Magazine article The Spectator

Turbulent History

Magazine article The Spectator

Turbulent History

Article excerpt

Jewish Journey: 1,000 Years of Jewish Life in Britain has been something of a triumph on Radio Four (Thursdays), a four-parter unravelling the mixture of tolerance and persecution of the Jews since they first arrived here after the Norman Conquest. The actor Andrew Sachs, best-known perhaps as Manuel in Fawlty Towers, charted their turbulent history here with the help of historians and there was much to discover in the course of it.

At first, the English were surprisingly tolerant for those superstitious times when William the Conqueror arranged for an influx of Jews from Rouen, granting by Royal Charter their freedom to live here, protected by sheriffs, in return for paying higher taxes. They became moneylenders not by choice. Many trades were barred to them as artisans had to belong to guilds and take a Christian oath and moneylending was denied to Christians under Church law. With little social mixing, resentments soon built up and in Lincoln in 1255 the `Blood Libel' led to trumped-up charges that Jews had reenacted the Crucifixion by murdering a boy later known as St Hugh and entombed in the cathedral. Ninety-one Jews were found guilty and 19 were hanged.

In York leading Yorkshire barons led a mob to wipe out the Jewish community so that their debts would be cancelled. About 150 Jews, knowing they were to be slaughtered, killed themselves. They had to endure the Disputations where they were forced publicly to justify their faith in public arguments with Christian theologians attempting to convert them, and every Jew over the age of seven was forced to a wear `Jew Badge' of bright yellow, predating the Nazis by centuries.

Then in 1290 Edward I expelled the Jews from England altogether forcing them to return to France and it was 400 years later that Jews were allowed back by Oliver Cromwell. The Puritans identified with Jews as a religious minority believing they were guardians of the Old Testament while Catholics revered the New Testament. He failed officially to admit them after the Whitehall Conferences, set up to debate the issue and secure national approval, didn't go his way; but Sephardic Jews fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition came anyway, many of them pretending to be Christian but practising their own religion in secret. …

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