The History of the Medieval Jews of England

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Before the Conquest

There is no real evidence of Jews settling England before the 1070s – the Doomsday book recorded a Manasser settled in rural Oxfordshire – however it is believed that this was only an incidence of a gentile with an unusual (for a gentile) Old Testament name.

The Tsarfat Jewish Community


We do know that Jews from Rouen arrived at the invitation, if not the command, of William the Conqueror, to introduce an established network of credit and trading links between his new English lands and his French ones. The English and Northern French Jewish communities would remain connected by family ties, literature and rabbinical exchange throughout the period of English medieval Jewish settlement.

Royal Wards

Jews, as the only outsiders in an otherwise homogeneous Christian society, were wards of the king. This meant that Jews came under2knight

the direct jurisdiction and protection of the crown, a status which allowed them, for example, freedom of the king’s highways, exemption from tolls, the ability to hold land directly from the king, and physical protection in any of the vast network of royal castles built to assert Norman authority over the kingdom. Perhaps the combination of these privileges, their non-Christian Jewish religion 3house(which of course during periods of crusading zeal dredged up Jewish complicity in the crucifixion of Christ), and the perception of Jews being a part of the royal court, created from the start a propensity for attracting resentment, which would come to flare up over the next centuries whenever an urban mob needed a focus target or individual incidents occurred between a Christian and a Jew. At thesame time, we have equal evidence that strong, warm, neighbourly individual Christian-Jewish interrelationships existed in the English cities eventually settled by the Jews. The Rouen Jews settled first in London, and by the early 1100s started to move out into the more important provincial cities offering strong royal protection for their families. The 17 th century antiquarian Anthony Wood wrote that the Jews first came to Oxford in 1075, although there is no surviving evidence to set this date. We do know that the medieval Oxford Jewry was very well established by the 1140s.


Benefits to the King

The protection of the Jews as wards of the crown brought equally useful benefits to the king, as technically, the Jews and their property more or less were at his disposal at all times. The king, therefore, had the right to extract special taxes, or tallages at any time from his Jews, which circumvented always having to negotiate for extra funds from his barons. 4communityHowever, the Norman and Plantagenet kings tended to realize that the Jews were most useful to them when as a vibrant merchantile community they were left unhampered to simply get on with business, generating credit, facilitating trade and freely building up individual wealth. This created ever greater royal tax bases throughout the kingdom, and a reliable stash of ready-capital resided in the Jewish community whenever needed by the king.


Under the Norman Kings

5coinAfter the death of William the Conqueror in 1087, his second son, William Rufus became king of England. Wildly unpopular with his Norman as well as Anglo-Saxon subjects, William Rufus valued the Jews. He enjoyed infuriating the former by staging debates at court between churchmen and Jews, tauntingly saying he would convert to Judaism if they had the better 6bookarguments. William Rufus managed to prevent in England the massacres of Jews that occurred in Rouen, and across France and the Rhineland, in the bloody frenzy the preceded the departure of the First Crusade in 1096. Henry I took the throne in 1100 after his brother was killed in a supposed hunting accident. Henry retained Jews at court and continued the favourable Norman policy toward the Jews, issuing a formal charter reiterating their royal protection, and special privileges of liberty which fostered a 35 year period of Jewish prosperity and growth extending further out into the provinces.


Chaos and Change Amid the War of Stephen/Matilda


Henry’s death without a surviving male heir in 1135 brought about the chaotic war between Henry’s daughter Matilda (the Empress Maud) and his nephew, Stephen of Blois. Stephen was crowned by those barons who felt a male was needed on the throne, but was immediately challenged by Matilda and those barons who supported her claim to the crown. Character flaws in both leaders combined with nearly equal military strengths to neutralize either’s ability to bring the civil war to a conclusion, 8stephenas baronial loyalties and alliances shifted back and forth chaotically between Matilda and her cousin in a debilitating stalemate of 19 long years. Stephen was unable to provide consistent protection for anyone, never mind the Jews, and communities were at the mercy of whichever side momentarily had control over them. The breakdown of law and order made travel extremely dangerous and it is believed that during this period Jews abandoned trade almost entirely in favour of money-lending, a necessary profession prohibited by the Bible, which Christians had always been glad to leave to the Jews, who were damned anyway.


