Most history books will assert that there were no Jews in England from the time of their expulsion in 1290 by King Edward I until they were readmitted by Oliver Cromwell in 1656, who was anxious for Jewish merchants to move to London. In both cases, of course, money lay at the root of the policy. Edward and many of his barons owed huge sums to Jewish financiers. By expelling them from the country, they cleared their debts at a stroke. Cromwell, on the other hand, realised that the skilled and wealthy Jewish merchants, many from Amsterdam, would strengthen England’s trade wars against both the Netherlands and Spain, when the country’s coffers were much depleted after the Civil War.
This is not, however, the whole picture. England was not devoid of Jews during the intervening 366 years. There are records of occasional Jews in England from the fourteenth through to the beginning of the sixteenth century. Henry VIII himself invited a number of Italian Jewish musicians to his court, among them the Bassano brothers, a family who settled permanently in England. Probably the most famous of them was Aemilia Bassano, daughter of one of these brothers, who was the mistress of Lord Hunsdon – Lord Chamberlain and a cousin of the Queen – before being hastily married off to Alfonso Lanier, so that her child by Hunsdon could be born in wedlock. Aemilia was one of those strong Tudor women who defied convention in many ways. She was also one of the first English women poets, publishing her collected works in 1611. It has been suggested that she may have been Shakespeare’s Dark Lady. He would certainly have known her, as Lord Hunsdon was for a number of years the patron of Shakespeare’s company, the Lord Chamberlain’s Men. And as an Italian, her colouring would have been regarded as ‘dark’ by the English.
It was in the latter part of the sixteenth century, during the reign of Elizabeth I, that the real influx of those of Jewish blood flowed into England. These were the Marranos, or conversos, or novos cristãos – men and women of Jewish birth or descent who had converted (willingly or unwillingly) to Christianity in rigidly intolerant Spain and – after Spain’s annexation of Portugal in 1580 – equally intolerant Portugal. Despite their conversion to Christianity, the Marranos were constantly regarded with suspicion by the Inquisition, who swept them up in repeated pogroms and subjected them to imprisonment and torture. Many died in the horrific staged mass executions called autos-da-fé. Those who survived were subjected to fearsome penance, including scourging and the seizure of all their property. Of those who survived this, some – those who could – escaped to the more tolerant north, primarily England and those parts of the Low Countries not occupied by Spain.
So it came about that in the later years of Elizabeth’s reign there was a substantial community of Marranos in England, mostly in London. Some (like Aemilia Bassano) had truly become Christian. Some had never abandoned their Jewish faith. Some – like my central character, Christoval Alvarez, who comes to England at the age of twelve – were ambivalent and confused about their religious belief.
The Iberian Marranos who fetched up in London were mostly (though not all) of the professional classes. Although some still dealt in finance and banking, like their forebears who had been exiled by Edward I, there were two other professions now pre-eminent amongst them – medicine and international trade. The network of Marrano trade stretched all over the known world, as far as the Ottoman Empire and the East Indies. The Marrano physicians were distinguished for their advanced knowledge of medicine, much of it learned from the Arabs, who were well ahead of Western Europeans at this time. Hence it was that Dunstan Añez was the Queen’s Purveyor of Groceries and Spices, and Roderigo Lopez was her personal physician. Even Dom Antonio, claimant to the Portuguese throne and under Elizabeth’s protection, was half Jewish.
Although the Marranos were mostly well-to-do professionals, living quiet and respectable lives, that did not mean they were entirely safe in England. Whenever there were economic troubles, the native-born crowds had a way of turning on those they called ‘Strangers’, whether they were Iberian Marranos, Huguenots fleeing France after the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day, or Netherlanders escaping persecution by Spain. The London apprentices would go on the rampage, with their cry of ‘Clubs! Clubs!’, fired up by racial prejudice. On several occasions this hatred ran completely out of control, as when Roderigo Lopez was framed for conspiracy against the Queen.
It is in this volatile world, seething with dangers, that Christoval Alvarez is recruited into the secret service run by Sir Francis Walsingham, where the complex plots of traitors against Queen and country must be met by means both devious and violent.