Daniel Defoe, Jew

daniel defoeAuthor’s Famous Chair Preserved by Quakers Tells All

A chapter in the new book from McFarland The Early Jews and Muslims of England and Wales: A Genetic and Genealogical History (April 29, 2014) proposes on the basis of original genealogical research by Donald Yates that Daniel Defoe (in engraving), the author of Robinson Crusoe, came from an old Sephardic Jewish family, the De Foas.

If that is true he deserves a place as the forerunner among a galaxy of Jewish novelists and masters of world literature that includes Sholom Aleichem, Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, Franz Kafka, Isaac Singer, Arthur Koestler, Herman Wouk, Mordecai Richler, Norman Mailer, Stefan Zweig, Nathaniel West, Sidney Sheldon, Muriel Spark and Leon Uris. Many literary critics consider Defoe the inventor of the modern novel.

Judge for yourself from the opening paragraphs of “Daniel Defoe and Robinson Crusoe.” Note, in addition to Defoe, Foe and Foa, the names Annesley, Devereux, Fall, King, Maxwell, Levitt, Job, Wells, Raleigh, Grenville (now Granville), Champernoun, Gilbert, Drake, St. Leger, Zouche, Hawkins, Phoebus, Foix and Carew. Clues for your genealogy!

From The Early Jews and Muslims of England and Wales, by Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman and Donald N. Yates (Jefferson:  McFarland, 2014).

Much is known about Daniel Defoe, the creator of the first English novel Robinson Crusoe, originally published in 1719. But as the scholar John Richetti remarks in his biography, much is also unknown. “Despite several centuries of literary and biographical criticism . . . and of repeated biographical investigation . . . the inner man, the personality, the actual Defoe, remains an elusive and even a mysterious figure.” [i] In this chapter, we intend to show that Defoe’s ancestry was Jewish and that many of his social concerns, religious beliefs, attitudes, activism and artistic aspirations were those of a self-conscious British Jew of the seventeenth and eighteenth century.

The author’s family name was Foe, at least in its latest manifestation.[ii] Daniel added what his detractors referred to as a “Frenchified aristocratic prefix” in 1695, when he was a young man in his thirties. It was a time shortly after he had become established in his business career as owner of a Dutch brick factory in the town of Tilbury in Essex.[iii] The facts of Daniel Defoe’s genealogy are set forth in the adjoining chart. The first mystery we are confronted with is the absence of a birth record. He was the third child and only son of James Foe, a merchant and citizen of London living with his wife Ailce [iv] in the Broad Street Ward of Cripplegate (also called Jew’s Gate), a commercial district in the heart of the Old City, today’s Barbican Center. Jewin Street, now covered by Defoe House, was the only place where Jews were allowed to be buried. Daniel’s two older sisters were Mary, born 1657, who would marry Francis Barham and later the natural philosopher Robert Davis, and Elizabeth, who would become the wife of James A. Maxwell, a Quaker. Both siblings have birth records, but the parish register of St. Giles Cripplegate lists their births in a distinct manner as “borne but not christened.”[v] Biographers and commentators are at pains to explain the reason why, or to suggest an explanation for their brother’s lack of a birth record. The precise birthdate of September 30, 1660 sometimes given for Daniel Defoe is based on a chain of conjectures from his fiction and not on actual records.[vi]  We can only be sure that he was born in 1660, a pivotal year marked by the return of Charles II and end of the Cromwellian period.

Of Daniel Defoe’s ancestry, most writers today are content to say that his grandfather was a yeoman farmer from the little village of Etton in the East Midlands, and that the Foes can be traced back to sturdy rural English stock. That this is not the whole story, however, is suggested by some of the names in the Foe family tree. To begin with, Daniel was not an ordinary English given name in the time when the author’s grandfather Daniel Foe was born, in 1598, not in his grandson’s day either. In the nineteenth century it was still so distinctly Jewish that George Eliot used it for the title character of her novel Daniel Deronda about an English gentleman who gradually awakens to the fact of his Sephardic Jewish ancestry and becomes a Zionist. Rose, the name of Daniel Defoe’s grandmother, is also Jewish.[vii] We do not know her maiden name, but after the death of her first husband Rose Foe married Solomon Fall of Maxie, Northamptonshire  (Jewish first and last name), and after being widowed again in 1641, she moved to Huntingdon, where she married Thomas King, a widower with two children, one of whom became the wife of her eldest son Daniel in 1643.[viii] Daniel Jr. died on the family farm in Etton in 1647, but his older brother Henry went to London and became the apprentice of the saddler John Levitt (“Levite”). James, Rose’s youngest son by her first marriage to Daniel Foe, born 1630, followed Henry to the city at the age of fourteen and was apprenticed as a chandler to the same John Levitt, a member of the Butchers’ Company trade guild.[ix]

