The Tower & The Jews
The greatest standing remnant of medieval England’s Jewish history is not a synagogue or the former home of a Jewish family, but a castle: the Tower of London. Jews first settled in England in the decades following the Norman Conquest and London soon became one of the main Jewish settlements in the country. In medieval England, Jews and their goods were considered the property of the king and so their communities were under the supervision of local royal officials. For the London Jewry, this was the Constable of the Tower of London. Because of this, the Tower was a central location for London’s Jewish community. We find the constable and his lieutenants acting as witnesses to transactions between Jews and Christians and protecting Jews in pogroms, but also imprisoning them and extorting them financially. The Tower was a site of safety for Jews during the riots at Richard I’s coronation and in the 1260s, when they sheltered from baronial attacks on London and even helped defend the Tower from siege. But many more Jews knew the Tower as a place of imprisonment. The 1270s alone saw hundreds of Jews imprisoned in the Tower on charges of coin-clipping, cutting off the edges of coins, often to make new ones. Many were executed on Tower Hill. The Tower also played a part in the end of the medieval Jewry. When England’s Jews were ordered to convert or go into exile in 1290, 1,461 of them left from the wharf outside the Tower, paying the Constable for his costs in laying on transport for them.
In association with Birkbeck, University of London, and as part of Historic Royal Palaces’ drive to tell the diverse histories of the sites in our care, I have been working as a postdoctoral researcher on this Jewish history of the Tower of London. This project began early last year but was delayed by Covid and restarted this month. The project is made up of two main elements: a catalogue and a database. The catalogue will attempt to collect every manuscript source I could find that relates to Jews in medieval London, including those who converted to Christianity. Each entry records the manuscript source, date, the relevant folios, the page numbers in the published edition, if one exists, summarises the information relating to London’s Jews, and gives a basic description of the manuscript (number of membranes/folios, languages, any damage). The catalogue begins with the twelfth century and stretches through to the early fifteenth, but the great bulk of the material is from the thirteenth century. The final version will collate manuscripts from archives across the UK, many of which have participated in the Hidden Treasures project, and will include everything from taxation records and private debts, to court documents and the foundation charters of medieval London’s only Jewish cemetery.
The database will record every Jewish person who was held prisoner at the Tower or sought sanctuary there in the medieval period. Each entry will record their name, the dates of their time at the Tower, a biography, and sources. This will cover the period c.1100 to 1290 and looks to have at least 200 entries.
Both the catalogue and database will be made publicly available upon the project’s completion. Together, they will highlight the vibrant Jewish history of the medieval London and the Tower, helping researchers and the public better understand the diverse histories of one of the country’s most famous historic sites.
Dr Rory MacLellan
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Historic Royal Palaces
Hidden Treasures: Celebrating the documents, photos and artefacts in British archives that tell the story of Jews in Britain