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The Jewish History Series

Lesson #9: Little Hugh of Lincoln

Hugh of Lincoln (1246–1255) was an English boy, whose death was apparently an act of Jewish ritual murder. Hugh is known as Little Saint Hugh to distinguish him from Saint Hugh, otherwise Hugh of Lincoln. The style is often corrupted to Little Sir Hugh. The boy disappeared on 31 July, and his body was discovered in a well on 29 August.

Shortly after his disappearance, a local Jew named Copin (or Jopin), under torture, admitted to killing the child. It is the first recorded legal trial for ritual murder in the history of Anglo-Saxon jurisprudence. Copin was executed, and some ninety Jews all told were arrested over the coming months and held all around England , including some in the Tower of London , while they were charged with involvement in the ritual murder.

Very little account of the actual evidence from these arrests and trials has survived. The Jews, of course, claim that it was all a Gentile plot for King Henry III to confiscate the wealth of Jews convicted of a capital crime. In the Middle Ages the monarchy was always broke, not having an Internal Revenue Service or a Federal Reserve that could simply print up more money with the touch of a computer function key as is the case today. So to be absolutely honest, whoever actually killed the boy, it could be that some of these Jews were pulled in so Henry could get hold of their boodle. I have no problem admitting that such things did happen on occasion, none of which acquits the Jews of the long-standing and heavily documented charge of ritual murder.

Eighteen Jews were hanged, oddly enough not for the murder itself, but for refusing to participate in the proceedings and refusing to throw themselves on the verdict of a Christian jury. The remainder were pardoned and set free, according to monkish chronicler gossip because the king’s brother Richard of Cornwall took heavy bribes from the realm’s Jews to intervene.

Meanwhile, the Cathedral in Lincoln was beginning to benefit from the episode, since Hugh was seen as a Christian martyr, and sites associated with his life became objects of pilgrimage. The legend surrounding Hugh that emerged became part of popular culture, and his story became the subject of poetry and folksongs. Geoffrey Chaucer in his Canterbury Tales makes reference to Hugh of Lincoln in The Prioress's Tale. Pilgrims devoted to Hugh of Lincoln flocked to the city as late as the early 20th century, when a well was constructed in the former Jewish neighborhood of Jews' Court and advertised as the well in which Hugh's body was found.

The following text from 1783, describes the murder of Hugh of Lincoln, as it was depicted in a popular ballad.

She's led him in through a dark door,

And sae has she thro' nine;

She's laid him on a dressing-table,

And stickit him like a swine.

And first came out the thick, thick blood,

And syne came out the thin;

And syne came out the bonny heart's blood;

There was nae mair within.

She's row'd him in a cake o' lead,

Bade him lie still and sleep;

She's thrown him in Our Lady's draw-well

Was fifty fathom deep.

According to the notes by Cecil Sharp on a variant of the Ballad of Little Sir Hugh, the story is as follows:

The events narrated in this ballad were supposed to have taken place in the 13th century. The story is told by a contemporary writer in the Annals of Waverley, under the year 1255. Little Sir Hugh was crucified by the Jews in contempt of Christ with various preliminary tortures. To conceal the act from the Christians, the body was thrown into a running stream, but the water immediately ejected it upon dry land. It was then buried, but was found above ground the next day. As a last resource the body was thrown into a drinking-well; whereupon, the whole place was filled with so brilliant a light and so sweet an odor that it was clear to everybody that there must be something holy in the well. The body was seen floating on the water and, upon its recovery, it was found that the hands and feet were pierced with wounds, the forehead lacerated, etc. The Jews were suspected. The King ordered an inquiry. Eighteen Jews confessed, were convicted, and eventually hanged.

In 1975 the English folk-rock group Steeleye Span recorded a version of "Little Sir Hugh" on their albumCommoner's Crown. In the song, the murderer is "a lady gay" "dressed in green."