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History of the Jews in England (1066–1290)

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Title: History of the Jews in England (1066–1290)  
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Subject: Edict of Expulsion, History of the Jews in England, Jewish Naturalization Act 1753, History of the Marranos in England, Emancipation of the Jews in the United Kingdom
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History of the Jews in England (1066–1290)

The history of the Jews in England goes back to the reign of William I where the first written record of Jewish settlement in England dates from 1070.


  • William I to Henry I: 1066–1135 1
  • Stephen to Henry II: 1135–1189 2
  • Massacres at London and York (1189–1190) 3
  • Ordinance of the Jewry, 1194 4
  • Under John, 1205–1216 5
  • Increasing persecution, 13th century 6
  • Statutum de Judaism, 1275 7
  • Leadership of the Chief Rabbis, 13th century 8
  • Expulsion, 1290 9
  • See also 10
  • References 11
  • External links 12

William I to Henry I: 1066–1135

There is no record of Jews in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066.[1] The few references to Jews in the Anglo-Saxon laws of the Roman Catholic Church relate to Jewish practices about Easter.

Believing that their commercial skills and incoming capital would make England more prosperous, William I (William the Conqueror) invited a group of Jewish merchants from Rouen, in Normandy, to England in 1070.[2] However, Jews were not permitted to own land (as most gentiles were not allowed to own land) nor to participate in trades (except for medicine). They were limited primarily to money lending. As Catholic doctrine held that money lending for interest was the sin of usury, Jews dominated this activity.

Around 1092, Gilbert Crispin, the Abbot of Westminster, issued a disputation about his exchange with a Jew, entitled "Disputation of a Jew with a Christian about the Christian Bible." Crispin wrote that:

"I wrote it recently putting to paper what a Jew said when formerly disputing with me against our faith in defence of his own law, and what I replied in favour of the faith against his objections. I know not where he was born, but he was educated at Mayence; he was well versed even in our law and literature, and had a mind practised in the Scriptures and in disputes against us. He often used to come to me as a friend both for business and to see me, since in certain things I was very necessary to him, and as often as we came together we would soon get talking in a friendly spirit about the Scriptures and our faith. Now on a certain day, God granted both him and me greater leisure than usual, and soon we began questioning as usual. And as his objections were consequent and logical, and as he explained with equal consequence his former objections, while our reply met his objections foot to foot and by his own confession seemed equally supported by the testimony of the Scriptures, some of the bystanders requested me to preserve our disputes as likely to be of use to others in future."

This disputation was notable for the even-handed presentation of both the Christian and Jewish points of view, and for the congenial tone of the exchange.

At first, the status of Jews was not strictly determined. An attempt was made to introduce the continental principle that all Jews were the king's property and a clause to that effect was inserted under King Henry I in some manuscripts of the so-called Leges Edwardi Confessoris "Laws of Edward the Confessor".

However, during Henry's reign (1100–1135) a royal charter was granted to Joseph, the chief rabbi of London, and all his followers. Under this charter, Jews were permitted to move about the country without paying tolls, to buy and sell goods and property, to sell their pledges after holding them a year and a day, to be tried by their peers, and to be sworn on the Torah rather than on a Christian Bible. Special weight was attributed to a Jew's oath, which was valid against that of 12 Christians, because they represented the King of England in financial matters. The sixth clause of the charter was especially important: it granted to the Jews the right of movement throughout the kingdom, as if they were the king's own property (sicut res propriæ nostræ).

Stephen to Henry II: 1135–1189

Frontage of the Medieval Jew's House in Lincoln, immediately below Jew's Court.

Christian-Jewish relations in England were disturbed under King Stephen who burned down the house of a Jew in Oxford (some accounts say with the owner in it) because he refused to pay a contribution to the king's expenses. It was also during this time that the first recorded blood libel against the Jews was brought in the case of William of Norwich (March, 1144).

