Tucked away in a small side street in Britain’s financial major district the city of London stands Bevis Marks Synagogue, the oldest shul in the UK. It is somewhat off the beaten track for when work on Bevis Marks was completed, in 1701, Jews were not permitted to build houses of worship on major thoroughfares. But in the 300-plus years of its existence, Jews have moved from the margins of life in the UK to British society and culture’s front and center.
Jewish history in Britain has, it is fair to say, had its ups and downs. A notable down came in 1290, when King Edward II expelled all Jews from England. To that point there had been a Jewish presence since Roman times, and the population had grown after William the Conqueror won the English crown in 1066 and invited Jews from his native Normandy.
Jews remained under protection of the crown for a price—special taxes levied on Jews by the royal Exchequer of the Jews—until Edward decided he’d prefer to take all the Jews’ property and expel them. Popular opinion was on the king’s side: England was the home of the blood libel myth, which claimed Jews used the blood of Christian children for matzo. Anti-Jewish feeling culminated an intense series of pogroms the most infamous of which took place in York in 1190, when the entire Jewish community was burned to death.
After the expulsion, many English Jews fled to Amsterdam, which two centuries later also served as a refuge for Spanish and Portuguese Jews fleeing their countries’ inquisitions. In the 1640s, Britain was the scene of a civil war between monarchists and republicans led by Oliver Cromwell. When the parliamentarians, known as Roundheads, won, Cromwell signed King Charles I’s death warrant. The king was beheaded in 1649 and Cromwell became the first Lord Protector of the British Commonwealth in 1653.
Although he was clearly no fan of monarchs, and had an almost genocidal hatred of Catholics, Cromwell was rather good for the Jews. A devout Puritan, his religious belief that Jews needed to be scattered in all corners of the globe to usher in the second coming of the Christian messiah neatly dovetailed with his economic belief that Jewish merchants would stimulate British trade. So Cromwell enthusiastically agreed with the petition of a rabbi from the Amsterdam Sephardi community, Menasseh Ben Israel, and invited Jews back to Britain in 1655.
Soon afterwards a small building on Creechurch Lane in the City of London, which is now more or less the site of a restaurant and wine bar by British celebrity chef Jamie Oliver (not a Jew), was turned into a synagogue. After an official absence of 365 years, Jews were back in business in Britain. Most of the Jews in London at the time were Sephardim, descendants of those who fled Spain and Portugal for Amsterdam, and their community grew sufficiently by 1699 to warrant a larger, purpose built synagogue.
Prohibited from building anywhere too ostentatious, the British Sephardim leased land not far from Creechurch Lane off Bevis Marks, also known as Camomile Street, by Aldgate station. There they built a synagogue in the style of the great Amsterdam Synagogue, a Sephardi shul built in 1677 from which the philosopher Baruch Spinoza was expelled due to his troublesome unorthodox philosophizing.
The interior of Bevis Marks synagogue is embellished with rich woodwork. Seven hanging brass candelabra to represent the seven days of the week and 12 trompe l’oeil wood columns are painted to look like marble. With oak doors and marble columns, the grand ark, in which the sacred scrolls of the five books of Moses are kept, is inspired by contemporaneous neoclassical altar pieces by the famed architect Sir Christopher Wren, who designed the City of London’s most famous building, St. Paul’s Cathedral. The building’s architectural importance was formally recognized by its designation as a monument of outstanding national importance in 1950. Although IRA bombs seriously damaged the synagogue in 1992 and 1993, it was subsequently completely restored.
Back in the early 18th century, Bevis Mark Synagogue soon became the center of the Anglo-Jewish world, the place where couples were married and the forum at which the community hashed out its affairs. One of the synagogue’s most prominent members, Moses Montefiore, spoke at the shul to rally support for his work on the Damascus Affair, when Syrian Jews were accused of ritual murder, and the Mortara Affair, when an Italian Jewish child was taken from his parents and converted to Catholicism. The father of Benjamin Disraeli, the 19th century British Prime Minister, was also a member.
Perhaps it is unsurprising that in a place where money is the primary focus a person’s racial or religious background is of little concern, but tolerance of Jews and others has served the City of London since before Bevis Marks was established. While there has long been a whiff of anti-Semitism in certain areas of British life, this tolerance has been mutually beneficial for both the City and the Jews. And so it was in the City that Jews would first move from the backstreets to the heart of Jewish life. A wealthy founding member of Bevis Marks, Solomon de Medina, was the first Jew to be knighted in England and shul member Montefiore became one of the first Sheriffs of the City of London in 1837.
Meanwhile, as the 19th century progressed, increasing numbers of Ashkenazi Jews arrived in London and more and more synagogues appeared, such as the West London Synagogue and the New West End Synagogue. As the 19th century turned into the twentieth, Jews from Eastern Europe arrived in the immigrant neighborhoods beyond the City in the East End of London. Nevertheless, although the community’s center moved from the City, “The synagogue held its bicentenary celebration with great pomp in 1901,” according to the Jewish Encyclopedia of 1906.
Nowadays, the vast majority of British Jews are descended from Ashkenazi immigrants from the 19th and 20th centuries rather than 17th century Sephardi émigrés. But whatever an individual British Jew’s provenance, the London Jewish community’s roots go back to Bevis Marks, so when Ashkenazi Lord Levene became the 8th Jewish Lord Mayor of London his first public act was to walk to Bevis Marks for Shabbat services.
Today, while most British Jews live in Northwest London rather than the City, Bevis Marks still functions as a synagogue and is also the site of one of the capital’s few upscale kosher restaurants. And as Jews from around Britain, across Europe, and indeed throughout the world are part of the truly international workforce in the City of London, Bevis Marks serves as a home away from home for Jewish workers of all backgrounds.
It was fitting, then, that in the celebrations to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the readmission of Jews to England, Prime Minister Tony Blair led a service at Bevis Marks, where the journey of British Jews from the fringes of the City to the heart of British society first began.