Why did England expel the Jews in the Middle Ages?


Medieval Jews forced to wear special hats
Medieval Jews forced to wear special hats (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (i...
1250 French Bible illustration depicts Jews (identifiable by Judenhut) being massacred by crusaders (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It’s not the most pleasant episode in English medieval history to look back on but it happened during the Templar period and we can’t ignore it.  Fortunately, we have an excellent book by Robert Winder called ‘Bloody Foreigners’ to fall back on.  The title of the book is not to be taken literally – his contention is that the English have always been ambivalent or outright hostile to immigration and yet it’s a country very much forged by migrants and where, curiously, in spite of the initial negative feelings towards new arrivals, England has a strong record of assimilation and absorbing other cultures – seemingly effortlessly.

Norman England in the 12th century was surprisingly cosmopolitan though not necessarily for the nicest of reasons.  French settlers were encouraged by England’s overlords to dilute the old Saxon ruling class.  Winder says that it was noticeable that foreign merchants could obtain royal permits to trade with relative ease compared to the local Saxons who were still mistrusted. Through the ports of London, Bristol and Southampton came goods – and people….from Flanders, France, Genoa and Venice.  Flemish masons worked on cathedrals and castles while German copper miners instructed locals how to dig for the precious metal. The Germans and Dutch were also very prolific in the beer trade.

Edward III was so impressed by the contribution being made to the country’s well-being by the foreigners that he even joined a Flemish guild.  However, lower down the social scale, there were plenty of English folk who resented the obvious wealth of these merchants who had come from strange lands overseas. To the Saxon poor, it looked like they were literally fleecing the country – benefiting from the great wool industry run by the Cistercian monks who then sold their produce to the Flemish weavers.  This did lead to what we might call in modern parlance ‘race riots’ against merchants from Europe and that did include lynchings and pogroms. England wasn’t the only country to see this kind of xenophobia – but it certainly shocks many English today to know it happened.

One community though suffered from growing hatred and suspicion more than any other. Initially brought over and nurtured by the Norman kings after the conquest of 1066, they found that success came at a cruel price.  The Jews of England engaged in what we might call ‘usury’ but was a primitive form of banking finance.  They did this partly because they were barred from other professions and also because of Christian prohibitions on the flock earning interest from transactions – similar to Islamic prohibitions still in force today.  So the Jews set up a network of financing that would be the germ of what London is today – the financial capital of Europe, if not the world.

Aaron, a moneylender in Lincoln, financed the building of the local cathedral – which remains a glory on the skyline.  He lent to the King of Scotland, the Archbishop of Canterbury and several Cistercian monasteries.  When he died, his estate was taken over by the king and an entire department of state – the Scaccarium Aaronis – was required to work its way through his holdings.

The Jews were effectively the property of the King and harming them was in effect, damaging the king’s property. Rates of interest were undoubtedly high – though comparable to some credit cards today!  Typically, a noble might expect to pay back double the original loan by the end of the year. However, money was needed and wasn’t always readily available in the medieval economy so the Jews were on to something of a winner.

Some of the most prolific moneylenders, according to Winder, were women.  Licoricia of Oxford gave two thousand, five hundred pounds towards the building of Westminster Abbey.  Did she care about such a building? No. But it certainly helped her relations with the King, who was after all her protector. Fund his pet projects and life could go on as usual. Belaset of Wallingford was another women in the usury game and her name is assumed to mean ‘nice assets’ – a little bit of medieval humour there!

It’s crucial to point out that not every Jew in England was a moneylender. Some were, needless to say, rabbis but there were also doctors and shopkeepers and artists.  But it’s the money lending that brought them most in to the public eye.  Certainly the king’s eye.  Increasingly, the Norman and then Angevin kings decided that it would be far more advantageous to tax the Jews instead of borrowing from them.  After all, a king can do that kind of thing.  So the Jews suffered an ever growing tax burden – which they no doubt passed on in part to their increasingly disgruntled customers.

Even a king like Henry II – a friend to both the Jews and the Templars – drained Jewish finance for his own needs.  His son Richard the Lionheart was brutal in squeezing the Jewish community – and the rest of England – to fund his crusades against Saladin.  In fact, it was in the year of Richard’s coronation – 1189 – that the first serious outbreaks of violence against Jews in England erupted.  Most appallingly was the death of 150 Jews in York herded in to a castle tower and murdered.  Elsewhere, the Jews were able to take refuge in castles and nobles felt obliged to extend the King’s protection over them.  But the writing was on the wall – things were going to get a lot worse.

Matters were not helped by a series of so-called ‘blood libel’ incidents across northern Europe.  In Norwich, a child called William was found crucified and his blood drained allegedly by the Jews. Similar cases occurred elsewhere.  I think it’s safe to say these were completely fabricated but they gave the mob a very good excuse to attack Jewish property.

The nail in the coffin was a hardening of attitude on the part of the Angevin kings.  John badly needed finance and even had one Jewish moneylender in Bristol tortured till he handed over ten thousand Marks.  The method of torture was to have a tooth extracted every day until he agreed.  He apparently got to the seventh tooth before giving in!

Henry III personally attended the torture of a Jewish man – Copin of Lincoln – accused of another blood libel against a child called Hugh.  Torture extracted the required confession and he was dragged through the town then hanged.  This legitimised assaults and murders on Jews and in 1263 on Palm Sunday in London, about four hundred Jews were slaughtered.  Winder makes the point that this event hardly figures in most England history books.

The kings were simply moving towards confiscation of Jewish wealth – no more borrowing or taxation – just seizure.  The Templars, of course, would also see opportunistic monarchs grab their holdings and eventually terminate the Order.  In 1275, the final act in this tragedy unfolded as Edward I issued his Statutus de Judeismo which stated:

Forasmuch as the King hath seen that divers evils and the disinheriting of good men of his land have happened by the usuries which the Jews have made in time past, and that divers sins have followed thereupon albeit that he and his ancestors have received much benefit from the Jewish people in all times past, neverthless, for the honour of God and the common benefit of the people the King hath ordained and established, that from henceforth no Jew shall lend anything at usury either upon land, or upon rent or upon other thing.

So Edward basically said – thanks for everything you’ve done in the past but I’m now ending it all for you.  Already Jews had been banished from several towns, now they would be forced to wear identification badges – so the Nazis weren’t the first to invent this:

And that each Jew after he shall be seven years old, shall wear a badge on his outer garment that is to say in the form of two tables joined of yellow fait of the length of six inches and of the breadth of three inches.

Measure by measure was enacted against the Jews, eventually banning their religious customs. In 1290, they were given a deadline of the first of November, All Saints Day, to leave England.  One captain ferrying a boat load of Jews across the wide Thames estuary hit a sandbar and invited his passengers to get out and stretch their legs.  He then sailed off, leaving them stranded, shouting obscenities to the effect that they could pray to Moses to save them.  All of the passengers drowned.

It would take four hundred years and the rule of Oliver Cromwell in the 17th century for Jews to be  re-admitted to England.

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