After the Norman Conquest of 1066, a number of Jews came to England from Rouen in France. The early Norman kings needed to borrow money to build castles and secure their kingdom, but money-lending was forbidden to Christians. It was, however, permitted to Jews. These French-speaking Jews were protected by the Crown, and in time established communities in most of the principal cities of England. In the later 12th century, members of the Jewish community in Lincoln settled in York.
It’s known that although some Jews lived in various parts of the town, there was a Jewish populated area with a street named ‘Jubbergate’ which led to the synagogue.
At the time there was growing hostility towards the Jewish population in England. Partly due to public disagreements in theology between Jewish scholars and Christian churchmen. Nothing new here, in the mid-12th century several vicious stories were spread accusing Jews of murdering Christian children. Such slanders, now known as the ‘Blood Libel’, strengthened antisemitic sentiment in England.
Some time later, after the Sheriff of York had left for the Third Crusade to the Holy Land, to free the holy sites which had been captured by the Muslims, a fire broke out in the city. This was during a time of increasing attacks on Jews throughout England and some people took advantage of the chaos to break into the Sheriff’s house. The property was looted and everyone inside killed.
A man managed to escape a similar attack previously and he led the city’s Jews to seek protection from ‘the keeper of the King’s tower’ inside the castle, the site of the present Clifford’s Tower. Meanwhile, the looting continued.
One of the mob’s ringleaders, Richard Malebisse, had offered safe passage to any Jews who agreed to convert and leave the tower. A few took this option, only to be murdered as soon as they came out from the burning building. Afterwards, the rioters destroyed the holy books and records of debts to the Jews, which had been placed in safe-keeping at York Minster.
The triggers for the massacre were many. The calls to crusade in the Holy Land made many Christians sensitive to the presence of non-Christians in England. These feelings may have been heightened by the approaching celebrations for Easter, when the Church preached that the Jews had connived at the death of Jesus. Some rioters also saw the possibility of clearing themselves of debts to the Jews.
It’s known as the ‘Massacre at Clifford’s Tower’ and also as the ‘Massacre of Shabbat Hagadol’, which would have made it the week before Passover. 15th and 16th March 1190.
The present stone tower was built 60 years after the massacre, but it’s possible that the earth mound may still contain evidence from 1190. A new Jewish community was quickly established in York and stayed until 1290, when Edward I expelled all Jews from his kingdom. Jews were only permitted to return in the 17th century.
There is an annual memorial around the anniversary of the massacre on the site where the tower was.
A plaque commemorating the tragedy was installed at the foot of the tower in 1978. Its Hebrew inscription from Isaiah evokes medieval Jewish descriptions of Britain, using the Hebrew term ‘Isles of the Sea’. I took this photo which is now in the middle of a car park!!