here is not much hard evidence concerning Jews who may have been residents of or visitors to the British Isles prior to the Norman Conquest of 1066. It is certain, however, that in 1070 William the Conqueror encouraged (or ordered) a group of well-to-do Jews from Rouen to cross over to England, in the expectation that their commercial skills and capital would enhance the prosperity of his new realm by injecting capital into a hitherto undeveloped economy (Jacobs, xiii-xiv), while also helping to sustain his own power and authority. These early immigrants spoke a form of medieval French in their daily life and studied Torah with the help of French translations. They also frequently had French or French-based names, such as Jurnet, Le Brun, Quatrebuches (Richardson, passim; Abrams, passim). As legislation introduced in the twelfth century prohibited Jews from owning arable land, however, except temporarily as a pledge on a loan of money (Egan 8-12), or to engage in crafts, most of which were subject to the regulations of religious and monopolistic guilds, they were restricted on the whole to finance and trade – though as pawnbrokers, a favoured occupation among the less well-to-do, they had to have enough skill to repair and refurbish jewellery and plate, clothing and armour, in order to make them saleable. In addition, some Jews have been identified as physicians, goldsmiths, soldiers and even vintners, fishmongers and cheesemongers (Richardson 26-27; Jewish population & occupations). Usury (borrowing and lending at exorbitant and abusive rates) being considered sinful by the Church, which severely punished Christian clerks and laymen caught practising it on the sly, this area of activity lay open to Jews and their mostly poor clients. Substantial money-lending, however, was distinct from small-time abusive usury -- in many respects bonds by both Jewish and Christian money-lenders took a form similar to that of the modern mortgage (Richardson 70, 83-86) – and had become an increasingly important instrument for sustaining and promoting both commerce and the state. It was an area in which Jews, excluded from landowning and agriculture, played a prominent role.
Contrary to popular belief, however, it was not, the medievalist H. G. Richardson has argued, an exclusively Jewish activity. There were many well-to-do Christian merchants who were also money-lenders. William Trentegeruns of Rouen and William Cade of Saint-Omer both lent large sums to the future Henry II of England when, as Duke of Normandy, he contested King Stephen’s right to the English throne and organised a military expedition to the island in 1153. Cade, Richardson writes, “a man of immense wealth, with agents in every region of the Western world,” also “lent money to earls and barons, bishops, abbots and archdeacons and to many much humbler folk in all parts of the kingdom.” Indeed, “much the same clients went to a Jewish as went to the Flemish money-lender. [. . .] In essentials, Flemish -- and we may guess, all Christian – money-lending and Jewish money-lending were identical” (55; see also Palliser 67-71). With the passage of time Christians were even trafficking in Jewish bonds.
Money-lending was almost always complemented by trade. Thus William Cade traded in wool and corn, as did the wealthy Jew Aaron of Lincoln. In general, Richardson argues, “to pursue their callings, even money-lending, with success, the Jews must necessarily have cultivated good relations with the community in which they were a small and unassimilated minority” – to the point, he proposes, that, though their neighbours knew them by their practices, “it is unlikely that many Jews could be readily distinguished from Gentiles by their appearance. The order given in England in 1218 and repeated in 1253 that Jews should wear a badge (tabula) on the breast, so that they might be plainly recognized was the outcome of an openly discriminatory decree of the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215; nevertheless it does point to the difficulty, throughout all the lands of Latin Christendom, of distinguishing Jew from Christian by their physical traits” ( 6). Not surprisingly, Richardson suggests that the number of converts to Christianity among the Jews was probably larger than is usually assumed: “There were [. . .] compelling reasons to persuade those who were not strong in the Jewish faith to throw in their lot with the Gentile community around them, from which they differed by so little, and the marvel is perhaps, not that there seems to have been a steady flow of converts to Christianity, but that the Jewish community stood steadfast as a whole through good times and ill” (28).