Defoe wrote in one instance that his grandfather was a country gentleman who rode to the hounds, giving the good ones names from one political party and the bad ones names from the opposite faction. He also boasted an armorial device with three griffons. But at the same time, he claimed kinship with Sir Walter Raleigh, the quintessential crypto-Jew.[x] Biographers have been eager to validate his assertions about his grandfather, Daniel Foe, but skeptical of the Raleigh connection. If true, says one of them, “the strain must have been thin indeed by the time of Defoe’s birth.”[xi] Yet only a little over a century separated the Elizabethan Protestant explorer-courtier from the enigmatic journalist and author of Robinson Crusoe. Moreover, the chronicles of the Raleighs, Grenvilles (now Granvilles), Champernouns, Gilberts, Drakes, St. Legers, Zouches, Hawkins and Carews were by no means finished.

A clue to Defoe’s real ancestry emerged in the nineteenth century when a descendant in America came forward with a family heirloom described as the chair in which Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe. We will tell this charming story in the words of Joseph T. Richards as reported by local historian of Cecil County, Maryland, Alice E. Miller. This writer starts by recounting the history of Blue Ball, an old inn near the Quaker site of Brick Meeting House. Andrew Job established it about 1710 and went to Philadelphia, returning with a bond-servant, Elizabeth Maxwell, the runaway niece of the novelist Daniel Defoe.

chairThe Story of Elizabeth Maxwell

Until she was eighteen, Elizabeth lived in London. Her mother was born Defoe. She was the sister of Daniel. The brother’s desire to reform the realm by writing pamphlets criticizing Her Majesty’s Government got him into trouble. To escape arrest in 1705, he fled to Mrs. Maxwell’s home and lived in seclusion for years.

His niece, Elizabeth, became his pupil from her fifth year, and enjoyed her uncle’s company and stories. When she was eighteen, she became engaged to a young man of whom her mother did not approve. The bar to their marriage made the girl despondent and she felt that she must cut herself off from all of her accustomed association with her friends. After a few months of this isolation, Elizabeth heard that a ship was about to set sail for America from a wharf near her home. Without a word to anyone, she ran aboard just in time and was off. After long weeks on the voyage, she made port in Philadelphia.

Such unceremonious passage as this was not unusual in those days, apparently, and these young people did not hesitate to sell themselves as bond servants to those who paid their passage money. So Elizabeth and a group of her fellow passengers came up for sale soon after landing. In the crowd around the auction block she saw a man wearing a broad-brimmed hat of the Quakers. She had known these people at home to be kindly, and so she asked this man to pay her passage money and to take her as a servant for the required seven years.

This man was Andrew Job. He had five sons, but no daughters. His wife needed help in her housekeeping. So Andrew paid Elizabeth’s fare, and started home with her. He lived at East Nottingham, some fifty-five miles away . . . near the Brick Meeting House, now the village of Calvert. . . .

Elizabeth served out her seven years, but during all that time she did not write home. At the end of her time of service, she married one of the five sons, Thomas Job . . . . Then she wrote home, telling her mother the whole story.

Months passed. Finally a letter from Uncle Daniel. Then she learned that her mother’s anxiety for her safety could never be satisfied, for she had died years earlier.

Her uncle told her further that by her mother’s will ‘in case she should ever be found alive’ she was to have a good property and her mother’s furniture. Daniel said that he would send the furniture to her and asked that she preserve it carefully, because it had ‘come to the family from their Flemish ancestors who had sought refuge under the banner of Queen Elizabeth from the tyranny of Phillipe [sic].’

