Primary Texts on History of Relations

Dialogika Resources

WILLIAM OF NEWBURGH, The York Riots (1190)

[Excerpts from his History of English Affairs; found in Jacob Marcus, The Jew in the Medieval World: A Sourcebook, 315-1791, (New York: JPS, 1938), pp. 131-135.]

William was canon of the Augustinian priory at Newburgh, York, England.

The zeal of the Christians against the Jews in England .... broke out fiercely [toward the start of the Third Crusade]. It was not indeed sincere, that is, solely for the sake of the faith, but in rivalry for the luck of others or from envy of their good fortune. Bold and greedy men thought that they were doing an act pleasing to God, while they robbed or destroyed rebels against Christ and carried out the work of their own cupidity with savage joy and without any, or only the slightest, scruple of conscience-God's justice, indeed, by no means approving such deeds but cunningly ordaining that in this way the insolence of that perfidious people [Jews] might be checked and their blaspheming tongues curbed. . .

The men of York were restrained neither by fear of the hot-tempered King [Richard I] nor the vigor of the laws, nor by feelings of humanity, from satiating their fury with the total ruin of their perfidious fellow-citizens and from rooting out the whole race in their city. And as this was a very remarkable occurrence, it ought to be transmitted to posterity at greater length. . . .

When the King had established himself across the sea [Richard the Lion-Hearted was in France, December, 1189, preparing for the crusade], many of the province of York plotted against the Jews, not being able to suffer their opulence, when they themselves were in need, and, without any scruple of Christian conscience, thirsting for the blood of infidels from greed for booty. The leaders of this daring plan were some of the nobles indebted to the impious usurers in large sums. Some of these, having given up their estates to them [the Jews] for the money they had received, were now oppressed by great want; some, bound by their own sureties, were pressed by the exactions of the Treasury to satisfy the royal usurers.

Some, too, of those who had taken the cross [i.e., joined the crusade] and were on the point of starting for Jerusalem, were more easily induced to defray the expenses of the journey undertaken for the Lord's sake out of the booty taken from the Lord's enemies, especially as they had little fear of being questioned for the deed when they had started on their journey.

One stormy night, no small part of the city became on fire either by chance or, as is believed, by arson perpetrated by the conspirators, so that the citizens were occupied with their own houses in fear of the fire spreading. There was nothing, therefore, in the way of the robbers, and an armed band of the conspirators, with great violence and tools prepared for the purpose, burst into the house of the before-mentioned Benedict, who had miserably died at London as was mentioned above. [Earlier it had been recounted that in 1189 Benedict, a wealthy Jew of York, had been beaten and forced by a London mob to become a Christian, 1189. He later died of his injuries.] There his widow and children with many others dwelt; all of those who were in it were slain and the roof put on fire.

And while the fire gloomily increased in strength, the robbers seized their booty and left the burning house, and by help of the darkness retired unobserved and heavy laden. The Jews, and especially their leader Joce, in consternation at this misdeed, having begged the assistance of the Warden of the royal castle, carried into it huge weights of their monies equal to royal treasures, and took more vigilant guard of the rest at their houses.

But after a few days these nocturnal thieves returned with greater confidence and boldness and many joined them; they boldly besieged Joce's house which rivaled a noble citadel in the scale and stoutness of its construction. At length they captured and pillaged it, and then set it on fire after having removed by sword or fire all those whom an unlucky chance had kept in it. For Joce a little before had wisely anticipated this mischance and had removed with his wife and children into the castle, and the rest of the Jews did the same, only a few remaining outside as victims.

When the robbers had departed with so great a reward of their daring, a promiscuous mob rushed up at break of day and tore to pieces the furniture which remained from the spoilers and the fire.

Then at length those who had personally held the Jews in hatred, no longer having any fear of public rigor, began to rage against them openly and with abundant license. No longer content with their substance, they gave to all found outside the castle the option of sacred baptism or the extreme penalty. Thereupon some were baptized and feignedly joined Christianity to escape death. But those who refused to accept the sacrament of life, even as a matter of pretense, were butchered without mercy.

