Grace Aguilar.

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this was only until the king's coffers became impo-
verished : when these were empty, the only means of
refilling them was to follow the example of his pre-
decessors, and, by fair means or foul, extort money
from* the Jews. In this reign, alone, the enormous
sum of 170,000 marks was, under various pretences
and various cruelties, wrung from them ; and when
all other means of extortion seemed exhausted, an
extraordinary spectacle was displayed in the con-
vention of a Jewish parliament. The sheriffs of
the different towns had orders to return six of the
wealthiest and most influential Jews from the larger
cities, and two from the smaller. In those times
almost the only function of a parliament was to
vote supplies; this Jewish parliament, therefore,
in being informed by the sovereign that he must
have 20,000 marks from the Jews of England, served
for the Jewish part of the population pretty nearly
the same purpose as the ordinary parliament served
for the rest of the community. The assembled
members were probably left to decide the amount


of assessment which the various ranks of Jews
should pay, so as to make up the total sum required ;
and as this right of proportioning the assessment
was generally the only right exercised by ancient
parliaments, properly so called, the particular hard-
ship of the Jews, as compared with their fellow-sub-
jects, consisted not in having no liberty of refusal
— for that is a liberty which only modern parlia-
ments have acquired — but in the enormous sum
demanded from them, and in the rigours which
they knew would be employed to enforce its speedy
collection. Assembled, and made aware of the
demand which was made upon them, the unfortunate
Jewish representatives were dismissed to collect the
money from their own resources as speedily as pos-
sible ; and, because it was not forthcoming as quickly
as was requisite for the royal necessities, all their
possessions were seized, and their families impri-

Believing, at length, that their wealth must be
exhausted by such demands, or weary of the trou-
ble of extortion, Henry consummated his acts of
oppression by actually selling his Jewish subjects,
their persons and effects, to his brother Richard,
Earl of Cornwall, for 5000 marks. The records of
this disgraceful bargain are still preserved ; and
that the king had power to conclude it, marks the


oppressed and fearful position of this hapless peo-
ple more emphatically than any lengthened narra-
tive. Yet the barbarity of the sovereign met with
universal approbation ; the wretchedness of the vic-
tims with neither sympathy nor commiseration.

On the election of Richard of Cornwall as king
of the Romans, the Jews became again the property
of the crown, and were again sold by Henry. This
time their purchaser was the heir to the throne,
Prince Edward, by whom they were sold, to still
better advantage, to the merchants of Dauphin^ ;
and this traffic was actually the sale and purchase
of human beings, in all respects like ourselves, gifted
with immortal souls, "intelligent minds, and the ten-
derest affections. Husbands, fathers, sons, wives,
mothers, innocent childhood, and helpless age. The
sufferers were inoffensive and unobtrusive, seeking
no vengeance, patient, and even cringing under all
their injuries. Of all the crimes imputed to them,
and some of these were of the most horrible nature,
not one appears ever to have been really proved
against them, except, perhaps, that of clipping the
coin of the realm ; and even on this point the evi-
dence is not clear. And yet, had all the accusations
against them been true, one could hardly have won-
dered, considering their treatment.

After the battle of Lewes, reports became cur-


rent that the Hebrews at Northampton, Lincoln,
and London had sided "with the king against the
barons. This of course roused the latter in their
turn to plunder and destroy ; while Henry annulled
his bargain with his son, and for a while treated
them with greater lenity. But again one of the
usual excuses for persecution — insult offered by the
Jews to some symbol reverenced by the Catholics —
found voice, and not only were extortions renewed,
but a solemn statute was passed, disqualifying the
Jews from possessing any lands or even dwellings.
They might not erect any new habitations, only
repair their present homes, or rebuild on the same

All lands and manors already in their hands were
violently wrested from them ; and those held in
mortgages returned to their owners Avithout any in-
terest on the bonds. All arrears of charges were
demanded, and imprisonment threatened if payment
were postponed. An extortion apparently more
oppressive than all the rest, as we find the distress
it occasioned amongst the Jews actually moved the
pity of their rivals, the Caorsini bankers, and of the
friars, their deadliest foes.