Not all scholars, no doubt, would find this extremely positive view of Jewish-Gentile relations convincing. An earlier writer on the Jews in England held that, since birth, marriage, death, inheritance and all human and state activities fell within the sphere of Church influence, the Jews could not be fitted into existing social arrangements. Hence William the Conqueror’s appointing them “a place to inhabit and occupy” in London and Oxford -- so-called “Jewries.” These are not to be confused with the ghettos to which continental Jews were later forcibly confined, the same writer insists. They were areas within the built-up urban scene in which the community synagogue, in proximity to which most Jews preferred to live, could be located. All in all, with their peculiarities of custom, dress, and speech and their extremely limited mingling with the native population, the Jews were seen as strangers in a strange land, living in the country not by common right but by the special consent of the king, under his protection, and subject only to his regulation (Hyamson, History 12). As a more recent scholar has summarized the situation of the Jews:
In law, the Jews were uniquely, both legal persons and negotiable property. As a community they could be sold or mortgaged – indeed they were mortgaged by Henry III to his brother, Richard, against a loan of 5,000 marks. [. . .] As chattels of the king, their property was the king’s property. But they were also considered a distinct collective entity, addressed collectively through their leaders. To this extent, then, it may be said that the Jews had an acknowledged separate legal status. They constituted a communa, with which the king could deal as a single whole. [. . .] The charters issued by the Angevin kings described the Jews’ status in the most perfunctory terms. They were “just like our own chattels” (Richard I) or “just as our own chattels” (John) – that is, items of possession. [. . .] In relation to all men, save the king, the Jew was free, that is, free of any obligation of duty. But that amounted to a condition of total unfreedom. “The Jew,” explained the thirteenth century English jurist, “can have nothing that is his own, for whatever he acquires, he acquired not for himself, but for the king.” He was Crown property. An attack on Jews was thus an attack on the monarch’s prestige. [. . .] The king’s charters were mere statements of the Crown’s position in relation to the Jews at the time of issue. The Jews needed protection, and though the charters’ combination of privileges and restrictions purported to give them that, the Jews were not safe from their ostensible protector. [. . .] Against the Crown, the Jews had no rights. If the king chose to override their privileges in any particular case, he could do so [. . .]. He could act against them on a whim (he was not free to act thus against any other class of person). [. . .] Moreover, the limited protection that the king did offer was itself conditional and came at a considerable price. King John, for example, charged the Jews for the 1201 Charter.
The same scholar notes that these disabilities did not – characteristically – prevent the Jews from attracting “jealous, resentful comment for what was perceived as their privileged position at law.” (Julius 105-106)
While in principle the clergy was no friend of the Jews, whose resistance to conversion was a standing reproach, among some Christian churchmen, at least this situation did not result in extreme hostility. In fact one piece of writing, a remarkably even-handed and respectful dialogue of a Christian and a Jew, Disputatio Judei et Christiani, by Gilbert Crispin -- scion of one of the best families of Normandy, a student of Anselm, the highly respected Abbot of Crispin’s birthplace, Bec, in Normandy, as of 1085 himself Abbot of Westminster and, as of 1093, Archbishop of Canterbury – appears to have appealed to a relatively wide audience, having been preserved in no fewer than thirty-two extant manuscripts, twenty of which date from the twelfth century, whereas most of Crispin’s other writings have survived in only one or two copies. Jews were usually admitted into churches and abbeys for their protection, when they were threatened by popular violence and they in turn gave support to churchmen whose ministry they appreciated. Thus in 1182 in a dispute between the abbot of St. Edmund’s and William, his sacristan, the Jews stood alongside many Christians with the sacristan, largely no doubt because he had been a frequent client, borrowing substantially from them to restore the abbey, but