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17 Victims Murdered in Medieval Pogrom in Norwich Identified as Jews

September 11, 2022 | by Dr. Yvette Alt Miller

Through DNA analysis, the remains of a family murdered in 1190 has been identified as Ashkenazi Jews. Here’s the fascinating history you need to know.

In 2004, construction workers in the eastern English city of Norwich were excavating land to build a new shopping center when they made a grisly discovery: the skeletal remains of at least 17 people - most of them children - dumped in what appeared, on closer inspection, to be the remains of a Medieval well.

Local officials called in an archaeologist to excavate the remains, then a team of researchers led by Baroness Sue Black, a forensic anthropologist who currently teaches at Oxford, examined the bodies. The results were shocking: the 11 children and six adults were related to one another. At least three of them were sisters. Using DNA analysis, the team also deduced that they were Ashkenazi Jews.  Pottery fragments found amongst the bodies dated their deaths to about the year 1190. The family had apparently been killed at the same time, and their bodies dumped in a nearby well along with some of their household items.

Based on skeletal remains, researchers reconstructed the face of a male adult and a child. Composite: Prof Caroline Wilkinson/Liverpool John Moores University

Researchers believe that this family was murdered during horrific anti-Jewish pogroms which roiled England during 1190.  They were likely just some of the many Jews killed in the city of Norwich - and across England - during that terrifying time.

English Moneylenders

In 1190, Jews were still fairly new to England. There’s no formal record of Jews living in England before 1066, the year that William the Conqueror from France invaded England and installed himself as its ruler. He brought some Jews with him, expecting them to serve as moneylenders as they’d been forced to do in France.

William wanted to modernize England, moving from a bartering system to a “coin system” in which modern money would enable more complex financial transactions. Jewish moneylenders were seen as key to this new economy. The outbreak of the first Crusade in 1096 saw riots and massacres against Jews in France, and many French Jews fled the country, moving to England where the situation was more secure.

English Jews flourished in their new home. They lived outside the traditional feudal system and were considered property of the king. As such, they enjoyed royal protection. Yet their royal security came at a steep cost: Jews were forced to collect funds for the king and his representatives, and began to be hated by the feudal lords and the general populace. Centuries of enmity from the Church also fueled an atmosphere in Jews were reviled and seen as uniquely evil, barely human, creatures.

Jewish Life in Norwich

Jews settled in Norwich in the 11th century, eventually establishing a Jewish quarter near the city’s royal Castle, where the king’s representatives lived, in the area around Norwich’s present-day White Lion Street. One of the community’s most successful Jewish businessmen was named Jurnet, who lent money to build royal castles and other official buildings, including the famous Norwich Cathedral.

The bodies were discovered in an odd arrangement, suggesting they had not been buried but thrown in head first. Giles Emery/NPS Archaeology

Norwich was home to the earliest recorded blood libel, the false claim that Jews murder non-Jews (the slander usually specifies non-Jewish children) for religious purposes. In 1144, a 12-year-old apprentice named William was found dead. The circumstances of his death are unclear. Some accounts say he seemed to suffer some sort of fit or fainting spell and his family buried him despite the fact he was still alive; other accounts say his dead body was found in the woods outside town.

William’s uncle, a priest named Godwin Sturt, accused local Jews of killing the boy. He invented wild, fantastical, untrue claims, including that his nephew had been crucified and that Jews were religiously commanded to murder. A local bishop convened a trial for the city’s Jews, but he was thwarted by the royal sheriff, under whose protection the Jews lived. A later attempt at a second trial was also called off by the Crown as well. Some local priests and bishops seethed in resentment, and they continued to stir up resentment against Norwich’s Jews.

Just a few years later, additional blood libels surfaced in other British cities. In 1168 the entire Jewish community of Gloucester was accused of murdering a Christian child. In Bristol 1183, Jews were accused of torturing and killing a Christian child. The same accusation was made multiple times in Winchester (in 1192, 1225 and 1232), in Norwich again in 1230, in London in 1244, and in Lincoln in 1255. Life for England’s Jews was increasingly precarious and terrifying.

Crowning Richard the Lionheart

Tensions reached a boiling point with the coronation of King Richard I, known as Richard the Lionheart, on September 3, 1189. His coronation was held at Westminster Abbey in London, and people flocked to the city from throughout England to pay homage to the new king, including many Jews. Outraged that Jews were present at such a momentous occasion, some people in the crowd began to turn on the Jews in their midst, beating them and throwing them out of the celebrations.

Rumors that the new king had ordered the killing of England’s Jews began to spread. Christians turned against Jews in towns throughout England, murdering them and stealing their property. It’s possible that the Jews discovered in Norwich were killed during these riots. Richard I issued orders to stop the violence, but for many Jews this came too late.

The situation only got worse. A few months after his coronation, the Third Crusade was declared, and Richard departed to Jerusalem to wrest it from Muslim control. In his absence, anti-Jewish pogroms broke out once more in many English cities. The violence started in the town of King’s Lynn, and spread to towns including Colchester, Ospringe, Lincoln, Stamford, Bury St. Edmonds and Thetford.

The most horrific massacres took place in the northern city of York. There, local noblemen whipped up an anti-Jewish frenzy, hoping that once local Jews were murdered, their debts to Jewish moneylenders would be erased. The city’s terrified Jews found refuge in York’s castle. As property of the king, they should have been protected there. However, noblemen refused to back down, leading a mob that attacked the castle.

Many of the terrified Jews inside the castle took their own lives rather than face torture and death from the braying mob. Amid the melee, a fire broke out in the castle, killing many Jews. The next day, when the attackers finally breached the castle, they massacred the remaining Jews. Virtually no one escaped.

Discovering Jewish Murder Victims

The Jewish family discovered in the Norwich well were likely killed by their Christian neighbors during this period of terror and violence. Recent breakthroughs in DNA analysis and genomic research have finally enabled researchers to learn more about them.

“I’m delighted and relieved that 12 years after we first started analyzing the remains of these individuals, technology has caught up and helped us to understand this historical cold case of who these people were and why we think they were murdered,” explained Dr. Selina Brace of the Natural History Museum in London and the lead author on a recent study about her findings.

The remains of the 17 victims were buried at the Jewish Cemetery in Earlham Cemetery in 2013 - Credit: Archant Norfolk

At last, the 17 Jewish murder victims have received a proper burial. In 2013, after it was determined that they were Jews, their bodies were covered with a tallit and taken by hearse to the Jewish section Norwich’s Earlham Cemetery and given the Jewish burial they deserved. A hundred people attended the funeral.

Clive Roffe, a local Jewish leader, described the ceremony as “emotional” and noted that burying so many people at once was an unusual and somber event. “The wider Jewish community is delighted we’ve been able to do this and after more than 800 years since they died it’s a very fitting end. The people we buried today had a sad and brutal ending to their lives, so at least these souls are now at peace.”

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