Anti-semitism and widespread persecution of Jewish communities is almost as old as Christianity. While the twentieth century witnessed its most horrifying peak, the root of events like the Holocaust go back centuries. Medieval Christian teaching on the Jews, labelling them killers of Christ, fed into xenophobia, scapegoating and distrust of outsiders or communities with differing religious or cultural beliefs. State and church persecution was regular, if inconsistent; officially sponsored massacres, riots and murders were common. At other times attacks on Jews might arise among the lower orders, whipped up by long-entrenched racism and the urge to blame an easy outside target for the shiteness of your own life.
Even when authorities were not behind such attacks, often elements of the ruling elites were involved or turned a blind eye.
Jews were bound by restrictive laws on what trades they were allowed to practice; in many places they were not allowed to own land, so could not become farmers. Jews were also not allowed to join the Christian trade guilds, severely limiting what work they could learn or make a living at. Local rulers and church officials closed many professions to the Jews, pushing them into marginal occupations considered socially inferior, such as tax and rent collecting and moneylending, tolerated then as a “necessary evil”. Catholic doctrine of the time held that lending money for interest was a sin, and forbidden to Christians. Jews were not subject to this restriction, and while the Torah and later sections of the Hebrew Bible frowned on usury, some leeway was given for lending to gentiles. Since few other occupations were open to them, Jews were motivated to take up money lending. This was said to show Jews were usurers, and subsequently led to many negative stereotypes and propaganda. Natural tensions between creditors (typically Jews) and debtors (typically Christians) were added to social, political, religious, and economic strains. Peasants who were forced to pay their taxes to Jews could personify them as the people taking their earnings while remaining loyal to the lords on whose behalf the Jews in reality worked. It suited the king and lords to have a buffer, a hated layer that could be blamed to deflect tensions, especially in times of hardship, shielding the aristos from getting turned over by the working people they forced to slave for them.
Of course only a part of Jewish communities became moneylenders, but the stereotype was useful.
It was in the late eleventh century that a recognisable Jewish community began to form in London. King William I (the Bastard/Conqueror, take your pick) encouraged Jews to migrate to London as part of a policy of stimulating commercial and financial development – a policy that proved to be instrumental to the restoration of London’s economic infrastructure following the devastating Norman Conquest of 1066.
The nascent Jewish community mainly migrated from northern France, though a minority came from Germany, Italy, and Spain, and one or two even from Russia and the Muslim countries. Migrating Jews brought with them money that they lent to the King at interest. For their services, the Jews of London were given rights proclaimed in the Statutum de judaismo, the ‘Jewish Charter’ issued under king Henry I. The Charter guaranteed the Jewish population of London “liberty of movement through out the country, relief from ordinary tolls, protection from misuse, free recourse to royal justice and responsibility to no other, permission to retain land pledged as security, and special provision to ensure fair trial.”
Succeeding rulers confirmed the rights established under the charter, and England in the main, during the eleventh century, was a relatively safe haven for Jews than many places in the continent where persecution was rife, especially after the beginnings of the crusades. King William Rufus (1087-1100) is even said to have encouraged them to enter into disputations with Christian clerics.
By the mid-12th century, communities were to be found in most of the greater cities of the country; besides London, they were present in Lincoln, Winchester, York, Oxford, Norwich, and Bristol. Smaller communities also existed in Exeter, Wilton, Canterbury, Devizes, Marlborough, Calne, Wallingford, Berkhamsted, Gloucester, Colchester, Sudbury, Ipswich, Cambridge, Bedford, Northampton, Warwick, Worcester, Hereford, Weobley, Coventry, Huntington, Leicester, Stamford, and King’s Lynn.
However, the London community was always the most important. Until 1177 the only cemetery allowed was in London. No communities were found west of Exeter or north of York.
However, English distrust of the Jewish population was growing. In the late twelfth century riots and massacres began, and the climate of fear and hate worsened, as a result of financial disagreements and scapegoating, and a series of criminal allegations, generally false and founded on jealousy and an irrational fear of the foreign and unknown.
In 1130 the Jews of London were fined the then enormous sum of £2,000 on the charge that one of their number had killed a sick man. Credulous Christian morons believed that Jews kidnapped and murdered the children of Christians in order to use their blood as part of their religious rituals during Jewish holidays – so-called ‘blood libel’.
