Jews in Medieval England

This post arose out of a conversation I had with Shaunn Munn in the comments this week and is by way of a correction to what I wrote there. Strictly speaking, this post isn’t about the fourteenth century, but what happened at the end of the thirteenth century meant that the English, unlike the rest of Europe, were unable to blame the Jews when the Black Death arrived in 1348.

Jews first came to England in the second half of the eleventh century in the wake of William the Conqueror. Since Christians were forbidden to charge interest on loans and Jews were prohibited from taking most other professions, many, although by no means all, Jews in England were moneylenders. The prohibition against charging interest on loans is in the Old Testament, but Jewish teaching was that, while a Jew couldn’t charge interest on a loan to another Jew, they could do so on on a loan to a non-Jew.

The English and their kings, like everyone else in Christian Europe at this time, were anti-semitic and this was supported, even encouraged, by the church. Rulers were charged by the pope with the task of protecting the Jews in their territories, though, since it was believed that the conversion of the Jews was a pre-requisite for the return of Christ to take place.

There was an advantage to this protection for an English king. The Jews, unlike the rest of his subjects, could be taxed at whatever rate and whenever he wanted. When a Jew died, all his property went to the crown. The king’s protection didn’t always mean very much, though. Richard I and Henry III were particularly poor and, as we shall see, Edward I actively persecuted them. I don’t think it’s an accident that the first and the last were crusaders. Henry III was simply incompetent.

Feelings of anti-semitism were nurtured by people who owed a lot of money to the moneylenders and there were riots and massacres in York, Lynn, Bury St. Edmunds and Lincoln. There was even a riot in London on the day of Richard I’s coronation. Then there was the Blood Libel, which I always thought originated in Eastern Europe, but turns out to be an English invention. The first known instance of this took place in 1144 in Norwich. A twelve-year-old boy was found dead from dreadful wounds a few days before Easter just outside the town. The Jewish community, which had only been in the town a few years, was accused of torturing him, crucifying him and finally killing him. This became a common accusation when boys were found killed around Eastertide, with it later being said that the boys’ blood was collected to be used in the matzos made for the Passover meal.

Let’s look in a bit more detail at the events that led up to the expulsion of the Jews from England. By the end of the thirteenth century, there were about five thousand Jews in England out of an overall population of three to four million. In 1275 Edward I forbad the Jews to lend money. He said they could be merchants instead, but made it difficult for them by forbidding them to live anywhere other than in the towns that were part of his personal estate. They were also prohibited from living in the same parts of the towns as Christians. In addition he made them wear 3 inch by 6 inch pieces of yellow felt on their clothes to identify them. Moneylending continued, although the agreements between borrower and lender were often disguised as trading contracts between merchants.

In 1278 all the Jews in England were accused of coin-clipping, the practice of shaving bits of silver from coins and melting it down for other uses, thus reducing the value of the English currency and making it less trusted by those who used it. Most of the adult male Jews in the country were taken to London and tried. 269, about half of them, were found guilty and hanged.

By 1280 Edward I had changed his approach and he tried to convert the English Jews. He ordered them to attend sermons given by Dominican friars. As you might expect, this order was largely ignored. I find this an odd thing for a pious man to do. It’s as if he was trying to bring about the Second Coming of Christ by his own efforts, almost as if he were forcing God’s hand.

In 1290 he expelled the Jews from England. He wasn’t the first king to expel Jews from his lands, but he was the first to be powerful enough to be able to expel them from a whole country. For some men it was a pious act to expel Jews from their lands before going on crusade and Edward I was a pious man. In 1287 he decided to go on a second crusade and expelled the Jews from Aquitaine, a part of France of which he was the duke.

These expulsions were popular with wealthy subjects who were indebted to Jewish moneylenders, since their debts were effectively wiped out, but they cost the ruler money, because they were no longer able to tax the Jews at will. Edward I could only afford to expel the Jews from England if he could tax his wealthier subjects. This additional taxation was agreed and on 18th July 1290 the Jews were given until 1st November to leave. It was the most popular thing Edward I ever did.

The Story of the Jews by Simon Schama
A Great and Terrible King by Marc Morris

April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Filed under Medieval Commerce, Medieval Kings, Medieval Life, Thirteenth Century

22 responses to “Jews in Medieval England

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    The first blood libel was indeed in 1144 in Norwich. A twelve-year-old boy was found dead from dreadful wounds a few days before Easter!. The timing was critical since Passover and Easter usually coincide. The Jewish community was accused of torturing the lad to take his blood, in order to bake the matzahs used for their Passover meal.

    The irony here is that if there was even a drop of blood in any meat, Jews could not touch it.

    Liked by 4 people

  2. Thank you! I had known, but forgotten much of what you shared. It’s good of you to research and post it. Very much appreciated!🌹

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Another school day for me here. Interesting post April, I didn’t know about the expulsion.

    Liked by 4 people

  4. Being schooled here again!I didn’t know a lot of this…though I have a vague rememberance of the ban on Christians lending money. Religion and money, the root of all evil. This gives such a good context to 20th century history April and would be worth getting published more widely I think. In researching the British in South Russia I came across a lot of anti-semitism too…it seems it was the one thing everyone shared, the White and Red Armies and the British Army….completely embedded in the collective psyche by then. Excellent research.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Thank you. I just read bits of a couple of books.

      I suppose it’s good sign that we’re shocked by the anti-semitism of our ancestors and by more recent and contemporary examples. It’s a bad sign that that thinking is still here to shock us.

      Liked by 2 people

  5. Fascinating post, April. Thank you. I’d echo Mermaid’s Purse re religion and money but would add nationalism to the list, more pertinent perhaps in more recent times.

    Liked by 4 people

    • One of the things that interests me about the fourteenth century is that it was an important time for the forging of a national identity. These days we have nationalism, but not much sense of a national identity. At least in the fourteenth century they weren’t bothered by the question of whether they were English or British.

      Liked by 2 people

  6. Good post, April. Thanks. For what it’s worth, since I can’t cite a source for this, I remember reading somewhere that Christians were forbidden to lend money at interest to other Christians. So the ban was very much parallel to the ban on Jews lending to Jews, but since we’re talking about overwhelmingly Christian countries, that was effectively a ban on them lending money at interest to anyone.

    Sorry–I wish I could give you a source for that.

    Liked by 3 people

  7. I, too, learned a lot from this post, April. Thank you and Shaunn!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Great post. Very informative. The use of yellow circles of cloth has a terrible echo in what the Nazis did.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Enlightening and heartbreaking all in one.

    Liked by 2 people

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