Like Christians and Muslims, Jews adhered to a religion which found its source in the monotheistic God of Abraham. Jews shared, with Christians, the Old Testament as part of their holy scripture. The Protestant chaplain for the Levant Company, William Biddulph, summarized Jews in the early seventeenth century as a people who ‘to this day have no king nor country proper to themselves, but are dispersed throughout the whole world.’[1] To Biddulph, Jews were a people in between, a ‘dispersed’ people who nonetheless retained strong and distinct communities rooted in their biblical heritage. ‘They are called by three names’, Biddulph wrote, ‘which were given to them of old. First, they are called Hebrewes … Secondly they were called Israelites from Jacob surnamed Israel, whose grandfathers Abraham was. Thirdly, they were called Jews, after that Juda and Benjamin (which for the unity of minds were as it were one Tribe) … Of these three names … the most common name whereby they are called at this day is, the name of the Jewes’.[2]

The shared Abrahamic traditions between Christianity and Judaism compelled Christians to define points of diversion between their faiths explicitly. The greatest perceived errors were those of misinterpretation of the Old Testament, and the Jews’ rejection of Christ as messiah.[3] Christian theologians saw Christ as fulfilling the prophecies of the Old Testament, rendering Judaic belief nothing but a series of ‘empty and meaningless rituals’.[4] Since Jews were still awaiting their promised saviour, early modern Christians believed Jews to be falsely interpreting biblical teachings in ways that had left them outside salvation: Jews had ‘kept the shell but not the kernel’ of revealed religion.[5] After the Reformation, Protestants often drew similarities between Jews and Catholics, describing them as living in states of spiritual confusion and superstition.[6] Once chosen by God to be his special people, Jews were now scorned by every nation, Biddulph wrote. ‘Jews … are of more vile account in the sight of Turkes then Christians … And the poore Christians sojourning and dwelling in [Aleppo] doe hate them very uncharitably’.[7]

Few Jews lived in early modern England; they had been banished from England in 1290 under the Edict of Expulsion. Jews had lived in the realm in the Roman and Anglo-Saxon eras, and were welcomed as merchant traders by William the Conqueror when he came to England from Normandy. There were perhaps as many as 5,000 Jews living in medieval England.[8] Nonetheless, the acceptance of Jews as traders and circulators of economic wealth existed alongside popular views of Jews as being ‘Christ killers’. Accusations of Jews committing violent crimes including blood sacrifice and ritual murder were made in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries in Bristol, Winchester, and London, among others cities and parishes.[9] It was not until Oliver Cromwell sought to readmit them in the second half of the seventeenth century, partly as a result of the Navigation Act of 1651 and Cromwell’s desire to draw wealthy Jews and their trade from Amsterdam to London, that the edict was revoked. The majority of the parliamentary council opposed this, as did East India Company merchants, who disputed the readmission of Jews largely because of economic competition.[10] Although Jews were banned from England until the later seventeenth century, Portuguese agents in London brought small communities of crypto-Jews who practiced their faith in private. It is difficult to reconstruct their presence, but such ‘marranos’ – Iberian Jews who converted to Christianity but continued to practice Judaism in secret – appear in Inquisition records, as in the complaints of Catholic ambassadors in London that Jews met to observe Passover and Yom Kippur.[11] Other glimpses of Jews in England emerge: Sir James Lancaster brought a ‘Barbary Jew’ with him as a translator on his expedition to the East Indies in 1601.[12] A converts’ house in London, the Domus Conversorum, existed since the middle ages as a home for poor Jews who had converted to Christianity, where men like Yehuda Menda lived, the Jew whom John Foxe had publicly converted in 1577.[13]

