This week in York Christians and Jews have gathered to mark an infamous massacre 800 years ago. Terence Wynn looks at the background to the event.
A MASS of reparation was offered by Bishop Kevin O'Brien, auxiliary in Middlesbrough, in York's Bar Convent last Sunday. It was part of the city's four-day commemoration of one of the saddest days in English history — the massacre of men, women and children by a raging mob in Clifford's Tower, part of York Castle, on Friday, March 16, 1190.
The occasion brought Jews and Christians together in that solemn commemoration of a cruel act of intolerance and murder which virtually wiped out the Jewish population in this ancient city, and has caused many Jews, even to this day, to stay clear of its boundaries.
Yet it all began, not in York, but in London where, on September 3, 1189, King Richard 1 was crowned in Westminster Abbey. Jews were forbidden from attending the ceremony, but many of them, having learned to love and admire King Henry 11, Richard's father, who had protected them from oppression, wished to pay homage to the new monarch.
Two of these Jews, Benedict of York and his colleague, Jocenus, travelled to London with gifts for the King. They did not go to the Abbey but to the Palace of Westminster (now the Parliament building) to hand over their gifts to Richard at the coronation banquet.
They were prevented from entering the palace gate and the scuffle turned into a large scale riot which resulted in the murder of many Jews, and their property being burned in London's Jewery.
Jocenus managed to escape and returned to York, but Benedict was severely wounded and was forced to accept Christian baptism in the Church of the Innocents nearby. But when summoned before Richard the next day he recanted and was dismissed by Archbishop Baldwin of Canterbury with the words: "If he will not be a Christian, let him be the devil's man".
Poor Benedict fell between two stools. When he died in Northampton soon afterwards his body could find burial neither in a Christian nor a Jewish grave.
The danger of anti-Jewish riots spreading throughout England caused Richard to send messengers and letters throughout his kingdom ordering the people to leave the Jews at peace. Sadly, this did not come about.
Richard left England on the third crusade that December, leaving many parts of the country, including the city of York, simmering with antisemitism. These passions were heightened during the season of Lent when there were antiJewish riots in Kings Lynn, Norwich, Bury St Edmunds and Lincoln. The rioting spread to Colchester, Thetford and Ospringe in Kent.
York, England's second city in those days, remained calm until the beginning of March when a mob broke into the house of the deceased Benedict and looted and murdered his widow and children.
Terrified at what was happening, the Jews of York, led by Jocenus, appealed to the Governor of York Castle and were given permission to take refuge within Clifford's Tower which had been constructed of wood by William the Conquerer, who, ironically, had introduced Jews into England. Men, women and children were huddled inside while a blood crazed mob of thousands gathered outside.
For some reason the governor left the castle to attend to other business outside the City and it was then that the situation reached crisis point. When the governor returned the frightened Jews refused to admit him and an order was made by the High Sheriff to force an entrance.
The mob was led by a white clad Premonstatensian friar with the cry: "The enemies of Christ must be destroyed". However, a heavy stone was dislodged as a result of the battering on the castle gate and it struck his head, killing him on the spot.
The exact number of the Jews inside Clifford's Tower is under question, but some historians report it as being in excess of a thousand.
They begged for mercy and offered a huge sum of money as the price of their freedom, but this was spurned. Rabbi Yomtob, a prominent rabbi in England, was among the beseiged. He reminded his fellow Jews that the great Sabbath before Passover was soon approaching and that they should anticipate certain death, in Hebrew tradition, by taking their own lives. This many of them did. Jocenus is reported as setting the example by taking the life of his wife Anna and their sons. Rabbi Yomtob took the life of Jocenus before killing himself. This mass suicide was accompanied by a fire which raged through Clifford's Tower.
The Jews who remained alive appealed for mercy and promised to accept Christian baptism, but as they left the castle at daybreak in tragic groups they were betrayed and murdered.
All of the money and possessions of the Jews had been destroyed in the flames, so the vengeful murderers made their way to York Minster where they burned all Jewish records, deeds and bonds before the altar. When Richard returned from the Holy Land months later he tried to make amends by taking hundreds of York citizens hostage and holding them for the future good behaviour of others towards the Jews, until they were ransomed by payment of ten pounds per head. The Bishop of Ely rode at the head of a small army to York only to find that the leaders of the outrage had fled to Scotland. Much sorrow has been expressed since, but nothing quite like the ceremonies which were planned to mark the 800th anniversary of the massacre this weekend. Jewish artists and writers prepared laments in music and verse for performance over the four days of commemoration and the Bar Convent staged an impressive exhibition on behalf of the Board of Deputies of British Jews entitled "The Jewish Way of Life".
Ali the events were approved by the Council of Christians and Jews which leads to the hope that the York massacre, tragic and brutal though it may have been, could eventually lead to a more loving and human relationship with our Jewish brethren.