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A short history of Anglo-Jewry: The Jews in Britain, 1656-2006

2006 June 13
by Paul Vallely

Jews were banned from England for three centuries, until Oliver Cromwell allowed their return. Today, a ceremony in London celebrates that decision 350 years ago, and the key role they have played ever since. Paul Vallely reports

When people ask writer Ashley Perry where his family is from, he replies “Britain”. If they ask where his grandparents came from, he gives the same reply. When the more persistent ask where his great-grandparents or great-great-grandparents came from, the reply is still “Britain”.

“This answer is usually met with incredulity as most assume that Anglo- Jewry is in the main no more than two or three generations long and has its origins in Eastern Europe,” says Mr Perry. But those who assemble today at the Bevis Marks Synagogue in the City of London know better. A varied group – including the Lord Mayor of London, several Government ministers, MPs, peers and representatives from a wide spectrum of Britain’s religious communities – are gathering to celebrate the 350th Anniversary of the Resettlement of Jews in England.

The first record of Jews living in England dates from Norman times. Just after 1066, William the Conqueror invited a group from Rouen to bring their commercial skills and incoming capital to England. It was to become, to say the least, an ambiguous relationship.

In the Middle Ages, lending money with interest – usury – was considered a sin and forbidden to Christians. But medieval monarchs found it useful that Jews were allowed to engage in the practice. The outsiders financed royal consumption, adventures and wars – and made themselves rich in the process. By 1168, the value of the personal property of the Jews (around £60,000) was regarded as a quarter of the entire wealth of England. And when Aaron of Lincoln died not long after – all property obtained by usury passing to the king on the death of the usurer – Henry II inherited the then massive sum of £15,000.

During Henry II’s reign, Jews lived on good terms with their Christian neighbours. They helped fund a large number of the abbeys and monasteries and were allowed to take refuge there in times of commotion which came from time to time for religious or commercial reasons.

They needed the refuge. Clerics and Popes routinely stirred up ill-feeling against the Jews as the “killers of Christ”. Ill will was fed by the Crusades, in which the Jews were as much a target of the righteous sword-wielders as were the infidel Saracens. One of the most popular – and heinous – myths was that known by Jews as “the blood libel”, which appears to have originated in England in an accusation against one William of Norwich in 1144.

It suggested that he and other Jews killed a young Christian boy to use his blood in the ritual preparation of unleavened bread for the Passover ritual – a claim which spread from England to France and Spain and throughout Europe in medieval times and which resurfaced in Nazi propaganda in the 20th century.

In 1218, in what became the precursor of anti-Jewish laws all over the world, Stephen Langton, Archbishop of Canterbury, made Jews wear a badge – an oblong white patch of two finger-lengths by four – to identify them. Barons, to whom Jews lent money, encouraged the mob responses to such claims, in which Jewish homes were ransacked and records of their debts were destroyed.

At the end of the 12th century, as part of an epidemic of religious fervour during preparations for Richard the Lionheart’s Third Crusade against the Saracens, massacres of Jews were staged at Stamford fair, in Bury St Edmunds and, most notoriously, in York. In 1190 the city’s Jews were given refuge in Clifford’s Tower at York Castle only to be besieged by a mob demanding they convert to Christianity. Most of those inside committed suicide; those who surrendered were slaughtered. By 1290 the inevitable happened when Edward I – who had found an alternative source of finance in the Italian merchants known as the “pope’s usurers” – banished the Jews from England.

For more than 300 years no Jew, officially, existed in the country. It was not until Charles I was beheaded that the Jews felt safe to return. Then, in 1656 a Dutch Jew named Menasseh ben Israel, petitioned Oliver Cromwell to allow his people to return.

Cromwell, a devout Puritan and a man of common sense, could see the attraction of allowing them back. For a start, there was the popular belief that the Second Coming of Christ could not occur until Jews existed in all the lands of the earth. And there was also a shattered national economy to rebuild after a devastating Civil War.

