History of Mediaeval Jews - Maurice Harris

How Fared the Jews of England

Britain, situated at the extreme northwest of Europe, and an island at that, was reached by civiliation later than the southern or central portion of the Continent. The Roman, Julius Caesar, contemporary of Herod and Hillel, found the Britains just before the dawn of the Christian era little better than savages. There is no record of Jewish settlement in its early barbaric history. During the whole formative Saxon period, when the seven petty Kingdoms were welded into one and Britain became England, there are only a few references to Jews in the Church chronicles. One of these prohibits Christians from appearing at Jewish feasts. A prohibition always reveals a practice. Until the Norman conquests their presence here was fleeting and their numbers sparse.

Under Norman Kings.

But when William the Conqueror came over from Normandy in 1066 he brought Jews in his train. They had a reputation for wealth and he needed money — 'twas the chronic need of kings. So many of the Norman castles seen today scattered through England in more or less state of decay were built with Jewish gold. His successor, Rufus, rather shocked the country by his friendliness toward those whom they called "the enemies of Christ." Henry I, the next monarch, granted them a charter with privilege of free movement through the country and right to be judged by their peers in courts of law.

To the credit of the Jews, be it said, they immediately marked their presence in England by attention to education. In Oxford, where Alfred the Great had established a university, they built Moses Hall and Jacob Hall for the training of their children, and Lombard Hall in London, the capital. They also had communities in York, Lincoln, Norwich, Cambridge, Canterbury and a few other English towns.

"Blood Accusation."

The next king, Stephen, reached his throne in 1135 (the year of birth of Maimonides in Spain), after a civil war. The impoverished king soon followed the Continental custom of mulcting the Jews to refill his exchequer, even to the extent of hatching slanderous conspiracies against them as pretexts for despoiling them. The rumor went forth in the year 1144 that Jews had stolen a boy, William of Norwich, to use his blood for the making of Passover cakes (Matzoth). This meant, of course, a raid on Jewish property. This was the first recorded "blood accusation." Later charges in other lands have already been recorded in the preceding chapter.

At Gloucester and Bury St. Edmunds similar charges were brought with the same consequent enrichment of the royal exchequer. A shrewd historian has remarked that no sooner was a king in need of money than it was conveniently discovered that the Jews had committed a crime justifying the payment of damages. The most notorious of these boy murder charges was that of Hugh of Lincoln, in the middle of the thirteenth century. In that case, not content with confiscating their property, twenty Jews were hung and a hundred imprisoned.

In all of these cases the Jews were condemned without trial. The retelling of this story in Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales" and the erection of a shrine over the boy's tomb in Lincoln Cathedral has helped to perpetuate the slander.

Stephen's successor, Henry II, heavily taxed the Jews, both in his French and English dominions. By the attitude of the Church they were disqualified practically, though not officially, for public office, husbandry and handicrafts. This exclusion limited their means of livelihood to trade and to money-lending on interest, then called usury. This the Church condemned as sin — not realizing the biblical distinction between lending to the poor as an act of charity and lending to the foreigner for commerce as an act of business (see Exod. xxii, 25; Leviticus XXV, 35-38; Deut. XV, 7-11). In any case the Jew's estate was forfeited to the crown at his death. The monarch then here, as in France, used the Jews as a sponge with which to absorb the wealth of the nation. The Crown ultimately obtained the money, the Jews in the end only the odium.

Under Plantaganet Kings.

Yet neither these tragedies nor this irksome taxation quite reflect the normal status of English Jews during the Plantaganet era.

Some, banished from Northern France by Philip Augustus in 1180, found a safe asylum in England On the whole, we may say the Jews were kindly treated as long as ecclesiastics did not antagonize the population against them. They earned the reputation of benevolence to their poorer brethren and, at first, many proselytes joined the synagogue. Of course, that was not long permitted. In spite of tax extortion their wonderful thrift in an age when industrial occupations were despised by all but the humblest classes and where their outlets of expenditures were few, kept them in affluence. Some even built themselves palaces of stone — but not as much for pride as for protection. For gradually they noticed that their wealth was awakening jealousy and changing cordiality into ill-will. It only then needed religious prejudice fomented by Thomas a Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, for that ill-will to deepen into hatred. So as on the Continent, the Church finally succeeded in changing their status from one of friendliness and equality to that of subserviency and isolation.