He went on to apologize for the wooden seats in the two chairs, explaining that he had worn out the cane seats and had replaced them with wooden ones.

It is interesting to know that at least one of these chairs is still to be seen at Nottingham . . .

The eighty-year-plus-old man telling this amazing tale ends by speculating that Defoe’s loneliness after his niece’s sudden flight may have set his mood for writing Robinson Crusoe in 1719.[xii]  The Defoe chair passed into the keeping of the Historical Society of Delaware, and a longer version of its provenance appeared in Scribners Monthly in 1876.[xiii]

What we learn from this lore is that the original Foe family was not English, but “Flemish.” If the founding forefather joined the forces of the Protestant English campaigning against the Catholic king Phillip II, this was probably at the beginning of the Anglo-Dutch War when Elizabeth I sent Robert Dudley to lift the siege of Antwerp by the Duke of Parma in the summer of 1585. Droves of Sephardic Jews in exile from Spain and Portugal in Flanders took the side of the English, Dutch and French, leading eventually to the independence of the Netherlands and the partition of Flanders between Catholics and Protestants. Daniel’s eponymous ancestor Jacobus de Foe, born 1578, was undoubtedly one of these new Flemings sworn to resistance against the Spanish. The family name, we believe, was Foa, an armigerous Sephardic line named for their ancient seat of Foix in the Aquitaine region of France.[xiv] Defoe apparently even alludes to this ancestry, tongue in cheek, when he writes of noble descent from “the De Beau Faux.”[xv] Defoe’s editor Henry Morley mentions it in attempting to account for Defoe’s fluent foreign language capacities and business trips: “He had connections in Spain, and it may even be that his family had Spanish origins, and at some former time had anglicised the name of Foà into Foe.”[xvi]

Curiously, Defoe’s enemies accused him of being Dutch. John Tutchin fired off the dunce’s poem called “The Foreigners” in 1701 aimed at William III’s favorites Hans Willem Bentinck, first earl of Portland, and Arnold Joost van Keppel, first earl of Albemarle. In it, he represented England as Israel, with its autocratic Stuart monarch “all their Plagues . . . crammed in the Single Person of a King,” and Holland a country lying “due east from Judah’s Shoar . . . Its Natives void of Honesty and Grace, A Boorish, rude, and an inhumane Race . . . born in Bogs.”

Let them in foreign States proudly command,

They have no Portion in the Promis’d Land,

Which immemoriably has been decreed

To be the Birth-right of the Jewish Seed.

Evidently, in this political allegory, Scotland and Ireland are the realm of Hiram and the Phoenicians, “ye Jewish Nobles” are the English peerage, and Sanhedrins are the Houses of Parliament. The Puritan doctrine of equating the destiny of the British with that of the people of Israel was so engrained by this time that it passed for an article of political faith. But the radical Whigs were probably not prepared for what came from the pen of a verifiable Jew. Defoe responded with “The True-Born Englishman:  A Satire,” lampooning the very notion of any purity of race. This effort won him a stipend from the king and led to his being tapped as a secret agent by Robert Harley, earl of Oxford. Defoe even adopted “True-Born Englishman” as his ironic nom de plume, publishing his collected works to date under that name in 1703 and 1705.

Defoe’s existing portraits are highly burnished, revealing little about his appearance other than a pronounced sharp nose. But a “wanted” description put out after one of his skirmishes with the law paints a distinctly foreign picture of him:

He is a middle Sized Spare Man about 40 years old, of a brown Complexion, and dark brown coloured Hair wears a Wig, a hooked Nose, a sharp Chin, grey Eyes, and a large Mould near his Mouth, was born in London, and for many years was a Hose Factor in Freeman’s-yard in Corn hill, and now is Owner of the Brick and Pantile Works near Tilbury-Fort in Essex.[xvii]

