Exclusion Period for Jews

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The Middle Period 1290-1656 in England

During the so-called Middle Period, the period of Exclusion (1290-1655) Jews were, strictly speaking, not allowed in England.

In 1305 the Domus Conversorum, or “House of Converts” in London still registered 51 residents who had converted at or before the Expulsion in 1290. The last one of these, “Clarissa of Exeter” died in the Domus in 1356. The problem with the records of English Jewish converts to Christianity from the pre-Expulsion period is that their “former” Jewish names were rarely, if ever, recorded. A census of Oxford Jewish converts from the year 1247 survives and, typically, records only their new “Christian” names without any reference to their previous lifelong Jewish identity.

However, the London Domus Conversorum did not remain completely empty with the death of the last of the pre-Expulsion Jews. Registers of the inmates of the London Domus Conversoruum from 1331 to 1608 survive, but only list forty eight Jewish individuals (38 men and 10 women)-over this entire period of 277 years. Most if not all of these Jews, judging from their original names which are recorded in these later registers, were clearly immigrants from Sephardic and Levantine Jewish groups and not from the original English/Northern French (Tsarfatic) Jewish population. That group, having been expelled from England, were soon after driven out of France.

Jews periodically petitioned to have Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion revoked, starting with an attempt during the reign of his ill-fated son Edward II in 1310, but to no avail. Certainly, some Jews undoubtedly infiltrated English trade from the continent disguised as gentiles, and in 1376 there are complaints in the Pipe Rolls that certain Jews were masquerading as Lombards, one of the Christian groups who happily circumvented Canonical objections to usury and had taken over the banking functions provided earlier solely by the Jews. The Medici family was one of these Lombard dynasties.

Permits were also occasionally issued (for a price) to individual Jews to visit England, as was recorded for a doctor, Elyas Sabot in 1410. In the decades preceding the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492 Jews attempted to filter into England posing as “Spanish” merchants.

Henry VIII openly welcomed Jewish Hebrew scholars who he hoped would help him find the Biblical loophole through which he could extricate himself from his marital complications.

Henry VIII also imported members of the Bassanos and Lupos families—renowned Venetian Jewish dynasties of musicians— to perform at his court. Occasionally (particularly in 1542) “Spanish” merchants in Tudor England were arrested on the suspicion of being Jews— but individuals still managed to operate tacitly unacknowledged as Jews in trade hubs such as London and Bristol. 

As the Tudor period moved into Elizabeth’s reign, however, it became more dangerous to be thought a Spaniard than a Jew and some of theseJewish merchants chose to declare outright their Jewishness, though usually with some allusion to having converted.

These Elizabethan Jews were often well-known London personalities in the time of Marlowe and Shakespeare, and undoubtedly inspired Jewish characters in their plays. A Sephardic Jew, Rodrigo Lopez, often quoted as the inspiration for Shylock, served as the court physician to Queen Elizabeth, who doubly appreciated his knowledge of and lack of affection for her Spanish enemies. 

Nonetheless, Lopez eventually fell foul of Elizabethan court politics and was hung, drawn and quartered, though Elizabeth herself was reluctant to do so.

The universities in Oxford and Cambridge availed themselves of several notable visiting Hebrew scholars in the late 16th and early 17th century. Many of these presented themselves as converts, often blithely shifting from continental Catholicism to English Protestantism. The Italian Jewish scholar Emmanuel Tremellius lived in Lambeth Palace with Archbishop Cranmer before becoming the Regius professor of Hebrew at Cambridge, and Philip Ferdinand taught at both Oxford and Cambridge as a “convert” before returning to become professor of Hebrew at Leiden. Some refused to feign conversion (see section on Oxford in the Exclusion Period).

One of the most interesting Elizabethan Jews was the Bohemian mining expert Joachim Gaunse (Gans) who accompanied Walter Raleigh’s expedition in 1585 to the coast of Virginia and the Outer Banks (right), with the intent of exploring mining possibilities in the (English) New World. Gaunse did not remain in the Americas, but returned to England to revolutionize its copper mining industry. Later, the Caballist Alonzo de Herrera, and the Sephardic Rabbi Simon Palache visited openly as practicing Jews. Oxford had two openly Jewish merchants opening the first coffeehouses west of Venice in the early 1650’s, a Levantine Jew named Jacob and another named Cirques Jobson, who both later migrated to London where they initiated that city to the joys of the coffeehouses which later evolved into some of the most venerable British mercantile institutions (e.g. Lloyd’s Coffeehouse/Lloyds of London, Jonathan’s Coffeehouse/London Stock Exchange).