The death of Henry was so far a reprieve that
the above-named extortion was suspended ; but the
accession of Edward I. only aggravated their social


bondage. Laws as severe, if not more severe in
some respects than those of previous sovereigns,
were issued against them, followed by an act of par-
liament prohibiting all usury, and desiring the Jews
to confine themselves to the pursuits of traffic, manu-
factures, and agriculture ; for which last, though
they could not hold, they might hire farms for fifteen
years. But how could men, debarred so long from
similar occupations, so debased by oppression, with
minds so disabled as to render it diflGcult for them
to commence any new pursuit, obey so violent
a decree ? Had they received the fit education for
traffic, manufactures, and agriculture before the laws
commanding such employments were passed, there
would have been many glad and eager to obey them ;
but, as it was, obedience was impossible. That usu-
rers and Jews in the dark ages were synonymous,
and that the Jews in their capacity of money-lenders
did exhibit an extraordinary spirit of rapacity and
extortion, cannot be denied. But although this
spirit of money-making, even by methods esteemed
dishonourable, characterizing, as it did, the Jews of
the Roman empire, as well as those of Europe in
the middle ages, must be referred partly to an inhe-
rent national bent ; there can be no doubt that much
of the meanness and criminality displayed by the
Jews of the middle ages, in their quest of wealth.


is attributable to the binding oppression wbidi abso-
lutely fettered them to that one pursuit. Even if
there were times when a Shylock pressed for his
pound of flesh, when it would have been nobler to
show mercv, was it unnatural ? Can we ever expect
oppression to create kindness — social cruelty to bring
forth social love ?

After eighteen years of persecution, little varied
in its nature and its causes from the persecutions
of previous reigns, the seal was set on Jewish misery
by an edict of total expulsion, issued in 1290. All
their property was seized except a very scanty sup-
ply, supposed sufficient to transport them to other
lands. No reason was given for this barbarous pro-
ceeding. The charge previously brought against
them of clipping and adulterating the coin of the
realm, for which 280 had been executed in London
alone, was never fully proved ; nor, as might natu-
rally have been expected, had the chai-ge been really
true, was it made the cause of their expulsion. A
people's unfounded hate, and a monarch's cruel plea-
sure, exposed 16,511 human beings to all the mise-
ries of exile. There were very few countries which
were not equally inhospitable ; for edicts of expul-
sion had gone forth from many of the continental
kingdoms. Even if they could find other homes,
the confiscation of all their property before they


left England exposed them to multiplied sufferings,
"which no individual efforts could assuage ; and the
loss of life ever attendant on these wholesale expul-
sions is fearful. The greater number probably never
lived to reach another shore ; and to what retreats
those who were more fortunate betook themselves,
history does not say. From this date (1290), there-
fore, all trace of the English Jews, properly so
called, is lost.

Their great synagogue, situated in Old Jewry,
was seized by an order of friars, called Fratres de
Sacra or De Penitentia, who had not long been esta-
blished in England. In 1305, Robert Fitzwalter,
the great banner-bearer of the city, and wl.ose house
it adjoined, requested, we are told by the old chro-
niclers, that it might be assigned to him ; a request
no doubt complied with in return for a good round
sum of money. During the fifteenth century it be-
longed to two or three successive mayors, and was
ultimately degraded into a tavern, known by the
sign of the Windmill. The locality of this early
Jewish house of worship, howevei', still retains its
name and associations as Old Jewry.

Their valuable libraries at Stamford and Oxford
were appropriated by the neighbouring monasteries.
From that at Oxford, fifty years previous to their
expulsion, Roger Bacon is said to have derived much


of that chemical and astronomical information which
enabled him to startle the" age in which he lived by
the boldness and novelty of his views. The Baby-
Ionian Talmud, a series of gigantic tomes, of which,
and of lesser works compiled from them, the Jewish
libraries were composed, contained elaborate trea-
tises on the various sciences which occupied the
attention of the learned in the middle ages ; includ-
ing of course magic and astrology ; and as it was
to the Franciscan convent at Oxford, by which the
Hebrew library had been appropriated, that Roger
Bacon retreated on his return to England from
Paris, it is by no means improbable that he may
have been indebted to -the Hebrew books thus placed
within his reach.

