Portuguese Marranos and readmission of Jews to England
Cromwell and the ‘readmission’ of the Jews to England, 1656

by Barbara Coulton, Lancaster University

(complete essay at http://www.olivercromwell.org/jews.pdf)

......What actually happened in 1656 was more prosaic, although some might have
interpreted events as the work of providence. The crypto-Jewish group had tacit
permission from Cromwell to worship privately, but their public persona was that of
Spanish merchants  – and England was at war with Spain, so their goods could be
forfeit. An informer brought a case against one of the group, Antonio Robles, who
declared: ‘I am a Portuguese Jew’, in a petition in March for restitution of his goods;
this was granted by the Council in May. Investigations revealed that over twenty
Jewish families lived in London, many of them resident for years. In view of the
Robles affair, Carvajal and other leaders of the community, in conjunction for once
with Menasseh, presented a second petition to the Protector, from the ‘Hebrews at
Present Residing in this citty of London’; Abraham Israel Carvajal, Jahacob de
Caceres, and four others signed, after Menasseh ben Israel. Although this has been
claimed as the rabbi’s petition it did not echo that of November 1655; it was, rather, a
formal request by the crypto-Jewish group who thanked Cromwell for the favour 15
already granted, to worship privately in their own homes; they  now prayed for
protection in writing; they also wished to acquire their own burial place outside the
city. Cromwell endorsed the Jews’ petition on 24 March, and again on 26 June, but
there is no record of written permission. Nevertheless, events prove that two
privileges were granted to the London group: permission for a religious meeting-place
and for a burial ground. A large house in Creechurch Lane became a private
synagogue; Carvajal was a leading ratepayer in the parish of St Katherine Cree; the
‘superior landlord’ was the master of Magdalene College, Cambridge  – John Sadler.
The use to which the house was to be put was known to the parish authorities who
mentioned in their accounts for 1656 work ‘in building the Jewes Synagogue’.
Carvajal brought over from Hamburg a cousin, Moses Athias, to be chief minister or
hazan. By the beginning of 1657 Carvajal and Caceres (as wardens or parnassim of
the synagogue) had taken out a lease for a burial ground at Mile End. Apparently,
Menasseh had no role in this community; he came to feel friendless among strangers.
Some scholars have speculated about his personality. Cecil Roth described him as ‘the
self- important, erudite, quarrelsome Amsterdam Rabbi’. S.R. Gardiner was more
moderate in his description of the ‘enthusiastic but somewhat dreamy Amsterdam
rabbi and physician who took the cause of all Judaism upon his shoulders’; he
described Menasseh as being insensitive ‘to the danger of challenging public opinion
by undue demonstrativeness.’
The failure of Menasseh’s campaign leads to a consideration of the term
‘readmission’: the rabbi’s petition of November 1655 asked for admission of Jews on
an equal footing with native English citizens, public synagogues, rights to their own
law code, and freedom to trade. Jews from various parts of the world, especially those
subject to persecution, were meant to benefit. Following this definition we must
concede that readmission was not achieved. This has been acknowledged by certain
historians since Lucien Wolf. Albert Hyamson wrote in 1928 that ‘the goal to which
Menasseh ben Israel … had directed his efforts … was unattained’. In 1957 Israel
Finestein’s judgement was that the ‘readmission’ of the Jews ‘took the form of an
acknowledgement … and an authorisation of their Jewish worship … There was no
“recall” of the Jews’. The authorisation was granted, as we have seen, to the existing
crypto-Jewish community. Two modern London rabbis sum up events following the
Whitehall Conference: Cromwell ‘gave  de facto permission to the existing  marrano16
community … to continue undisturbed with its mode of worship. In this pragmatic
way recognition of Jewish settlement was granted’. This narrative of Anglo-Jewry,
beginning with the pragmatic Lucien Wolf, corrects the ‘Menasseh version’.
To pick up a vital thread in the pattern of events we must return to December 1655.
For five years Cromwell had shown a favourable attitude towards the Jews,
recognising the mercantile advantages of their presence as well as religious reasons
for welcoming them. Carvajal had been endenizened, and was at this time asking for
protection for his ship coming from the Canaries – there is no suggestion that he allied
himself to Menasseh. Cromwell’s responsibilities as head of state were augmented by
his sense of being an agent of God’s will, and many people looked to 1656 as a year
of apocalyptic importance. The divines at the Whitehall Conference proved unhelpful,
but one divine was absent: John Dury. Early in 1654, Cromwell had sent him to the
leaders of the Swis s cantons to continue his lifelong efforts at ‘procuring harmony and
fraternal union in the profession of the truth’. Cromwell described him, in the papers
of credence, as ‘that devout and learned man … minister of God’s word and dear to
us’. Dury was now  in Hesse, where he received from Samuel Hartlib a letter asking
his views on the questions posed by Cromwell: was it lawful to admit Jews into a
Christian state, and if so on what terms? Dury replied from ‘Cassel, in haste, Jan. 8
t h
1656’; a second letter followed. Dury addressed Cromwell’s questions: ‘I know none
of the reformed churches or divines, who make their admission to be unlawful; but it
is a work which the civil magistrate takes wholly into his consideration’. He cited
Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians at length, concerning lawful and expedient
actions. He concluded that Jews could be admitted into a Christian commonwealth,
but restraints should be imposed. Dury added a significant postscript: ‘Our state doth
wisely to go warily, and by degrees, in the business of receiving them. Menasseh Ben
Israel’s demands are great, and the use, which they [the Jews] make of great
privileges, is not much to their commendation here [in Germany], and elsewhere.’

