TKJ – The Medieval Jews of England

UPDATE DECEMBER 2nd 2015 The winners of this week’s FREE eBook are = Anna Belfrage and Luke Jordan. CONGRATULATIONS.

When researching in order to write a 1,200-page trilogy there is so much background that never sees the light of day (or pages) of the finished books (though such close detail is naturally included to build and enhance the story). This series of ‘blogs’ sets out to give you an insight into building blocks that make up “The King’s Jew” – if you have any questions concerning any of these points just get in touch and I’ll be happy to share what knowledge I have garnered. Thanks

Thanks for popping in – there are two prizes on offer at the end


Continuing our look behind the scenes of “The King’s Jew”.

In Chapter Two

We meet Gilles de Burgh a knight in the service of Henry III. Gilles is in the Jewry district of London on his way to meet the moneylender Joseph ben Simon ben Moshe. But what of the real Jews in London in 1238?




King Henry III


The history of Jews in medieval England is quite short.

William the Conqueror is said to have brought moneylenders to London after 1066, and the Jewish presence in England lasted until their expulsion by Edward the First, in 1290.

By the end of this period, the Jews numbered several thousand out of a total population of almost two million. As moneylenders, Jews were under the protection of the Crown and this caused much anger to the locals in times of economic hardship. Their identification as Christ-killers, and the popularity of the Crusades from the late eleventh century, also exacerbated hostility towards Jews.



The Jewish diaspora in medieval England

Areas of Jewish Settlement


The earliest reference to Jews in London dates to 1130 and notes their settlement around Jew street (now Old Jewry) and Cheapside. We also know that until 1177 the only Jewish cemetery in England was at Cripplegate. Given that Jewish law requires the dead to be buried within 24 hours, you must appreciate how difficult it was for Jews living elsewhere in the country. This law was later relaxed to enable Jewish cemeteries in locally designated towns where they were allowed to live.


The modern Jewry

All that remains


The constant need of the Crown for money to pay for foreign wars meant the Jewish community were a lucrative source of taxable income and written records are peppered with royal demand for money and goods. However, the rise of Italian bankers from the mid-twelve hundreds – free from the stigma of non-Christian association – meant that the usefulness of the Jews to the Crown was short-lived. This in turn meant that royal protection from persecution also diminished. The years leading up to their expulsion from England in 1290 were particularly oppressive.



Jews being assaulted


During the barons’ wars of King John’s reign (1199-1216) rebels looted the Jewish community in London. Their houses were destroyed and inhabitants moved to other places. Indeed, stones from these houses were used to rebuild Ludgate and other gates in the city wall.

The year 1215 also saw the papacy endorsing the idea that all non-Christians (i.e. Moslems and Jews) should wear distinguishing clothing in order to prevent ‘accidental’ fraternising with Christians. Regulations were subsequently soon in force throughout Europe. Note the distinguishing ‘Tabula’ sewn onto the Jew’s garments in the image above. Makes you think doesn’t it?


Pope Innocent III

Pope Innocent III


During the Second Baron’s war – 1264 to 1267 (led by Simon de Montfort) persecutions and massacres of Jews took place on a regular basis. One of the characters in the book, Gilbert de Clare, massacred the Jews at Canterbury in April 1264 –



Gilbert de Clare (boo! hiss!)


Spoiler Alert; Gilbert was the implacable enemy of the main character in the book.


Before this, in 1262, amidst allegations of excessive interest being charged by Jews, a London mob destroyed a synagogue, south of Lothbury Street EC1, killing 700 inhabitants. Henry III (1216 – 1272) ordered the synagogue to be rebuilt as a chapel for a group of friars but by 1598 it had had become a wine tavern. There were apparently several synagogues in London because in 1282 the bishop of London was ordered to destroy all synagogues in his diocese. AND THIS WAS EIGHT YEARS BEFORE THE DEPORTATIONS OF 1290!!


Attempts to convert Jews for the good of their souls.


The Domus Conversorum

Contemporary image of the London Domus


In 1232, Henry III established a house of conversion (Domus Conversorum) in Chancery Lane (now a library for King’s College London). The hope was that by the establishment of this refuge there would be a mass conversion of the English Jews. Records show that in 1290 there were 80 converts in residence.

The problem with entering the Domus was that all monies and property were taken away and given to the king which left the ‘convert’ destitute. (Just to say that another of the main characters in “The King’s Jew” came from the Domus after his parents gave him away to a Christian family – but more of that in the book!)

The first warden of the Domus was Walter Mauclerc, bishop of Carlisle.

