I was born in England and, by the age of 6, thought of myself as being a proud Englishman, proud of the British Empire and proud of its history but blissfully unaware that in the last ten generations my ancestors had lived in thirty and more countries.
EDITOR’S NOTE: SEE PARTS 5 AND PRIOR BELOW ⤵︎
I would have been very dismayed to learn that a long time ago this wonderful England of mine had decided to expel all the country’s Jewry having first confiscated almost all of their possessions and for centuries afterwards Jewry had been banned from living within its borders.
England was not alone in its treatment of Jews. There are so many other lands where Jewry, usually in response to a positive invitation, made an ENTRANCE unfortunately to be followed eventually and inevitably by a compulsory EXIT motivated by antisemitism.
In England their first meaningful ENTRANCE was in 1066, in the company of William the Conqueror who claimed he had been positively invited in by Edward the Confessor. Be that as it may, the Anglo-Saxon population did not exactly put out the welcome mat for him or his entourage which included the ancestors of the first significant community of Jews to live in England
Eventually, in the longer term, the descendents of the Norman invaders would merge with the Anglo-Saxons and become one nation. No such happy end to the story for the Jews of England. During William’s lifetime they were his “personal subjects” and under Norman law permitted to rule themselves, but ultimately in reality they were subjects of his whims and fancies. You might reasonably assume all this to be nothing but ancient history. Not so ! In a legal case in the 19th century the court decided that the estate of a deceased Jew in my family tree should be applied in accordance with Jewish law and not English law. The reason: under Norman law Jews ruled themselves under their own laws and this still applied 750 years and more after the invasion.
After William’s death Jews continued, in a similar vein, to be the personal subjects of each succeeding ruler until that fateful day of 18th July in the year 1290 when Edward l required that all Jewry EXIT England.
This was an abrupt ending to a stay in England lasting 234 years during which time, despite suffering virulent antisemitism at the hands of the rest of England’s population, Jewry was still able to contribute in a major way to the development and expansion of the country’s commercial activities. Unsurprisingly, as a reward for their contribution to the economy, some successful Jewish entrepreneurs, relatively few in number, became “wealthy and powerful”. They may be high earners but, being personal subjects, the King could at any time choose to take much of their income as taxes for his personal benefit. They may be wealthy but the King could simply decide to confiscate their wealth. Their power was in reality only over their fellow Jews.
Even that somewhat illusory wealth and power came with a curse. They became objects of envy the unscrupulous were able to use to stoke up antisemitism against all Jews whether rich or poor. Their every move would be scrutinized for behaviour which could lead to their financial ruin and possibly death if it were to be reported to the monarch. If none emerged then a fictitious event might be invented to be used to try to achieve the same end . Frequently the wealthy were blackmailed to pay to avoid an adverse report going to the ruler . Their rise and fall could be short and not so sweet.
A Jew might be permitted by the King to make loans. However the interest would be “taxed” for the King’s benefit and on death the King would expect to inherit all outstanding loans. Pierce the veil and, in reality, money lending was being undertaken mainly for the King’s benefit -witness the sad story of the destruction of the first Clifford Tower in York.
Around the time of his coronation a fake rumour was circulating that Richard I had ordered a massacre of Jews. A chain of events was set in motion. In 1190 around 150 Jews were accommodated in Clifford Tower in 1190 in a forlorn attempt to protect them from a mob of Crusaders and others demonstrating outside and demanding their conversion or death. Matters became so desperate that many of families decided to commit collective suicide whilst the wooden edifice of the Tower was being torched. The remainder either were burnt to death or murdered. The detestable nobles amongst the mob, having achieved their first goal, then made their way to nearby York Cathedral to destroy the loan record books kept there for the benefit of the King. Consequently the King was unable to collect, for his benefit, any outstanding borrowings owed to any of the deceased they had just caused to perish. A victory for the truly evil !
Alongside the 1290 expulsion , Edward l confiscated, for his benefit, all the assets of the unfortunate Jews. They were left to create a new life for themselves in foreign parts without resources. Agreement to their banishment and ruin was just an incidental part of a deal William had reached with his antisemitic nobles. The impoverished Jews left England in the main to ENTER France and Holland to try and create new lives there . Only after the passage of 356 years would Jews be officially allowed to live once again in England and my family would play a part in that return. Six year old Clive would have been proud if he had known his ancestors were amongst the first returnees. But is there anything now the somewhat older Clive can learn from that first period of Jewish life in England?
Viewed as a person of today everyday life throughout those years appears saturated with racism and not only of the antisemitic variety – as I shall shortly relate . On the memorial to Edward l, to be found near the Solway Firth, who presided over the expulsion he is described in Latin as being “England’s Greatest King”. The antisemitic population of the time approved of the expulsion and probably considered it one of many great achievements of their monarch. The question could be posed is whether or not it is right for a memorial to a person such as him should still remain on display.
Were I able to peer into the minds of the English so long ago and fully understood why they were anti-semitic, would much of relevance to today’s life emerge ? Surely the deaths of 6 million Jews in the Holocaust last century alone hardened the resolve of the people of the world sufficiently to ensure that an event such as that could never happen again? It was with this frame of mind that I came to form the view that the decisions to erect memorials to antisemitic Kings, Queens and nobles are themselves part of history evidencing the way people saw the world in times past and that, perhaps, I should not find them offensive in themselves .
Memorials to anti-semites of the past and memorabilia of far too many anti-Semitic events should remain on display – a reminder that the Holocaust was the culmination of a millennium of rampant antisemitism from which nothing had yet been learnt. Should it be a concern that people of those years viewed as heroes people who committed these atrocities? Surely it only matters how people alive today view those “heroes”. I thought this was a reasonable conclusion and that thought process came to an end, but only until Richard l returned to my conscious mind.