‘Our English Zion’: Oliver Cromwell and the Jews


“Build up the breaches, and re-establish the bulwarks of our English Zion” – Sir Walter Scott, Woodstock

Oliver Cromwell. Statesman, soldier, Puritan, Lord Protector and friend of the Jews. Contemporary accounts show that European Jewish intellectuals in the 1650s saw Cromwell’s philosemitism and his efforts to readmit Jews in England as proof that the great man was on a godly mission to save Jews and establish Zion – both in England and in the ancient boundaries of Israel. In 1657 – 360 years ago – the newly-confident Jewish community commenced synagogue services in London.

By Richard Mather

In 1655, a rabbi named Menasseh ben Israel arrived in London from Amsterdam. His purpose was to petition the English head of state, Oliver Cromwell, concerning the return of the Jews to England. “I am not come to make any disturbance … but only to live with my Nation in the fear of the Lord, under the shadow of your protection, while we expect with you the hope of Israel to be revealed,” wrote Manasseh in his petition.

Cromwell’s favourable attitude toward Jews was so marked that at least one of Manasseh’s retinue was said to have identified Cromwell as the Messiah. A Jewish delegation was sent to examine Cromwell’s baptismal records in Huntington, to see if he descended from King David. Did Jews really believe Cromwell was the messiah? Perhaps it was a case of wishful thinking on the part of some Jews. More likely it was a case of mischief-making by royalists and foreign agents who wished to sow discord among the English by falsely claiming that Cromwell was Jewish. Either way, it seems clear that continental Jews – especially Manasseh – were in awe of Cromwell. Indeed, Jewish fondness for Cromwell runs deep. Centuries later, Jewish psychiatrist Sigmund Freud named one of his sons Oliver out of gratitude for Cromwell’s protection of the Jews, and in 2006, 350 years after their return to England, Jewish communities throughout the country celebrated three and a half centuries of British Jewish life.

Changing attitudes

The first written record of Jewish settlement in England dates from 1070. According to William of Malmesbury, William the Conqueror brought Jews from Rouen to England. But anti-Jewish sentiment was never far away. Anthony Julius finds that the English were endlessly imaginative in inventing anti-Semitic allegations against the Jews, most infamously the blood libel. (In this regard, not much has changed in England judging from today’s excruciating amount of Jew-hatred on the Left and in the Muslim community.) Things came to a head in 1290, when Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion, whereby the Jews were formally expelled from England. Apart from a handful of secret Jews, England was Judenfrei (Jew-free) for almost four hundred years.

The first half of the seventeenth century saw a modest change in English attitudes towards Jews thanks to the Puritans’ high regard for the Hebrew scriptures and their contempt for Hellenism and paganism. There was a fashion for biblical Hebrew names. Paul, Peter, Anne and Mary were out; Habakkuk, Amos, Enoch, Rebecca and Sarah were in. A Hebrew dictionary (the most complete to date) was produced by the parliamentarian Edward Leigh. The poet and pamphleteer John Milton (whose Christian epic Paradise Lost was published 350 years ago in 1667) recommended the teaching of Hebrew in English grammar schools. And in 1653, a radical overhaul of English law was proposed, including the institution of Mosaic Law, with England modelled on biblical Israel. Although nothing ever came of the idea, there was still a drive to create a godly society – an English Zion – where pagan holidays and festivities (Christmas, maypole dancing etc) were abolished.

Common to both Puritans and Jews was the widely-held belief that the year 1666 was going to a decisive year (think of the pseudo-messiah Shabetai Tsvi) – perhaps the restoration of the Jewish commonwealth in its ancient boundaries and the arrival of the messiah. Indeed, some Puritans were moved to help Jews recreate the Jewish commonwealth in Eretz Israel. And there was also a tradition held by Jews and Puritans that the Jewish diaspora must be extended to all corners of the world – and this included England – before the ingathering of the exiles could begin.

Exploding the myth of Puritan intolerance

Contrary to the popular and untrue portrayal of Puritans as intolerant, many Puritans (Cromwell among them) were quite liberal in matters of freedom of religion. True, one of the first acts of censorship by the Commonwealth in 1649 had been to seize an edition of the Quran printed in London, but attitudes towards Jews and other protestant sects were remarkably liberal. Cromwell, it seems, sought a union of “godly people” comprising Jews, Puritans and other gentiles. “Is it ingenuous to ask for liberty, and not to give it?” asked Cromwell somewhat rhetorically.

There was a small but influential community of Marranos (Jews who converted to the Christian faith to escape persecution but who continued to practice Judaism secretly) in London, living outwardly as Spanish Catholics, who wanted legal recognition. In the atmosphere of philosemitism, it was only natural that they wanted to legalize their position. At the same time, European Jews were already coming back to England, albeit illegally. The expulsion of Jews from Spain and Portugal at the end of the fifteenth century had made England a place of refuge for Marranos who settled in York, Dover and London.

There were also economic considerations. Cromwell was aware of the Jewish community’s involvement in the economics of the Netherlands, now England’s leading commercial rival. All of which led to his encouraging Jews to return to England in the hope that they would help speed up the recovery of the country after the disruption of the Civil Wars.