In 1330, there still remained eight men and thirteen women from the pre-expulsion period. By the year 1353 the Domus possessed only one convert, a woman named Claricia of Exeter, who had been admitted several years before the expulsion. She died in 1356; and a month after her death a Spanish Jew, John of Castile, found his way to England and the Domus. The last trace of the Domus was legally swept away by an act of the year 1891.

The last warden of the Domus was Edward Phillips, appointed 1608.

Home for converted Jews, or Domus Conversorum, Oxford



However, the days of the Jews in England were numbered. In 1275, Edward 1 (1272 – 1307) issued the Statute of Jewry. Jews were prohibited from charging interest on loans and had to collect all existing debts by the following Easter or forfeit them. In order to survive economically Jews were to be encouraged to become labourers and, therefore, granted a licence to lease land for 15 years (until 1290). The Statute also stipulated all Jews from the age of seven had to wear a yellow felt badge 6” long and 3” wide. A poll tax of 3d a year was also imposed from the age of twelve. Finally, Jews were given notice to quit England forever on 18 July 1290.

Their re-admission in 1656 under the Cromwellian Protectorate is interpreted by some as evidence of Cromwell’s toleration and compassion.


Tally Sticks

Tally Sticks


These tally sticks above date from the 13th century and relates to the taxation of the medieval Jewish community in England. The first stick shows payment of one shilling by Isaac the butcher, probably relating to the 1241 tax of Gloucester Jews. The stick was notched to indicate the payment and then split into two “receipts”. Payment could be checked by matching them back together.


In Conclusion

According to Reverend Moses Margoliouth, Old Jewry was a ghetto. Ghettos, areas of a city mainly or exclusively populated by Jews, were common across Europe. In 2001, archaeologists discovered a mikveh (ritual bath) near to Old Jewry, on the corner of Gresham Street and Milk Street, under what is now the State Bank of India. It would have fallen into disuse after 1290 when the Jews were expelled from England.

v0_master (2)

The Mikveh, or ritual bath dug up on Milk Street close to St Paul’s Cathedral. Courtesy of the Museum of London Archeology Service

It is, therefore, reasonable to suppose that the Jewish quarter in 13th century London extended from Jewen Street in the north, by St Giles-without-Cripplegate, to Poultry in the south. Also nearby is St Lawrence Jewry, a Church of England guild church on Gresham Street, next to the Guildhall.


Thus ends our look behind the scenes of Chapter Two.

BUT SCROLL DOWN FOR YOUR PRIZE and next week we’ll have a sneaky peek at some more background from TKJ = “The King’s Jew. Book One. At the tomb of King Edward the First…”

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4 thoughts on “TKJ – The Medieval Jews of England

  1. I hope that you don’t mind several corrections to your piece but I’ve noticed a few errors which I’m sure you won’t want to detract from your piece.
    1) The Jewish population of England at it’s height in 1200 has been calculated by Robert Bartlett and Paul Hyams at c. 5,000 and certainly never exceeded that. That figure fell during the thirteenth-century, for various reasons, and both Vivian Lipman and Robin Mundill have convincingly demonstrated that at the time of the Expulsion the population was c. 2,000-3,000. The figure of 16,000 is perpetuated in the older historiography and was taken from the chronicle accounts pertaining to the Expulsion (medieval estimates are notoriously unreliable) but Mundill and Lipman based their estimates upon the basis of the records of the poll tax of 1d for every Jew over the age of 12 (the records survive from the early 1280s).
    2) It was not the Jews status as moneylenders which placed them under the authority of the king but their status as a social outsider (the ‘Other’) which meant that of necessity they placed themselves under the authority of the most powerful ruler (as well see with seigneurial Jewry in twelfth-century England).
    3) The first, verifiable, reference to the Jews in London comes from a survey done by St. Paul’s Cathedral in 1127 which refers to the vicus judeorum (i.e. Street of the Jews) in Ironmonger Lane, now Old Jewry.
    4) With regards to England I’m not sure the rise of the Italian bankers in the twelfth-century had much effect. Certainly, from the mid-1160s onwards the Crown moved away from Christian moneylenders in favour of Jewish moneylenders in England – and often during the thirteenth-century this would take the form of taxation rather than borrowing.
    5) Royal protection from persecution was maintained until the Expulsion as is illustrated by the fact that the letters ordering the Jews out of England stipulated that the Jews were to be given safe conduct out of England.
    6) Lateran IV did issue an order that Jews should wear the so-called tabula to identify them as Jews and this sentiment was enforced in England from 1218 onwards. However, most Jews purchased an exemption (either individually or as a community) and it was only the 1253 Stature of the Jewry which enforced this (the exact specifications were only given in the 1275 Statute).
    7) I’d be interested to know what your source is for the 700 Jews massacred in London – Wykes tells us of 400 and the Chronicle of the Mayors 500 but I don’t know of higher estimates.
    8) I’m not sure what you’re talking about with this destruction of the synagogues the only thing that I can think of off the top of my head is that these were not the communal synagogue but rather were private rooms which were not authorised in accordance with repeated legislation.
    9) While the converts in the Domus Conversorum were kept in relative poverty they were given a stipend of 10d per week for men and 8d for women. Moreover, from 1280 onwards Edward I allowed converts to retain half of their movable goods.
    10) It’s a very old idea that the Statute of the Jewry (1275) intended the Jews to become labourers and it is much more likely that the intention was for them to become legitimate merchants – incidentally you miss the Statute of Acton Burnell (1283) and Statute of the Merchants (1285) which provided security for Christian usurers.
    11) You don’t counter Margoliouth’s ‘ghetto’ assertion so I will. There were no ghetto’s in medieval England – Jews lived outside of the Jewry and Christians lived inside the Jewry (often quite a few). This is just an old fashioned way of saying a number of Jews grouped together with their economic equals.


