London is a vast and ever changing city with nearly two thousand years of history. To the casual visitor there are simply endless streets punctuated by the occasionally interesting building or vista.
Yet much is hidden beneath the surface: what does one make for example of street names like Milk Street, Bread Street, Honey Lane, Ironmonger Lane, etc.? The answer is simple: these streets, now entirely populated by banks, were once the market streets of the medieval City of London.
Many of our historic City of London walks take in these streets and we tell you tales of the residents who once lived in them, both famous and forgotten. One of our more intriguing tours is our Jewish London walk, as the area covered and the history discovered is truly fascinating.
If the casual visitor on a walk of London were to glance at a map they might notice that, in the midst of the aforementioned streets and alleys, there is one called Old Jewry. What does this signify?
Again the answer is as straightforward as with the market streets: the Old Jewry was the street of the Jews, the centre of the medieval Jewish ghetto of the City of London. Beyond the street name it seems there is nothing here to remind us of the past, yet closer inspection will prove that false, for one a little way along old Jewry on the wall on the right there is a blue plaque that marks the site of the Great Synagogue, which stood here until 1272, shortly before the Jews were expelled from London.
Walk first though further east to the very fringe of the City of London, to Aldgate, where once the eastern gate of the city stood. Just inside the old walled area is another street suggestive of the Jewish community, Jewry Street — once known as the Poor Jewry.
Not far away in Creechurch Lane a commemorative blue plaque marks the ‘Site of the first Synagogue after the Resettlement 1655, Spanish and Portuguese Jews Congregation’. ‘Poor Jews’, ‘Resettlement’, these are clues to a rich and fascinating history which the informed eye can read in the streets of London.
Nothing is known of any Jewish communities in England before 1066, though there were probably individual Jewish merchants travelling the country, and possibly some settled groups.
The attitude of the Jewish people to England in the medieval period is epitomized by the standard description of England in Jewish literature as the ‘end of the earth’! It has long been believed that William the Conqueror invited Jewish merchants from Rouen in Normandy to settle in London, Oxford and York. Whether this was the case or whether they simply followed Duke William under his protection cannot be determined. Fresh impetus to immigration was undoubtedly given by a terrible massacre of Jews at Rouen in 1096 by a passing group of crusading knights.
William I and his son William Rufus appear to have treated the Jews decently, in fact the church accused Rufus of intent to convert to Judaism! However, the position of the merchants was ever precarious: prevented by the Christian guilds from practicing any of the trades of the city, barred from owning land, they were only able to practice medicine and money lending.
Both were inherently dangerous occupations in medieval times. For example, in 1130 the entire London community (numbering perhaps two or three hundred) was accused of murdering a sick man. It is most likely that he was treated by a Jewish physician who failed to cure him, but an immense fine of £2,000 was imposed on Rabbi Joseph (known as Rubi Gotsce) for the supposed crime. Documents of the Royal Exchequer show Rabbi Joseph to have been a great financier and a notable scholar. Joseph, along with other businessmen such as Manasser (Menasseh) and Jacob and his wife, had extensive financial dealings with the Abbot of Westminster and the crown.
The very success of the Jewish financiers put them in danger from the church, noblemen, and the kings who were indebted to them. The kings, particularly, were given to reneging on their obligations and also to extorting money from the Jews.
In 1144, during the civil war between King Stephen and the Empress Matilda, both monarchs raised cash from the Jews. Matilda had placed a levy on the Jews of Oxford and, on seizing the city, King Stephen demanded a levy three and a half times that of Matilda. The king forced payment by the simple expedient of burning the Jews’ houses one by one until the full sum was paid.
More ominously for the long term future, in 1144 a boy called William was found dead in woods near Norwich. The rumour spread that William had been lured to a synagogue and crucified on the second day of Passover. The sheriff of Norwich gave protection to the Jews in his castle, but one was murdered by a knight who was in his debt. William became venerated as a saint and thus was propagated the idea of ritual murder. This is in fact the first recorded incidence anywhere in Europe of this infamous accusation that would pursue the Jews down the centuries, and so stands as England’s own peculiar contribution to the annals of anti-Semitism.
The mid-twelfth century begins to yield more names of the Jewish community in London and elsewhere. The London Rolls show Jews from Spain and Morocco, France (Etampes, Joigny and Pontoise), and Jews from Italy (known as ‘Lombard’) in Winchester. There is even a Jew from Russia. These records show about 300 Jewish businessmen scattered around the country. The leader of the London community until his murder in the coronation massacre of 1189 was Rabbi Jacob of Orleans, a friend and fellow scholar of Rabbi Yomtob of Joigny who was the last to die in the Masada-like mass suicide at Cliffords Tower at York in 1190.
This sad catalogue of atrocities could be continued ad infinitum but suffice it to say that by 1270 the condition of the Jews of England had reached such a miserable level that the entire community petitioned the King for permission to leave the country. The King refused.
However, by 1290 church pressure condemning usury (despite credit being essential to the operation of the economy) and the King’s indebtedness led to the expulsion of the entire community from England. The Jews were allowed to keep any portable valuables, and those who could pay were given safe conduct out of the kingdom.
Those who embraced Christianity were deprived of all their goods and sent to the Domus Conversorum (The House of Jewish Converts) which stood in Chancery Lane, where the Public Records Office Museum now stands.
A walk along the street called Old Jewry, off Cheapside, (first mentioned as the Street of the Jews in 1128) will give clues as to what transpired there.
Nowadays a street of banks and financial institutions, many of the buildings in the street have square plaques attached to them with the symbols of the various guilds of the City of London: Mercers, Goldsmiths, Grocers, etc. These indicate that these guilds own the land upon which the buildings stand as they have done ever since the great bargain auction of 1290.
The Jews’ expulsion was without precedent in European history. Hitherto, expulsions had been local rather than national, and there can be little doubt that it provided both inspiration and a spurious justification for the expulsions from Spain in 1492 and those in Russia in the nineteenth century (which we cover in depth on our East End London walks, and on our Jack the Ripper Tour).
Until 1177 all Jewish burials in England were in the burial ground in London known as the ‘Jews’ Garden’ in Jewin Crescent (now disappeared) in the Barbican area. This burial ground was excavated by Professor Grimes in the 1950s. Grimes found evidence of several hundred burials but no trace of human remains — we can only surmise the bodies were dug up and carried away when the Jews were expelled from England in 1290. The feeling of the Jews towards England being such that they would not even suffer their dead to remain here.