Category Archives: Jewish London

The expulsion of London’s Jews (1290)



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 March 16th,  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.

1 - Site of (First) Great Synagogue, Old Jewry (-1272)

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.


Rejoicing in the Torah (Samuel Pepys, 1663)

On  this day in 1663, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

“[A]fter dinner my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue [on Creechurch Lane]: … Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that every one desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service … would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this”.

Unbeknownst to him at the time, he had witnessed the service of Simchat Torah (Rejoicing in the Torah), marking the end of the Sukkot(h), the  annual cycle of readings from the Torah, which is always a celebratory rather than a solemn event.  The associated activity  that most bewildered him was the Hakafot (dancing with the Torah).   There would almost certainly also have been drinking of ritual wine (symbolising life), although he does not mention it.  Indeed, a traditional source recommends performing the priestly blessing earlier than usual in the service, to make sure that the priests are still sober  when the time comes!

Exterior of Bevis Marks Synagogue.JPG

Interior of Sandy's Row Synagogue.JPG


The Coronation of Richard I, and the Anti-Semitic Riot that followed (1189)


The  Duke of Normandy  was formally crowned King Richard I at Westminster Abbey on this day in 1189.  According to one account, which now  resides in the Bodleian Library in Oxford, the coronation ceremony was accompanied by “evil omens”, including the presence of a  bat fluttering around the king’s head during the crowning, and the mysterious pealing of bells.  Shortly afterwards, representatives  of the Jewish community, who had been barred from the ceremony, arrived at the abbey to present gifts and their respects to the newly-crowned king, only to beaten and stripped by the king’s men, and thrown out onto the street.  Sadly, this came to be taken as a licence to attack the entire – sizeable – Jewish  population of London.  According to Roger of Howden, in his Gesta Regis Ricardi, the “jealous and bigoted” citizens went on to kill many, including Jacob of Orleans, a respected scholar, to burn  the houses of many others, and to force  the remainder to seek sanctuary in the Tower of London, or to flee the city altogether, until it was safe to return.  And according to another chronicler of the event, Richard of Devizes: “On the very day of the coronation, about that solemn hour in which the Son was immolated to the Father, a sacrifice of the Jews … was commenced in the city of London, and so long was the duration … that the holocaust could scarcely be accomplished the ensuing day … ”.  A horrified Richard was forced  to issue a writ ordering the cessation of the  persecution of the Jews (he also  allowed those who had been forcibly converted to Christianity to  revert to Judaism).  Those guilty of the most egregious offences against them were  executed.


Rebel Barons capture London (1215)


On this day in 1215, rebel barons captured London, going  on to force the king, John to set his seal to Magna Carta on the tenth of the following month (*).

Ralph of Coggeshall wrote:

“With alliances sworn with the citizens of London via go-betweens, … the barons came to London and seized it without opposition, the citizens being busy at Mass. Having entered, the barons captured all of the King’s supporters whom they found, depriving them of their goods. They broke into the houses of the Jews, rifling store-houses and strong boxes, and having spent much time in this holy work, abundantly restuffed their own empty purses. Robert fitz Walter, Marshal of the Army of God and Holy Church, and Geoffrey de Mandeville, earl of Essex and Gloucester, vigilantly and daily reinforced the city walls with stones taken from the houses of the Jews. They could not, however, take the Tower of London, defended against them by a small but brave garrison. As soon as it became known, far and wide, that the barons had seized the royal metropolis, all, save only the earls of Warenne, Arundel, Chester, Pembroke, Ferrers and Salisbury, and amongst the barons only William Brewer … defected to the baronial party; … so that …  the King was seized with such terror that he now dared travel no further than Windsor”.

(*) The First Barons’ War broke out in late  1215, when it became clear that when John  had no intention of abiding  by the terms of the charter.   At this time, the  barons sought to have Philippe II’s son Prince Louis of France replace John as king, and indeed welcomed him to London as king in early 1216.  However, when the war ended, by the Treaty of Lambeth, brokered by William Marshall, in 1217, they agreed to accept John’s son Henry III as king (John himself having died in late  1216).

A Synagogue in Restoration London (Joseph Greenhalgh, 1662)


On this day in 1662, one Joseph Greenhalgh wrote in a letter to Samuel Crompton:

“Lately … I lighted upon a learned Jew with a mighty bush beard, …  with whom … I fell into conference … ; at which time he told me that he had special relation as Scribe and Rabbi to a private Synagogue … in London, and that if I had a desire to see their manner of worship … he would give me such a ticket,  as, upon sight thereof, their porter would let me in … .  When Saturday came, … I … was let … in … ,, but there being no Englishman but myself, … I was at first a little abashed to venture alone amongst all them Jews, but my innate curiosity to see things strange …  made me confident … .  I … opened the inmost door, and taking off my hat (as instructed) I went in and sate me down among them; but Lord … what a strange … sight was there … [as] would have frightened a novice … .  Every man had a large white … covering … cast over the high crown of his hat, which from thence hung down on all sides, … nothing to be seen but a little of the face; this, my Rabbi told me, was their ancient garb, used in divine worship in … Jerusalem … : and though to me at first it made altogether a strange … show, yet me thought it had in its kind, I know not how, a face and aspect of venerable antiquity ”.