The twelfth and thirteenth centuries: The Jewish community

Pages 47-49

A History of the County of York: the City of York. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1961.

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The Jewish Community

In addition to the citizens in the strict sense, certain special groups with interests in York remain to be considered, and first among these the Jewish community. Grento and Benedict in 1130 (fn. 1) are probably early representatives of it; and in Henry II's reign it acquired the Jewborough, or Jewbury, later the site of its cemetery. (fn. 2) About the same time Joce son of David is found buying a messuage in Fossgate; (fn. 3) and among the debtors of Aaron of Lincoln in 1191 were Benedict of York, his three brothers, his partner Samuel, Samuel of York, and Joce of York. (fn. 4) By that time, apparently, a Jewish colony of fair size had grown up in the city.

There had already been dramatic testimony to this fact in 1190, when the Jews of York were the victims of a pogrom. The accounts of this episode show that the leaders of the community were the Benedict and Joce mentioned above, who had magnificent houses in Spen Lane and Coney Street respectively where, it was said, they lived 'like princes of their people and tyrants to the Christians'. (fn. 5) Both were in London at the time of Richard I's coronation and suffered in the anti-semitic riots which marked that occasion, Benedict dying at Northampton soon afterwards. (fn. 6) Joce returned to York to find a similar anti-Jewish movement had been stirred up there by indebted landowners and crusaders on the eve of departure. Rioting broke out on 15 March and lasted until the 17th, beginning with the sacking of Benedict's house and the murder of his widow. Joce and most of the other Jews of the city, with the connivance of the constable, took refuge in the castle, those who failed to reach this sanctuary being forcibly baptized or massacred. The refugees in the castle, however, refused entry to anyone; and the sheriff, who now arrived on the scene, lost his head and ordered the crusaders and others assembled in York to attack it. The most detailed version of the events which followed borrows heavily from Josephus's account of Vespasian's siege of Masada; (fn. 7) but it seems that some of the Jews committed suicide at the suggestion of Rabbi Jomtob of Joigny, and that most of those who surrendered on a promise of safety were massacred as they came out. The castle itself was fired by the rioters, and the records of debts owed to the Jews were solemnly burned in the midst of the minster, where they had been placed for safe keeping.

The king's anger soon descended on those responsible. The justiciar came north in April with a military force, dismissed the sheriff and constable, imposed severe penalties on the city and arrested many of those who had taken part. The leading role had apparently been played by Richard Malbysse of Acaster Malbis (W.R.), already punningly described by a Hebrew scribe eight years earlier as 'the evil beast'. (fn. 8) His estates were seized into the king's hand and two of his esquires were thrown into prison. (fn. 9) As for the citizens, some were gaoled, some taken as hostages to Northampton, some forfeited their property, and many, both wealthy and obscure men, paid fines to the king. (fn. 10) What the Jewish casualties were it is impossible to say, but Ephraim of Bonn's estimate that 'the number of those slain and burnt was 150 souls' seems the most reasonable. (fn. 11)

For a time, indeed, the Jewish community in York may have been all but extinguished, for it does not figure at all in the Jewish donum of 1194. (fn. 12) By 1201, however, Jews were again lending money there; and in 1208 there is a specific reference to the Jewish community of York in a case involving a Jew who slew his wife for love of Belina, a Jewess. (fn. 13) The community was taken into Henry III's protection in 1221, (fn. 14) and in 1230 bought a plot in Barkergate (now St. Maurice's Road) to extend its cemetery. (fn. 15) In 1255, in taxable capacity, the Jews of York stood seventh among the Jewries of England, (fn. 16) and earlier they may have stood higher. Eighteen York Jews contributed to the tallage of 1221 and 32 to that of 1223, (fn. 17) and they were apparently widely scattered through the city. There are notices of Jewish property in Coney Street, Micklegate, Hungate, Fossgate, Feltergayle (now Fetter Lane), Bretgate (i.e. Jubbergate, now Market Street), Patrick Pool, Walmgate, St. Saviourgate, Castlegate, and Pavement. (fn. 18) This dispersal does not suggest any great tension at this period between the Jews and their Christian neighbours.

