Q. When did Jews come to England?
A. There may have been a Jewish presence in England before 1066. There is general agreement that Jews were encouraged to come in the wake of William the Conqueror, largely for economic reasons. They came from northern France, spoke French, and maintained a form of Judeo-French culture.
Their numbers were never great; at no time did medieval Anglo-Jewry number more than 6,000, scattered across up to 30 communities with the largest numbers in London. They were a homogeneous community and had considerable internal autonomy.
Their intellectual activities were impressive; literacy was universal, religious practice was strictly maintained and there were significant scholars such as Joseph and Berechiah of Lincoln, Elijah Menachem and Moses of London, Yomtov of York and Moses of Oxford. They followed the Franco-German Ashkenazi liturgy, as recorded in the Etz Hayyim of Jacob Hazan of London, 1286.
Their commercial activities were important to the economy, but not only as money-lenders (a profession left to the Jews because good Christians were told it was against the Bible); they were even fishmongers and poachers.
They were largely unaffected by the 1st and 2nd Crusades, but the 3rd Crusade placed them in jeopardy. Royal officials sought to protect the Jews, and a new system was developed for the registration of Jewish financial transactions. The so-called Exchequer of the Jews was headed by a Presbyter Judaeorum, though this was a secular, not a rabbinic office.
Jewish stability was undermined by continued financial exploitation, growing resentment, and blood libels: the first ritual murder accusation in Europe was in Norwich in 1144.
By the time of King John, Jewish life in England was barely viable, and in July, 1190, it was decreed that the Jews had to leave by November. A few Jews accepted baptism in preference to exile, but most left the country.
Between 1290 and 1655 there were officially no Jews in England. It is thought that Shakespeare never encountered a Jew, despite his Merchant of Venice. Nonetheless there were always persons of Jewish birth, some in a hostel for converted Jews established in Chancery Lane by Henry III, and also professing Jews; at times there was a semi-open Jewish community. Joachim Gaunse of Prague, a mining expert, was known in the reign of Elizabeth I for his religious outspokenness.
The official return of the Jews to England was facilitated by Oliver Cromwell, probably because he thought they would be economically useful, though he also believed that the redemption would not come unless there were Jews in every corner of the globe.