Anti-Semitism in England

England has a sad history of persecution of Jews. It was the first Catholic country to make Jews wear distinctive badges, discriminatory taxation, and expulsion.  The Church of England, at a meeting on July 12, 2021, of its General Synod of the Church of England decided to apologize for the expulsion of Jews in the 13th century. The act of repentance will take place in 2022 on the 800th anniversary of the Synod of Oxford in 1222, held at Osney Abbey, a little-known meeting that was responsible for the introduction of a number of anti-Semitic laws in England. The decision of the church is surprising in many ways, but especially because the Church of England was not founded until 1534 when by the Act of Supremacy it became the Established Church. The decision indicates repentance for historic anti-Semitism in the country but also symbolizes the concern of the Church over the present increasing anti-Semitism.

The decision of the English church provides the opportunity to review the early history of anti-Semitism in England. Jews, few in number, had lived in England since Roman and Anglo-Saxon times. They became an organized community after arriving in England with William the Conqueror in 1066 and were under the protection of the crown but did not have the same legal status as other English people. Some became doctors and goldsmiths, but the primary source of income was moneylending. Many Jews were employed as moneylenders, since usury was forbidden for Christians, until 1275 when usury was banned. They were taxed heavily. They were not allowed to own land or join guilds but worked as tradesmen or farmers. Jews did not enjoy any of the guarantees of Magna Carta and had a different legal status from non-Jews. They were declared to be direct subjects of the king, doing the king’s service, according to a declaration of 1253, and thus were subject to the caprice of the rulers. This caprice was evident under Henry III who demanded one-third of all Jewish property, and who in 1245 prohibited Jews from residing in most towns of the country.

At times Jews were protected, as during the reign of King Henry II, 1152-89, but anti-Semitism grew for two main reasons:  partly because of false accusations against Jews; and partly because of violence associated with the Crusades that began in 1096.

The false accusations were aroused by the “blood libel,” allegations that Jews abducted and murdered Christian children for their rituals before Passover so they could use their blood to make the unleavened matzah. An early prominent case of accusations was that concerning William of Norwich. In 1144, he ran away from home, but Jews were falsely accused of his murder. A century later, in 1255, Jews were accused of the murder of a nine-year-old boy, Hugh of Lincoln. Both William and Hugh were canonized as saints.  

Some of the Crusaders, intent on reclaiming the Holy Land, saw Jews as Christ-killers against whom violence was legitimate, who were regarded as “enemies of the state.” and lived in unsafe conditions.  As a result of both factors, Jewish homes were stormed and pillaged, with mob violence against the Jewish community in London in 1264, where 500 Jews died, and in other towns such as Worcester and Canterbury, and massacre of the community, over 100, in York.  Jews were declared to be direct subjects of the king and were thus subject to the caprice of the individual ruler. Under Henry III, in 1245, Jews were prohibited from residing in most towns of the country.

Jews were exploited by local elites, as well as by the king. But Jews were needed to provide loans in order to prop up businesses and to generate capital. Canon law forbade the lending of money for profit, but it was not considered applicable to Jews. In general, Jews were free to move around the country if they got a permit from the king. However, since Jews were the king’s direct subjects their assets could be appropriated in the form of special higher taxes that varied, depending on the king’s need for money. One estimate is that Jews, less than 1% of the population, contributed about a tenth of the annual royal revenue.

The attitude of the Church began changing, from tolerance of Jews to increasing hostility.

In 1218, King Henty III proclaimed the Edict of the Badge, which was reinforced in 1253. This edict and other laws required Jews to wear badges shaped like the two tablets of the ten commandments, to distinguish them from Christians, banning them from working in certain professions.  In 1275 the Statute of the Jewry outlawed all lending at interest rates.

In 1287 King Edward I, residing in the duchy of Gascony, ordered the local Jews expelled, and all their property was seized by the crown. When he returned to England, Edward, heavily in debt, decide to impose a heavy tax. To make this more acceptable to his knights he offered to expel all Jews, perhaps 2,000-3,000 in number. This was done on July 18, 1290, by the Edict of Expulsion, 200 years before Ferdinand and Isabella expelled the Jews from Spain. The Edict was popular, and expulsion was quick.

Jews were not officially allowed in the country until they returned in 1656 at the invitation of Oliver Cromwell, after consultation with Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel of Amsterdam, although a number of Jews entered after being expelled from Spain in 1492 and Portugal in 1497. The most well-known of these is Rodrigo Lopez, physician to Queen Elizabeth I.

In one of life’s ironic events, the students at Simon de Montfort University in Leicester called for his name to be removed because of his links to anti-Semitism and because his name is “not reflective of our core values and beliefs. This is not a name we should be promoting.”

Simon de Montfort, a French nobleman who married the king’s sister, was indeed an anti-Semite.  As Earl of Leicester, he expelled all Jews from his town, though there were few; in 1231 he ruled that “no Jew or Jewess shall inhabit or remain in Leicester.”

 He imposed penalties on money lenders and encouraged massacres.  As British ruler in all but name, he annulled debts the landowners owed Jews.

Paradoxically, de Montfort was the founder of parliament, presided over the first elected parliament, and is regarded as one of the progenitors of parliamentary democracy. So far, he has not been “toppled.” His chain-mail effigy in the clock tower of Leicester remains.

Anthony Julius in his Trials of the Diaspora has shown the negative portraits of Jews that have been present in British society and literature including the anonymous medieval ballad “Sir Hugh” or “The King’s Daughter,” referring to the blood libel accusation.  Those negative portraits remain in modern literature -- as witness with Edith Wharton, T.S. Eliot, Roald Dahl, and Alice Walker, among others.

The Church of England decision comes at a time when the British government is responding to a rise in anti-Semitic incidents.  The Community Security Trust headed by Dave Rich has recorded the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents in Britain since records began. These included physical beating, vandalism, threats at rallies, at schools and universities, social media abuse, and the particular problem of cars driving through Jewish neighborhoods waving Palestinian flags and shouting intimidating slogans.  

At its meeting next year, the Church of England should express its horror at the continuation, and increase, of incidents of anti-Semitism, and endeavor to see they do not grow and fester.  

Image: British Library

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