Tower of London


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The Tower as a Place of Jewish Refuge

The Jews of medieval England (population c. 6,000) were the property of the King, as the Serfs of the Royal Chamber and had originally been brought over from Normandy by William the Conqueror, by c. 1080. This meant that the king alone had jurisdiction over his Jews, as well as the power of life and death. They originally settled in the old Jewry (Jewry Street), close by the Tower, the site of which is now thought to include nearby Rangoon Street, but later moved to the Milk Street / Gresham Street area close by to the main markets.
The medieval Jews of England had one prior and fundamental relationship with the Tower of London, as a place of refuge. Jews were permitted to shelter in all Royal Castles, under the protection of the local Constable of the castle, as they were both the property of the king and were under his protection and generally the king was keen to curb civic disorder and to protect his assets. The relationship and trust of the Jewish community with the Constable of the castle was also very important as a breakdown of trust between the two sides, could have fatal consequences such as in York at the Clifford Tower mass suicide, when the Jewish community there thought that they had been betrayed by the Constable of York.

In 1189, after the riot against the Jews attending Richard I's coronation, the entire London community took refuge in the Tower and during Henry III's re-coronation, in 1220, Jews were forcibly protected by being put in the Tower. In 1236 the London community avoided potential trouble by taking voluntary refuge in the Tower when Henry III married Eleanor of Provence.
During the Baron's War the Jews took shelter in 1264 when Simon de Montfort and his followers attacked the London Jewry, and looted homes and desecrated synagogues, some of the Jews were sheltered by their neighbours, but the rest were escorted by the mayor to the safety of the Tower. The circumstances of this attack were horrific as related by contemporary writers:

'Afterwards, in the week before Palm Sunday, the Jewry in London was destroyed, and all the property of the Jews carried off; as many of them as were found, being stripped naked, despoiled, and afterwards murdered by night in sections, to the number, that is to say, of more than five hundred. And as for those who survived, they were saved by the Justiciars and the Mayor, having been sent to the Tower before the slaughter took place; and then too, the Chest of Chirographs was sent to the Tower for safe custody. (Cal. Close Rolls, Hen III: Vol 6 (1922))

Perhaps the most famous episode was in 1266, in the last phase of the Barons' War, when the 'disinherited knights' who occupied London, led by the Earl of Gloucester, with the agreement of Londoners, attacked the Jewry. The Jews took shelter in the Tower of London, which was held by the Papal Legate Ottobini, while the king was away, and who was at the time resident there. The London Jews, including men, women and children, ' ward of the fortress being committed to them, they bravely defended it against every effort of the besiegers. (Mat. Westm. pp. 345, 346.)

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