Few buildings in England are as evocative of our medieval past (real and imagined) as the Tower of London. Constructed on the orders William the Conqueror in the wake of the Norman Conquest, the Tower would dominate the contemporary landscape for centuries. However, the Tower was more than just an imposing sight intended to remind those who thought about stepping out of line. It was also a royal residence and, significantly for us, an important part of local politics. As a result of this latter status, the Constable of the Tower had jurisdiction over certain parts of London life – most notably over the Jewry. Thus, as well as periodically being a shelter / prison for the Jews, the Tower also played an in important role in the daily life of the London Jewry. This Jewish past is something that you really have to work hard to discover when you visit the tourist-centric Tower today. Indeed, I was flicking through my copy of the Tower’s guidebook in search of inspiration when I was about to start writing this review and I couldn’t find a reference to medieval Jews in there (Kilby and Murphy: 2007) – though I didn’t have time to read through it thoroughly so there could well be a few brief references. Therefore, in the unlikely event that anybody from Historic Royal Palaces is reading this, then surely it is time that that omission is remedied and it is high time that a supplementary volume to the guidebook appeared on the medieval Jews who interacted, voluntarily or otherwise, with the Tower to bedeck the shelves of the gift shop (just to put it out there: I’m free at the moment).
The names of some historians are practically synonymous with medieval Anglo-Jewry – few more so than the great Vivian Lipman. As one would expect from his work, in this brief essay Lipman eruditely discusses the relationship between the Jews of London and the Tower (as well as a couple of other things which do not fall under my consideration – mainly because I don’t know enough about them to pass comment). I’m always fascinated by the fact that the (Christian) citizens City of London refused, in 1242, to allow the Jews to be considered in the returns of the City, thus drawing a very clear line between the mercantile Christian elite on the one hand and the Jews on the other. This isn’t the place to consider the implications that this had for local government, though I know which piece of literature I will use to discuss those implications. However, suffice it to say, as a result the London Jewry was administered on a daily basis was administered by the Constable of the Tower and his deputy – except in cases where more than forty shillings was in dispute in which case this automatically elevated the case to the Justices of the Jews. The Tower also had had important implications for the Jews in times of trouble because, although we tend to think of them being imprisoned within the Tower at times such as the so-called Coin-Clipping Pogrom (1278-1279), the reality was that the walls of the Tower could also serve to protect the Jews, as it did on many occasions. Thus, as a result of Lipman’s concise discussion it becomes clear that the Tower had a three-fold impact on the Jews of medieval London. That is to say, the Tower could serve as protection for the Jews in times of trouble, a gaol for the Jews at other times and as the authority responsible for the administration of the Jews generally.
Undoubtedly, this brief discussion has subsequently been advanced upon by Joe Hillaby, generally (1990-1992, 1992-1994), and Jeremy Ashbee specifically (Ashbee: 2004). However, I think that this little piece draws attention to a much neglected aspect of the Tower’s history and, coming as it does at the end of a splendid little edited collection, reminds us that Tower was more than just a fortress, palace or gaol in the medieval past but rather was an important part of London life more generally.
Ashbee, Jeremy, ‘The Tower of London and the Jewish expulsion of 1290’, Transactions of the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, 55 (2004), pp. 35-38.
Hillaby, Joe, ‘London: the 13th-century Jewry revisited’, Jewish Historical Studies, 32 (1990-1992), pp. 89-158.
Hillaby, Joe, ‘The London Jewry: William I to John’, Jewish Historical Studies, 33 (1992-1994), pp. 1-44.
Kilby, Sarah and Murphy, Clare (eds.), Experience the Tower of London (London, 2007).