York

31 Days of History: Mass suicide in the castle

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March 16th, 2012
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Today in 1190 the history of York changed forever and became one of the most anti-semetic places in the world. Under the reign of Henry II, the Jewish community was encouraged by the king to settle within England’s towns and enjoyed Royal protection. They were also a legitimate source of taxation for the Crown, many being in the business of the unpopular trade of usury (money-lending) and being on the fringes of society left them in a precarious position. This fragile existence was disrupted by the succession of Henry II by his son Richard.

Jews were forbidden to attend the coronation of Richard I in 1189 but two of York’s most prominent Jews – Jocenus and Benedict, went to Westminster ladened with gifts for the King. The crowds saw this as an insult towards Richard I and then proceeded to riot and attack London’s Jewish community. Jocenus managed to return safely to York, but Benedict died from his injuries in Northampton after enduring a forced baptism.

In 1190, six months after the death of Benedict, a mob ransacked the house of Benedict murdering his widow and his children.  Fearing for the safety of his own family, Jocenus sought protection in York Castle. The rest of the city’s Jewish inhabitants also sought refuge in the castle where they stayed safe for several days. As the days passed the castle became more a place of captivity rather than the place for refuge that the inhabitants initially seeked.

The county militia arrived to eject the Jews by force at the request of the castle constable. The mob which still surrounded the castle saw this as the okay had been given and proceeding to attack the castle. On the night of Friday 16th March, the Jewish feast of Shabbat ha-Gadol, the Jews had exhausted all their reserves and feared that the mob outside would soon beach the castle.

Rabbi Yomtob of Joigney called upon all the members of the community to commit suicide rather than be murdered or baptised. Many of the community followed the Rabbi’s advice, the father of each family killed the women and children of his household. The Rabbi then took his own knife to those who still remained before turning it upon himself. Those that were determined to take their chances with those outside of the castle were greeted the following morning with false promises of mercy. Once the remaining few left the safety of the castle they were murdered by the crowd outside.

The crowd then proceeded to set fire to the castle and burned the bodies of the Jews who took their own lives in the mass-suicide.

Jewish Massacre in York © Eon Images

The history of the Jewish community in York has been fraught with troubles, receiving exile in 1290 by Edward II. In 1978 a plaque was laid at the site which reads “On the night of Friday 16 March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each other’s hands rather than renounce their faith.”

The Jewish population is still suffering due to its bloody history with around 200 Jews currently residing in the city out of a total population of over 202,000.

16 March marks not just a grave day in Jewish history in England, but also for York as a city.

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