Between the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290 and the accession of Cromwell in 1649, no Jews were legally permitted there. Some Jewish peddlers may have appeared in the villages, some merchants and physicians in the towns; but nearly all that the Elizabethan knew or thought of Jews was derived from Christian gossip or literature. From such sources Marlowe drew his Barabas and Shakespeare his Shylock.
Some critics 28 have thought that Shakespeare wrote The Merchant of Venice at his company’s suggestion to profit from the storm of anti-Semitism just aroused in England by the case of Rodrigo Lopez, executed in 1594 for allegedly trying to poison Queen Elizabeth. Born in Portugal of Jewish parents, Lopez settled in London in 1559, and made his way to prominence in the medical profession. Engaged as physician to the Earl of Leicester, he was accused of helping him to remove enemies by poison. In 1586 he became chief physician to the Queen. He treated, among others, the second Earl of Essex, but earned his enmity by revealing his ailments to others. About 1590 he joined Francis Walsingham in intrigues with the court of Spain against Dom Antonio, pretender to the Portuguese crown, and he received, apparently from agents of Philip II, a diamond ring then valued at a hundred pounds. In 1593 Esteban da Gama was seized in Lopez’ house on a charge of conspiring against Antonio; others were arrested, and some of the confessions implicated Lopez in a plot against Elizabeth. Essex, who had supported Antonio, led the prosecution of the physician. Put on the rack, Lopez confessed to having received and concealed an offer of fifty thousand ducats to poison the Queen; but he claimed that his intention had been merely to mulct the Spanish King. He and two others were hanged, drawn, and quartered. With his last breath he declared, to the derision of the spectators, that he loved the Queen as well as he loved Jesus Christ. 29Shakespeare, friendly to Essex, produced The Merchant of Venice two months after the execution; and many auditors must have noted that Shylock’s intended victim was called Antonio.
The spread of the Bible, accelerated by the King James Version, modified anti-Semitism by giving England a closer acquaintance with the Old Testament. The ideas and feelings of the ancient Hebrews entered intimately into the thought and phrases of the Puritans. The wars of the Jews seemed to them to prefigure their own wars against Charles I; somehow Jehovah the God of Hosts fitted their needs better than the Prince of Peace described in the New Testament. Many Puritan regiments inscribed their banners with the Lion of Judah, and Cromwell’s Ironsides marched to battle singing Biblical songs. Accepting the magnificent literature of the Old Testament as literally the Word of God, the Puritans felt constrained to acknowledge the Jews as chosen by God to be the immediate recipients of His revelation; one preacher told his congregation that the Jews should still be honored as the select of God; and some Levellers called themselves Jews. 30 Many Puritans perceived that Christ’s explicit confirmation of the Mosaic Law outweighed Paul’s rejection of it and laid upon all Biblical Christians the obligation to practice that Law; one Puritan leader, Major General Thomas Harrison, close aide to Cromwell, proposed that the Mosaic Code be made part of English law. 31 In 1649 a bill was introduced into the House of Commons to change the Lord’s day from the pagan Sunday to the Jewish Sabbath. Now, said the Puritans, the English too were the chosen people of God.
During the reign of James I (1603–25) a small group of Marranos had settled in London. At first they attended Christian services, but later they made little effort to conceal their fidelity to Judaism. Jewish financiers like Antonio Carvajal shared in meeting the monetary needs of the Long Parliament and the Commonwealth. 32 When Cromwell came to power he used Marrano merchants as sources of economic and political information regarding Holland and Spain. He noted with some envy the prosperity that had come to Dutch commerce partly through the influx and international connections of the Jews.
