When England was not so Merry
By Arthur Rose
England seems like such a civilized country, so proper, so democratic and all. But it was not always like this. There was a time when life for the Jews was unbearable. There was a time when the Jews living there were forcibly evicted. This was in the year 1290 (5050 in the Jewish year).
It is not known exactly when the Jews first settled in the British Isles. It is believed that that came to England with the Roman legions which occupied the country which was at the same time of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, approximately 68 C.E. (or in the Jewish year 3838). This was about one thousand years before William the Conqueror conquered the country at the battle of Hastings in 1066. He established the English monarchy and divided up the land among the Norman nobles and knights who had helped him. He established a feudal system of government there which was popular in other lands at that time.
The feudal system gave each nobleman and estate owner rule over a large land area and the common people were his serfs. The smaller land owners were subjects to their overlords and a pyramid type of chain of command and authority was established. The king was on top, the large land owners below, the small land owner below them, and on the bottom were the serfs. In the cities dwelt the merchants and artisans.
The Jews filled an important position in such a society. They lived mostly on trade. The serfs and small land owners were not educated; the large land owners were not concerned with trade, but with accumulating wealth by exploiting those on the lower rung of this society. It was the Jews who had a tremendous advantage; being educated, they were able to read and write. They could communicate with Jews far and wide in Yiddish or in Hebrew, a common language of the Jews. They could trust their fellow Jews for they had one law, the law of the Torah, which was binding in all countries.
In addition the kings recognized the benefits that their trade brought their countries and they often extended their personal protection and were generally granted special privileges for a price: the Jews were required to pay high taxes. In many cases they were regarded as the king's private property.
William the Conqueror had the opportunity to meet Jews while he was still a duke in Normandy. He knew that they were hard working, honest and capable people. When he became King of England he gave them protection and certain privileges to enable them to develop commerce and industry. For this privilege, the Jews paid high taxes which were of course an important source of income for the king.
Many Jews also played the role of early bankers and financiers. The Christian church forbade Christians to take interest on money from other Christians they could only take interest from Jews. When the Jews would lend money to the Christians they were not certain that they would get it back. Often the Christian would refuse to pay and bribe the courts to ignore the Jew. Sometimes the Jew would be murdered. Since the risk was great, so the rates were high. For this reason and since the Church openly taught anti-Semitic hatred to the simple masses who of course believed the Church, the land owners and serfs hated the Jews. The Jews were constantly at the mercy of the king for protection.
For a century the Jews lived under the protection of William and his successors. Even during the times of the first two crusades (in the years 1096 and 1146) when Jewish blood flowed freely in other parts of Europe, the Jews of England were protected by the English kings.
Unfortunately the Church's constant preaching hatred of Jews to the Christian population was very strong. England had the 'honor' of being the first country to concoct the terrible lie of the 'blood libel'. This happened in the year 1144 in the city of Norwich where the Jews were accused of murdering a Christian boy in order to use his blood for ritual purposes. The king did not believe such a ridiculous accusations but the mobs encouraged by fanatical monks began to attack Jews. A number of Jews were slain, many robbed and much Jewish property damaged. At this time the hatred of the mobs did not spread to the neighboring cities, but it began a series of outbreaks in other towns, Gloucester in 1166, London in 1244, and Lincoln in 1255. The Christians benefited financially from their pogroms because they were able to take the property of the Jews, and many Christians who owed money were able to relieve themselves of the obligation to pay their debts by the killing of the Jewish money lender, and the Church was happy to see the Jews in distress.
Although the Jews lived in England in a precarious manner, still, it was a living. They grew and opened Jewish institutions such as synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, houses of study and learning and other charitable institutions. Often the great Torah luminaries from France would visit the British Isles. The famed Abraham Ibn Ezra cane to visit in 1159 and wrote his famous work on Jewish philosophy, Yesod Mora. Later two of the famed Tosafost, the famed commentators on the Talmud and disciples of the great Rabbenu Tam, the grandson of Rashi settled in England; they were Rabbi Jacob of Orleans and Rabbi Yom Tov ben Yitzhak. Both died violent deaths at the hands of the English mobs. Rabbi Jacob was killed in London at the time of the coronation of Richard the Lion hearted in 1189 and Rabbi Yom Tov met a violent death among the Jewish martyrs of York a mere year later.
When King Richard the Lion-hearted began his involvement in the third crusade, the position of the Jews in England began to deteriorate. He was captured by the Duke of Austria. A heavy ransom was demanded for his release. King's ransoms do not come cheaply and the Jews were forced to come up with an astronomical sum that was three times larger than the total amount contributed by the entire population of London.
As the crown passed to Richard's brother, John, the situation continued to worsen until King Edward I became king. In addition to all the other accusations against the Jews, they were now accused of 'clipping' the minted gold and silver coins to build up their wealth. The Jews were impoverished by the constant harassments and heavy taxes. The king did not see much reason to keep them in his kingdom. It was on Tisha B'Av of 5050, (1290 in the Common Era) that Edward I decided to take what little money they possessed by making a horrendous decree to have all Jews either convert to Christianity or leave England within a hundred days. Very few were willing to convert. All the Jews together with their families together with their few moveable belongings and with the holy Torahs left England on foot. Naturally their houses and real estate was taken over by the gleeful Christians.
Some of the refugees settled in nearby France, but sixteen years later, in 5066 or 1306 C.E. the Jews of France were driven out without mercy.
For 360 years England was void of Jews with the special exceptions of a few Jews who were given special permission to visit. It was only in the year 1656 C.E. (or 5415 of the Jewish calendar) did Oliver Cromwell give permission to return to England. Since then the Jewish community has grown and flourished there.
from the Februrary 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine