Monday, 16 March 2015

Dark Days in York

The historic walled city of York is said to have been founded by the Romans as Eboracum in 71 AD, at the confluence of the rivers Ouse and Foss in North Yorkshire, England. At its prime it was the largest town in northern Britain and capital of the Roman province of Britannia Inferior.

In 208 the Roman Emperor Septimius Severus travelled to Britain, strengthening Hadrian's Wall and reoccupying the Antonine Wall during a campaign in Caledonia (modern Scotland). Following a short illness Severus died at Eboracum in 211, his body cremated outside the city walls. In 306 Constantius I became the second Emperor to die at Eboracum. His son Constantine I (Constantine the Great) was instantly proclaimed as successor by the troops based in the fortress. His bronze statue stands outside York Minster.

Constantine I
The traditional view is that the name "Eboracum" is based on a Latinisation of the native British name “Eburos” for the ancient site, "place of the yew trees”. The name was later revived as the Anglo-Saxon trading port of Eoforwic, from the Old English “eofor,” for boar, and “wic” for settlement. The usual explanation given is that the Anglo-Saxons confused the Brythonic word “ebor”, yew tree, with their own word “eofor”.

The city became the capital of the northern ecclesiastical province of the Church of England, a role it has retained with the present building of the Gothic cathedral of York Minster, the second largest in Northern Europe, dominating the city skyline, begun c.1230 and completed in 1472. The first church recorded on the site was a much more modest affair; a wooden structure was built in 627 to provide a place for the baptism of Edwin, King of Deira.

In 866 Eoforwic was captured by Ivar the Boneless, leading a large army of Danish Vikings, known as the "Great Heathen Army" to the Anglo-Saxon chroniclers, and renamed the city 'Jórvík.' Excavations at Coppergate in central York by the York Archaeological Trust revealed that during the 10th century, Jórvík's trading connections reached as far as the Byzantine Empire in the Eastern Mediterranean. The site of the excavations is now the Jorvik Viking Centre. Eric Bloodaxe, last ruler of an independent Jórvík, was finally driven from the city in 954 by Eadred, King of Wessex, in his campaign to unify England. Eric was killed and Eadred took control of the kingdom of York.

Whether Eboracum, Eoforwic, or Jórvík, call it what you will, a visit to York with its rich heritage never fails to stimulate the senses, walking the city walls being one the best ways to take in views of this rich historical tapestry.

York - city wall and Minster (Source:
The city walls have been convincingly described as the best in Britain, with most of the medieval walls built to encircle the city 700 years ago still intact. The tops of the walls were restored about 150 years ago to provide a public walkway, the route marked with small brass pavement studs on the ground showing a tower with battlements, providing what is claimed to be the best city walk in the country. Who could argue with that? But this city has a dark, dismal secret.

The Romans surrounded their fort with walls but little evidence of these remain today; the current walls are largely of Medieval construction, strengthened in the 1640s for the English Civil War. There are four main Medieval gateways, or bars, into the city: Bootham Bar; Monk Bar; Walmgate Bar; Micklegate Bar. The Minster sits toward the north corner, between Bootham Bar and Monk Bar. In the south corner between Walmgate Bar and Micklegate Bar are the Lesser Gateways: Fishergate Bar, Fishergate Postern and Victoria Bar. 

Just past the Guildhall some steps lead up to the Walls at Monk Bar. Outside the Walls  here is Sainbury's multi-storey car park, built on the site of York’s medieval Jewish cemetery. The area is still called Jewbury but it was long forgotten and fell in to disuse when all Jews were expelled from England in 1290 and not re-discovered until construction work began on the supermarket.

Situated between the Rivers Foss and Ouse, beyond the city walls and Fishergate Postern Tower, is Clifford Tower on the top of a steep man-made mound with extensive views across the modern city. The Foss was dammed at Fishergate Postern Tower, where the road now crosses the river. The purpose of the dam was to flood York's castle’s moats, now filled in, Clifford’s Tower, or the King's Tower as it was then known, the castle keep, being the only significant remnant of old York Castle. A stone plaque at the bottom of the steps recalls a disturbing event over 800 years ago on the hill where Clifford’s Tower now stands.

Clifford's Tower
The mound was constructed by William the Conqueror in 1068 after meeting resistance in the north. This was promptly besieged and the wooden defences were destroyed within a year.  Undeterred, in March of that year, William built another castle (Baile Hill), positioning each castle on either side of the river Ouse. Clifford's Tower on the Eastern side of the river and Baile Hill on the Western side with the foundations of York Minster laid in 1070.

There is no record of Jews in England before the Norman Conquest, however, it is known that William the Conqueror brought a Jewish contingent from Rouen, in Normandy, to Britain in 1070 for the prosperity their commercial skills and incoming capital would bring to England. However, they were not permitted to own land or to participate in trades, being limited to money lending. During the 12th century Jews from Paris and elsewhere in France were settled at York making worthy contributions to the Exchequer.

