On 18 March 1190, which was Palm Sunday, preachers in Bury’s parish churches whipped up the townsfolk into an antisemitic frenzy; spilling out of church, parishioners made their way to the town’s Jewish quarter – perhaps today’s Hatter Street – and hauled the Jewish population out of their homes. Fifty-seven Jewish men, women and children died that day, and a gruesome discovery in Norwich made in 2011 from the same era (possibly even the same day) gives a hint of the kind of violence they may have experienced. Seventeen bodies, all likely to be from the same Jewish family, were found thrown into a well.
To add insult to injury, those Jews who escaped the massacre in Bury found themselves expelled from the banleuca of St Edmund, the traditional boundary of the town within which the abbot exercised total jurisdiction. It was an expulsion that set a precedent for the eventual expulsion of all Jews from England a century later, in 1290.
The man behind these atrocities is sometimes celebrated in Bury’s history: Samson of Tottington, the subsacrist of the monastery who was elected abbot in 1182. Samson is the best known of all Bury’s abbots because his reign was described in such vivid detail in the Chronicle of Jocelin de Brakelond. At the start of his reign, Samson’s priority was to put the abbey on a good financial footing after the profligate abbacy of Hugh.
One of the issues Samson had to deal with was Abbot Hugh’s penchant for borrowing money from the town’s Jews – who, like many Jews of medieval Europe, were forbidden from exercising any trade other than moneylending, since moneylending was forbidden to Christians. Samson came to see Bury’s Jewish community as a threat to the abbey’s supremacy over the area, since Jews came under the special protection of the king. This challenged the abbot’s claim to ‘regalian rights’ (the same rights as the king) over the town.
Samson’s campaign against Bury’s Jews was greatly helped by a libel levelled against the Jews a few years before he became abbot. On Good Friday 1181 a boy from the town, named Robert, was found murdered. Perhaps inspired by a similar libel levelled against Norwich’s Jewish community in 1144, the Bury townsfolk accused the Jews of Robert’s murder, bringing forward the notorious and absurd ‘blood libel’ which claimed Jews murdered Christian children in order to re-enact the killing of Christ and drank their blood. Attacks on Jews followed, and Robert’s body was enshrined in the crypt of the abbey church while he was honoured locally as a saint; both the chapel and its altar survive to this day.
We do not know what the preachers said on that fateful Palm Sunday morning in 1190, but it is hard to imagine they did not draw on memories of the murder of Robert as they encouraged the crowd to take revenge on Bury’s Jewish community. In fomenting the mass-murder and expulsion of the Jews of Bury, Abbot Samson also destroyed a culture of which only fragments remain. Scholars continue to debate whether one of Bury’s best-known buildings, Moyse’s Hall, was built by Jews. It was certainly not a synagogue, as was once claimed, but the idea that it was a stone-built Jewish house has been raised again in recent years. Jews often preferred living in stone houses for reasons of security – if they were lending money, they needed to keep safe large quantities of cash, and there was the obvious need to safeguard themselves against Christian attacks.
Another trace of the Jewish community is the name of Hatter Street, recorded in late medieval sources as ‘Heathenman Street’. Jews were often called ‘heathens’ in medieval England, so it is possible Hatter Street was Bury’s ‘Jewry’, the Jewish quarter of the town (although if Moyse’s Hall was a Jewish house, it was not the only place Jews lived). The abbey’s library also seems to have acquired a few manuscripts from the Jewish community, perhaps from its rabbi or synagogue (whose location we do not know), since Hebrew manuscripts first appeared in the library at around this time. The monks puzzled over these fragments and struggled to learn Hebrew, realising too late the importance of understanding this Biblical language. But by this time there were no Jews left to ask.
The story of the fate of Bury’s Jewish community is a chilling reminder that England – and East Anglia – was the home of medieval antisemitism, which spread out into Europe with deadly consequences. It is fitting that, in 2015, a tear drop sculpture was installed in the Abbey Gardens to commemorate the 57 Jews who were murdered that day in 1190, but also as a focus of the town’s commemorations for Holocaust Memorial Day – the murderous culmination of European antisemitism in the twentieth century. It is a reminder of the consequences, whether in the twelfth century, the twentieth, or the twenty-first, of deeming one group of people less than human.
“May the Lord of Mercy bring them under the cover of His wings forever, and may their souls be bound up in the bond of eternal life. May the Lord be their possession, and may they rest in peace.” (Kel Maleh Rachamim – Jewish Memorial Prayer)