The persecution of Jews in medieval England
Jonny Wilkes and Sethina Watson explore Clifford’s Tower, where the Jewish community of 12th-century York met a terrible fate
The view from Clifford’s Tower, the remains of a stone keep, shaped like a four-leafed clover, offers an enviable panorama of the whole city of York. The Minster dominates the skyline on one side of the tower, although the huge spire of the nearer St Mary’s Church also makes its presence felt; on another side, the river Ouse winds away to the west. On a clear day, it is possible to glimpse the moors in the distance. Such views are certainly worth clambering up all the steps.
At the foot of the tower, a memorial plaque reminds visitors that this landmark is tainted by tragedy. On the night of Friday 16 March 1190 around 150 Jewish men and women were trapped in the tower by a violent mob and, the plaque reads, “chose to die at each other’s hands rather than renounce their faith”. The daffodils that bloom on the grassy mound every spring, their petals resembling the Star of David, are another memorial to the massacre, one of the worst pogroms in medieval England.
There remain few other vestiges of this dark chapter in York’s history – unsurprisingly, as construction of the stone tower we see today did not begin until 1245. The original tower was a timber motte-and-bailey structure erected by William I following the Norman conquest, along with another across the river on Baile Hill. William almost immediately had to replace both buildings after they were burned as part of the northern rebellions to his rule, to which he responded with his savage campaign of 1069–70, the Harrying of the North.
The daffodils that bloom on the mound every spring are another memorial to the massacre
It was shortly afterwards that the first recorded Jews came to England. William himself invited them from Rouen to help nurture trade with France and, more importantly, to serve as moneylenders, an activity discouraged by the church at this time. Their arrival proved invaluable to the crown coffers and Jewish communities soon flourished in most of the principal cities of England.
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“The new arrivals moved beyond London and into many English towns,” says Sethina Watson, senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of York. “The spread was slow at first, but there were communities in Norwich and Cambridge by the 1140s.”
York’s Jewish community emerged in the late 12th century, shortly before the massacre, when Jews from Lincoln chose to settle in the city. Jews were not confined to a specific area of York, but assimilated.
“Jewish people lived and worked alongside Christians, and there was a degree of social interaction between the two communities,” says Watson. “They were, however, still considered as ‘different’, as they observed distinctive customs and likely spoke French (much like the new upper class), while the most successful lived in the finest houses”.
Such was their importance to the economy that all Jews were considered property of the crown and as ‘the king’s Jews’, they were afforded special protections and rights. Yet because Jewish security was part of a claim of royal ownership, it was subject to the whims of individual monarchs, who needed money to fund their administrations and wars. “The Crown levied higher taxes on Jewish communities, which could become crippling and might be extorted. In the 13th century, King John imprisoned and even executed wealthy Jews to ensure that huge tallages [a form of tax] would be paid into the crown coffers,” explains Watson.
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Jewish communities were vulnerable, then, and conditions worsened for them as anti-Semitism took root in the 12th century. Jews were now loathed – partly out of envy at the wealth accrued by Jewish moneylenders or resentment at being in debt to them – and they emerged as targets for religious zealousness. With religious wars being launched against Muslims in the Middle East, non-Christians could now be deemed enemies – whether Muslims in the Holy Land or a Jewish neighbour.
“Jews in England were spared the violence seen in Germany and France during the first and second crusades,” says Watson, “but they would have been aware of it and had to live with the fear that they, too, may be subject to similar levels of violence and hate. In England, Jews were confronted with a new type of persecution: the blood libel.”
Unfounded accusations spread that Jews were conspiring to murder children and use their blood to make the unleavened bread that formed a part of their Passover rituals. This became a powerful tool for anti-Jewish preaching and a catalyst for violence and even murder.
The York massacre of 1190 happened at a time of especially heightened tension and aggression. At the coronation of Richard I on 3 September 1189, hundreds of Jews travelled to London to pay homage to the king, only to be forbidden entry to the banquet and flogged. Among them were Benedict and Josce, two of York’s wealthiest and most powerful Jews. The celebrating crowds in the streets of Westminster turned riotous and Benedict, who had been forcibly baptised into the Christian faith during attacks on the Jewry of London, was badly wounded. He recanted the Christian faith the next day but later died of his injuries.
Richard I responded to the violence by issuing a decree stating all Jews were under his protection and not to be harmed. But by the end of 1189, he had left on the third crusade and a spurious rumour circulated in his absence that Richard himself had ordered the attacks on Jews. Fuelled by the supposed permission of the king, anti-Jewish pogroms broke out in towns across England.
