Jews in Medieval England


William the Conqueror invited Jews to settle in England after the Norman Conquest.  They quickly began to play an important role in the economy lending money particularly to the king and royal courts when Christians were forbidden to loan money at interest.  They were an educated and skilled people also working in professions such as medicine and goldsmithing.  The community prospered, with Aaron of Lincoln becoming one of the richest men in England during the second half of the twelfth century.  Jews and Christians lived together peacefully.

Attitudes change
From the middle of the 12th century, however, attitudes towards Jews started to change.  The accusation of the ritual murder of a 12 year-old boy in Norwich in 1144 prompted widespread fabricated allegations of ‘blood libel’ (Jews abducting and killing Christian children for ritual purposes). The Crusades helped fire aggression against non-Christian communities and outbreaks of violence started to erupt around the country, culminating in an incident at Richard I’s coronation in 1189.  On the day of his investiture, despite being barred from the ceremony, some prominent Jews arrived to pay their respects to the new King.  They were thrown out and, while Richard was away on crusade, rumour spread that the king had ordered the English to kill the Jews.  Attacks on Jews followed.  In York, the entire Jewish community, approximately 150 souls, took refuge from rioters in the royal castle where they should have been afforded royal protection.  Spurred on by local gentry and angered by their increasing debts to their Jewish money lenders, the mob maintained their attack. Most Jews chose to commit suicide rather than surrender. Those who begged for mercy by promising to convert, and Jews who surrendered, were all murdered.

Antisemitism intensifies
At the beginning of the 13th century, Jews in England suffered even more punishment. Henry III taxed them at very high rates in order to raise large sums of money. This new tax caused Jewish lenders to sell-on debts, which meant that those indebted to the Jews, and these new lenders, came under increasing pressure to pay up.  As a result, hatred against Jews intensified and the position of the Jews became increasingly precarious.  They had been privileged by royal protection. Henry relied on their funding and, in the Statute of Jewry of 1253, reinforced the law stating that only Jews who served the King could remain in England. Service to the Crown gave Jews some measure of nominal safety; money lending to the court, landowners and minor gentry was conducted both by men and women. Jewish women of the time were well educated, frequently speaking many languages and both able to do business and represent themselves in court.  Dowries often helped  Jewish women establish themselves.

Restricted and labelled
The situation for Jews changed drastically when Edward I introduced the Statute of Jewry in 1275. This prohibited Jews from charging interest on loans and from granting mortgages, cutting off a major source of income. Most shocking is the way this statute limited where Jews were allowed to live, which was near the King’s castle and in cities and specific boroughs.

Jews were restricted financially and physically recognisable as ‘Other’. The 1275 Statute of Jewry reinforced the 1218 Papal Order forcing Jews to wear a badge. A piece of cloth sewn on the outer garment reflected a Papal obligation, going back to the 1215 Fourth Lateran Council. The badge was to be in the shape of the tabula of The Ten Commandments. In 1275, Edward I’s monarchy specified the colour of the badge and its size. Jews over the age of seven were required to wear a piece of yellow taffeta, six fingers long and three broad, over the left chest of the outer garment. The badge, mandated to be worn in England, took the form of the Tablets of the Law, the Ten Commandments, considered to symbolise the Old Testament. Contemporary historians might trace a link between the badge ordered by the Pope and enforced by the medieval English kings to the yellow star which the Nazis forced Jews to wear centuries later.

This statute codified the Jew’s status as a person no longer privileged by the King but indentured to him. This resulted in many Jews trying to become merchants or labourers, but this met with resistance and they became impoverished. Some were accused of coin clipping and counterfeiting and, in 1278, 680 Jews were imprisoned in the Tower of London on charges of coin clipping. From a Jewish population of an estimated 2-3,000, around 300 were executed.

Jews demonised and expelled from England
By 1290, Edward had run up large debts through his foreign wars but he needed Parliament’s permission to raise a tax. In return for expelling the Jews, Parliament promised Edward £116,000 and the Edict of Expulsion was signed on 18 July 1290. Jewish property was seized by the Crown and outstanding debts payable to them transferred to the King. England’s Jews escaped to Northern France and beyond. They left with only the bags they could carry. Many were murdered as they ran for boats. Others were attacked and had their belongings stolen.

There is only fragmentary evidence of Jews living in England after 1290 until the seventeenth century.  Some converted; others practised their faith in secret.  Even though officially England had no Jews after 1290, popular attitudes were influenced by the perpetuation of myths and stereotypes. The medieval period was the seedbed for a flourishing English culture of art and literature but, within it, Jews continued to be demonised in poetry, images and dramas, as Christ-killers and child murderers.