Jewish Musicians

English Crypto-Jews Disappear into the American Colonies
Part 2:  Jewish Musicians
By Dr. Douglas Schar



EMILIA LANIER was born into the musical family of the Bassanos in Bishopsgate in the East End of London in 1569. She was the first Englishwoman to claim the title of poet (in her Hail God, King of the Jews, 1611). Was she also Shakespeare’s Dark Lady? Portrait by Nicolas Hilliard (public domain).



In part two of this paper, I will focus on one segment of the secret Jewish community of London that cannot be overlooked…… musicians. They were in a sense, a nation in and of themselves. They arrived at England as musicians, married musicians, and their children took their seats in the court when the elders retired.


However, connected to the musicians were other “nations”, crypto-Jewish physicians, merchants, goldsmiths, jewelers, and weavers, not to speak of other occupations traditionally dominated by Jews such as wine importers and money lenders. All these groups were part of the greater web of seriously crypto-Jews who lived in London.


“Italian” Court Musicians

Henry VIII demanded the best musicians in Europe be sought out to provide music for his court in advance of his fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves in January 1540.  His emissaries scoured Italy, France and Spain until Europe’s leading musicians were recruited.  These musicians stayed and continued to serve Queen Elizabeth I (1558-1602) and James I (1602-1626). My research indicates they were, almost without exception, Spanish Jews whose families had fled to Italy and once there, had re-invented themselves as “Italian” musicians. Over and over, Spanish Jews took Italian names. Either way, a group of Jewish musicians made, played and traded musical instruments in London during the Tudor period.


The London Jewish musical families names include Anthony Antonia (alias Antonio Moyses), Bassano, Comy (Comes, Coimbra), Lanier, Lupo (Abimelech, Elmalah, Lux),  Maiohn (Majon, Minorca),  Maria (alias Cossin, Cuson, Cusin, Cassin, Albert),  Segar, Tedesco, Vicenza (alias Kellim, Kenneth, Hithcoke) and Vator. They lived with each other, married amongst themselves, acted as witnesses to each other wills, did business together and tended to their widows and orphans. They became musical dynasties, sons replacing fathers in the court ensembles.


One of the most telling features of these secretly Jewish London aliens is their use of aliases. Crypto-Jews functioned using a series of aliases. Generally speaking, they had one they used in the Christian world, one they used in commerce and one they used amongst other Jews. They also hid behind the names of verifiably British partners, who provided cover for them.[i]


How I know of their aliases is interesting. Aliens were accounted for and taxed periodically. Records of their payments and whereabouts were written onto scrolls, which were then rolled up. Because the tax collectors changed from decade to decade and the previous records had been rolled up, the alien tax collector of 1540 did not know what the alien had said about him or herself in the 1530 census. This resulted in aliens providing different names and information about themselves over the decades they paid the alien tax.


These tax rolls were unrolled in 1900 by the Huguenot Society of Great Britain and Ireland and turned into books. My London Alien Project involved entering all the registered aliens into a spreadsheet and tracking them from year to year. In this way, it became possible for the first time to crosscheck what the aliens had said about themselves over the years.  The spreadsheets revealed the musicians’ ever-changing names, choice of church and country of origin. As they say, you cannot see a tapestry until it is unrolled.


Two Violinists, 15 Names

Frances of Vicenza came to London in 1543 to replace Romano of Milan. The latter was a crypto-Jewish violinist who was jailed in the Tower of London for being a Jew and perished either in jail or under strange circumstances after he got out. One way or the other, Frances of Vincenza was the crypto-Jewish violinist imported to take the place of the recently dead crypto-Jewish violinist Romano.


Frances of Vicenza changed his name from census to census. His aliases included Frances Kellim, Fraunces Kellem, Frances Kener, Francis Kennyt, Francis Kenneth, Francis Francisco and finally Francis Hithcoke. Kinnor is the Hebrew word for stringed instrument. Kellem is Hebrew for instruments in general. Frances of Vicenza not only played the viol, but he also made them and sold them.  The name Hitchoke seems completely random, but it may not be. Hithcoke is the English version of Yitzchaq or Isaac.[ii]


Ambrose Lupo, another viol-playing London Crypto-Jew had quite an accumulation of aliases. He began as Ambrose of Milan but by 1559 he became Ambrose Lupo. As the executor for the crypto-Jewish court musician Anthony Moyses’s will, the clerk recorded him as Ambrosius Deomaleyex, or de Almaliach. This surname is a version of Elmaleh (Elmaliah, Elmalih, Elmalech, Almaliach), a well-known Spanish Jewish family found around the Mediterranean after the 1492 Expulsion. Between 1567 and 1576, he went by Ambrose Luck, Lucki, Lux and Lucksor.