From the year 1290 to 1655 the shores of Great
Britain were closed against the Jews. No attempt
ever appears to have been made on their part to re-
voke the order of expulsion. Oppression, perhaps,
had left too blackened traces on their memories for
England to be regarded with that strong feeling of
local attachment which bound them, even after ex-
pulsion, so closely to Portugal and Spain. In France
they were once and again recalled after being ex-
pelled. In the German and Italian states they were
constantly persecuted and murdered by thousands,
but never cast forth from the soil. In Spain and


Portugal they had always held the highest offices,
not only in the schools,'^i3ut in the state and the
camp ; nay, royalty itself, in more than one instance,
was closely connected with Jewish blood. Oppres-
sive exactments and degrading distinctions were fre-
quently made, but never interfered with the positions
of trust and dignity which the larger portion of the
nation enjoyed ; so that when the edict of their uni-
versal expulsion from the peninsula came in 1492,
there was no galling remembrance of debasing
misery to conquer the love of fatherland, so fondly
fostered in every human heart. Notwithstanding
the danger from the constant dread of death, if dis-
covered, secret Jews peopled the most Catholic king-
doms of Portugal and Spain. The extraordinary
skill and ingenuity with which these Spanish and
Portuguese Jews preserved their secret, and their
numerous expedients for the strictest adherence to
their ancient religion, under the semblance of most
orthodox Catholicism, constitute a romance in his-
tory. If ever exposed to the suspicion of the Inqui-
sition, however, the love of land was sacrificed to
personal security ; the suspected individuals taking
refuge either in Holland, or in some of the newly-
discovered East and West India Islands, and there
making public profession of their ancient faith.
Joseph Ben Israel was one of these fugitives. He


■was a Portuguese Jew, and a resident of Lisbon.
Suspicion of secretly following Judaism having
fallen upon him, he was twice incarcerated by the
Inquisition, and twice released, from the impo'ssi-
bility of proving the charge against him. When
confined within those dangerous precincts a third
time, he would not wait another examination, but
succeeded in scaling the walls, of his prison, and
secretly flying from Portugal, bearing with him his
young son Menasseh. At Amsterdam, where Ben
Israel settled, both father and son received the pe-
culiar covenant of their faith, and publicly avowed
and confessed it. In the Jewish college of that city
Menasseh Ben Israel received his education ; and so
remarkable was his progress in the difficult studies
of the Hebrew Acolyte, that when only seventeen
he succeeded his master, Isaac Uzielij as preacher
in the synagogue and expounder of the Talmud, and
commenced the then difiicult task of arranging and
amplifying the scanty rules of the Hebrew language
in the form of a grammar — a work obtaining him
much fame, not only from the extreme youth of the
writer, but also for the assistance it rendered to
the learned men of all countries in the attaining of
a language so little known, yet so much valued.
The grammar was speedily followed by numerous
other works, written both in Spanish and Latin.

90 *


Their subject is mostly theology; but Ben Israel's
OAvn learning was not confined to sacred subjects
alone. Well versed in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic,
Latin, Spanish, and Portuguese, he not only wrote
these languages with ease and fluency, but was well
acquainted with the literature of each, and had thus,
by extensive culture and thought on a great variety
of subjects, acquired larger views and sentiments
than were possessed by the generality of his race.

The confiscation of all his paternal property at
Lisbon, compelled him to resort to commerce — an
interruption to his literary pursuits which he would
have gladly eluded; but, already a husband and
a father, he met the necessity cheerfully, and soon
became as influential and as highly respected in
commercial affairs as in literature ; in which, not-
withstanding the many and pressing calls of busi-
ness, he never allowed his labours to relax. After
the marriage of his daughter, he visited, partly for
pleasure and partly on business, the Brazils, whei-e
his brother-in-law and partner resided. It was a
very unusual thing in those days for any Hebrew
to travel : the minute and numerous ordinances of
the Talmud interfering too closely with daily life,
.ind rendering it difiicult to obey them anywhere
save in cities, where there wore communities of


But Menasseh Ben Israel, -wliile lie gloried in
being inwardly and outwardly a follower of the
Hebrew faith, had a mind capable of distinguishing
between the form and the spirit. The death of his
eldest son, a youth of great promise, occurred soon
after his return from Brazil, and caused him such
intense grief, as, according to his own acknowledg-
ment, to render him incapable of the least mental
exertion. His only comfort and resource was the
perusal of that Holy Book which had been the
origin and end of all his studies. It did not fail
him in his grief; and after some severe struggles,
energy returned.

