Exile from England: The Expulsion of the Jews in 1290
By Gregg Delgadillo
Historia, Volume 10 (2001)
Introduction: Why did the English crown expel the Jews in 1290? Historians have ascribed economical, ecclesiastical, and political motives to the expulsion of the Jews. This essay examines the relationship between the economy, the church, and the government of thirteenth century England, and her Jewish residents, in order to determine which, if any, had the greatest influence on the expulsion of the Jews, and in order to understand how one group of people—once vital to a nation—could be summarily expelled.
Medieval England was primarily an agricultural society; hence investment in capital did not come readily to them. Yet, because they could not own land in England the only profession in which Jews could participate was money-lending. The kings of England would use the Jews as a way of indirectly taxing their servants. The king could tax the Jews, which in turn would cause the Jews to demand payment on their loans from their debtors. If the Jews and their debtors could amass the necessary funds, then the king had his revenue. If the Jews could not secure the tax, then the king could imprison them and seize their property. This property was in many cases the deeds to land, which debtors had used as collateral. Therefore, the king, through the taxation of the Jews, was able to enhance his absolute power. In 1230, Henry III requested £6000 for army pay. In 1236, ten of the richest Jews were used as a security deposit to force their brethren to pay £10,000. In 1240, the Jews were called upon to pay a tax of £20,000 or about one-third of their property. When the Jews refused to pay, the crown took their property as payment for the tax and arrested them, along with their wives and children. In 1251, a new tax of £10,000 was issued. Between 1227 and 1259, Henry III taxed the Jews of England £250,000. The historian Cecil Roth claimed “The King [Henry III] was like a spendthrift with a cheque-book, drawing one amount after another in utter indifference to the dwindling of his resource.” In partial defense of Henry, the Jewish exchequer—the department of the royal government that dealt with keeping track of the finances of Jews—was not very efficient, and so it was difficult for Henry to get a good assessment of what he could tax his Jewish servants. Moreover, the prevailing stereotype that the word Jew was synonymous with wealth may have blinded Henry.
The Jews continued as moneylenders until 1274 when King Edward returned from a crusade. The crusades had ironically allowed the Jews to make a great deal of money. The Jews did this by lending money to the English knights who wanted to wage war against the Muslims in the East. Moreover, monasteries borrowed money as well to create new churches.
In one instance, “27 pounds were borrowed from a Jew and 4 years later 880 pounds were owed.” When Edward returned from the East, he created The Statute of the Jewry. In the statute, Edward dictated, “from henceforth no Jew shall lend anything at usury, either upon land, or upon rent, or upon other thing.” This was a severe blow to the Jews of England. The statute further attacked the Jews, proclaiming “that each one after he should be twelve years old, pay Three pence yearly at Easter of tax to the king of whose bond man he is.” Roth argued that although Edward I was pious and denounced the borrowing of money he continued to exact taxes upon the Jews until they had nothing left to give.