Saturday, September 22, 2012

Jews in London

One street is all that remains of the Jewry
Jews had followed William the Conqueror to England* and established a significant presence in London in an area still called Old Jewry. Their business and money-lending practices were efficient, such that their homes were made of sturdy stone more often than their Gentile neighbors' houses. William II (1087-1100) seems to have been tolerant of the Jews; Henry II (fl.1154-1189) as well. Life in London was considered amenable enough to Jews that the well-known Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra visited London, where in 1158 he wrote his Iggeret ha-Shabbat (Epistle on the Sabbath), which can still be found in print today.
Of course, life was never "good" for the Jews in medieval Europe. In England, for instance, there were laws designed to harass the Jews, like that which required every Jew who died in England to be buried at a special cemetery set up at Cripplegate in London—which forced every Jewish family to pay a fee for the burial.

King Henry III of England was first mentioned here in my second-ever blog post. In 1232 he established the Domus Conversorum (House of Converts), meant for Jews who converted to Christianity, giving up their possessions in exchange for a home and a daily stipend for food and necessities.

Henry was devout, certainly, but not always charitable. In the words of one scholar:
If Henry III, despite being constantly broke, managed to find enough money to keep work at [Westminster] Abbey in progress, that was partly because he was at least a devout enough Catholic to be able to rob the Jews with a good conscience. [A History of London, Robert Gray]
Henry, always in need of money, was fond of borrowing from the Jews and simply not paying them back. Jews were seen as being a tool for the King's pleasure, and the Barons and others resented the Crown's control over them. For the Coronation of Richard I Lionheart in Westminster Abbey, a Jewish group tried to crowd in the Abbey to show support and bring gifts for the new king. Their presence touched off riots. Londoners rushed to the Jewry and set fire to houses, killing those who tried to escape.

Thirty were reported killed. The conviction rate afterward: three. Two of those had accidentally torched a Christian home, and one had robbed a Christian home in the confusion.

*No evidence exists of a Jewish presence in England prior to 1066.

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