Sunday, April 01, 2007

Lincoln, Part I

Lincoln is a remarkable town. When the Romans invaded Britain in 43 C.E., a post for the Ninth Legion was almost immediately established here; when the legion moved on to Chester, Lincoln became a colonia, a community settled by Roman veterans and Romanized Britons. The name "Lincoln" comes from Lindum Colonia (Lindum being a Romanization of a Celtic name meaning "the town beside the pool"). At left is Newport Gate, the northern gate into the walled Roman city. In Roman times, the ground level was nine to twelve feet lower than it is today, so much of the arch is under ground. Newport Arch is the only Roman arch in England still used by traffic. In 1964, a lorry (i.e., truck) misjudged the height of the arch and smashed the upper part of the arch (now carefully restored). It's amazing to think that this arch was already a thousand years old when William the Conqueror passed under it in 1068.

After the Romans left, there was eventually an Anglo-Saxon settlement at the bottom of the hill on which the Roman city stood. The oldest church in Lincoln—older than the cathedral—is St. Mary-le-Wigford Church, an Anglo-Saxon church in the lower city. When the Saxons built the church, they incorporated a Roman tomb stone into the tower. The stone, memorializing a Roman named Sacer, was reused for an Anglo-Saxon inscription commemorating the contributions of a Saxon named Ertig toward the building of the church.

Lincoln became important again after the Conquest, when William the Conqueror had both a large castle and an impressive cathedral built in the upper city, on top of the old Roman colonia. The cathedral was expanded throughout the Middle Ages, but the west front of the cathedral (seen here) retains many of its Norman features (especially the rounded arches; the pointed arches are Gothic additions). The famous English art critic John Ruskin said: "I have always held and am prepared against all evidence to maintain that the cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have."

Norman House, or "Aaron the Jew's House."

How did the church pay for such a massive building project? For one thing, the diocese borrowed money from one of the great financiers of 12th-century England, a Jew named Aaron of Lincoln. Aaron (ca. 1125-ca. 1186) loaned millions of pounds during his lifetime, and after his death, the King took over all of his loans—thus, the cathedrals and abbeys who had borrowed money from Aaron now became indebted to the King. Aaron of Lincoln's house still stands on Steep Hill, and may be the oldest extant building in England to have been built as a private residence.

Further down Steep Hill stands this house, known as "The Jew's House," another 12th-century private residence, connected to another stone building (in this photo, the one with people in front), which may have been Lincoln's medieval synagogue. Lincoln had a thriving Jewish community in the 12th-century, but (see my post on Gilbert Crispin for February 1) life for England's Jews was precarious. In 1190, York's Jews were slaughtered after taking refuge in Clifford's Tower, and, as I mentioned earlier, Christian crusaders slaughtered Jews throughout Europe during the 1190s. Lincoln's Jews escaped by taking refuge in the castle; and the church authorities usually did what they could to protect the Jewish community. In 1255, however, Lincoln's Jews were accused of ritually murdering a young boy named Hugh, and 91 members of the community were rounded up and sent to the Tower of London. Eighteen were executed. Update: English Heritage has just published a book called Jewish Heritage in England: An Architectural Guide, by Sharman Kadish, which, among other things, explores the Anglo-Jewish medieval heritage of Lincoln and York.

In my next post, I'll have more photos from the beautiful town of Lincoln.

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