While the crusaders in Germany were trying their swords upon the Jews, outbursts against the latter in England were, according to the Jewish chroniclers, prevented by King Stephen.

With the restoration of order under Henry II, the Jews renewed their activity. Within five years of his accession Jews are found at London, Oxford, Cambridge, Norwich, Thetford, Bungay, Canterbury, Winchester, Newport, Stafford, Windsor, and Reading. Yet they were not permitted to bury their dead elsewhere than in London until 1177. Their spread throughout the country enabled the king to draw upon them as occasion demanded; he repaid them by demand notes on the sheriffs of the counties, who accounted for payments thus made in the half-yearly accounts on the pipe rolls (see Aaron of Lincoln). Aaron is believed to have been the wealthiest man in 12th-century Britain, his wealth possibly exceeding that of the King.[3]

Strongbow's conquest of Ireland (1170) was financed by Josce, a Jew of Gloucester; and the king accordingly fined Josce for having lent money to those under his displeasure. As a rule, however, Henry II does not appear to have limited in any way the financial activity of Jews. The favourable position of the English Jews was shown, among other things, by the visit of Abraham ibn Ezra in 1158, by that of Isaac of Chernigov in 1181, and by the resort to England of the Jews who were exiled from France by Philip Augustus in 1182, among them probably being Judah Sir Leon of Paris.

In 1168, when concluding an alliance with Frederick Barbarossa, Henry II seized the chief representatives of the Jews and sent them to Normandy, while tallaging the rest 5,000 marks (Gervase of Canterbury, ed. Stubbs, i. 205). When, however, he asked the rest of the country to pay a tithe for the crusade against Saladin in 1186, he demanded a quarter of the Jewish chattels. The tithe was reckoned at £70,000, the quarter at £60,000. It is improbable, however, that the whole amount was paid at once, as for many years after the imposition of the tallage arrears were demanded from the Jews.

The king had probably been led to make this large demand upon English Jewry by the surprising windfall which came to his treasury at the death of Aaron of Lincoln. In this period, Aaron of Lincoln is believed to have been the wealthiest man in 12th-century Britain, it is estimated that his wealth may have exceeded that of the King.[3] All property obtained by usury, whether by Jew or by Christian, fell into the king's hands on the death of the usurer; Aaron of Lincoln's estate included £15,000 of debts owed to him. Besides this, a large treasure came into the king's hands, which, however, was lost on being sent over to Normandy. A special branch of the treasury, constituted in order to deal with this large account, was known as "Aaron's Exchequer".

In this era, Jews lived on good terms with their non-Jewish neighbours, including the clergy; they entered churches freely, and took refuge in the abbeys in times of commotion. Some Jews lived in opulent houses, and helped to build a large number of the abbeys and monasteries of the country. However, by the end of Henry's reign they had incurred the ill will of the upper classes. The anti-Jewish sentiment fostered by the crusades, during the latter part of the reign of Henry, spread the anti-Jewish sentiment throughout the nation.

Massacres at London and York (1189–1190)

Richard I had taken the cross before his coronation (3 September 1189). A number of the principal Jews of England presented themselves to do homage at Westminster; but there appears to have been a superstition against Jews being admitted to such a holy ceremony, and they were repulsed during the banquet which followed the coronation. The rumour spread from Westminster to the City of London that the king had ordered a massacre of the Jews; and a mob in Old Jewry, after vainly attacking throughout the day the strong stone houses of the Jews, set them on fire at night,[4] killing those within who attempted to escape. The king was enraged at this insult to his royal dignity, but took few steps to punish the offenders, owing to their large numbers. After his departure on the crusade, riots with loss of life occurred at Lynn, where the Jews attempted to attack a baptised coreligionist who had taken refuge in a church. The seafaring population rose against them, fired their houses, and put them to the sword. So, too, at Stamford Fair, on 7 March 1190, many were slain, and on 18 March, 57 were slaughtered at Bury St Edmunds. The Jews of Lincoln saved themselves only by taking refuge in the castle.

