This Day in Jewish History / House of Converts Opens in London

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On January 16, 1232, the Domus Conversorum (House of the Converts) opened in London.

Forty-eight years before England's Jews were decisively banished from their homeland, a kindler, gentler attempt to solve the problem of their presence was attempted with the establishment by King Henry III of the Domus Conversorum. The arrangement was as follows: Jews who converted to Catholicism forfeited all their property to the crown. No longer having any assets or even a roof over their heads, they were to be taken in by the communal home and provided with a small wage for work they did there. They were also offered instruction in Christianity.

The costs of the Domus Conversorum were covered by the Treasury, by bequests left by clergy for the purpose, and by the establishment of a poll tax on those who remained Jewish. In general, English society and its monarchs in the Middle Ages had a relationship with the Jews that ranged from toleration, so that they would be able to continue their profitable work as usurers, which was taxed at high rates, and resenting them, both for their insistence on remaining Jewish and for the steady drop in tax revenues they provided as they were taxed more onerously. The various financial levies were accompanied by blood libels, massacres and expulsions from individual towns. Eventually, Henry’s son and successor, Edward I, expelled the Jews from the kingdom in 1290, but only after trying a variety of other measures to convert them, to prohibit them from money-lending, and to punish them for so-called coin-clipping, the shaving off of small amounts of the precious metals that coins were composed of. (In 1279, he had the heads of all Jewish households in the realm arrested on coin-clipping charges, and executed 300 of them.)

Between 1232, when the House of the Converts opened, and 1290, however, only some 100 Jews, out of an estimated 16,000 in the kingdom, actually took advantage of the hospitality it offered. The House was set up in a building in Chancery Lane that later became the Public Record Office. And in fact, detailed records were kept of all activity, down to the smallest financial transaction, that took place in the House during the years it was open. Between 1331, when the record-keeping began, and 1608, it is known that 48 individuals moved into the Domus. In the two and a half centuries that followed, an even smaller number of converts applied for admission. Officially, however, the Domus was only shut down by an act of law in 1891. The building was subsequently demolished.

Jews were finally permitted by law to return to England in 1655.

Henry III of England, whose tomb effigy is seen here, tried to handle the 'problem' of English Jews by offering them a home in exchange for conversion.Credit: wikimedia

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