The first Jews to settle in Britain came from Normandy at the invitation of William the Conqueror, who offered them royal protection. They were forbidden by the Church to own land, employ Christians or bear arms; however, Christians were forbidden to lend money for interest therefore money-lending became one of the few means of earning a living available to British Jews. As the founders of banking services (and also the pioneers of international business networking), Jews provided credit in a society where there were no banks as we know them today.
However, Royal protection came at a price; taxes were imposed upon Jews through a special department, The Exchequer of the Jews. Edward I hugely exploited these taxes with £420,000 extracted from the Jewish community between the years of 1263 ad 1273. Then in 1290, when Jews were no longer useful as a source of revenue, he confiscated their property and expelled them.
It was over three hundred years later before Jews were once more trading in Britain. These were Marranos, Jews from Spain and Portugal who, following persecution by the Inquisition, converted to Christianity and adopted Spanish or Portuguese names while still continuing to practice their Jewish religion in secret. Outwardly living in London as Catholics they attended mass at the Portuguese Embassy.
The Netherlands, at the centre of Western Europe, was a Spanish colony in the sixteenth century and witnessed some of the most bitter conflicts and atrocities of our religious persecution. A geographically small country located at the mouths of some of Europe’s great trading rivers, the population was not only highly concentrated but also strongly divided by religious affiliation. Religious tolerance was the key to political stability after Independence so that Puritans, Anabaptists and Catholics could live together peacefully and maintain trade with the rest of the world, the new nation’s lifeblood.
Having been expelled from Spain in 1492 and then fleeing Portugal when the Inquisition arrived, Amsterdam became a popular destination for Jews to openly practice their religion. Through the first half of the seventeenth century, Amsterdam became the world’s leading trading city and the home of a thriving Jewish community. In 1654, a group of Jews sailed from Amsterdam to the Americas and founded the first Jewish community in the New World.
When Oliver Cromwell came to power he saw, with the overthrow of the Monarchy, the opportunity to put in its place the ‘ideal’ state, driven by Puritan religious zeal. In fact, so momentous had been the overthrow of the old order that its demise was seen to be as much a religious event as a political one. And it is this interpretation that formed the link between Cromwell and a rabbi of the Amsterdam Portuguese Jews community, Menasseh ben Israel. The transition from the miseries of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal to the prosperity and freedom found in Amsterdam was readily seen as an indication of the imminent arrival of the Messiah; due to the fact that in such a short space of time Jews had gone from being oppressed to having the ability to freely and openly practice their Judaism.
Ancient prophecies hold that the dawning of the Millennium, (the Second Coming for Christians), will only start when the Jews have been scattered to the four corners of the world. Dutch and English Puritans at the time believed that it was therefore essential to have Jews living in England and a petition for this was sent to Cromwell in 1649 by two English Puritans living in Amsterdam. At this time, rumours were circulating that one of the lost tribes of Israel had been found in South America and by 1655 the presence of Jews in the New World was beyond dispute; the first American community had been established by settlers from Amsterdam the previous year.
Menasseh ben Israel arrived in London in 1655 and delivered a petition to Cromwell asking for Jews to be readmitted to live and trade in England. There was strong opposition not least from London merchants who did not welcome further competition. A special conference of judges, clergy and merchants was convened by Cromwell in December, 1655. The conference did not go well and despite Cromwell’s strong advocacy of readmission the conference was eventually dismissed.
Within a month war broke out between England and Spain. All the property of Spanish citizens trading in England was confiscated and one Marrano, Antonio Robles, went to law protesting that his Spanish citizenship has been adopted under duress and that his real nationality was Jewish.
The Robles case persuaded the heads of the most prominent Marranos who had up until then kept their distance from Menasseh ben Israel to openly join him and submit a ‘Humble Petition from the Hebrews residing in the City of London. The petition was not a request for readmission, rather, it was to thank Cromwell for the freedom already given to them to pray in their own homes with the additional request for a cemetery in which to bury their dead with Jewish rites. This petition was referred to the Council of State but no reply was ever given.
In the event, no reply was needed. In May, Robles won his case which established a new decree that a Jew could live in England. Soon afterwards, a house was leased in Creechurch Lane in the City of London and converted into a synagogue, which opened in 1657.
The congregation thrived through the restoration and in 1699 a nearby site was obtained for the building of a new synagogue; a secluded courtyard off a street called Bevis Marks. The building contract was given to Joseph Avis, a Quaker. According to tradition, Avis refused to take financial gain from building a House of God and returned whatever profit he had made to the congregation. It is also said that an oak beam in the roof was presented by Princess Anne, later to become Queen. The largest of the Synagogue’s seven chandeliers of the Great Synagogue was presented by the congregation of the Great Synagogue in Amsterdam.
Tolerance has served the City of London well for centuries – and continues to do so. The seventeenth century Marranos were preceded by the Huguenots and followed by many others. Today, the city is Europe’s largest centre for financial services and plays host to the European Headquarters of almost every non-European financial institution of global standing.