The name Old Jewry, given to a shady side-street just behind the Bank of England, is the only public legacy of the first Jewish Londoners to tread the streets of the city of London one thousand years ago. Jewish people first arrived in London on behest of William the Conqueror, following his invasion of England and London in 1066. In those days, across Europe, it was considered wholly unchristian to lend money and receive interest and, perversely, rather than do without systems of lending and interest, Kings and Queens imposed the role of financiers onto Jewish people, most of whom were refugees, living outside of what they considered to be their homeland, but whom were determined to maintain their ethnic, religious and cultural identity, separate from mainstream Christian European identity. The imposition of the role of financiers on to the Jewish diaspora was achieved by forbidding Jewish settlers the right to own property and practice a variety of professions, save banking. The successful financiers came to be a source of dependency for a great many indigenous types, which created resentment towards Jews in general, and gave them a reputation as bankers. It was against this context and tradition that William the Conqueror, shortly after he made England his own, invited Jewish bankers from Rouen, in northern France, into London to enhance the development of his new English territory. Jewish people occupied the role of moneylenders in London and England between the eleventh and thirteenth century.
On what day and time the first Jewish people arrived on the banks of the Thames is not clear. Although it is said Jews were first invited to England by William the Conqueror in the eleventh century, it is also said that the earliest reference to Jewish people in London came in 1130, at which point Jewish people were said to be ensconced in the city of London, in streets now known as Cheapside and Old Jewry (Jew Street in the twelfth century). At the time of their arrival Jewish moneylenders were given the protection of the Crown, a privileged status in Norman England, which meant they would be protected by the King’s soldiers should anyone think to disabuse them of their wealth.
As a general observation it should be noted that although some of Europe’s Jewry, owing to their success in moneylending, were of great wealth, the general state and safety of the European Jewish diaspora was precarious. Up until the mid-twentieth century the Jewish diaspora were effectively treated as whores, in a general rather than a sexual manner. Populations of Jewish immigrants were traditionally invited into a country to do the unchristian and dirty work of moneylending, which made them despised by anyone who borrowed money and made them vulnerable to criticism of being immoral. As an invited underclass they were frequently abused, robbed and humiliated at the hands of mobs, the Church and the ruling classes. Europe’s whoring of the Jewish diaspora was played out on the streets of London in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, with Jewish Londoners being robbed, persecuted, murdered and eventually expelled from the country. Arguably the violence directed at the Jewish population came about partly with a shift in European attitudes towards moneylending. In the twelfth century Italians from the region of Lombard had developed their own banking system, and there was a London preference for Lombardians rather than Jews. The royal protection from persecution that had been granted to England’s Jews under the rule of William was rescinded. This meant Jewish people could be dispensed with, and those with the necessary proclivities realised that a certain sadistic enjoyment could be gained from disabusing Jews of their wealth, dignity and lives. It would seem that throughout European history, and perhaps it is a feature of humanity in general, that it was generally accepted amongst the elite and the majority of the population, that from time to time they should enjoy some sadistic pleasure at the hands of a weaker minority.
As an aside, it is worth dispelling a few myths and red herrings about why Jewish people were subject to antipathy and violence during the European middle ages. Some say the violence resulted from the roles cast by Jews, as Christ killers, in the Christian book The Bible. However I would argue that the roles imputed to the Jews in this book were not a cause of violence against Jewish people, but rather an excuse, a reason for justifying violence against Jewish people, used by those who perpetrated that violence, and also by those who later tried to explain it. In other words, if Jews had not been cast as Christ Killers in the Christian book The Bible, another reason would have been found to justify the whoring of the Jewish population. After all, there is nothing in the Bible, which compels people to persecute Jewish people. The Bible, if anything singles out Jewish people as God’s chosen people, and preaches kindness to all. The real reasons for the violence were related to a basic human desire to loot a vulnerable minority, in this case Jewish people, of their wealth, and in the case of the Church, to eradicate resistance and indifference to its authority and domination of civil life. It has also been suggested that between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries, anti-Jewish fervour was more acceptable and therefore grew in the London population, given the acceptability of the crusades, which involved armed Christian factions travelling across Europe, in a forerunner and less restrained version of football hooliganism, to take Jerusalem in the name of Christianity, Jerusalem at the time being a mainly Muslim city but containing some Jews too. The crusading hooligans of the twelfth and thirteenth century, who assigned themselves the euphemistic title of knight, were funded by London financiers and often departed from the city of London. However I would argue that the fact of the Crusades was more a consequence of the vulnerability of Europe’s Jews, i.e. that they lacked a homeland that they could defend, than a reason for the whoring of Jewish populations in London and Europe.
