The Church of England's Too-Late Apology to the Jews
The Church of England is repenting for its past actions persecuting England’s Jews. Better late than never.
The Church of England – Britain's official religious body which counts Queen Elizabeth II as its head – has announced that it is planning an “act of repentance” for anti-Jewish decrees that its predecessor issued 800 years ago.
The act will take place next year, to coincide with the anniversary of the 1222 Synod of Oxford, an anti-Semitic clerical meeting which imposed a series of harsh decrees against England’s Jews. “The phrase ‘better late than never’ is truly appropriate here,” noted Dave Rich, the Head of Policy for the Community Security Trust, a body that tracks anti-Jewish hate in Britain, and the author of The Left’s Jewish Problem: Jeremy Corbyn, Israel & Anti-Semitism (2016). “The historic trauma of Medieval English anti-Semitism can never be erased and its legacy survives today – for example, through the persistence of the ‘blood libel’ allegation that was invented in this country.”
England was the first to promulgate against the Jews and the first to expel its Jewish population.
Some of the most pernicious anti-Jewish slanders and acts of persecution that tormented Jews in the Middle Ages and beyond were invented in England. Even today, the Church-based anti-Semitism of Medieval England continues to color how people look at Jews and treat us. There is much to apologize for and regret. (Note: in the Middle Ages, the Church of England didn’t yet exist; it was founded in 1534. During the Middle Ages, the state religion of England, like all of Western Europe, was Roman Catholic, and it was that body that lent its considerable clerical weight to a series of harsh decrees against England’s Jews.)
The pogroms, blood libels, persecution and expulsion of Jews in Medieval England continues to live on, affecting us all to this day. Here are a few of the precedents that were set.
Jews as Property
Historians believe that some Jews might have lived in England as far back as Roman times, when they arrived in Britain as traders or as slaves. However, England’s Jewish community was formally established in 1066, the year of the Norman Conquest when William of Normandy defeated King Harold II at the Battle of Hastings. William brought Jews with him from his holdings in France to help cement his new position as King of England. These Jews – and subsequent generations of Jews in England – were considered property of the king.
Medieval English Jews existed outside of the traditional feudal system. Instead of pledging allegiance to a local lord, they were owned – the term used was chattels – of the king himself. Jews were expected to work in finance, lending money and collecting funds for the monarch. In 1253, this relationship was codified by King Henry III, who promulgated that “No Jew remain in England unless he do the king’s service, and that from the hour of birth every Jew, whether male or female, serve Us (the monarch) in some way.”
Jews were increasingly hated, both as enemies of Christians, and also as agents of the unpopular kings. Theologian William de Montibus, who worked in the English town of Lincoln, called Jews “sponges of the king. They are blood-suckers of Christian purses, by whose robbery kings despoil and deprive poor men of their goods.”
As chattel of the king, Jews could be taxed with impunity.
The Magna Carta enumerated limits on the king’s power in 1215 and is sometimes held up as an early instance of Western democratic values. In fact, it deals extensively with Jews, and two of its 62 clauses are devoted to enumerating circumstances in which Christians could default on debts they owed to Jews.
As chattel of the king, Jews could be taxed with impunity. In 1239, King Henry III demanded a third of all property belonging to England’s Jews. Those Jews who could not pay were imprisoned in the Tower of London and their property was seized. Later on, royal decrees demanded even larger taxes from England’s Jews. Historian Norman Roth notes that “These excessive tax assessments finally destroyed the economic foundation of the Jewish community and thus its value to the crown. The groundwork had been prepared, perhaps unwittingly, for the final scene.” (Quoted in Medieval Jewish Civilization: An Encyclopedia, edited by Norman Roth (Routledge: 2003). The Jewish community of England was soon to experience even greater levels of hatred than they’d seen before.
First Blood Libels
Blood libels, the false allegation that Jews kill Christians in order to use their blood for ritual purposes, have bedeviled Jewish communities for centuries. The effects of blood libels can be seen even today when Jews (or the Jewish state) are accused of having a blood-lust for Christians.
In 2014, the Anti-Defamation League requested that Facebook remove “Jewish Ritual Murder” pages accusing Jews of killing non-Jews for religious purposes. In 2020, the Committee for Accuracy in Middle Eastern Reporting and Analysis (CAMERA) noted that popular Italian artist Giovanni Gasparro, whose work is shown in churches and basilicas, had posted a cartoon on social media of Jews preparing to kill a Christian child. This slander is persistent and continues to poison the image of Jews world-wide.