Tale of Six Violinists: The Bassanos

One cannot discuss music-producing Crypto-Jews of sixteenth-century London without mentioning the Venetian Bassano family. The Bassanos take pride of place in their chameleonlike abilities to adapt.


People like to debate whether the Bassanos were Jews, but I believe the facts speak for themselves. Nineteen Bassanos appear in the old Jewish cemetery in Venice (San Nicolo on the Lido) as de Bassan, Bassano, Bassani and Basan. In Spain, the name was Jewish and appears as Basan or Bassano. It is an ancient Hebrew name found even in Anglo-Saxon England where there were not supposed to be any Jews.[iii] Confirmed Sephardic Jewish Bassanos were spread across the globe from Milan, Verona, Padua, Venice, Ferrara, Bologna, Mantua, Leghorn, Modena, Rome, and Florence to Brazil, Israel, Amsterdam, Germany, Tunisia, Greece, Egypt, Syria and Turkey. There was a city named Bassano in Italy, near Venice. Giorgio Bassani of a famous Ferrara Jewish family was the author of a historical novel on Italian Jewry, The Garden of the Finzi-Continis (1916, a film by Vittorio De Sica in 1970).[iv]


In David Lasocki and Roger Prior’s book, The Bassanos. Venetian Musicians and Instrument Makers in England, 1531-1665, we read the following:


To sum up, all the circumstantial evidence suggests that Jeronimo Bassano I and his six sons were Sephardic Jewish refugees from the town of that name who settled in Venice at the beginning of the sixteenth Century. In Venice they may have been Christian converts or nominal Christians. But the sons were clearly disenchanted with their situation there, for they came to England in 1531 and again in 1538-1540, so anxious to leave Venice that they lost their employment and risked permanent banishment. The five sons who remained in England seem to have practiced Christianity. But they associated with Jews and it took the family at least a generation to forget their Jewish heritage.


The first Bassanos in London were the sons of Jeronimo Bassano, a Venetian Jewish physician, teacher, author-heretic and musician. The heretic part may be the reason the sons, Gasparo (Jaspar,1508-1577), Alvise (1510-1554), Anthony (1511-1574), Zuane (1512-1579), Jacomo (1518-1566) and Giambaptista(Baptista, 1511-1576) permanently moved from Venice to London in 1539. They were absolutely recruited to come to the English court, but the invitation may have come at a good time.


Once there, they became the most prominent musical family in the Tudor period and married into other secretly Jewish musical families. Their story is long and worthy of an entire article, but suffice it to say, while they may have been buried around churches in the East End of London, the Bassanos were not always baptized and usually married other Crypto-Jews.[v]


The Jewish musicians kept a low profile because they had to. At a point, the Spanish ambassador remarked on all the Spanish Jewish musicians in the court of Henry VIII and complained. This resulted in a few being jailed and one, Romano of Milano, dying. During the reign of Elizabeth I, the Jewish physician Roderigo Lopes got on the wrong side of the Duke of Westminster and was executed. He was Elizabeth’s person physician and she liked him. As a result, his widow Sarah Anes, was allowed to keep his estate. However, events like these kept the secret Jews of London living secretly.

Rodrigo Lopez: Secret Jewish Physician to Queen Elizabeth I…..Hanged, Drawn, Quartered.


From Court Musician to Colonist

The court musician Ludovico Bassano (1542-1593) married Elizabeth Damano (1572). Ludovico was the eldest son of Alvise Bassano. Elizabeth Damano was the daughter of Guigielmo Damano. Guigielmo Damano was another crypto-Jewish musician with a lot of aliases, William Daman, De Man, De Ammano, Amman, Man, Della Man included.