Clifford's Tower, where the Jews of York were killed in 1190.

Isolated attacks on Jews also occurred at Colchester, Thetford, and Ospringe, but the most striking incident occurred at York on the night of March 16 (Shabbat HaGadol, the Shabbat before Passover) and 17 March 1190.[5] The Jews of York were alarmed by the preceding massacres and by the setting on fire of several of their houses by the anti-Jewish rioting in the wake of religious fervour during crusaders' preparations for the Third Crusade against the Saracens, led by Richard. Their leader Josce asked the warden of York Castle to receive them with their wives and children, and they were accepted into Clifford's Tower. However, the tower was besieged by the mob of crusaders, demanding that the Jews convert to Christianity and be baptized. Trapped in the castle, the Jews were advised by their religious leader, Rabbi Yomtov of Joigney, to kill themselves rather than convert; Josce began by slaying his wife Anna and his two children, and then was killed by Yomtov. The father of each family killed his wife and children, before Yomtob and Josce set fire to the wooden keep, killing themselves.[6] The handful of Jews who did not kill themselves died in the fire, or were murdered by rioters.[6]

Ordinance of the Jewry, 1194

During Richard's absence in the records should be kept by royal officials of all the transactions of the Jews, without which such transactions would not be legal. Every debt was to be entered upon a chirograph, one part of which was to be kept by the Jewish creditor, and the other preserved in a chest to which only special officials should have access. By this means the king could at any time ascertain the property of any Jew in the land; and no destruction of the bond held by the Jew could release the creditor from his indebtedness. This "Ordinance of the Jewry" was, in practice, the beginning of the office of Exchequer of the Jews, which made all the transactions of the English Jewry liable to taxation by the King of England, who thus became a sleeping partner in all the transactions of Jewish money lending. The king besides demanded two bezants in the pound, that is, 10 per cent, of all sums recovered by the Jews with the aid of his courts.

At this point in time Jews had many of the same rights as gentile citizens. However, their loans could be recovered at law, whereas the Christian money lender could not recover more than his original loan. They were in direct relation to the king and his courts; but this did not imply any arbitrary power of the king to tax them or to take their money without repayment, as is frequently exemplified in the pipe-rolls.

Under John, 1205–1216

As early as 1198 Pope Innocent III, had written to all Christian princes, including Richard of England, calling upon them to compel the remission of all usury demanded by Jews from Christians. This would render the Jewish community's very existence impossible.

On 15 July 1205, the pope laid down the principle that Jews were doomed to perpetual servitude because they had crucified Jesus. In England the secular power soon followed the initiative of the Church. John, having become indebted to the Jewish community while in Ireland, at first treated Jews with a show of forbearance. He confirmed the charter of Rabbi Josce and his sons, and made it apply to all the Jews of England; he wrote a sharp remonstrance to the mayor of London against the attacks that were continually being made upon the Jews of that city, alone of all the cities of England. He reappointed one Jacob archpriest of all the English Jews (12 July 1199).

But with the loss of Normandy in 1205 a new spirit seems to have come over the attitude of John to his Jews. In the height of his triumph over the pope, he demanded the sum of no less than £100,000 from the religious houses of England, and 66,000 marks from the Jews (1210). One of the latter, Abraham of Bristol, who refused to pay his quota of 10,000 marks, had, by order of the king, seven of his teeth extracted, one a day, until he was willing to disgorge.[7]

Though John squeezed as much as he could out of the Jewish community, they were an important element on his side in the triangular struggle between king, barons, and municipalities which makes up the constitutional history of England during his reign and that of his son. Even in the Magna Carta, clauses were inserted preventing the king or his Jewish subjects from obtaining interest during the minority of an heir.

