Was Henry VIII a Jewish Sympathizer?

The story of Henry VIII and his six wives is well known and often told: divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived… Literature abounds with stories of his agonising, and ultimately fruitless ambition to produce a dynasty of Tudor sons. We also read about the Howards, Boleyns and Seymours: the social climbers prepared to take the greatest of risks to get ahead. 

Less well known are the stories and motivations of ethnic and religious minorities in his realm. English society was becoming more sophisticated. The populations of towns were increasing, mercantile and trading classes were emerging, waves of immigrants were settling in the ports and cities. These immigrants included the Jews: even though they had officially been banished from England by Henry II in 1290. 

Henry VIII (1491-1547) on engraving from 1838. King of England during 1509-1547. Engraved by W.T.Fry after a painting by Holbein.

There had been no official Jewish community in England since 1290, but that didn’t mean they weren’t there: they were. Memories of the enormous wealth and influence of the Jewish community persisted. Aaron (1125 -1186) of Lincoln, for example, had been wealthier than the king himself. In the medieval era, the Spanish Jews had since become the most populous Jewish community in Europe: wealthy and educated they made their money trading in lucrative spices, diamonds and wool. 

Henry, as we know, was unafraid to break with tradition. After all, he broke with the Pope in 1534, was swiftly excommunicated and declared himself to be head of the Church of England. He had his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, offending most of the known world in the process. But was he prepared to go out on a limb with his relationship to the ‘illegal’ Jews of sixteenth-century England?

A small Spanish and Portuguese Jewish community had developed in England during the reign of Henry VII. The king, ever a penny-pincher, turned a blind eye to them. Rumours of their presence, however, soon reached the ears of Ferdinand, king of Spain, who described them in a letter to Henry as an ‘infesting scourge.’ Ferdinand demanded that Henry ‘remove the scourge’ before he would consent to the marriage of his daughter Catherine, to Prince Arthur. Henry solemnly declared that he would ‘mercilessly prosecute’ any Jew that had fled the Inquisition to England. There is no evidence that any action was taken against the Spanish Jewish emigres in England. It seems that VII was doing little but lip service to his father in law.

Henry VIII became king in 1509 and soon afterwards married his late brother Arthur’s Spanish widow, Catherine. There was a potential problem here. The Book of Leviticus (18) stated that it was a sin to marry the wife of a dead brother, that they shall be childless. Deuteronomy 25, however, said that a brother should marry his deceased brother’s widow if the marriage were childless. Henry obtained a dispensation from the Pope to allow the marriage, based on Deuteronomy claiming that Catherine and Arthur’s marriage was never consummated. 

The early years of Henry’s marriage to Catherine were happy, but by the late 1510s, Henry was increasingly anxious for a son. Henry and Catherine’s had six children, but only one – Princess Mary – had survived. By 1522 it was clear: Henry believed his marriage was sinful based on Leviticus, and he wanted an annulment.

Who better to turn to in these matters than the Jews? 

Henry expected the support of Juan Luis Vives, a Spanish Jew who was outwardly living life as a ‘Nuevo Christiano’ or New Christian. Vives had been invited by Thomas More to be a tutor to Princess Mary and had become a confidante of the Queen. He had even been given a monopoly on the importation of Gascony wine. When Vives failed to support the king, he arrested him and threw him into chains. The story of Vives’s contentious visit to England and relationship to the monarchs is explored in The Secret Diaries of Juan Luis Vives

Next, Henry turned to Marco Rafael, a recent Jewish convert to Christianity who arrived from Venice in 1531. Rafael began by supporting Henry and the Deuteronomic argument but seems to have changed his mind when Jews in Bologna themselves entered into Levitical marriages. Rafael was sent back to Venice, tail between his legs. This didn’t stop Henry seeking rabbinical help though, and his envoy to Venice, Richard Croke, daily consulted with rabbis to find support for the king’s cause. 

