The Jews were expelled from England 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 was private.
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 Cromwelliana.