It was during the 12th century that the representation of Jews in European art across the continent began to change; for the first time they were depicted with gargantuan hooked noses and other grotesque features, unenlightened and blind to the ‘true religion’, opposite Jesus’s handsome godliness. In England, Jews had been welcome since William the Conqueror invited them to live and work in his kingdom. Christians were forbidden from making a profit as moneylenders whereas Jews were not, and because their profession made them rich they were heavily taxed by the crown in exchange for the king’s protection.
After the death of Henry II in 1189 the crown passed to his eldest son, the infamous Richard the Lionheart, and crusade fever swept the country, bringing with it a rise in anti-Semitism.
Benedict of York, a moneylender and one of the leading members of York’s Jewish community, was one of several Jews to attend Richard’s coronation in London to pay respects to the new king. Their arrival sparked an outrage and they were refused entry and attacked, with some reports suggesting they were ordered to be whipped. Not only did Benedict receive wounds he would never recover from, dying in Northampton while trying to return home, but he was also forced to convert to Christianity and adopt the name ‘William’. On his deathbed he renounced his conversion, but was ultimately granted neither a Jewish nor Christian burial.
A rumour that Richard had ordered the expulsion of the Jews spread across the country like wildfire, and soon mobs of Christians were rioting against their Jewish neighbours with what they believed to be the king’s permission to commit acts of anti-Semitic violence. In York, Richard Malebisse was one of several of the city’s noblemen who saw the rise in anti-Semitism as an opportunity to rid themselves of their debts owed to Jewish moneylenders. He raised a mob to attack the property of an agent of Aaron of Lincoln that soon grew out of control, claiming the lives of Benedict of York’s widow and children when an attempt was made to loot and burn their house, with some reports suggesting their home was set alight while they were still inside.
Understandably frightened by what had happened, Josce of York rounded up as many of the city’s Jewish families as he could and led them to the castle, where they secured themselves inside the wooden keep until the wave of violence subdued. Rather than simmering down, however, the angry mob surrounded them and demanded they be forcibly baptised.
The sheriff’s troops were called but for three days both the mob and the Jews, who were running out of food and water, refused to stand down. With the promise of their guaranteed safety should they leave the keep and agree to be baptised, the Jewish families were faced with a difficult decision. Would a mob that had already killed one Jewish family stay true to their word and, if so, were they willing to forsake their own faith for someone else’s?
Trusting their own hands to be kinder than the mob’s, Josce and Rabbi Yomtob of Joigny oversaw a mass suicide pact within the walls of the keep. In order to save their souls from the mortal sin of suicide, the father of each family slit the throat of his wife and their children before being killed by Yomtob himself, leaving the rabbi alone to take his own life and set fire to the keep so that their bodies could not be mutilated by the mob. Those who opted to face the crowd and managed to survive the fire left what remained of the keep at daybreak and appealed for Christian mercy in return for baptism. They did not receive it. The mob slaughtered them before they marched to York Minster, where the records of debts were kept, and compelled the guards to hand them over so they too could be burned.
When Richard I learned of what had happened he believed it to be an affront to his honour and a royal inquest was held. The city’s constable and sheriff were dismissed, Malebisse had some of his property confiscated and York was heavily fined for the massacre, but no individuals were ever prosecuted or punished for the murders of around 150 people. It was not until 1978 that a plaque commemorating the massacre was installed at the foot of the tower; a stone building erected in 1250 on the same site as the original keep.
Every March, around the anniversary of the massacre, daffodils first planted in 1990 bloom around the base of Clifford’s Tower. The flowers’ six petals represent the six points of the Star of David, a peaceful tribute to the victims of one of the most vicious episodes in York’s history.
In 1218 Henry III, Richard I’s nephew, proclaimed the Edict of the Badge, a royal decree requiring England’s Jews to wear a marking badge similar to the marks European Jews over the age of six were forced to wear in Nazi-occupied areas during the Second World War, and twelve years later it was followed by the Edict of Expulsion on the 18th July 1290, when Edward I expelled all Jews from England. For almost four centuries Jews were not permitted to return to England until Oliver Cromwell overturned the edict in 1657.
Throughout history the world’s Jewish population have been subjected to some of the most hateful treatment imaginable, from slavery in the Ancient world to the Spanish Inquisition to the Holocaust, and over eight centuries since the massacre in York, it’s important to remember that treatment has also been a part of Britain’s long history.