In the wake of the Civil War, the English Commonwealth was struggling to establish itself both politically and economically and Marrano businessmen trading discretely in London as “Spanish” merchants made an impact with their large and wealthy trading networks spanning across the Dutch and Spanish empires. Menasseh ben Israel (left), the leader of the Amsterdam Jewish community, had spent great effort inveigling a sympathetic Queen Christina of Sweden to open Scandinavia to wholesale Jewish settlement but her abdication had put paid to this and Menasseh shifted his attention to England

He sent emissaries and a silver salver as a gift to Cromwell. But negotiations were disrupted by the breakout of war between Britain and Holland between 1652-4.

As soon as hostilities ceased, Menasseh renewed negotiations with a petition (left) asking for the repeal the Expulsion Order of 1290. In 1655 Cromwell summoned a national conference of lawyers, ecclesiastics and merchants to Whitehall to consider the petition and the lawyers could find no reason to deny Jews re-entry, however the ecclesiastics and merchants balked and Oliver Cromwell withdrew the petition to prevent any binding negative vote.

War erupted in England again in 1656, this time with Spain, and the status of the already operating network of Jewish “Spanish” businessmen was in immediate jeopardy, as individual “Spanish merchants” were arrested and their assets impounded.

These Jewish merchants had no choice but to disavow their Spanish masks and declare themselves to be Jews outright. Cromwell appears to have chosen to support them, having seen the Jews’ inestimable value, particularly through their ability to both strengthen England and deplete her enemies by bringing Jewish interests in Dutch and Spanish sources of wealth with them. Menasseh’s petition to re-admit the Jews actually never was brought to the vote, Cromwell fearing the merchants-ecclesiastics faction would bring it down. Instead, Cromwell simply made it clear that bans against the Jews would no longer be enforced and supported the Jews informally by asserting that they could practice their religion discretely as long as they made no attempt to proselytize. A small group of long-time resident crypto-Jewish merchants of London were allowed to purchase land for a Jewish cemetery in 1657 (among them, Antonio Fernadez Carvajal, a major dealer in cochineal, gunpowder and silver who had advanced large sums to Parliament and provided Cromwell with significant information against the Dutch during the war, and Simon de Caceres, another useful merchant with extensive interests in the West Indies and Spanish South America)

Solomon Dormido, Menasseh ben Israel’s nephew, was allowed to become a licensed broker in the City of London without having to take the usual Christian oaths of the Royal Exchange.

Commonwealth lawyers were content that Edward I’s Order of Expulsion of 1290 against the Jews had applied only to Jews living in England at that time. It was true. The original English/Northern French Tsarfatic Jewish community had been long gone, disbursed more or less entirely by the end of the 14th century. However, from 1656, Jews, largely Sephardic and Levantine, were once again freely back in England. By the end of the 17th century the openly Jewish population of England was approximately three hundred.

PM 2009


Albert Hyamson, A History of the Jews in England, 1908; 2d ed. 1928

Articles from the Jewish Encyclopedia:

  • Joseph Jacobs, Jews in England (Marranos in England, The Intermediate Period, The Resettlement Period)
  • Joseph Jacobs, Israel Abrahams, Joachim Gaunse
  • Joseph Jacobs, A.H. Valentine, Solomon Dormido
  • Joseph Jacobs, George Alexander, Kohut, Gotthard Deutsch, A. Rhine, Caceres

David S. Katz Philo-Semitism and the Readmission of the Jews to England, 1603-1655 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982) x, 286 pp.

G. A. Kohut, Simon de Caceres and His Plan for the Conquest of Chili, New York, 1899 (reprinted from the American Hebrew, June 16, 1899);

Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England, 1941; 3d ed. 1964

Cecil Roth, A Life of Manasseh Ben Israel, Rabbi, Printer, and Diplomat, Philadelphia, 1934

Lucien Wolf, Cromwell’s Jewish Intelligencers ,Transactions of the Jew. Hist. Soc. Eng., i.

Lucien Wolf, The First English Jew, in Transactions of the Historical Society of England, ii.14-16

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