History Today eBook: The Second World War

The Jews of Medieval England, Part I: The Late Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries

J.J.N. McGurk describes how Jewish settlements in England followed the Norman Conquest, and pogroms began only a century later.

The first appearance of the Jews in any numbers in England must be reckoned among the results of the Norman Conquest; it is doubtful whether before the Conquest there had been any permanent Jewish settlements; but the existence of a long-established Jewish community in Rouen, and of other considerable Jewish communities in the continental possessions of William the Conqueror, is beyond question. We may then accept William of Malmesbury’s statement that the first to come to England were brought over from the capital of Normandy at the behest of the Conqueror.

In the general history of the Jewish Diaspora, the English settlement in the wake of the Norman Conquest represented the culmination of the westward drift across Europe, which had, indeed, started even before the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in A.D. 70. The remarkable survival of the separate identity of the Jews would, in large measure, be the result of their devotion to the rabbinical schools and to their portable fatherland - the Hebrew scriptures. Little wonder that in the various nations where they sojourned the Jews were frequently accused of preferring their sect to the country of their adoption.

The first Jews to settle in England were Norman-French; and, in London, their initial settlement, they found themselves living in conditions that approximated to those they were accustomed to in France. They shared a common speech with the military aristocracy of the Conquest, many had adopted French names, and French they largely remained until their expulsion in 1290 by King Edward I. It was mainly to France they fled whenever they felt their lives to be in danger; and it was to the Jewish centres in France that they appealed on questions of law whenever it was impossible to gain a decision in England.

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