England’s Jews, Part 1: Usury, Expulsions and William of Orange

king-offa-of-mercia(Pictured: King Offa of Mercia, who banned Usury in AD 787).

The story of Jews in England is a long and fascinating one, for they hold the accolade of residing in this country longer than any other non-indigenous tribe. They first came to England around the time that William the Conqueror and his armies did, in 1066 AD and have left and returned a number of times since. There has been a steady presence of people of Jewish background in England since the end of Cromwell’s protectorate towards the end of the 17th century, but their story was somewhat more turbulent in the time between their first migration to the country up until this point in history. From the end of the 17th century until the present day they have survived and thrived primarily in London, where there remains a large Jewish community until this day.

The story begins, or rather, the precursor to the story begins back in 787 AD, when King Offa of Mercia was the dominant political figure in the Anglo-Saxon Heptarchy. King Offa reigned from 757 until his death in 791 AD and was, by all accounts, a well respected leader and decent man during a time in which the kingdoms of England were prosperous trading lands. He introduced England’s first monetary system for which the standard unit of exchange was a pound of silver divided into 240 pennies, each marked with a star. However, the most relevant part of King Offa’s economic innovations was the prohibition of usury (the practise of charging interest on loans), brought into law in 787 AD, which is relevant only for the inescapable reason that the most prominent aspect of the early Jewish activity in England centres around this immoral financial activity.

The first Jewish migration to England came around the time of William the Conqueror. These particular Jews came from Rouen in Northern France, 75 miles away from where William was born and where the Norman stronghold was at this time. According to some authors, it was the Jews from Rouen who financed the Norman invasion of England, but it is not known whether or not they promoted the idea in the first place. However, for their financial support for the invasion, they were rewarded by being allowed to practise usury under royal protection upon their arrival in England. In his book The “History of Central Banking”, Stephen Mitford Goodson writes the following about the effects of this usurious immigration:

“The consequences for the English people were disastrous. By charging rates of interest of 33% per annum on lands mortgaged by nobles and 300% per annum on tools of trade or chattels pledged by workmen, within two generations one quarter of all English lands were in the hands of Jewish usurers.

“Furthermore, the Jewish immigrants undermined the ethos of the guilds and exasperated the English merchants by selling a variety of goods under one roof. They also played a prominent role in the clipping of silver coins and the melting of them into bullion and the plating of tin with silver.”

Another source states that it was William the Conqueror’s policy to get feudal dues paid to the royal treasury in coin rather than in kind, and for this purpose it was necessary to have a body of men scattered through the country who would supply quantities of coin. So from this we can infer the relationship between the invaders-turned-rulers and the Jewish immigrants was mutually beneficial, as the migrants provided the rulers with an inflation-based high tax economy along with financing the invasion itself, and in return they were given free reign to practise previously outlawed financial activities. The 19th century economist Dr William Cunningham gave the following comparison and brief explanation of Jewish behaviour in England c.11th century:

“(We can compare) the activity of the Jews in England from the eleventh century onward to a sponge, which sucks up all the wealth of the land and thereby hinders all economic development. Interesting too, is the proof that even at this early period the government did everything in its power to make the Jews take up decent trades and honest work and thereby at the same time amalgamate with the rest of the population, but all to no purpose.”

By the 13th century, the Jewish population of England were still enjoying great influence in terms of finance, as well as a close relationship to the King due to ‘their ability to provide him with seemingly unlimited funds for his misadventures on the Continent’. In 1207, the crown took £60,000 in taxation from the English population, but the Jewish population paid tax ‘at a lower rate and on grossly understated income and wealth’. The Jews were also the principle moneylenders of the Noble class of England which worked well for the King, as the Nobles would get into financial difficulty and thanks to a reserved right of the King to purchase any debt from the Jews that he liked the look of, the monarchy would take the land from the indebted Noble. It was this cycle of land transfer from Nobles to King that led the former to support Magna Carta thanks to two clauses that weakened the power of the moneylenders to trap landowners in a vicious cycle of debt and interest.

The position of the Jewish population within English society drastically changed toward the latter part of the 13th century. King Edward (1272-1307) I was a devout Christian who took part in the crusades (1264-73) and had a much greater social conscience than previous monarchs regarding the treatment of his subjects at the hands of the moneylenders. In 1275 he passed the Statute of Jewry which, amongst other things, outlawed usury entirely (the practise was already forbidden for Christians by the Church and from the Heptarchy days) and wiping debts that were owed to Jewish lenders. Since it was now difficult for the Jews to make a living in England, Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion in 1290, requiring the 16,511-strong Jewish population to leave the country and never return. They were required to pay a tax to the tune of 1/15th of their possessions and 1/10th of the coined money they owned, but were permitted to leave with their remaining belongings and wealth. This expulsion was not ethnic cleansing in the modern sense of the word, as the Jewish population were not murdered on mass nor were their possessions removed from them.

