On March 16, 1190, the Jewish residents of York, England, numbering some 150, were murdered or took their own lives after rioters besieged them in the keep of York Castle. This was but one of a series of pogroms – although the most notorious – against the Jews in a number of English communities that year.
Jews had begun appearing in England after the Norman Conquest in 1066; they received special status to work as moneylenders. Although moneylending, a profession denied to Christians, could be lucrative, it also entailed risks, not least the resentment of those who faced the challenge of repaying their loans.
A year before the York pogrom, Richard the Lionheart became king of England after the death of his father, Henry II. Richard was crowned on September 3, 1189, and announced his intention to lead a crusade to the Holy Land – what would be the Third Crusade. The excitement inevitably led to agitation against Jews.
Among those who came to London to show their respects to the new monarch were two prosperous Jews from York, Benedict and Josce. The two were not admitted to the coronation banquet at Westminster and found themselves attacked in anti-Jewish rioting. Benedict later died of his injuries, one of some 30 Jews who were killed in this London pogrom.
Before he departed from England, King Richard had instructed his subjects not to harm the Jews, but his order was ignored. By February 1190, Jews in a number of towns around the country began to suffer such attacks, which reached York the following month.
Four prominent citizens of York, led by one Richard Malebisse, decided to exploit the anti-Jewish atmosphere to have their debts to Jews erased. Taking advantage of a fire that swept through the city (or perhaps having started the fire), the four men attacked the home of Benedict the financier and killed his widow and children.
Fearing that he might be next, Josce sought refuge in York Castle, which was then made of wood. He was followed by the rest of the town’s Jews, numbering about 150. This was on March 15. By the following day, the castle keep (the site of what is today Clifford’s Tower), where the Jews had barricaded themselves, was surrounded by a hostile crowd.
When the castle’s warden left and later tried to reenter, he was refused admission by the Jews inside, who feared he intended to betray them. Angered, the warden appealed to the sheriff of York, who issued an order to expel the Jews by force.
Knowing they would soon face a choice of converting or being killed, the community’s rabbi, Yom Tov Yitzhak, called on the prisoners to take their own lives. The men proceeded to kill the women and children before setting fire to the tower and killing themselves.
A contemporary chronicler, William of Newburgh, commented on the similarity between the “irrational fury of rational creatures against themselves” and the account of the siege of Masada in 73 C.E. that appears in Josephus’ “The Jewish War.”
The few Jewish survivors in York were killed by the crowd when they surrendered. The rioters then moved on the York Minster, the town’s cathedral, where they found and destroyed the records of loans made to local residents by Jews.
Although this spelled the destruction of York’s Jewish community, Jews were back in York within a few years. The son of Josce the moneylender, Aaron of York, became the lay leader of English Jewry in 1236.
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