Increasing persecution, 13th century

Medieval Jews forced to wear special hats

With the accession of Henry III (1216) the position of the Jews became somewhat easier, but only for a short time. Innocent III had in the preceding year caused the Fourth Council of the Lateran to pass the law enforcing the Badge upon the Jews; and in 1218 Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, brought it into operation in England, the badge taking the form of an oblong white patch of two finger-lengths by four. The action of the Church was followed by similar opposition on the part of the English boroughs.

Petitions were accordingly sent to the king in many instances to remove his Jews from the boroughs, and they were expelled from Bury St. Edmunds in 1190, Newcastle in 1234, Wycombe in 1235, Southampton in 1236, Berkhamsted in 1242, Newbury in 1244. Jews were expelled from the lands of Queen Dowager Eleanor in January 1275 (which included towns such as Guildford).

With the outbreak of the Barons' war violent measures were adopted to remove all traces of indebtedness either to the king or to the higher barons. The Jewries of London, Canterbury, Northampton, Winchester, Cambridge, Worcester, and Lincoln were looted (1263–65), and the archæ (official chests of records) either destroyed or deposited at the headquarters of the barons at Ely. Simon de Montfort, who in 1231 had expelled the Jews from his town of Leicester,[8] when at the height of his power after the battle of Lewes annulled all indebtedness to the Jews. He had been accused of sharing the plunder but issued edicts for their protection after the battle.[9] Both the Jewry and the king as its representative must have suffered incalculably by this general wiping out of indebtedness.

The value of the Jewish community to the royal treasury had become considerably lessened during the 13th century through two circumstances: the king's income from other sources had continually increased, and the contributions of the Jews had decreased both absolutely and relatively. Besides this, the king had found other sources from which to obtain loans. Italian merchants, "pope's usurers" as they were called, supplied him with money, at times on the security of the Jewry. By the contraction of the area in which Jews were permitted to exercise their money-lending activity their means of profit were lessened, while the king by his continuous exactions prevented the automatic growth of interest.

By the middle of the 13th century the Jews of England, like those of the Continent, had become chattels of the king. There appeared to be no limit to the exactions he could impose upon them, though it was obviously against his own interest to deprive them entirely of capital, without which they could not gain for him interest.

Further prejudice had been raised against the Jews just about this time by the revival of the blood libel, a charge of ritual murder. The king had sold the Jewish community to his brother Richard of Cornwall in February 1255, for 5,000 marks, and had lost all rights over it for a year. But in the following August a number of the chief Jews who had assembled at Lincoln to celebrate the marriage of a daughter of Berechiah de Nicole were seized on a charge of having murdered a boy named Hugh. Ninety-one were sent to London to the Tower, eighteen were executed for refusal to plead, and the rest were kept in prison till the expiry of Richard's control over their property.

Statutum de Judaism, 1275

According to Joseph Jacobs:

Shortly after his coronation Edward I., in 1275, made some experimental decrees. The Church laws against usury had recently been reiterated with more than usual vehemence at the Second Council of Lyon (1274), and Edward in the Statutum de Judaismo absolutely forbade Jews to lend on usury, but granted them permission to engage in commerce and handicrafts, and even to take farms for a period not exceeding ten years, though he expressly excluded them from all the feudal advantages of the possession of land. This permission, however, regarded as a means by which Jews in general could gain a livelihood, was illusory. Farming can not be taken up at a moment's notice, nor can handicrafts be acquired at once. Moreover, in England in the 13th century the guilds were already securing a monopoly of all skilled labour, and in the majority of markets only those could buy and sell who were members of the Guild Merchant. By depriving the Jews of a resort to usury, Edward was practically preventing them from earning a living at all under the conditions of life then existing in feudal England; and in principle the "Statute of Judaism" expelled them fifteen years before the final expulsion. Some of the Jews attempted to evade the law by resorting to the tricks of the Caursines, who lent sums and extorted bonds that included both principal and interest. Some resorted to highway robbery; others joined the Domus Conversorum; while a considerable number appear to have resorted to coin clipping as a means of securing a precarious existence. As a consequence, in 1278 the whole English Jewry was imprisoned; and no fewer than 293 Jews were executed at London.[10]

Leadership of the Chief Rabbis, 13th century

Jews were allowed to have their own jurisdiction, and there is evidence of their having a beth din with three judges. Reference is made to the parnas (president) and gabbai (treasurer), of the congregation, and to scribes and chirographers. A complete system of education seems to have been in vogue.

