On this day in history : 16th March 1190 – The massacre of some 150 Jews at Clifford’s Tower, York – many chose to commit suicide rather than be murdered or face forced baptism….
After the Norman Conquest of 1066 many Jews came to England from Rouen, France…. The Norman kings needed money to build castles to defend their kingdoms – but it was forbidden for Christians to profit from money lending…. However, for the Jews it was permitted and so they were welcomed and given the protection of the Crown…. Many of them became very wealthy through their money lending but in return they were heavily taxed….
In time Jewish communities became established in most principal cities across England, including York…. However, anti-Semitic feelings began to run high across Europe, particularly England, France and Germany….fuelled by the Christian Crusades and the Church’s teaching that the Jews had brought about the death of Jesus…. Resentment of the Jewish people was also inflated by anger at the taxes being levied to fund the Crusades…. Malicious stories were spread about Jews murdering Christian children…. Hostility against the Jewish population escalated with riots breaking out in Norwich, Stamford, Lincoln and York…. Violence even broke out at the coronation of King Richard I – after the exclusion of Benedict of York from the coronation banquet…. Benedict, a money lender, was the most wealthy and influential Jew in York…. He died of the injuries he received at the riots in Westminster….
A few months later the Sheriff of York was away taking part in the Third Crusade when a fire broke out in the city…. Some of the citizens took advantage of the fire and the absence of the Sheriff….they attacked and looted the home of Benedict of York’s family – murdering those inside….
The rest of the Jewish community – it is unknown how many this actually involved but it is estimated between 20 and 40 families – fled their homes and sought protection in the castle keep…. They now found themselves trapped in the wooden tower by the angry mob outside…. It was Friday the 16th of March – the Great Sabbath ‘Shabbat Hagadol’ – before the Jewish festival of Passover….
Realising they had no hope of escaping many of the Jews decided it was preferable to die by their own hand, together, rather than be murdered…. Fathers killed their wives and then their children – then setting fire to their possessions before taking their own lives…. The flames spread to engulf the wooden tower…. Not all of the Jews chose suicide – safe passage was promised if they pledged to abandon their religion and convert – only it was a ploy to coax them out…. Once they left the tower they were immediately murdered – that’s if they even made it out of the flames alive….
A new stone tower, the present day Clifford’s Tower, was built on the site of the original castle keep…. 20th century excavations uncovered the blackened remains of the old tower…. Each year, around the time of the anniversary of the massacre daffodils bloom around the tower….their petals representing the Star of Daniel, as a memorial…. A plaque was installed at the base of the tower in 1978 to commemorate those who died in one of the worst anti-Semitic massacres of the Middle Ages…. Sadly the 1190 York Pogrom was one of many such occurrences across a Europe that at the time bore little tolerance to religious diversity….