The Queen's Jewry

By Ben Elton
Monday, July 23, 2012

In the history of the British monarchy, there have been only two Diamond Jubilees.  Last month, Elizabeth II celebrated sixty years on the throne. In 1897 Queen Victoria marked the same milestone. To mark Victoria’s Jubilee the communal leader and scholar Lucien Wolf published an article entitled “The Queen’s Jewry” that set out the progress that Jews had made during Victoria’s reign.

Wolf’s title was curious: in what sense were Jewish subjects of the Queen “the Queen’s Jews”? They possessed no specific rights or privileges from the Crown. They did not pay a special tax. Their leaders were not appointed or approved by the monarch.

Perhaps they were the Queen’s Jews simply because it was useful for them to be so. Historically, in the medieval and early modern periods, British Jews were profoundly connected to the monarch, on whom they depended for their livelihoods, and sometimes their lives.  At the time of Wolf’s writing, the monarchy in general and Victoria in particular were popular, and it helped the community’s security and standing to be associated with the Queen. Perhaps also Wolf was drawing on his substantial knowledge of Anglo-Jewish history, a new area of study he helped establish.

The first English Jewish community was a royal import. When William I conquered England in 1066 he found there were no Jews in the land. Aware of the important service that Jews provided in France as financiers, he invited Jews from the community in Rouen to perform the same function. For several decades after their arrival the Jews remained in London, close to their royal protectors, who sometimes outraged the Church with their tolerant attitude.

The Conqueror’s son, William II, organized a disputation between a Jew and a Christian. Unlike later debates designed to attack Judaism and humiliate Jews, this seems to have been an attempt to promote real discussion. William even said that he would convert to Judaism if the rabbi won. (He didn’t.)  In the thirteenth century, English kings took a more aggressive approach—not only toward the Jews’ souls, but to their treasuries. In 1232, Henry III established a Domus Conversorum (House of the Converts) to lodge and employ converted Jews, and sent preachers into synagogues to proselytize.

Medieval English Jews knew they had to remain on good terms with the Crown. When Richard I acceded in 1189, a deputation came from the Jewish community in York to present gifts to the King. When anti-Jewish violence broke out during the coronation banquet, Richard ordered that it be suppressed. He was too far away to help when the community in York was destroyed by its debtors a year later, but was furious when Jewish records were destroyed, as he received a cut of every loan made. In response, he set up a new system for retaining Jewish records in central and secure locations. This gave the English authorities enormously detailed information on the wealth of the Jews, which predictably paved the way for rapacious taxing.  Soon, the Jews were impoverished and of no further use—at which point the Crown turned on them. In 1290, Edward I deported them en masse, leaving England once again empty of Jews.

Two centuries later, crypto-Jews, fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal, began to filter back into England. By 1509, when Henry VIII married Catherine of Aragon, this was known so widely that the Spanish stipulated in the wedding negotiations that Henry was to expel these recent Jewish arrivals. Ever the pragmatist, Henry agreed, but made no obvious efforts in that direction. When it was convenient to have Jews in the country he tolerated them; he may even have had Jews in his court orchestra. When it became useful to expel the Jews, as it was in the 1540s, he did that instead.

Somewhat to the embarrassment of Victorian Jews, it was not the Crown, but Britain’s short-lived republic, that pledged that Jews could live in England once more.  It appears that in 1656 Oliver Cromwell assured the Jews that they could live in peace, so long as they worshipped in private. This was confirmed in writing by Charles II, who became king with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660.  Some later Jewish historians went to great pains to show that it was this royal approval, and not Cromwell’s, that marked the beginning of modern British Jewry.

For its part, the Crown proved useful to the Jewish community. The merchants of the City of London were threatened by the commercial rivalry of the Jews and made repeated attempts to have them expelled—but Charles and his successors resisted. The Jews were fortunate that they backed William of Orange in his attempt to overthrow James II, and they prospered when he became William III. He even dined at the home of one of his leading Jewish fundraisers, Sir Solomon de Medina. Legend has it that his sister-in-law and successor, Queen Anne, donated a beam for the roof of the Sephardi synagogue built in Bevis Marks in 1701.

This pattern of royal friendship continued.  A century later, three sons of George III attended a special Friday night service at the Great Synagogue in London. A century after that, Edward VII was famous for his ‘‘court Jews,’’ including members of the Rothschild and the Sassoon families.  He referred to Hermann Adler, the religious head of the Ashkenazim, as ‘‘my Chief Rabbi,’’ bestowing on him the Companion of the Royal Victorian Order. (As the insignia of the Order is a cross, Adler had a slit cut in his robes to obscure the symbol.)  In 1943, George VI appointed Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz to the still-higher rank of Companion of Honor.

To this day, the Jewish community has been eager to find reciprocal opportunities to display their loyalty and patriotism. The Prayer for the Royal Family is recited in synagogue on Shabbat and festivals, and British rabbis take the opportunity to preach on every national and royal occasion, whether a birth, accession, coronation, recovery from illness, or death.  The Chief Rabbis even made an exception to their general rule not to attend church services when invited by the Queen, and viewers of the recent wedding of Prince William and Kate will have seen Lord Sacks in the congregation.

This year, the Chief Rabbi re-issued the special prayer composed for the Silver Jubilee of the Queen, with appropriate amendments, and it was read in synagogues up and down the country. Many held a special kiddush to celebrate the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s nuptials.  And with the Queen toasted at every bar mitzvah, bat mitzvah, and wedding, British Jews evidently still regard themselves—proudly—as the Queen’s Jewry.

Ben Elton was educated at Cambridge and London Universities. He has a PhD in Jewish History and served as Private Secretary to two Lord Chancellors, with special responsibility for royal matters. He is currently studying for rabbinic ordination at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, is a Visiting Scholar at NYU, and is about to begin a year as a Tikvah Fellow.


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