Expulsion of the Jews 1290
by Michelle Stoops
This afternoon I would like to talk to you about the expulsion of the Jews from this country in the 13thC. Most people know that the Jews were ordered to leave England in 1290 and that the reason was due to money lending. Well, these facts are true, but not the whole story. If they were I wouldn't have much to talk about. I want to put the Jews of the time into historical context and show how they fitted into medieval society. I also want to explain that there was another reason that they were expelled and that reason was scandal. But more of that later.
Edward I, son of Henry III was born 1239 and died 1307 aged 68. He became king at the age of 33. He inherited a penniless kingdom from his father and would have money problems all his life. His most famous and long lasting achievement is making the United Kingdom what it is today. He brought under his rule Ireland, Wale, Scotland and even Gascony in France. His actions still resonate today as Scotland and Wales debate devolution.
The Jews at this time belonged to the king and could come to this country with his pleasure and leave with his displeasure. I think this is a situation that contemporary Jews would have expected as they would have been treated the same in the other countries where they had lived. The first Jews came over with William the Conqueror as they had his protection. They would have numbered anywhere between 2-5,000. They would have lived in all main centres of commerce, London, Lincoln, York, Exeter and Bristol.
Jews were forced into money lending because of a Papal decree forbidding Christians to earn interest from another Christian. Jews had become very successful moneylenders, traders and businessmen. Some Jews became very wealthy by acquiring land and property cheaply when debtors defaulted. They also had to charge high interest because often people would not pay back their loans and if they took the debtor to court, the court would often rule against the Jew.
Jews were also educated, unlike most of the population. They would converse in either Hebrew or Yiddish. They could probably speak French too, which meant they could converse with nobility. They had there own set of laws and traditions. There was quite a lot to mark them as outsiders. The church would have continuously preached anti-semitism. The Jews also had to wear a badge in the shape of the Ten Commandments to make sure everyone knew who was a Jew.
Having said all this, the Jews seemed to thrive. They built synagogues, study houses and cemeteries.
The fact stands that the Jews fulfilled a very important part in medieval England, especially whilst they had the protection of the crown. The king would tax the Jews regularly - another reason why they had to charge high interest rates. Also on a much more local level, if a farmer needed to buy seed or farming equipment, he knew that he could go to Isaac or Solomon the Jew and if he had a good working relationship with him, the moneylender might give him good terms. Once the Jews were expelled, these small farmers had no-one to borrow money from.
As mentioned before, Edward lead campaigns in Wales and then in Scotland. Wars are very expensive, always have been and still are today. Edward started imposing heavy taxes on the Jews. This meant that the Jews had to call in loans quickly and sell assets, often at a reduced price, just to get the money. Jews weren't the only ones to be taxed - the general populace had to pay taxes too, as did the church, but the Jews were always the first ones to have to pay up.
In 1278 Edward I turned his attention to coin clipping. Coin clipping was a serious crime. In the days when coins were made of silver, the edge of the coin would be shaved and the resultant shavings would be melted into new ingots. In advance of minting new coins, the king decided to round up the people responsible for this crime. The penalty for this would be death, plus the confiscation of all property. This could it could be quite profitable for the crown.
What followed next can be viewed at best as a sting operation or, at worst, a mission to entrap the unwary. Undercover agents were sent out to gather information and in November 1278 the king's officers swooped.
Every single Jewish male adult in England was seized and imprisoned - that would have been at least 600 men. It does seem that the Jews were particularly targeted. Of course Jews had had long-standing dominance over the money and metal-working trades so obviously they would have attracted a lot of attention and there can be little doubt that some of the Jews may have been guilty of this offence. At the beginning of Edward's reign it had been made illegal for Jews to lend money and many of them had to go to desperate measure to make ends meet. Edward was ready to believe that all the Jews were guilty of this crime of coin clipping.
Early in 1279 when the trials began 29 Christians were hanged for their crimes, but around ten times as many Jews suffered the same fate. Edward I had successfully improved his finances to the tune of around £36,000 and he had executed half the adult males of a minority population. He had committed the single biggest massacre of Jews in British history.
Despite the ban on money lending, Jews still lent money albeit under the cover of false contracts and there were Christian speculators who were buying up estates that were indebted to Jews on the cheap. One of the most notorious speculators was Queen Eleanor. The queen was not popular, she did not speak English and she never endeared herself to the people. She personally had a money shortage and in those days royalty did not receive income from the civil list like today. She owned so many properties and estates acquired this way that songs were written about her. One famous property she owned was Leeds Castle. Edward, who loved the queen very much, could see that a very big scandal was looming - to quote a letter from an Archbishop to the king "the queen is occupying land which the Jews have exhorted with usuary from Christians under the protection of the royal court".
That the queen would have this scandalous connection with the Jews the king found unbearable and he felt he had to sort out the Jewish problem for once and for all.
On Tisha Ba'av of the year 5050 or 1290ce Edward decided to strip the Jews of what little money they had and then made a decree that all Jews should convert to Christianity or leave England within 100 days. Very few were willing to convert with the majority leaving with whatever they could carry. Naturally their houses and real estate were taken over by extremely gleeful Christians.
There was a high financial price in expelling Jews because they took their business acumen with them and for the king they had been a great cash cow. The knights and lords were so thrilled at the king's actions that they agreed to grant the king a generous 15th of their goods and possessions which netted him £116,000.
The Jews probably went back to France and maybe Holland and the low countries.
No Jew lived legally in England until the year 1656.