On Tisha B’Av, our focus is generally on the churban, and the more recent Holocaust, but anti-Semitic attacks in many a “civilized” country have been only too frequent throughout our history. Find out more about a full-fledged pogrom that took place in England 830 years ago.
Although during the past few decades, we have lived in relative peace and tranquillity, the Three Weeks, and especially Tisha B’Av, are appropriate occasions to reminisce of times when our Jewish brethren suffered and were persecuted.
This article gives an account of the events surrounding the Jewish communities in England over eight hundred years ago, during the period of the Baalei Tosafos, a few which lived in England.
Jews in England
There is ample proof that in the wake of the Roman conquest, Jewish slaves and traders found their way to the far corners of Europe. Over the centuries following the destruction of the Beis Hamikdash, minor references to the Jewish population of the Anglo-Saxon empire can be found. After the Norman conquest of 1066, however, a slow influx of Jews from France began to bolster the small existing communities in England. The murderous activity of the crusaders on the European mainland in the year 1096, caused many Jews to flee to relative safety across the Channel. Well-established communities were located in cities like Bristol, Cambridge, London, Norwich, Oxford and York.
But this peace was not to last, and England may lay claim to the first blood libels directed against Jews. A variety of murder charges were brought against the Jewish communities in the 12th century, mainly to extract money in addition to heavy taxation. These wrongful accusations resulted in enormous fines, whilst the Church added new saints to its already impressive list.
The Second Crusade (1146) left the Jews of England more or less intact. An upturn in prosperity came in 1154 with the accession of young King Henry II to the throne. He put an end to the days of anarchy and brought peace, safety and confidence to “merchants seeking fairs and Jews looking for creditors.”(1). In addition to the previously mentioned communities, the Jews established communities in Gloucester, Lincoln, Northampton and Winchester, all contributing handsomely to the coffers of the king. Today it is generally accepted that the Jews of Angevin England were the driving force of the economic improvements during the 12th century. Jews were engaged in a variety of professions – physicians, landlords, money lenders and traders. Isaac of Everwick (York), most probably a Jew, gained fame for his role at the royal mint and some coins of the period bear his name.
London & York
Initially, there appears to have been some reluctance for Jews to settle in a city north of London without easy access to the gateways of Europe. Nevertheless, the prospects of a fortified city with a royal castle, as well as the presence of rural landlords who were in constant need of finance, proved sufficiently attractive to turn York into an important Jewish settlement, second only to London. It is often misconstrued that money-lending lay exclusively in the hands of Jews. We regularly find Christian usurers mentioned in royal records which were known as Pipe Rolls. Amongst such creditors in Angevin England were important people like William, the sheriff of London. Competitive offers of rates of interest made the gentry, knights and lords turn to Jewish financiers or their Christian counterparts. The undisputed leader in this field at the time was Aaron of Lincoln, under whose guidance most fiscal operations in central and northern England took place. He is also on record for lending money to his Jewish brethren, either to assist with business transactions or for the sake of Gemilus Chassadim.
In the 1170s a leader of the Jewish community of York is mentioned by name – Josce. He made his income from money-lending and King Henry II was actually one of his customers. (2) He also functioned as an important landlord, and his own abode in York is described by a contemporary as rivalling a noble citadel in the size and strength of its construction. We will meet Josce again later on.
These professions were not without danger, since involvement with large sums of money aroused much envy. Sometimes the loss of equity had to be endured; on another occasion the greed of the common folk resulted in murder.(3) Nevertheless, the special attraction of this profession to Jews lay in the fact that there was ample time to pursue their daily studies of Limude Hakodesh. Indeed, the York community consisted of many learned men and attracted Baalei Tosafos to join their kehillah.
Rabbenu Yom Tov of Joigny
On 20 Sivan 4931 (May 26, 1171) the Jewish community of Blois was wiped out. This brought about further acts of murder in rural French towns. Rabbenu Tam ordered this day to be observed as a day of mourning and fasting for generations. Unfortunately, the turbulence of the times proved too much for him. Two weeks later, on 4 Tamuz (June 9, 1171) Rabbenu Tam passed away in Troyes. His nephew, the Ri Hazaken lamented in a response to R. Meir Hakohen, that “the light of the world had been extinguished and the Luchos Habris were in captivity.”(4)
It may have been around this time when two of his pupils, Rabbi Yaakov of Orleans and Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny, left France and headed for the shores of England. Rabbi Yaakov is quoted extensively in our Tosafos on Yoma, Pesachim and Yevamos, and to a lesser degree in other masechtos. His name is found in various collections of Torah commentaries. His pessak on ribis (interest) has caused widespread discussion and controversy.(5)
Upon his arrival in England, Rabbi Yaakov joined the London rabbinate. The dayanim were referred to as bishops of the Jews in those medieval days. An interesting encounter between King Henry II and an Israelite bishop, possibly Rabbi Yaakov, is quoted by an early source.(6)
At a gathering of abbots, clergy, citizens and soldiers near St Paul’s in London, there chanced to pass certain Jews, among them a bishop of the Jews. King Henry jokingly said to him: “Welcome Bishop of the Jews! Receive him among ye, for there is scarcely any of the bishops of England that has not betrayed his lord the Archbishop of Canterbury, except this one. In this Israelite bishop there is no guile.”