His literary fame had procured him the intimacy
and friendship of the most eminent and learned men
throughout Europe. Amongst these was John Thur-
loe, who, in the year 1651, had gone to the Hague
as secretary to St. John and Strickland, ambassa-
dors from England to the states of the United Pro-
vinces. During his stay in Holland he became
acquainted? with Ben Israel, and with his earnest
but then apparently fruitless wishes for the read-
mission of his nation into England. In 1653,
Thurloe became secretary of state to Cromwell ;
and, discovering the enlarged and liberal ideas
which the Protector individually entertained, he
ventured, on his own responsibility, to invite Me-


nasseh Ben Israel to the court of England, and
introduced him to Cromwell in 1655. The inde-
pendence, the amiable qualities, and the great learn-
ing of the Jewish stranger, obtained Cromwell's
undisguised friendship and regard. Three hundred
and sixty-five years had elapsed since a Jew had
stood on British ground ; and during that interval
many changes and improvements, national and
social, had taken place. The Reformation had
freed England from the galling fetters of ignorance
and superstition which must ever attend the general
suppression of the Word of Truth. Increase of tole-
ration towards the Jews was already visible in those
parts of the continent which were under Protestant
jurisdiction ; and it was therefore extremely natural
in Menasseh Ben Israel to regard England as one
of those favourite countries of Providence, where
his brethren might enjoy security and rest.

Whether or not a formal act of readmission was
passed during the Protectorship, is to this day a
question. On the 4th of December, 16^5, a coun-
cil was held at Whitehall, composed of the Lord
Chief Justice Glynn, Lord Chief Baron Steele, the
lord mayor and sheriffs of London, and sundry
merchants and divines, to consider the proposals of
Menasseh Ben Israel, which may be condensed into
the followino;: — 1. That the Hebrew nation should


be received and admitted into the commonwealth
under the express protection of his highness, who
was entreated to command all generals and heads
of armies, under oath, to defend them as his other
English subjects on all occasions. 2. That public
synagogues, and the proper observance of their reli-
gion, should be allowed the Jews, not only in Eng-
land, but in all countries under English jurisdiction.
3. That a cemetery or graveyard out of the town
should be allowed them, without hindrance from
any. 4. That they should be permitted to mer-
chandise as others. 5. That a person of quality
should be appointed to receive the passports of all
foreign Jews who might land in England, and oblige
them by oath to maintain fealty to the common-
wealth. 6. That license should be granted to the
heads of the synagogue, with the assistance of offi-
cers from their own nation, to judge and determine
all differences according to the Mosaic law, with
liberty to appeal thence to the civil judges of the
land. 7. That in case there should be any laws
against the nation still existing, they should, in the
first place, and before all things, be revoked, that
by such means the Jews might remain in greater
security under the safeguard and protection of his
serene highness.

The council met again on the 7th, 12th, and 14th


of December, on the last of which days, according
to some authorities, the Jews were formally admitted ;
but, according to others, the council reassembled on
the 18th, and dissolved without either adjournment
or decision, the judges only declaring that there was
no law prohibiting the return of the Jews. Burton,
in his History of Oliver Cromw^ell, relates that the
divines were divided in opinion ; but on some assert-
ing that the Scriptures promised their conversion,
the Protector replied, " that if there Avere such pro-
mise, means must be taken to accomplish it, which
is the preaching of the gospel ; and that cannot be
had, unless they were admitted where the gospel
was publicly preached."