While all this was happening the multitude who had escaped into the castle seemed to be in safety. But the Warden of the castle, having gone out on some business, when he wished to return was not readmitted by the trembling multitude, uncertain in whom to trust and fearing that perchance his fidelity to them was tottering, and that being bribed he was about to give up to their enemies those whom he should protect. But he immediately went to the sheriff of the county who happened to be at York with a large body of the county soldiers, and complained to him that the Jews had cheated him out of the castle entrusted to him. The sheriff became indignant and raged against the Jews. The leaders of the conspiracy fanned his fury, alleging that the timid precaution of those poor wretches was an insolent seizure of the royal castle and would cause injury to our lord, the King. And when many declared that such traitors were to be got at by some means or another, and the royal castle taken out of their hands, the sheriff ordered the people to be summoned and the castle to be besieged.

The irrevocable word went forth, the zeal of the Christian folk was inflamed, immense masses of armed men both from the town and the country were clustered round the citadel. Then the sheriff, struck with regret at his order, tried in vain to recall it and wished to prohibit the siege of the castle. But he could by no influence of reason or authority keep back their inflamed minds from carrying out what they had begun. It is true the nobles of the city and the more weighty citizens, fearing the danger of a royal movement, cautiously declined such a great transgression. But the whole of the work-people and all the youth of the town and a large number of the country folk, together with soldiers not a few, came with such alacrity and joined in the cruel business as if each man was seeking his own gain. And there were not lacking many clergymen, among whom a certain hermit seemed more vehement than the rest. . . .

Accordingly the Jews were besieged in the royal tower, and the besieged lacked a sufficient supply of provisions, and would have been quickly starved out by hunger even if no one attacked them from without. But they did not have either a sufficient stock of arms for their own safety or for repelling the enemy. Naturally they held back the threatening enemy with stones taken from the inner wall. The tower was stoutly besieged for several days, and at length the machines which had been prepared for the purpose were brought into position. . . .

When the machines were thus moved into position, the taking of the tower became certain, and it was no longer doubtful that the fatal hour was nearing for the besieged. On the following night the besiegers were quiet, rejoicing in the certainty of their approaching victory. But the Jews were brave, and braced up by their very despair, had little rest, discussing what they should do in such an extremity. . . .

[At the advice of their rabbi, the noted Yomtob of Joigny, many killed themselves, after first setting fire to the tower. Those who were left offered to convert, but were mercilessly slaughtered by the aroused mob.]

The look of things in the city was at that time horrid and nauseous, and round the citadel were lying scattered the corpses of so many unfortunates still unburied. But when the slaughter was over, the conspirators immediately went to the Cathedral and caused the terrified guardians, with violent threats, to hand over the records of the debts placed there by which the Christians were oppressed by the royal Jewish usurers. Thereupon they destroyed these records of profane avarice in the middle of the church with the sacred fires to release both themselves and many others. Which being done, those of the conspirators who had taken the cross went on their proposed journey before any inquest; but the rest remained in the country in fear of an inquiry. Such were the things that happened at York at the time of the Lord's Passion, that is, the day before Palm Sunday. . . . [Palm Sunday was March 18, 1190].

The deeds done at York were soon carried across the sea to the prince who had guaranteed peace and security to the Jews in his kingdom after the rising at London. [After a mob had killed many Jews in London in September, 1189, Richard had issued writs guaranteeing security to the Jews.] He is indignant and in a rage both for the insult to his royal majesty and for the great loss to the treasury, for to the treasury belonged whatever the Jews, who are known to be the royal usurers, seem to possess in the way of goods. Soon giving a mandate to the Bishop of Ely, the Royal Chancellor and Regent of the Kingdom, that such a great deed of audacity should be punished with a suitable revenge, the said Bishop, a man of fierce mind and eager for glory, came to the city of York about Ascension day [May 3, 1190] with an army, and began an inquiry to the great fear of the burgesses. But the chief and best known actors of the deeds done, leaving everything they had in the country, fled before his face to Scotland. But as the citizens, persistently declared that the deeds for which they were incurring his displeasure had not been done with their wish or counsel or aid, and that with slender resources they could not prevent the unbridled attack of an undisciplined mob, at length the Chancellor, having imposed a pecuniary mulct [fine] on each according to the income of his fortune, received satisfaction for not punishing them more severely.

But the promiscuous and numberless mob, whose untrained zeal had been the principal cause of the deed, could not be summoned or brought to justice. And so the Chancellor, removing him [the sheriff] who had had the administration of the county, went off without shedding blood since he could not carry out the King's command more efficaciously. Nor has anyone been brought to punishment for that slaughter of the Jews up to this day.