The first recorded blood libel took place at Norwich in 1144 and was imitated at Gloucester in 1168, before the precedent came to be followed outside England. Similar accusations were made before the end of the century at Bury St. Edmunds (1181), Bristol (before 1183), and Winchester (1192).
But the wealthier Jewish bankers were a vital resource for the kings, lending them large sums to fund their pointless wars. Successive kings also imposed punitive taxes and penalties on Jews to fleece them of cash.
In 1168 a tallage (an arbitrary tax, theoretically levied only in emergency) of 5,000 marks (a mark was two-thirds of a £) was imposed by Henry II. In 1188 a tax of one-fourth of the value of their movable property was levied upon London Jewry. The amount raised, according to the rough contemporary estimate, was £60,000, as against only £70,000 raised from the general population. The annual revenue obtained by the state from the Jews is conjectured to have averaged at this time £3,000.
In the 12th and 13th centuries, London’s Jews were concentrated in what would later be called a ghetto, known as Jewry. The original London Jewry was centred on modern Old Jewry Street, then simply Jewry Street, which ran and still runs north from Cheapside, across Lothbury and to Coleman Street. The first Jewish Great Synagogue, the centre of the community’s religious life, was located in modern Ironmonger Lane, the next street across from Jewry Street. (It has been speculated that Coleman Street’s long later history of religious non-conformism had some relation to its being part of Jewry – was it already known for toleration, or did the later association derive from the previous Jewish population?)
Jewry Street, off Aldgate, was the second tolerated area for Jews to live, possibly in the 13th century when pre-expulsion persecution was at its height (under the bigoted Henry III and the rebellious barons who identified jews with king’s financial abuses.)
Old Jewry, like all of the ghettoes in the history of mankind, formed as a result of social, legal, and economic pressures. The very isolation of the Ghetto made it a safe haven, but also marked out and separated the Jewish community, making it a more obvious target and concentrating resentment
From the late eleventh century, anti-semitism in Europe was whipped up even higher than usual by the Crusades. Huge armies formed to march off and fight the muslims occupying the ‘holy land’ around Jerusalem, encouraged by religious blessings and announcements of concessions and free entry to heaven for sinners and criminals who ‘took the Cross’. Millenarian movements who saw this as the final struggle before Armageddon and Jesus’ second coming spread. Mass hatred of muslims was also shunted into the nearer and more convenient target, the non-Christians close at hand – the Jews. Crusaders and mobs massacred Jews all over Europe. Quite apart from general anti-semitic hatred, there was a growing feeling that the Jews should not be allowed to live in peace when brave Christians were preparing to endanger themselves overseas, besides which a belief had spread that to kill any unbeliever guaranteed admission to heaven for a Christian no matter what their other sins might be.
Although this persecution was noticeably absent in England, the muslim conquest of the short-lived Kingdom of Jerusalem in the late 1180s marked a turning point. King Henry II died after vowing to become a crusader. His son, Richard, is now known as Richard the Lionheart (although a more accurate moniker would be ‘Richard the rapacious Tax collector who bankrupted the country to fund crusades and other daft wars and his ransom when he got imprisoned by a rival royal parasite’. Doesn’t have the same ring to it I guess.) He planned to go off and fight the ‘infidel’ in Palestine.
As Richard took the throne, the latent hostility to England’s Jews broke into the open:
“A trivial episode at the coronation of the new king proved to be the spark which set the tinder ablaze. The proceedings at Westminster were long and stately, and the solemnity of the occasion was emphasised by a proclamation that no woman, and no Jew, should be admitted. [‘Because of the magic arts which Jews and some women notoriously exercise at royal coronations’ according to Matthew Paris (Historia Anglorum, ii, 9). It may be observed that Jewish custom prescribed a special benediction on seeing monarch, the recital of which might conceivably give rise to a suspicion of this sort.]
