Foreigners with No Rights – England  1656-1700


Sephardi Jews were in a precarious situation as foreigners with no legal rights. There were several areas of danger. Jewish merchants were involved with political events within Cromwell’s English Republic and subsequently with the restored monarchy. They became enmeshed in tangled relationships between the competing ambitions of England, Spain, Portugal and Holland. Sephardim were Iberian Jews, pretending to be Catholics while living in England but trading and travelling to Spanish and Portuguese territories where they might face the Inquisition. Antisemitic feeling in England could easily provoke expulsion. Even in 1655, denunciations of secret Jews were still taking place. In London, Francis Knevett, a scrivener, apparently betrayed a Marrano community and the secret Jews were forced to confess their identity to the English authorities.  

A fragile safety 

The safety of the Jews remained fragile. When Charles II was crowned in 1660, Christian merchants petitioned him to expel the Jews. They demanded a re-opening of the Whitehall Conference and, according to Katz, ‘urged the imposition of heavy taxes on the Jews and the expulsion of all Jews without a license to reside in this country.’ Christian merchants accused Jews of exporting cloth at lower prices. This petition failed, partly, it is believed, because Maria de Carvajal, widow of Antonio, petitioned Charles II, praying for ‘His Majesty’s protection to continue and reside in his dominions.’ 

But there were other anti-Jewish sentiments. Thomas Violet, a London goldsmith, published a pamphlet in 1660 asking Parliament for Jewish expulsion. Hostile petitions were also advanced by the Lord Mayor and aldermen who wanted Charles II to expel the Jews who remained without any legal security throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. Archives reveal how the Sephardim felt obliged to ‘pay’ the host country to retain favour. In 1678 the Jewish community presented the Lord Mayor of London with a silver dish or goblet including a consignment of sweetmeats. By 1716 the ‘gift’ was 50-60 pounds of chocolate. Bevis Marks records reveal that this practice ended in 1780.

A Slow Sephardi integration

But nevertheless, integration into English society was slowly taking place.  Historians suggest that wide-ranging Sephardi diaspora networks were advantageous for English commercial interests. The Sephardi trading diaspora was based on kinship rather than religion. Some Sephardim had become New Christians, others remained Jews whilst others vacillated between identities.  The glue between these various communities was the sharing of a Spanish-Portuguese culture.  An elite continued to prosper through their continual relationship with the English establishment. 

The Great Plague hits

 Unlike the Black Death in 14th century Europe, Jews were not blamed for The Great Plague of 1665. Charles II and his Portuguese wife, Catherine of Braganza, fled to Oxford with Catherine’s Sephardi doctor Fernando Mendes, a Portuguese converso.  Along with other affluent members of society, richer Jews escaped the city; the community’s Rabbi, Jacob Sasportas, decamped to Hamburg.  Poorer Sephardim remained and burial records suggest that six identifiable individuals died of the plague, with possibly a further fifteen buried in unmarked graves – a relatively low toll, given that up to a quarter of London’s total population died of the disease.  The epidemic was followed by the Great Fire of 1666. However, luckily for the Sephardi community, the part of London where they lived and which also included the Creechurch Lane synagogue, was largely spared from the flames. 

Discrimination by taxation

James II ruled England from 1685 to 1688 but his Catholic monarchy was overthrown during the ‘Glorious Revolution’. James was replaced by his Protestant daughter Mary and her Dutch husband William of Orange, who reigned jointly from 1689 to 1702. In 1689, a landmark in Anglo-Jewish history was the mention of Jews by the House of Commons when Parliament resolved to raise funds through a poll tax: ‘That every Merchant Stranger and Jew residing within this Kingdome shall pay the Summe of Ten Pounds.’ Mentioning Jews in a parliamentary bill appears to legally validate their presence. There were around 550-600 Jews in the kingdom at the time but to tax only 0.01 per cent of the population was highly discriminatory. Sephardim reacted with a petition where they defined themselves as a landless nation who had not paid Oliver Cromwell for their ‘establishment in this Kingdom’ nor any Stuart kings for the right to remain.  This petition argued against their destruction by such a tax claiming that they ‘have always lived Peaceably, Quietly and Dutifully under the Established Government.’ They made it clear that any such tax would result in their departure. 

The Bill failed but the problems facing Jews did not. In 1689, Thomas Pennington, a customs official, demanded that the Jews should no longer be exempted from paying the aliens’ duty. Denizens awarded to Jews by previous monarchs, Charles II and James II, were considered void. Pennington was supported by William who told him to estimate the amount of uncollected alien duty owed by the Jews; this amounted to £58,000. In October 1690, William III levied duties on all English exports effected by foreign merchants but two months later Parliament abolished alien duties and the battle to tax Jews as an isolated minority failed. 

The 1689 Toleration Act was an early marker of the English Enlightenment but it excluded ‘any person that shall deny in his preaching or writing the doctrine of the blessed Trinity.’ Even during the joint reign of William and Mary, Jews were constantly pressured to demonstrate their financial support of the monarchy and were threatened with increased taxes, forced loans and aliens’ duties. 

Sephardim become established 

In the 1695 census, organised to finance rates and taxes, there are 853 Jewish names of which 589 are Sephardi. Most Jews lived in the City of London; they no longer had to practise their religion in secret. Slowly, Sephardi elites were becoming part of the English establishment. In 1670, Solomon de Medina was the first Jew to be knighted. Historians suggest that this honour was afforded because King William owed de Medina a large sum of money. A small, discreet synagogue had been opened in Creechurch Lane as early as 1656, followed by the acquisition of the original Mile End burial ground the following year. In 1694, an appeal was announced to raise funds for a larger synagogue. Permission was given by the City Fathers on condition that the building be erected far from the main road to avoid offending Christians. Henry Ramsay was commissioned to design the model and, after his death, it was constructed by the Quaker Joseph Avis. The 1699 contract estimated a budget of £2,650 but the final spend was £4,946. A 99-year lease was granted in 1699 and the freehold purchased in 1835. Opened in 1701, this classical monument is in the City of London, just off the ancient thoroughfare of Bevis Marks. It remains as a tribute to the Sephardi community and as a testament of their eventual secure position on this island but, at its opening, Jews were still in a delicate situation.

Ashkenazi arrival

Another major and growing development took place during the second half of the century; the gradual arrival of Ashkenazi Jews, largely from Germany. By the 1690s, these had formed a distinct community from the Sephardi with the founding of the Great Synagogue in Duke’s Place and a separate burial ground also in Mile End. As noted by David Katz apart from a few exceptions, ‘Ashkenazis were regarded as poor cousins who would bring the community into disrepute.’ These ‘foreign poor’ were seen as ‘indigent Jewish immigrants’ by the more established Sephardim. 

Sephardi prejudice

In 1678, the Mahamad, the council of the Sephardi community, ruled that no ‘Tudesco’, in German that is Ashkenazi, ‘should ever hold synagogue office, vote at members’ meetings, receive any honour whatsoever or even be allowed to pay the income tax or make donations to charity’. In 1678, foreign Ashkenazim requiring charity ‘should receive five shillings and be given notice to leave the country within four days.’  Katz writes that the London Sephardim had no interest in serving the Jewish people, ‘only those who conformed to their rite and maintained a certain standard of wealth, power and influence.’ 

And yet, within half a century, increased immigration meant that Ashkenazim were to overtake Sephardim in numbers.