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Ottolangui UK

The History of the Spanish & Portuguese Jewish Community of London and the Establishment of their First Synagogues

Although it is claimed that some Jews arrived with the Romans, the first recorded Jews to settle in Britain came in the 11th century from the city of Rouen in France, at the invitation of the new king William the Conqueror, who offered them royal protection. They settled in the cities of Lincoln and York. They were forbidden by the Church to own land, employ Christians or bear arms; however, as Christians were forbidden by the New Testament to lend money for interest, money-lending became one of the few means of earning a living available to British Jews. As the founders of banking services (and also the pioneers of international business networking), Jews provided credit in a society where there were no banks as we know them today.

This is a 13th century antisemitic portrayal of Jewish moneylenders

The landowning barons of the British nobility in the north of England, borrowed vast sums of money from the Jewish financiers to build and fortify their cities and to pay their armies. In 1190 when the barons were unable to make the repayments, they incited riots and the Jewish population of York were imprisoned by a mob in a citadel in the city of York, known as Clifford’s Tower together with all their papers and account books. Facing forced conversion to Christianity or mass slaughter, the leader of the Jewish community, Josce of York, killed his wife and children and then committed suicide. The citadel was burned by the mob at the instigation of the barons, the Jews massacred and as all the records of their loans were destroyed with them, the barons were free of their debts. Elsewhere in the kingdom, despite the royal protection, huge taxes were imposed upon Jews through a special government department, The Exchequer of the Jews. King Edward I famously exploited these taxes with a total equivalent to many millions extracted from the Jewish community between the years 1263 and 1273. Then in 1290, when the Jews, impoverished by the taxes levied on them, were no longer useful as a source of revenue, their property was confiscated and they were expelled. A famous story recalled how the Jews were being transported by sea to France and when the ships approached the sandbanks in the English Channel (now known as the Goodwin Sands) which at low tide are above sea level, they were disembarked and left on the sandbanks which they were told were the coast of France. When the ships departed and the tide returned, the Jews perished.

It was over three hundred years later before Jews were once more trading in Britain. These were “Marranos” or “Conversos”, Jews from Spain and Portugal who, following persecution by the Holy Inquisition, converted to Christianity and adopted Spanish or Portuguese names while still continuing to practice their Jewish religion in secret. Outwardly living in London as Catholics they attended mass at the Portuguese Embassy.

Having been expelled from Spain in 1492 and then fleeing Portugal when the Inquisition arrived, Bayonne in France and Amsterdam in Holland became popular destinations for Jews to openly practice their religion.  Through the first half of the seventeenth century, Amsterdam became the world’s leading trading city and the home of a thriving Spanish & Portuguese Jewish community. In 1654, a group of Jews sailed from Amsterdam to the Americas and founded the first Jewish community in the New World.

When Oliver Cromwell came to power in Britain he saw, with the overthrow of the British Monarchy, the opportunity to put in its place the ‘ideal’ state, driven by Puritan religious zeal. In fact, so momentous had been the “revolution” it was regarded to be as much a religious event as a political one. Ancient prophecies held that the New Millennium, (the Second Coming for Christians), will only start when the Jews have been scattered to the four corners of the world. Dutch and English protestant puritans at the time believed that it was therefore essential to have Jews living in England. A petition pleading for this had been sent to Cromwell in 1649 by two English Puritans living in Amsterdam. At this time, rumours were circulating that descendants of the tribe of Reuben, one of the lost tribes of Israel, had been found in South America and by 1655 the presence of Jews in the New World was beyond dispute; the first Jewish community in the Americas had been established by settlers from Amsterdam the previous year.

These circumstances lead a rabbi, Manoel Dias Soeiro of the Amsterdam Portuguese Jewish community, who called himself Menasseh ben Israel, to visit Cromwell to persuade him that the relief of Jews from the persecution of the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal and their subsequent prosperity and freedom in Amsterdam was a prediction of the imminent arrival of the Messiah and by allowing the Jewish people to return to England would ensure Cromwell’s place in paradise. Menasseh ben Israel presented a written petition to Cromwell who promised to place it before Parliament.

Menasseh ben Israel and the Petition

Manoel Dias Soeiro,1604 -1657, known as Menasseh ben Israel and/or Menasheh ben Yossef ben Yisrael, was a Portuguese rabbi, kabbalist, writer, diplomat, printer and publisher, founder of the first Hebrew printing press in Amsterdam in 1626. He arrived in London in 1655 to deliver his petition to Cromwell asking for Jews to be readmitted to live and trade in England as depicted in the above painting. There was strong opposition not least from London merchants who did not welcome further competition.

A special conference of judges, clergy and merchants was convened by Cromwell in December, 1655. The conference did not go well and despite Cromwell’s strong advocacy of readmission the conference was dismissed without approving the petition.

Menasseh ben Israel presenting the petition in a contemporary portrait

One month later war broke out between England and Spain. All the property of Spanish citizens trading in England was confiscated. One Marrano, Antonio Robles, went to court protesting that his Spanish citizenship has been adopted under duress and that his real nationality was Jewish. The Robles case persuaded the most prominent Marranos, who had up until then kept their distance from Menasseh ben Israel to openly join him and submit a ‘Humble Petition from the Hebrews residing in the City of London. The petition was not a request for readmission, rather, it was to thank Cromwell for the freedom already given to them to pray in their own homes with the additional request for a cemetery in which to bury their dead in accordance with Jewish rites. This petition was referred to the Council of State but no reply was ever given. As it happened, in May of that year, Robles won his case which established a new decree that a Jew could live in England.