The marriage produced daughter Elizabeth Damano Bassano (1593-1630). She married Albiano Lupo (1574-1626) in 1616. He was the grandson of Ambrose Lupo (Alimaliach). The pair had something in common: Elizabeth Bassano’s great-grandfather was Ambrose Lupo! They were uncle and niece.


And this is a big tell. Sephardic Jews had a habit marrying their nieces. These were called avunculate marriages. A prime example would be when the famous Dona Gracia married her uncle Francisco Mendes. Both Dona Gracia and her uncle and his brother were in and out of England.


The Catholic church forbade marriage within seven degrees of relation, in other words, you could not marry anyone who was more than a 7th cousin. After several centuries, it was modified to three degrees of separation. For most of history, marrying your niece would have been a big no-no in Christian society. If you see uncle-niece marriages in a family tree, you are probably looking at a Sephardic Jewish family.


Meanwhile, London Life was not all strawberries and cream for this “nation” of music-making Crypto-Jews. Albiano Lupo and Elizabeth Bassano traded their life in the English court for the untamed Virginia colony in the early 1600’s.


Records indicate Albiano arrived at Virginia on a ship called the Swann in 1610. Elizabeth followed him six years later. Albiano was granted 350 acres by the crown and Elizabeth was granted 50 acres. The crown gave immigrants 50 acres for every indentured servant they brought with them and Albiano brought five. All of Albiano’s indentured servants’ surnames appear in the infamous list registered aliens. Albiano and Elizabeth seem to have had the children Elinor, Temperance, John, Robert, William and Elizabeth. What became of them is unknown.


One finds the Bassano-Lupos mentioned In the blue book of Virginia families, “Genealogies of Virginia Families”: “Lieutenant Albino (Albiano) Lupo, born in 1584, came to Virginia in 1610: his wife Elizabeth born in 1597, came over in 1616. For their own adventure and transporting out of England five servants, John Hayden, John Hayes, Hester Wheeler, David Palmer and Elizabeth Hayden, they received patents for 450 acres of land east of the John Bush tract. Only 59 acres of the Celeys seem to have come out of the Lupo grant. This front included Riverview, where in recent years there still lived Negroes name Luper.”[vi]


Albiano died in 1626 and the widow Lupo married John Chandler (1599-1658) shortly thereafter. Records indicate she had a “civil” marriage to John Chandler in 1627. This was a win for Chandler who gained control of Elizabeth’s 450 acres of land. Elizabeth bore Chandler at least three children, Robert William Chandler, John Chandler II and Mary Chandler. Elizabeth Bassano Lupo Chandler was buried at St. Johns Church Cemetery, Hampton, Virginia in 1635.


Her son, Robert William Chandler I (1627-1669) was born in Elizabeth City, Hampton, Virginia and married Elizabeth Davis (1629-1661).  Davis itself is an English crypto-Jewish surname. The couple had upwards of eight children who helped populate the Virginia colony with Christian Chandlers. Their children included Mary, Francis, William, John, Robert II and Joseph.


Crypto-Jews have the habit of marrying other Crypto-Jews, particularly cousins. Robert Chandler III (1700-1764) married Sarah Billeboe (1700-1766). Sarah Billeboe was the daughter of a crypto-Jewish “Huguenot” settler of Manakin Town, Virginia, Jean-Jacques Billbeau (1675-1735). The name was spelled Billeboe, Bilbeau, Bilibo and was likely derived from Bilboa, Spain.  This marriage produced seven Anglican children, Joseph, Nancy Ann, John, William, Joel, James and Elisha, who would further people the Virginia colony.


There is more. Philip Lupo (1582-1668), the goldsmith brother of Albiano, arrived in Virginia in 1621 aboard the George. However, he came alone. He left behind his wife, Mary Comes and his children. The Comes were also crypto-Jewish court musicians with aliases including Comey, Comes, Coomes, Combe, Combre, Coimbra. The founders of this musical dynasty were George and Innocent de Combre, two royal string players whose origins were Coimbra, Portugal. The fact Phillip did not bring his family suggests he did not plan to stay and he didn’t. He went back to London in 1624.


