Jews in Medieval England

Jews in Medieval England

I’m updating this post, in large part because of a comment a reader left about my use of the word ‘pogrom’ in Footsteps in Time, having not heard the word before. A ‘pogrom’ is defined as: “An organized, often officially encouraged massacre or persecution of a minority group, especially one conducted against Jews.”

Jews lived in England during the Roman and Anglo-Saxon periods, but not as an organized community. This page states:  “When William the Conqueror arrived in England in 1066, he encouraged Jewish merchants and artisans from northern France to move to England. The Jews came mostly from France with some from Germany, Italy and Spain, seeking prosperity and a haven from anti-Semitism. Serving as special representatives of the king, these Jews worked as moneylenders and coin dealers. Over the course of a generation, Jews established communities in London, York, Bristol, Canterbury and other major cities. They generally lived in segregated areas by themselves.”

From the charter by King John (1201), for which he received 4000 marks:  “John, by the grace of God, &c. Know that we have granted to all the Jews of England and Normandy to have freely and honourably residence in our land, and to hold all that from us, which they held from King Henry, our father’s grandfather, and all that now they reasonably hold in land and fees and mortgages and goods, and that they have all their liberties and customs just as they had them in the time of the aforesaid King Henry, our father’s grandfather, better and more quietly and more honourably.”

This goodwill, if it ever existed, had disintegrated by the time of Edward I of England (1239-1307).  As a king, he casts a long shadow over the thirteenth century and historians have generally viewed him favorably, in large part because they view his reign as good for England as a country (meaning he was stubborn, vibrant, and never backed down from a fight), if not anyone else.  But one of his most heinous acts, in addition to conquering Wales, was the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290.

Edward, and his father before him, began with a series of pogroms designed to reduce their ability to secure a livelihood. He and his predecessors encouraged the Jews to become physicians, merchants, bankers, and traders but they were not allowed to own land. Through apprenticeship and education, which was of supreme importance to the Jewish community, many Jews accumulated a great deal of wealth, in disproportion to their routinely uneducated gentile counterparts. Of course, this engendered animosity among gentiles, who saw only the wealth, and not the effort to attain it.


Map of Jewish expulsions and resettlement areas in Europe. 1100-1500:

This did not stop the gentiles from borrowing money from the Jews, however, and Edward allowed the Jews in England to charge interest on loans. In turn, Edward would exact huge taxes from them.  As the taxes became more burdensome, it forced them to both raise the interest rates which they charged their debtors, and to call in those loans when taxed to excess. If the Jews refused to pay Edward, they were punished. In 1278, Edward arrested 600 Jewish men upon charges of coin clipping and hanged 270 of them. Edward then claimed their wealth for himself, to the tune of over 16,000 pounds.

That equaled 10% of the annual income of the entire realm. The money Edward took from the Jews compensated for the huge expenses involved in defeating Prince Llywelyn of Wales (see how this is all interconnected?).

Once Edward had taken all their money, he had no more use for them, and began to pass more laws restricting their activities. They had to wear specific clothing and badges, could not own land, practice money lending, join any guild or business, or pass on their assets to their children. In 1290, Edward completed his pogrom against the Jews and expelled them from England (although a few paid bribes in order to be allowed to stay). England is the first country in Europe to do this, though France and Germany follow suit in short order.

Which is why Spain had so many to persecute 200 years later during the Spanish Inquisition. And why, by 1935, millions of Jews lived in Poland, which welcomed them after the Black Death.

Medieval Moneylending

Edward Longshankes (Edward I) got himself in debt to various moneylenders in order to fund his wars.  During his reign, he fought with his father in the Baron’s War against Simon de Montfort, against Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the Prince of Wales, against the French, and against the Scots.  All of these wars cost money.

A king had a couple of options when on a quest for funds.  One, he can tax his people.  Edward certainly did that.  Two, he can confiscate funds from those over whom he wields power.  I blogged earlier about what he did to Jewish coinsmiths in 1278 (  Henry VIII had the great plan of starting his own religion and confiscating the wealth of the Catholic Church.  That was a little more radical than Edward, who often relied on the third method, money lending.

In the Middle Ages, a number of money lending options were open to him.  He borrowed from the Jews in England until he took all their money and expelled them from England.  Christians were forbidden to lend money, so he turned to the Italian banking families.

“In Medieval Europe, moneylenders were needed as everywhere else. However, the situation was complicated by the fact that Christian laws forbade “usury” or the practice of charging interest on loans. In consequence, the function of moneylending was assumed by members of the Jewish communities who were exempt from usury laws and who were not prohibited by their own traditions to lend money to non-Jews. Thus European Jews practically held a monopoly on moneylending.”

