This Day in Jewish History

1278: All Jews of England Arrested in 'Coin-clipping' Scandal

Some 680 Jews detained in the Tower of London, with more than 300 subsequently executed, on suspicion of coin clipping. All Jews were eventually expelled from Britain in 1290.

On November 17, 1278, all the Jews of England were subjected to arrest and search of their homes on suspicion of coin clipping and counterfeiting. Eventually, some 680 were imprisoned in the Tower of London, where it is believed that more than 300 were actually executed in 1279. At the time, the Jewish population of England is believed to have been some 3,000.

The most significant antecedent preceding the roundups and hangings of 1278-1279 was the Statute of the Jewry, imposed by King Edward I in 1275. That statute forbid Jews to deal in usury. Ostensibly, the measure allowed Jews to make a living by commerce in “lawful merchandise … and their labor,” and to lease land for farming (for up to 15 years). But the practical effect of the statute was largely to deprive Jews of a legal livelihood. Jews were also limited in where they could reside, and were now required to wear a yellow badge identifying them as such.

Coin clipping was a widespread practice, one in which both Jews and Christians indulged, and which led to a financial crisis in the kingdom. (One contemporary chronicle estimated that, overall, the practice reduced currency’s value to one-half its face value.) By 1275, coin clipping had been elevated to the status of capital crime.

It was in this context that the November 1278 raid on coin clippers got under way. According to the Bury Chronicle, “All Jews in England of whatever condition, age or sex were unexpectedly seized … and sent for imprisonment to various castles throughout England. While they were thus imprisoned, the innermost recesses of their houses were ransacked.”

Those who were arrested were then tried and, according to the estimate by historian Zefira Entin, 269 Jews – and 29 Christians - were put to death, in London alone, and more than another 50 in other towns and cities.

Those who could afford it, and who had a patron at the royal court, could buy their way out of their punishment, and there are records of Jews who purchased pardons for themselves. On the other hand, there is little evidence of Jews taking up a royal offer to convert to Christianity – who were soon obligated to attend regular sermons by Dominican priests - as a means of saving their lives.

By May 6, 1279, King Edward announced that anyone suspected of currency violations who had not by then been convicted and executed could settle accounts with the crown by paying a fine. This measure brought an estimated 16,500 pounds, in the form of fines and of confiscated property, into the king’s coffers. That sum is said to have been equivalent to 10 percent of the crown’s annual income at the time

The final expulsion of the Jews took place in 1290. By that time, there were some 2,000 Jews left in the realm to send into exile.