Little good did King Henry’s opinion of the rabbis do for the Jews. He took advantage of the Jews whenever possible. When the wealthy Aaron of Lincoln died (around 1186), King Henry II laid claim to his estate, including all outstanding debts owed to Aaron. These alone amounted to 15,000 pounds, an immense fortune in those days. The treasury employed staff and a special chamber to deal solely with the accounts of Aaron of Lincoln. To finance his war in France against Philip Augustus and to pay his troops, a large part of Aaron’s wealth was shipped across the Channel. However, some vessels of the royal fleet sank due to bad weather and Aaron’s treasures were lost at sea.
By comparison to the rest of Europe, however, England offered the Jews a relatively safe environment. A steady influx from Germany and France was recorded during Henry’s reign, sometimes under protest of those governments, who were upset at the loss of their profitable subjects. A contemporary chronicler in England viewed the change with contempt: “He [Henry II] favoured more than was right a people treacherous and unfriendly to Christians, namely, Jewish usurers because of the great advantage, which he saw were to be had…”(7)
As we saw above, Henry II had no high opinion of the clergy and his interest in crusades was minimal. This view was not shared by his sons who hounded their father in search of crown and glory. This caused him an early death and in 1189 Richard I, later referred to as Richard the Lionheart, prepared to ascend the throne. The anti-Jewish feelings had increased over the years in England, partially due to pressures from Pope Alexander III. The masses looked for an excuse to copy the evil deeds of pillage and murder so frequently carried out by their European counterparts. On Sunday September 3, 1189 the coronation of Richard took place at Westminster. At the height of the festivities, a Jewish delegation, consisting of representatives of all communities, approached intending to present rich gifts to the newly crowned monarch.
Officially, Jews were not allowed into Westminster Hall and an attempt to enter (in order to pronounce the blessing over a king) was rebuffed with brutal force. The crowds at the gates, seeing an opportunity for fight and scuffle, seized the helpless and unarmed delegation. The beatings were severe and merciless. Some Jews lost their lives on the spot; others were badly injured. Then a false rumour was circulated in London, claiming that the king had given instructions to exterminate the Jews. The mob soon set fire to the Jewish quarter and at nightfall the death toll stood at well over 30 souls. One of the victims was the Rabbi Yaakov of Orleans, one of the Baalei Tosafos who was from then on referred to as Rabbi Yaakov Hakadosh.(8)
King Richard was not to be disturbed at his banquet. He gave instructions to investigate the ruckus and decided it was advisable to let the mob vent their murder lust. Days later, three ringleaders of the riot were hanged because during the riot a Christian was robbed by mistake, and their fire had caused damage to a Christian house. Another tragedy which resulted from that day involved Benedict (Baruch) of York. He had been forcibly baptized and was grudgingly allowed to return to Judaism, or, as Baldwin the Archbishop of Canterbury said to King Richard, “Let the devil have him.”(9) Wounded and in great shock, Benedict made his way back home to York, only to die in Northampton a little later. This was the first day of the reign of the illustrious King Richard, distinguished by an event hitherto unheard of in the royal city, by “the beginning of the doom of the infidel race,” reports William of Newbury.(7) The king, realizing the involvement of the families of many of his noblemen, chose to forget the whole incident and was content with messages to the bigger towns requesting protection of the Jews.
This proclamation was honored, whilst Richard I stayed in England, which was only for a few short months. In December, Richard set sail for France planning to proceed to the Holy Land and waiting for other crusaders to join him. Scarcely had he turned his back on England when murderous riots broke out against the Jewish residents of King’s Lynn, Norwich, Stamford, Lincoln, Colchester and other towns. The incitement usually came from would-be crusaders, who sought ways of warming up to their forthcoming religious task. A notable exception was shown by the citizens of Winchester, at least for the time being, who due to caution or laziness spared their vermin, as Richard of Devizes sarcastically commented.(10)
The York Massacre
We have detailed information on the number and in some cases names, of the victims who fell during these riots. For the city of York, however, we have eyewitness accounts and extensive reporting from Jewish and gentile sources alike. The tale of the destruction of the Jewish community of York is so repulsive and horrific that until this day, 830 years later, the mere mention of York invokes feelings of sadness and misery. The spiritual head of the congregation was Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny, one of the Baalei HaTosafos who had sat at the feet of Rabbenu Tam. He is quoted in our Tosafos to Berachos, Pesachim, Menachos, Chulin and other masechtos, and his rulings are quoted by Maharam and other Rishonim. He excelled in his explanations on Torah and tefillah, signing with the initials Tetiv תיטב (Tosfos Yom Tov).(11) His poetry was outstanding and his “Omnam Kein” is part of our Yom Kippur tefillah (Ashkenaz). He also composed a kinah for the kedoshim of Blois, which was only recently published.