Fuelled by Christian enthusiasm for the Crusades anti-Semitic feeling was running high throughout Western Europe in the 12th century, with aggression directed against Jews not just in England, but also France and Germany. Pope Gregory VIII had called Christians to arms for the Third Crusade to put Jerusalem under Christian control once more after the Crusader army was slaughtered by Saladin at the Battle of Hattin in 1187. A rumour started that the new crusader-king no longer wanted to protect the non-Christian Jews of England, some even claimed there was no need to go abroad to find enemies of Christianity to kill. Yet the fate of Europe’s Jewish communities is often omitted from accounts of the Crusades.

England’s newly crowned monarch Richard I, 'The Lionheart', had “taken up the cross” and was eager to join the crusade. Rioting had spread throughout England since prominent Jews had been denied entry to Richard's coronation in 1189. One of these was Benedict of York, the wealthiest Jew in the City who was mortally wounded in the rioting at Westminster.

After rioting had engulfed the towns of Norwich, Stamford and Lincoln they began in York on 16th March 1190 with a mob attempting to burn down Benedict’s palatial house. The Jews were officially protected by the king as his feudal vassals but the entire Jewish community of York, 150 people, sought protection in the royal castle, barricading themselves into the wooden keep, where Clifford’s Tower now stands, in fear of the mob.

The royal constable was locked out of the keep and refused entry. Calling on a group of knights, he ordered the castle keep to be taken by force. The mob were encouraged by members of the local gentry who saw this as an opportunity to erase the debts they owed to the Jewish money-lenders in York. It is claimed that most of the Jews chose to commit suicide in the keep rather than fall to the hands of the mob. It is claimed that after killing their wives and children they set fire to the wooden keep and killed themselves. However, a few declined suicide only to perish in the fire, or be murdered by the mob. After the massacre the gentry proceeded to the Minster to destroy records of their loans, so absolving themselves from repayment to the king, who would acquire the property and debts owed to the murdered Jews.

The events at York were recorded in the Chronicles of the Abbey of Meaux in East Yorkshire, and Roger of Howden. The chronicler William of Newburgh described the mob who murdered the Jewish community of York as acting “without any scruple of Christian conscientiousness”.

Soon afterwards a royal inquest was held which resulted in the city receiving a heavy fine, but no individuals were ever held responsible for the loss of life at York that night. It is thought that some of them were already travelling through France to join the Crusades.

The events at York have been compared to the Siege of Masada, one of the final events in the First Jewish–Roman War, in which, according to the 1st century historian Josephus, a long siege by troops of the Roman Empire ended in the mass suicide of the 960 Sicarii rebels and their families hiding on a large hilltop in current-day Israel, in 74 AD.

Josephus  reported that when the Romans entered the fortress at the end of the siege they found it to be "a citadel of death." The Jewish rebels had set all the buildings but the food storerooms ablaze and had committed mass suicide. Masada has become a controversial event in Jewish history, with some regarding it as a place of reverence. The Jews of York were probably aware of Masada and may have seen a similar fate for themselves.

Judaism prohibits suicide, therefore it is argued that the Jews must have killed each other in turn. However, there is no archaeological evidence that Masada's defenders committed mass suicide. And what evidence is there for a mass suicide at York?

The cemetery at Jewbury is estimated to contain around a 1,000 graves, it must have been one of the largest Jewish cemeteries in the country. The archaeologists discovered about 500 medieval graves during the construction of Sainbury's multi-storey carpark in the 1980s. However, none of the excavated graves at Jewbury showed any signs of violence, except one, it therefore seems unlikely that these were the bodies of the Jews massacred in Clifford's Tower in 1190. What became of their fate? At Norwich seventeen skeletons found in a well were identified as Jews murdered during this period

No physical memory was left in the city of the murders, but archaeological excavations have revealed the burnt remnants of the original wooden structure beneath the tower. For years it was believed a cherem had been placed on York, prohibiting the resettling of the city by Jews following the mass-murder in 1190.

Memorial plaque at Clifford's Tower
In efforts toward reconciliation it has been argued that Jews continued to live at York and built houses after the massacre at Clifford Tower up to the expulsion in 1290 under Edward I and there is no evidence of a cherem at York in any known Rabbinical text.

Today, at the foot of Clifford’s Tower, a plaque marks this dark day in York’s history. Further to the memorial plaque, in 1990, exactly eight-hundred years after the massacre, the slopes of Clifford's Tower were planted with daffodils with six pointed petals representative of the Star of David, which flower in March when the 150 souls were lost.

Next time you are in York admiring the fine medieval walls and the rich history of the city bear a thought for that dark day in March 1190.

Copyright © 2015 Edward Watson

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