Above: City Plaque at the corner of Bury Street and Creechurch Lane.
The story of the Jews in London – as well as other parts of England – is a long and complicated one. In the first place, Jews came over to England with William the Conqueror, in 1066, to act as money-lenders. They settled in many cities, including London. Another city was Lincoln where the 700-year old Jew’s House on Steep Hill, built entirely of stone, remains to be seen to this day.
By 1200 Jews were living in the City of London around Old Jewry (hence the street name) and in Lothbury (another City street that is only a short distance away). Because Roman Catholics were forbidden from engaging in usury – at the time meaning lending money by charging any rate – the way around the problem was to permit Jews to lend money instead. Over the decades, religious intolerance of the Jews grew and in 1290, all Jews were expelled from England on the orders of Edward I who feared that civil war might break out. The Jews were only allowed to take what they could carry when they left. The rest of their property was taken over by the Crown.
It was several centuries before any part of the Jewish world community decided to return to England. That return relates to the formation of the Commonwealth. Cutting a very long story short, following the trial and execution of Charles I in 1649, Oliver Cromwell was created Lord Protector of a united ‘Commonwealth of England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland. The Commonwealth lasted until 1659 when the Protectorate Parliament was dissolved and the Rump Parliament recalled – the start of a process that led to the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.
At the close of 1656, Portuguese Jews petitioned Cromwell to be allowed to return to England, to which he agreed. The Jews were facing the Spanish Inquisition for not being Roman Catholics. At first, they settled around Petticoat Lane. These were Sephardic Jews, previously associated with Spain and Portugal. The word ‘separad’ is Hebrew for Spain. Sephardi refers to a Spanish or Portuguese Jew. The plural is Sephardim. Hence the adjective, Sephardic, pertaining to the Sephardim.
As a point of interest, on 13 June 2006, there was a celebration of the 350th anniversary of the Jews returning to England. A special service, attended by the Prime Minister (Tony Blair), was held in the Bevis Marks Synagogue.
Historians today disagree on the reasons for why the Jews felt it safe to settle in England but the fact is that many did come – notably the Sephardic Jews who were from the areas around the Mediterranean Sea, including Portugal, Spain, the Middle East and Northern Africa. They should not be confused with the Ashkenazi Jews who originated in Germany and Eastern Europe.
Above: Map showing the sites of the two synagogues no longer in existence and the one remaining building (Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue, usually called Bevis Marks Synagogue).
The first synagogue to be built in the City, after the return of the Jews to England, stood on a site at the corner of Bury Street and Creechurch Lane. There is a City Plaque on the wall recording this fact. It was built in 1657 by the Spanish and Portuguese Jews and remained until 1701 when they moved to a new site, known today as Bevis Marks Synagogue.
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