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The Road to Old York

March 15, 2007 By:
Janet Darbey, JE Feature
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Clifford's Tower
As you wander around the fascinating city of York in Northern England, it's easy to imagine that it has always been this attractive and peaceful. But the modern shopping malls, quiet walkways by the River Ouse and well-tended grass mounds do nothing to acknowledge that York was once the scene of one of the most notorious anti-Semitic attacks that ever took place in England.

York is an ancient city -- more than 2,000 years old -- with many perfectly preserved medieval buildings and walls. It has an incredible number of castle walkways and buildings that can be visited, but the one with the most horrific history is that of Clifford's Tower.

In 1190, on the infamous night of March 16, the feast of Shabbat Hagadol, the whole of the Jewish community of York sought refuge within the tower. A violent mob, intent on their massacre, had assembled outside the tower, which was built of timber. The Jews were given the chance to renounce their faith and be saved, but they refused.

Rather than die at the hands of the howling mob, many of the Jews took their own lives; others perished in the flames of the tower, which was set alight. The ones who remained and surrendered were murdered.

The attack was the culmination of a tide of anti-Semitism that was sweeping the country at that time. Many noblemen, even the king, had been using the Jews as money-lenders to raise funds for the religious crusades, while tripling the taxation extracted from the Jewish community. These same noblemen, along with a fanatical clergy, conspired together to get rid of the Jews once and for all. Even today, Jewish liturgy still commemorates the martyrs of that terrible time.

The bloodthirsty mob returned to York cathedral (just a short distance away from Clifford's Tower) and destroyed all the records that were kept of debts owed to the Jewish community. Fortunately, unknown to the mob, the king had ordered copies of all the debt records to be taken to London for safekeeping, as it was in the interest of the crown to know about the debts and transactions that had taken place.

The original timber tower was burnt to the ground during the massacre of the Jews. It was rebuilt in stone in the early 13th century, and can be visited today. The burnt timbers still remain beneath the stone tower. A plaque has been erected outside the tower which says: "On the night of Friday 16th March 1190 some 150 Jews and Jewesses of York having sought protection in the Royal Castle on this site from a mob incited by Richard Malebisse and others chose to die at each other's hands rather than renounce their faith."

York now has a thriving Jewish population and even a College for Jewish Studies, which is one of the largest in Europe.

Modern-Day Accessibility
Contemporary York is a wonderful place to visit. It is best explored by walking, as traffic problems within the tiny medieval streets and cobbled walkways are horrendous. It has very good public-transport access, with two major international airports within easy traveling distance: The nearest is at Leeds/Bradford, with Manchester being a close second in distance.

It's also on the major train networks, and the Victorian train station lies in the center of the city. Coach trips for tourists regularly visit for the day. Guided walking tours of the medieval buildings, along with ghost walks to haunted buildings, are available daily.

Shopping is fantastic at the modern malls and medieval craft shops that line the narrow cobbled streets. The main walls of the medieval city are still in place and can be walked in good weather, and provide excellent views of the river and the old buildings.

The cathedral -- visible from anywhere in the city -- can be found a short walk from Clifford's Tower; you can also view the old stone towers at each corner of the city walls.

Many good hotels dot York, but it's much more interesting to stay at one of the older buildings in the city, some of which are medieval. 

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