At the foot of Clifford’s Tower a plaque marks the darkest chapter in the history of York’s Jewish community.
On March 16th 1190 a wave of anti-Semitic riots culminated in the massacre of an estimated 150 Jews – the entire Jewish community of York – who had taken refuge in the royal castle where Clifford’s Tower now stands. The chronicler William of Newburgh described the rioters as York acting “without any scruple of Christian conscientiousness” in wiping out the Jewish community. And William was not the only chronicler to record these lamentable acts, as the Chronicles of the Abbey of Meaux in East Yorkshire, and Roger of Howden include accounts.
Anti-Semitic feeling was running high throughout western Europe in the twelfth century, stoked by the Christian fervour of the Crusades, that directed aggression against Jews across England, France and Germany, as well as against Muslims in the Holy Land. England’s new king Richard I was about to set off on Crusade himself. Rioting had spread throughout England since prominent Jews, including Benedict of York, had been denied entry to King Richard I’s coronation banquet in 1189. Benedict was the wealthiest Jew of York and he was mortally wounded in the rioting at Westminster.
After rioting had engulfed the towns of Norwich, Stamford and Lincoln they began in York with a mob attempting to burn down Benedict’s palatial house. The Jews were officially protected by the king as his feudal vassals and sought protection in the royal castle, barricading themselves into the wooden keep. The rioters, meanwhile, were egged on by members of the local gentry called Richard Malebisse, William Percy, Marmeduke Darell and Philip de Fauconberg. These men saw the riots as an opportunity to wipe out the extensive debts they owed to Jewish money-lenders in the city. These men had borrowed heavily from Jewish money-lenders but had failed to secure lucrative royal appointments and so could not afford to repay their debts. Indeed, after the massacre they proceeded to burn the records of their debts held in the Minster, so absolving themselves from repayment to the king, who would acquire the property and debts owed to the murdered Jews.
The Jews in the keep, fearing treachery, locked out the royal constable, who then demanded the castle be captured by force. As a group of knights arrived to attack the castle, supported by siege engines a fiery hermit who had been inciting the mob was killed by a falling stone. This event further incensed the angry crowd, baying for Jewish blood.
Seeing no way out to safety most of the Jews chose to commit suicide in the keep. The alternatives were to renounce their faith and surrender to forced baptism or death at the hands of the mob. They were led by the wealthy Jew Josce and Rabbi Yomtob, a noted scholar, who had come to York from Joigny in France. After killing their wives and children they set fire to the wooden keep and killed themselves.
A few Jews refused the option of suicide, but it seems their fate was no better, dying either in the fire, or murdered by the rioters. The blackened remains of the fire were uncovered in excavations at Clifford’s Tower in the 20th century. From the ashes of that fire the present stone keep of Clifford’s Tower was constructed. The events at York were an affront to the dignity and authority of King Richard and so a royal inquest was held soon afterwards. This resulted in the city receiving a heavy fine, but by that time the instigators had escaped and no individuals were ever punished for the crimes committed on that fateful night. Probably some of them joined the King himself on crusade, as he was by then en route to the Holy Land through France.
The massacre of 1190 was a horrific catalogue of violence and murder driven by religious intolerance and the greed of those who owed the leading Jewish money-lenders money. And it was sadly only one of countless incidents of mob-violence against Jewish communities across England and Western Europe in the Middle Ages.