From medieval persecution to thriving communities, the long and fascinating history of Jews in Wales
A long and illustrious chapter of Welsh history that is both quintessentially Welsh and quintessentially Jewish
Wales and the Jewish people. Now there’s an association that seldom springs to mind.
This is scarcely surprising, as the stereotypical notions of Wales (a quaint, homogeneous rural land reeling from the ravages of industrial fallout) and the Jewish people (a dispersed people fighting against persecution the world over) have scant similarities on the surface.
These stereotypes and notions, however, belie the reality: the deep similarities between the Jewish and Welsh people and the long, illustrious history of Wales’ Jewish people and community, a historical chapter that manages to pull off the arduous task of being at once both quintessentially Welsh and quintessentially Jewish.
Although the development of Wales’ Jewish community was built around the industrialisation and mass immigration of the 19th century, Jews have been in Wales since the Middle Ages. This presence, however, was essentially just a miniscule trickle of Anglo-Jews after 1066. Indeed, although we know of Jewish individuals like merchant patriarch Josce of Caerleon, it seems no tangible Jewish community actually developed in medieval Wales.
Edward I, blood libel and the Edict of Expulsion
Most ‘evidence’ for medieval Welsh Jews is in fact conjectural, such as Cecil Roth’s notion of Jews in north Wales due to their funding of Edward I’s ‘iron ring,’ or Welsh merchants in Ireland with common Jewish names.
Despite the miniscule Jewish presence, persecution still existed as an extension of English policy (such as exclusion from boroughs) and anti-Semitism was present, in canards like the blood libel and derogatory poems. Blood libel cited Jews sacrificed Christian children as a part of religious rituals (its origins lie with the murder of a boy in Norwich), and the poems, for example, used the Welsh word for Jew (Iddew) in a derogatory fashion.
The few Welsh Jews were officially expelled alongside their English counterparts as a part of Edward I’s Edict of Expulsion in 1290, in which the King expelled Jews from England and crown lands, including Wales.
Although there are scant examples of Jewish activity after 1290 (an unnamed Jew at a Welsh court nearly a century after the Edict of Expulsion) all official activity ceased until 1656 with the readmission of the Jews under Oliver Cromwell after the English Civil War (although the Edict of Expulsion was not officially repealed as a part of this resettlement).
The 18th century and the first Welsh-Jewish communities
In the mid-18th century, the first tangible Welsh-Jewish community developed around the copper industry in Swansea, largely due to the efforts of German-Jewish immigrant David Michael. By 1768 there was a Jewish cemetery and the Swansea Hebrew Congregation built two purpose-built synagogues in the early-mid 19 century, both accommodating over 100 worshippers.
The Jewish communities of Cardiff, Newport, Neath, Tredegar, Pontypridd, and Merthyr Tydfil all followed a roughly similar process of development in the 19th century with the rise of Welsh industry. The Merthyr
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