also because, as reported in the Chronicle of Jocelin de Brakelond, a monk at the abbey, “the sacristan was said to be a father and a patron” to the Jews. “They used to enjoy his protection, and had free entrance and exit, and often went through the monastery, wandering through the altars and around the shrine while the solemnities of the Mass were being celebrated. And their moneys were placed in our treasury in the charge of the sacristan, and, what was more absurd, their wives and little ones were received in our refectory in time of war” (https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/source/1173stedmunds-jews.asp.; Jacobs, 78, 338). A few years later, a quarrel having arisen between the archbishop of Canterbury and the monastery of Christ Church (1185-91) popular sympathy was with the monks and the Jews also sided with the monks. “Nor was sympathy lacking among the Jews,” Gervase of Canterbury relates in his contemporary Chronicle -- in 1189 Gervase was asked by Richard I to arbitrate between the monastery and the archbishop -- “for they both sent food and drink to feed the convent, and likewise prayed in their synagogues for the continuance of the convent. The archbishop did not cease to take away nor the Jews to present. The archbishop excommunicated, the Jews prayed. A wonderful contrast indeed!” (Quoted Jacobs, 93, “Jews minister to the monks of Canterbury”) To give one more example, on the death, in November 1200, of Bishop Hugh of Lincoln, according to the author of a Magna Vita S. Hugonis Episcopi Lincolniensis, “those who could not come near [the hearse] threw money on the coffin, and stretching out their hands adored him. […] The Jews too, weeping and wailing, and declaring that he had been a mighty servant of the Lord did him honour by running alongside and weeping, so that they compelled us to notice that with this man the words of God were fulfilled, ‘The Lord gave him the blessing of all the nations’” (“The Jews Mourn the Death of Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln.” Quoted Jacobs, 207).
During much of the twelfth century, in sum, despite some violent popular outbursts against them, it could be argued that Jews in England lived on relatively peaceful terms with non-Jews, including the clergy: they entered churches freely, took refuge in the abbeys in times of commotion, and helped to build a number of abbeys and monasteries, both with loans of money and with advice, some of their own houses being the first in England to be built of stone. Even in the mid-13th century, at the time of the Second Barons’ War (1264-67) against Henry III, when supporters of the rebel leader Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester, who had already expelled Jews from that city, carried out massacres of Jews in London and Worcester with a view to seizing and destroying evidence of Baronial debts, which de Montfort had already declared null and void, many Jews confided their valuables to the safe-keeping of their Christian neighbours. While, inevitably, there are records of cases where the trust was abused, it is considered unlikely that these were typical (Richardson 47).
Under Henry I (reg. 1100-1135) a royal charter, granted to the chief rabbi of London and all his followers, had given Jews the right of movement throughout the kingdom, without payment of tolls on the king’s highways; the right to reside wherever they wished; to buy and sell goods and property and to hold lands in pledge until redeemed; the right to be tried by their peers; and the right to swear on the Pentateuch rather than on a Christian Bible. As the king levied a tax on the Jews’ transactions in return for the protection he accorded them, and as, in addition, he often accepted money from the Jews’ debtors in return for using his influence to mitigate the debtors’ indebtedness, and from the Jews in return for his support in legal proceedings against borrowers, the financial dealings of the Jews were doubly remunerative to the Crown (Hyamson, History 10; Jacobs xii-xvii, 14-15, 82, 95-98, 327). In addition, the kings charged the Jews for their charters and for confirming the charters (Jacobs 215). They could also purchase the king’s mercy by so-called “amerciements” (Jacobs 324). One document shows the king getting half the dowry settled on a Jewess. In general, Jews were taxed at a higher rate than Christians (25% of property value as against 10%), and if a Jew were imprisoned for any crime, he lost all his property to the king. Finally, a Jew’s unredeemed loans reverted to the king on the lender’s death (Jacobs 332-35).
