The castle of York was the setting for one of the most notorious events in English history: the mass suicide and massacre in March 1190 of York’s Jewish community.
Tensions between Christians and Jews had been increasing throughout England during the 12th century, partly because many people were in debt to Jewish moneylenders and partly because much crusading propaganda was directed not only against Muslims but also against Jews. Anti-Jewish riots in several cities followed the coronation of the crusader king Richard I in 1189, and a rumour (untrue) was put about that he had ordered a massacre of the Jews.
In York, as described by William of Newburgh and other contemporary chroniclers, about 150 people from the Jewish community were given protective custody in the royal castle, probably the site of Clifford’s Tower.
Somehow, though, trust between the royal officials and the Jews broke down. The officials, finding themselves shut out from the tower, summoned reinforcements to recapture it. These troops were joined by a large mob, which soon ran out of control, incited by both anti-Jewish preachers and local gentry eager to escape their debts.
On 16 March, the eve of the Sabbath before Passover, when the Jews realised that there would be no safe way out for them, a rabbi urged his fellow-inmates in the tower to commit suicide rather than fall into the hands of their persecutors. Heads of households killed their own families before killing themselves, and the wooden tower itself was set on fire.
According to several accounts a number of Jews did survive and came out of the tower under an amnesty, only to be murdered by the attackers. A plaque at the base of the mound, commemorating these events, was installed in 1978.
Though Jewish life did in fact revive in York within a few years of the massacre, it came to an end a hundred years later, in 1290, when Edward I expelled all Jews from England.
This time their exile lasted until the 17th century.