Tower of London


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The Tower as a Place of Jewish Imprisonment and Execution

Most dramatically, the Tower of London was the principal place of imprisonment and execution for medieval Jews. For the majority of alleged crimes, Jews would be taken to the Tower, from where-ever they lived in London, or the rest of England, though they might be temporarily held in other royal castles. Undoubtedly the Tower would have stirred fear in the hearts of medieval Anglo-Jews, particularly in the last half of the 13th century, when mass executions of Jews took place. The Tower was in any case always intended as a visible symbol of the king's power and to strike fear into the hearts of a subject population and the Tower was detested by Londoners.

The Tower was the scene of individual imprisonment, group imprisonment, and mass imprisonment for Jews. Jewish prisoners would be kept in many locations in the Tower. Up to the reign of Henry III, prisoners may have been kept in the White Tower itself, though these were usually high-status prisoners (though a purpose built prison house is also mentioned in the 12th century), though it seems it may have been pressed into used for large groups of prisoners due to its size. However, after the building project of the 1270s, most would be confined in other locations (particularly the bastions) in the Inner Ward of the Tower. The middle and upper floors of the White Tower were certainly used as a prison for hostages in 1249 and could have been used for this purpose at other times too, though after the additional walls and towers were built, imprisonment was mostly in these areas.
During the mass imprisonment of 1278 Jews were kept in the former Elephant House, a house '40 feet long and 20 feet deep for our Elephant' built in 1255. There is also a tradition that Jews were kept in the sub-crypt of the White Tower.

Of the more dramatic incidents of imprisonment, the mass imprisonment of the Jews of Lincoln, has be feature as among the most heart rending. In 1255 the ritual murder allegation was made against the Jews of Lincoln, when a Little Hugh of Lincoln was found dead and after some weeks of delay, and then a direct involvement of the Bishop of Lincoln (who needed to finance a major building programme) and his brother, a retainer of the King and the go-between and the direct intevention of the king (who happened to be just out-side of Lincoln at the time and needed the money to have his son declared King of Sicily), the boy was declared a victim of the Jews.

A total of 92 Lincoln Jews were held in the Tower (a large proportion of the community) on the ritual murder allegation. Eighteen Jews are executed in consequence of the false allegations, having unwisely it would seem, not chosen to fall on the king's mercy, but to have had the temerity to have requested a trial by jury. The king felt that his mercy was impugned and had the 18 killed for refusing the King's mercy! The rest were fined, ransomed and released, after the intervention of the Friars, though the king's piety netted him £10,000 for the royal finances.

In 1278, at the height of the persecution of the Jews in the 13th century, 600 Jews are arrested and held in the Tower for offenses against the coinage. The records of the Tower confirm that the 600 were confined both to the Tower and with an over-flow being kept in the Guild Hall. Thirty temporary warders had to be employed to keep guard on the Jews. In the end some 269 Jews (and 29 Christians) were hanged at the cost of £11 0s 4½d.

The charge of coin clipping was an easy (and profitable) one to make, and it is generally held that the charges were religious in motivation, and that the victims were being executed for their faith, and indeed the archaeological evidence suggests that the Jewish community probably dealt in sound coin. The 1278 executions were probably also linked to the King's need to finance building in the Tower and Jews were treated disproportionately harshly compared to the Christians. The condemned Jews were hanged over a period of 140 days, or the five months they were held at the Tower. This act of judicial murder makes the Tower the most important site of Jewish martyrdom in this country, even if virtually never acknowledged as such.

The mode of confinement for the Jews would vary according to the situation. Jews subject to criminal allegations would be kept in closer confinement; some Jews were kept in close confinement in manacles. Jewish prisoners were often manacled together in groups, but individual Jews might pay a fee to be manacled separately. However, Jews who were in administrative detention (for example to hasten the paying of a tax or levy), would be freer to move around the castle, or could pay for more freedom of movement. Other Jews were free to wander the inner ward of the castle ('gates'), or could pay for the privilege.

