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Jews in the Court

For years, it has been commonly believed that Jews were banned from England in 1290 and not allowed back until Oliver Cromwell lifted the ban in 1656. But new research, uncovered through means worthy of a first-rate detective novel, has revealed that not only were there Jews in the Britain; they were right under the royal noses.

The central hero of the story is Roger Prior, a Shakespearean scholar who, in an almost midrashic weaving together of scanty tidbits of inconsistent and usually overlooked historic minutiae, uncovered the hitherto unsuspected presence of Jews at the very heart of England’s cultural life of the period, in the Tudor Court itself. And we’re not talking just a few, but rather, it seems, the majority of the court musicians of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I were of Jewish heritage. It is a complicated, fascinating tale of historical excavation, one that involves a series of discoveries, from the identity of the mysterious “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s sonnets to the startling hypothesis that the whole grand European tradition of string music was born directly of Jewish hands.

Let’s start at the beginning.

The story opens in the 1970s in the manuscript collection of Oxford’s Bodleian Library. Shakespearean scholar A.L. Rowse was delving into the tattletale memoirs of Elizabethan celebrity astrologer Simon Forman for period scuttlebutt. Forman’s clients had been a virtual Who’s Who of Elizabethan England. In one passage, Rowse limned a reference to a court scandal whose facts precisely echoed a major narrative element in Shakespeare’s sonnets. In a eureka moment, Rowse realized that Forman’s scandal could only refer to Emilia Bassano, and also that she must be the “Dark Lady,” the love-obsession at the heart of Shakespeare’s remarkable sequence of 154 sonnets. Rowse announced his discovery in the London Times. Journalist Chaim Raphael wrote to the editor that Bassano was a common Italian Jewish name. Could Shakespeare’s lover have been Jewish?

Convinced by the truth of Rowse’s discovery and intrigued by the exoticism of Raphael’s suggestion, Prior decided to research Bassano’s background. It was well known that Henry VIII imported musicians from Venice to add grandeur and improve the quality of music at the court. Several — including men with the last names Lupo, Comys and Bassano — founded dynasties of distinguished court musicians.

As Prior learned, Emilia was the daughter of one of these musicians and, after being orphaned, she became the mistress of the most powerful political figure after Queen Elizabeth, the Lord Chamberlain — who was the major patron of both Forman and Shakespeare. There was no question that Shakespeare and Bassano were intimately acquainted.

Bassano later became the only woman in Elizabethan England to publish her own poetry, titling her major work, a 200-stanza defense of the virtue of women, “Salve Deus Rex Iudaeorum” (“Hail God, King of the Jews”). Even stranger, this long poem is interrupted by a prose denunciation of men’s ingratitude to women — which Prior read as an angry riposte to Shakespeare’s railings against the Dark Lady’s lack of virtue.

While researching Bassano’s background, Prior noticed something even more bizarre: The names of these “Italian” musicians kept changing in the records, sometimes radically, depending on the context. One John Anthony was posthumously identified as “Anthonius Moyses.” The executor of Anthony’s will was another of the court musicians known primarily as Ambrose of Milan, later called Ambrose Lupo. He founded one of the great musical dynasties. But in this sole instance he was identified in the clerk’s record as “Ambrosius deolmaleyex.” Prior convincingly deciphered this odd name as the clerk’s phonetic spelling for “de Almaliach” — the name of a notable Sephardic family — which is also known as “Elmalah,” far-flung over the globe after the 1492 expulsion from Spain.

Prior went back to the list and discovered multiple similar examples and other confirming clues all over the historical records. Most of the musicians turned out to be Sephardic, but some were Ashkenazic. At least two had roots in Poland, like the improbably named Rowland Rubbish (also known as Rubbidge or Ribridge). Rubbish signed one parish document with the ideogram of a fish-head between two vertical lines. From all this, Prior deduced that his true name was Rybarz — Polish for fisher or fisherman — a common Polish Jewish name.

“The evidence suggests that at least until 1600, and probably beyond, all these musical families thought of themselves as Jewish, but they varied in their determination and desire to hold on to that identity,” Prior writes. In any case, however quickly or slowly, most of these musicians shed whatever Jewish identity they had, and assimilated. They were so successful, in fact, that only a generation or two later they were landed gentry and barristers.