But when he summoned a national conference of the most eminent judges, divines, and merchants in the kingdom at Whitehall, the debate was inconclusive. The lawyers were happy. But the clerics and moneymen were opposed. To stop them reaching the wrong decision, Cromwell dissolved the meeting and gave the rich Jews of Amsterdam permission to come to London and transfer their vital trade interests with the Spanish Main from Holland to England.

Thus it was that in the middle of the 17th century, around 300 Marano merchants – Spanish and Portuguese Jews – settled in London. In 1701 they erected the country’s first purpose-built synagogue, Bevis Marks, the only building in Europe where Jewish worship has continued without interruption for more than 300 years.

Resettlement was not a smooth process. Just as the relationship between Jew and Gentile had blown hot and cold during the medieval settlement, so it was in the new dispensation. Various coalitions of aristocrats, Christian zealots and businessmen tried to re-expel the Jews. But the new Jewish merchants were too useful. They had brought in £1,500,000 in capital which had increased by the middle of the century to £5,000,000. Marlborough’s wars against the Spanish were financed by them. During the Jacobite rising of 1745 they showed particular loyalty, offering finance and volunteering for the corps raised to defend London. Their investment provided one-twelfth of the nation’s profits and one-twentieth of its foreign trade.

As a reward, what was known as “The Jew Bill” was introduced in 1753 to allow them to be naturalised as British citizens. It was passed by the House of Lords, though it fell in the Commons with the Tories making great outcry against this “abandonment of Christianity”.

The response of the Sephardic community was as nuanced. Many prominent Jews – like the Disraelis – allowed their children to grow up as Christians. Slowly acceptance came. In 1837, Queen Victoria knighted Moses Haim Montefiore. Four years later, Isaac Lyon Goldsmid became the first Jewish hereditary peer. The first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, Sir David Salomons, was elected in 1855, and the first Jewish MP, Lionel de Rothschild, took his seat three years later when the parliamentary oath was changed from an exclusively Christian one.

By 1874, Benjamin Disraeli became Prime Minister. He had been baptised a Christian but was open about his Judaic inheritance, once needling a Commons opponent with the jibe that “when the ancestors of the right honourable gentleman were brutal savages in an unknown island, mine were priests in the temple of Solomon”. Finally, by 1890, all restrictions for every position in the British Empire, except that of monarch, were removed to Jews, some 46,000 of whom now lived in England.

It was at this point that the big influx of Jews into this country occurred. From the 1880s onwards, the pogroms in Germany, Poland and Russia caused many Jews to flee. These were not Sephardim but Ashkenazi Jews with a more distinct East European and Yiddish culture. They soon outnumbered the Spanish and Portuguese.

By 1919, the Jewish population had increased to about 250,000 primarily in cities like London, Manchester and Liverpool. But though their culture was more distinct – and though they maintained it, building kosher businesses, welfare networks, Jewish schools and cultural bodies – unlike their fellows in places like Poland, the Jewish community in England (apart from a handful of ultra-Orthodox isolationists in places like Stamford Hill) generally embraced their integration into wider English culture. And unlike their American counterparts, British Jews anglicised their names and their customs, starting youth movements like the Jewish Lads Brigade in emulation of the British Scouts.

Families like the one which founded the jewellers, H Samuel, in Liverpool attempted to overturn prejudice and seek public office. In 1806 the city’s Seel Street synagogue became the first in England to deliver sermons in English. In Manchester groups of Jewish intelligentsia were shaping new expressions of Judaism, including the Reform Movement, the political notion of Zionism and creating tools for activism which made the Jewish community strong in the traditions of British socialism and trade unionism. This in part explains why anti-semitism, which in most of Europe is most prevalent among the working classes, in Britain met stout opposition from many ordinary people, as events such as the Battle of Cable Street showed. Indeed anti-semitism has been more common among the British upper, rather than the lower, classes – a phenomenon which Ashley Perry puts down to aristocratic resentment.

