At the foot of Clifford’s Tower a plaque marks the darkest chapter in the history of York’s Jewish community. The plaque reads:
On the night of Friday 16th March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York, having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each other’s hands rather than renounce their faith.(Isaiah XLII:12 )
ישימו ליהוה כבוד ותהלתו באיים יגידו
Let them give glory unto the LORD, and declare his praise in the islands
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 castle 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. On March 16, on the eve of Passover, realizing that all hope was lost, Rabbi Yomtob asked his brethren to choose suicide rather than submit to baptism. First setting fire to their possessions, one after the other killed himself. More than 150 died in this way, and the few survivors were murdered by the mob, who also destroyed the register of debts to the Jews. 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.
In Jewish tradition a cherem (ban) was placed on the city, preventing Jewish people from living there. However, Dr Helen Weinstein has shown there are no records of any such a ban, and today there are attempts to rebuild the Jewish community there. The orthodox synagogue was closed in 1975 but there is a Liberal Synagogue there.
Today the site is a tourist attraction but the city of York has developed educational projects and the Holocaust Memorial Day has other activities. But the place still carries such a strong presence of the traumatic events of 1190 that is leaves you shuddering, and deeply moved.
“On the night of Friday 16 March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each others hands rather than renounce their faith HEBREW ISAIAH XLII IV
Prayer and reflection. After such a black day in the history of the Jews in the United Kingdom it is not surprising that Jewish people did not live there for many centuries. I visited the area a few years ago, and could not hold back tears of grief, sadness and mourning. For Messianic Jews in the UK this is one of the starkest reminders of the disconnect between the two communities, Jews and Christians, of which we are a part. Lord, how often have we committed acts of violence in your name, and how often have your people Israel suffered at the hands of those whose ‘crusading zeal’ was a mask for their own self-interest and xenophobia. Lord, have mercy. In Yeshua’s name we pray. Amen.
PLAQUE COMMEMORATING THE 1190 MASSACRE INSTALLED BY JEWISH HISTORICAL SOCIETY
There is a prominent plaque acknowledging the massacre of Shabbat HaGadol when almost every member of York’s Jewish Community perished in 1190. Shabbat haGadol means the Great Sabbath and has particular significance in the Jewish calendar because it is the Shabbat which precedes Passover. The plaque commemorating the tragedy is situated at the base of the Clifford’s Tower in York which is a commemorative marker rather than a piece of interpretation. It was installed after a prolonged campaign by the Jewish Historical Society of England.
The plaque text is chisseled in granite and is situated to the left of the staircase up to the Tower: “On the night of Friday 16 March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each others hands rather than renounce their faith HEBREW ISAIAH XLII IV