From Defoe’s genealogy readers will also notice that his first naturalized English ancestor Jacobus de Foe marries Wilson Annesley. She must have been a member of the distinguished Nottinghamshire family of that name. The pedigree includes Robert Annesley, high constable of Newport, Buckinghamshire; his son the English and Irish statesman Francis Annesley, 1st Viscount Valentia; Charles II’s Keeper of the Privy Seal Arthur Annesley, 1st Earl of Anglesey (1614 –1686); and most fittingly Defoe’s family pastor, Samuel Annesley (1620? – 1696),  a prominent Dissenter, from the Warwickshire branch. Samuel Annesley served as chaplain to Robert Rich, the earl of Warwick, son of the first earl and Lady Rich, Penelope Devereux, countess of Devon, sister of Robert Devereux and the “Stella” of Sir Philip Sidney’s love poetry. Annesley came, then, from a carefully endogamous set of forbears. Contemporaries called him “an Israelite indeed.”[xviii]

The designation Dissenter had a loose—and shifting—meaning. Today, we might apply the term Presbyterian to the majority of seventeenth century Dissenters. But when it first came into usage the word described those, like Annesley, who feared that the 1662 Act of Uniformity introduced by Charles II would lead to a suppression of Scripture for private devotion, as well as  disenfranchisement of all but Church of England adherents in public office. The new monarch flirted with absolutism in religion as in politics. With non-conformists panicking, Defoe was made by Pastor Annesley to copy the entire Bible by hand.  Looking back in middle age, he wrote in a characteristically flippant manner:

How many Honest but over-frighted People, set to Work to Copy the Bible into Short-Hand, lest when Popery come in, we should be Prohibited the use of it, and so might secure it in little Compass? At which Work, I my self then, but a Boy, work’d like a Horse till I wrote out the whole Pentateuch, and then was so tyr’d, I was willing to run the Risque of the rest.[xix]

Is Defoe being less than disingenuous here? One wonders if there might not be more to the fact that he stopped with the part of the Bible that constituted the Hebrew Torah, which would have sufficed the needs of a crypto-Jewish congregation.

Defoe lived, and wrote, dangerously, and he defied anyone to look into his conscience. Before the novel  Robinson Crusoe appeared in 1719, his best-known publication was the The Shortest Way with the Dissenters (1702). This pamphlet parodied extremist Anglican views and was conceived in the same spirit as Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. Just as Swift was to suggest that a solution to the economic troubles of the Irish lay in poor families selling their children as food to rich gentlemen and ladies, Defoe urged leaders of the Church of England to adopt the simple expedient of forced mass emigration and selective execution of Dissenters. If anyone disagreed with the Queen, it was obvious what must be done:  “Those of the contrary Opinion to Hers, must be Extirpated, must be cut off Root and Branch; and like the Jews by Edward the First’s Sanguinary Laws, Dispers’d, Banish’d, and Kill’d; and render’d Extinct they and their Posterity.” Defoe extended the same logic to Occasional Dissenters, the “Apples” swimming merrily downstream with the “Horse-Turds.”

It was a satirical ruse that backfired. The high-toned Anglicans and Tory members of Parliament were not amused. They burnt Defoe in effigy, swore out a warrant for his arrest and appointed a vicious special prosecutor. As John Richetti wrote of the incident:

From the appearance of that pamphlet Defoe is in nearly constant dialogue with his enemies, and his work is a series of fierce polemics, ferocious attacks and counter attacks. Defoe is an author whose life was changed by one piece of writing. . . . Defoe became a wanted man who was forced for the rest of his life to survive mainly as an embattled writer and political operative rather than a prosperous merchant and manufacturer who dabbled in writing . . . . Defoe would return obsessively to the misunderstandings of his writing that landed him not once but twice in jail and once in the pillory, and his polemical journalism, notably the Review, would be to an important extent based on a continuing complaint, a life-long grievance, that he was misunderstood and misrepresented by both friends and enemies.[xx]

