I was planning to write something this week to coincide with the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings. I wasn't really sure what I was going to write, however, though I knew that it would be loosely Jewish in nature. So as to avoid having to confront this issue, I turned to Twitter for a bit of procrastination. There I came across the ever brilliant Leonie Hicks’ piece for BBC History Magazine, in which she played with the concept of ‘behind every great man is a greater woman’ (you’ll get no argument from me!). This made me think, what would be the comparable analogy for Anglo-Jewry? For me it’s that of a piggy bank. First you establish it, then you nurture it by depositing your pocket money into it. This will continue for some time. Sooner or later, however, your willpower will be tested and you’ll try and squeeze a few coins out on various occasions. The final stage will lead to you irrevocably opening your piggy bank, spending the contents and then disposing of the evidence. Perhaps, I’m being a bit facetious, but that could be used as the basic framework by which a history of Anglo-Jewry could be (and has been) written. Here, I want to write about the establishment of Anglo-Jewry, and by 1 November (the anniversary of the Expulsion I aim to have finished it, following my crude analysis).
The ordinary person on the street might be forgiven for not knowing that there is a Jewish context to the Norman Conquest. To take one example, in her great survey of the historiography on the Norman Conquest, Marjorie Chibnall, did not discuss the Jews at all. Her work is not exceptional in this respect, however. Conversely, historians of medieval Anglo-Jewry have regularly cited 1066 as the date for the establishment of a Jewish community in England. The evidence relating to the Jews in the eleventh century is difficult – even more so for the pre-Conquest period. We can, however, assert with a reasonable degree of certainty that there were no Jewries in Anglo-Saxon England. That being said, it seems probable that individual Jews had visited England as merchants and traders prior to the Expulsion. Equally, scholars such as Andrew P. Scheil have demonstrated, there was a strong Jewish influence within the literature and culture of Anglo-Saxon England. Conversely, across the Channel in Normandy, a Jewish community had been established at Rouen by the beginning of the new millennium. Over the following fifty years we know that this community remained as an important Askenazi Jewry. It is difficult to say what, if any, role the Jews might have played in the prelude to the Conquest. It has been suggested that Duke William’s mother might have been a Jewess from Falaise, though there is no evidence to support this. By the same token, it has been suggested that William might have turned to Jewish creditors in order to help fund the Conquest. There is no evidence to support this either, though this perhaps a more credible suggestion. This is not least because, despite the impressive revenues of the Duchy of Normandy, William may well have explored every avenue possible to fund his expedition, particularly in the short term. Consequently, having a wealthy Jewish community in the capital might have been an avenue worth exploring.
We are on no firmer ground in seeking to discuss the Jews in the aftermath of the Conquest. The battle of Hastings was fought on 14 October and William was crowned as king of England on 25 December. It would seem reasonable to assume that the establishment of a Jewish community in England would only have taken place once William had secured his position in England to such an extent that he could ensure the security of a Jewish community. The evidence does not, however, survive to allow use to provide a firm (or even speculative) date upon this establishment of such a community. That a Jewish community was established at all during the reign of William I is testified by the chronicler Geoffrey of Monmouth, writing some six decades after 1066. As will be outlined below, there is no reason to dispute this statement. If it is difficult to say anything substantive regarding when an Anglo-Jewish community was established, we can at least say where, it was established: in London. We still have reminders of the first Jewish community in the form of place names ‘Old Jewry’ (ironically, the Bank of China is now located upon the same street) and ‘St. Lawrence in Jewry’.
This community would, on the whole, have been made up of Jews from the Rouen community. The London Jewry would continue to be a satellite of the Rouen Jewry for some time (though exactly how long has never been answered). We know this because in the following century there are records which illustrate the same Jews owning properties in London and Rouen. Whilst the Jews of medieval England would become almost synonymous with moneylending from the end of the twelfth century onwards, during the eleventh century the Jews are more commonly associated with mercantile activities – trading in fine or luxury goods – and pawnbroking. It was suggested by Robert Stacey that William I brought the Jews to England so as to ensure its economic prosperity. If this was the case, then the notion was quickly abandoned as England’s, and London’s, merchants and economic elite quickly established themselves under the new regime.
That the London Jewry was established by William’s death in 1087, is suggested by the fact that in following decade in 1096 when the First Crusade was launched, the Jews of Rouen were able to flee to London to escape the anti-Jewish attacks that accompanied that event. There are some scant references to the Jews in London during the reign of William Rufus – notably the apocryphal debate between the bishops and the Jews where the King was said to have promised to convert if the Jews won (more a statement about William Rufus than anything else). It is not until the end of the 1120s that we start to see firm evidence of the Jewish community in England, and it would not be until the end of the 1130s that Jewish communities would be established outside of England. I hope that, if nothing else, this brief discourse has given you, dear reader, a different perspective on the Norman Conquest than purely military and political approaches. Additionally, I highly recommend Dr Hicks’ essay in BBC History Magazine which I cited above (http://www.historyextra.com/article/bbc-history-magazine/norman-women-queens-gunnor-emma-of-normandy-matilda-sichelgaita?utm_source=Twitter%20referral&utm_campaign=Bitly&utm_medium=t.co) which gives another different perspective.