A history of Jewish persecution in Bury St Edmunds

A garden of reflection
Teardrop Memorial Sculpture
Teardrop Memorial Sculpture

 Holocaust Memorial Day takes place on 27 January each year and is a time for everyone to pause and remember the millions of people who have been murdered or whose lives have been changed beyond recognition during the Holocaust, Nazi Persecution and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia and Darfur.

 Commemorated each year in Bury St Edmunds where a service in the Abbey Gardens at the existing Holocaust Memorial sees dignitaries and civic leaders join locals for a moment of quiet reflection and memorial, this years ceremony (2015) will be marked by the unveiling of a one and a half metre teardrop sculpture which will form a centrepiece to a new Peace Garden. The Memorial Garden Trust, a registered charity, has raised more than £11,000 for the project in the Abbey Gardens.

Rob Lock from the trust said: 

“In addition to providing a more dignified setting for the annual holocaust service the Peace Garden is also designed to commemorate the murder of 57 Jews in our town on Palm Sunday, 19 March 1190. It is an event in our town’s history that the trust felt needed to be publicly acknowledged.

“The teardrop is a natural and universal symbol of pity and persecution, of human suffering and sorrow. It is made from polished stainless steel; its mirrored surface reflects back to us the role we all must play in opposing humanity’s inhumanity.”

The Peace Garden, which is being installed by Urban Forestry, also includes 57 cobble stones – one for each of the victims of the 1190 massacre. There will also be two stone benches as seating for quiet reflection. The trust was formed by local residents and is supported by St Edmundsbury Borough Council, St Edmundsbury Cathedral, and members of Suffolk’s Jewish Community.

 St Edmundsbury Borough Cabinet Member for Leisure, Culture and Heritage, Cllr Sarah Stamp said:

 “The teardrop memorial is a very poignant symbol. Although this is an area that forces us to think about the worst acts carried out by mankind, the trust has also raised the funds and created a cultural space that they should feel proud of.”

13th century Bury St Eds
13th century Bury St Eds

 Back then Hatter Street was recognised as the Jewish quarter of the town and referred to as Heathenmans Street. It was claimed that Moyses Hall could have been their synagogue but this has now been disputed, largely because it would have been next to what was then the medieval pig market. It is more likely that the higher ground along Hatter Street between numbers 25-26 served as the synagogues location, a case strengthened by the evidence of a well beneath the basement, necessary for ritual bathing and washing. Other claims for Moyses Hall is that its name is a derivative of ‘Moses’ and that it was built by wealthy Jewish merchants of the town. However, ‘Moses’ and ‘Moyses’ are both common Suffolk names.

By the 1190’s, the Jewish population in England numbered approximately some 2,500 people and until this time they enjoyed relative freedom of movement, the right to own real estate and access to education when compared to the Jewish people who lived in mainland Europe. However all was not rosy, In 1189, they were taxed at a much higher rate than the rest of England to finance the Third Crusade. Jews might have comprised less that 0.25% of the English population but they provided 8% of the total income of the royal treasury. This financial contribution did not render them beloved of the people though and the pro Christian ideology of the Crusades engendered an anti Semitic rhetoric.

In 1181, a dispute broke out between William the Sacristan (Sexton) of the Abbey in Bury St Edmunds and his associate Samson. Alongside the local townspeople, the Jews sided with William but unfortunately, it was Samson who came to power the next year as Abbot. In 1190, after the Coronation riots, Samson demanded that the Jewish people in the town should be placed under his authority rather than the Kings and when they refused, they were expelled under guard.

This was set among a nationwide background of disempowerment for Jews. In the same year, King Henry II enacted the “Assize of Arms”, ordering that all weapons owned by Jews should be confiscated on the grounds that their protection came from the King and therefore they would not have any reason for owning arms. The weapons were turned over to the King’s forces, leaving them with little defence and protection when riots broke out less then ten years later.

