aforesaid Licoricia and Alice immediately afterwards fled and is suspected. Therefore he is to be exacted and outlawed. His chattels [are valued at] two shillings for which the sheriff will respond and [because] it happened in the ward of Peter Saer, Alderman of High Street, therefore [the ward is] in mercy. And because it happened by day in the said city and the city did not arrest him, therefore [the city is] in mercy. Afterwards John of Havering, the sheriff, was indicted of this because when the coroner and bailiffs of the said city had ordered that the goods and chattels of diverse Jews and of the said Licoricia, killed, found in that home there were to be put safely under good locks and in custody, the same John with certain men of his household went there and broke the doors and the locks of the said house, together with the chests and strong-boxes he took and stole the goods and chattels of the said Licoricia and other Jews whose chattels belonged to the Lord King to the value of ten thousand pounds. And John came [to court] and denied that he had ever come to the said home or stolen the said goods and chattels and he placed himself upon the country [that is, a jury].  And the knights chosen for this purpose said on their oaths together with the jurors of the said city that when the said Licoricia was killed the said John was in parts of London and the said William of Chichester, clergyman, and Thomas de la Mare of the household of the said John and Lumbard son of Benedict the Jew of Winchester, who afterwards was hanged, and Abraham son of the said Benedict, who is abiding in the city of London, entered the said home and broke the said locks on the coffers and strongboxes there and stole a part of the goods found there. The said John knew nothing about it and they [the jurors] say that nothing from [the theft] reached the hands of the said John nor did he know anything [about the theft]. Therefore the said John is acquitted and the said William, Thomas, Abraham are [to be] taken.[2]

Licoricia Judea & Alicia de Byketon famula sua fuerunt occise in domo eiusdem Licoricia habentes utroque unam plagam in pectore quodam cultello usque ad cor et Belia filia eiusdem Licoricie prima inventrix venit et non malecreditur. Et testatum est per xij. quod quidam Radulphus de Chehulle sellarius de Wyntonia predictas Licoriciam & Aliciam occiderunt et statim post factum fugit et malecreditur. Ideo exigatur et utlagetur.  Catalla eius ij solidi unde vicecomes responderit et fuit in warda Petri Saer Aldermanni de Alto Vico ideo in misericordia. Et quia hoc evenit de die in civitate predicta et civitas non cepit ipsum ideo in misericordia. Postea Johannes de Haveringe vicecomes rectatus fuit de hoc quod cum coronator & ballivui civitatis predicte bona et catalla diversorum judeorum et ipsius Licoricie occise in predicta domo inventa ibidem salvos sub bona serura et custodia ordinassent custodiri idem Johannes cum quibusdam de familia sua ibidem venit et ostia & seruras eiusdem domus una cum cistis & forceriis fregit et bona et catalla ipsius Licoricie et aliorum iudeorum que catalla fuerunt domini Regis ad valenciam decem milia librarum ibidem cepit et asportavit Et Johannes venit et defendit quod ipse numquam venit ad domum predictam ad aliqua bona vel catalla asportanda et de hoc ponit se super patriam.  Et milites ad hoc electi dicunt super sacramentum suum simul cum juratoribus istius civitatis quod quando predicta Licoricia occisa fuit predictus Johannes existebat in partibus Londonie et quidem Willelmus de Cylcestre clericus et Thomas de la Mare de familia predicti Johannis & Lumbardus filius Benedicti judei de Wyntonia qui postea suspensus fuit et Abraham filius eiusdem Benedicti qui manens est in civitate Londonia intraverunt predictam domum et quasdam seruras cophinorum et forceriorum ibidem fregerunt et quandam partem bonorum ibidem inventorum asportaverunt ipso Johanne hoc penitus ignorante et dicunt quod nichil ad manus ipsius Johannis inde pervenit nec ipse aliquid inde scivit Ideo Johes inde quietus et predicti Willelmus Thomas & Abraham capiantur.

The National Archives, JUST 1/784, m. 33. Courtesy of the Anglo-American Legal Tradition.

From a second otherwise identical enrollment of the incident, we learn that William, Thomas and Abraham had fled, were accordingly outlawed, and that they had no chattels.[3]

Who was Ralph of Chishall? And why would a saddler with only two shillings to his name enter the home of Licoricia in broad daylight and savagely stab her and her maidservant to death with a knife? Why didn’t Belia, her daughter (or more likely, daughter-in-law) raise the hue and cry? And what were her grandchildren, Lumbard and Abraham, doing working with a clerk and one of the sheriff’s associates carrying away goods and monies after Licoricia’s death?

Complicating the situation even further, two of Licoricia’s sons, Asher and Cokerel, did not accept the findings of the court. The following year they appeared before the sheriff at the Exchequer of the Jews to lodge an appeal against Roger le Ster and others who they blamed for killing their mother, although nothing seems to have come from their appeal.[4] The entry in the plea rolls of the Exchequer does not enlighten us further on the motive or circumstances surrounding the killings or its aftermath.

