The massacre at Clifford’s Tower
Known as the Massacre of the Jews at Clifford’s Tower, one of the worst pogroms of the medieval period took place in York in 1190, after the coronation of Richard I.
WILLIAM’S DEFENSIVE TOWERS
In 1068, England’s new ruler William the Conqueror had two defensive earth mounds, topped with timber towers, constructed either side of the River Ouse in York. One of these mounds was raised to its present height of about 15 metres at the end of the 12th century. Then, as part of York Castle, it was topped with a stone tower in the mid-13th century.
YORK’S JEWISH POPULATION
During William’s reign, a number of Jews came to England from Rouen in France. William needed to borrow money to build castles and secure his 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 settled in most of the principal cities. In the later 12th century, King Henry II encouraged members of the Jewish community in Lincoln to settle in York.
THE CORONATION OF RICHARD I
The events of 1190 are recorded in three several accounts, though these are not eye-witness reports and are far from unbiased. The story recorded by William of Newburgh, an Augustinian canon, tells of two Jewish moneylenders from York, called Benedict and Joceus. Together they travelled to London to attend the coronation of Richard I in 1189. Resentment about the presence of Jews at the coronation was fuelled by anger about taxes to fund the Crusades and this led to riots at the ceremony itself and in in Norwich, Stamford, York and Lincoln. A false rumour was even put about that the king had ordered a massacre of the Jews.
BAPTISM OR DEATH
Benedict was attacked and killed on his way back to York. Some months later, after the Sheriff of York had left for the Crusade, a fire broke out in the city. This was during a time of increasing attacks on Jews throughout England and some citizens took advantage of the chaos to break into Benedict’s house in Coney Street. The property was looted and everyone inside killed. Joceus managed to escape a similar attack and he led the city’s Jews to seek protection from ‘the keeper of the King’s tower’, believed to be the site of the present Clifford’s Tower. The next day, looting continued, and a mob presented remaining Jews in the city with the choice of ‘baptism or death’.
TRAPPED IN THE TOWER
Inside the tower, trust between the Jews and the keeper broke down, and when he left the tower, they refused to allow him back in. They had now insulted the king’s authority, and troops joined the mob outside, where they were pelted with stones from the castle walls by the besieged Jews.
Friday 16 March coincided with Shabbat Hagadol, the ‘Great Sabbath’ before the Jewish festival of Pesach or Passover. According to accounts, the Jews realised that they could not hold out against their attackers, and rather than waiting to be killed or forcibly baptised, decided to meet death together. The father of each family killed his wife and children, before taking his own life. Just before their deaths, they also set fire to the timber tower. It is not clear how many Jews were present – estimates range from 20 to 40 families, and a later account in Hebrew suggests about 150 people.
THE ACTIONS OF THE MOB
One of the mob’s ring-leaders, Richard Malebisse, had offered safe passage to any Jews who agreed to convert and leave the tower. A few took this option, but they were all murdered. Afterwards, the rioters destroyed the records of debts to the Jews, placed in safe-keeping at York Minster.
The triggers for the massacre included the Christian liturgy for the period around Easter – the week that followed the massacre – which emphasised the Jews’ responsibility for the death of Jesus. Personal debts and the unpopularity of the king may have played a part. Afterwards, fines of up to £66 were imposed on 59 leading families of York – many knew the ringleaders of the massacre, and some may have been involved.
REMEMBERED AT THE TOWER TODAY
The present stone tower was only built 60 years after the massacre, although it is possible that the earth mound may still contain evidence from 1190. But the story of the massacre still resonates today. Some believe that there is a cherem – a threat of exclusion from the Jewish community – on any Jew who settled in York, although in fact a new community was quickly established and thrived in the city until the late 13th century.
The planting of daffodils – whose six-pointed shape echoes the Star of David – on the Tower mound, provides an annual memorial around the anniversary of the massacre. A plaque commemorating the tragedy was installed at the foot of the tower in 1978. Its Hebrew inscription from Isiah translates as, ‘Let them give Glory unto the Lord and declare his praise in the Islands’ – the word ‘islands’ evoking the Hebrew term for Britain, which was sometimes referred to as the ‘Isles of the Sea’.