The 1189 coronation of Richard the Lionheart saw further state sanctification of their persecution when Baldwin who was the Archibishop of Canterbury, persuaded Richard to not accept gifts from Jewish dignitaries, and further, to banish them from the palace which was interpreted by the watching crowds to mean the King favoured persecution. That same day, a pogrom against the Jews in London occurred and again, the next day. Reluctant to get involved in protecting them at the start of his reign, Richard did not enact a severe punishment of the rioters which saw the civil unrest spread to Norwich, Lincoln and Bury St Edmunds alongside other towns.

Rampaging Crusaders Kill Jews in Bury St. Edmunds
Rampaging Crusaders Kill Jews in Bury St. Edmunds in medieval depiciton

The church and locals seized on every opportunity to justify their prejudices. When Saint Robert of Bury, a young choirboy from the abbey was found murdered (crucified), allegedly on Good Friday, his death was blamed on the town’s Jewish community. Robert was buried in the Abbey church and in his Chronicle, Jocelyn of Brakelond, a monk in the Abbey during Samsons rule, even attributed miracles to him. Rumours based on the belief that the Jews had gained their wealth through sacrificial murders began to percolate through the town and their community became the focus of much anti semitic feelings. Regionally, the Jews of Norwich were accused of torturing a Christian child named William, using his blood for the Passover Seder, then killing and burying him and despite the entreaties of Pope Innocent IVs to ignore such ridiculousness, the image of Jews being dangerous to Christians became the dominant one.

 After nine more years, anti semitic feelings had increased and it has been suggested that the catalyst to the massacre may have been a ‘vanquish the infidels’ type sermon, preached in the abbey church at a time when anti Jewish sentiments were even more heightened, it being Lent. The abbey was no longer a reliable place of sanctuary for them but Samson is recorded as claiming the Abbey was not the Kings property and therefore these ‘Jews were not Saint Edmunds men.’

On Palm Sunday, the 19th March, a group of Christian Crusaders rampaged through Bury St Edmunds and killed 57 Jews followed by the obtaining of a writ by Abbot Samson, leader of the monastery,  to have the survivors expelled. Previously the monastery had sheltered Jews when there was a threat of a pogrom but recently the monastery had gone into debt to Jews and therefore took advantage of the opportunity to escape having to repay those debts. Much building work had taken place in the Abbey and some major debts had accrued under Abbot Hugh, despite the churches moral teachings against usury. The offer of consecrated vestments and other articles as security against the debt gives clues about their extent and the pressure upon the monastery to do everything it could to expunge them.

Jocelyns Chronicle
Jocelyns Chronicle

Six months after the massacre of the Jews, Jocelin recorded in his Chronicle that Samson’s expelling of the remaining Jews showed that he was a ‘man of great virtue’, an expulsion that was granted after he appealed to the King for permission to do so in October 1190. On July 1290,  King Edward the First ordered their expulsion from the whole country, making England the first country to do so. There is some disagreement as to how many were forced to leave- either 4000 or 16,000 which is some difference- and their return was not officially sanctioned until the 17th century, some 350 years later.

The Holocaust memorial in the Abbey gardens. Photo: Martin Pettit under CC attribution 2.0 generic [cc by 2.0]
This event is relatively unknown in the town and wider annals of regional history and the translation of Jocelyns Chronicle that is stored in our Records Office itself omits the event. The opening of the Peace Garden, coming at a time when Jewish people all over the world face renewed persecution alongside other faiths and creeds, could not be more timely and significant. When the Holocaust happened, we did it to our own people-NOT a group of people living separately as ‘others.’ Europe placed them in a ghetto, they did not ghettoise themselves. The Holocaust destroyed a living and vibrant part of our European culture- music, art, economics, politics, the sciences and left a gaping hole, a rent or whatever ugly image you wish to use which has yet to fill in. And when it does, the scar will still be there and we should continue to remember. There is no such thing as the ‘past. ‘

 Further reading:

 Butterworth, Robert 2004 , Not Saint Edmund’s Men
Scarfe, Norman 1997, Jocelin of Brakelond

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