There were other contributing factors to the expulsion of Jewry from English society. One such example is that of ritual slaughter:

“The ritual murder of pre-adolescent Christian boys was the tipping point, which resulted in the expulsion of the Jews. At the time of the Jewish Passover a boy would be captured and then bled to death. The blood would then be mixed with unleavened dough, baked and later eaten as rabbincal cake. The first known case occured in 1144 and the most famous one is that of Little St Hugh of Lincoln in 1255. King Henry III personally ordered a judicial investigation, which included forensic examination by the judges. 91 Jews were arrested for their participation in this gruesome murder, in which the victim was tortured, crucified, bled to death then dumped in a well. Details of this court case may be found in the Close Rolls of the Realm and Patent Rolls, Henry III at The National Archives, Kew, Richmond Surrey, TW9 4DU.”

Usury was made a capital offence under the Statute of Jewry and those suspected of practising it were liable to be arrested and, if found guilty, executed. Similarly, any Jew who remained in England after 1st November 1290 was liable to be executed. The usury laws were further entrenched by an Act in 1552 which stated that “usury is by word of God, utterly prohibited, as a vice most odious and detestable..”.

When the Jews actually returned to England is up for debate. What is known is that the first Jews to return were in fact Marranos-Spanish Jews who had either fallen victim to Spain’s expulsion of their people, or who had converted to a ‘sham form of Christianity’ in order to circumvent said expulsion but subsequently left. According to Goodson, many of these new arrivals practised as goldsmiths, issuing ten times the amount of gold receipts than were deposited, with said receipts usually lent to the Crown or the Treasury with interest rates of 8%. This practise was a forerunner to the fractional reserve banking system, whereby banks lend much greater amounts of money than the gold in their vaults are worth.

The most notable contribution made to 17th century England by the Jewish population was by Fernandez Carvajal, also known as ‘The Great Jew’, who organised an armed militia of 10,000 operatives to march on London, who also distributed pamphlets and leaflets to supposedly stir up the conditions that led to the civil war. Carvajal, along with a group of powerful Dutch Jews in Amsterdam, then financed Cromwell’s ‘New Model Army’ throughout the English civil war, suggesting they favoured an end to the current monarchy. It must be stressed that there is no suggestion the entire crypro-Jewish population of England desired civil war or a victory for Cromwell, but the influence of the powerful Carvajal is quite clear, along with the foreign Jewish elements in continental Europe.

The Jews from The Netherlands are particularly relevant in this chapter of their history, for it is they who petitioned Cromwell to lift the provisions under the Edict of Expulsion (1290) and allow the Jewish people to return to England. The leader of these Dutch Jews, Manasseh Ben Israel, wrote to Cromwell on multiple occasions offering further financial favours in return for the lifting of the ban. Cromwell duly obliged and the proof of this is in correspondence between himself Ebenezer Pratt of the Synagogue of Mulheim, Germany:

Oliver Cromwell to Ebenezer Pratt, 16th June 1647:

“In return for financial support will advocate admission of Jews to England: This however impossible while Charles living. Charles cannot be exectured without trial, adequate grounds for which do not exist at present. Therefore advise that Charles be assassinated, but will have nothing to do with arrangements for procuring an assassin, though willing to help his escape.”

Ebenezer Pratt to Oliver Cromwell, 12th July 1647:

“Will grant financial aid as soon as Charles removed and Jews admitted. Assassination too dangerous. Charles shall be given an opportunity to escape: His recapture will make trial and execution possible. The support will be liberal, but useless to discuss terms until trial commences.”

Before King Charles was tried and executed, it is said that there was not an Englishman in the land who was prepared to draw up a charge sheet against their King. However, one was eventually provided by the Dutch Jew Isaac Dorislaus. Charles was charged before the High Court who’s members were made up primarily by (over two thirds) Levellers, who were an ‘informal alliance of agitators and pamphleteers, who predated the Jacobins and Bolsheviks’.