First Written Record of the Oxford Jewry 1141

Oxford was one of those castle towns which changed hands several times between the forces9hoist of Matilda and Stephen. It is from one of these periods that the first written record of the medieval Oxford Jewry survives. In 1141 Matilda was under siege in Oxford Castle and, in dire need of cash, extracted as much gold as she could from the Jews before escaping, dressed in white, across the snow on the frozen Thames. Oxford Castle fell to Stephen, and in his rage to pursue and route his cousin, he demanded money from the Oxford Jewry. The chronicler Brother Nigellus recorded that when the Jews of Oxford complained that they had been depleted by Matilda, Stephen set fire 10fireto the first house in the Jewry, that of Aaron f. Isaac, and threatened to burn down the rest of the Jewry if the money he required was not forthcoming immediately. Aaron’s house was located at the top of the Jewry, right at Carfax, where the present day Edinburgh Woollen Mills shop is now.


11henryiiA Golden Age for the Jews under Henry II (The First Angevin King)

Aaron’s House

The Stephen/Matilda stalemate was finally resolved with a novel solution: Stephen would remain King for the rest of his lifetime, but would be succeeded by Matilda’s son, Henry Plantagenet, Count of Anjou. Henry II was a very capable administrator who surrounded himself with extremely able ministers. His firm centralized organization restored stability and order, and renewed the shattered economy, and the Jews12piperoll returned to their position as protected and valued wards of the king. By this time Christian moneylenders, particularly syndicates in Lombardy and Cahors, could no longer resist the profits in money-lending and went into competition with the Jews. However, there was such economic expansion under Henry II that there was plenty of demand for credit, and major Jewish fortunes were made in London, Oxford, Lincoln, Bristol and Norwich which were merely the largest and wealthiest of the many English Jewries.


When Aaron of Lincoln died in 1186, he had such wealth that a separate exchequer was set up just to evaluate the extent of Aaron’s holdings in property and pledges for the purposes of death duties, one of the crown’s major ways of capitalizing on the prosperity of its Jews.

Aaron’s House

Beginnings of a Particular Hatred Myth: The Blood Libel

A hideous hoax, ironically perpetuated by a disaffected Norwich Jew in 1144 against his own people, started a particularly ignominious phenomenon that spread throughout Europe: Blood Libel, the accusation that Jews abducted and crucified Christian children as part of some Passover rite. Numerous Norwich Jewish leaders were executed in what should have been a unique, unfounded accusation. However the prosperity of the Jews under Henry II attracted resentment from swelling groups of individuals indebted to the Jews. In 1168 the accusation of ritual child murder was made among the Gloucester Jews and more were killed. The fabrication spread to Northern France in 1171, where the 14torturepopulation of an entire Jewry at Blois was burned to death, and the Tsarfatic community on both sides of the Channel was plunged into despair. Whenever a Christian child died accidentally or in some uncertain manner, the Jews were accused, in Bury St. Edmund in 1181, in Bristol 1183, in Winchester 1192, in London 1244 and in Lincoln in 1255, resulting in massacres of Jews each time. This Blood Libel which began in England would, over the next hundreds of years, spread to more than 150 other Jewries from the Rhineland to the Middle East, with great loss of Jewish life each time.

Richard Coeur de Lion

15richardi Richard I continued to protect the Jews, if only for financial reasons.
However knightly indebtedness combined with the crusading fever of the reign to ignite mob violence against the Jews in London, in Norwich, Lynn and York where the entire Jewries in those places were murdered. The trapped Jews of York committed suicide in terror. Interconnected Tsarfat Jewries, English and French, wrote eloquently of their grief. The mobs burned all records of debts to the Jews. 16fight
Richard sent out renewed orders to protect the Jews and, expanding upon the special Jewish exchequer which his father had set up to deal with the estate of Aaron of Lincoln, formalized it as the separate Exchequer of the Jews. For better protection of the Jews, and particularly for better protection of the records of their transactions, roughly 25 towns were designated to have ‘archae’, centralized record chests monitored by panels of local Christian and Jewish keyholders, into which copies of all Jewish transactions were to be deposited under pain of prosecution. The Crown was not about to let records of Jewish revenue be destroyed by mob violence again. 17archaWhen Richard was held for ransom in Germany on his way back from Crusade in 1194, it was the king’s Jews who were pressed to come up with the enormous ransom. Richard, who spent almost no time in England, died in France in 1199. However, his Exchequer of the Jews records, along with the general system of centralized record keeping instituted by his father and continued by succeeding reigns combine to give historians the most remarkable documentation of any medieval Jewish population in Europe. 18archaThe unique situation in Oxford, where 12
th and 13th century monastic records were preserved by the colleges which took them over, coupled with a surviving house-by-house survey taken in 1279, makes Oxford’s arguably the single best documented 13th century Jewry in the world.


