Marcus Roberts


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Aaron's activities as financier and 'banker' were very important to the local and national economy, just as today available lines of finance and credit are needed to maintain general prosperity. Locally, Aaron was of great importance to the development of the wool trade, the power-house of the local economy. The Cistercian houses of Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, who were the principal developers of the medieval wool industry, were one of Aaron's most important customers. He enabled them to acquire the land that they desperately needed to expand their production of wool, via the sale of estates that had come to Aaron as payment for debts and of which he was not permitted by law to be the permanent owner or land-lord.

Nationally, many capital projects relied on direct or indirect Jewish finance, including cathedral and castle building as well as the provision of funds for the waging of war and defense of the realm, such as the time Beckett, while Royal Chancellor, borrowed 500 marks from the London Jewry to fund the expedition to Toulouse.

Aaron, despite his positive contribution, was nevertheless detested on theological grounds by some Christians, who considered his vast wealth to be an affront to Christ. He was no stranger to church building and investment projects and helped fund the construction of nine Cistercians Abbeys as well as both Lincoln and Peterborough Cathedrals. Between 1240 and 1252 he loaned no less than the massive amount of £4,374.13s.4d to the nine Cistercian monasteries just mentioned (probably to fund their expansion in wool production), but he was not knowingly humble or reticent. He was famous for having boasted that he, a Jew, had provided 'a home' (i.e. a shrine) for the revered Saint Alban in St Alban's Cathedral as was well as a window in honour of the saint, though of course we do not know the comment that prompted this remark!

At one point, when Lincoln Cathedral's finances were in a most parlous state, Bishop Chesney (1148-67) pawned the church plate, for £300 against the wishes of his own Chapter, as collateral for a loan provided by Aaron. Part of this loan was used to finance a new bishop's Palace, to the south of the Cathedral, for Chesney, who did not wish to live directly 'above the shop', so to speak, in the Tower above the East Gate (though in reality the bishop has residences across his diocese). The use of church plate as a pledge was, however, by no means unusual, even if it offended some. When Godfrey Plantagenet (nominally) succeeded Chesney (from 1167-83), he immediately redeemed the plate from Aaron.

Aaron died in 1186 and his estate was so huge that a special department of the Exchequer of the Jews, the government office established by the throne to deal with the Jewish community, had to be set up to deal with his assets. The extent of his fortune was £15,000 or, to put it in terms of the time, about 3/4 of royal revenue in an average year. Ironically much of this was mislaid a year later when it was being shipped out to help finance the campaign against King Philip Augustus of France (who was successfully loosening the grip of the English from their territory in France during his 40 years reign from 1180) and it was lost by ship wreck in the English Channel, between Shoreham and Dieppe, one may say, not quite, but nearly lost in the Wash!

The year of Aaron's death was also significant for Lincoln Jews, as Hugh of Avalon was made Bishop of Lincoln (1186-1200) at that time. Hugh was an enlightened and spiritual man who actively protected Jews in Lincoln and elsewhere, combating the ignorance and prejudices of the age. His life and works richly deserved his canonisation as St Hugh of Lincoln.

He is important as he did not merely advocate being kind to the Jews, but he risked his life to do so. For example in 1190, in the dramatic incident in Northampton, he faced down a mob intent on mischief and mayhem against the Jewish community. In the same year in Lincoln itself, he helped save the community from marauding Crusaders when the community took refuge in the Castle.

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