Nevertheless, on the afternoon of the coronation day (Sunday, 3 September 1189), while the festivities were at their height, a deputation from the Jewish communities of the kingdom presented itself at the gateway of Westminster Hall, bearing rich gifts – probably in the hope of obtaining a renewal of the charter of privileges granted originally by Henry I. Some of them, eager to see the magnificence, took advantage of a momentary disorder to slip in, and were driven out by a zealous doorkeeper with unnecessary brutality. This was enough to arouse the crowd at the palace gates. Several members of the deputation were beaten or trampled to death before they could escape. The wealthy Benedict, who had come as one of the representatives of the community of York, saved his life by consenting to embrace Christianity, and was immediately baptized in the adjacent Church of the Innocents by a priest from his own city.
Exaggerated rumours of what was happening at Westminster soon spread to London, where it was reported that the king had given orders for the Jews to be exterminated. In their well-built stone houses, the inhabitants were able to resist for some hours until, towards nightfall, one of the mob threw up a lighted torch which set fire to the thatched roof. The flames rapidly spread, and before long the whole of Jewry was in a blaze. Though some of the inhabitants found refuge in the Tower of London or under the protection of friendly neighbours, several perished in their houses, and others were done to death, when they ventured into the street. Thirty persons lost their lives, amongst them being the eminent Rabbi Jacob of Orleans, not long since arrived from the continent.
The news was reported to the king as he sat banqueting. He immediately dispatched the justiciar, Ranulph de Glanville, to check the disorders, but he was unable to make any impression. The outbreak had indeed been of so universal a character, and enjoyed such general sympathy, that it was not considered advisable to take serious measures against those who had participated. Nevertheless, some of the ringleaders were arrested and three were hanged – one for robbing a Christian and two because the fire they had kindled burned down a Christian house. Little else was done except to dispatch letters to all parts of the kingdom ordering the Jews to be left in peace.” (Cecil Roth, A History of the Jews in England).
However, this royal proclamation was only temporarily successful, with further anti-Jewish rioting postponed until Richard left the country in December. As part of his planned crusade, contingents were gathering in most towns in the kingdom readying themselves to march off and fight Muslims in the ‘holy land’. However, as had occurred during preparations for previous crusades, the first targets of the crusaders were Jews in their own midst.
As a result, a few months after the coronation and the king’s departure, a rash of anti-Jewish riots broke out, often where crusaders were gathering; and coinciding with Lent, always a time of heightened tension, as hatred of Jews for ‘killing our lord’ was then emphasised. There were vicious pogroms in Lynn, Norfolk (now Kings Lynn), where the Jewish community was all but exterminated, and in Norwich, Stamford, Bury St Edmunds, Lincoln, Colchester, Thetford, Ospringe, and most violently at York. Here, the largest Jewish settlement outside London had grown into a relatively prosperous enclave. As usual, however, local barons were heavily in debt to Jewish moneylenders, and they sparked a riot with the aim of evading payment. The community was massacred, with the remainder of the community taking refuge in the castle, but ending by killing themselves when it was besieged. At least 150 died in the castle and many more in the town.
In some places, Jews saved themselves by agreeing to covert to Christianity; in others, Jews were expelled from their houses.
King Richard, hearing of this, did get somewhat narked, in part because
a) it’s the royal prerogative to massacre your subjects, this is not to be sub-contracted;
b) disorder is generally considered a bad thing, c) the king had specifically issued his protection to the Jews, mass flouting of this making him look weak and ineffective,
and d) the royal treasury stood to lose, as the king milked the Jewish community heavily, and thus their goods getting nicked reduced the monarch’s take.
Some limited harsh measures were taken against a very few of the perpetrators of the massacres, but on the whole little was done. The king couldn’t afford to piss off the nobles on whose support he relied for fighting and ruling, and the unpopularity of the Jews made it difficult to make a point of defending them when faced with more important matters like fighting God’s wars.
The reigns of Richard’s successors, kings John and Henry III, were littered with similar events – accusations of ‘blood libel’, robbery, killings and persecutions. Jews as moneylenders were often associated with kings, whose royal power was being challenged by the nobility throughout the thirteenth century. Several popular rebellions against royal autocracy, battles between kings and powerful aristos, also sparked anti-semitic outbursts.
Nobles often targeted Jews because they were under his protection, or had lent the king money, or because they themselves wished to despoil them and/or avoid paying debts to them.
This pattern culminated with the wholesale expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290 by the psychopathic Edward I; officially Jews were barred from the kingdom unless they converted to Christianity, a prohibition which lasted nearly four centuries.
An entry in the
2017 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online.