This relatively peaceful period of Jewish life in England was not without interludes of extreme hostility and violence, however, mostly among the poor and ill-educated, as is suggested by the opening sentence of the Jew in Crispin’s well-intentioned dialogue: “If the [Mosaic] law is one that should be observed, why then should you treat those who observe it as though they were dogs, driving them forth and pursuing them everywhere with sticks” (quoted Richardson 24). The increasing involvement of England in the crusades under Henry’s successors Stephen (reg. 1135-1154), Henry II (reg. 1154-1189) and especially Richard I (reg. 1189-1199) aggravated popular anti-Jewish sentiments. The historian Albert Montefiore Hyamson summarized the situation clearly in his History of the Jews in England of 1908:
The eloquence and zeal of Peter the Hermit and his coadjutors in the preaching of the First Crusade succeeded in banding together men of all nations in the task of recovering the Holy Land for Christendom. They had, however, another result that was hardly intended. To rouse the passions of the soldiers of the Cross lurid tales were told of all that Christians had suffered at the hands of that eastern people, estranged from God and the enemies of Christ. Christians had been massacred and their lands laid waste. Churches had been destroyed or, even worse, devoted to anti-Christian rites. Men and women had been tortured, Christians circumcised and their blood used for superstitious purposes. By these tales of infidel barbarity Europe was aroused, and her chivalry swore eternal warfare on the savage and un-Christian race, whose atrocities had been so vividly described. A huge army prepared itself to defend the honour of Christendom and to avenge the sufferings of the faithful. The soldiers of the Cross felt certain that they need not go so far afield as the East to find anti-Christian maligners of Christ, the allies, as they believed, of the perpetrators of the atrocities to the tales of which they had listened with horror. At their very doors were colonies of Jews, and right worthily would they open their holy mission if they rid the earth of the blasphemers within immediate reach of their hands. The Crusaders in their march across Europe left behind them a trail of martyred Jews, [. . .] not even the bishops having the power, though often the will, to protect these victims of the Crusaders’ zeal. [. . .]
The agitation on the continent had its echoes in England. [Though the spiritual leader of the movement, Bernard of Clairvaux protested against the attacks on the Jews, which, he insisted, contributed in no way to the true purpose of the Crusades], the vague dislike of the people was quickened by the Crusades into a positive hatred of the Jews. The general crime attributed to the Mohammedans of the East of circumcising Christians and using their blood for their own anti-Christian practices was translated into a definite instance of the Blood Accusation in England, and the opening of the Second Crusade coincided with the supposed martyrdom of St. William of Norwich. (22-23)
At the time (1144) of this first of many similar alleged crimes subsequently laid to the charge of Jews in all parts of Christendom, William was twelve years old, having supposedly been stolen from his mother or, as others held, bought from her, or, in still other accounts, offered a job by a man claiming to be the Archdeacon of Norwich’s cook, when his body was discovered by a nun in a wood outside the city of Norwich, the oldest Jewish settlement in England after London and Oxford. The Jews were accused of having seized and gagged the boy, tied his head with cords and pierced it with thorns, bound him as if on a cross on three uprights of wood and a horizontal bar, secured his right hand and foot with ropes, his left hand and foot with nails, before piercing his left side at the heart and pouring scalding water over the body (Hyamson, History 23-24; another version in Mundill, The King’s Jews 72-74). Though the Sheriff of Norwich denied the charges against the Jews and took some of them into the castle for security, he was held to have been bribed. The populace, its intense primitive hatred of Jews reinforced by stories spread by the Crusaders, was aroused. Many of the Jews of Norwich were killed; others fled the city to escape the same fate. Spread abroad as of about 1150 by the monk Thomas of Monmouth and written up by him in his 1173 narrative The Life and Passion of St. William, the Martyr of Norwich, the story led to similar accusations, followed by similar violent attacks, being made against the Jews of Gloucester (1168), Bristol (1183), Bury St.Edmunds, where, according to the contemporary chronicler Ralph de Diceto, 57 Jews were massacred on Palm Sunday, 16 March 1190 (Stubbs, 75-76), and Worcester (1192). One can imagine how “his” Jews must have felt when in 1186 Henry II obliged them to finance his crusade, with Philip II of France, against Saladin at a rate far higher than the tithe imposed on Christians. In addition, by enacting an “Assize of Arms” (1181), according to which all freemen were obliged to possess arms for use in defence of the king, whereas, on the grounds that the Jews enjoyed the protection of the king, all weapons in their possession were confiscated, Henry II made it impossible for the Jews to defend themselves in the event of mob violence against them.