But then came the Italians:

“By the middle of the 12th century the Jews, who were leading money changers and moneylenders, had begun to make business loans. Because the business appeared to be lucrative, powerful rivals soon ended the Jewish hegemony. By the middle of the 13th century the Italians from Lombardy had taken over the leadership. They sometimes had the privilege of minting coins. They could solicit deposits, which the Jews were often prohibited from doing. They also managed to get around the church’s edict against interest. They did not make loans and charge interest but bought and sold bills of exchange payable in foreign currency. They were, therefore, merchants in banking who hoped by the difference in exchange to make a profit equal to the interest rate they would have charged for a loan.”

The power that these families wielded can be seen in the following explanation from Wikipedia regarding John Peckham, the Archbishhop of Canterbury during Edward’s Welsh wars:

“Peckham laid stress on discipline, which often resulted in conflict with his clergy. His first episcopal act was calling a council at Reading in July of 1279 in order to implement ecclesiastical reform, but Peckham’s specifying that a copy of Magna Carta should be hung in all cathedral and collegiate churches offended the king as an unnecessary intrusion into political affairs. Another ruling was on non-residence of clergy in their livings. The only exception Peckham was prepared to make on non-residence was if the clerk needed to go abroad to study.At the Parliament of Winchester in 1279, the archbishop compromised and Parliament invalidated any regulation of the council dealing with royal policies or power. The copies of Magna Carta were taken down.   One reason the archbishop may have backed down was that he was in debt to the Italian banking family of the Riccardi, who also were bankers to Edward and the pope, and Peckham was under threat of excommunication from the pope unless he repaid the loans.”

The First Crusade

The Crusades, Christendom’s attempts to win back the Holy Land and Jerusalem, began in 1095 with the First Crusade.  The Muslims had taken Jerusalem in 1076.

Pope Urban incited the Christians of Medieval Europe with the words: “Christians, hasten to help your brothers in the East, for they are being attacked. Arm for the rescue of Jerusalem under your captain Christ. Wear his cross as your badge. If you are killed your sins will be pardoned.”

The Crusaders had to follow an overland route to Constantinople, where they gathered in preparation for moving south to Palestine. By 1097, after a brutal journey to reach it, nearly 10,000 people had gathered in Constantinople.

The Crusaders encountered little resistance for the most part, and reached Jerusalem by June 7, 1099.  They began their attack on the 13th, and by the 17th, had slaughtered every Muslim in the city.  They established the Kingdom of Jerusalem and held it for nearly 100 years.

By 1187, however, “Saladin had enough of broken treaties, renegade Crusader Princes’ (see Reginald of Chatillon) attacking Arab caravans and the harassment of his people. Saladin’s army started a march on Jerusalem. His army met up with King Guy [de Lusignon] at the Horns of Hattin on July 4th, 1187. Guy was poorly advised. He was greatly outnumbered but he attacked, and after a long, bloody battle, was taken prisoner. Balian of Ibelin was also captured at this time, but begged permission to return to Jerusalem to look after his ailing wife, the former wife of Amaury. Saladin wasn’t heartless, and allowed Balian to go.

Balian arrived in Jerusalem to find chaos. He placed himself in charge, as he was the highest ranking officer. He then proceeded to fortify the city in preparation for a possible siege. Saladin arrived at the Mount of Olives on September 26th. Balian held the city till September 30th, when he and Saladin finally agreed to come to terms and Balian surrendered the city to Saladin. The Crusaders left the city of Jerusalem, their capitol, to the armies of Saladin, thirty days later.”

An associated aspect of the Crusades was the attack on European Jews along on the way.  One account of a massacre in Germany reads:  “As soon as the enemy came into the courtyard they found some of the very pious there with our brilliant master, Isaac ben Moses. He stretched out his neck, and his head they cut off first. The others, wrapped by their fringed praying­shawls, sat by themselves in the courtyard, eager to do the will of their Creator. They did not care to flee into the chamber to save themselves for this temporal life, but out of love they received upon themselves the sentence of God. The enemy showered stones and arrows upon them, but they did not care to flee, and [Esther 9:5] “with the stroke of the sword, and with slaughter, and destruction” the foe killed all of those whom they found there. When those in the chambers saw the deed of these righteous ones, how the enemy had already come upon them, they then cried out, all of them: “There is nothing better than for us to offer our lives as a sacrifice.” [The outnumbered Jews had no chance to win: Emico is reported to have had about 12,000 men.]

The women there girded their loins with strength and slew their sons and their daughters and then themselves. Many men, too, plucked up courage and killed their wives, their sons, their infants. The tender and delicate mother slaughtered the babe she had played with, all of them, men and women arose and slaughtered one another. The maidens and the young brides and grooms looked out of the Windows and in a loud voice cried: ‘Look and see, O our God, what we do for the sanctification of Thy great name in order not to exchange you for a hanged and crucified one….'”