Instances of torture are recorded, with teeth and eyes plucked out to extract payment of tallages, as well as threats to remove limbs or of death or of expulsion, particularly in the early 13th century, with imprisonment being the preferred persuader in the later 13th century.

Crimes against the King - lese-majesty - merited the most severe sanctions including imprisonment, torture, amputation (for example of hands), death and dismemberment (by hanging and drawing, with burning for women), the forfeiture of goods and the disinheritance of heirs, or being rendered an out-law. This included offenses against the coinage and forgery.

Jews in confinement, were able to pay a fee, in order to celebrate Jewish festivals and religious observances, therefore the Tower was remarkably also a place of religious worship and sections of the Tower would have been used as impromptu synagogues for the most important Jewish festivals. It would seem privileges, even of the most dubious kind could be readily purchased, some of which may have been corrupt.

Since hundreds of Jews were executed at the Tower, the Tower may be designated a place of suffering for the Jewish community, as indeed it may be for other communities, such as the Roman Catholic community, who suffered greatly at the Tower during the periods of persecution of the Catholics. However, the official interpretation of the Tower relates that in the 400 years, up to the execution of Lord Lovat in 1747, 112 individuals were executed at Tower Hill. Therefore the suffering and martyrdom of Jews at the Tower was evidently disproportionate as in one year alone, there were three times more Jews executed at the Tower, than in the 400 year period leading up to 1747!
However, we cannot solely characterise the Tower as a place of suffering and martyrdom for Jews, as the relationship of the Jews and the Tower was far more complex, as it also functioned as a sort of tax office, law court for the Jewish community and paradoxically, it could also be a place of ultimate refuge.

The character and volume of the penal relations of Jew and Tower, can be seen clearly in the preserved records of the Tower from 1275 to 1278, which spell out in great details the sheer volume of the dealings with the Jewish community. Over 500 items in this short period relate to the administration and dealings with the Jewry and Jews, as well as the mass imprisonment of 1278. Items include: 105 receipts from individual prisoners (e.g. for bail). A number of Jews are fined for spitting (probably near to a Christian place of worship outside of the Tower). Jews are frequently fined for dicing, the penalty being 12d. per person (throughout history Jews have had a penchant for games of chance, perhaps profoundly relating to the risks of daily life for most Jews over the ages). Payments for Jews to be allowed to keep a festival or to keep Rosh Hashanah, and Yom Kippur (presumably while prisoner in the Tower) are recorded. Payments for pregnant women to be temporarily released are listed. Payments for Jews to be allowed 'gates' (i.e. to be allowed freedom within the precincts) are also enrolled. Five Jews of Canterbury paid for easy imprisonment; five Jews of York paid to be let out on the Sabbath; there are payments from the Jews of Oxford, of Hereford, of Bedford, of Lincoln; and from the Jews of Stamford 'so that they might be by themselves'.
The Tower naturally played a part in the denouement of the first Anglo-Jewish community, when the persecution of England Jew led to all of the Jews of England being expelled by Edward I in 1290. It seems that the Constable of the Tower collected a final toll on each of the Jews leaving by boat from London to Wissant, France, and final exile from England - a total of 1,461 Jews. It seems that even on the road to exile, the King managed to raise a final revenue from his Jews.

The entry in the roll relates that 'The same (Ralph) declares receipt of 23 pounds and 6 shillings by the said custom at the time of the crossing of the Jews in the same year 18, namely for the crossing of 1,335 from London to Wissant, each Jew paying 4 pence, and additionally from 126 poor Jews, each paying 2 pence.'

A total of 126 of this number had been so impoverished by events they could only afford half of the normal toll. The taking of tolls on travellers was customary, so this was not an extraordinary toll created for the occasion, but the numbers and the event were of course exceptional. It may also be commented that storms at the time of crossing meant that many of the poorest Jews in the smallest boats perished in storms and were washed up drowned, in large numbers, on the beaches at Wissant.

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