In all of the recent fanfare surrounding the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London (2-5 September), I didn’t hear any mention of Jews. That’s for good reason. Jews were only permitted to openly resettle in England ten years before the Great Fire. By the time of the Great Fire, only 200 Jews lived in London. They lived together, huddled in the eastern edge of the Square Mile, around the area of Aldgate. The easterly winds meant that despite their proximity just to the north of Pudding Lane, the ‘Jewish Quarter’ remained unscathed by the flames.
Still, the fire did impact the Jews. The economic fallout of the Great Fire caused great hardship amongst this small Jewish community. According to the records of the community, income based communal taxes dropped by over 35%. However, despite the odds, this small cluster of Jews persisted and ultimately blossomed.
England’s first Jews were of Spanish and Portuguese descent. They were a community of foreign merchants residing and trading in London. As a result of the economic downturn following the Great Fire, and the previous year’s devastating plague, one would have expected them to depart for the more profitable waters of Amsterdam, where many of their coreligionists then prospered. That they didn’t depart, highlights an important development in Early Modern England. It is perhaps one of the most important legacies of London’s Great Fire.
In 1290, the medieval Ashkenazi Jews of England were expelled. They had first arrived after 1066 with William the Conqueror, brought to this isle to serve as money lenders. Much as loans are today, they were a necessary economic medium for creating liquidity and investment. Money lending on interest, however, was a profession Biblically prohibited between Christians. Unfortunately, over time, as Christians became indebted to their Jewish neighbours, hostilities increased. When a Christian child went missing in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were blamed. Ongoing tensions ultimately spilled over in the massacre of York’s Jews in 1190. Jews were eventually stripped of their right to money lend and soon became impoverished. No longer of much economic benefit to the crown, they were finally expelled to satisfy populist sentiment.
If history were a portent of the future, one would have expected a similar result following the 1660’s plague and fire. Jews should have been blamed, rounded up, burned, and the survivors exiled. And yet this time they weren’t. Seventeenth century England was far more fearful of Papists, whom they mistakenly initially blamed. The Jews’ greatest asset in 1666 was that they weren’t Catholics. Though, that fact hadn’t always been clear either.
Before 1656, this group of Jewish Spanish ex-pats lived outwardly as Catholics. They had done so since they were forcibly converted in Spain and Portugal in 1492 and 1497. Afterwards, they lived as part of the Catholic world, though they always remained apart from it. Dubbed ‘New Christians’ they were regularly the target of Inquisitorial suspicion, suspected of secretly living as Jews, and excluded from many professions and positions of authority. In early 1656 England and Spain entered into hostilities. In response, the ships and goods docked in London harbour of all Spanish nationals were seized. One Spaniard, Antonio Rodrigues Robles petitioned the crown to have his property restored. He claimed that he wasn’t really Spanish, for he was a Jew.
Late in the prior year, in 1655, the Amsterdam Rabbi Menashe ben Israel had visited England. He petitioned the Lord Protector, Oliver Cromwell, to officially readmit Jews to England. The matter was debated at the Whitehall Conference, though it never came to a vote. Seemingly, the proposition had failed. It is surprising then, that Robles’ claim the following year was accepted and his goods were restored to him. They accepted his argument that he wasn’t a Spaniard for he was a Jew. Incredibly, the latter point, that he was a Jew, didn’t seem to bother anyone either. As a result, without formal legislation or edict, London’s Jewish community began to emerge from the shadows. Another recently emergent Jew, Antonio Fernandez Carvajal, henceforth leased land on Creechurch lane for a synagogue, and in 1657 leased land on Mile End for a Jewish burial place. While it would take two more centuries for Jews to achieve complete legal acceptance, these seventeenth century Jews appreciated that they had already found a lasting home in England.
Thankfully, the plague and fire didn’t sufficiently ravage this small nascent Jewish community to end it just after it had begun. However, the likely subsequent mass hostility towards it should have. That this rage never erupted meant more to this small group of religious refugees than the challenge of rebuilding London. Indeed, when the public call came in 1685 for funds to finance the rebuilding of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Jewish community responded and contributed. This group of foreigners were Jews, but they had also become loyal British subjects. I wonder whether anyone at the time found this donation ironic. It was just a few decades before, when fantastic rumours of a Jewish plot to purchase St Paul’s and to turn it into a synagogue had helped to doom the Whitehall conference to failure.
In 1699, this community of Spanish and Portuguese Jews, or Sephardim, determined that it was time for them to construct their own place of worship. For this holy task they hired the Quaker, Joseph Avis. Providentially, he was a student of Sir Christopher Wren, St Paul’s architect! Bevis Marks Synagogue, completed in 1701, still stands. It is one of London’s greatest remaining examples of a Wren style Church, having survived the Blitz and the changing tastes of the Victorians.
This Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah, Bevis Marks Synagogue celebrates its three hundred and fifteenth anniversary with a candlelight Friday night service. This solid symbol of English tolerance and acceptance continues to be a source of Jewish life in the City of London, firmly located in the original Square Mile.
I attended a dinner this year in Mansion House for London clergy. There, I heard the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrate Bevis Marks as a symbol of British religious diversity, while London’s Lord Mayor celebrated it as a symbol of the City’s continuing vitality. Now, surrounded by glistening towers, Bevis Marks is an anchor for England’s great tradition of religious tolerance.
Three hundred and fifteen years after its construction, Bevis Marks Synagogue is now the longest continuously running synagogue in the world. Since its construction, Jews have prayed in Bevis Marks, as they continue to do so until this day every weekday morning and Shabbat. Whilst in the past few centuries Jews have continually been forced to flee from hate around the world, one constant source of tolerance and stability for Jews has been the English crown, Parliament, and the United Kingdom.
The Great Fire of London is often looked at in divergent ways. On the one hand, it caused great human suffering and destruction. On the other hand, it snuffed out any remaining plague, and ushered in a period of profound growth and prosperity with the emergent empire. For Jews, though, that they weren’t part of the story, is the story. It meant that in England Jews would be not stereotyped based upon their faith, but would simply be judged based upon their individual actions, just like any other British subject. This is then for Jews, and perhaps for England, the greatest legacy of the Great Fire. It consumed our city, but not our passions. A more tolerant and diverse England would rebuild London. Perhaps that is why it prospers until this day.