However, Phillip Lupo and Mary Comes’s son Phillip Lupo II (1605-1670) did return to Virginia and established a family. His daughter, Marie Lupo (1625-1689) married Thomas Royal (1611-1709). Thomas’s parents were Thomas Ryall (de Real, 1595-1645) and Eleanor Falcon (1606). His wife’s parents both bore Spanish Jewish surnames found on the London Alien list! The Lupo family can still be found living in Virginia as Christians.


The Lanier Family

The American Lanier family story begins when Antonio Bassano (1511-1576), son of Geronimo Bassano, married Elena de Nasi (1515-1571). The Nasi family or Nasim were descendants of the Babylonian exilarch who established a Jewish principate in Carolingian France. They married in Venice and came to England with their first child, Angelica. Nasi is, beyond any shadow of a doubt, an Italian Jewish surname. It means prince in biblical Hebrew. This union provided London’s sixteenth century crypto-Jewish community with ten children:  Angelica, Isabella, Elizabeth, Mark, Anthony, Arthur, Nicholas, Edward, Andrea, and Lucretia.


Their youngest daughter Lucretia (1556-1632) married Nicholas Lanier (1544-1610), another court musician and artist. Lucretia became the mother of Alfonse, Innocent, Ellen, Katherine, Andrea, Jerome, and Clement. Most of the children became court musicians, like other Bassano family members.


Clement Bassano Lanier (1590-1661) married Hannah Rebecca Collett (1610-1653) and they had ten or more children, including Hannah, Susanna, Lucretia and John Thomas. John Thomas Lanier (1631-1719) moved to the Virginia colonies. The extent to which these families assimilated into the Virginia colonial families can be seen in the fact John Thomas Lanier’s grandson, Robert Lanier (1678-1744) married Priscilla Washington (1699-1764), granddaughter of the founder of the American Washington family, John Washington (1633). This family would of course include George Washington, the first American president.


Some historians believe the Lanier’s married into a Washington family unrelated to the first presidents’ family. But, as the Washingtons were all registered aliens in London and it appears all Washingtons came from London, one would think they were all related to some extent. A distant descendant who held true to form was Sidney Clopton Lanier, a musician, poet and author in Confederate Georgia. In textbooks, his ancestry is called Huguenot.


Also true to form was Emilia Lanier (1569-1645), daughter of Batiste Bassano, who followed in the footsteps of the Bassano’s and Lanier’s and became a celebrated poetess. Cementing a bond between the Tudors and their Jewish court musicians, at the age of 13, Emilia became mistress to Lord Hunsdon, the bastard son of Henry VIII and Mary Boleyn. In 1592, when she was 23, Lanier became pregnant with Hunsdon’s child, but he paid her off with a sum of money. Lanier was then married to her first cousin once removed, Alfonso Lanier. He was a Queen’s musician. It has been argued that she was Shakespeare’s Dark Lady—dark because of her Italian Jewish background.[vii]


There is saying that floats around the Jewish world. Beware the Apostate. In other words, when some Jews become Christian, they become Jews’ worst enemies. Sadly, the crypto-Jewish Violet family produced a very dangerous apostate.


The Violets

Sarah Damano (1570) was the  sister of the Elizabeth Damano. She in turn was the  mother of the Virginian colonist Elizabeth Damano Bassano. Sarah Damano married Pierre Vyolet (1570) an Antwerp-born musician in 1594. Peter’s father was Raphael Vyolett. Some accounts state Sarah and Peter met and married in Stepney, London. Other accounts state they married in Antwerp. Either way, they lived in the Creechurch Lane neighborhood of Aldgate favored by Crypto-Jews. It was eventually home to the first legal synagogue in London in 1657.


Jewish Court musicians during the Tudor Age.


Their son, Thomas Violet (1609-1662), a goldsmith, fraudster and all-around bad guy, would become one of London’s biggest anti-Semites. He actively campaigned against Cromwell’s proposal to re-admit Jews into England.  Whether or not Jews should be allowed to “return” to England was hotly debated in the mid 1600s.  At the helm of the “never let them in” campaign was Thomas Violet, a relative to many Jews living secretly in London!  As if this was not bad enough, Thomas devised numerous plans to entrap members of the secret Jewish community in coin clipping schemes, report them, take possession of their property as a reward and then see them deported.


