A Jewish man from Cairo settled in Hertfordshire as a country squire after rescuing a crusader in Egypt and winning King Edward II’s favour, a historian has revealed.
Accounts of a Jew named Isaac paying 10,000 gold florins to ransom the Hospitaller knight Roger Stanegrave after he had spent 34 years in prison, and accompanying the Yorkshireman home, were known to historians. However, Isaac’s fate in England, where Jews were banned after their expulsion 30 years earlier, remained a mystery until recent discoveries that chart his transformation into a Christian landholder and royal godson.
Rory MacLellan, a specialist in medieval religious history, knew of Isaac from royal accounts and the manuscript “recovery treatise” of Stanegrave — a how-to guide to retaking the Holy Land. In it, Stanegrave, who been captured by Muslim Egyptian forces at the Second Battle of Homs in 1281, described how Isaac, a broker for a Genoese merchant in Egypt, had paid his enormous ransom and asked to return with him to England in order to convert to Christianity.
In December 1318, Stanegrave, a member of the Christian military order of the Knights Hospitaller who had travelled to the Holy Land with Edward I’s army in 1271, was granted a royal safe conduct to return to England in the company of the Jew Isaac.
King Edward II gave the veteran and the younger man an audience at York shortly after their arrival and took a close interest in the case. He wrote to the pope, asking him to grant indulgences — conferring reduced punishment for sins in the afterlife — to anyone who helped Stanegrave repay his ransom. He also requested that Stanegrave be granted income from a Hospitaller estate to support himself.
The king later granted an extension to Isaac’s safe conduct, allowing him to remain in England for a year from January 1320, despite the 1290 edict of expulsion, as he had not yet been reimbursed. Isaac then disappeared from the records.
MacLellan said the pair’s tale, and the spectacle of their arrival in York, must have enthralled the king and his courtiers. “It’s like something out of one of the medieval romances — this long-lost hero, this veteran of a war 40 years earlier, returning with a Jewish person, from a people who had been expelled from the country for 30 years. So it was like something coming out of the past. Stanegrave would probably have been wearing his Hospitaller mantle — the black outfit with the white cross on it that’s iconic for the Hospitallers. That certainly would have marked him out and people would have recognised it for the order.”
He added that Isaac and Stanegrave may have spoken to each other partly in Arabic, though Isaac would have had at least some French too.
In his paper in the journal Crusades, MacLellan reveals that Isaac must be the same person as Edward St John who appears in documents as a convert from Judaism and lessee of the Hospitallers’ manor of Broxbourne in Hertfordshire. St John was named after Edward II who participated in his baptism and took him as a godson, and after the Hospitallers’ patron saint.
The smoking gun is a petition of the Hospitaller prior to Edward III in 1346, in which he reported that St John had given a “great sum” to the Hospital in return for a pension and had rescued Stanegrave from the prison of the “Sultan of Babylon”, presumably the Mamluk sultan.
While the petition was first published in 1903, no one had made the connection between Isaac and St John. “So it was hiding in plain sight,” MacLellan said.
There is no evidence that St John continued his mercantile career in England, so MacLellan believes he lived as a country landholder. “He probably lived off the estates he held — he rented land out to people and earned money that way.”
St John was described as a friend or ally of his godfather, the king, and once received a robe worth 20 shillings from him, suggesting that he may have spent time at court. He married a woman called Johanna and had three children, John, Edward and Agnes.
Although the fact of Stanegrave’s return from Egypt with Isaac is well documented, MacLellan said parts of their tale rang false. Firstly, 10,000 florins would be an “extortionate” ransom for a crusader from a minor landowning family. He suggests that Isaac, or his Genoese boss, may have paid a smaller ransom for Stanegrave who embroidered the story to gain Isaac funds and goodwill.
MacLellan also doubts that Isaac travelled to England to convert to Christianity as he did not do so for several years. He suggests that Isaac sought a better life in England where he would be fêted as Stanegrave’s saviour, and that he converted not for religious reasons but to avoid deportation.
It is unclear whether Isaac recovered the alleged ransom, but, as St John, he acquired land, status, royal favour and the Hospitaller pension, putting him much higher up the pecking order than the majority of converts from Judaism who remained in England following the expulsion.
He lived till 1348 and made his will at Clerkenwell Priory, where he was entitled to white bread and beer under the terms of his pension and may have been cared for by the Hospitallers.
MacLellan said Isaac’s story highlights the presence of converts from Judaism in England between the expulsion of Jews under Edward I — which followed more than a century of widespread antisemitic discrimination and violence — and their readmission in the 1650s. Prior to his conversion Isaac was the only Jew known to have been permitted to live openly in England between the expulsion and the resettlement.
He added that Edward II’s efforts on behalf of Isaac and Stanegrave reflected well on a king who is often viewed negatively, illustrating his piety and interest in crusading. Nevertheless, given the implausible story of the 10,000 florins, they also showed his credulity.