Enter the Jews

Menasseh ben Israel, an Amsterdam-based rabbi, author, bookseller and scholar, arrived in London in September 1655, with a delegation and members of his family. He personally petitioned Cromwell for the readmission of the Jews, for government protection, for the withdrawal of all laws against Jews, as well as a new synagogue, a cemetery, and the right to trade. It was agreed that a conference should be convened to discuss the issues.


Menasseh ben Israel

Those summoned to attend the Whitehall conference of 1655 included Puritan religious leaders and merchants, as well as some of the most eminent judges and lawyers in the country who declared that there was no law preventing Jews from residing in England, as the 1290 expulsion had only applied to Jews who were then resident in England. However, both religious leaders and merchants – for very different reasons – opposed the readmission. After debating for a fortnight, no decision could be reached. Disgusted, Cromwell berated the participants and dismissed them. All was not lost, however. Unofficially at least, he had decided to readmit the Jews. Cromwell’s personal sympathies were manifested in the pension of £100 granted to Manasseh ben Israel.

And so Cromwell permitted Jews to reside and trade in England, albeit informally. A lease for Creechurch Lane Synagogue was acquired on 16 December 1656 and services commenced January 1657. This was the first synagogue to be established following the readmission of the Jews to England. In February, the community acquired a lease of land in Mile End, to the east of the city, for use as a cemetery, the first Jewish cemetery in England since the expulsion of the Jews in 1290. Meanwhile, Solomon Dormido, a nephew of Menasseh ben Israel, was admitted to the Royal Exchange as a duly licensed broker of the City of London, without taking the usual oath involving a statement of faith in Christianity.

And so began a renewal of Jewish life in England.

Ironically, it was following the collapse of Cromwell’s godly republic that the Jews were legally admitted to England. In 1664, King Charles II issued a formal written promise of protection, and in 1674 and 1685 further royal declarations were made confirming that statement. In 1698, the Act for Suppressing Blasphemy granted recognition to the legality of practicing Judaism in England. William III knighted the first Jew, Solomon de Medina, on June 23, 1700.

The Jewish Naturalisation Act of 1753 was an attempt to give foreign-born Jews the ability to acquire the privileges of native Jews, but it was quickly rescinded due to anti-Jewish agitation. In 1846, the obsolete statute “De Judaismo,” which prescribed a special dress for Jews, was formally repealed. In 1858 came the emancipation of the Jews and a change in the Christian oath required of all members of Parliament (since 1858, Parliament has never been without Jewish members). There was significant Jewish immigration from eastern Europe in the nineteenth century, and in the 1930s and 1940s, some European Jews came to England to escape the Nazi menace.

Today, the Jewish population in the UK stands at just under 300,000 – the fifth largest Jewish community in the world and the second-largest Jewish population in Europe. About two-thirds of the UK’s Jews live in the south-west of the country, with substantial communities further north, particularly in Greater Manchester, Leeds, Gateshead and Glasgow. Indeed, Manchester’s Jewish population is said to be the fastest-growing in Europe. Much of this can be attributed, at least in part, to the remarkable Oliver Cromwell, described by the poet Milton as “our chief of men.”

Final thoughts

In 1658 Cromwell was struck by a sudden bout of malarial fever, followed by a urinary or kidney complaint. He died aged 59 at Whitehall on Friday 3 September 1658. His death was a great loss to England and the republican cause. Fast forward three-and-a-half centuries, and British Jews (republicans and monarchists alike) view Cromwell with admiration for his religious tolerance and his fair-mindedness. Still, one question needs to be asked and that is, should Cromwell have legally readmitted the Jews instead of just allowing an informal arrangement?

Perhaps. But as it turned out, Cromwell’s informal decision was a good thing because when Charles II came to the throne in 1660 there was no statute to cancel and so things carried on as they were. Besides, the informal nature of the resettlement meant that opposition to Jewish readmission was unable to coalesce. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains it this way: “The fact that there was no formal legislation readmitting the Jews, which we could view negatively, actually worked out rather positively because other countries which enacted specific legislation found that this became subject to enormous public debate, and sometimes these countries took several steps backwards, sooner or later revoking those laws.” (Quote given to a Financial Times journalist in 2006.)

It should also be remembered that although many Puritans lauded the Hebrews as the noblest race in the world, acceptance of actual flesh-and-blood Jews was still a novel position in seventeenth-century England. There was opposition from religious figureheads who feared Judaism, and there was economic opposition from merchants. In addition, Cromwell’s royalist enemies (and there were many) drew a parallel with the political execution of Charles I, saying that the killing of the king was akin to the death of Jesus Christ, and that Jew and Puritan alike were deserving of exile. It was against this background that Cromwell somehow managed to pave the way for the political, religious, economic and cultural emancipation of the Jews in England. His outlook was largely shaped by the biblical traditions of the Hebrew scriptures, and combined with his passion for liberty of conscience, this predisposed him to regard the Jewish people with favor. And for this, we are extremely grateful.