In “A Second Jewish Community in Tudor London”, by Roger Prior, we read this of Thomas:


The new information also casts an ironic sidelight on the events surrounding re-admission of 1656. One of the most virulent opponents of that re-admission was the anti-Semitic pamphleteer Thomas Violet, the first recorded visitor of the Creechurch Lane synagogue. We now know that Violet himself was the grandson of one of the royal musicians, William Daman, a wind player and composer of the psalms. Daman came from Liege and is said to have been born there, but he was clearly of Italian parentage. He belonged to the Italian Church, identified himself as Italian and called himself Gulielmo. His surname, which is also written de Man and de Ammanno, is close to the Italian Jewish names Amman, Mann and della Mann. Daman was a colleague and friend of the Bassanos. After his death his daughter Elizabeth married the royal musician Lodovico Bassano and Lodovico seems to have taken responsibility for Daman’s widow and family. Taken together, these facts suggest Daman was, like the Bassanos, of Italian Jewish origin. If so, Thomas Violet’s intense dislike of Jews, reflecting also an intense interest in them, may have derived from his knowledge of his own Jewish descent, for his mother Sara was William Daman’s daughter.[viii]


A fellow criminal and partner in crime of Thomas Violet testified in court and his statement survives. He remarked that when he and Thomas went to the Creechurch ane synagogue, Thomas was known to congregants and vice versa. They were there in one of Thomas’ many attempts to rob and entrap members of the Jewish community.


Thomas Violet’s biographer, Amos Tubb,  in Thomas Violet, A Sly and Dangerous Fellow, writes:


As the child of a Dutch musician and an Italian mother so dark skinned that acquaintances wondered if she was African, Violet would have always been an outsider, even in relatively cosmopolitan London. While seventeenth-century Britons had not yet developed the racists’ attitudes of the eighteenth century, they certainly noticed differences in skin color. Violet’s childhood was likely marked by taunts about his foreign parents and particularly his “Moorish” mother. If being insulted about his parentage was not enough to make him feel like an outsider, London’s busy streets would have provided constant reminders of his poverty.[ix]


It seems odd that the daughter of a known Crypto-Jew, William Daman, could be mistaken as African. However, it may not be as strange as it seems. We know nothing of William Daman’s wife. Through her mother, Sarah could have been dark skinned and of African descent. In the sixteenth century, Portuguese New Christians flooded into Cape Verde, an African archipelago and there a society of Euro-African Crypto-Jews was born. Also, in Amsterdam, Sephardic Crypto-Jews arrived with African slaves some of whom had been converted to Judaism, creating another group of Euro-African Crypto-Jews.  The mother of Elizabeth and Sarah Daman could have been a Euro-African Crypto-Jew.


Perhaps Thomas Violet’s rabid antisemitism was rooted in being stigmatized as a child. Or it could just be another case of a dangerous apostate.  Or maybe he was just a bad egg. One way or the other he was a wretched human who ultimately took his own life. An acquaintance said this of him, “Thomas Violet has a name too sweet for so foul a carcass.”


Sarah Damano and Pierre Vyolet had another son, Pierre-Peter Viollett II (1620-?) who lived a less vile life. Their grandson Peter Villet III (1652-1739) immigrated to the Maryland colony as an indentured servant. There he married another London alien, Cecelia Barber. This marriage produced many children including Peter Villett IV (1697-1748). The family name eventually became Willett, a common name throughout the southern United States.


Concluding the first wave

The first wave of London Crypto-Jews to make their way to the English colonies had good reason to emigrate. In London, at a minimum, they faced discrimination as aliens and were taxed. At a maximum, they risked their lives if their ancestry was discovered. America, with its offer of free land and the end of alien status, was an attractive option. Many took this opportunity and then disappeared into the American colonies.