A chanukia in the interior of synagogue.

Henry’s relationship with the Jews was also about trade and money. A burgeoning trading community – controlled by the House of Mendes established itself in Antwerp in the 1510s – based on a monopoly of the pepper trade. The Mendes family, outwardly professing to be ‘Nuevo Cristianos’ practised Judaism in secret and employed other ‘Nuevos.’ They had several agents in London. When accusations of ‘Juadaising’ were made against Diego Mendes in Antwerp, in 1532, Henry VIII personally came to his defence. Diego was exonerated.

Later, in 1536 Gracia Mendes Nasi, (Diego’s sister in law) visited England with her entire family. Gracia’s family had originated from the same region of Spain (Aragon) as that of Vives but had fled to Portugal. She was one of the wealthiest women of Europe, who helped hundreds of Jews and Nuevo Cristianos escape the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal: New York City designated a Dona Gracia Day in June 2010. Gracia brought her son in law, Joseph Nasi with her; he was later to become the Jewish Duke of Naxos and the Cyclades. Henry VIII was friendly with this network of Jewish merchant families. 

At this time small Jewish communities in Plymouth, Bristol and Southampton are recorded. One of the most well established was the physician Dionysius Rodrigues, who was burned in effigy – as a Jew – by the Inquisition in Portugal. In 1540 when accusations were made against the London community in Milan by an informer, Gaspar Lopes, several arrests, including those of Rodrigues, and a group of Italian Jewish court musicians were made ‘on suspicion of being Jewes’. (sic)

Eustace Chapuys, the Imperial ambassador, vitriolically wrote about them, now languishing in prison: “However, well they may sing, they will not be able to fly away from their cages without leaving some of their feathers behind.” However, much to the chagrin of Chapuys, the king ordered them to be released, and a Privy Council report exonerated them. It is true, some of them fled ‘back to their contrey,’ (sic), but they had returned to England by 1543. It seems then that the king welcomed Jews into his kingdom, and even when arrested, his Jewish subjects were quickly released. 

Henry knew that the courts of Italy possessed the best renaissance musicians in Europe. They played ‘in consort,’ that is in larger groups than had hitherto been experienced in England. The families that he invited to England – the Lupos, the Bassanos, Comys, Elmalahs and Moises, were all Jewish. These families created dynasties of court musicians that survived into the late Elizabethan period. 

The musicians were always in the background of the Tudor court, attending the king daily. As Jews, they were neither Catholic nor Protestant, and therefore unlikely to develop loyalties to either side or to vex the king in his daily affairs. These Jews set up shop in the Charthouse -recently vacated by the Carthusian monks that Henry had displaced as a result of the Reformation. So successful were they in manufacturing violins that even the Spanish court imported them. 

Henry had been a great advocate for the renaissance and loved the humanities and the arts. Hebrew had not been studied in England since the thirteenth century. The Act of Uniformity (1549) authorised the use of Hebrew in private prayer; a medal struck to commemorate Henry VIII’s recognition as head of the church bore lengthy inscriptions in (mistake-ridden) Hebrew. At this time Jews by birth, often who had seemed to have converted held positions in the English Universities. 

The evidence is quite overwhelming. Henry VIII, for all his faults, was not blatantly anti-semitic. Early on in his reign, he saw the benefits of courting the Jews, or ‘Nuevo Cristianos.’ 

However, if Henry VIII could see an advantage in fostering a friendly relationship with the Jews, radical readmission of the Jews into England was not on his immediate agenda. He took a different position to the Ottoman Sultan Bayezid II who welcomed Jews into his empire. Bayezid openly criticised the Spanish rulers for rejecting the Jews: “You venture to call Ferdinand a wise ruler, he who has impoverished his own country and enriched mine!” What would England have looked like now had Henry taken that brave step? We will never know, but we can safely say that Henry VIII was indeed a Jewish sympathiser. 

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