Jewish Medieval London

By Vanessa King | 03 April 2006
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photo shows metal lamp

A medieval Jewish Sabbath lamp now on show in the new Medieval galleries at the Museum of London.

In 2006 a festival celebrated the 350 years since Jewish people were readmitted to Britain by Oliver Cromwell.

However, we've asked historian Vanessa King to go back even further, and look for the traces of the very earliest settlement of Jewish people in Medieval London.

drawing shows the devil pinching noses of two men

A doodle in the Exchequer Rolls of the devil pinching the noses of two Jewish men clearly shows the prevailing attitude towards Jewish people during the period.

The history of Jews in medieval England is a relatively short one. Traditionally, William the Conqueror is said to have brought moneylenders from Rouen to London after 1066, and the Jewish presence in many English towns lasted until their expulsion from the country in 1290. By the end of this period the Jews numbered around 16,000 out of a total population of approximately 2,000,000. As moneylenders, Jews were under the protection of the Crown and this alone caused much resentment particularly in times of economic hardship when they and other foreign nationals were liable to persecution. Their identification as Christ-killers, and the popularity of the Crusades from the late eleventh to the end of the thirteenth century, also exacerbated hostility towards Jews.

photo shows sign saying old jewry

A street name is all that remains of the original Jewish district. Photo: K Smith

For information on Jews in England we are largely dependent on Exchequer rolls. These were long strips of vellum on which monies collected by and owed to the Crown were recorded and then rolled up for ease of storage. Many of these rolls survive and are located in the Public Record Office at Kew. A separate branch dealing specifically with the Jews was established around 1194 by Richard I. Indeed, it was Richard’s coronation on 3 September 1189 that marked the first of a series of attacks on Jews in England. The arrival of Jewish dignitaries at Westminster to pay their respect to the king sparked a riot in the city in which some thirty Jewish families were murdered. Similar attacks also followed in Lincoln, York and Norwich.

The earliest reference to Jews in London dates to 1130 and notes their settlement around Jew street (now Old Jewry) and Cheapside. We also know that until 1177 the only Jewish cemetery in England was at Cripplegate. Given that Jewish law requires the dead to be buried within 24 hours, this must have caused great hardship to Jews living elsewhere in the country.

The exchequer doodle

Exchequer Rolls

The perpetual need of the Crown for money to pay for foreign wars meant the Jewish community were a lucrative source of taxable income and written records are peppered with royal exactions. However, the rise of Italian banking from the mid-twelfth century, free from the stigma of non-Christian association, meant that the usefulness of the Jews to the Crown was short-lived. This in turn meant that royal protection from persecution also diminished. The years leading up to their expulsion from England in 1290 were particularly oppressive

In a survey of London in 1598 by John Stow, it is recorded that during the barons’ wars of John’s reign (1199-1216) rebels looted the Jewish community in London. Stow states that during his time when Ludgate and Aldgate were pulled down and rebuilt it was found that stones from Jewish houses destroyed in 1215 had been used to repair the gates.

The year 1215 also saw the papacy endorsing the idea that all non Christians (i.e. Moslems and Jews) should wear distinguishing clothing in order to prevent ‘accidental’ fraternising with Christians. Regulations were subsequently soon in force throughout Europe.

photo shows street cast in shadow

Lothbury in 2006. Photo: K Smith

In 1262, amidst allegations of excessive interest being charged by Jews, a London mob destroyed a synagogue, south of Lothbury Street EC1, killing 700 inhabitants. Henry III (1216 - 1272) ordered the synagogue to be rebuilt as a chapel for a group of friars but by 1598 it had had become a wine tavern. There were apparently several synagogues in London because in 1282 the bishop of London was ordered to destroy all synagogues in his diocese.

There appear to have been misguided attempts to convert Jews for the good of their souls; in 1232 Henry III established a house of conversion (Domus Conversorum) in Chancery Lane (now a library for King’s College London) where converts could live. Records show that in 1290 there were 80 converts in residence.

medieval drawing shows four figures: one man is about to strike another

The persecution of Jews, from a Medieval manuscript. By permission of the British Library. COTT.NERO.D.II.f183v

Expulsion

However, the days of the Jews in England were numbered. In 1275, Edward 1 (1272 - 1307) issued the Statute of Jewry. Jews were prohibited from charging interest on loans and had to collect all existing debts by the following Easter or forfeit them. In order to survive economically Jews were to be encouraged to become labourers and therefore granted licence to lease land for 15 years (until 1290). The Statute also stipulated all Jews from the age of seven had to wear a yellow felt badge 6” long and 3” wide. A poll tax of 3d a year was also imposed from the age of twelve. Finally, Jews were given notice to quit England forever on 18 July 1290. It is estimated about 16,000 Jews left the country and it was not the late 17th century that Jews openly dared to return.

photo shows excavated stone bath with steps approaching it

The Mikveh, or ritual bath dug up on Milk Street close to St Paul's Cathedral. Courtesy of the Museum of London Archeology Service

What's left of Jewish Medieval London today?

Sadly, one has to look hard to find any physical evidence of medieval Jewry in London. Excavations in Milk Street and Gresham Street have uncovered two mikvehs (ritual baths) of the thirteenth century which are unique to this country. We know the site in Milk Street belonged to a wealthy family of financiers, the Crespins. Further details about the mikveh can be found here (at the bottom of the page).

On display in the Medieval gallery in the Museum of London is what is thought to be a Sabbath lantern dating from the 1100s. There are also recordings of the languages spoken in Medieval London - a Hebrew reading of the 23rd Psalm is heard beside Old French, Norse, Latin and Medieval German voices.

The Jewish Museum in Camden holds two thirteenth century tally sticks used to record the payment of tax, which are on display. The museum focuses on Jewish life in London from the eighteenth century to modern day and is well worth a visit.

photo shows wooden sticks with scoring to one side

Tally sticks. Courtesy of the Jewish Museum, Camden.

Other minority groups in London

London was a prosperous centre of trade and as such attracted many immigrants. Alongside the Jews in Old Jewry and Cheapside, Italian merchants could be found around modern-day Lombard Street, and excavations at One Poultry have revealed a large tenement let in 1355 to merchants from Lucca.

The site of Cannon Street Station was originally a walled enclave of German traders known as the Hanseatic League who arrived in London in the mid thirteenth century.

In times of unrest mobs frequently turned on outsiders, not just Jews, perceived as a threat to their livelihood. The obvious example would be the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381 during which both Flemings and Lombards were targeted. However, it is true that as non-Christians associated with usury (charging interest on loans), Jews undoubtedly fared the worst.

Vanessa King is giving a number of courses in 2007 and 2008 which describe life in Medieval London and include the experience of minority groups in the city.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:

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