A minority community of Jews became established in England, including in London, in the reign of the Norman king William I, “the Conqueror”, in the late eleventh century, many of its members originating from Rouen in Normandy and involved in money-lending (Christians being barred from the practice at the time). Tragically, the Jews became subject in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries to a series of what in later times would be referred to as pogroms or purges, the most infamous of which took place in York on this 16th March, 1190. They were eventually ordered, under the Edict of Expulsion issued by Edward I on the day of the Fast of Tisha B’Av, July 18th, in 1290, to be expelled by November 1st of that year. On the actual day of the expulsion, one ship’s captain had his Jewish passengers from London disembark on a sandbank at Queenborough in the Thames estuary, and then left them there to drown on the rising tide – for which terrible crime, he was later hanged). After the expulsion, the only Jews remaining in England were either converts or coverts.
Finally, nearly four hundred years after the expulsion, Jews were permitted to re-settle in England in 1656, under the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, and following a personal approach to Cromwell by one Menasseh ben Israel. The first to arrive were Sephardim, escaping religious persecution in Portugal, Spain and elsewhere in western Europe. Slightly later came the Ashkenazim, from central and eastern Europe.
A number of synagogues were built in London in the Medieval period, on or around Old Jewry in the heart of the City; and ritual baths or mikva’ot in the precinct of the Guildhall and in Milk Street. Further synagogues were built in the post-Medieval re-settlement, this time on the eastern fringe of the City around Aldgate, including a Sephardic one on Creechurch Lane, built in 1657, another Sephardic one, on Bevis Marks, built as a replacement for the same in 1701, and the Azhkenazi Great Synagogue, on Duke’s Place, built in 1690.
Sadly, of the aforementioned, only the Sephardic Synagogue on Bevis Marks still stands. This was built in 1701 by Joseph Avis, a Quaker, who refunded to the congregation the difference between the final cost of the construction and his original – higher – estimate, not wanting to profit(eer) from working on a House of God.
The Ashkenazi Great Synagogue on Duke’s Place was destroyed during the Second World War. The Jewish cemetery in Cripplegate, until 1177 the only one in all England, to which bodies would be brought for burial from as far afield as Exeter and York, was also destroyed in the War.
Bevis Marks Synagogue is visited, although not entered, on our “London Wall” standard walk. And Sandy’s Row Synagogue in Spitalfields, London’s oldest surviving Ashkenazi Synagogue, founded in 1854 (on the former site of a French Huguenot Church, originally built in 1766), is passed on our “Historic Shoreditch and Spitalfields” standard walk.
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