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Jews Driven from England

In 1290, King Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion which drove the Jews to leave England for other parts of continental Europe. This event is recorded on the Bible Timeline Chart with World History during that time. Their ancestors first came from France to England in 1066 after William the Conqueror encouraged them to come with him to his new kingdom. The first wave of Jewish migrants initially worked as merchants and bankers. Others ventured into and became rich moneylenders. The cutthroat nature of the business, however, led to their downfall in England. They were oppressed for many years until they were finally forced to leave in 1290.

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William I the Conqueror and the Jews

In 1066, the Norman nobleman William the Bastard landed in England from France and conquered it from King Harold II. He became King William I the Conqueror, the first ruler of England who came from the House of Normandy. He encouraged the Jews of Rouen (the capital of Normandy) to come with him to England after he was crowned as king. The Jews of Normandy were merchants and bankers, so he was eager for them to help him with the country’s finances and its administration. The Jews were enterprising and an offer to flourish in England was difficult to reject. Others, however, were eager to make a fresh start because they experienced oppression in France. The Jews arrived in England in 1066 with their families.

A Fresh Start

Many of them started out as merchants, pawnbrokers, and moneylenders. They were favored by King William I who announced that the Jews and their properties were under his protection during a council in 1070. More Jews migrated to England in the years that followed and started to live alongside the English. They expanded into Northampton, York, Bristol, Kent, and Newcastle. Many of them acquired their own lands and prospered as moneylenders. They were so rich that they could even afford to lend money to a hospital and to a certain bishop. They leased some of the homes they owned and even built their own synagogues.

“Expulsions of Jews in Europe from 1100 to 1600.”


However, their peaceful existence in England did not last long.

Just as many of the Jews became successful moneylenders, their neighbors became poor and sank into heavy debt. Some of the Jewish moneylenders also charged higher-than-usual interest rates (a practice called usury). As years passed by, the borrowers’ simmering resentment boiled over to full-blown anti-Jewish feelings. Some people were so angry with the Jews that they banded together and killed some of them after King Richard I’s coronation in 1189. This grim situation continued until 1190.

Richard, I was angry at his people as the Jews were important sources of revenues for his kingdom. To protect the Jews, he ordered Hubert Walter to set up an Archa system wherein all transactions between Jews and their clients were recorded. He also set up a protection scheme for the Jews. However, the system was prone to corruption as some administrators ordered the Jews to pay up so they would be protected from threats.

The efforts of Richard I to protect them did not mean that they were free from the cruelty of the next English kings. During King John’s reign in 1210, he ordered a Jew to be tortured after the man refused to pay his taxes. Each day, his torturers removed one tooth until he gave up and paid them to save his last molar. During the thirteenth century, the Jews were allowed to live in select areas of a town but were forbidden to live anywhere they wanted. Apart from the usury issues, rumors of them kidnapping children and killing them during Passover (Blood Libel) also circulated in thirteenth century England.

Attempts to drive the Jews out of England started in earnest in 1231 in Leicester. It was led by Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester. It would have succeeded if the Bishop of Lincoln did not interfere. The Jews of Leicester still needed to move to another part of the town until they were finally driven out in 1253.

The campaign to drive out the Jews from their cities and towns spread to other parts of England in the years that followed. During the latter half of the 1200s, they were forced to live in Archa towns specifically designed for them. Others retreated into remote parts of the island to escape oppression. Those who could not escape became victims of violent crimes.

Edward I and the Edict of Expulsion

Their situation grew worse when King Edward I (Hammer of the Scots) started his reign. He had just returned from the Ninth Crusade and came home to an empty treasury. Many of his people were heavily indebted to the Jews, so they had no money to pay for their taxes. Since his people could not pay the moneylenders, he could not collect money from the Jews, too. That was the point when the king decided that the Jews’ usefulness had also run out.

If the situation of the Jews in England was bleak, then it could only get worse. Over in Italy, Pope Gregory X issued a condemnation of usury and prohibited anyone from engaging in this kind of business. When the news reached him, Edward immediately told the remaining Jews to give up their money lending businesses. He ordered them to switch to other trades or work as laborers so that they would not be punished.

The Jews appealed to Edward, but he did nothing to ease their plight. Some of them were forced to return to Normandy, while others traded in wool and corn. Those who could not find other trades started to clip the edges of coins so these could be melted, formed, and put back into circulation. Those who were caught clipping coins were arrested and their properties were confiscated. Some Jews chose to convert to Christianity as punishments for these offences were sometimes lighter on Christians.

Plans to expel the Jews from England began in earnest during the 1280s. It reached a grim finale when Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion for the Jews in 1290. They needed to leave England before November 1st of the same year or face consequences. They did not have a choice, and the Jews left England for France, Spain, Germany, and Flanders in 1290.

Picture By Expulsión_judíos.svg: Ecelanderivative work: ecelan (talk) – Expulsión_judíos.svg, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link
Chazan, Robert. The Jews of Medieval Western Christendom, 1000-1500. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2006.
Cohn-Sherbok, Dan. Atlas of Jewish History. London: Routledge, 1994.
“Oxford Jewish Heritage.” The History of the Medieval Jews of England. Accessed December 14, 2016.
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