THE UK:DID YOU KNOW? WHEN THE WEDDING TAKES PLACE IN WESTMINSTER ABBEY BRITISH JEWS CAN SAY “WE HELPED TO PAY FOR THAT”
Put Not Your Trust in Princes – Nor They in Their Advisers: Buckingham Palace, the Jews, and Westminster Abbey
Ninety-years of age this coming June, and still remarkably hale and hearty, the Queen’s husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, is well-known for speaking his mind, and for dropping a few unpolitically correct clangers as a result. (See, for instance, http://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/profiles/prince-philip-royal-flash-889303.html from which the accompanying Getty image comes)
Since I posted yesterday about the Foreign Office’s outrageous and suspiciously Arabist failure ever to arrange a royal state visit to Israel in all the years (from 1952) that Elizabeth II has been on the throne, I thought I’d stay with the royal theme for this post.
For it’s not generally known that one of the prince’s clangers involved the Jewish community – although it was probably not the prince himself but some bumbling Buckingham Palace or Whitehall adviser who was ultimately responsible for the blooper.
The missive from Buckingham Palace that landed on the desk of Sir Immanuel (later Lord) Jakobovits, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of Great Britain and the Commonwealth in 1983 was bemusing, to say the least. Signed by Prince Philip, it suggested that Anglo-Jewry, as a community, might contribute to the Westminster Abbey Restoration Fund.
Its offence was not that Anglo-Jewry was being asked to contribute to the restoration of a venerable, landmark Christian house of worship, albeit one that figured none too happily in the annals of England’s Jewish community (on Richard the Lionheart’s Coronation Day in 1189, when gift-bearing Jewish leaders arrived at the Abbey to pay their respects to the king, they were roughly refused admittance, their possessions were plundered by the milling crowd, and several were killed; Benedict of York, whose wife and children perished as martyrs the following year, succumbed to his wounds on his way back north from London).
Its offence was not even in the fact that Anglo-Jewry was almost certainly the only minority faith community to receive such a request – not even the Muslim community, despite having received “the magnificent Regent’s Park site for their London mosque as a gift from the British taxpayer,” noted Jewish Chronicle columnist Chaim Bermant (14 October 1983).
What was so eyebrow-raising about the letter’s request was the ignorance it betrayed. Evidently oblivious of the magnanimity that has always characterised modern Anglo-Jewry in contributing to worthy causes and humanitarian endeavours of all kinds regardless of creed, it assumed that Anglo-Jewry’s charitable efforts invariably begin – and end – at home: “I quite understand that individual Jewish charities normally restrict their donations to their own community.”
To this, the Chief Rabbi (pictured) made a tart reply: “In principle, neither Jewish individuals nor Jewish charitable organisations normally restrict their donations to their own community, realising the debt we owe to the country, its citizens, and the law.”
Perhaps even worse than the assumption that they did was the fact that the letter cited a precedent for Anglo-Jewry’s donation to the Abbey. Whichever of His Royal Highness’s advisers came up with that blast from the past – the year 1245 to be exact! – can have had little knowledge of historical realities.
For King Henry III, whose long reign (1216-72) was not a happy one for medieval Anglo-Jewry – from 1218 Jews were forced to wear a distinguishing badge (the earliest instance of compulsory badge-wearing in Europe), missionary efforts began to intensify amid a climate of intolerance (whereas in the previous century several Christians had adopted Judaism without reprisal, in 1222 an Oxford deacon who did so and wed a Jewish wife was burned at the stake), building new synagogues was prohibited, and so on – the precedent that the letter cited was not a donation made on a voluntary basis, for the Jews were the king’s chattels, and he could do with them as he pleased.
What Prince Philip (or more probably an adviser) apparently failed to realise was that Jews were forced to contribute both corporately and individually to the rebuilding of Westminster Abbey that began in 1244-45, with very wealthy people having to donate large sums. (And it didn’t save the community from rapine and persecution, either under Henry or his son Edward I, who following draconian legislation against them expelled them from the country in 1290, warning that any who remained would be put to death.)
Thus the twice-widowed financier Licoricia (who was fated, much later, to be a murder victim along with her Christian servant, Alice, and who is seen here wearing the mandatory Jewish badge, which took the form of the Tablets of the Law) was fleeced of over £2500 and Moses of Hereford of £3000.
Elias le Eveske, who was archpresbyter (Anglo-Jewry’s officially-recognised communal leader) at the time, was compelled to donate a silver-gilt chalice, and and other Jewish individuals had to defray the cost of the Abbey’s internal embellishments.
To add insult to injury, the Torah Scrolls used by the justices of the Jews for administering oaths were compulsorily sold off in order to pay for new liturgical vestments for the Abbey’s clergy and other ritual items! In the previous year, when Henry began his plans for refurbishing the Abbey, Aaron of York, the country’s richest financier, who was constantly fleeced by the king through levies and fines, was compelled to donate a large sum towards the shrine of King Edward the Confessor in the Abbey “for the salvation of the king and queen and their children.”
But at least, when the royal wedding takes place at Westminster Abbey next month, Jewish viewers watching the event on television can point to the building with pride and say “We helped to pay for that!”
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