[i] John Richetti, The Life of Daniel Defoe (Malden:  Blackwell, 2005) vii-viii.
[ii] Variants, some dubious, appear to be Fow, Fowe, Fohe, Fohee, Faeoe, Foy, Fay, Foye, Fooe and Fou. Reaney and Wilson have no entry for either Foe or Defoe. Excellent information on Foe’s origins and writings can be found in the article on him in the Dictionary of National Biography written by its first editor Sir Leslie Stephen, vol. 5 (London:  Oxford UP, 1921) 730-43.
[iii] Richetti 18.
[iv] The name of Defoe’s mother is so spelled in the only records mentioning her, though biographers usually take this as a parish clerk’s error and “normalize” it to Alice. Ailsey is a Jewish name.
[v] Maximillian E. Novak, Daniel Defoe, Master of Fictions. His Life and Ideas (Oxford:  Oxford UP, 2001) 20-21.
[vi] See, for instance, Sheldon Rogers, Notes & Queries 56.2 (2009) 226-28.
[vii] Roza was very popular among Sephardic women; see Gorr 80-81.
[viii] Novak 14.
[ix] Ibid 17-18.
[x] Jews and Muslims 10-15.
[xi] Novak 19.
[xii] Alice E. Miller, Cecil County, Maryland, A Study in Local History (Elkton:  C&L, 1949) 150-53.
[xiii] Mary E. Ireland, “The Defoe Family in America,” Scribners Monthly 12 (1876) 61-64.
[xiv] DSS 260, with branches in Rome, Bari, Busseto, Borgotaro, Colorno, Genoa, Venice, Asti, Milan, Napoli, Pisa, Varesa, Ivrea, Trieste, Florence, Turin, Parma, Alexandria, Lucca, Leghorn, Reggio Emilia, Casale Monferrato, Modena, Paris, Bordeaux, Marseille, Amsterdam, Tunisia, Buenos Aires, Sao Paulo and New York. Foix was the capital of a province of the same name, now the département of Ariége just south of Toulouse, the seat of Machir the Exilarch and center of southern French Jewry. “In the Middle Ages, one finds a number of Jews in the county of Foix and particularly at Pamiers, where they were treated with high regard by the local rulers and officials of the Church” (Gross, Gallia Judaica 438-439). Queen Katherine’s aunt, Eleanor of Aragon, married Gaston IV de Foix (she had other Jewish ancestry as well). Following the expulsion of Jews from France, the count of Foix pleaded to be allowed to keep the Jews, a scenario that occurred as far back as the twelfth century. In Hebrew the name was pronouncedPo-eesh and in the Provencal language “Foish”; in other words the final consonant was sounded, distinguishing it from the word foi. Our favorite whipping boy Reaney and Wilson notes several occurrences in England (including John Foys, 1359, Devon) but derives all from Old French foi “faith,” despite the fact that foi has no s (DES 176). The last count of Foix, also king of Navarre, Francis Phoebus, had a Jewish name which may point to the true origin of the place-name Foix,  instead of the apocryphal St. Faith.
[xv] Novak 19.
[xvi] The Earlier Life and the Chief Earlier Works of Daniel Defoe, ed. Henry Morley (London:  Routledge, 1886) 17.
[xvii] Richetti 22.
[xviii] Paula R. Backschneider, Daniel Defoe. His Life (Baltimore:  Johns Hopkins UP, 1989) 13.
[xix] Richetti 3.
[xx] Ibid 20.


  Comments: 3

  1. Peter Stanley Defoe

    I am skeptical about the Jewish assertion in particular. You will also find that Foe and Few families overlap in name and location combining variously with Defoe, Defew and Deffew.
    The wider family occupied a large area straddling Northamptonshire, Lincolnshire and Cambridgeshire in the 16th and 17th Century and many, including my ancestor were listed as saddle and harness makers.
    The fact that Daniel was a dissenter is certain but many in his family were not with at least one being listed as a Churchwarden
    Researchers might be interested in looking at Glinton and Peakirk records.

  2. Matea Leonie Rossiter

    My name is Marea Leonie Rossiter and Daniel Defoe is my 7th Great Grandfather. I can assure you none of our family have tested Jewish on our DNA. In fact we are Church of England and Catholic .
    We are direct descendants through Benjamin Norton Defoe.
    I am happy to provide evidence of the family lineage.
    Sincerely Marea Rossiter

    • Hi, my partner is also related to Daniel Defoe – 8 times great grandfather – based in Melbourne:) There is no dna test for Sephardic Jewish ancestry.

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