According to the Jewish Encyclopaedia chapter on “England”
“Toward the middle of the seventeenth century a considerable number of Marrano merchants settled in London and formed there a secret congregation, at the head of which was Antonio Fernandez Carvajal. Outwardly they had passed as Spaniards and Catholics; but they held prayer-meetings in a house owned by Carvajal, and they became known in government circles as ‘Jews by faith’……..The Jews met for worship in a private house fitted up as a synagogue in Cree Church Lane, off Leadenhall Street; and it is possible to assume the existence of a second meeting-place at St. Helens in the same neighborhood by 1662. These places of worship were fairly well known to the general public, though they were protected by treble doors and other means of concealment.”

That synagogue in Cree Church Lane in a building leased or owned by Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, was visited on more than one occasion by Samuel Pepys, head of the Admiralty, statesman and famous diarist whose diary entry for 14th October 1663 includes the following passage:

“Thence home and after dinner, my wife and I, by Mr. Rawlinson’s conduct, to the Jewish Synagogue: where the men and boys in their vayles, and the women behind a lattice out of sight; and some things stand up, which I believe is their Law, in a press to which all coming in do bow; and at the putting on their vayles do say something, to which others that hear him do cry Amen, and the party do kiss his vayle. Their service all in a singing way, and in Hebrew. And anon their Laws that they take out of the press are carried by several men, four or five several burthens in all, and they do relieve one another; and whether it is that everyone desires to have the carrying of it, I cannot tell, thus they carried it round about the room while such a service is singing. And in the end, they had a prayer for the King, which they pronounced his name in Portugall; but the prayer, like the rest, in Hebrew. But, Lord! to see the disorder, laughing, sporting, and no attention, but confusion in all their service, more like brutes than people knowing the true God, would make a man forswear ever seeing them more and indeed I never did see so much, or could have imagined there had been any religion in the whole world so absurdly performed as this.”

The casual reader may understand this entry in Pepys’ diary to be rather a derogatory description of a prayer meeting, until one realizes that the date is that of the festival of Simhat Torah (שמחת תורה)  when Jews rejoice in the celebration of the Torah, which often includes “rowdy” dancing whilst carrying the scrolls of the Torah wrapped in their “vayles” (veil – prayer shawl – “tallit” טַלִּית”)

The fledgling congregation thrived through the restoration of the monarchy in Britain and in 1699 a nearby site was leased from Lord & Lady John Pointz-Littleton for the building of a new synagogue; a plough yard set off a street called Bevis Marks. In many parts of Europe, it was still illegal to build a synagogue on the street and anywhere near a church, and the yard was ideal for this purpose, providing a little seclusion for the safety of the congregation. The Portuguese synagogues build in the colonies in the Caribbean, Jamaica and Curacao among others, have deep sand on the floors to muffle the sounds of worship for the same reason.

The contract to build the Bevis Marks synagogue in the amount of £2,650, (more than 15 million pounds in today’s money) was given to Joseph Avis, a Quaker, apparently because, like the Jews, he was not part of the ecclesiastical establishment. According to tradition, Avis refused to take any financial profit from building a “House of God” and returned whatever money he had made to the congregation. It is also said that an oak beam in the roof from one of the ships of the line of the Royal Navy was presented by Princess Anne, later Queen Anne. The exterior of the building, 80′ (25m) long, 50′ (15) wide and 32′ (10m) high. is unremarkable possibly in accordance with Quaker tradition and also possibly to avoid any hint of opulence which may be a target for discrimination or antisemitism, however the interior was closely modelled after the Portuguese synagogue of Amsterdam. The Synagogue has seven brass gilt candelabras suspended from the roof representing the seven days of the week, the largest of which, representing the Sabbath was gifted by the congregation of the synagogue in Amsterdam. The candelabra have a total of 365 candles representing the days in a year. The twelve pillars representing the twelve tribes of Israel support the balcony which houses the Ezrat Nashim (עזרת נשים), the ladies’ section. The furniture comprises dark wooden pews in a central section and along the side walls forming processional aisles between the Ark ( אחל  ) and the raised reading desk ( בימה ). Ten huge brass candlesticks, six in front of the Ark and four more on the reading desk, represent the ten commandments, which are also symbolically depicted above the Ark.

The synagogue is described in this book published in 1738

In 1747 Benjamin Mendes da Costa bought the lease of the ground on which the building stood, and presented it to the congregation, vesting the deeds in the names of a committee consisting of Gabriel Lopez de Britto, David Aboab Ozorio, Moses Gomes Serra, David Franco, Joseph Jessurun Rodriguez, and Moses Mendes da Costa.

This painting of the interior of the synagogue in the early 1700’s shows the view looking eastwards from behind the raised reading desk towards the Ark. The choir stalls at the rear of the reading desk were added in 1830. The elders and ministers of the congregation continued to wear the costumes that were in fashion in those early days well into the Victorian period. Finding the heavy wigs too hot on warm summer days, they removed them only to find that their three-cornered hats were now too big, so they put on their street silk hats – the tradition of wearing top hats is preserved until this day.

The original building which served the congregation and the street known as Cree Church Lane no longer exist, although the church of Saint Katherine Cree is still there. The area has been rebuilt several times since the late 17th century and on one of the new buildings Cunard House, there is a plaque commemorating the site.


In the same area just around the corner in Duke’s Place, the Ashkenazi Jewish community built the Great Synagogue which served as the premier synagogue of that community from the early 18th century until it was destroyed by German aerial bombing in the Second World War “Blitz” in September 1941, a metal plaque now marks the site

By bryanell2020

Occasional genealogist and full-time Ottolangui family historian. 8th generation descendant of the 17th century Ottolenghi family of Livorno, born in London, graduated in Birmingham, lived around the United Kingdom, Israel, and in Rome, Italy. For a short while in Buenos Aires, and currently residing in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic where I have been since 2005.

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