This antagonism reached its climax in 1189 at the coronation of Richard I — the very monarch who, coming to the East on the Third Crusade, invited Maimonides to be his physician. A body of the most representative Jews of England attended this function with rich presents from their brethren, expressive of their loyalty and in the hope of more assured protection. How terribly far from their expectations was the outcome! The display of wealth stirred the covetous and vindictive passions of the surrounding throngs. The deputation was plundered. The savage in man once roused is not easily quelled. The signal given, the loot of Jewish homes and injury of their persons became general throughout Jewish settlements in England — in Norwich, Edmondsbury, Stamford, Lincoln. But the tragedy reached its climax in York.

Tragedy of York Castle.

Some of the harassed Jews fled to York Castle. On came the mob and surrounded the castle. The clergy were the most brutal, in urging on the besiegers, shouting "destroy the enemies of Christ." Despair gave courage to the besieged, when the resources of resistance became exhausted. The venerable rabbi in their midst arose and said, "The God of our fathers hath said we must die for our religion; let us then die by our own hands rather than by the hands of these savages." Perhaps he saw a precedent in the self-slaughter of the besieged in the fortress of Masada, in the days when Rome overthrew Judaea. In awful solemnity the agonized men put their wives and children to death and then slew themselves, having first set fire to the castle. A few survivors came forth and begged for mercy. But the populace rushed in, and, disappointed at the escape of their prey, wreaked their glut for slaughter on these few survivors. No punishment was inflicted on the marauders, though nearly a thousand Jewish souls perished on that awful day. Later the matter was investigated, but indignation was expressed, not at the destruction of the Jews, but only at the destruction of records of outstanding debts to them, which could now not be collected by the Crown. Only the property actually found could go to the royal exchequer.

When King Richard returned from the Crusades, he gave some attention to the Jews, but only in the sense of their being a revenue-producing body. The valuation of their incomes and corresponding assessment became a department of the State. They were "protected," but the price came high.

King John.

John will always be remembered as the monarch whose outrageous behavior roused all the barons of England to unite in compelling him to sign the Magna Charter, in 1215.

Thus his very badness indirectly gave to the English people their charter of liberty. Such are life's compensations.

With the Jews this unprincipled man followed a crafty policy. He offered those in his French dominions every inducement to settle in England. Once there, he gave them every opportunity to amass wealth, confirming all old rights for a money consideration. When the time was ripe he dropped the mask and plundered them. The calf had been fattened for slaughter. His cruelty was relentless in forcing his claim. From Abraham of Bristol he ordered that a tooth each day should be drawn until after the loss of seven, the tortured man gave up 10,000 marks. Nor were the barons much kinder; but still in the Magna Charta, drawn up by them, a rough justice was accorded to the Jew.

Henry III.

In the long reign of Henry III their condition grew steadily worse. Their movements were more restricted and they were treated as the king's chattels. The persistent enmity of the Church had now thoroughly impregnated the people. The distinctive badge instituted by Innocent III and the Lateran Council (in the very year of the Magna Charta) was now introduced into England. Proselytism to Judaism was forbidden as a capital offense, while conversion of Jews to Christianity was encouraged by every possible means, a special domus conversiorum (house of proselytes), being established for the purpose, where apostates could live at the public charge. Following the unworthy example of previous kings, Henry III exacted one-third of the Jewish possessions — this was followed by later exactions. Aaron of York was mulcted at 30,000 marks.

Next the king "leased" the Jews to his brother Richard to be squeezed again. In 1240 he called a Jewish "ParHament," but only as a device to exact 20,000 marks more. Though almost forced to the obnoxious trade of money-lending, they did not find it an exclusive monopoly; they encountered rivals in the Caorsini of Italy. Drained in this way, the Jews of England begged permission to leave the kingdom. This was refused, so completely now were their persons, property and movements at the mercy of the king.

As the powerful barons had made use of the Jews to acquire the lands of the small barons, they were now denied all rights of landed property.

Jews Banished from England.