Thomas Violet, a goldsmith, drew up a petition
in 1660 to Charles II. and his parliament, entreating
that the Jews might be expelled from England, and
their property confiscated ; and in this petition he
asserts that, in consequence of the decided disappro-
val of the clergy in the celebrated council of 1655,
the proposal for their readmission had been totally
laid aside. Bishop Burnet, in his " History of his
own Times," refutes this assertion, and declares that,
after attentively hearing the debates, Cromwell and
his council freely granted Ben Israel's requests; and
this appears really to have been the case, for the
very next year, 1656, a synagogue for the Spanish


and Portuguese Jews was erected in King's Street,
Duke's Place, and a burial-ground at Mile End, now
the site of the hospital for the same congregation,
taken on a lease for nine hundred and ninety-nine

Leaving the question, then, as to whether or not
an act of readmission really passed, it is evident
that the deed of toleration, granted from the Pro-
tector individually, did as much for the real interests
of the Jews as any formal parliamentary enactment.
From that time the Jewish nation have found a se-
cure and peaceful home, not in England alone, but
in all the British possessions. We shall perceive,
as we proceed, that prejudice was still often and vio-
lently at work against them ; but though it embit-
tered their social position, it did not interfere with
their personal security, or prevent the public observ-
ance of their faith.

The pen of Menasseh Ben Israel had not been
idle during this period of solicitation and suspense.
Under the title of " Vindicie Judajorum" (" Defence
of the Jews"), he published a work in which he ably
and fully refuted the infamous charges which in
darker ages had been levelled against his brethren.
He had received, too, his degree as physician ;
and thus united the industry and information requi-
site for three professions — literature, commerce, and


medicine. " He was a man," we are told, " without
passion, without levity, and without opulence." Per-
severing and independent, full of kindly affection,
and susceptible of strong emotion, with all the lofti-
ness of the Spanish character, tempered, however,
with qualities which gained for him the regard of
the best and most learned men of his age. He did
not continue in England — though it has been said
he was solicited to do so by Cromwell — but rejoined
his brother at Middleburg in Zealand, where ho died
in the year 1657.

The reign of Charles II. beheld the Jews fre-
quently attacked and seriously annoyed by popular
prejudice ; but their actual position as British sub-
jects remained undisturbed. Thomas Violet's peti-
tion we have already noticed ; but its vindictive
spirit did harm only to its originator. Four years
afterwards, the security of their persons and pro-
perty being threatened, they appealed to the king,
who declared in council, that as long as they de-
meaned themselves peaceably, and with submission
to the laws, they should continue to receive the same
favours as formerly. At Surinam, the following
year, the British government, by proclamation, con-
firmed all their privileges, guarantied the full enjoy-
ment and free exercise of their religion, rites, and
ceremonies ; adding, that any summons issued against


tliem on their Sabbatlis and holidays should be null
and void ; and that, except on urgent occasions,
they should not be called upon for any public duties
on those days. That civil cases should be decided
by their elders, and that they might bequeath their
property according to their own law of inheritance.
All foreign Jews settling there were recognised as
British-born subjects, and included in the above-
enumerated privileges. As a proof how strongly
the affections of the Hebrews were engaged towards
England by this exhibition of tolerance, we may
mention that when Surinam was conquered by, and
finally ceded to the Dutch, although their privileges
were all confirmed by the conquerors, they gave up
their homes, synagogues, and lands, and braved all
the discomforts of removal, and settled in Jamaica
and other English colonies, rather than live under a
government hostile to Great Britain.*

In 1673 we find prejudice again busy, in an indict-
mei>t, charging the Jews with unlawfully meeting
for public worship. They again unhesitatingly ap-
pealed to the king, petitioning that, during their
stay in England, they might be unmolested, or that

* Surinam, or Dutch Guiana, situated on the north-eastera
coast of South America, is still almost peopled with Jews ; but
they are emigrants from the Dutch possessions in Europe, not
descendants of the former Anglo-Jewish settlers.



time might be allowed them to "withdraw from the
country. Charles, pursuing his previous policy,

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Online LibraryGrace AguilarEssays and miscellanies → online text (page 12 of 15)