The scandal over Rodrigo Lopez’s ostensible attempt to poison Queen Elizabeth in 1594 brought the distrust of foreigners of privileged status, and more specifically Jews, to the fore of public debate in London. The case questions whether converted Jews actually enjoyed an elevated status in sixteenth-century England as a result of conversion. Lopez was the queen’s trusted physician and enjoyed the patronage of the earl of Leicester and Elizabeth’s principal secretary, Francis Walsingham. Although he conformed to the Anglican Church, news and gossip about Lopez following his arrest and trial frequently iterated that he was a marrano, both a ‘Portugal’ and a ‘Jew’.[14] Indeed, Lopez’s status was ambiguous. He was a second-generation Portuguese marrano or New-Christian (Cristão-Novo), a Jew converted to Catholicism. He was also a religious exile who went to England to escape to the Inquisition’s persecution of New-Christians for suspicious of crypto-Jewish practices. His foreign nationality was also problematic, especially after the union of the crowns of Portugal and Spain under Philip II. Although Lopez was close to the cause and entourage of António of Crato, the exiled claimant of the Portuguese throne supported by Elizabeth I, the fact that he was a Portuguese national, and therefore a subject of Philip II, increased the ambiguity of his status. Indeed, Lopez capacity to be in-between worlds was frequently used by both Iberians and English in confidential diplomatic activities.[15] Accused of treason at a time when England was at war with Spain, Lopez’s foreignness was an important part of the mistrust levelled against his loyalty, but so was his religion. The solicitor general Edward Coke, in his notes on the trial, noted that ‘many Portuguese living under the Queen’s protection were concerned’ by a ‘Portuguese Jew’ serving the Queen of England so closely, suggesting that Lopez’s fellow Portuguese were all too willing to distance themselves from him by emphasising the deceptive nature of his religious practices.[16] Accusations of Lopez’s apparent Jewishness therefore undercut any loyalty brought by his faithful service and his ostensible conversion to Christianity. Though the queen took months to sign Lopez’s death warrant, Lopez was hanged, drawn, and quartered on 7 June. The rhetoric employed during the trial and execution of Rodrigo Lopez demonstrates the English appropriation of Iberian perceptions and prejudices over the marranos and New Christians as potentially dangerous elements whose conversion to Christianity was only apparent and used to allow them to live covertly as Jews.[17]

On the London stage, the presence of Jews was often linked to their role as merchant go-betweens and moneylenders. Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta (first performed 1592) drew on the 1565 Ottoman siege of Malta and Jewish merchants ‘as commercial intermediaries between Christian and Islamic interests’.[18] Like Shylock in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (c. 1597), Marlowe’s Barabas offers the most famous of early modern drama pejorative depiction of the Jew. Conniving and brutally murderous, Barabas’ extreme duplicity reinforced emergent stereotypes. Like Shylock, Barabas is publicly punished on stage, his death a violent redress against the supposedly merciless Jew. These literary retributions are most viciously exemplified by Thomas Nashe’s picaresque prose fiction, The Unfortunate Traveller (1594), where the Italian Jew Zadok suffers an extraordinary and lengthy torture and execution. In Robert Daborne’s play, A Christian Turn’d Turk (1612), the double-dealing, slave-trading Benwash, and his assistant Rabshake, are converts to Islam for economic reasons, counterpointing the pirate John Ward’s conversion for love. Robert Wilson’s play, The Three Ladies of London (first printed 1584), offers a rare positive depiction of a Jew in the upright and good-natured moneylender Gerontius. The play’s personification of Usury is an Englishman of Jewish heritage, embodying anxieties over an unseen or unacknowledged Jewishness difficult to disentangle from English identity. Jews were not merely pitched as an ‘other’: anxieties over marking out their difference sprang from the English awareness of potential similarities deriving from shared Abrahamic roots and mercantile aspirations.

The English encountered Jews in Europe, the East, and in their reading of the Bible and other texts. English travellers and merchants in Spain, Portugal, Holland, and across the Ottoman Empire often recorded stories involving Jews. They noted city quarters where Jews were allowed to live and practice their faith, and commented on their synagogues, education, and festivals.[19] Jews were often demarcated from their headwear, brimless caps, as Biddulph called them, which had once been red but were now dyed blue since Ottomans believed red to be too ‘princely’.[20] English observers expressed curiosity towards Jewish customs including circumcision and the matrilineal nature of Judaism, where Jewish identity passed through the female line – a concept at odds with the patriarchal hierarchy of early modern England. The English were cognisant that Jews operated vast networks of trade and economic exchange, serving as conduits between ‘Constantinople, Aleppo, Damascus, Babylon, Grand Cayro, and every great Citie and place of Marchandise throughout all the Turkes dominions’.[21] The English awareness of the global reach of Jewish financial and mercantile activity was intrinsically related to the domestic economy. The Church had long prohibited charging interest on loans, leading to a reliance on Jews, whose Talmud did not forbid charging interest on loans to non-Jews. While the Church saw money-lending at interest as a sin, the practice was generally regarded as a fact of commercial life and economic transaction.[22] In early modern England, a society where the circulation of goods was based on an interpersonal system of credit, trust, and exchange, moneylending led the English to scathingly condemn usury, or lending money with interest.