Richard’s coronation at Westminster was the occasion of several gruesome incidents that demonstrate the increasing precariousness of the situation of the English Jews. Despite Richard’s having excluded them, a number of leading English Jews had presented themselves at Richard’s coronation at Westminster in order to pay homage and offer gifts to their new sovereign. They were expelled during the banquet following the coronation, however, whereupon they were set upon by crowds of bystanders. The rumour spread that the king had ordered a massacre of the Jews. Jewish houses in London were set on fire; those within were killed as they attempted to escape the flames; and their homes were looted, the mob then fighting among themselves over the loot (Julius 119-20). After Richard’s departure on the Third Crusade, further anti-Jewish riots with loss of life occurred at Lynn, Colchester, Norwich, Stamford, and other places. The worst was at York on the night of the 16-17 March 1190, immediately preceding Passover. After suffering several acts of violence, the Jews sought asylum from the warden of York Castle, who admitted them, along with their wives and children, to Clifford’s Tower. The tower was immediately besieged by a mob of crusaders and their supporters demanding that the Jews convert and be baptised. Inside the tower, trust between the Jews and the keeper broke down, and when he left the tower on some other business, they refused to allow him back in. The Jews having now flouted the King’s authority, troops joined the mob outside, where the besieged Jews pelted them with stones from the castle walls, one of which killed a monk, further enraging the mob. Trapped inside the tower, the Jews were advised by the leader of their community to kill themselves rather than accept martyrdom at the hands of the mob or allow themselves to be converted; he himself led the way by killing his wife and two children and then, after all the others had followed his example, he and the community’s rabbi set fire to the keep, killing themselves and all who remained within. Over 150 Jews perished on this occasion. (Julius 121-22; see also articles on English Heritage.org and Jewish History.org [will open in new window]).
On his return to England, Richard decided that records should be kept by royal officials of all the property and transactions of the Jews. Without such records possessions and transactions would not be legal. This “Ordinance of the Jewry” (1194) made all the transactions of the English Jews more liable than ever to taxation by the king who thus became a sleeping partner in Jewish money-lending operations (Mundill, England’s Jewish Solution 6-7)
On the other hand, as already noted, Jews were permitted to have their own jurisdiction and there is evidence of their having a beth din (court of law) with three judges. A chief rabbi was selected by the Jews themselves, though the king retained a right of confirmation. Some Jews, having amassed considerable wealth, contributed to the cultural life of the country in which they had made their fortunes. Merton College, for instance, one of the earliest colleges in Oxford, was established in the 1260s with the help of a well-to-do local Jew named Jacob of Oxford, who was instrumental in the purchase and even in the selection of the designs of some of the buildings. Balliol College and Christ Church were also endowed with properties that were originally held as security by the city’s medieval Jews. As private tutors, local Jews assisted the university’s students and scholars in their study of Hebrew texts. The Franciscan philosopher Roger Bacon (c.1220–92), who spent many years of his life in Oxford, not only wrote with genuine admiration about Jews, but was an excellent Hebraist and, in all likelihood, was personally acquainted with members of the Jewish community and may have worked with respected scholarly Jews, such as Jacob of Oxford (Abrams, “Jews of Medieval England”).
Nevertheless, the situation of the Jews continued to deteriorate under Richard’s successors John and Henry III. As early as 1198, Pope Innocent III had written to all Christian princes, including Richard I, calling on them to compel the remission of usury demanded by Jews from Christians. A few years later the Pope laid down the principle that, for having crucified Jesus, the Jews were doomed to perpetual servitude. A little later still, in 1215, a year before the accession of Henry III to the throne, the Pope had the Fourth Council of the Lateran pass the law enforcing the wearing of a badge by the Jews. The Archbishop of Canterbury brought this into operation in England. Petitions were soon being sent to the king from a number of boroughs requesting that he remove “his” Jews from them. Jews were in fact expelled from Newcastle in 1234, Wycombe in 1235, Southampton in 1236, Berkhamstead in 1242, and Newbury in 1244. A number of Benedictine priories spread stories of Jewish ritual murders. One of the most widely reported of these – the case of the eight-year old Hugh of Lincoln, said to have been tortured and then crucified (1255) – was the first to be recognized by the civil government when Henry III intervened to order the execution of the alleged murderer and to have over ninety Jews sent to the Tower of London, of whom eighteen were executed and their property expropriated by the Crown.