At the head of the Jewish community was placed a chief rabbi, known as "the presbyter of all the Jews of England"; he appears to have been selected by the Jews themselves, who were granted a congé d'élire by the king. The latter claimed, however, the right of confirmation, as in the case of bishops. The Jewish presbyter was indeed in a measure a royal official, holding the position of adviser, as regards Jewish law, to the Exchequer of the Jews, as the English legal system admitted the validity of Jewish law in its proper sphere as much as it did that of the canon law.

Six presbyters are known in the 13th century: Jacob of London, reappointed 1200; Josce of London, 1207; Aaron of York, 1237; Elyas of London, 1243; Hagin fil Cresse, 1257; and Cresse fil Mosse.

Expulsion, 1290

After the failed experiments in legislation which Edward I made from 1269 onward, there was only one option left: If the Jews were not to have intercourse with their fellow citizens as artisans, merchants, or farmers, and were not to be allowed to take interest, the only alternative was for them to leave the country. He immediately expelled the Jews from Gascony, a province still held by England and in which he was travelling at the time; and on his return to England (July 18, 1290) he issued writs to the sheriffs of all the English counties ordering them to enforce a decree to the effect that all Jews should leave England before All Saints' Day of that year. They were allowed to carry their portable property; but their houses escheated to the king, except in the case of a few favoured persons who were allowed to sell theirs before they left. Between 4,000 and 16,000 Jews were expelled. They emigrated to countries such as Poland that protected them by law.

Between the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 and their formal return in 1655 there is no official trace of Jews as such on English soil except in connection with the Domus Conversorum, which kept a number of them within its precincts up to 1551 and even later.

Anti-Judaism did not disappear with the expulsion of Jews. Jeremy Cohen writes about accusations of host desecration:

"The story exerted its influence even in the absence of Jews ... the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries saw the proliferation of the Host-desecration story in England: in collections of miracle stories, many of them dedicated to the miracles of the Virgin Mary; in the art of illuminated manuscripts used for Christian prayer and meditation; and on stage, as in popular Croxton Play of the Sacrament, which itself evoked memories of an alleged ritual murder committed by Jews in East Anglia in 1191."[11]

See also


  1. ^ For a full discussion, see Scheil, Andrew P. (2004). The Footsteps of Israel: understanding Jews in Anglo-Saxon England. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.  
  2. ^ Per William of Malmesbury
  3. ^ a b Chazan, Robert (2006). The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000–1500. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 159.  
  4. ^ Roger of Hoveden. "The Persecution of Jews, 1189". Medieval Sourcebook. Fordham University. Retrieved January 2, 2012. 
  5. ^ York 1190: Jews and Others in the Wake of Massacre. March 2010. Retrieved December 29, 2011. 
  6. ^ a b "The 1190 Massacre". History Of York. York Museums Trust. Retrieved 13 April 2015. 
  7. ^ (Roger of Wendover, ii. 232; but see Ramsay, Angevin Empire, p. 426, London, 1903
  8. ^ Harris, O.D. (2008). "Jews, jurats and the Jewry Wall: a name in context". Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society 82: 113–33 (Appendix). 
  9. ^ Kingsford, Song of Lewes, pp. 59, 80, Oxford, 1890
  10. ^ Joseph Jacobs, "England", Jewish Encyclopedia, 1901–1906.
  11. ^ Cohen, Jeremy (2007). Christ Killers: the Jews and the Passion from the Bible to the Big Screen. Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 103.  

External links

  • England related articles in the Jewish Encyclopedia
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