The slur of the blood libel originated in England where Jews were first accused of killing Christian children.
Detail from a painting depicting blood libel in St. Paul's Church in Sandomierz, Poland.
The first instance was in 1144 in the English town of Norwich. A boy named William ran away from home and was found days later, in a clearing in the woods, unconscious and with signs of violence on his body. Contemporary records show that even though William didn’t appear to be dead, his family buried him at the site and later accused local Jews of having murdered him.
The nearby Lewis Priory declared that William was a martyr and priests at Norwich Cathedral claimed his body for their cathedral. William became a saint and some locals began profiting off his death and canonization. William’s brother and uncle were appointed officials in the monastery and a local man who was said to be a convert from Judaism to Christianity told Church officials that Jews had murdered William as a sacrifice for the Jewish holiday of Passover. The local sheriff declined to prosecute St. William’s supposed murder. Despite the wild accusations against them, the Jews of Norwich remained safe.
Tragically, the Jews of the English town of Lincoln fared much differently. In 1255, the body of a nine-year-old boy named Hugh was discovered in a well in Lincoln. The child’s friends told local priests that Hugh had been kidnapped by a local Jew who held him captive for a month, torturing him and eventually killing him. The boys said that when the Jew tried to bury Hugh’s body, the earth refused to accept his corpse, so the Jew threw Hugh into a well.
This time, the local sheriff in Lincoln took the charges seriously and arrested over 90 local Jews. Eighteen were executed. Like William, Hugh was canonized as a saint and a cult of popularity grew up around “Little St. Hugh of Lincoln.” Miracles were attributed to him, and songs and poems told the story of his supposed murder.
Chaucer’s Prioress’ Tale is based on this legend. Though he’s commonly revered as the “Father of English literature,” his Prioress’ Tale is a graphic, violent and mean-spirited paean to anti-Jewish hatred, and has tragically shaped perceptions of Jews for hundreds of years. “Jews have conspired to drive this innocent out of the world,” Chaucer wrote, describing a supposed band of Jews who plan to murder a Christian child. “And as the child began to pass by / This cursed Jew seized him, and held him tightly / And cut his throat, and cast him in a pit…” Still taught in schools and universities in England and around the world, Chaucer’s poem perpetuates the original anti-Jewish blood libel to this day.
Tragedy in York
Conditions for Jews in England declined in the Middle Ages. Reviled on religious grounds and for their connections with the king, England’s Jews were objects of hatred for commoners and noblemen alike. The Crusades also motivated European Christians to turn on their Jewish neighbors, attacking them as part of the Christian drive to conquer the Holy Land.
In 1189, with the coronation of England’s King Richard I, violence broke out across England. Contemporary records are scant, but it seems that some Jews attended Richard I’s coronation in London, bringing gifts in an attempt to curry favor with the new monarch. Jews were barred from the festivities, and a mob turned on them. Historian Norman Roth records that “several Jews were beaten and trampled to death” in the ensuing melee.
Soon, word spread that the new king himself had ordered the killing of Jews. Mobs turned on Jews in several English cities, including London, Norfolk and Norwich. The worst violence, however, occurred in the northern English city of York, where 150 Jews lived.
Benedict of York was the most prominent Jew in the city, and he’d been killed in the anti-Jewish riots at Richard I’s coronation. Local townspeople set fire to his house in York, and were whipped up into a mob by three local lords who were indebted to Jewish moneylenders and saw an opportunity to get rid of York’s Jews.
Medieval Jewish moneylenders
Since the Jews were officially “chattels” of the king, the entire Jewish community of York – men, women and children – hurried into a royal castle seeking royal protection. Outside, the mob brayed for blood. As the calls for the Jews to die grew ever louder, the Jews inside the castle faced a choice. They could surrender to the mob and be slaughtered or else accept forced conversion, or they could remain inside the castle and accept death on their own terms. The Jews of York chose the latter, and took their own lives inside the castle.
Each year on the Jewish mourning day of Tisha B’Av Jews around the world remember the Jews of York with a special prayer written by the Medieval scholar Menachem ben Jacob. It laments the hatred that haunted the Jews of York and led to their horrific deaths.
