The Jewish History of the Tower of London

Last month saw the public launch of Historic Royal Palace’s new research project investigating the Jewish workers, prisoners, and refugees of the medieval Tower of London. A catalogue of archival sources and a dataset of the biographies of hundreds of Jewish people who stayed at the Tower are now available on the HRP website. Postdoctoral researcher Rory MacLellan reflects upon the research process and the significance of these new resources.

Little remains above ground of medieval England’s two-hundred-year Jewish history. Unlike elsewhere in Europe, there are no surviving medieval synagogues here. Instead, the largest standing remains of the medieval Anglo-Jewry is the Tower of London, the site of both refuge and imprisonment for hundreds of England’s Jews. The community even unwillingly helped build their prison: the Tower’s Outer Ward was partly funded by a series of punitive taxes upon the Jews.

Henry III, whose reign saw Jews help defend the Tower from siege in 1267 © Historic Royal Palaces 

Previous research

But despite the hundreds of Jewish lives that were affected by the Tower, this history is little known outside of academia. When beginning this project, many friends and family that I spoke to admitted that they didn’t know that there even were Jews in medieval England, let alone at the Tower specifically.

Yet this topic has been studied before. If you pick up an academic book on Jews in medieval England, the Tower will appear in the index. The Tower’s Jewish history has also been researched by former HRP curators Drs Jeremy Ashbee and Sally Dixon-Smith. London’s medieval Jewish community has similarly been the subject of several articles and book chapters. But, apart from a forthcoming article by Dr Dixon-Smith, this work on the Tower has only been piecemeal. No one has dedicated a book to the topic of the site’s Jewish history, nor has anyone tried to record every Jewish prisoner, refugee, or worker at the Tower, or create a list of all the sources that historians could use for studying Jews in medieval London.

This new project is the first to try to create a biography for every Jewish person known to be at the Tower in the medieval period, as well as a catalogue of sources for the Jewish history of medieval London. Together, these two new resources shine a light on this fascinating aspect of the Tower’s history, one that is little known outside of academia.

The research process

Finding the sources for the catalogue was surprisingly straightforward. There had been two earlier attempts to create a catalogue of Anglo-Jewish sources in the late 1800s: Joseph Jacobs and Lucien Wolf’s Bibliotheca Anglo-Judaica and Joseph Jacob’s Jews of Angevin England. Though both volumes omit many sources, these provided a useful baseline to start my search.

Once I had mined those for references to London and the Tower, I moved onto searching through the main records of medieval government, that is, the calendars of the charter, close, fine, and patent rolls. I also looked at the plea rolls of the Exchequer of the Jews, which was a court especially set up to hear cases involving Jews or Jewish debts, and the records of monasteries based in London or with substantial properties in the city – a particularly useful source was Keene and Harding’s A Survey of Documentary Sources for Property Holding in London before the Great Fire (London Record Society vol. 22, 1985) – followed by searching the archival catalogues of The National Archives at Kew, the British Library, London livery companies like the Mercers and Goldsmiths, and county and university archives in the UK.

Finally, I went through the secondary literature on the London Jewry and Jews at the Tower to note down any additional sources that I had missed. This last step led me to some offhand references in unexpected places that I might not otherwise have spotted, so was very useful. For example, cases involving Jews were supposed to be tried before the Exchequer of the Jews, but occasionally they come up in the records of main royal court, the King’s Bench, sometimes with a statement saying that the case should be transferred to the Exchequer of the Jews instead. With each source, I would note down the relevant pages, creating a master list of manuscripts for me to see when I visited the archives.

Once this master list was complete and I had begun seeing and cataloguing the original manuscripts, we soon realised that the scale of the material was going to become a problem. I had found over 1,000 manuscripts to go through and it was clear that it would not be possible to complete the catalogue and the dataset of prisoners and any other outputs in the project’s timeframe, particularly with the disruptions to archives caused by Covid. So, once I reached 550 manuscripts catalogued, I worked to prioritise the remaining sources that had material related to the Tower specifically and kept a list of the remaining 300 sources that were not linked to the Tower in the hopes that future funding could see them added at a later date.

Throughout the process of cataloguing, I noted down each time I found a Jewish person imprisoned at the Tower, hiding there, or working there, which I then returned to when it became time to do the dataset, using the catalogue I had created to find the sources I needed to write each individual’s biography. This was then supplemented with the published records of the Exchequer of the Jews and by books and articles on the better-documented prisoners.

The Tower as it may have looked in 1294, four years after the last Jewish prisoner was held there © Historic Royal Palaces

A more nuanced history

In the course of creating these biographies, I found fascinating evidence of both cooperation between Jewish and Christian communities. It is easy to see the medieval Jewish history of England as one of constant exploitation by the Crown and frequent pogroms committed by rebel barons and the wider population. But I repeatedly found Jewish prisoners at the Tower who were accused of having Christian accomplices, something that was not treated as anything unusual. Christians often entered London’s Jewish district to do business with the Jews, as we can see from the frequent fines for this that the Tower authorities dished out. In one court case over a debt, a Jewish woman even sided with her Christian neighbour instead of her Jewish friend. In studying the anti-Jewish riots and violence that led to many Jews hiding in the Tower, we can see that these were almost always instigated by outsiders, not the Jews’ neighbours, who instead tried to protect them. The medieval Anglo-Jews were indeed oppressed and discriminated against by the Crown and others, but they could still build relationships with their Christian neighbours. There was even one Jewish person, Jurnet son of Abraham, who worked at the Tower, the only unconverted Jew known to have done so in the Middle Ages.

Jurnet’s story, along with the other 235 biographies, and the catalogue of sources, can now be found on the project’s page. Together, they help build upon HRP’s commitment to telling diverse histories by highlighting this vibrant and overlooked story of the country’s most famous medieval site.

Rory MacLellan
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Historic Royal Palaces

Further reading:
Jewish workers and prisoners at the Tower of London

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