How have historians explained Licoricia’s murder?

Suzanne Bartlet has made a number of insightful statements on the matter. She sees that Licoricia fell “prey to a poor saddler in the course of theft.”[5] Like others, she has been more interested in the involvement of Licoricia’s grandchildren after the fact. She describes Lumbard as “respectable,” noting that he “seems to have been cleared” of suspicion; but Abraham she depicts as “the black sheep” of the family.”[6] Reva Bevan Brown and Sean McCartney similarly write: “The incident raises the question of what kind of relationship Lumbard and Abraham had with their grandmother, to enable them to break into her house after her violent death, together with two Christians, to steal.”[7]

Bartlet also questions the amount of money (£10,000) taken from Licoricia’s home. She sees it as an “unlikely sum.” After the court had finished with its investigation, Cokerel and his son Abraham asked the crown for the return of some of their chattels and gages stored in the house, worth £13 10s. and 7d., which Bartlet suggests “offer a more sober guideline of what might have been the real value of Licoricia’s estate.” [8]

With this post, I would like to suggest an alternative explanation. Whoever carried out the murders did so as an act of antisemitic violence during a period of rising hatred towards the Jews. Licoricia was targeted out of local jealousy over her wealth and prominence, and anger over her refusal to abide by legal restrictions imposed on England’s Jews. No hue and cry was raised by the city’s inhabitants because they supported the attack on Licoricia and wanted to give the attackers a chance to get away. Finally, Licoricia’s grandchildren did participate in carrying away goods and monies valued at £10,000, collected from Winchester’s Jews in order to pay the 1277 tallage, and they did so with the consent of Winchester’s sheriff and the assistance of his men, in order to return that money to the city’s Jewish community.

The tendency to see Licoricia as the accidental victim of a home burglary rather than the deliberate target of mounting antisemitic violence springs from medieval Winchester’s good reputation for interfaith relations. While recent scholars have questioned Richard of Devizes’ description of Winchester as the “Jerusalem of the Jews,”[9] the city maintains its reputation for having had “exceptionally good relations between Christians and Jews.”[10] The Jewish community of Winchester was quite small: roughly 90 of the 8,000 residents were Jewish. [11] Nonetheless, the Winchester Jewry “was one of the wealthiest in England” with solid ties to the city’s elite, as indicated by the acceptance of Licoricia’s son, Benedict (father to Lumbard and Abraham, mentioned above), into the merchant guild in 1268, the only Jew in England ever to have been accepted into a guild.[12] At the investiture ceremony, the mayor of Winchester, Simon le Draper, referred to Benedict as “our beloved and faithful friend and special neighbour,” as he welcomed Benedict into the “full society of our liberty as our fellow-citizen and fellow-guildsman.”[13]

Yet, Winchester was not immune from the growing unease England’s Christian subjects felt about their Jewish neighbors in the thirteenth century. While not as well-known as the William of Norwich (1144) or Little Hugh of Lincoln (1255) episodes, Winchester experienced three of its own ritual murder accusations, one in 1225, another in 1232, and again in 1236.[14]

The ascension of Edward I to the throne in 1272 ushered in “extremely dark days for the Jewish community.”[15] The year 1274 brought the Great Tallage; 1275 saw the first expulsions from English towns, as Edward gave permission to his mother, Eleanor of Provence, to expel Jews from her dower towns. 1275 also marked the passing of a new Statute of the Jewry[16], which not only renewed the expectation that the Jews wear the tabula (a badge bearing the likeness of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments, intended to indicate the badge-wearer’s Jewishness), without any of the usual provisions for waivers typically granted during Henry III’s time. The statute also forbade Jewish money lending. As Paul Brand writes, “The 1275 statute was an attempt at radical social engineering. It sought to turn Jewish owners of capital from money lenders into merchants not just by depriving them as money lenders of the royal assistance they had hitherto enjoyed in enforcing repayment of their loans but also by making the lending of money for profit itself illegal.”[17] Finally, December 1278 began the coin-clipping scandal that Robin Mundill writes should be recognized as a “general pogrom,”[18] leading to the executions of 269 Jews, with another 148 managing to save their lives by forfeiting all their property.[19] Benedict, son of Licoricia of Winchester, and his son Lumbard (mentioned above) were among those who lost their lives in this slaughter.[20]

The Jews here are seen wearing the tabula badges.
Marginal Illustration from the Rochester Chronicle (British Library, Cotton Nero D. II.), folio 183v. Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

Licoricia’s murder happened in 1277 in the midst of this growing antagonism towards and persecution of the Jews. To her Christian neighbors, the 1275 Statute of the Jewry surely drew attention to Licoricia’s “immoralities.” The statute made the king’s stance on usury clear: usury is an “evil” that disinherits “good men of his land” and leads to “various sins.”  Usury must come to an end, both “for the Honour of God and the common benefit of the People.”[21] Of course, the statute did not dissolve existing usurious loans; instead, it sought to prevent future ones. For those who had already borrowed money from lenders like Licoricia, the king’s statute, which was read (and posted) publicly, confirmed their suspicions of the wrongness of usury, yet bizarrely still required them to pay back what they owed with interest.