Forcing Jews to Wear Special Patches
England was the first Catholic country to force Jews to wear distinctive badges on their clothing. (In Muslim-ruled lands, Jews had long had to wear distinctive and humiliating special clothes whenever they ventured outside.)
Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton was a delegate to the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215, a major gathering of Catholic leaders. The Council passed a number of anti-Jewish measures, including suggesting that Jews be identified by a patch sewn onto their clothing so that nobody could ever mistake a Jew for a Gentile. No nation implemented this decree, however, until Langton urged his fellow priests in England to implement this and other anti-Jewish decrees.
He convened a Synod near Oxford in 1222, where English Catholic leaders passed a number of decrees. Jews would henceforth wear an identifying insignia. The Synod also passed rules forbidding Jews from mixing with Christians, owning slaves, or building new synagogues.
First Country to Expel the Jews
Anti-Jewish hatred continued to grow in England in the 1200s. In 1275, King Edward I passed a law forbidding Jews from moneylending. England’s Jews experienced some new freedoms – for the first time they were allowed to enter into new professions, such as being artisans or merchants – but in many ways their freedom was ever more restricted. All Jews had to wear a badge out of doors. Jews had to pay a special tax to the Church.
After 1275, Jews could only live in English cities that were under royal control. In 1278, the entire Jewish population of England was arrested for supposedly “clipping” pieces of metal off of coins in order to melt the metal down. Many of the arrested Jews were hanged. Once they could no longer be of service to the king as moneylenders, the royal protection that the Jews of England had once relied on waned.
Expulsions of Jews in Europe from 1100 to 1600
Most of all, Jews were hated not because of any real or imagined offenses, but because they were Jews. Historian Norman Roth observes that “Religious factors played an important role in the growing atmosphere of hostility. Ritual murder charges continued, and a wealthy Jew of Northampton was burned on charges of blasphemy, resulting in a warning on pain of earth to Jews not to ‘offend’ Christianity.”
In 1279, King Edward returned from an extended visit to Europe and faced a dilemma about what to do with “his” Jews. On Tisha B’Av, in the Jewish year 5051 (the Gregorian year 1290), a royal decree was promulgated: all Jews were to leave England. They were given until November 1 to leave the country. Jews were not allowed to sell their possessions, and everything the departing Jews had owned became property of the Crown.
On Tisha B’Av, 1290, a royal decree was promulgated: all Jews were to leave England.
It was the first time any European country had expelled its Jews. Unique among Europe, the ban continued for hundreds of years. No Jew was allowed to settle in England until 1656 when Oliver Cromwell reversed King Edward I’s harsh decree.
Jewish life in England is flourishing today, but it does so against a backdrop of rising antisemitic violence. The Community Security Trust routinely logs many hundreds of antisemitic actions each year in the UK, including abusive behavior, property damage, and violent assaults. A 2018 poll found the highest levels of concern about anti-Semitism in Europe occurred in Britain, where 84% of British Jews felt that anti-Jewish hatred was an issue. Nearly 40% of British Jews indicated that they’d consider emigrating because of concerns about their safety.
The Church of England has taken steps in recent years to make amends to the Jewish community for hatred that it’s helped foment. In 2019, the Church released a document acknowledging that Christian antisemitism helped lay the foundations for the Holocaust. Earlier this year, the current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, tweeted his response to rising levels of Jew hatred in England, Tweeting “There can be no excuse for the appalling antisemitism we have seen in the UK.”
There is still much more for the Church of England to do. If it wants to get serious about stopping antisemitism, it should stop attacking the Jewish state, and halt cooperation with those who slander Israel and Zionists.
A recent Report by the Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility contained scathing criticism of Israel that is redolent of the antisemitic slurs used by the Church in the past. Church documents have accused Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians of “eroding” Israeli “ethics”. At times, Church of England activists have allied themselves with extreme anti-Israel activists from the Middle East. This creates a continual feeling in the Church that Israel is in the wrong, and is somehow uniquely evil on the world stage.
The Church of England’s desire to make amends for Christian antisemitism in the past is commendable. One Bishop has suggested holding a symbolic service to do so. Another way to begin making amends is to start being more even-handed about the Jewish homeland. Then perhaps the Church of England and its many members can truly come to terms with the Jew-hatred that Christian churches have promoted.