As England goes to the polls for a historic referendum, here are some little-known facts about Jews in the Sceptered Isle.
Jews first arrived in England with William the Conqueror in 1066; more came later from France, fleeing the Crusades. Additional Jews were invited to the northern city of York by the Bishop of York, who requested their help with his scholarship and learning. Jews established flourishing communities throughout England, engaging in trade, medicine, jewelry-making, and singing.
Legally, English Jews were regarded as a form of chattel. King Henry III mortgaged the Jewish community of England to his brother Richard as collateral for a loan. He later mortgaged England’s Jews to his son Edward in return for an annual payment and an oath of loyalty.
Anti-Semitism in the Magna Carta
It’s been called the first Democratic document in modern Europe, but the Magna Carta – the first document to limit a European monarch’s power, in 1215 – singled out England’s Jews. Fully three clauses (out of 62) of the Magna Carta dealt with Jews, limiting their power to claim unpaid debts and restricting their ability to do business with landowners.
England’s King Richard I – “Richard the Lionheart” – was an enthusiast supporter of the Crusades and encouraged his subjects to attack Jews wherever they could. At his coronation in September 1189, a riot began at the doors of Westminster Hall; Londoners rampaged through the streets, killing many of the capital’s Jews and ransacking their homes.
Pogroms soon spread to other English towns. Jews were massacred in Dunstable, Lynn, Stamford and Norwich. Pogroms reached the northern city of York in March 1190. Terrified Jews begged to be admitted to York Castle, and the warden opened the castle doors and offered them protection. The local sheriff – leading a crowd braying for Jewish blood – attacked the castle. The Jews inside committed suicide rather than be murdered by the mob outside.
One of the earliest English pieces of literature, Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, devotes an entire tale – the Prioress’ Tale – to the fabricated story of a Jew who murdered an innocent Christian child in order to steal his blood.
The Prioress’s Tale
In real life, English Jews were routinely accused of blood libels – and often murdered as a result. One of England’s most famous saints – St. Hugh of Lincoln – is a Christian boy whom locals falsely claimed was murdered by Jews in 1255. Eighteen Jews were ultimately executed for failing to confess; the real murderer was never caught.
Secret Jew in Queen Elizabeth’s Court
On July 18, 1290, King Edward I issued an edict banishing Jews from England entirely. Small groups of secret Jews were rumored to live in England, fleeing torture and death under the Inquisition (which mandated death to anyone practice Judaism) that then operated in Portugal and Spain.
One young doctor – Rodrigo Lopez, a secret Jew from Portugal – rose to become the Queen Elizabeth I’s personal physician. Although he maintained the outward trappings of an English gentleman – a busy medical practice, a house in the Holborn area of London, a son at the prestigious Winchester boarding school – Lopez was part of a small group of secret Jews who continued to practice their religion in London.
Unfortunately, Lopez also made a powerful enemy: the Earl of Essex, who was a patient of Dr. Lopez, and seems to have had a falling out with the doctor. When a plot against a pretender to the Portuguese throne surfaced in London, Essex accused Lopez of being part of it. Soon Lopez was accused of being a Spanish spy – and then of poisoning Queen Elizabeth I. Although he protested his innocence, Lopez was arrested, tortured, and in 1594 was publically executed.
Shakespeare is thought to have based the Jewish character of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice, written a few years later, on Dr. Lopez. (One clue is the name of his nemesis, Antonio – the same name of the Portuguese nobleman Dr. Lopez was accused of plotting against.)
Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel and the Return of Jews to England
Menasseh ben Israel was a genius who wrote defenses of the Torah, established the first Hebrew printing press in Holland, and maintained friendships and correspondence with some of the greatest figures of the day – including Rembrandt, Queen Christina of Sweden, and the political philosopher Hugo Grotius.
Eager to provide Jews a refuge from anti-Semitism in Europe, Menasseh ben Israel wrote to the new British leader Oliver Cromwell, in 1650, asking him to admit Jews to England. (Menasseh ben Israel guessed that as a devout Puritan, Cromwell might be more positively disposed to the Jews.)
A portrait of Menasseh ben Israel by his friend Rembrandt gives us a glimpse of this remarkable man.
After years of petitions, his wish was granted. Cromwell admitted many individual Jews, allowing them “to meet privately in their houses for prayer” and to lease a cemetery. In 1656, about thirty Jewish families from Spain and Portugal moved to London, eventually setting up a synagogue on Creechurch Lane.