    • Thanks for the comments / thoughts, Dean – much appreciated – my thoughts are below

      1 – ANSWER – I agree that the estimates do indeed vary considerably – in view of this I have amended the blog to read ‘several thousand’ (this stratagem does, I believe, correct the issue).

      2 – ANSWER – Here I have to disagree with you. Within the feudal system set up by the Normans there was a pyramidal element to the hierarchy. At the top was the king and power delegated downwards through the Earls, Barons, Lord of the Manor, Knights, Sherriffs, Bailiffs and finally to peasants. The Jews were outside this pyramid (so I agree with your ‘Other’ description) BUT the King was the only and final arbiter of the Jews. In brief, the King OWNED the Jews. Nobody could kill a Jew or injure a Jew without the consent of the King. Indeed when Henry the Third was short of money he mortgaged the Jews to his Brother (in effect he sold them en masse to Richard of Cornwall. Thus the Jew didn’t place themselves under the authority of the King – they had no choice.

      3 – ANSWER – Agreed.

      4 – ANSWER – Henry the Third’s wife (please note that he was known as Henry of Winchester as that was where he was born) Eleanor, was the niece of Boniface (Savoy), who was elected archbishop of Canterbury in England after winning support from King Henry. The following year Peter of Savoy (the later Count Peter II) is given a grant of land in London on which he builds the Savoy Palace. After Eleanor’s marriage, many of her Savoyard relatives joined her in England. At least 170 Savoyards arrived in England after 1236, coming from Savoy, Burgundy and Flanders. The Savoyards formed an important power base for Eleanor in England.
      During the 13th century bankers from north Italy, collectively known as Lombards, gradually replace the Jews in their traditional role as money-lenders to the rich and powerful. The business skills of the Italians are enhanced by their invention of double-entry book-keeping. Creative accountancy enables them to avoid the Christian sin of usury; interest on a loan is presented in the accounts either as a voluntary gift from the borrower or as a reward for the risk taken. Thus the Savoyards gave the Lombards a foothold in England. And so the Jewish lending monopoly was broken as Edward the First moved towards the Christian bankers and began to squeeze the Jews for everything he could get by massive taxation.

      5 – ANSWER – I have to disagree with you here – although the Royal Protection was allegedly in force you must know of the massacres at Canterbury and Leicester which were caused more by a desire to eradicate the proof of debt (physical rolls in the archa) than any religious ideals.

      6 – ANSWER – I agree.

      7 – ANSWER – I am sure you agree with me that any ACTUAL numbers from so long ago are so very hard to corroborate – 400, 500, 700? You pay your money and take your choice.

      8 – ANSWER – A place of prayer can take many forms. So I naturally assume that not only the MAIN synagogues were destroyed but also the rooms in private dwellings.

      9 – ANSWER – I think you’ll find they got much less than that (though as I said above – different figures may apply to each researcher) I reckon it was about 1 ½ d per week as 10d was nigh on the wage of a labourer in those days and the domus residents were fed, clothed and had a roof over their heads. You say Edward allowed them half of movable good – methinks you credit the man with too much compassion!

      10 – ANSWER – I sort of agree with you here but please bear in mind that the blog is short and intended for people with almost no knowledge of the situation. To include things in such depth is not the intention of the blog.

      11 – ANSWER – I agree – maybe I couched it in terms that some would understand – yet I’m sure you would agree that many Jews lived together in close proximity to each other. Yes Jews employed Christians in their homes and I’m sure many people rubbed along quite well together.

      IN SUMMATION – thanks for taking time out to give me your views and I see you are studying in Manchester so I wish you well in all your endeavours. Great University!
      Good luck and best wishes


  2. Great post: concise, but brief enough to leave me wanting to know more! So please put my name in the black fedora hat!


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