A mistrust towards Jews and their wealth led to stereotypes about Jewish greed and covetousness. The popular broadside A new song, shewing the crueltie of Gernatus a Jew (1620), told the story of a Jewish man who lent a hundred crowns to a Venetian merchant, threatening that if he failed to repay him, he would exact from him a pound of flesh.[23] Such ballads would have been familiar to those who had seen, or read, William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (first performed 1605), in which the Jew Shylock also threatened a wealthy merchant with a similar punishment. These tales perpetuated the Jew as exacting and vengeful: though his friends offered Gernatus ten times what the Venetian merchant had originally owed to mitigate his punishment, Gernatus tried to insist on due punishment, until a judge intervened and expelled Gernatus from the community. ‘Good people that doe heare this song’, the ballad concluded, ‘for trueth I dare well say,/ That many a wretch as ill as he,/ doth live now at this day./ That seeketh nothing but thy spoyle/ of many a wealthy man:/ And for to trap the Innocent,/ deviseth what they can’.[24] These verses served to iterate popular notions that Jews were self-seeking and uncharitable, intent on subverting communities, and condemned to live as outsiders.

Beyond popular perceptions of Jews as subversive, Jews occupied a more fluid and at times positive role in English discourse and religious thought. The rediscovery and translations of ancient texts rendered the Hebraic tradition an important part of how Protestant England understood its past, as well as navigated contemporary religious struggles. The reformer John Calvin, in his Institutes of the Christian Religion, viewed Jewish ceremonies under the old covenant to be void under the new, but he nonetheless made the Jewish faith and the Hebrew Bible available to Christians through discussions and translation.[25] As the historian Achsah Guibbory has argued, the English defined their religious identities in relation to Judaism in complex ways, identifying some aspects of the Jewish faith while rejecting others. Throughout the upheavals of the seventeenth century, from religious dissent to civil war and the rise of radical sects, the English ‘personal and national experience were described in terms of the “Old Testament”’, exhibiting ‘an unprecedented fascination with the Jewish Temple’ and the nature of the early church.[26] A hostility to Jewish elements existed alongside reformers’ identification with Israel, juxtaposed against a corrupt Rome that seemed to many reformers to represent another Babylon captivity.[27] To view the Jews as mere ‘others’ in seventeenth-century England, as Guibbory argues, ‘collapses the range of English attitudes towards Jews, preventing us from recognizing that some English people felt certain kinds of continuity and identity with the ancient Jews’, if not always contemporary ones.[28]

This also suggests, perhaps, more of an identification with Judaism than with Jews as people. As the Protestant Church sought to establish its identity after the Reformation, the ‘Hebraic/Jewish past once again had to be negotiated’ in attempts to inform historical understandings of nation-formation and ideas of Englishness.[29] Eliane Glaser has similarly argued that religious polemic in early modern England existed alongside philosemitism, where Protestants, particularly puritans, aligned themselves with ‘positive’ aspects of Jewishness, including that of being God’s chosen people, while they accused their opponents of perceived negative aspects, such as legalism or heresy.[30] In their migration to New England, puritans who sought to establish a ‘New Jerusalem’ through converting ‘idolatrous’ tribes to Christianity sought answers to enduring questions about the dispersed twelve tribes of Israel and their conversion to Christianity as a signal of the end times.[31] Viewing themselves as the harbingers of ‘New Jerusalem’, puritans in New England and England alike at times identified with Jews as a ‘chosen people’; they became Talmud scholars and observed the Sabbath in ways that often drew parallels between them and Jews.[32] Reformation scholars on the Continent, particularly in Holland and Geneva, had a close relationship to puritans in England and sympathised with their zeal for uncovering Hebraic truths. Dedicating his Grammatica Hebraeae Linguae to Sir Philip Sidney, for example, the Calvinist minister Franciscus Junius remarkably wrote that ‘the reason, obviously, why I like to offer [this book] to your country, is that I conclude from long conversations which I used to have with some of your fellow countrymen that they particularly were friends of art and friends of Hebrew; that their souls breathed only Hebraic flowers … that their houses seemed to be all decorated with Hebrew letters and their table-talk never without them’.[33] This is not to say that puritans did not share anti-Jewish prejudices, but that many Protestant scholars and theologians in England critically engaged with Judaism.[34] Unlike Islam, which the English frequently debunked as a cultural construct ‘invented’ by Mahomet [see ‘Mahometan’], the shared Judeo-Christian heritage ensured an intellectual engagement with Jewishness that the English were less inclined to extend to the Quran.