Conditions for the Jews did not improve with Edward I’s accession to the throne in 1272. In his Statutum de Judaismo of 1275 Jews were forbidden to lend on usury but were granted permission to engage in commerce and handicrafts and even to take on farms for a period not to exceed ten years. In effect this made life difficult for the Jews: farming cannot be undertaken at short notice and the ten-year limit was anything but encouraging; handicrafts cannot be practised without some training. In addition, by the thirteenth century the guilds were already securing a monopoly of skilled labour and in most markets only members of the Merchant Guild could buy and sell. Moreover Jews were prohibited from intercourse with Christians except in the practice of trade and from employing Christians to work for them. Some Jews resorted to highway robbery, others to coin clipping (scraping gold or silver from coins, a widespread practice at the time, which had been made a capital offence in 1275); others still sought a way out in conversion. The relatively moderate and respectful tone of Crispin’s debate with his Jewish friend gave way to heated attacks on the Talmud as blasphemous and as sanctioning anti-Christian behaviour. One such, presented before Pope Gregory IX in 1239, alleging that the Talmud not only contains blasphemous falsehoods but encourages Jews to despise, rob, and even murder Christians, so incensed the Pontiff that, after ordering its author, a converted Jew, to carry out further research and make a stronger case, he sent out letters to the kings of France, England, Spain, and Portugal ordering them to seize all copies of the Talmud and to hand them over to the Dominicans and the Franciscans (Mundill, The King’s Jews 126-27).
On 17 November 1278 all the Jews of England -- believed to have numbered around 3,000 at the time, many having already decided to leave the country -- were arrested on suspicion of coin clipping and counterfeiting, and all Jewish homes in England were searched. According to Jocelin de Brakelond’s Chronicle of the Abbey of Bury St. Edmunds, all Jews in England of whatever condition, age or gender were unexpectedly seized and sent for imprisonment to various castles throughout England. While they were thus imprisoned, the innermost recesses of their houses were ransacked. Some 680 were detained in the Tower of London and around 300 are believed to have been executed in 1279. Those who could afford to buy a pardon and had a patron at the royal court escaped punishment (Mundill, England’s Jewish Solution 25-26; Green, “This Day in Jewish History”).
Preoccupied with imposing his authority on the diverse populations of the British Isles – the Irish, the Welsh and, through a planned royal marriage, the Scots (Frame 65-84) -- Edward I, continued to chip away at the condition of the Jews in England, for example by imposing a toll on Jews and Jewesses crossing a bridge at Brentford west of London, from which all other travellers were exempt. So by the time the monarch issued his decree of 1290, requiring all Jews to leave the kingdom, and sent out writs to the sheriffs of all the English counties ordering them to enforce it, the condition of the Jews had already become virtually untenable. By the terms of this first ever mandatory expulsion of Jews, most of those expelled were permitted to take away with them only what they could carry (“some say,” according to a later, seventeenth-century chronicler, including “gold and silver”) or needed to pay for the journey. A small number favoured by the king were permitted to sell their properties first, but most of the money and property of the dispossessed Jews was confiscated. England’s Jews relocated to France, the Netherlands or lands, such as Poland, where they were protected by law. Seventeenth-century chroniclers put the number expelled at 15,000 or 16,000. Modern scholars suggest rather between 2,000 and 4,000. (Mundill, England’s Jewish Solution 2, citing John Speed, The History of Great Britain >, 1611, John Stow, The Annals of England, 1615, and figures arrived at in recent scholarship).
