European Anti-Semitism in the 13th century. There can be no doubt that the thirteenth century was the most violently anti-Semitic in all the Middle Ages. Kings in Europe made similar repressive measures against their own kingdom’s Jewish communities. Frederick II made Sicilian Jews wear a blue T-shaped badge, and the men must keep their beards long; French Jews under Philip Augustus had to wear a wheel-shaped badge. English Jews wore a book-shaped yellow badge ordered by law under Edward I. Massacres, pogroms, locking into ghettoes, discriminatory laws, abuse and general persecution were rife. Yet despite this the Jews remained Europe’s accepted financial sector. This is not to say that several kings did not cast a speculative eye on Jewish wealth.
By the time England’s Edward I became king, there were around 2000 Jews living in the major towns, still existing under the terms they had had to accept in King John’s day, odious terms spelled out by the apocryphal laws of Edward the Confessor – ‘The Jews themselves and all their chattels are the King’s’. When Edward returned from the Crusades, he passed the Statute of Jewry (1275), which outlawed most forms of ‘usury’, restricted Jews to living in certain named towns, introduced the yellow badge (six by three inches in size) and levied an annual tax of threepence on all Jews above the age of twelve. The head of every Jewish family in England was at some time imprisoned in the late 1270s on suspicion of coin-clipping, and Jewish families faced frequent accusations of extortion and blasphemy. In 1283 Jews were excluded from protection afforded to ordinary (Christian) merchants, and in 1284 the Archbishop ordered the destruction of all London synagogues except one. Then the Pope added fuel to the flames by trying to stamp out any intercourse between Jews and Christians. The former, according to Pope Honorius IV were ‘accursed and perfidious’.
Edward determined to expel Jews from England, and in July, 1290, a deal was struck between the King and his commons:A tax was to be granted in exchange for the expulsion of the Jews. The Edict of Expulsion dated 18 July 1290 ordered England’s Jews to leave the realm by the Ist of November – on pain of death. The Edict was distributed throughout England and read aloud in the remaining synagogues. The Jews did not attempt resistance, perhaps because they knew that similar harsh measures were being enacted all over Europe. During the summer they packed their bags and began leaving, and by the autumn most were gone.
By no means were all Jewish people rich, simply transferring themselves and their families and their businesses to another, more welcoming country – though the latter were few and far between. One group of poor Jews boarded a boat on 12 October, 1290 clutching their warrants of safe passage. They carried their worldly possessions with them. The boat with its Christian captain and crew progressed down the River Thames heading for the wide Estuary. The Jews on board knew they could never return to their homes. It had been increasingly difficult to live, and stricter and more difficult laws were passed against them, apparently every day. They had been stopped from friendly conversation with their Christian friends and neighbours. Their synagogues had been burned, their friends attacked in the street or in their homes by hooligans who felt the Law on their side. They had been told the only way to stay in England was to convert to Christianity.
Downstream the crowded boat sailed, nearing the island of Sheppey. As the tide grew low, the captain threw the anchor overboard and allowed the ship to rest lightly on the exposed sand of the Thames estuary’s ebb-tide. He spoke kindly to his passengers, explaining that he could not sail on until the tide had turned, and that now was the time for them all to get out and stretch their legs, as they had a long voyage before them. The captain himself vaulted over the side, and all the passengers followed him. Soon all the Jews were strolling about on the exposed firm sand. Only the captain knew about the infamous Thames rushing back over the sands over which it had ebbed. He clambered back aboard his boat as he saw the tide advancing at the speed of a galloping horse, just as it does at the Mont Saint Michel on the Brittany coast. Once safely aboard, he ordered the boat cast off, and yelled down to the terrified Jews telling them to call upon Moses, who would no doubt part the seas for them. Then the boat sailed off, carrying all the passengers luggage with it. Every one of the passengers was drowned.
For this crime, the captain and his crew were briefly imprisoned.