Christian inhabitants of Winchester might also have resented that Licoricia boldly violated the decree forbidding Jews from having Christian servants live in their homes (all agree that Alice Bickton, whose name is clearly Christian, was a live-in maid). Statutes including this provision appeared in 1253, 1275, and again in 1279.[22] The “Articles touching the Jews” – a series of questions a sheriff might ask a locality’s inhabitants regarding possible crimes that had been committed by Jews, and dating to the late 1270s – also specifically asks about Jews who have live-in servants.[23]

Why Licoricia was targeted by her Christian neighbors, then, seems obvious. That she was not simply an accidental victim of a burglary is substantiated also by the time of day in which the assailant entered her home. Medieval businesses were run out of the home. A burglar today might hope to find a businesswoman’s home empty during the day while she is at the office; but in the medieval world, where else would she have been during the day except her home?

Did Belia raise the hue and cry? It is impossible to say for sure, but there would seem to be two viable explanations.

1) Belia did not feel comfortable raising the hue and cry: faced with proof of the increasingly hostile climate in the form of the bleeding corpses of her mother (or mother-in-law) and her servant, she felt it was safer to quietly contact authorities without drawing attention to herself.

Or, 2) Belia attempted to raise the hue and cry, but the neighbors were not interested in vigorously pursuing the assailant because Licoricia’s death may have just cancelled their debts, and they were not keen to see the killers caught and punished.

Was the sum of £10,000 taken away from Licoricia’s home in the wake of the murders? This does not seem an unreasonable amount. When Licoricia’s second husband, David of Oxford, died in 1244, a death-duty of one-third of his estate was forfeit to the crown. While the crown claimed 5,000 marks (£3,333), that left just over £6,600 to Licoricia as his heir. Not long after her husband’s death, she donated 4,000 marks (£2,791) to the king for the building of a shrine to Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey.[24] Licoricia was a wealthy woman. More important still, as the indictment above was at pains to underscore, the money taken did not belong solely to Licoricia, but also to other Jews in the area. Why was that? I would argue: because the community had already begun collecting for the 1277 tallage,[25] and where better to keep it for safe-keeping than in Licoricia’s home, where she had coffers and strong-boxes aplenty.

And what about her grandsons? Were they robbing their grandmother’s home for their own personal gain? Abraham’s “checkered” past would seem to have swayed historians to think this was true. Abraham was involved in a near-fatal assault the same year that his grandmother was murdered. In 1280 he was accused of assaulting a Christian woman and stealing her goods. And in 1281, he was imprisoned at the Tower of London for the death of a Christian man killed in Winchester. Accordingly, Brown and McCartney suggest that Abraham “seemed to live on the edge of legality.”[26]

There are a couple of problems with this conclusion. Abraham was the victim in the 1277 assault. Blaming him for an attack in which he almost lost his life seems somewhat unfair, especially when we know nothing about the circumstances that led up to the attack. As to the other accusations, in an era when blaming Jews for imaginary crimes seems to have been common, it is hard to assess whether any of this was in fact legitimate.

Both Lumbard and Abraham would seem to have been dutiful sons and grandsons who worked alongside their father in his money-lending business. Lumbard, in particular, was well respected. When his father, Benedict, moved to London in 1273, Lumbard was appointed chirographer in his place.[27] Why would these two young men have suddenly turned to a life of crime just because their grandmother was killed?

The answer to that is in fact quite logical. While terrible and horrific, they saw Licoricia’s death as an opportunity to make it look like she had been murdered during the burglary of the century, in which the “attackers” got away with the recently collected tallage of £10,000.

Admittedly, if this was the plan, it did not go smoothly. Someone witnessed the two grandsons hauling out the chests with the assistance of the sheriff’s men and tattled to the jurors. At the very least, they didn’t know what had happened to the money, and condemning the grandsons eliminated any doubt that the Jewish community as a whole stood to gain from the theft.

And why did the sheriff’s men help? Because as Derek Keene tells us, in the 1260s and 1270s, “there seems to have developed a particularly close relationship between the wealthier citizens and the Jews of Winchester.”[28] This was particularly true of the guildsman, Benedict, father of Lumbard and Abraham. John of Havering, the sheriff, was one of those wealthier citizens — he may have been doing Benedict a favor. He also doesn’t seem to have tried all that hard to catch the criminals. While Abraham may have fled the scene of the crime, he was back in town by September, just a few months later, when Edmund of Sutton attacked and beat him within an inch of his life.[29] Surely such a notorious crime that cheated the crown of £10,000 had not already slipped the sheriff’s mind? Why not arrest Abraham while dealing with his assault? His collusion in the removal of the goods and monies seem all too probable.

