This Day in Jewish History

1700: The First Jew to Be Made a Knight Is Born

Dutch-born arms dealer Solomon de Medina had friends in the highest places of the British realm.

Wikimedia Commons

On this day, June 23 in the year 1700, arms dealer Solomon de Medina would become the first openly practicing Jew to be knighted by an English monarch, specifically by King William III. The ceremony took place at Hampton Court Palace.

Times were different then and William III, who lived from 1650 to 1702, began his royal career as monarch of the Dutch Republic, where he was known as Willem the Third. In 1688 forces under his command invaded England, a struggle that was named – presumably, because he won –”the Glorious Revolution.” From the year 1689 William assumed the monarchy over England, Scotland and Ireland as well, though in Scotland his regnal number was two (William II). In any case, the irreverent Scots and Irish called him “King Billy.”

“King Billy,” a Protestant, warred time and again against the loathed Catholic leader of France, Louis XIV. It bears mention that among Louis’ enemies were certain Catholic kings in Europe, whose beef was other than religious.

Standing by the king’s side from his days in Holland was Simon de Medina, a Jew who was born as Diego de Medina in Bordeaux in around 1650. Medina lived in Holland until William’s invasion of England, which he helped to finance.

In the course of Medina’s dealings with the English regime as an army commissariat contractor, he was given the soubriquet “the Jew.” But it was chiefly for services rendered during the War of Spanish Succession that Medina was honored with knighthood.

Attesting to his status, in 1699, a day after appealing to parliament for more funds to wage war, the king came to dine with Medina, creating another first – a regal visit to a Jewish home, according to “A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs” by Narcissus Luttrell.

The War of Spanish Succession lasted 13 years, from 1701 to 1714, and was over who would succeed Charles II as King of Spain. Finally the war ended with the Utrecht peace treaty, which recognized the Philip V of Spain – a grandson of the French king Louis XIV and backed by the French – as the legitimate Spanish monarch. (Philip would rule until 1746, barring a short period when he gave the throne to his 17-year old son Louis, who promptly died, at which Philip resumed control.)

In this desperately convoluted story, the Duke of Marlborough commanded a joint force of English, Dutch and German soldiers, and found a sorely-needed helpmate in Simon de Medina. “The Jew” accompanied the duke on his European campaigns, lent him money and helped provision the troops – and became a key source of intelligence.

Medina wasn’t the first Jew to finance the English crown: He had been preceded by such as the de Costa family, which lent money to Charles II, and in another example, the Dutchman named Isaac Lopez Suasso – who, like Medina, also moved to England – also helped finance William III. But in Medina’s case, no less crucial than his financial prowess was his prowess in communications.

His system proved faster than the government’s, giving his agents vital information before it had reached parliament through regular channels, for which the Duke of Marlborough paid handsomely – and found himself under attack in the English parliament for paying 6,000 pounds a year to “the Jew.” Marlborough rebutted that the payments had been made for credible information.

Sir Solomon de Medina also contributed handsomely to the English Sephardic Jewish community. He was a heavy donor to the Bevis Marks Synagogue in London, which was built in 1701 and still operates to this day.

Despite the honor given to him in England, Solomon de Medina wound up returning in 1702 to Holland, leaving his English affairs to be handled by family. He died in Amsterdam – reportedly, reduced to poverty – on September 15, 1730.