The Disastrous Incompetence of King John

20johnRichard’s brother John’s lack of judgement and popularity meant that he was always short of money and support. While his barons might grumble at John’s incompetence and resist his ever-increasing demands for money, the Jews had no such leverage. John pressed his Jews to provide a royal dowry for his daughter, Joan, followed too quickly by the massive 21coinsso-called Bristol Tallage, which depleted the wealthiest Jews upon which it largely fell. John’s bumbling loss of the vast continental Norman and Angevin lands not only set into motion conflicts that would last for centuries, but would come to have specific effects on the English Jews somewhat later, particularly in Oxford.


Countdown: the Reigns of Henry III and his son Edward I

22henryiiiHenry III came to the throne as a small child and while a council of magnates ran the country for him in his minority, the Jews of England had a decade and more to recover, unimpeded by crippling financial demands from the crown. A second wave of Jewish magnates came to dominate finances, among them David of Oxford, and the many sons of Magister Moses.

But by 1240 Henry III, who also developed ill will with his barons, turned more and more to his Jews for money. 24edwardiBetween 1240-1260, a relatively small Jewish population of 5000 paid out more than £70,000, and to do so, they had to sell off many of their mortgage bonds at a discount, often to a vulture-like coterie of court insiders keen to grasp up debtors’ land.


This only exacerbated tensions and when Simon de Montfort lead his barons in revolt, the Jews were a particular focus of hatred, and massacres again occurred in 1263-4. Oxford, once again, was spared this violence, but its Jewry was swelled by refugees from less fortunate towns.


Edward I (The Prince Edward, Edward Longshanks, Hammer of the Scots)


Edward, as prince, asked for control of the Jewries, which he then proceeded to issue with ever more restrictive statutes—first forbidding them from taking any more property into bond. As king, Edward progressively restricted more means by which the Jews could lend money, and how they lived. At the same time that he kept restricting their means of generating income, he also taxed them, but crown income from the Jews trickled to ever smaller amounts.


Edward’s wife, Eleanor of Castile, having to scrabble together a new Queen’s Treasury since the loss of all its income properties in Northern France by King John, ruthlessly attached herself to as many Jewish bonds and Jewish properties as she could-with particularly devastating effect in the Oxford Jewry. With virtually all means of income denied them and property being confiscated, some Jews undoubtedly 29coinplusresorted to coin clipping to meet demands of taxes and living expenses—however many innocent Jews would be swept up in the coin clipping purges that ended in the hanging of hundreds of Jews throughout England. Edward’s curbing of the Jews served to placate the gentry who had rebelled against his father with de Montfort, and who, as members of the Parliament were now better moved to supply Edward with the money that he needed to fight his expensive wars in Wales, Scotland and France. (It was Edward who built the massive, expensive fortresses which still stand in northern Wales.)


The End of the English Jewry, and the Medieval Tsarfatic Community


New waves of crusading zeal and the demand to convert the Jews welled up again in the 1280s and, in 1288 in preparation for his own crusade, King Edward expelled the Jews from Gascony. However, deeply in debt and in need of huge financial grants from Parliament, Edward succumbed to popular pressure which had become an amalgam of both debt resentment and an end to Christian religious tolerance. Edward expelled the depleted Jewish community from England in 1290, more or less in exchange for a £100,000 tax grant from his Christian subjects. Allowed to take only the chattels they could carry, the decimated population of England’s Jews (which in Oxford had been reduced to women and a few elderly men) left for the Tsarfatic communities of Northern France—only to have that community dispersed forever when Philip Augustus followed the English lead and expelled them in 1306. The last trace of any medieval Oxford Jew is found on a list of Jews living in Paris in 1296, where Meir of Oxford (a.k.a. Myer of Cricklade) is recorded as “Mahy de Quiquelarde, L’englais”.

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