Reform Judaism magazine - World's Largest Circulated Jewish Magazine 1st Place Award Winner for Excellence in Jewish Journalism and a Benefit of Membership in a Union Congregation

Secret Jews in Shakespeare's London
by Andrée Aelion Brooks

What might it have been like to live as a secret Jew in London during Shakespeare’s lifetime, 1564–1616?

The small community, probably numbering no more than 100, was a tight-knit group, clustered in a neighborhood near Tower Bridge—where three of Amelia Bassano’s uncles had jointly purchased property a few doors down from the group’s leader Dr. Hector Nuñes, and where Amelia Bassano was baptized in an Anglican church.

The name of converso or marrano had been given to the thousands of Jews who had been forcibly baptized in Spain and Portugal at the end of 15th century, many of whom were trying to preserve their Judaism by taking it underground. Following conversion, they had become prey to the Inquisition.

Lasting for 350 years—from the 1480s until the 1830s—the Inquisition was a terrifying force throughout most Catholic countries in Europe, the New World, and Asia. An enforcement agency of the Catholic Church, it aimed, officially, to root out and punish insincere Catholics. In truth, it was directed mainly (at least at the beginning) at the very Jews it had forcibly converted, but now did not trust. They were allegedly spreading heretical ideas that undermined the stranglehold the Catholic Church had maintained for centuries over its faithful. To Inquisition authorities, these conversos had become too prosperous and too powerful too fast, a justification for arresting, torturing, and burning the accused, along with seizing their assets to enrich the Inquisition’s own coffers.

Officially, no Jews had lived in England since 1290, when King Edward I banished them on the pretext that they engaged in usury and the ritual slaughter of Christian children. (The real reasons were that many Christians owed Jews money, which now would not have to be repaid; and Jewish assets could be confiscated to enrich the crown.) However, in the early 16th century, a handful of conversos, primarily traders, had arrived on English shores. Far from the Inquisition’s reach, they were safe from arrest as heretics because in 1532 Henry VIII had broken with the Catholic Church to marry Anne Boleyn. So it could well have been the long arm of the Inquisition—not simply a great job offer—that would soon motivate the Bassanos to move to England.

Around 1540, the first wave of conversos was joined by a second, comprised mainly of musicians from Italy who had been invited to play at King Henry’s court. Among them were Amelia Bassano’s Venetian-born father Baptista and his five brothers, all distinguished musicians and makers of fine wind instruments. Whether the Bassanos were of Sephardi or Ashkenazi origin is unknown, though Ashkenazi is more likely. The Jewish community of Bassano, a village near Venice where the family originated, had been founded by a Jewish moneylender from Germany; and the Bassanos’ expertise in wind instruments more closely reflected musical developments in northern Europe.

Baptized Jews lived comfortably in England as traders, physicians, and musicians. Those who chose to maintain their ancient faith were also well versed in Jewish practice. Thomas Fernandes, a converso merchant living in England who had been apprehended in Lisbon while on business, testified before Inquisition authorities in 1558 that conversos in England scrupulously observed Passover, serving unleavened bread at gatherings of relatives, friends, and travelers. On Friday evenings and Saturdays, in recognition of the Sabbath, conversos used clean linen, wore good clothes, and refrained from work. They observed Yom Kippur by fasting.

Converso men were encouraged to marry within the group as a way to help perpetuate a faith under siege. In the New World, these marriage patterns lasted into the 20th century. Typically, women conversos were more protective of their Judaism and transmitted the rituals to the next generation.

In England at this time, all Jewish observance had to be performed covertly in the home. Any public display might have—and occasionally did—result in imprisonment and/or banishment. In 1542, the authorities arrested a number of conversos in London following a public uproar over baptized Jews blatantly practicing their former religion. The prisoners were released after powerful friends in Antwerp intervened (presumably because exiling the offending Jews would have interfered with valuable trade). In 1609, several conversos were permanently expelled after their secret Jewish practices came to light during a court case arising from an internal dispute over bad debts. The arrest and public hanging in 1594 of Dr. Roderigo Lopez, Queen Elizabeth’s converso physician, on what historians believe were false charges of plotting her death by poison, must also have sent a chill through the tiny community—although this time the charge was for an individual act of treason, not a matter of practicing an outlawed religion.

In 1656, when Oliver Cromwell finally lifted the ban on Jewish inhabitants, primarily to boost the nation’s flagging economy, conversos already living in England could practice Judaism openly at last. By this time, however, many of them, including descendants of the Bassanos, had assimilated into the Protestant elite. They nonetheless left their mark, through contributions to English music, to London’s development as an international center of trade and finance, and to literature.

Journalist Andrée Aelion Brooks is author of The Woman Who Defied Kings, a biography of the 16th-century Jewish leader Dona Gracia Nasi, a conversa who saved thousands of her fellow victims of the Inquisition by developing an escape network.


Union for Reform Judaism.