As the seventeenth century progressed, English merchants, churchmen, and policy-makers weighed questions of assimilation and tolerance with economic necessity. Whereas Jews were more physically present in the daily lives and transactions of individuals in the Iberian and Ottoman worlds, they nonetheless featured powerfully in English debates about religion and economic exchange. As such, they centred in debates about religious toleration, the extent to which the presence of ethnographic or religious ‘others’ could enhance or destroy the character of a nation, and how far the English could learn from other peoples and faiths. Doubtlessly influenced by encountering Jews on the Continent and further east, the gentleman traveller Sir Thomas Shirley the younger returned to England in 1607 and penned a proposal arguing that Jews would be essential for an English rise to global power. Shirley suggested that Jews might be invited into Ireland to increase revenues, a move that would stabilize English attempts to colonize the region. He further proposed that Jews live in England and pay the Crown for their right to build synagogues. If the king was averse to Jewish worship, Shirley hedged, then synagogues could be banned, while merely enabling Jews to have leave to trade and lend money to merchants in England. Throughout, Shirley remained pragmatic. ‘Daily occasions will be offered to make greater commodities out of them if once you have hold of their person and goods’, he promised. ‘But at first [the Jewes] must be tenderly used, for there is a great difference in alluring wild birds and handling them when they are caught’.[35] Enticing Jews to England, Shirley maintained, would induce Jews to leave Portugal and bring their trade with Brazil to English ports. Though his project does not seem to have been seriously considered by policy-makers, it indicates an early way in which politically-minded Englishmen in the seventeenth century viewed Jews as important conduits to redistributing wealth, where religious difference could at times be subordinated to economic concerns. This idea of Jews as global circulators of wealth sits alongside the apocalyptic-mindedness of many more militant or radical religious dissenters of the Stuart period. As Nabil Matar has posited, the puritan belief that Jews would be converted before the end times, and might be used by God as a scourge to the Turks who would establish in Palestine a godly Protestant kingdom, brought enduring fantasies about repossession of the east, apparent in the West since the crusades, within a worldview that increasingly also looked to the Atlantic as a place of salvation.[36]

Keen to bolster English mercantile activity, the Committee of Trade and Plantations in 1654 issued a charter for ‘Privileges granted to the People of the Hebrew Nation that are to go into the Willde’ to establish a Jewish colony for the English in Surinam. This charter granted Jews the ‘Libertie of Conscience with exercise of their lawes, and writes and ceremonies’, and even gave them political and legislative control of the area, offering them the choice freedom to elect a governor.[37] The colony was part of an attempt by the English to secure a financially-lucrative colony in America, whilst at the same time relocating its Jewish population. Although this attempt to establish a colony failed, English officials continued to try and use the Jews population as a means to establish a settlement in South America. Attempts for Surinam were revived in 1665.[38] The governor of Surinam offered Jews the freedom to practice their faith and stipulated that they unlike in England, Jews might be made ‘be true subjects of our Sovereign Lord the King of England’ in the colonies.[39]

