York’s Mass Suicide

There is little left of York Castle except for the dark cloud left behind from a mass suicide over 800 years ago.

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Photo: English Heritage

What is now the remains of Clifford’s Tower was once a wooden structure on top of a grassy hill. In 1190, it became a sanctuary for the Jewish community in York. Tensions between Christians and Jews were on the rise in England throughout the 12th Century. This had partly to do with the fact that many people were indebted to Jewish money lenders, as well as Crusade propaganda which spoke out against both Muslims and Jews. By the time Richard I was crowned king, riots were sweeping the nation (luckily, not at Richard the Lionheart’s orders like some stories will have you believe).

In 1190, 150 Jews were given sanctuary in the castle. But this short-lived reprieve didn’t last long. Soon the soldiers ordered to protect the Jewish Englishmen turned against them, and a mob attacked the tower.

 

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Photo: Historic England

On March 16th (the night before Passover), the heads of each household murdered their families before committing suicide, knowing there was no escape. The tower was set on fire. Those who tried to run were killed by the mob.

 

Despite these horrors, Jewish life did manage to return to normal several years later. But that peace ended once again when Edward I expelled all Jews from England in 1290. They were only permitted to return in the 17th Century.

Today, it is said that the tower (which wasn’t actually there at the time) turns red and drips with blood on the anniversary of the tragedy. Whether this ghost story is true or not, doesn’t seem to matter. The truly terrifying aspect of this tale is the historical end of things and the despicable way humans have treated one another through the centuries.

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