Several centuries were to elapse before Jews were re-admitted – a development that occurred gradually and without formal legislation. A few did enter the country, however, usually as physicians. Thus in 1409 one Sansone de Mirabella from Palermo attended to the wife of Richard (“Dick”) Whittington, the Lord Mayor of London (Roth, “The Middle Period,” p. 2), and by the early years of the sixteenth century a trickle of Marranos -- as the Spanish and Portuguese Jews who had been forcibly converted to Christianity but continued to practice Judaism in secret, were known -- began entering England. (All Spanish Jews, after decades of pressure and constant scrutiny by the Inquisition, were obliged to convert by a 1492 decree expelling any remaining Jews, and all Portuguese Jews were similarly affected by a Portuguese expulsion decree in 1497.) Most Marranos moved to the Republic of the Seven United Netherlands, formed in 1581, when seven Dutch provinces seceded from Spanish rule. In contrast, for the first dozen years of the reign (1509-47) of Henry VIII, “if Jews lived in England they were very quiet,” as one scholar has put it (Katz 3; for a brief account of the Marranos, Shapiro 68-73, for a full account, Hyamson, The Sephardim). Still, by the 1530’s there is evidence of a small Spanish and Portuguese community in London. In 1532 Henry VIII came to the defence of a Marrano by the name of Diego Mendes, who was being prosecuted in Antwerp for practising his Jewish faith -- perhaps in return for Mendes’s having assisted Henry with loans to the treasury. Jews also seem to have helped Henry VIII justify his divorce: the king’s English advisers sent a mission to Venice to consult Venetian Jews and Francesco Giorgi, a Franciscan friar and cabalist theologian, about the conditions of marriage and divorce in the Old Testament (Katz 23-48).
The relatively easy conditions of life for the small number of Marranos settled in London at this time is illustrated by two confessions extracted under duress from Jews familiar with the London scene. A cousin of Diego Mendes, one Gaspar Lopes, who had been living in London since the mid-1530s and had been sent to Italy in 1539 as an agent of the Mendes group based in Antwerp, was detained in Milan, where proceedings had been initiated against the Marrano refugees, and forced to inform on his co-religionists in England. Lopes admitted that Alves Lopes, in whose house in London he had at one time “lived for four or five days, holds a Synagogue in his house and lives in the Hebrew manner, though in secret; and that he [Gaspar] saw these things and that in this Synagogue.[. . .] on one day only, the Sabbath, [. . .] there came to Alves’s house other false Christians to the number of about twenty.” Alves Lopes’s house was also, it turned out, a centre of information and assistance for Marranos from Portugal seeking to move on to a place, such as Turkey, where they could live out their lives freely and openly as Jews (Katz 4-5). Another Jew, under questioning by the Inquisition in Lisbon, told of having shared unleavened bread at Passover at the home of a Portuguese doctor with a large family in Bristol (Katz 10-11). It seems, in addition, that Spanish and Portuguese Marranos in England kept each other informed of the dates of important festivals in the Hebrew calendar and that a number of Marrano merchants from London regularly made the trip to Bristol at Passover to partake of the unleavened bread available there.
The fate of Roderigo Lopez throws a more disquieting light on the actions and involvements of members of the small Marrano community in the sixteenth century. Arriving in England around 1559 “to get his lyvinge by physicke,” Lopez quickly established himself in the medical profession; by 1567 he had been appointed house physician at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital and by 1569 he was listed as a member of the Royal College of Physicians, joining in that distinguished body (founded by Henry VIII in 1518) another highly regarded Portuguese Marrano physician, Dr. Hector Nuñez. Two years later he was treating Sir Francis Walsingham, soon to be appointed (1573) principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth, and in 1575 his name stood near the head of a list of the leading doctors in London, which may well have led to his being appointed chief physician to the house of the Earl of Leicester. In 1586 he was named Queen Elizabeth’s chief physician. Lopez and Nuñez were both involved in complicated ways, however, with Lopez serving at times one side, at times another, in various military and undercover moves to place a pretender, Dom Antonio, prior of Crato (Lopez’s birthplace), on the Portuguese throne after the deaths of the young King Sebastian I in 1578 and of his successor (and great-uncle) Henrique I in 1580, both without heirs, created a dynastic crisis in which other European countries, including Spain and England, were inevitably involved. Lopez’s intrigues, in favour first of Dom Antonio but then against him and in favour of Philip II of Spain, led ultimately to a charge of conspiring, on Philip’s behalf and in return for a payment of 50,000 crowns, to poison Queen Elizabeth and “to stir up a rebellion and a war within the realm and overthrow the commonwealth.” The poisoning, it was charged, was held up only because Lopez would not act until he received his 50,000 crowns (Katz, 51-106; summary in Roth, History, 140-41).