Richard, the Evil Beast
The driving force behind the York massacre was Richard of Malebysse (today Acaster Malbis, four miles south of York). This man was well known and feared for his evil temper and blatant disrespect of other human beings. This earned him the title Richard the Evil Beast, based on the similarity to Malebysse (Mal=bad; bysse=beast). This was the name given to him by contemporary chroniclers and Jews also used this name in Hebrew translation on official documents. On Monday of Parshas Vayeshev 4943 (November 15, 1182), Shlomo of Paris, Aaron of Lincoln’s secretary, acknowledged the receipt of four English pounds as an installment from Richard Chaya Ra’a. This document is preserved in the British Museum.
Richard was heavily indebted to the Jews. Although he owned extensive estates in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, this knight was constantly in trouble with the crown and his turbulent career is sprinkled with violence and rebellion. The absence of King Richard proved too tempting for the Evil Beast who was well connected to noble families in the North like the Percys and the influential Bishop Puiset of Durham. With this strong backing, he aimed to let out his fury against the Jews and destroy the evidence of his debts at the same time. The mob that gathered around him were driven by the thought of pillage and plunder and general hatred of the Jews.
And so the scene was set for the darkest page in English history. The first act of savagery began one March evening in 1190, when an armed band broke into the house of Benedict (who had died as a result of the coronation massacre), and looted the property. The helpless widow and her children were deliberately murdered and the house set on fire. Early the next morning, the frightened community set out to seek refuge at York castle. This left their houses insecure and shortly afterwards other lootings occurred, followed by killings of Jews who had not sought protection in the royal enclosure. The tension rose to such an extent that within a short time the mob was totally out of control. Soon distrust set in and the Jews in the castle began to question the loyalty of the royal warden. When he left the castle on business, he was subsequently not readmitted which brought the sheriff of Yorkshire with his militia to the scene. The sheriff, John Marshal, decided to regain entry to the castle and gave orders to evacuate the Jews by force. This created the general impression that an attack on the Jews had royal approval and brought the masses to the castle walls. The crowd was soon in the grip of a religious frenzy, fuelled by the ravings of a white-robed monk. In despair, the Jewish defenders threw stones from the castle wall, and were successful in crushing the monk to death. For several days, the beleaguered group defended their position with outstanding courage, but on the eve of Shabbost Hagadol (Friday, 7 Nisan 4950, March 16,1190), special siege-engines (mechanical weapons for breaking down walls) were positioned against them. At this stage, Rabbi Yom Tov of Joigny, the spiritual head of the community, called for a Kiddush Hashem, rather than letting his flock fall into the hands of the Christians. Josce, the leader of the Jewish community of York, set the first example and killed his entire family. Afterwards, the father of each household carried out the terrible and incomprehensible act of killing their wives and children, only to take their own lives shortly afterward. A fire within the castle grounds burnt many of the bodies and caused extensive damage to the structure. At daybreak, Richard the Evil Beast stormed through the desolate gates of the royal tower and quickly butchered the few survivors of the heroic Kiddush Hashem. Their bodies were thrown from the castle’s ramparts down to the masses below. It must be said that the acts of cruelty surpassed even the contemporary gentile chroniclers, who usually found little to say in favour of the Jews. Then, the conspirators went to the cathedral and forced the terrified guards to hand over the records of debts placed there. The documents were duly destroyed and the masses began to disperse, seemingly having achieved their objective.
Thus about 150 Jewish souls slew themselves for the sake of sanctifying Hakadosh Boruch Hu. Amongst their looted belongings were precious illuminated manuscripts that found their way to Cologne and were redeemed by the community there.
Word of the massacre reached Richard the Lionheart while he was still camped in France prior to his journey to the Holy Land. He considered it an insult to his royal majesty that his guarantee of peace and security to the Jews in his kingdom had not been upheld. He was even more upset at the loss for the treasury, and gave instructions to the Royal Chancellor, William Longchamp, to investigate the pogrom and punish the rebels. William arrived in York on May 3, 1190, only to find the leaders of the outrage having fled to Scotland, and the citizens declaring their innocence in the murderous activities. William only removed Sheriff John Marshal from his post, but could not single out anybody else for punishment. No formal trial ever took place, although upon King Richard’s return in 1194, fresh attempts to launch an inquiry into the York riots were made. The citizens of York were acquitted by the exchequer after having paid a fine of 10 marks. Thus ends the tragic story of the York massacre.
