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In “Jews and crypto-Jews in sixteenth and seventeenth century England,” published in the online journal Cromohs (16 [2011], 1-26) Ariel Hessayon offers an unusually detailed account: “The question of when Jews first came to England has been debated by historians for more than three centuries. They have noted that Jews were referred to by Bede in his biblical commentaries, in seventh- and eighth-century ecclesiastical decrees, as well as in a law of Edward the Confessor – unless this was an interpolation. Even so, the evidence we have suggests that Jews arrived in significant numbers after the Norman Conquest, emigrating from Rouen and probably settling in London about 1070. Moreover, if later seventeenth-century sources are correct, there were Jews at Cambridge in 1073 and Oxford in 1075. This is certainly possible for the Domesday Book of 1086 mentions a man named Manasses living at Oxford. By the mid-twelfth century an important community had been established at London in the area now known as Old Jewry, with smaller if sometimes densely populated Jewish neighbourhoods at Lincoln, Norwich, Gloucester, Northampton, Winchester, Cambridge, Oxford, Bristol, Colchester, York, Bungay, Thetford and elsewhere.

Like Castile and Aragon, where there was no legislation requiring them to dwell within a walled quarter, urban Jews lived among rather than separated from Christians. Although we lack precise figures, modern estimates of the size of medieval England’s Jewish population at its peak range between 3,000 and 5,000. Following mass emigration and conversion to Christianity in the 1250s, however, this number fell sharply. So much so, that by the 1280s the adult Jewish population may have been fewer than 1,200. This was considerably less than the 17,511 or 16,511 or 15,060 Jews that various chroniclers, antiquaries and polemicists reckoned were expelled in 1290.

We know that English Jews were described as physicians, goldsmiths, soldiers, vintners and fishmongers, and that a significant number were merchants and scholars. Royal charters issued by Henry II and confirmed by his successors granted them freedom of residence, passage, the right to possess and inherit land, loans and property, as well as nominal judicial privileges. With time, however, Jews generally became associated with lending money at interest because the Papacy condemned usury as a sin.” (Section II, para. 7)

Last modified 18 June 20205