The Sad Story of Little St Hugh of Lincoln

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Lincoln Cathedral viewed from Lincoln Castle

While researching Lincoln this week I came across the unhappy story of Little St Hugh, a young boy whose death caused a lethal backlash of blame and recrimination which attracted the attention of the king, Henry III, himself.

The story revolves around a young boy called Hugh. Born around 1246 he  was probably 9 years old when he disappeared on 31st July 1255. No one seems to know who Hugh’s father was, or even if he had one – some sources suggest he was illegitimate – but his mother was a Lincoln lady called Beatrice.

According to reports young Hugh had been doing what all boys do at the age – he’d been out playing with friends. But when it got late the lad could not be found. His mother spent days looking for him and apparently was eventually told by some neighbours that he had last been seen ‘playing with some Jewish boys of his own age, and going into the house of a Jew.’¹

According to Matthew Paris Beatrice, herself, had discovered Hugh’s body sometime around 27th August 1255, after marching into the house Hugh had been seen going into. Little Hugh’s body was found in a well at the property of a Lincoln Jew, named Copin (or Jopin, Joscefin or Koppin).

Poor Copin was immediately seized by those present when the body was found; Beatrice and her neighbours and the city’s bailiffs all appear to have been in attendance. In no time at all a dreadful tale of ritual murder and the ‘blood libel’ (where it was believed Christian children were tortured and killed in Jewish rituals, supposedly mimicking the crucifixion of Christ) was woven around the tragedy of the little boy’s death.

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Body of Hugh of Lincoln

According to Paris:

… having shut him up in a room quite out of the way, where they fed him on milk and other childish nourishment, they sent to almost all the cities of England where the Jews lived, and summoned some of their sect from each city to be present at a sacrifice to take place at Lincoln; for they had, as they stated, a boy hidden for the purpose of being crucified. In accordance with the summons, a great many of them came to Lincoln, and on assembling, they at once appointed a Jew of Lincoln as judge to take the place of Pilate, by whose sentence, and with the concurrence of’ all, the boy was subjected to divers tortures They beat him till blood flowed and he was quite livid, they crowned him with thorns, derided him and spat upon him. Moreover, he was pierced by each of them with a wood knife, was made to drink gall, was overwhelmed with approaches and blasphemies, and was repeatedly called Jesus the false prophet by his tormentors, who surrounded him, grinding and gnashing their teeth. After tormenting him in divers ways, they crucified him, and pierced him to the heart with a lance.²

It is still unclear whether or not Little Hugh was murdered; some sources suggest that it could have been a terrible accident and the boy lost his footing and fell down the well. And even if the boy was murdered, it is far from clear that Copin was the culprit. However, one man took the initiative and played on the prejudices of the time to, not only, create a scapegoat but use the anti-Semitism prevalent at the time in order to blame the Jewish population of England as a whole.

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Gateway to Lincoln Cathedral precincts

John of Lexington was one of the witnesses at the discovery of the body and appears to have been the one to investigate the accusation of ritual murder levelled Copin, probably by the distraught Beatrice. He may have been familiar with the case, just over a century earlier, of William of Norwich, who died in 1144 and whose death was said to involve a mock execution at the hands of a converted Jew named Theobald.

Lexington, described as ‘a man of learning, prudent and discreet‘² by Matthew Paris, managed to persuade Copin to confess and describe the murder in return for a promise of protection from torture and execution. Copin is said to have confessed to his involvement, and described the scourging, disembowelling, crowning with thorns and crucifixion of the young boy. He went on, it seems, implicat the rest of his people, saying ‘nearly all the Jews of England agreed to the death of this boy.’³

At the time of the death many prominent Jewish families had congregated in Lincoln; not to  commit murder, but to celebrate the marriage of Bellaset, the daughter of Berechiah de Nicole. These were suddenly caught up in the tragedy and more than 90 of them were arrested and charged with practicing ritual murder. They were sent to London and imprisoned in the Tower to await trial.

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Sign in Lincoln Cathedral explaining Hugh’s story

In the mean time rumours of miracles started circulating  and being attributed to Little Hugh. It was said his body had been thrown down the well because when Copin had tried to bury him the earth had thrown the corpse back out. In another miracle attributed to him a blind woman regained her sight by bathing her eyes in water from the well in which Hugh’s remains had been found. Having heard of the miracles associated with Little Hugh, the canons of Lincoln Cathedral requested the body and Little Hugh ‘was honourably buried in the church of Lincoln as if it had been the corpse of a precious martyr,’² with the Cathedral even raising a shrine to the memory of Little Saint Hugh.

As for Copin; the story of a boy’s murder by England’s Jews had attracted the attention of England’s king, Henry III. According to Paris the king himself reproached John of Lexington for having promised life to such a ‘wicked being’ and the poor man was condemned to death. He was tied to the tail of a horse and dragged through the streets to the gallows, and hung.

Just 6 months before Hugh’s death the king had sold his rights to tax the Jews to his younger brother Richard, earl of Cornwall. However, he retained the right to receive the goods and property of any Jew implicated in a crime. This made the 90 Jews arrested alongside Copin valuable to the king if guilty – and to his brother if not. Of these 90, 18 ‘of the richer and higher order of Jews of the city of Lincoln’² were condemned to death and dragged to gibbets erected especially and hung; their property confiscated by the king.

The remaining 80 or so prisoners were eventually released, following payment of their ransom by the Earl of Cornwall; his personal Jew had probably been caught up in the arrests and so it was in Cornwall’s interests to get the Jews released. Among those freed was Berechiah de Nicole, the father of the bride for whose wedding the Jews had been gathered in Lincoln.

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The shrine of Little Hugh in Lincoln Cathedral

The tragedy of Little Hugh’s death was only worsened by the judicial murders of so many innocent Jews in revenge. Little St Hugh is the best known of the ‘blood libel’ saints and although a shrine was erected in Lincoln Cathedral, with a feast day of 27th August, Little Hugh was never canonised by the Vatican and has never been included in the official roll of Catholic martyrs. The shrine inside the cathedral, although still there, now has a sign at the side, explaining the legend and telling the sad tale of the boy’s death and its dreadful aftermath.

Little Hugh’s story would continue to be told in the succeeding centuries. It has been the subject of ballads in both English, Scottish and French poetry and is referred to by Chaucer in The Prioress’s Tale and by Marlowe in the Jew of Malta.

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Footnotes: ¹Matthew Paris, quoted by Haidee J Lorrey from oxforddnb.com; ²Matthew Paris, Of the cruel treatment of the Jews for having crucified a boy from arts.cornell.edu; ³Matthew Paris, quoted by Haidee J Lorrey from oxforddnb.com.

And thanks to Dean Irwin for clarifying some points for me.

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Article and photos of Lincoln Cathedral and precincts ©2015 Sharon Bennett Connolly; Picture of the Body of Little Hugh courtesy of Wikipedia.

Sources: oxforddnb.com; arts.cornell.edu; britannica.com; pillingswritingcorner.blogspot.co.uk; Who’s Buried Where in England by Douglas Greenwood;  Chronicles of the Age of Chivalry Edited by Elizabeth Hallam; The Plantagenets, the Kings that made Britain by Derek Wilson; England Under the Norman and Angevin Kings 1075-1225 by Robert Bartlett; jewishencyclopedia.com.

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