In December 1655, ‘The Protector’ Oliver Cromwell held a conference to get approval for a mass influx of Jews. The attendees, mainly priests, lawyers and merchants who supported Cromwell, were in the main against any Jewish immigration, yet Cromwell pushed ahead with the policy as per his agreement with the European Jewish community that financed his successful attempt to win power. The first Jews landed on England’s shores did so in 1656 and this was significant for they were the first who openly practised Judaism to return to England since the Edict of Expulsion in the 13th century. By all accounts there were strong protests by certain sections of society, but they fell upon deaf ears. By 1690, however, only 400 ‘overt Jews’ had returned to England.

in 1660, following the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, the monarchy was restored in England. However, there was more turbulence to come from across the channel. Willem of Orange, who was to become King William III of England, Scotland and Ireland, landed in South-East England 5th November 1688 and proclaimed “the liberties of England and the Protestant religion I will maintain“. King James’ armies were superior to those of Willem of Orange, but he was ‘discouraged from attacking after John Churchill*, first Duke of Marlborough suddenly deserted him’, so there was not much in the way of a struggle for the Crown of England at this point. Whilst William had his own motives and of course, there was dissatisfaction with the pro-Roman Catholic tendencies of King James II, there was another driving factor which is relevant to the history of the Jews in England, namely that of Willem of Orange’s financial backers.

* “According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, Churchill subsequently received an annual stopend of £6,000 from the Dutch Jew Solomon Medina in payment for his treasonous conduct” – S. M. Goodson, A History of Central Banking, Ch 2, p 36.

It was the wealthy Jewish banking community of Amsterdam that financed the invasion and seizure of English crown, in return for a favour that was to change the course of history. This favour was the surrender of the Royal Prerogative to issue England’s money free of debt and interest to a consortium known as The Governor and Company of the Bank of England. This was the precursor to the establishment of the central bank, the first of which was the Bank of England, which would be used as a model for the creation of central banks all across the western world. This was essentially the end of England’s policy of outlawing usury.

A. N. Field, All These Things:

“Thirty-three years after Cromwell had let the Jews into Britain, a Dutch Prince arrived from Amsterdam surrounded by a whole swarm of Jews from that financial centre. Driving his royal father-in-law (James II) out of the kingdom he graciously consented to ascend the throne of Britain. A very natural result following on this event was the inauguration of the National Debt by the establishment of the Bank of England for the purpose of lending money to the Crown. Britain had paid her way as she went until the Jews arrived. The pawnshop was then opened…

“The history of the second Jewish settlement in Britain is one long trail of parchment bonds shackling the nation in debt. Every step in the ascent of the Jew in the nation’s affairs has been marked by the increase and multiplication of debt.”

It is indeed unfortunate that we must talk about the early Jewish communities in England as if they are synonymous with the world of finance, but alas, this is the contribution they made to the nation. Their business practises are of a different culture to what the early Englanders were accustomed to, therefore it is not surprising that there were tensions and feelings of anger amongst the native population. The problem of course, was that the Jewish communities wished to advance and find success understandably, but they did not assimilate with the values that were held by the English people, explaining the aforementioned frustrations which led to the expulsions and laws restricting their activities here.

The second migration of Jewish people the England is characterised by regime change and revolution. It is true that the Jewish communities of England and continental Europe were active in the move from monarchy to protectorate, then the instalment of Willem of Orange as King of the land, but it is clear that not every ‘rank and file Jew’ had a dog in this proverbial fight. It was primarily in the interests of the financiers that the Dutch King should ascend to the English throne, for they would be allowed to practise their own methods of business under the new regime.

It must be said that the Jews present in England today are very different to those that settled between the 11th and 17th centuries. Today, they are fully integrated into their respective communities and have assimilated to our way of life to the point that they are indistinguishable from the native population. They went on to become active participants in the furniture trade in London, amongst other things, and are fairly ordinary citizens in comparison to the settlers of Norman times or the middle-ages.

JW.

References:

  1. S. M. Goodson, The History of Central Banking and the Enslavement of Mankind, Chapter 2 (Primary Source for historical facts contained within this article).
  2. R. Chazan, The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom 1000-1500, Cambridge University Press, New York, 2006, 159.
  3. W. Cunningham, The Growth of English Industry and Commerce during the Early and Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, 3rd Edition, 1896, 201.
  4. D. Astle, The Tallies, A Tangled Tale amd The Beginning and the Ending, 1997, 40 & 43.
  5. A. M. Andreades, History of the Bank of England, P.S. King and Son Ltd, London, 1935, 35.
  6. H. S. A. Henriques, The Jews and the English Law IV, The Jewish Quarterly Review, Vol. 14, No. 4, Jul. 1902, 653-697.
  7. A. M. Hyamson, A History of the Jews in England, Methuen, 1928 as quoted in A. N. Field, All These Things, Omni Publications, Hawthorne, California, 1936, 215.
  8. A. Del Mar, The History of Money in America From the Earliest Times to the Establishment of the Constitution, Omni Publications, Hawthorne, California, 1966, (first published in 1899), 66.
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