This sad state of things brings us to the next reign — that of Edward I, who closed an epoch in English Jewry. For it was the beginning of the end. A religious man, according to his lights, he bluntly forbade the practice of usury but granted the Jews remission to engage in handicrafts and agriculture. But it was an empty privilege. Long estranged from the soil they could not in a moment assume the role of farmers, though rental of farms for ten years was allowed. Farming involves long and sure tenure. As to the manual arts, the guilds of the Middle Ages (corresponding somewhat to the trade unions of today, but into which Jews were not then admitted) controlled the handicrafts.

So this situation, depriving them of livelihood, made their status impossible. Some became outlaws, some apostates and some stooped to a crime, in vogue at the time, of clipping the coin. It was, as it were, a retaliation in small — for the crimes committed against Jews in large.

Thus bad treatment demoralizes. For this crime Jews were hanged — non-Jewish offenders being let off on a lighter penalty.

The king and the Church now began shutting up all synagogues. The toils were closing around Anglo-Israel. The Church next forbade social and industrial relations between Jew and Christian. There was only one thing left for the king to do — to expel them. This he did. In 1290 the dread edict went forth. All debts to Jews were cancelled. None dared linger under penalty of death, however precarious their condition or their circumstances. As in Egypt of old, they were driven forth, some of the 16,511 perishing by the way. The mob followed them with cries of triumph. One ship captain, paid to convey a number to the Continent, and having all their goods on board, sailed away leaving them stranded on the shore amidst the jeers of the bystanders. No mercy to the outcast deicidcs, "slayers of God," as they were called. So Israel had to take up the wanderer's staff again to try and find an oasis in this hostile world desert — a pillow where he might lay his weary head.


Pre-expulsion Relics:—The entire relics of the Jews of England up to the expulsion in 1290 are few — some stone houses, a bronze ewer and some documents in which they are characteristically styled "sons of the Devil." There are still preserved some 200 Shtaaroth (contracts) in Hebrew. This Chaldaic word staar was introduced into the Latin as staarum; it is said that the "Star Chamber" of England was so called, because it was the depository of these documents.

Ibn Ezra wrote his Hebrew grammar during his English stay.

Aaron of Lincoln.—Joseph Jacobs is the best authority on the pre-expulsion period of Anglo-Jewish history. His article "Aaron of Lincoln" {Jewish Quarterly Revieiv, vol. x) throws much light on the peculiar financial relations between the Crown and the Jews. This greatest financier died in 1186, when all his immense wealth went to the king as that of all "usurers," so called. Perhaps it was he who "organized the English Jewry into one great banking association." Since all loan of money for profit was condemned by the Church, the development of English industry would have been sadly impeded were it not for the Jews. In this way the building of sixteen or more abbeys and monasteries was due to Aaron of Lincoln; he also enabled the abbeys to acquire lands and to buy hay. Earls, abbots, priors, bishops, sheriffs, archdeacons, municipalities and towns borrowed from him. The king used the money he took from the Jews to get the barons into his power. Since he was satisfied to receive only part of debts outstanding to a Jew at his death, this often encouraged needy and unscrupulous debtors to slay the Jewish creditor. Mr. Jacobs deplores that "the intolerance of the Church prevented Aaron of Lincoln (and others) from devoting his talents of organization to any purpose but the sordid one of money seeking."

Ritual and History:—From the old Jewish Prayer Book valuable bits of history may be gathered, for very often an elegy or dirge written on the occasion of a persecution would be incorporated into the Liturgy. For example, a Lamentation was written on the English massacres at London and at York in 1190, when the sad news was brought to the Continent by eye witnesses. From it we learn that English Jews were known for their piety as well as their wealth.

Expulsion from England:— The expulsion was very thorough. No conforming Jew was seen in England from 1290 to 1657, the year of their re-settlement.

The Jews of Angevin, England, Joseph Jacobs, Putnam, 1893. — "By associating a Christian oath with entry into every reputable calling, State combined with Church to prevent the Jew from association with his neighbor in most natural and usual way." — from Catalogue "Anglo-Jewish Historical Exhibition," Frank Haes, London, 1888. See also: Jews of York, Isaac Disraeli, in Curiosities of Literature. "Expulsion of the Jews from England," B. L. Abrahams, Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. vii.

Theme for Discussion:—What defense can be offered for Edward's expulsion of the Jews?