The City of London
Marcus Roberts


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The existence of the Poor Jewry draws attention to fact that the Jewish population of London was highly varied in wealth and status. There existed all classes from the super rich to the very poor. The richest rivaled the barons and sometimes even the king in wealth, and were the leaders of the community. A number of these Jewish magnates dominate the history of the London community. The richest Jews were the ones most likely to be living around the Cheape as the value of properties next to the markets was exceptionally great because of their commercial value. These Jews found to their expense that the king found the seizure of the prime properties an excellent way of gaining funds or readily rewarding loyal retainers. Many such properties were taken in 1215. One such property, which had belonged to Abraham son of Muriel, was worth 110 silver marks and an annual rent of one hat of peacock feathers.

In addition to the usual communal facilities - there is evidence for a slaughter house, mikveh, as well as a hospitium or hostel for travelers, the old, infirm and sick - the London Jewry had what was for a long time (until at least 1177) the only burial ground for Jews in the whole of England. This lay around what is now, Jewin Street and the Barbican area, around Cripplegate. This site was identified and excavated and part of it had miraculously survived the Blitz, excavation, and the development of the Barbican complex.

In the early period social relations with Christians were generally good. Even the formal theological disputes that were held between Jews and Christian, were conducted without rancour or violence. In 1093 Gilbert Crispin, Abbot of Westminster, disputed with a French Jew who had studied Talmud at Mainz. The tone of the debate was said to be friendly at all times and respectful. However this is not to say that Crispin's objectives were not conversionary, as he had played a role in the conversion of a London Jew at Westminster (where the convert became a monk) before or during 1093.

They also enjoyed a measure of genuine royal protection and freedoms. For example Henry I (1100-35) was notable for regulation of and provision for his Jews. While the king clearly used them as a highly profitable resource he did not exploit them such that their profitability was impaired. The final exploitation and liquidation of the assets of the community principally came the 13th century, with King John and Henry III.

The disputed reign of King Stephen (1135-54) proved to be good for the Jewish community. While it was largely responsible for them dispersing into the provinces away from London during the "Great Anarchy" it was fruitful for the London Jews, as Stephens reign allowed trade to flourish and thus it opened all sorts of opportunities to provide credit outside of London.

In the following reign of Henry II (1154-89) the Jews were again flourishing. A contemporary writing of Jewish troubles in 1189-90 relates that in Henry's reign, they were "happy and respected", and even that Henry favoured them more then was right! The London Jewry continued to grow and to flourish in his reign. This was in part due to the necessity of the major Jewish financiers having a presence in the capital with its Exchequer of the Jews and the courts as well as to the general growth of the city as the commercial center for the country. Also the biggest provincial financiers, such as Aaron of Lincoln, who had financial interests across the land, could find rich business in London and speculate on property.

The Jews did find some competition from Christian money lenders - but this ended once they realized that the king would take all their property if they died an unrepentant usurer or failing that it would go to the church if they did repent and left to them as penance!

The "happiness" and "respect" that the English Jews had enjoyed evaporated with the death of Henry II and the advent of Crusading fervour sweeping England. The loss of Jerusalem in 1187 to Saladin was the end of an era and Christians felt compelled to reclaim and defend the holy city. The knightly group, who went the aid of Jerusalem, had to raise funds using their land. Many of these found themselves in increasing debt to the Jews. Thus the combination of crusading fervour and debt proved to be a fatal one for the Anglo-Jewish community. The community had in any case been increasingly been subject to religious hysteria in the shape of the blood libels, which rapidly gathered pace, in the latter part of the century as well as growing propaganda by the Church against the Jews.

Catastrophe for the London Jews, occurred on 1189 with coronation day of Richard I, the crusader king. The leaders of the Jewish community in London knew that the there was great danger abroad due to events in Jerusalem and the attacks by crusaders on the Jewish communities at Rouen and in the Rhineland, not to mention the expulsion of Jews from France.

They sought to create favour with the king, by presenting him with rich gifts at his coronation. At this point circumstances took over. The representatives of the Jews went to Westminster Abbey, and the Palace of Westminster, where they were barred entry due to traditional superstitious fears about sorcery being conducted at coronations. It appears that in the melee, some Jews found themselves swept through the doors, which unleashed the fury of the mob. The Jews made their escape back to their homes as best they could, with many casualties and fatalities on the way. One of them was Benedict of York, a leading figure, who was beaten and captured, and was taken to a church where he received baptism, by William, prior of York Minster, to save his life.

Those who managed flight barred themselves into their houses which largely withstood the attack that lasted from 3 o'clock to sunset. This led to successful attempts to burn them out by setting fire to the roofs, a fire which spread to nearby properties and threatened to set the city ablaze.

All the while the feasting in William Rufus's great hall continued, an orgy of violence continued in the Jewry. Many Jews were killed - some say at least 30 - including their Christian servants, others committed suicide rather than fall into the hands of their tormentors. Some who did get out with their lives, were sheltered by Christian friends, and a few made it to the shelter of the Tower. An analysis of the historical records suggests that the main victims were the poorer Jews of the community - most of the rich magnates survived and continued business as before after the outrage.

Eventually the rioters turned on each other, in some cases, and many proceeded to carry off and rob what they could from their victims. Eventually the riot ceased at 8 o'clock the following morning as the rioters were exhausted with their gruesome work.

In the aftermath, the mortally wounded Benedict recanted his baptism. However on his death in Northampton days later, he was refused Jewish as well as Christian burial in the town, being considered neither fish nor fowl. This pogrom was not as great a disaster for the London Jewry as accounts would suggest, in that the community physically survived and seemed to retain its overall wealth and preeminence - but perhaps at greatest cost to its humbler members without fortified stone houses to retreat to. Despite the survival of the richest section of the community some decided to call it a day and go back to Rouen; one such was Isaac son of the Rabbi who went back to the Rue de Juifs in the city.

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