Paul Lay

The strange tale of Oliver Cromwell’s unlikely partnership with a Jew

The story of the historic relationship between the Lord Protector and Menasseh ben Israel should be better known

May 19, 2023 09:30

In February 1906, members of the Anglo-Jewish Historical Society gathered to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the readmission of Jews into England during the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. The historian Lucien Wolf, the society’s founder, remarked that the gathering honoured two men: Cromwell, the “great-hearted Protector”, and Menasseh ben Israel, a “devoted Jew”. These “twin champions of a wronged people” had formed an unlikely partnership of profound historical importance and consequence. The story should be better known.

Jews had been expelled from England and Wales in 1290 by Edward I, the culmination of decades of prejudice and hate. A small Jewish presence came and went over the following centuries: merchants and traders in the City of London, a tiny outpost in the port of Bristol, but they would not reside legally for more than 350 years.

Cromwell’s desire to see the return of Jews to England was not humanitarian but theological. According to the millenarian worldview of Cromwell and his circle, the mission of the English, an elect nation, was to convert the Jews, another chosen people, to Protestant Christianity and, in doing so, bring Christ’s return ever closer.

The Reformation had led to a renewed interest in Judaism among Protestants. One passage from the book of Romans — “and all Israel shall be saved” — inspired a great deal of speculative scholarship. Many of England’s radical sects identified with Jews, a people who had, like them, suffered persecution and exile. And it was in England — “the only place”, in Cromwell’s words, “where religion was taught in its full purity” — that Jews would be most likely to convert to Christianity, the prerequisite of Christ’s second coming.

In 1649, soon after the execution of Charles I, Cromwell wrote to a fellow cavalry officer, Robert Hammond: “I have waited for the day to see union and right understanding between the godly people.” Cromwell then listed those who came under this banner: “Scots, English, Jews, Gentiles, Presbyterians, Independents, Anabaptists, and all.” It is a capacious list, at least by the standards of mid-17th-century Europe, then emerging from the sectarian slaughter of the Thirty Years’ War.

Cromwell’s unlikely ally, Menasseh ben Israel, born in Lisbon in 1604, had fled the persecutions of the Inquisition to settle in Amsterdam. In his early twenties, he established a printing press. Increasingly wealthy and influential, he became preoccupied with finding a haven for Jews enduring a new round of persecution in Eastern Europe. In 1650, he published his own work, Hope of Israel, in Latin, English and Spanish. Its millenarian musings appealed to English Puritans, and the following year he came into contact with John Thurloe,

Cromwell’s future spymaster, who was on a diplomatic mission to the United Provinces.
In October 1654, with Cromwell as Lord Protector, a Jewish delegation from Amsterdam (including Israel’s son, Samuel) arrived in London. They had two petitions which were met with approval by John Sadler, Cromwell’s private secretary and a leading Hebraic scholar. One requested that Jews be given the opportunity to settle in England with the same rights as other residents. Menasseh came to England himself in September 1655, accompanied by Samuel and other colleagues from the Jewish community in Amsterdam. He was welcomed by Cromwell, who offered him rooms on the Strand, near the centre of government in Whitehall. A fortnight after his arrival, Cromwell took a petition from him to his Council of State, in which he sought “graces and favours by which the re-admission of the Jews should be effected”.

The community sought protection, rights of worship, burial grounds and the freedom to trade as equals. Cromwell demanded immediate consideration of the matter. Here was the opportunity to accelerate history. England, in its efforts to teach the true religion, would be the land most able to reveal the true faith to Jews. Cromwell was especially well disposed to such a request because of the help given to his regime by another Jew, Simon de Caceres, who had helped the Protectorate salvage something — Jamaica — from the failed invasion of the Spanish-held island of Hispaniola.

A conference was convened at Whitehall in December and was documented by Henry Jessey, another distinguished Hebraist and preacher, who quoted Exodus 23.8 in recognition of the need to aid the Jewish people: “It is God’s will there be dealing courteously with strangers and persons in affliction.” Emphasis was placed on persecutions in Poland, Lithuania and Prussia, and recognition was made, too, of the injustices perpetrated on Jews throughout English history: “Many cruel and inhumane injuries have formerly been done in our Nation against the Jews.”

Much of the clergy maintained its opposition to readmission, so Cromwell introduced Hugh Peters to the fray, a fierce Puritan divine who had argued for the readmission of Jews as early as 1643. His arguments emphasised a shared patriarchal descent, a common humanity and the suitability of England as a base for conversion.

On December 18, the debate was opened to the public, when it became evident that prejudice ran deep. The most significant opposition came from merchants fearful of competition from the business skills, experience and networks of Jewish traders. According to Jessey, City merchants claimed that “such an inlet would… enrich Foreigners, and impoverish English Merchants”. Cromwell declared, somewhat disingenuously, that he was concerned with “only what the Scripture holds forth”. But still opposition continued. The Admiral Commissioner expressed a widespread sentiment when he asked “whether a nation shall be suffered by a law to live among us to blaspheme Christ”. Even so, observers, including Royalist opposition, thought Cromwell would eventually get his way. The Jews, one Royalist newsletter wrote, “will be admitted by way of conniving, though the generality oppose”.

Crucially, there was a legal ruling that, because of the use of the royal prerogative in 1290, no law existed that forbade the return of Jews into England. Cromwell, insistent again, asked “if it be lawful, then upon what terms is it meet to receive them?”

By spring, there had been no advance on the matter. Menasseh, in despair, prayed that God would strengthen the “mind of the prince”, though there was a hopeful portent: 1656 was a millenarian date. The Flood, it was claimed, had taken place 1,656 years after Creation. The Royalist John Evelyn writes of “an extraordinary event to happen in 1656… possibly to convert the Jews by our saviour’s visible appearance”.

It was the Protector who would prove to be the saviour. The 20 or so Jewish families in London received Cromwell’s personal assurance of their safety and that they could worship in private. Their leaders, along with Menasseh, made a formal request to Cromwell for a burial place and permission to create a synagogue. Cromwell, frustrated by the indecision concerning the fate of the Jews, endorsed the petition on March 24 and confirmed it six months later. A burial ground was found for them in Mile End, in the grounds of what is now Queen Mary University of London, and a synagogue was created in a house on Creechurch Lane, near the Tower, which belonged to Magdalene College Cambridge, of which John Sadler was master. The community would later establish the nearby Bevis Marks Synagogue, which still stands. The readmission of the Jews was Cromwell’s personal initiative. Sigmund Freud would not be alone among later beneficiaries in naming his son Oliver.

Menasseh died on November 20, 1657 at Middelburg, where he had returned to bury his son Samuel. Cromwell died on September 3, 1658 and there were concerns among the Jewish community at the death of the Protector — their protector. A petition against the Jews was raised, predictably, by the City of London Corporation in 1660 soon after the Restoration of Charles II. But Jews were to be beneficiaries of a continuity between the Protectorate and the Restoration. Charles had been aided by Jewish bankers during his exile and he preserved the Cromwellian policy. “They may enjoy the same favour as before”, he proclaimed, “as long as they demean themselves peacefully and obey the laws.” It was a rare and welcome moment of accord between Cavalier and Roundhead.

Paul Lay is the author of ‘Providence Lost: the Rise and Fall of Cromwell’s Protectorate’ (Head of Zeus, £9.99)

May 19, 2023 09:30

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