Whatever the reasons for the Jewish diaspora being used as the object for the sadistic enjoyment of others, in London things reached a head toward the end of the twelfth century, with the coronation of Richard I in 1189. On the occasion of the coronation people in the city of London instigated a pogrom against the Jewish population in which some thirty Jewish families were murdered. The traditional story behind the lynching of London’s Jewish population, is that the Jews provoked the ire of Londoners by turning up to the Coronation of King Richard I, which they were requested to stay away from. It is suggested that the Jewish visitors disrespected the King by disobeying the King’s orders but also piqued the envy of the crowds by lavishing untold riches on the new King. John Northouck, writing in the eighteenth century about this event, reported, “Whether to secure them from insult, or from the prejudices entertained against them, King Richard I. on his accession A. D. 1189, had issued an order that no Jews should appear at his coronation… But notwithstanding this prohibition, some of them ventured, by bringing large presents from their nation to the king, to satisfy their curiosity in seeing him dine in the hall…. Being repulsed by the royal domestics, and exposed to the insults of the mob, a rumour spread among the populace, that the king had given orders for the destruction of that people. Thus authorised as they thought, the mob, in a most cruel and barbarous manner, fell upon the poor defenceless Jews and killed all who fell in their way: nor did their phrenzy stop here; for they hastened to London, where, with a fury inflamed by the desire of plunder, they murdered all they could find, and, after pillaging their houses, burnt them. Nor was this massacre confined to London, but extended to other cities, particularly York. The day after, the king caused a few of the ringleaders to be apprehended, and hanged immediately, in some measure to atone for the enormity, but the inquiry soon stopped, as many considerable citizens were involved in the guilt, and as the priests applauded the pious zeal which destroyed so many enemies to the christian faith.”
The accounts provided by Northouck in his history of the eleventh century pogrom should be carefully examined. It is not enough for a few representatives of a particular community to attend an event, to give presents to a King, to reasonably provoke a murderous lynching of many more people from the community represented. Northouck’s principal explanation for the violence again appears to be a recitation of the official reason, which is not so much the reason, but rather an attempt to excuse the violence. Nevertheless, we do see within Northouck’s account perhaps the real seeds of the violence, namely the desire of the Christian church, which in those days was a very powerful, murderous, violent and controlling institution, to eradicate any opposition or indifference to its rule. Jews, of course, did not accept Christianity, and so were seen as an enemy, not for the fact that their aim was to bring down the Christian church, but just for the fact that they had no particular desire to edify it. Furthermore Jewish people were, by the fact that the most successful of them were wealthy, naturally to be envied by those who didn’t have money. There was always, therefore, a powerful alliance of people, in whose interests it was to disabuse Jewish people of their wealth and dignity. The fact that this pogrom took place on the coronation of the King should guide us to considering two different scenarios. One is that the King, antipathetic towards the Jews, had conspired with the church and various mobsters to arrange for this event to take place on the same day as the coronation, hoping that in some way, the horror of the event would be masked, assuaged by the apparent joy of the coronation. Another is that the Church, seeing the Jewish population without the protection of the crown, and seeing the King coronated and therefore at his weakest, decided, in a pre-planned or opportunistic manner, to strike out against what was seen as a deviant and non-compliant population. The fact is, we don’t really know what drove people to murder thirty Jewish families in London, we only know it happened.
It is said that there is one surviving Jewish relic from twelfth century London; a twelfth century Sabbath lantern on display in the medieval section in the Museum of London.
Further attacks were said to have taken place on the Jewish community in the thirteenth century. Between 1199 and 1216 a war took place between Norman barons, who owned bits of England. During this time members of London’s Jewish communities were said to have been robbed and had their houses destroyed.
At the beginning of the thirteenth century, the Catholic Church upped the ante against Jewish people living in European Christendom. In 1215, the Pope passed an edict, later to prove an inspiration to the German Nationalist Socialist Party in the mid-twentieth century, which forced Jewish people to mark themselves out from everyone else in public life through wearing a particular type of clothing. Twenty years later, in 1232, Henry III established a house of conversion in Chancery Lane, which is now, apparently, a library for King’s College London, where Jewish people, who converted to Christianity could live. In the last half of the thirteenth century the Crown and the Church conspired to derobe the Jewish population of its role, wealth and its right to abode in England. In 1275, Edward I issued the Statute of Jewry. Jews were prohibited from charging interest on loans and had to collect all existing debts by the following Easter or forfeit them. In order to survive economically Jews were to be encouraged to become labourers and therefore granted licence to lease land for 15 years. The Statute stipulated all Jews from the age of seven had to wear a yellow felt badge 6” long and 3” wide. A poll tax of 3d a year was also imposed from the age of twelve. The Catholic Church launched further attacks against the Jewish population in the latter half of the thirteenth century. In 1262 a London mob destroyed a synagogue, south of Lothbury Street EC1, killing 700 inhabitants, and in 1282 the Bishop of London ordered the destruction of all the synagogues in London. Finally, Jews were given notice to quit England forever, in an edict issued by King Edward I on 18 July 1290. It is estimated all 16,000 Jews (from a population of 2 million) left the country.
The street name Old Jewry in the city of London, is said to be the only remnant of the medieval Jewish quarter in the medieval city of London. Excavations in Milk Street and Gresham Street have uncovered two mikvehs (Jewish ritual baths) from the thirteenth century. The site in Milk Street once belonged to a wealthy family of financiers, the Crespins. The Jewish Museum in Camden has two thirteenth century tally sticks, used to record the payment of tax, on display.