One member of the community was certainly outstanding in his day. Aaron of York (fn. 19) was a son of that Joce who perished in 1190. He lived in Coney Street, but also had a house in Milk Street in London. He lent money to men in at least fourteen counties and in association with at least 20 of his co-religionists. (fn. 20) He was indeed the greatest of the Anglo-Jewish financiers of the 13th century; but after 1243 he was systematically ruined by Henry III, being mulcted, as he complained to Matthew Paris, of 30,000 marks in seven years. By the early 1250's he had been reduced to penury and, though he lived to 1268, did so thenceforward in obscurity. But he left his name in general history as well as in a tradition that a loan from him financed the making of the 'Five Sisters' window in the minster. (fn. 21)

What happened to Aaron was also happening to the rest of the York Jews. Antisemitic sentiment came to the surface again. A Jew was murdered at Ouse Bridge in 1257, and the murderer's accomplices acquitted by a city jury; (fn. 22) Aaron's nephew suffered at the hands of Montfort's followers; and in 1266 the king had to take the Jews of York under his protection. (fn. 23) Crushing taxation, restrictions on the practice of usury, and Edward I's campaign against Jews who clipped money, all took their toll. When some York Jews were arrested in 1277, they were too poor to find sureties or bear the cost of their transport to London for trial. (fn. 24) Thenceforward there are continual references to Jewish bonds held by the king's treasury as security for tallages, to Jews in prison for not paying tallages, and to Jewish property sold to Christians. (fn. 25)

In this manner the Jews of York and elsewhere were ruined before they were expelled in 1290. In that year they departed via the Cinque Ports, Archbishop Romeyn warning his flock that they were not to be molested on pain of excommunication. (fn. 26) The sheriff valued their real property in York, now reduced to small proportions: seven houses and the cemetery of Jewbury were worth little over £15. (fn. 27) Of the half-dozen Jews mentioned by name in this survey, only one, Bonamy of York, is heard of again. He was authorized by Philip the Fair to live where he pleased in France and to dispense with the Jewish badge. He settled in fact in Paris, where in 1292 he met Archbishop Romeyn as the latter returned from Rome. The archbishop agreed to collect on his behalf a debt owed to Bonamy by Bridlington Priory; and Romeyn's endeavours to do so led to his arraignment before parliament in 1293. (fn. 28) There ended the history of the medieval Jewish community in York.


  • 1. Pipe R. 1130, 26, 32.
  • 2. C. Roth, Hist. Jews Eng. 13.
  • 3. John Rylands Libr. Latin MS. 220, f. 100.
  • 4. Pipe R. 1191 and 1192, 22.
  • 5. W. of Newburgh, Chron. Stephen &c., i. 312.
  • 6. Ibid. 295 sqq.
  • 7. Y.A.J. iii. 170 commenting on W. of Newburgh, 312 sqq.
  • 8. Starrs and Jewish Charters in the B.M., ed. I. Abrahams and H. P. Stokes, i. 118–19.
  • 9. Y.A.J. iii. 168.
  • 10. Pipe R. 1190, 68–70; 1191 and 1192, 76–77; 1193 (P.R.S. N.S. iii), 72; 1194 (P.R.S. N.S. v), 161; Chanc. R. 1196 (P.R.S. N.S. vii), 186.
  • 11. Roth, Hist. Jews Eng. 270.
  • 12. Ibid. 24 n.
  • 13. Cur. Reg. R. i. 390–1; v. 256.
  • 14. Pat. R. 1216–25, 290.
  • 15. Y.A.J. iii. 186–7.
  • 16. Cal. Pat. 1247–58, 441-4.
  • 17. M. Adler, Jews of Med. Eng. 134.
  • 18. B.M. Cott. MS. Nero, D. iii, f. 147; Healaugh Park Charty. (Y.A.S. Rec. Ser. 92), 160; Yorks. Fines, 1232–46, 68; Cal. Pat. 1266–72, 226; Cal. Fine R. 1272–1307, 96; Close R. 1237-42, 1; Cal. Jewish Plea R. i. 141, 247; iii. 218; Cal. Inq. Misc. iii, pp. 238–9.
  • 19. Adler, Jews of Med. Eng. 127 sqq.; Roth, Hist. Jews Eng. 49.
  • 20. Close R. passim.
  • 21. Adler, Jews of Med. Eng. 148.
  • 22. J.I. 1/1109, m. 34.
  • 23. Cal. Pat. 1258–66, 679; 1266–72, 170.
  • 24. Cal. Jewish Plea R. iii. 277.
  • 25. Ibid. ii and iii, passim.
  • 26. Cal. Pat. 1281–92, 379, 382; Reg. Romeyn, i. 290.
  • 27. Y.A.J. iii. 192–4.
  • 28. Roth, Hist. Jews Eng. 87 n., 88; Rot. Parl. i. 120.