Case closed? Well, maybe not – but until more evidence comes to light, I’m convinced that the Licoricia who is honored with this statue would be much happier knowing that we are apportioning blame where it is deserved: on the crown and the Christian people of Winchester, rather than her grandsons.


[1] Suzanne Bartlet, Licoricia of Winchester: Marriage, Motherhood and Murder in the Medieval Anglo-Jewish Community, ed. Patricia Skinner (London & Chicago: Vallentine Mitchell, 2009) and Rebecca Abrams, Licoricia of Winchester: Power and Prejudice in Medieval England (Lewes, East Sussex: Unicorn Publishing Group, 2022).

[2] Punctuation has been added to make this translation easier to read. A partial translation of this passage appears in Zefira Entin Rokéah, “Crime and Jews in Late Thirteenth-Century England: Some Cases and Comments,” Hebrew College Annual 55 (1984), 126-127.

[3] TNA JUST 1/789, m. 34.

[4] Sarah Cohen, ed., Plea Rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, preserved in the Public Record Office, 5 volumes (London: The Jewish Historical Society of England, 1992), vol. 5, 98, no. 562.

[5] Suzanne Bartlet, “Women in the Medieval Anglo-Jewish Community,” in Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives, ed. Patricia Skinner (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2012), 125.

[6] Suzanne Bartlet, “Three Jewish Businesswomen in Thirteenth-Century Winchester,” Jewish Culture and History 3, no. 2 (December 2000), 50.

[7] Reva Berman Brown and Sean McCartney, “David of Oxford and Licoricia of Winchester: Glimpses into a Jewish Family in Thirteenth-Century England,” Jewish Historical Studies 39 (2004), 19.

[8] Bartlet, “Three Jewish Businesswomen,” 50.

[9] J.A. Giles, ed., The Chronicle of Richard of Devizes Concerning the Deeds of Richard the First, King of England Also Richard of Cirencester’s Description of Britain (London: James Bohn, 1841), 62.

[10] Derek Keene, Survey of Medieval Winchester, two parts (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1985), part 1, 387.

[11] Patricia Allin, “Richard of Devizes and the Alleged Martyrdom of a Boy at Winchester,” Transactions & Miscellanies (Jewish Historical Society of England) 27 (1979-80), 32.

[12] Keene, Survey, part. 1, 384.

[13] Calendar of Patent Rolls, Henry III, vol. 6 (1266-1272), 223.

[14] J.H.R., “Notes on Jews in XIII Century England. 2. Jews at Winchester,” Notes and Queries (Oct. 20, 1934), 273. See also: TNA 1/775, m. 20 (Quidam puer inventus…). In all likelihood, the 1192 ritual murder accusation referenced by Richard of Devizes and situated in Winchester is a fictionalized account based on Thomas of Monmouth’s narrative of William of Norwich.

[15] Robin R. Mundill, “Edward I and the Final Phase of Anglo-Jewry,” in Jews in Medieval Britain, 62.

[16] Statutes of the Realm, ed. A. Luders et al., 11 vols, (London, 1810-28), vol. 1, 221-221a. This statute is also printed in full in Appendix II of Robin Mundill, England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262-1290 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 291-293.

[17] Paul Brand, “Jews and the Law in England, 1275-90,” The English Historical Review 115, no. 464 (2000), 1153.

[18] Robin R. Mundill, “Edward I,” 62.

[19] Zefira Entin Rokéah, “Money and the Hangman in Late-13th-Century England: Jews, Christians and Coinage Offences Alleged and Real (Part I),” Jewish Historical Studies 31 (1988-1990): 83–109.

[20] Zefira Entin Rokéah, “Money and the Hangman in Late-13th-Century England: Jews, Christians and Coinage Offences Alleged and Real (Part II),” Jewish Historical Studies 32 (1990-1992), 174 (Benedict) and 200 (Lumbard).

[21] Mundill, England’s Jewish Solution, 291.

[22] Brand, “Jews and the Law,” 1145.

[23] Mundill, “Appendix III: Articles touching the Jews,” England’s Jewish Solution, 295.

[24] Bartlet, “Three Jewish Businesswomen,” 46.

[25] Mundill, “Edward I,” 59.

[26] Berman and McCartney, “David of Oxford,” 30.

[27] Brown and McCartney, “David of Oxford,” 28.

[28] Keene, Survey, part II, 76.

[29] Rokéah, “Crime and Jews,” 134.

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