Jews first began to arrive in England following the Norman conquest. Primarily serving as moneylenders due to strict Catholic laws about usury, anti-Jewish sentiment had begun to grow by the time of Richard I’s coronation on 3 September 1189.
That day witnessed anti-Semitic rioting that led to the deaths of around 30 Jews after they were denied entry to the coronation banquet. Although Richard later explicitly stated that Jews in England should not be harmed, violence surfaced again and slowly spread north after he departed for the Holy Land on the Third Crusade.
In March the anti-Semitic attacks reached York. In the midst of a raging fire, the cause of which is unknown, a mob looted the house and killed the family of Benedict, a wealthy Jew who had been mortally wounded in the London pogrom. Fearing for their lives, the rest of the Jewish population of the city, numbering in the region of 150 people, fled to the well-defended Clifford’s Tower.
Having been granted access by the warden, the fearful Jews later locked him out while an armed mob surrounded the tower. Trapped inside, and faced with either forced conversion to Christianity or death at the hands of the angry crowd, most of the Jews chose to die at their own hand. Many fathers killed their wives and children before committing suicide. The tower was then set on fire.
Although some Jews took up the offer of safe passage in return for their conversion, they were all killed by the crowd. Led by Richard Malebisse and other members of the local gentry, the mob then moved to York Minster where they burned the records of loans made to local residents by the Jews, effectively cancelling their debts.