Richard the Evil Beast: He was fined 20 marks and subsequently got involved in the conspiracy of John, the brother of King Richard. This unsuccessful rebellion caused the excommunication of the Evil Beast in December 1191, followed by a fine of 300 marks upon the king’s return to Britain. His lifestyle continued as unruly and unrestrained as ever, attempting at one stage to fortify his manor into a proper castle with oak trees stolen from the royal forest of Galtres.(12) Until his death in 1210, the Evil Beast had time to contemplate his murderous and cowardly acts against the Jews. The removal of his notes of debt from York did not bring him any financial gains. Copies of most of the documents existed in the treasury and elsewhere.
Richard the Lionheart: He carried on with his troops to fight the Third Crusade in the Holy Land. His castle in York, incurring normally annual repairs amounting to a few shillings, was rebuilt at an expense of 250 pounds. Today Clifford Tower looms over the site of the wooden keep (tower) where the tragedy of the Jews of York unfolded. Excavations carried out on this hilltop in 1902 brought to light the charred remains of the original timbers. King Richard was captured in Vienna on his way back to Britain in December 1192 and was kept prisoner by Heinrich VI for over a year. He was only allowed to proceed after a heavy ransom, largely financed by Jews, had been raised.(13) In Britain, he had to face the rebellion of his brother John and he went to France to fight further battles. A chance injury at Chalus caused his death in April 1199.
The Jews of York: Contrary to common belief, no cherem was ever pronounced over this city. Nevertheless, the courage to settle again in York was slow in returning, but eventually a small community, a shadow of the former glory, established itself. No doubt, it was due to the action of those courageous men that the remains of the victims were laid to rest. A kinah composed by commentator and poet Rabbi Yosef of Chartres is dedicated to the memory of these martyrs.
For the next 100 years, the Jews of England were harassed and hounded. Further massacres and murder plots depleted the communities of Lincoln and London and finally led to the expulsion of the Jews of Britain in 1290, which put an end to Jewish settlement until the days of Menashe ben Israel and Oliver Cromwell. Only one lone voice, the historian Thomas de Wykes, found sympathetic words for the tormented race: And though the Jews were not of our religion, it seemed base and impious to kill them;we ought to love them because they are men and have been created in the image of G-d. “The remnant shall return, the remnants of Jacob, unto the Almighty” (Yeshaya 10, 21).
In January 1984, building work carried out at the Sainsbury car park in York, brought to light many skeletons. It was quickly established that the location was identical with the ancient Jewish burial ground. After prolonged efforts by the Orthodox Jewish communities, all the bones were gathered and reburied, during a moving ceremony, on 8 Tamuz 1984. The following night, a lightning bolt coming from a cloudless sky struck York Minster, the largest Gothic church in England (built around 1070). The lighting rod proved useless, as did the modern fire extinguishers and devastating damage was caused to the whole structure (The Times, July 19, 1984).
1 Materials for the History of Thomas Becket, III, p.19. J. Jacobs, The Jews of Angevin England, London 1893, p.28ff.
2 Pipe Roll 23, Henry II, p.14, 51, 77.
3 Pipe Roll 25, Henry II, p.16.
4 Or Zarua, Bava Basra, Siman 142.
5 Beth Yosef, Yoreh Deah 177.
6 J .C. Robertson, Materials for History of Thomas Becket, IV, 151.
7 William of Newbury, I, 280 (ed. Howlett).
8 Or Zarua II, p.59a.
9 Rabbi Ephraim of Bonn, in: Heb. Berichte bei d. Judenverfolgungen während der Kreuzzüge p.69-70. (ed. Stern).
10 Chronicle of Richard of Devizes (ed. Howlett), p.383.
11 Paneach Raza, Amsterdam 1698, p.47-49; Machzor Vitry p. 143.
12 R.B.Dobson, The Jews of Medieval York, York 1974, p.35ff.
13 Public Record Office, Misc. Q.R., 556-2.
14 Introduction to Chochmas Hanefesh by Rabbenu Elazar Rokeach, published by Rabbi Joseph Halpern of Manchester, Bnei Brak 1987.
Note: During the Middle Ages various denominations were in use in Britain. One pound was equivalent to one pound’s weight of silver penny or 240 pence. One shilling was equivalent to 12 pence. One mark was calculated as 8 oz. weight in silver, being 160 pence. Thus one mark was equal to 2/3 of a pound sterling.