22 September 2022

A chilling reminder in York
of a mediaeval pogrom
and the death of 150 Jews

Clifford’s Tower is one of York’s most visible landmarks and the only remaining part of York Castle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

On my way into the heart of York each day last week and back out of the city in the evenings, I passed Clifford’s Tower, one of York’s most visible landmarks and the only remaining part of York Castle.

York Castle was first built by William the Conqueror to subdue the rebellious north. Clifford’s Tower has been a royal mint, a mediaeval stronghold and a Civil War garrison. But in 1190, it was also the site of one of the worst antisemitic massacres of the Middle Ages, when York’s Jewish community were trapped there by a violent mob and many Jews chose to die by suicide rather than be murdered.

The massacre of York’s Jewish community in 1190 was the bloodiest outbreak of antisemitism in 12th century England. The Jews of York at the time were a well-established community, and many Jews in York provided financial services to the merchant classes.

Henry II was seen as a protector of the Jews of England. But tensions rose following his death and the coronation of Richard I in 1189.

Josce of York (or Jocenus, or Joseph) was a leading member of the Jewish community in York in the late 12th century. His house in York rivalled a citadel in its scale and magnificence, and he is mentioned in the earliest surviving English shetar or receipt for debt repayment, in 1176.

Benedict, another leading Jew of the city, was the agent of Aaron of Lincoln, said to have been the wealthiest man in Norman England. Benedict’s house at Spen Lane, near Saint Andrew’s Church, was described by William of Newbury as like ‘unto a royal palace in size and strength.’

Benedict’s house at Spen Lane, near Saint Andrew’s Church, was described as like ‘unto a royal palace in size and strength’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Josce and Benedict together attended the coronation of Richard I in London in September 1189 as representatives of the Jewish congregation in York, and presented gifts to the new king. During the celebrations, however, the two men were attacked by a mob.

During the attacks, Benedict was forcibly baptised as ‘William.’ He was severely wounded in the attack and accepted a Christian baptism from a monk from York, Prior William of Saint Mary’s Abbey. Benedict recanted his Christian faith the next day when summoned before King Richard.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde, said of Benedict’s recantation that ‘if he will not be a Christian, let him be the devil’s man.’ Benedict later appealed to King Richard to allow him to return to his Jewish faith, although this was against canon law.

On their way home to York, Benedict died of his injuries in Northampton soon after his forced baptism. The chronicler Roger of Hoveden said Benedict was buried in neither the Jewish nor the Christian cemetery in Northampton because of his recantation. Josce, however, returned safely to York.

While Richard the Lionheart set off on a crusade, antisemitic rioting spread to the towns of Norwich, Stamford and Lincoln, and eventually reached York on 16 March 1190.

The mob in York, emboldened by the crusader fervour of the new king, was provoked by Richard de Malbis (Richard Malebisse), who was in considerable debt to Aaron of Lincoln. When a fire accidentally broke out in the city on 16 March, de Malbis seized the opportunity to incite a mob to attack the home of Benedict of York, killing his widow and children.

When the mob tried to burn down Benedict’s house, Josce and the rest of the city’s Jewish community – about 150 people in all, including women and children – sought refuge in Clifford’s Tower on the feast of Shabbat HaGadol, the shabbat before Passover. That year, Palm Sunday was on 18 March.

The refugees in the tower included Yom Tov of Joigny, also known as Yom Tov of York. He was a French-born rabbi and liturgical poet who had been a student of Jacob ben Meir (1100-1171) or Rabbeinu Tam, one of the most renowned Ashkenazi rabbis and a grandson of Rashi.

The mob besieged the motte, demanding that the Jews of York be baptised and convert to Christianity. With no hope of escape, Rabbi Yom Tov advised the other Jews to kill themselves rather than convert. Josce began by slaying his wife Anna and two children. He was then killed by Yom Tov. In an echo of the siege of Masada in the 1st century CE, the father of each family killed his wife and children and then Yom Tov stabbed the men in turn before killing himself. The tower was set alight so their bodies could not be mutilated by the mob.

A handful of Jews who did not kill themselves surrendered at daybreak on 17 March, leaving the castle on a promise that they would not be harmed. But they were all killed by the mob; there were no survivors.

The pogrom at York was also seen as an affront to King Richard and a royal inquest was held soon afterwards. The city was punished with a heavy fine, but by then the instigators had escaped and no individuals were ever punished for the crimes of that fateful night.

The tower was rebuilt 60 years after the massacre, but the earth mound on which it stands may still contain evidence from 1190.

A new Jewish community was established in York soon after and remained in the city until 1290, when Edward I expelled all Jews from England. Jews were only permitted to return in the 17th century.

The plaque commemorating the massacre at the foot of Clifford’s Tower (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

For over eight centuries, the city of York has had dark connotations for Jews everywhere. The massacre is one of the most notorious pogroms, and it is commemorated in a kinah or lamentation recited on the fast day of Tisha B’Av.

A Hebrew language hymn attributed to Yom Tov, transliterated ‘Omnam Kayn’ or ‘Omnam Ken’ (Hebrew, ‘indeed thus’) is still recited in Eastern Ashkenazi synagogues each year on the evening of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

The blackened remains of the fire were uncovered in the 20th century in excavations at Clifford’s Tower, which stands today as a reminder of this terrible massacre.

A plaque at the base of the mound commemorating these events was unveiled on 31 October 1978, following a decade-long campaign by Raphael Loewe and other members of the Jewish Historical Society (JHS). Raphael Loewe was also involved in having the mound covered in daffodils each year as an annual visual reminder of the massacre. Same say the yellow daffodils are a reminder of the yellow Star of David.

The plaque reads:

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 other’s hands rather than renounce their faith.

ישימו ליהוה כבוד ותהלתו באיים יגידו

Isaiah XLII 12

Isaiah 42: 12 translates: ‘Let them give glory unto the Lord, and declare his praise in the islands’ (KJV), or ‘Let them give glory to the Lord, and declare his praise in the coastlands’ (NRSVA). The ‘islands’ in the KJV translation is interpreted in this context as meaning as Britain, sometimes referred to in Hebrew as the ‘Isles of the Sea.’

Tomorrow: The synagogues of York

Saturday: The mediaeval Jewish cemetery at Jewbury

Clifford’s Tower stands as a reminder of the mediaeval massacre of the Jews of York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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