16 March 1190: The Massacre of the Jews of York

On the night of 16 March 1190, the Jewish feast of Shabbat ha-Gadol, 150 men, women and children died at the royal castle at York, where Clifford’s Tower now stands. Many died following a mass-suicide and the rest at the hands of a mob waiting outside.

Jewish communities had been established in London in the 11th century after William I (the Conqueror) had invited the Jews to England. The communities spread to other parts of the country, first arriving in York around 1175.

From the middle of the 12th century the Jews came under the protection of the king as Henry II accepted them as an extension to the royal household. Henry used the services of Jewish moneylenders, as did many others, but taxed their profits heavily.

Anti-Jewish riots, however, were common, and one such riot occurred in London following the coronation of Henry’s son, Richard I. A group of Jews, bearing gifts for the king, were prevented from entering the king’s presence and the citizens of London attacked the city’s Jews. One of the Jews visiting from York, Benedict, was injured during the riots and died at Northampton on the journey home.

Although Richard punished the leading rioters, he soon left the country on a crusade. In his absence riots spread around the country. In March 1190 a group of men broke into the house of Benedict in York, killed his widow and children and looted their valuables.

The leader of York’s Jewish community, Josce, who had accompanied Benedict to London, feared for his family’s safety and they sought refuge in the royal castle. The rest of the Jews in the city followed them. The castle at this time consisted of a wooden tower on a motte with an outer bailey.

The Jews remained in the tower under the protection of the constable while a mob, led by Richard Malebisse, gathered outside. When the constable left the castle he was refused re-entry and so the sheriff organised a siege to force the Jews out. Meanwhile, the mob grew angry and called for the Jews to come out and accept baptism.

A few days later, on 16 March 1190, with supplies running low and knowing that their options were either to renounce their faith or be killed by the mob, the rabbi, Yomtob of Joigny, called on the Jews to commit suicide. The men that agreed killed the women and children of their households before being killed by the rabbi. Yomtob then committed suicide.

A fire had been started in the tower which burned the bodies of the dead. Those that refused to kill themselves pleaded with the mob for mercy the following morning and were assured that they could leave safely. The promises were false and the remaining Jews were murdered as the left the castle. Following the massacre the mob, many of whom owed money to the Jews, destroyed the bonds held at York Minster thus removing the evidence of the debts.

By the time Richard’s chancellor arrived in York to investigate the massacre the ringleaders had fled. The punishments amounted to the dismissals of the constable and sheriff, fines for the leaders who could be found and the seizure of Richard Malebisse’s lands for the crown.

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1 comment to 16 March 1190: The Massacre of the Jews of York

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