History and Stories

The Massacre at Clifford’s Tower

One of the worst anti-Semitic massacres of the Middle Ages took place in York in 1190. The city’s entire Jewish community was trapped by an angry mob inside the tower of York Castle. Many members of the community chose to commit suicide rather than be murdered or forcibly baptised by the attackers.

A manuscript illustration showing money being exchanged
An anti-Semitic portrayal of Jewish money-lenders from a 13th-century manuscript. William I brought Jewish merchants to England in the 11th century as they were able to lend money to the Crown, whereas Christians were forbidden to do so
© Getty Images/Universal Images Group/Hulton Fine Art

England’s Jewish Population

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.

However, there was growing hostility towards the Jewish population in England. This was in part due to public disagreements in theology between Jewish scholars and Christian churchmen. 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 anti-Semitic sentiment in England.

Manuscript illustration showing king seated in centre, wearing crown and being attended to on either side by bishops. Onlookers in background.
The coronation of Richard I, from a 13th-century manuscript. A Jewish citizen from York was killed on the way back from the coronation in London
© Getty Images/Universal Images Group/Hulton Fine Art

The Coronation of Richard I

The events of 1190 are recorded in numerous accounts, though none were eye-witness reports and most show strong prejudice against the Jews. The story recorded by William of Newburgh, an Augustinian canon from Yorkshire, tells of two Jewish citizens 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, leading to riots at the ceremony itself and in Norwich, Stamford, York and Lincoln. A false rumour was even put about that the king had ordered a massacre of the Jews. Benedict was attacked and killed on his way back to York.

Watercolour drawing showing a motte and bailey castle surrounded by large expanse of water
A reconstruction of York Castle with a timber tower on its motte, as it may have looked from the late 11th century until 1190
© Historic England (illustration by Terry Ball)

Under Royal Protection

Some months later, after the Sheriff of York had left for the Third 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’ inside the castle, almost certainly the site of the present Clifford’s Tower. Meanwhile, the looting continued.

Watercolour drawing of a medieval crowd with torches and weapons gathered outside a burning wooden tower on top of motte

Trapped in the Tower

Inside the tower, trust between the Jews and the keeper broke down, and when he left the tower on other business, they refused to allow him back in. They had now challenged 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 several 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 possessions they had brought with them; this fire consumed 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.


Image © Historic England (illustration by Peter Dunn) 

Manuscript illustration of building under siege
The Siege of Acre (1189–91) during the Third Crusade, from a 15th-century manuscript. The crusades under Richard I may have triggered anti-Semitic feelings

The Actions of the Mob

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 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.

Afterwards fines of up to £66 were imposed on 59 leading families of York – many of whom either knew the ringleaders of the massacre and or were involved themselves.

View of Clifford's Tower from below showing daffodils in foreground
Daffodils were planted around the base of Clifford’s Tower to commemorate the massacre

Remembered at the Tower today

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.

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 Isaiah evokes medieval Jewish descriptions of Britain, using the Hebrew term ‘Isles of the Sea’.

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