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Jews in Medieval Great Britain & Ireland

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Britain

There is no record of Jews in England before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Believing that their commercial skills and incoming capital would make England more prosperous, William I (William the Conqueror) invited a group of Jewish merchants from Rouen, in Normandy, to England in 1070.[2] However, Jews were not permitted to own land (as most gentiles were not allowed to own land) nor to participate in trades (except for medicine).

Jews were allowed to have their own jurisdiction, and there is evidence of their having a beth din with three judges. Reference is made to the parnas (president) and gabbai (treasurer), of the congregation, and to scribes and chirographers. A complete system of education seems to have been in vogue.

At the head of the Jewish community was placed a chief rabbi, known as "the presbyter of all the Jews of England"; he appears to have been selected by the Jews themselves, who were granted a congé d'élire by the king. The latter claimed, however, the right of confirmation, as in the case of bishops. The Jewish presbyter was indeed in a measure a royal official, holding the position of adviser, as regards Jewish law, to the Exchequer of the Jews, as the English legal system admitted the validity of Jewish law in its proper sphere as much as it did that of the canon law.

Six presbyters are known in the 13th century:

  • Jacob of London, reappointed 1200;
  • Josce of London, 1207;
  • Aaron of York, 1237;
  • Elyas of London, 1243;
  • Hagin fil Cresse, 1257;
  • Cresse fil Mosse.

Between the expulsion of the Jews in 1290 and their formal return in 1655 there is no official trace of Jews as such on English soil. source

Ireland

The earliest reference to the Jews in Ireland was in the year 1079. The Annals of Inisfallen record "Five Jews came from over sea with gifts to Toirdelbach [king of Munster], and they were sent back again over sea". They were probably merchants from Normandy. Toirdelbach was the grandson of Brian Boru, a previous High King of Ireland.

No further reference is found until nearly a century later in the reign of Henry II of England. That monarch, fearful lest an independent kingdom should be established in Ireland, prohibited a proposed expedition there. Strongbow, however, went in defiance of the king's orders and, as a result, his estates were confiscated. In his venture Strongbow seems to have been assisted financially by a Jewish moneylender, for under the date of 1170 the following record occurs: "Josce Jew of Gloucester owes 100 shillings for an amerciament for the moneys which he lent to those who against the king's prohibition went over to Ireland".

By 1232, there was probably a Jewish community in Ireland, as a grant of 28 July 1232 by King Henry III to Peter de Rivel gives him the office of Treasurer and Chancellor of the Irish Exchequer, the king's ports and coast, and also "the custody of the King's Judaism in Ireland". This grant contains the additional instruction that "all Jews in Ireland shall be intentive and respondent to Peter as their keeper in all things touching the king".

The Jews of this period probably resided in or near Dublin. In the Dublin White Book of 1241, there is a grant of land containing various prohibitions against its sale or disposition by the grantee. Part of the prohibition reads "vel in Judaismo ponere" (prohibiting it from being sold to Jews). The last mention of Jews in the "Calendar of Documents Relating to Ireland" appears about 1286.

When the expulsion from England took place (1290), Jews living in the Pale of English Settlement may have had to leave English jurisdiction, but there is no evidence for this; and it would certainly have not been difficult for Jews to remain in Ireland in defiance of the 1290 Edict, simply by moving beyond the area of English settlement (the Pale) into the native Gaelic areas that England did not control. As the next paragraph elicits, Jews were certainly living in Ireland long before Oliver Cromwell revoked the English Edict of Expulsion nearly 400 years later, in the mid-seventeenth century. source