“The British consider themselves the height of civilization, the founder of democracy and the force that brought culture to much of the world,” he says. But the Jews remind them that “there is one people that has lived with the British for many years which reminds them that their ‘civilisation’ is relatively new”.

And though the nation did not open its arms unreservedly to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazi regime in the 1930s, it did allow some 40,000 Jews from Austria and Germany to settle in Britain along with 50,000 Jews from Italy, Poland, and elsewhere in Eastern Europe – and the 10,000 Kindertransport children rescued on the eve of war.

Today, when many fear that anti-semitism is on the rise again, they acknowledge that, in the judgement of the Jewish peer Lord Janner, “in the UK it’s not as serious as it is in France, Denmark, the Netherlands or Belgium.” Instead Lord Janner perceives a different threat. Today there are about 350,000 Jews in the UK – around two-thirds in London, with around 40,000 in Manchester and significant communities in Leeds, Glasgow, Brighton, Liverpool, Birmingham, Bournemouth, Gateshead and Southend. That spreads the community pretty thin.

“Not less than 30 per cent [marry outside the faith] and that’s really serious,” Lord Janner says. They have, perhaps, for some of their number, integrated and assimilated just a little too well.


Men of influence

Menasseh Ben Israel

Friend of Rembrandt whose family suffered the full force of 17th-century anti-semitism when they fled the Inquisition in Portugal. Petitioned Oliver Cromwell for the readmission of Jews to England. His campaign was eventually successful after Cromwell ruled that a law banning Jews should no longer be enforced.

Daniel Mendoza

Such was Mendoza’s standing as a prize fighter in late 18th-century London, newspapers reported his latest victorious bout ahead of the storming of the Bastille in 1789. The Jewish boxer from Aldgate, who learnt to use his fists in fights over anti-semitic remarks, is regarded as the father of scientific boxing and published The Art of Boxing in 1789.

Benjamin Disraeli

Entered Downing Street in 1874 as Britain’s first Jewish prime minister. He was in fact baptised an Anglican after his father, Isaac, a literary critic and historian, fell out with the family synagogue. His most lasting achievement was the creation of the modern Conservative Party.

Lionel de Rothschild

By the beginning of the 19th century, the De Rothschilds were prominent members of society, bankrolling Britain in the Napoleonic Wars. But when he was elected to the House of Commons in 1847, Lionel was barred for his refusal to take the Christian oath of allegiance. It took another decade of red tape before Lionel became Britain’s first Jewish MP.

Yehudi Menuhin

When his family were turned away by a landlady because they were Jewish, his mother vowed her unborn son would be called Yehudi, the Hebrew for Jew. He went on to become one of the most famous violinists of the 20th century and founded the Yehudi Menuhin School.

Harold Abrahams

After a lacklustre performance in the 1920 Olympics, the Bedford-born sprinter and lawyer became the first British athlete to hire a personal trainer. Four years later, Abrahams won the 100 metres at the Paris Olympiad – the first non-American to do so at a Games. His rivalry with Eric Liddell became the subject of the film Chariots of Fire.

Issy Smith

Born Ishroulch Shmeilowitz in 1890 in Egypt, his name was anglicised to Issy Smith by a recruiting sergeant when he enlisted in the Manchester Regiment at the age of 14. During the second battle of Ypres in 1915 he ran towards German lines carrying a wounded comrade 250 yards to safety before repeating similar actions throughout the day. He was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Ernst B Chain

The son of a Berlin industrialist, Chain fled the Nazis in 1933 to work in Oxford. On the eve of the Second World War, he rediscovered the work of Alexander Fleming and found a way of mass-producing penicillin. Along with Fleming and Howard Florey, Chain was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945.

Moses Haim Montefiore

Mentioned in the diaries of Dickens and George Eliot, Sir Moses was one of the Victorian era’s most prominent Jews. After a career in the City, during which he co-founded the Alliance Life insurance giant, he devoted himself to a life of philanthropy. A loan raised by Sir Moses helped the British government abolish slavery.

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