Menasseh B Israel
Cromwell and the
‘readmission’ of the
Jews to England, 1656
(pdf document 62kb)
Cromwell and the Jews
2006 marks the 350th anniversary of the re-admission of
the Jews into England. They were expelled in 1290 in the reign of King
Edward Ist. Their re-admission in 1656 under the Cromwellian
Protectorate is interpreted by some as evidence of Cromwell’s toleration
and compassion. This is open to challenge on several points.
Although the Jewish community at the end of the 19th century highlighted
the anniversary, and linked it particularly to the mission of an
Amsterdam based Rabbi, Menasseh ben Israel, there is evidence of an
established Jewish community in London before 1655. Fearful of
persecution they did not declare their identity, living as Spanish
merchants. Whilst their commercial affairs were public their religion
There was interest in Jewish matters in the leadership of the
Commonwealth and Protectorate for two reasons, one pragmatic and the
other doctrinal. The pragmatic reason was that based on the
international trade and commercial connections of the Amsterdam Jewish
community it was recognised that a strong Jewish presence in London
would be advantageous. With flourishing links to the East and West
Indies and to the New World Jewish traders in London could make the city
to Amsterdam as a commercial centre.
The doctrinal reason was the belief amongst godly Protestants, including
Cromwell, that the conversion of the Jews to Christianity was essential
before Christ would return to reign on earth. 1656 was thought by some
to be the actual year in which this would happen.
The key figure for the celebrants of the 250th anniversary in 1906 was
that of Menasseh ben Israel. He was born in Lisbon in 1604 settled in
Amsterdam and became a Rabbi. He was a polymath: author, printer,
publisher, bookseller and scholar who cultivated links with the new
Commonwealth regime in England. It was his belief that the Jewish
Messiah would only appear when the Jewish people had spread throughout
the world. Establishing communities in England would help to bring about
that second coming. Menassen ben Israel published a pamphlet in 1651
appealing to Cromwell see
In September 1655 Menasseh ben Israel arrived in London with a
delegation and members of his family and personally petitioned Cromwell
for the readmission of the Jews. Cromwell met with him and a committee
of the Council of State, and it was agreed that a conference should be
convened to discuss the issues. The petition requested citizenship,
freedom of worship, burial grounds, freedom to trade and the withdrawal
of all laws against Jews.
The conference met several times in December 1655 but was, in the end,
inconclusive. There was no formal decision to allow readmission but it
was soon evident that the presence of Jews would be more openly
tolerated. Cromwell permitted Jews to worship in private as they had
done prior to the petitioning, and within months a synagogue and burial
ground were allowed.
The significance of the mission by Menasseh ben Israel in achieving the
level of toleration reached in 1656 is a continuing discussion.
Similarly Cromwell’s motives for debating the issue openly may not have
been the result of any desire for liberty of conscience as understood in
the late 19th century or today, but it did lead to a significant advance
in Anglo-Jewish relations.
For these reasons marking the 350th anniversary is appropriate, even if
there may be an element of overstatement, both of Cromwell’s and
Menasseh ben Israel’s roles.
For more information about this episode in Cromwellian history click
here to download a .pdf file of an article by Barbara Coulton of
Lancaster University (all rights reserved) Cromwell and the
‘readmission’ of the Jews to England, 1656. This article first appeared
in the 2001 issue of the journal of the Cromwell Association
For more information about Menasseh Ben Israel see
The exhibition Oliver Cromwell and the Readmission of the Jews to
England previously shown at the Cromwell Museum, Huntingdon, will be on
display at Oliver Cromwell's House in Ely until Spring 2008.
Click here for more details.