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London has always been the center of Jewish life in this country and is the oldest place of Jewish settlement in England.
The Jews of England arrived first of all in London in the wake of William of Normandy's conquest of England. It is thought they arrived shortly afterwards, though the first documented reference to a Jewish quarter in London, only comes in c.1127, when they had arguably been there for some 50 years or more. Initially they were probably only a small group, only reinforced in numbers with Jews fleeing from the Rouen pogrom in 1096.
The Jews came principally from Rouen - a great center of Jewish life in Northern France. It is well known that William brought them over as so called "feudal Jews" to be Royal serfs, the king's own chattels, providing him with financial services and income. The Jewish community helped extend the king's power by raising capital amounts, or as a source of money to be mulcted as and when the king so desired. The were also a form of indirect taxation on the general population, and especially the Barons who had to resort to the Jews to be able to pay "relief" a substantial inheritance tax, as it was the king who largely and frequently gained from the profits offered by money lending.
Though their principal function was to be money lenders, the London Jews did in reality they did follow a variety of other trades and callings - some of the London Jews are recorded as doctors, workers in metals and goldsmiths and it seems many were involved in trading of various kinds, or engaged in limited `trades not controlled by the guild system. It may also be remembered that at the smaller end of things, money lending was a form of pawn brokerage, which entailed the sale of unclaimed pledges. It is recorded for example that in 1246 eight Jews were fined for encroaching on to Ironmonger Lane. They had apparently built "pentices" or simple roofs projecting into the street to cover their stalls or goods.
The community first settled in Old Jewry, but before long they moved to the great market of West Cheap, and they were to be found in the surrounding streets to the immediate west and east of the market area covered with its booths. This market was the principal one in London if not in the country. Therefore its attraction to the Jewish community was obvious. The principal streets of occupation were what are now Gresham street (then Lade lane and Cateaton Street), Milk Street, Wood Street, Ironmonger Lane, Old Jewry, Basinghall Street (then Bassishaw), Coleman Street (then Colechirche) and lastly Olde Jurie. The "Olde" in old Jewry is confusing until it is understood that it dates from the 14th century when the Jewry was abandoned and just memory.
The Cheape (an old name meaning "market") was bounded on the West by Milk Street and on the north by the church of St Lawrence in Jewry. The church of St Lawrence is still the major identifiable landmark as to the position of the Jewry (along with the Guildhall), and Gresham Street is its main axis.
It is interesting to compare it with the Jewry in Rouen. Both cover a similar number of streets and area and are focused around the present day guildhalls (the Palais de Justice in the case of Rouen). The remains of the main synagogue in Rouen, excavated in 1976, lies underneath the eastern side of the forecourt of the Palais. The probable site of the London synagogue lies off the eastern or southeastern side of the present Guildhall Yard, probably near Old Jewry. There is little doubt the structure and arrangements of life for the Jews in London would have been reassuringly similar to that of Rouen. It is also known that many of the richer Jews kept up their links to Rouen by owning property in both London and Rouen - a practice kept up until the conquest of Normandy by the French in 1204.
It is important to remember that there was more than one synagogue in London - most in the earlier period were in private hands, even the principal synagogue used by the generality of the community, it was only later that persecution meant it was safer to have the synagogue as a communal asset. There are at least five medieval London synagogues known from the records.
There were at least two smaller settlements of Jews away from this main area and there were other Jews who lived a little more dispersed among the local population, but still close to the main four parishes favoured by the Jewish community. Isaac of Southwark and his family, and no doubt some others, lived in Southwark, not far across the river to the south. Also there is mentioned in the records a "poor" Jewry. It may recalled, that areas for poorer Jews were to be found in other Jewish communities such as Oxford. The location of this has not been clear until recently. But an analysis of types of artifacts and clusters of archaeological finds have shown that modern day Rangoon Street (off Crutched Friars) just inside the Roman city wall, in Aldgate Ward) is almost probably its location. This location is in fact right next to Jewry Street in the nearer vicinity of the Tower, proving the accuracy of traditional name for the area and comments by the historian Stow about a poor Jewry. It might be speculated that the early nucleus of Jewish settlement might have started here or that perhaps the poorer Jews with the weakest houses desired the nearby security of the Tower.Next