Tower was a refuge and prison for Jews

HIDDEN PAST: The Tower of London has a Jewish history which not many people know about


FOR centuries, the Tower of London has had a hidden Jewish past few have known about.

To this day, it tells the story of a fortress, a palace, as well as a place of law, torture, incarceration and doom during medieval Britain.

However, new research has revealed that the Tower of London served as a place of refuge for the Jewish community during violent pogroms, as their prison when they refused to pay taxes, and even as their port of exile when they were expelled from England in 1290.

The information, presented at the tower earlier this month in a lecture entitled, ‘New Perspectives on the Tower and the Medieval Jewish Community’, shows how the Jews had a much deeper connection to the monument than previously known.

The curator of the collections at the tower, Sally Dixon-Smith, of Historic Royal Palaces, spent three months analysing Treasury documents, looking into the links between the Jewish community and the structure.

She found that London’s early Jewish residents took refuge in the tower during particularly violent pogroms in 1189, 1264 and 1272.

In September, 1189, when King Richard I was being crowned, antisemitic riots broke out after the Jewish dignitaries attempted to bring gifts to the king on the occasion of his coronation.

Jews who attended were stripped and whipped, as fake rumours spread like wildfire that the new king hated Jews.

A substantial number of Jews were murdered and their goods plundered, with many Jewish homes also being burned down.

This led many of London’s remaining Jews to take refuge in the tower.

Despite the rumours, it was King Richard I who initially invited the Jews, and it was a predecessor of his — William the Conqueror — who invited a group of Jewish merchants from Normandy to settle in London and assist the Crown in financial matters.

The Jews who settled at that time were given royal protection.

Despite the usual custom of barring Jews (and women) from attending coronation ceremonies, Richard I had encouraged his Jewish subjects to attend and was angered by the pogroms that had broken out, although he was unable to punish more than a few of the offenders, owing to their large numbers and the considerable social standing of several of them.

As a result, in 1216, the Tower of London became a place of preventative protection and safety for the Jews during the coronation of King Henry III due to the fear of further massacres.

During one of the more bloody pogroms of the latter part of the 13th century, Jews stayed in the tower for several months, and it’s from here that they tried to rebuild the Jewish community.

“The tower should be more widely acknowledged as a key site in England’s medieval Jewish heritage,” Dixon-Smith said.

“Medieval Jewish history and the history and development of the tower are inextricably linked.

“The position of the Jewish community is central to any understanding (of medieval England).”

During the late 12th and 13th centuries, Jewish Londoners also came to the tower to seek justice.

“Royal ‘ownership’ of Jews meant the Crown used the tower and its officials to exercise direct control over them,” Dixon- Smith explained.

“Jews were considered royal property . . . they were under the direct jurisdiction of the constables.”

For this reason, the Jewish community had privileged access to the royal courts located in the tower — any matter pertaining to the Jews or their property was dealt with here.

In 1238, when sheriffs in London were investigating murders involving Jews, they made it clear that these cases must go straight to the royal court at the tower, which points to the value placed on Jewish lives by the Crown at that time.

But at the same time, during this period, Jews and Christians were taxed separately “and royal protection and access to the royal court did come at a price,” explained Dixon- Smith.

Jews were taxed more heavily and a good portion of the money collected from them went towards a massive expansion of the tower, including the digging of the moat and the building of Traitors’ Gate.

A third of a Jew’s wealth could be taken at any time, and those who couldn’t or wouldn’t pay were imprisoned in the tower, said Dixon-Smith, meaning numerous Jews over time had been imprisoned there.

According to Dixon-Smith, during a siege of the Tower of London in 1267, the Jews defended the Tower of London against rebels following the aftermath of a civil war.

The rebels were angry about a peace process taking place between the King and his barons during that time.

“Alongside his men and the garrison of the tower, the Jews of London were fighting for the tower. These men were given their own battlement [area of the towers’ castle to defend], which was on the west or north-west of the castle,” she said.

In 1264, these same rebels had attacked the Jews and led a pogrom, which they called “the destruction of the king’s Jewry”.

During this pogrom, the Jews took refuge in the tower for months and that was part of the reason why they had a vested interest in protecting the tower and its castle.

The Jews were seen as agents of the king during unstable periods and revolts against the royal throne during this time. As a result, they were continuously targeted.

After King Henry III died in 1272, there is a record of at least one Jew who sought refuge in the tower as a precautionary measure.

However, later in the 13th century, the relationship between the Jews and the Crown worsened and, with time, began to decay.

King Edward I attempted to put through several “experimental” anti-Jewish laws, however, most failed.

From this point on, it was clear that the value of the Jewish community to the royal treasury had considerably lessened.

During an infamous blood libel — which actually took place under King Henry III’s reign in 1255-91 — Jewish men were incarcerated in the tower.

Under King Edward I, the tower evolved more and more into a place of incarceration for Jews.

In 1278, during the coin-clipping scandal — where silver was shaved from the edge of coins — 600 Jewish household heads, most of whom were innocent, were imprisoned in the tower, some 300 of whom were later executed there in 1279.

By July 1290, when the general expulsion of Jews was ordered by Edward I for November 1, the tower served as the point of exit for Jews who travelled out of England via the River Thames.

Were that not bad enough, the exiled Jews were charged a deportation tax by the constable of the tower.

From that point, Jews were not allowed to live in England until the 1650s, under Oliver Cromwell.

Following the publication of this research, Rupert Gavin, the Historic Royal Palaces chairman, announced that the Tower of London will be viewed as “a key site” in England’s medieval Jewish history and the organisation will incorporate the newly-understood Jewish links into some of its tours as well as into its school education programme.

“Schoolchildren from all over the country can come and get an insight into how a minority group worked so productively within medieval England, which I think has a lot of lessons for the way that we work as a society today,” Gavin said.

He said he was also looking at options for a “living embodiment of the Jewish presence” at the tower.

“This is important academic work but it is practical as well. In our telling of the story of the tower, we have tended to forget and ignore this important part,” Gavin said.

“The significance of the work is that this now enables us to go back to our core story, which informs everything around this building.”

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