Over 350 years after their expulsion, Oliver Cromwell sought to formally readmit Jews into the country after the repeated petitions and requests from Jewish leaders in Europe, particularly Menasseh ben Israel. Born in Portugal and baptized as Manuel Dias Soerio, ben Israel and his family were ‘marranos’ who settled in Amsterdam after fleeing the Spanish Inquisition. In the Netherlands, ben Israel became a rabbi and a prominent member of the Jewish population.[40] His interest in Jewish readmission to England was sparked following the visit of an English trade delegation to his synagogue in 1650, where the English discussed the possibility of drawing trade to England by offering Jews the same rights that they enjoyed in Amsterdam.[41] In 1655, ben Israel left for England with his family and a small group of Jews to argue for the formal recognition of Jewish settlement.

In an open letter to Cromwell, ben Israel wrote that ‘Pagans of old’ had often ‘granted most willingly free liberty, even to apostate Jewes’, and that ‘we, that are not Apostate or runagate Jewes’ hoped for much the same reception from Cromwell, since er ‘adore the same one onely God of Israel, together’.[42] Over the next year ben Israel appealed on ‘behalf of my Country men’ asking that they be granted ‘place in your Country, that we may have our Synagogues, and free exercise of our Religion’.[43] However, Jewish readmission encountered opposition. The puritan William Prynne used the ancient accusation of Jews as being ‘as great enemies to Christ and Christians’ as well as ‘great Clippers and Forgers of Mony,’ whilst also having in the past ‘crucified three or four Children’ in England.[44] In response ben Israel published his most influential work, Vindiciae Judaeorum, in which he attacked the slanders against the Jewish people printed by Prynne and others.[45] In November 1655, the council of state appointed a subcommittee for the readmission of Jews into the country. That very same day the committee responded favourably to the ‘Report on a request for admission of Jews into England to traffic’, arguing that it was ‘awful in point of conscience, if certain considerations be provided for’.[46] The committee offer seven provisions to make readmission legal and religiously acceptable, which included ‘[t]hat they [Jews] should not be admitted to public judicatories’, they were not to ‘profane the Christian Sabbath or have Christian servants’, and could ‘print nothing in our language opposing Christianity’.[47] Despite the council’s favourable response to Jewish readmission, the results were inconclusive, and the official acceptance of Jews in England only began in 1664 with royal protection — seven years after ben Israel’s death.