Cromwell’s successor King Charles II continued to relax laws against Jewish life. In 1698, it finally became legal in England to practice Judaism.
Yiddish in England
Between 1881 and 1914, over two million Jews fled anti-Semitism and pogroms in Eastern Europe. Most wanted to go to America, and many set sail on British-owned ships. Docking in Britain en route to the US, a number of Jews decided to stay and make England their homes. By 1914, a quarter of a million Jews lived in England.
While earlier waves of Jewish immigrants were Sephardi, these new immigrants were from Ashkenazi communities. Yiddish newspapers and theatres thrived. One Jewish Londoner, Louis Behr, later recalled visiting the Yiddish-speaking Pavilion Theatre in the 1920s:
“And then Saturday night when Shabbos was out, that was a treat….” Jewish women in particular queued up to buy tickets he remembers: “The whole week they slaved, there was no washing machine, no refrigerator, no television, no wireless (radio). But that was their outlet, once a week they went and they’d come along with packets, their own gefilte fried fish, bagels and food.” If an actor ever forgot his lines, Mr. Behr remembered, the audience – familiar with the play after weeks of theatre visits – would remind them.
Queues outside the Pavilion Theatre, 1895
My mother grew up in London’s East End and recalls her grandmother – my great-grandmother Yittah – who lived and worked in London her entire life, getting by entirely in Yiddish. Each week Yittah would attend a performance at a Yiddish theatre. The more maudlin the play, the better, rating stories by the number of hankies she used up crying. A three-hanky play was called a “gitta druma” or a good show.
In the 19th Century, two Jewish businessmen – Elias Moses and his son Isaac – revolutionized shopping in England – and beyond, inventing the concept of department stores, mass marketing, and “ready to wear” clothes.
From humble beginnings in a market in London’s heavily Jewish East End, the Moses men established full service clothing stores across England, catering to the Victorian age’s growing cohort of salaried workers who craved fine clothing on modest incomes. Their stores were lavish, and offered working class customers the fine service and beautiful surroundings that had previously been the preserve only of the rich.
An 1850 guidebook describes one E. Moses & Son branch: “many thousands of gas-flames, forming branches, foliage, and arabesques, and sending forth so dazzling a blaze, that this fiery column of Moses is visible to Jews and Gentiles at a distance of half a mile.”
English Jews have helped found some of the country’s other iconic businesses too, including the supermarket chain Tesco (founded by Sir Jack Cohen), clothing chain Marks & Spencer (founded by Sir Michael Marks and Thomas Spencer) and Shell Oil (Marcus Bearsted).
Jewish Oath in Parliament
In 1847, Baron Lionel Nathan de Rothschild was elected to Parliament – and was later elected four more times – but was prevented from taking his seat in the Commons because he refused to take an oath declaring his “true faith as a Christian” and swear on a Christian Bible.
Other Jews had served in Parliament: Benjamin Disraeli (who converted to Christianity as a child) would later serve as Prime Minister, and the Jewish MP David Salomons was elected to Parliament in 1851. (Salomons also refused to take the Christian oath, but insisted on taking his seat anyway; he was forcibly removed from Parliament three days later and fined 500 pounds for voting “illegally” in Parliament.)
Rothschild, however, was the first Jew to insist on his right to be sworn into Parliament on his own terms, and he fought publicly for expanded rights for Britain’s Jews. Finally, in 1858, after pressure from Disraeli – and after being elected five times – Rothschild was able to take his seat – eleven years late. Covering his head with a top hat, Rothschild entered the chamber and swore “So help me, Jehovah” instead. (The following year, David Salomons was reelected – and took his oath using the wording Rothschild had pioneered.)
Questions for the Future
A recent 2011 survey found that 271,259 Jews call Britain home. A clear majority of British Jews – 60% – send their children to Jewish schools. 64% of British Jews live in the main Jewish centers of London and Manchester, and 36% live in smaller communities across the country.
Although Britain’s Jewish community is flourishing, there are worrying signs for the future. A 2014 poll found that nearly two-thirds of Britain's Jews – just over 63% – have questioned their future in the UK, citing growing anti-Semitism in Britain.
Since then, the situation has deteriorated further: a 2016 report found steadily increasing levels of anti-Semitism since 2014. 2015 was the worst year on record, with nearly 1,000 anti-Semitic acts reported.