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Gargoyles on the tower at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford

Gargoyles on the tower at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford

Photo: Niki.L, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Jacob Barnet Flees his Own Baptism

16 August 2021 (Updated 23 November 2021)

When we talk about last minute nerves and people failing to arrive at the church on time, we are usually thinking of a bride or bridegroom having second thoughts. It's pretty rare for someone to fail to turn up to their own Baptism, but that is exactly what happened in Oxford in 1612 in the case of Jacob Barnet.

Jacob Barnet, scholar

Jacob Barnet was an accomplished young Italian scholar who was working as secretary to academic Isaac Casaubon when the pair moved to Oxford in 1610. Barnet became well-liked in academic circles in Oxford thanks to his intelligence and erudition. However, one thing was preventing Barnet from becoming either a student or staff member of the University: he was Jewish.

Before 1854, Christianity was a pre-requisite for all staff and students at Oxford. It wasn't unheard of for people to convert to Christianity in order to gain admittance to the University. In fact, another Jewish Scholar named Jacob Wolfgang had done just that two years before.

This put Jacob Barnet in something of a dilemma. Should he renounce his Jewish faith in order to further his academic career?

Jacob's Baptism is planned

Jacob discussed the possibility of converting to Christianity with his employer Isaac Casaubon, the result of which was that Casaubon approached the university authorities to let them known that Jacob was willing to undergo Christian Baptism if it would allow him to be part of the university.

Thomas Singleton, the university Vice-Chancellor, was apparently very enthusiastic about the idea and set about making plans. A special Baptism ceremony was planned at the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. It was to be a very grand and public affair, with the Vice-Chancellor and most of the university staff present.

A no-show

When the day of the Baptism came, everyone assembled at the church for the grand ceremony. However, as the proposed time of the ceremony came and went, it became clear that one very important person was missing, Jacob Barnet himself!

It may be that Jacob had a last-minute change of heart, or had perhaps not been keen on his employer's religious conversion idea from the start, but the result was the same. On the day of his planned Baptism, Jacob had decided he didn't want to go through with it and, rather than explain this to his employer and the University authorities, he opted to flee the city on foot!

The University authorities didn't take kindly to Jacob's actions. A party of men on foot and horseback was immediately sent out to find Jacob and return him to the city, while the assembled congregation at the church were treated to an anti-semitic diatribe from the pulpit on the 'the perfidy of the Jews'.

Jacob's capture and punishment

It wasn't long before the party searching for Jacob caught up with him and he was arrested and returned to Oxford. The University authorities insisted that Jacob go through with the Baptism but Jacob refused and was thrown into 'Bocardo', the extremely squalid lock-up near the city's North gate that passed for a prison at the time.

Isaac Casaubon defended his young protégé's actions, arguing that changing one's mind on a matter of religion was not a criminal matter.

For a while, things looked bad for Jacob, until Isaac Casaubon appealed on Jacob's behalf to King James I. The King issued a warrant for Jacob's release, but Jacob was ultimately exiled a few months later and sent to France.

A happy ending for Jacob?

Jacob Barnet was undoubtedly harshly treated by the University, but considering the fate of the likes of Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer and Nicholas Ridley in Oxford half a century previously, you could argue that Jacob got off lightly by comparison.

As it was, Jacob went on to have a successful career in France where he acted as an adviser at the French court on Jewish matters.