Nonetheless, ben Israel helped bring the unofficial recognition of Jews in England. This meant Jews did not have to continue to live in secret in English society. Jewish merchants became increasingly prominent figures in London, especially in the trade to the Low Countries, where many had long standing connections. The official acceptance of Jews was clearly connected to English commercial aims, and the English continued, as they had in the early seventeenth century, to use Jewish merchants as a way of expanding their trade networks.
Roderigo Lopez, the Portuguese marrano accused of poisoning Queen Elizabeth, speaking to a Spanish man, engraving by Elaias van Hulsen, c. late 16th century[48]
1. William Biddulph, The travels of certaine Englishmen into Africa, Asia, Troy... (London, 1609; STC 3051), sig. M4r.
2. Ibid., sig. M3v.
3. Eva Johanna Holmberg, Jews in the Early Modern Imagination: A Scattered Nation (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), p. 54.
4. Ibid., p. 81.
5. Ibid., pp. 54, 60.
6. Ibid., p. 55.
7. Biddulph, The travels of certaine Englishmen, sig. M3v.
8. Eliane Glaser, Judaism without Jews: Philosemitism and Christian Polemic in Early Modern England (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), p. 7.
9. Robin R. Mundill, England’s Jewish Solution: Experiment and Expulsion, 1262–1290 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 52.
10. 'The Debate Over the Resettlement of the Jews in England’, in Norton Anthology of English Literature [accessed 30 May 2017].
11. James Shapiro, Shakespeare and the Jews, 20th anniversary edition (New York: Columbia, 2016), p. 76.
12. Ibid., p. 75.
13. Ibid., pp. 69-70.
14. 'Rough notes [on the trial of Lopez] by Solicitor General Coke, March 1594', The National Archives, SP 12/248, f. 55.
15. David S. Katz, The Jews in the History of England, 1485—1850 (London: Clarendon Press, 1994), p. 56.
16. Ibid.
17. See Peter Berek, ‘The Jew as Renaissance Man’, Renaissance Quarterly, 51 (1998), pp. 128-62.
18. Jerry Brotton, The Sultan and the Queen: The Untold Story of Elizabeth and Islam (New York, NY: Viking, 2016), p. 175.
19. Biddulph, The travels of certaine Englishmen; Fynes Moryson, An itinerary (London 1617; STC 18205); John Taylor, Three weekes, three daies, and three houres observations and travel, from London to Hamburgh in Germanie (London, 1617; STC 23807); James Howell, Instructions for forreigne travell (London, 1642; Wing H3082); William Mountague, The delights of Holland (London, 1696; Wing M2477); T.C., The New Atlas (London, 1698; Wing C139).
20. Biddulph, The travels of certaine Englishmen, sig. M3v
21. Ibid.
22. Glaser, Judaism without Jews, p. 9
23. A new song, shewing the crueltie of Gernatus a Jew (London, 1620; STC 11796.5).
24. Ibid.
25. Achsah Guibbory, Christian Identity, Jews, and Israel in Seventeenth Century England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), p. 15.
26. Ibid., p. 1
27. Ibid., p. 2
28. Ibid., p. 3.
29. Ibid., pp. 7-8.
30. Glaser, Judaism without Jews, p. 33.
31. Andrew Crome, ‘The Restoration of the Jews in Transatlantic Context, 1600–1680’, inProphecy and Eschatology in the Transatlantic World, 1550–1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2016), p. 128.
32. Ibid., p. 40.
33. Ibid., p. 44.
34. Ibid., 63; Guibbory, Christian Identity, Jews, and Israel in Seventeenth Century England, Introduction.
35. [Sir Thomas Shirley the younger], Thomas Sherley’s project, [early seventeenth century], Hatfield House, CP 124/152.
36. Summarised by Gerald MacLean in Looking East: English Writing and the Ottoman Empire Before 1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2007), p. 16.
37. ‘Privileges granted to the People of the Hebrew Nation that are to go into the Wilde, 1654', British Library, Egerton MS. 2385, f. 456.
38. 'Grant of Privileges by the Governor, Council, and Assembly of Surinam, to Jews in Surinam, 17 August 1665', in Samuel Oppenheim, ‘An Early Jewish Colony in Western Guiana, 1658 – 1666: And its relation to the Jews in Surinam, Cayenne and Tobago’, Publications of the American Jewish Historical Society, 16 (1907), pp. 179-80.
39. Ibid.
40. See 'Ben Israel, Manasseh, (1604-1657)', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [accessed 10 July 2017].
41. Menasseh Ben Israel’s Mission to Oliver Cromwell, ed. Lucien Wolf (London: Jewish Historical Society of England, 1901), pp. xxx-xxxi.
42. 'Menasseh ben Israel, To His Highnesse the Lord Protector of the Common-Wealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland' (1655), in Wolf ed., Menasseh Ben Israel’s Mission, pp. 76-7.
43. Ibid., p. 76.
44. William Hughes, Anglo-Judaeus, or The history of the Jews, whilst here in England (London, 1656; Wing H33721), p. 49; William Prynne, A short demurrer to the Jewes long discontinued barred remitter into England (London, 1656; Wing P4079), sig. A3r.
45. 'Vindiciae Judaeorum (1656)', in Wolf (ed), Menasseh Ben Israel’s Mission, pp. 105-47.
46. 'Report on a request for admission of Jews into England to traffic, 13 November 1655', The National Archives, SP 18/101, f. 242.
47. Ibid.
48. Roderigo Lopez, the Portuguese marrano accused of poisoning Queen Elizabeth, speaking to a Spanish man, engraving by Elaias van Hulsen, c. late 16th century
Usage Examples
'They are called by three names which were given to them of old. First, they are called Hebrewes … Secondly they were called Israelites from Jacob surnamed Israel, whose grandfathers Abraham was. Thirdly, they were called Jews, after that Juda and Benjamin (which for the unity of minds were as it were one Tribe) … Of these three names … the most common name whereby they are called at this day is, the name of the Jewes.'