The trial opened at the Guildhall in February 1594 and, despite his alternating confessions and denials, “ye vile Jew,” as he was described by Sir Robert Cecil, one of the fifteen judges, was found guilty, on the very first day, of attempted murder and high treason and sentenced to death. Curiously, Queen Elizabeth kept postponing the execution of the sentence. It is usually assumed that she may not have been entirely convinced by the evidence. On his side, if we are to believe the Bishop of Gloucester, Lopez protested that he “intended no Hurt against the Queen” and “had no other Design in what he did than to deceive the Spaniard and wipe him of his money.” Finally, however, on 7 June, 1594, Lopez was carried from the Tower to Tyburn, where he was hanged, drawn, and quartered -- the usual penalty for traitors. On the scaffold he is said by William Camden in his Historie of [. . .] Elizabeth (1630) to have declared that “‘he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus-Christ,’ which coming from a man of the Jewish Profession,” Camden observed, “moved no small Laughter in the Standers-by” (Cit. Katz, 96-97; Hyamson, Sephardim). A number of accounts of the Lopez affair were published shortly after the execution, and Marlow’s The Jew of Malta was given several performances between May 1594 and June 1596.
Nevertheless, Lopez’s being Jewish seems not to have been central to his trial and the affair did not provoke an outburst of anti-Semitic sentiment or violence. On the whole, the small community of Marranos in sixteenth-century England was able to live in peace and relative, if by no means complete security. Over thirty years ago my late colleague Theodore Raab pointed out in fact that at the very time when Shakespeare’s Shylock and Marlow’s Barabas were presenting ugly images of Jews, the distinguished and highly influential Anglican theologian Richard Hooker (1554-1600) was offering a far more nuanced account in which, even while continuing to deplore their failure to recognize Christ, he found much to applaud and learn from in the Jews’ dedicated and meticulous practice of their religion. Thus while hoping for the ultimate conversion of the Jews he “urged Christians to learn the best lessons from the Jews and to work with them rather than against them” (Raab, “Stirrings,” 27-28). In the secular world, the eminent Edwin Sandys (1561-1629) -- son of an Archbishop of York, Member of Parliament from 1604 to 1626, head of the Virginia Company and a director of the East India Company, with connections to many of the knights and peers of England -- devoted 11 out of 246 pages in his account of his travels in Europe, written in 1599 and published in 1605 as A Relation of the State of Religion in the Western Parts of the World, to the Jews (Raab, “Editions”). “Sandys’ purpose,” Raab writes, “was to describe in actual practice the various religions, notably Catholicism, that he had encountered on the Continent. [. . .] Of course, there was much that he objected to as a good Protestant; but he also found much that was admirable in Roman beliefs and practices, and he did not hesitate to say so. It was the work of a pragmatist, trying to see both sides, and hoping for a reunification of Christendom, but reluctantly forced to admit that such hopes were vain. And the same down-to-earth attitude permeated his comments on the Jews.” Among other things, Sandys offered an explanation of the situation and behaviour of the Jews in economic terms. Jews are used, he wrote, “as the Friars to sucke from the meanest, and to be sucked by the greatest; insomuch, that the Pope besides their certain tribute, doth sometimes [. . .] impose on them a subsidy for ten thousand crownes extraordinarie for some service of state.” In other words, as Raab puts it, “the Jews were forced into their peculiar position in society because they served the economic purposes of Popes and governments, who could milk their subjects indirectly via Jews” (Raab, “Editions,” p. 329).
Part I, 1. Bibliography.
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Last modified 13 July 2020