[i] “Among the secret Jews in England at this time were Alves Lopez (recall ‘St. Elvis’ of

Wales and ‘de Lopez’ who traded with the Cely family), Christopher Fernandes (New Christian/

Marranos often took Christian first or last names as ‘cover’), Antonio de la Rosa, Dionysius

Rodriquez, Manuel Brudo (a man who switched aliases between Isaiah Cohen, Diego

Pires and Pyrrho Lusitano), Gaspar Lopes, Antonio Brandao and Henrique Nunes. Most lived

either in London or Bristol” (Elizabeth Caldwell Hirschman and Donald N. Yates, The Early Jews and Muslims of England and Wales (Jefferson: McFarland, 2014), p. 162. “They used aliases in order to protect their kinsmen from the Inquisition, for example:

Samuel Abrabanel → Samuel de Sousa

Samuel Aboab → Antonio Sanches de Pas

Yosef Cohen → Jeronimo Henriques

Isaac Franco → Francisco Mendes de Madeiros

Isak Gaon → Philipe Diaz

Menasseh ben Israel → Manuel Diaz Soeira

Salomon Naar → Manuel Ramirez de Pina

Joshua Sarfati → Thomas Nunes de Pina

Jacob Semach → Antonio Hidalgo Cortissos

Aron Musafia → Manuel Nunes

Michael Nahmias → Miguel de Crasto

Josue Nehemias → Antonio Lopez.

Jewish merchants had an important advantage in being able to do business with, and draw bills of exchange on, relatives, friends, or business associates they could trust. Often,and especially in England, they used the names of local citizens who were sympathetic to their cause as a front for their activities, giving the new associate stock in a joint venture. If the partner married into the family (a frequent outcome), he became an adopted member of the clan, subject to its rules of secrecy and code of commerce” (Id., Jews and Muslims in British Colonial America, Jefferson: McFarland, 2012), p. 39. Cf. Gedalia Yogev, Diamonds and Coral: Anglo Dutch Jews and Eighteenth Century Trade (Leicester: Leicester University Press, 1978).

[ii] Peter D. Mathews, The Bassanos. Jewish Guardians of the Ancient Arts , p.7.

[iii] According to the research of Donald Yates in Early Jews and Muslims, pp. 2, 58f., Eadwig Basan was an Anglo-Saxon royal chancery scribe mentioned in several colophons of manuscripts around 1020. His hand became the inspiration for an extremely legible English Caroline script which ultimately inspired today’s sturdy Times Roman typeface—a font you may be reading at this very moment. Jews have evidently always been valued not only for their literacy but writing skills. Matthews regards the meaning of the surname as Tree of Life, though the paleographer David Dumville believes it meant “the Fat.” Neither denies it is Hebrew. Eadwig Basan, then, was a Jew or Crypto-Jew. Yates pointed out (p. 211) that Basan (or its variants Basson, Baison and Basin) is particularly common in Dorset, where we find, for instance, the given names Davidina, Mariam, Mansell, Jesse, Beatrice, Ixa and Lilian in the local records, suggesting Judaism survives to the present day in the very place where we find some of the earliest traces of it.”

[iv] Guilherme Faiguenboim, Paolo Valadares and Rosa Anna Campagnano, Dictionary of Sephardic Jewish Names, 2nd ed. rev. (Rio de Janeiro: FRAIHA, 2003), p. 193.

[v] ….., pp. 326-57 (?). [check ref.]

[vi] Naturalizations of Foreign Protestants in the American and West Indian Colonies Pursuant to Statute 13 George II, c.7. Publication of the Huguenot Society of London. Volume XXIV. Sherrat and Hughes. 1921. [put in proper form]

[vii] John Hudson, Shakespeare’s Dark Lady: Amelia Bassano Lanier< The Woman Behind Shakespeare’s Plays (London: Amberley 2016).

[viii] Roger Prior, “A Second Jewish Community in Tudor London,’ Jewish Historical Studies 31 (1988-1990), pp.137-152.

[ix] Amos Tubb, Thomas Violet. A Sly and Dangerous Fellow: Silver and Spying in Civil War London (Boulder: Rowman & Littlefield), pp. 9-10.


Douglas Schar, Ph.D. is a historical consultant who contributes pieces on crypto-Jewish genealogy. He is the creator of the site Hidden Jewish Ancestry (which is highly recommended). One of his current history/genealogy projects is to make the so-called Alien Rolls of London (ca. 1520-1820) better known. These records mark the appearance in England (and thence to America) of Sephardic Jewish families which we think of today as “good old English stock,” such as Adams, Anderson, Drake, Davis and others.


Be the first to write a comment.

Your feedback