Soon after Manasseh ben Israel’s arrival in England Cromwell received him, and put a London residence at his disposal. Manasseh presented a petition, and circulated through the press a “Declaration” stating the religious and economic case for the admission of Jews into England. He explained why the Jews, through their legal disabilities and physical and financial insecurity, had been forced to abstain from agriculture and take to trade. He pointed out that the Amsterdam Jews lived by commercial investment rather than by moneylending, that they practiced no usury, but placed their liquid funds in banks and were satisfied with five per cent interest on these deposits. He showed the baselessness of the legend that Jews murdered Christian children to use their blood in religious rituals. He assured Christians that Jews made no attempt to secure converts. He concluded by asking that Jews be admitted to England on condition of taking an oath of loyalty to the realm; that they receive religious freedom, and protection from violence; and that their internal disputes be settled by their rabbis and laws without prejudice to English law and interests.
On December 4, 1655, Cromwell assembled at Whitehall a conference of jurists, officials, and clergymen to consider the admission of the Jews. He himself defended the idea with force and eloquence, stressing not the economic but the religious aspect: the pure Gospel must be preached to the Jews, but “can we preach to them, if we will not tolerate them among us?” 33 His arguments met with little sympathy. The clergymen insisted that Jews had no place in a Christian commonwealth; representatives of commerce objected that Jewish merchants would deflect trade and wealth from English hands. The conference voted that Jews could not settle in England “except by private sufferance of His Highness.” 34
Public opinion was predominantly hostile to admission. Rumors were spread that the Jews, if allowed into England, would turn St. Paul’s Cathedral into a synagogue. William Prynne, who had made a stir twenty-seven years earlier by his Historiomastix attack upon the English theater, issued (1655–56) a Short Demurrer renewing old charges that the Jews were counterfeiters of coinage and murderers of children. A passionate Puritan, Thomas Collyer, answered Prynne, but weakened his case by urging that the Jews be honored as the chosen people of God. Manasseh himself published (1656) a Vindication appealing to the English people’s sense of justice. Could they really believe “that strange and horrid accusation . . . that the Jews are wont to celebrate the Feast of Unleavened Bread [by] fermenting it with the blood of some Christians whom they have for that purpose killed?” He showed how often in history such accusations had been made by false witnesses, or supported only by confessions under torture, and how often the innocence of Jews so accused had been brought to light after their execution. He concluded with touching faith and fervor:
And to the highly honored nation of England I make my most humble request, that they would read over my arguments impartially, . . . effectually recommending me to their grace and favor, and earnestly beseeching God that He would be pleased to hasten the time promised by Zephaniah, wherein we shall all serve Him with one consent, after the same manner, and shall be all of the same judgment; that as His name is one, so His fear may be also one, and that we may all see the goodness of the Lord (blessed forever!) and the consolations of Zion. 35
The English people were not won over by this plea, and Manasseh obtained no formal admission of the Jews. Cromwell, absorbed in protecting his government and his life, put the problem aside; however, he awarded Manasseh a yearly pension of a hundred pounds (which was never paid) out of the public treasury. In September, 1657, Manasseh’s son died. With the aid of a grant from the Protector he took the body to Holland for burial. Exhausted with travel and grief, the Apostle to England died at Middelburg November 20, leaving not enough money to pay for his own funeral.
He had not really failed in his mission. Evelyn’s Diary remarks, under December 14, 1655, “Now were the Jews admitted.” No decree of the Protector, no enactment of Parliament, legalized their return; but more and more of them came in with the tacit approval of Cromwell. In 1657 he allowed the Jews of London to establish their own burial ground, not as Christians but as Jews; soon thereafter they opened a synagogue and quietly practiced their ritual. When the Restoration came, Charles II remembered the financial support given him in his Dutch exile by Mendes da Costa and other Hebrews; he perceived the advantages that had already accrued to England from the mercantile enterprises of the London Jews; and he winked an eye on further immigration. William III, also recalling Jewish help, continued this tolerant attitude, despite the repeated complaints of English merchants and clergymen. Solomon Medina earned the first Jewish knighthood by his services as army contractor for William III and Marlborough. 36 By 1715 Jewish brokers were on the London Exchange, and Jewish financiers were a minor power in the land. In 1904 the English Jews celebrated the tercentenary of Manasseh’s birth.