When fire raged through York in March 1190, there were some in the city who immediately took advantage of the confusion and the simmering anti-Semitism. The city was struggling with a vacuum in authority, having long been without an archbishop and having recently lost its sheriff. Under cover of the fire, four local lords, all indebted to Jewish moneylenders, incited a mob to invade the home of Benedict and kill his widow and sons before turning on the rest of York’s Jewish community.
Trapped in the tower
Josce led survivors of the attack to the apparent safety of York Castle – soon some 150 people had taken refuge in Clifford’s Tower. There they stayed for several days, besieged by the still-growing mob and the armed men who had been called in when the Jews shut out the constable of the tower. There was no way out and the group was running out of food and water.
On the night of 16 March – Shabbat HaGadol, the ‘great sabbath’ before Passover – the renowned Rabbi Yom Tov urged the trapped Jews to die by their own hands rather than face the brutality or false conversions awaiting them outside the tower. It fell to the men to slit the throats of their families before killing themselves. Before the killings began, they also set fire to their valuables and the tower. Some lived through the night and walked out in the hopes of being spared, only to be slaughtered. Historian Barrie Dobson, who published a definitive work on the massacre, called it “the most notorious anti-Jewish atrocity” in English history.
“The event became genocidal: step by step the Christian forces, or at least their leaders, began to seek an end to the Jewish community,” says Watson. “In later decades, violent riots, such as that in London in 1262, claimed more bodies. But there remains something peculiarly chilling about the York massacre. It can’t be attributed to an eruption or a riot, a world turned upside down. It took place over days; there was deliberation behind the actions”. In a sign of this, the mob eventually left Clifford’s Tower and went to the Minster where they burned the records of any debts to the Jews.
“The crown’s response was swift. Royal agents were dispatched, inquests solicited testimony and ascribed guilt, fines were levied and names listed in the pipe rolls. The response was systematic and must have been intimidating theatre.”
News of the massacre travelled with equal swiftness and it was immortalised by Jewish and Christian writers alike. But, as Watson puts it: “The Christian world moved on; even the perpetrators continued with their lives.”
York’s Jewish community had been eradicated, but it recovered with surprising speed and was active again by the first decade of the 13th century.
Across England, though, hostility and persecution against the Jewish population intensified. Jews were taxed even more heavily; faced ongoing accusations concerning the blood libel; were imprisoned and murdered; and Jews’ property and synagogues were damaged or confiscated. By the middle of the 13th century, every Jewish person over the age of seven was forced to wear an identifying badge on their clothes – usually yellow or white and depicting the two tablets of the Ten Commandments.
Laws restricted where Jews could live and their movements, and their influence as financiers dwindled. In 1275, after Edward I passed the Statute of the Jewry, they were prohibited from lending money altogether. Many were forced to resort to illegal coin clipping – trimming the edges of coins to melt down and make new coins. The number of Jews arrested rose dramatically, with more than 250 executed at the Tower of London in 1278. Many Jews chose to leave England in the hope of establishing lives elsewhere.
“Local expulsions had been happening for half a century but in July 1290, just over a century after the York massacre, Edward I expelled all Jews from England,” says Watson. Between 4,000 and 16,000 fled before the deadline of 1 November, and the few who remained had to convert or hide their true identity. Their formal readmission wasn’t until 1656.
York is a city shaped by many cultures and ethnic groups, yet it is striking to think about how much of the Jewish experience has been lost. Even here, on the site of a horrific pogrom, little evidence remains. Except, that is, for the plaque from 1978 and the poignant sight of the mound turned yellow by daffodils.
Sethina Watson is senior lecturer in medieval history at the University of York and co-editor of Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190 (2013). Words: Jonny Wilkes, freelance writer.
Jewish history: 3 more places to explore
Bevis Marks Synagogue, London
Where Jews have worshipped for 300 years
London boasted the largest Jewish community in medieval England, and its only Jewish cemetery until 1177. Bevis Marks Synagogue in Cheapside was built much later, in 1701, but has held regular services since, making it Britain’s oldest synagogue in continuous use. Inside is a spectacular Classical-style ark containing the Torah scrolls, and seven striking hanging brass candelabra.
Manchester Jewish Museum, Manchester
Where a synagogue became a museum
This building, completed in 1874, was formerly a synagogue for Spanish and Portuguese Jews, or Sephardim, who had been expelled from their countries and came to Britain. It is the oldest surviving synagogue building in Manchester and now serves as a museum about Jewish settlement in the area and the community over the last 200 years.
Princes Road Synagogue, Liverpool
Where synagogue architecture bloomed in spectacular fashion
Its size, splendour and lavish interior is why Princes Road Synagogue is considered one of the finest examples of Moorish Revival architectural style in Britain. Consecrated in 1874, it was designed by brothers William James and George Ashdown Audsley and can seat more than 800 people.
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