Why Were the Jews Expelled From England in 1290?

The Edict of Expulsion issued by King Edward I on July 18, 1290 is one of the most — if not the most — significant events in Anglo-Jewish history as well as a tremendously important event in English history more generally. The exact reasons behind the decree, which was only reversed in 1657 by Oliver Cromwell, have been the subject of historical debate and the topic is, unsurprisingly, a controversial one.

A depiction of a Jewish house in France being pillaged in the 14th century.
A depiction of a Jewish house in France being pillaged in the 14th century.

However, in recent years the Edict of Expulsion, alongside other examples of Jews being expelled from various countries (such as France in 1394 and Spain in 1492), has been used to argue in favour of antisemitic sentiments. The logic appears to be that ‘if so many medieval countries persecuted and expelled Jews then they must have done something to deserve it’, the conclusion being that we should do the same (although whether an antisemite would admit that is another matter). The argument obviously makes no sense. There’s simply no logical link between many medieval states taking an action and that action being desirable in today’s world. At worst it’s a completely meaningless argument and at best it’s some kind of botched argument from popularity (a logical fallacy). In fact, since our morals have altered greatly since the Middle Ages, it’s safer to assume that a medieval consensus is probably morally questionable until shown otherwise.

Since the people making it rarely have anything else to say of any value, the argument should really end there. However, another element to consider is the reasons behind the treatment of the Jews and question if these medieval states’ attitudes were always, consistently negative towards them (note that the focus is on the state, not the general population). If we could show that the authorities of states such as England sometimes treated Jews favourably then we can challenge the assumption of the argument and show that the logic of ‘whatever all these states thought about Jews must be right if so many thought it’ is contradictory because the successive opinions of medieval states often conflicted with one another.

Did the English crown always discriminate against the Jews?

No. The Jews had always been in a tenuous and ambivalent relationship with English monarchs. Ever since they’d arrived in England following the Norman Conquest in 1066, they’d been in a separate de jure position from all the other people living in the country. This was because they were the ‘direct subjects’ of the King. On the one hand, this special relationship meant that the monarch had increased powers to ensure their safety and success. On the other, it meant that the monarch had increased power to exploit them. For example, taxes could be levied on them without the consent of parliament and they could be left out of legal clauses such as those in the Magna Carta of 1215.

Of course, the crown still did little to try and lessen public discrimination against Jews. After all, if the peasants were attacking the Jews, they weren’t attacking the ruling classes and it’s important to be aware of this discrimination. Although it was founded on old religious tensions, distrust of the Jewish people in England also spawned, as it did elsewhere, from the fact that the Jewish faith did not prohibit lending money for interest (usury) whereas Christianity did. As a result of this, Jews found themselves increasingly wealthy and a reliable source of revenue (both through borrowing and taxing) for the government. At the same time, narratives were beginning to form in which Jews were increasingly maligned and seen as a serious threat, the most infamous being ‘blood libel’.

Simply put, blood libel is the accusation that there exists a Jewish practice which involves the murder of Christian children in order to use their blood for religious rituals. The first, and most famous, alleged example of this in England is the case of William of Norwich, a 12-year-old boy who was found dead in Mousehold Heath in 1144. It was claimed that he had been murdered by local Jews as part of a religious ritual and he was made venerated as a martyr and a saint. There is no evidence that William was murdered by a Jew, something the English crown admitted, but there was nonetheless widespread acceptance of the belief that he had been. Anti-Jewish sentiment increased, manifesting itself in anti-Jewish violence and eventually two massacres in London and York in 1189 and 1190.

However, one of the most fascinating (if relatively unknown) aspects of this tale of anti-Jewish hatred is how it was actually opposed by the government in the late 12th century. One Jew to be murdered — based on the accusation that he had been involved with William of Norwich’s murder — was ‘Eleazar’ in 1146 who had been assassinated whilst travelling through the woods. This story was combined with an old folktale about Ibycus, a Greek poet, to produce what would become the ‘Fable of the Murdered Jew’ in Walter of England’s fables of 1175, commissioned by King Henry II. The tale tells of a jew who is promised safe passage through the woods by the King in exchange for gifts, only to be killed and robbed of his possessions by the King’s cupbearer (who was accompanying him). Before dying, the Jew vows that a bird who had witnessed the event would avenge him. Later, when the King is having a feast, the servant sees that same bird being readied for the meal and laughs uncontrollably. He eventually has to confess to the crime and is executed as a result.

Aside from perpetuating the stereotype that a Jew’s defining feature was his wealth, this tale is most shocking in that it appears to be preaching against the murder of Jews. The inclusion of a Jewish victim is not incidental and the motive is clear. The King wished to condemn acts of violence against Jews (which, as he was protecting them, were also acts of disobedience against royal authority). The story spread across Europe, coinciding with times when Jews were of particular importance to European monarchs and (increasingly) members of the nobility.

What was their use, exactly? Money. Whilst the stereotype of Jews as being obsessed with money was, and is, one which is both harmful and historically inaccurate, their ability to practice usury and their financial habits made them very valuable as a source of money, as I mentioned earlier. Jewish communities were often most economically active (that is to say traded most with) themselves and as such they were less affected by changing and unstable medieval economies.

The pattern of state attitude towards the Jews is very simple. When they were economically useful, they were protected and treated well. Then they were no longer economically useful, they were demonised, used as scapegoats, and persecuted.

What does this tell us about why Jews were expelled from England in 1290?

What this relationship tells us is that if we’re looking for the reason Jews were expelled in 1290, we’re probably looking for an economic one. Economic historian Peter Elman concluded that it is ‘clear that the Jews were expelled from England because from an economic point of view they were no longer performing that function which was their sole raison d’etre in the circumstances.’

In particular, Jews had seen themselves caught in the crossfire of Edward I’s attacks upon the English barons and had also found themselves made less valuable economically to the king due to arrival of Italian financiers who provided a very similar service. Although Elman notes that the decision actually lost the King a lot of revenue overall, the decision was nonetheless the result of short-term economic factors (not needing the Jews for revenue) and long-term social and religious factors (popular dislike of the Jews).

Let’s go back to the argument I mentioned at the start. ‘If so many medieval countries persecuted and expelled Jews then they must have done something to deserve it.’ Not only is the argument still logically unsound but it can be shown to be historically inaccurate. The relationship between medieval European states and the Jewish people was not binary. They were not constantly abused and mistreated but they were certainly not a privileged and safe community. Rather, the relationship existed in the nuanced context of their value — usually in economic terms — to those said states. When they were useful, they were respected; when they were not, they were maligned. In England in particular, the Jewish community can be seen as existing amidst a sea of popular dislike. When times were good, the state provided a lifeboat to protect them and tried to calm the waters as best they could (and was convenient for them) but when times were not, the state would willingly plunge them into the waves of mass persecution, knowing that they themselves would still remain dry.

Interested in History. Specifically, Tudor History and the Middle Ages in England.

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