Dury’s letters would have helped Cromwell: they would have reinforced his caution
about Menasseh, while the advice about the lawfulness of admission with restraints
would also have reassured Cromwell that his favours to the crypto-Jews were justified
since Carvajal and his associates were discreet and unlikely to cause trouble. Dury
advised that there should be no blasphemy of Christ, nor attempts at proselytising, nor 17
dishonouring of any of the ordinances of Christianity. If this were achieved, ‘then the
first rule of expediency will be observed’. There should also be instruction of the Jews
in the Christian religion, but this issue seems in practice to have been sidestepped.
This treatment of the Jews would be a mark of Christian love and serve to the glory of
God. For their part, the Jews should live by themselves and worship in their own
tongue; and ‘insolencies’ from both sides should be prevented by laws and special
orders. The matter of trade Dury was content to leave to the wisdom of the state. The
substance of his letters was edited into a pamphlet by Hartlib, and published in June
1656. None of this would be of any consolation to Menasseh who had been hoping all
spring for a favourable response to his own petition – especially as the postscript
referring to him was published. The rabbi himself was now a forlorn figure. A petition
to Cromwell (of 1656 or 1657) reveals him as ill and in need of money: ‘I make moan
to your Highnesse, as the alone succourer of my life, in this land of strangers …
havinge had great experience of your greatnesse in compassion as well as in majestie’.
Cromwell ordered the grant of a pension of £100 a year, part of which was paid
before another petition was presented by the rabbi in September 1657: his son Samuel
had died and had wished to be buried in Holland; Mena sseh asked for £300, offering
to surrender his pension seal. A grant of £200 was authorised, as we see from John
Sadler’s petition to Richard Cromwell on behalf of Menasseh’s widow. Sadler
described the rabbi’s disillusioned state of mind at the end of his stay in England: ‘at
length with his heart ever broken with griefe on losing heer his only sonne and his
presious time with all his hopes in this iland’, he reached Middelburg with his son’s
body, and himself died there in November 1657 (Kislev 5418). He  was buried at
Amsterdam with an epitaph in Spanish to ‘the honoured Hebrew’.
Cromwell was the saviour of the first modern Anglo-Jewish community in London at
a time when their legal position was anomalous; there was no ghetto, but unless they
were endenizened they had no political status. Under Cromwell’s protection the
synagogue in Creechurch Lane became, in Lucien Wolf’s analysis, ‘a duly organised
public body’, increasing by 1660 to thirty- five families. Its officials included Rabbi
Moses Athias. Their accounts were kept in Portuguese by the treasurer; the surviving
Libro, from 1663, was probably not the first. Their activities in the City were
indicated by the membership of the Exchange granted in 1657 to Solomon Dormido.
A visitor to the synagogue  in 1662 was told that ‘one year in Oliver’s time, they did 18
build booths on the other side of the Thames, and keep the Feast of Tabernacles in
them’. (This was a kind of harvest festival, a joyous week-long celebration.) The
importance of Cromwell’s protection is attested by events as soon as he was dead.
Thomas Violet laid a case against the Jews in 1659; the City Corporation also
presented a petition against the Jews in 1660. Amid all the accusations against the
Jews were some against Cromwell, ‘the late Usurper’, for admitting them to a free
habitation and trading, and allowing them liberty to practise their religion ‘to the great
dishonour of Christianity and public scandal of the Protestant religion’. In 1660 the
Jews held a meeting at the house of Senora Carvajal to draw up a petition to the king
for protection. Charles II had his own commitment to Jews who had helped him in
exile, so he asked the privy council to consider the community’s protection. When the
Jews in London had to petition again for protection in 1664, the king minuted the
document himself: that ‘they may enjoy the same favour as before, as long as they
demean themselves peaceably and obey the laws’. The Cromwellian privileges were
preserved. It was, wrote James Parkes, ‘surely the simplest charter of settlement in all
Jewish history.’
 Ultimately, it was the policy of Cromwell and the discretion of the
Jewish community in London which established this settlement, rather than the
mission of Menasseh ben Israel.
Barbara Coulton, Lancaster University