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The Jews of Medieval England, Part II: The Thirteenth Century

Under Kings John and Henry III the Jews were often heavily taxed. By the reign of Edward I, writes J.J.N. McGurk, they had lost their usefulness to the Crown and were expelled from England.

King John’s loss of Normandy in the years 1204-1206 marked as much of a turning point in the history of the Jews in England as it was in the history of the nation as a whole. To a very large extent English Jewry was Anglo-Norman in character by the early thirteenth century. With the loss of Normandy, their ancestral home in one sense, the Jews in England were cut off from their great continental centres; no longer, for instance, were they able to appeal to continental scholars against the decisions of their own Rabbis. England became an island politically once again. King John’s very efforts to recover Normandy drove him on to a course of arbitrary taxation, which in particular marked the beginning of the impoverishment of the Jewish communities in the thirteenth century. When they became of no further financial use to the Crown they were expelled from the nation.

Like his predecessors, King John conceded liberties and privileges to the Jews, but apparently only to profit from the by-products these improved conditions would bring. But even this doubtful tolerance changed when John came back to Bristol after his Irish campaign in 1210; for he sent out instructions to have all the wealthier Jews arrested, while their resources were put under scrutiny - an easy process since the organization of the Exchequer of the Jews which registered every Jewish business transaction.

The result of this was simply a collective tallage for 66,000 marks and the Jews kept imprisoned until payment was made; the property of those in arrears was confiscated outright and sent to the Exchequer. To make the prisoners reveal any concealed wealth, great atrocities were committed. One wealthy Jew of Bristol, who refused to pay, had a tooth extracted every day until his resistance broke down; others had their eyes plucked out, and two were hanged at Canterbury.

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