Beverly Swerling talks about her latest novel, Bristol House

Like all my books, BRISTOL HOUSE is primarily about the people who live in its pages.  It's about Annie Kendall the historian and Geoff Harris the TV pundit, and Geoff's mother, Maggie Harris and her old friend Si Cohen who defines himself as a "sort of rabbi…", both WWII code breakers when they were young.  And about the men and women of Tudor times: Dom Justin, the Carthusian monk, and Giacomo the Lombard, who is also known as the Jew of Holborn, and Giacomo's daughter, Rebecca, a pawn the powerful Thomas Cromwell feels free to use as he pleases.  My story is about how those two eras and two casts of characters come together in an astonishingly climactic way – that's why it's a thriller – but no novel is ever just about what it's about.  This one has at its heart the constant recurrence of anti-Semitism across the centuries.

Early on in the contemporary section of the novel Annie mentions the fact that Jews were expelled from England in 1290.  She says that's why it's hard to figure out how someone who lived in 1535 would be publically known as the Jew of Holborn.  And because there's so much else going on in the book, I leave it there.  The systematic expulsion of thousands of people from their homes and livelihoods gets only a passing reference.  Here's a bit more of the story. 

Jews came to England from continental Europe after 1066 when the Norman, William the Conqueror, defeated English King Harold at the Battle of Hastings.  William became king of England and established a civil order based on fiefdoms, with serfs who owed their allegiance to the overlord, or fief, while the lords themselves answered to the king.  Jews, however, were not made part of that system.  Indeed, they were not permitted to be part of it.  For the next two-hundred-plus years they were directly under the king himself,  whomever he might be, and he granted them the right to live in his kingdom for only one reason:  In order to thrive a nation required banks and bankers.  Christians were forbidden to lend money for interest.  All such transactions were considered usury, the practice of making money by extortionate or immoral means. 

Inevitably, being the only bankers in the nation made many Jews very rich.  That together with being outside normal society, never allowed to assimilate, was an explosive combination.  Added to the centuries-old pejorative of "Christ killer" were accusations of the equally ancient blood libel, the belief that just before Passover Jews murdered Christian children and used their blood to make matzos.  In short order England's small population of Jews became a convenient scapegoat for any societal ill – an epidemic, a drought, whatever.

There were a number of massacres – those at London, Lynn, and Bury St. Edmonds among them – but the worst was at York in 1190 where 200 Jews were murdered in the fervor of the preparation for the Third Crusade, and others committed suicide rather than convert.  Soon after, when that great document that is the foundation of Western democracy, Magna Carta, was adopted in 1215, Jews were designated as exempt from its rights and provisions.  In 1219 England became the first nation to require that Jews wear a distinguishing badge.

Taxes on the small remaining Jewish population became heavier and heavier, but there simply were not enough of them to handle the debts of Edward I.  In 1290, in exchange for allowing the king to levy a new tax, Edward's knights demanded that he expel the Jewish population.  (Money lending might be condemned by the church, but it was undoubtedly profitable and it would equally undoubtedly continue…)

Two thousand Jews were told they had to leave the country.  Everything they owned now belonged to the king and they left pretty much in the clothes they stood up in.  Many went to Poland, at the time a place where they were protected and probably many had relatives.  There are stories that some had even their lives taken from them in the act of leaving, but in the main it was a quiet departure. 

There would be no Jews legally living in England again until Oliver Cromwell (a distant cousin of the once all-powerful Thomas) invited them to return in 1655.  Mind you, all Cromwell offered was the right to live in the country.  (He needed businessmen.)  There were many stops and starts and partial measures along the way, but the full rights of citizenship were not granted to English Jews until 1890.  (Still excluded is the right to accede to the throne – which is denied as well to Roman Catholics.)

Incidentally, the Catholic Church has never formally changed its opinion condemning money lending for interest as usury. (Cue the Vatican Bank.)  In England the ban was formally ended in 1545 by Henry VIII acting in the role he claimed as head of the church in England. 

Check out Beverly Swerling's website for more information on her books. Bristol House: A Novel is now available in stores.

Book Summary:
In modern-day London, architectural historian and recovering alcoholic Annie Kendall hopes to turn her life around and restart her career by locating several long-missing pieces of ancient Judaica. Geoff Harris, an investigative reporter, is soon drawn into her quest, both by romantic interest and suspicions about the head of the Shalom Foundation, the organization sponsoring her work. He’s also a dead ringer for the ghost of a monk Annie believes she has seen at the flat she is subletting in Bristol House.
In 1535, Tudor London is a very different city, one in which monks are being executed by Henry VIII and Jews are banished. In this treacherous environment of religious persecution, Dom Justin, a Carthusian monk, and a goldsmith known as the Jew of Holborn must navigate a shadowy world of intrigue involving Thomas Cromwell, Jewish treasure, and sexual secrets. Their struggles shed light on the mysteries Annie and Geoff aim to puzzle out—at their own peril.
This riveting dual-period narrative seamlessly blends a haunting supernatural thriller with vivid historical fiction. Beverly Swerling, widely acclaimed for her City of Dreams series, delivers a bewitching and epic story of a historian and a monk, half a millennium apart, whose destinies are on a collision course.


  1. I have not read it yet, but I think it surely has to be the book for me and I’ll add it to my list right away.

    1. It looks intriguing. I love books that cross time.


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