But why did Henry VIII import Jews for his court in the first place? It is well known that he had turned to rabbis abroad for advice when the pope refused his request for a divorce. In response, he established the Anglican Church, which threw England into the Protestant camp — and ensured generations of conflict with the Catholic Church. In a time before radio and recordings, court musicians provided the soundtrack for the most intimate, as well as public, events of the king’s daily life. For Prior, importing these “Italian” musicians made practical sense in that historic period. “It was doubtless realized at an early stage that Jews would make more reliable servants precisely because they owed loyalty neither to the pope nor to Luther,” Prior said.

And as for why Jewish musicians would exchange the relative freedom of religion they were permitted in Italy for a covert and ambiguous status in England, Prior argues that it was a classic dilemma for musicians: They could practice their art or they could practice their religion, but not both. Jobs at the English court offered wealth, lack of segregation and an opportunity to play, but not freedom of religion. Besides, the lessons of the Inquisition in Spain taught them that however safe they were at the moment, everything could change in an instant. So that explains it.

Except there’s more. In 1541, Henry was eager to curry favor with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. So when he received word from the Inquisition in Milan that there were Portuguese nationals who were “secret Jews” living in London, he had these “certain persons” imprisoned and their property confiscated. Charles’s ambassador in England, Eustace Chapuys, crowed about the “New Christians who came from Portugal,” now in prison: “Most likely, however well they may sing, they will not be able to fly away from their cages without leaving some of their feathers behind.” This chilling comment never made sense to historians. But it does now that we know it was probably the musicians who were the ones imprisoned. Milan was where at least four of the six viol players came from.

Two or three months after Chapuys’s remark about leaving feathers behind, two of the royal musicians were dead. Prior observes: “It was at this moment that Ambrose called himself and his dead friend by their true Jewish names. Clearly if he was already in prison for being a Jew he had nothing to lose by admitting it.” Henry’s action backfired, as these imprisoned musicians had powerful friends. The king of Portugal, as well as the emperor’s sister, the Dowager Queen Mary of Hungary, made representations to Henry to have the prisoners released. Indeed the historical record shows that many of the royal musicians fled at the time of the imprisonment. “They be gon in to their contrey” is all the record says, without elaboration. The consort “be gon” for 18 months, returning only in 1543, after the commission inquiring into their faith (that is, that they were good Christians rather than Jews) had reached a favorable verdict.

The timing of the consort’s arrival in England also allows Prior to identify a pivotal moment in the history of music. Since this viol consort was only the second or third of its kind at the time, and all of them were Sephardim expelled from Spain, Prior draws an astonishing conclusion: Both viols and violins had to have been invented largely by Jews. If Prior’s research is correct, he has identified the generation and specific people responsible for the beginnings of the whole grand European tradition of string instruments, as well as the idea of the consort — the forerunner of the orchestra — and that most, if not all, of these people were Jewish.

It was known that one of the first makers of violins, Amati, who taught violin making to both Guarneri and Stradivari, was of Jewish heritage. Viols derive from a Spanish guitarlike instrument, the vihuela, which these musicians played with a bow instead of plucking. Viols have gut frets, like a guitar, and their six strings are lighter, longer and with much less tension than the violin’s four. For centuries, these two instruments vied with each other for dominance. The violin, being a louder, more brilliant instrument, eventually won out, much as the piano pushed aside the harpsichord.

Prior points out that of the handful of viol consorts of the time, Henry VIII’s “Italian” musicians were also the most renowned for making viols. Ironically, the group set up shop in the Charterhouse of London, formerly the home of the Carthusian monks who were kicked out or executed by Henry for refusing to recognize his new Anglican Church. The monks’ former cells made perfect workshops for their instrument making. Eventually even the Spanish court wound up purchasing instruments made by these Jewish musicians who had been expelled by the Inquisition.

To highlight this story of intrigue, the British viol consort Fretwork will tour North America from November 4 to November 13, kicking off at New York’s Miller Theater on November 4. The consort will also perform in Cleveland; Jackson, Miss., Victoria, British Columbia, and in Berkeley, San Francisco and Palo Alto, Calif..

Restoring these neglected musicians to their rightful glory is a mission for Fretwork founder/director Richard Boothby, the acclaimed viol consort touring these works in November ( For him, “it is music-making on an altogether different plane.” Literally fit for a king.

Raphael Mostel is a composer. His recent “Night and Dawn,” commissioned to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Holland’s liberation from the Nazis, was premiered by the brass of the Royal Concertgebouw and Chicago Symphony orchestras.

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