In 2016 York was granted the title ‘City of Sanctuary’ to celebrate the city’s ‘efforts to offer shelter and safety to those in need’. Then, in 2017 the city became the UK’s first Human Rights City expressing commitment to continuing a legacy of social justice. The city’s declaration recognises that they are ‘building on York’s own particular history of democratic innovation, philanthropy and an international outlook’ , once again reinforcing York’s historical reputation as a diverse, welcoming metropolis. However, historically, York’s treatment of migrants and refugees has been far more complex and difficult than the narrative currently being pushed. Whilst York has been more welcoming in recent decades, such as in its support for refugees of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and Ugandan Asian refugees in 1972 (although these cases are not without difficulties themselves), there have also been times when York has entirely failed to be a place of refuge to groups needing it.
One of the most well known cases of the city of York failing to provide sanctuary was the attack on local Jews at Clifford’s Tower, the castle which was supposed to be their refuge. During the middle ages, York had a thriving and affluent Jewish community. However, in March 1190, local landowners who were resentful of the wealth of the Jewish people in the city attacked the Jewish community, starting with the murder of the widow and children of Benedict of York, the second richest moneylender in the city. Due to this antisemitic uprising, the Jewish community sought refuge in Clifford’s Tower under the protection of the king. At this time, royal castles were designated places of sanctuary for Jewish communities under threat, so sheltering within Clifford’s Tower should have protected the community until the riot could be put down. Any people that didn’t make it to the tower were murdered or forcibly baptised. However, despite the king’s protection, the Sheriff of York ordered the rioters to attack the castle directly, turning their place of sanctuary into a place of violence and danger. Most of the Jewish people hiding in the castle took their own lives to avoid being murdered by the mob. Those who came out of the tower under the promise of safety if they converted to Christianity were themselves then killed by the rioters. Around 150 Jewish people died during the massacre, making this the worst antisemitic attack in York, with a long-lasting legacy.
Although the Clifford’s Tower Pogrom is the largest example of antisemitism within the city’s history, there continued to be attacks on the recovering and returning Jewish community established in York after the pogrom. In 1257 a Jewish person was murdered near Ouse Bridge, and the accomplices to the murderer were acquitted by the city jury. A few years later, in 1266, Henry III had to take York’s Jewish community under his protection because of rising antisemitism within the city. All of this continues to highlight that for a long time York was not a city of safety and sanctuary for Jewish people. This in turn has had long-lasting effects on Jewish communities across the UK, as there may have been an unofficial ‘herem’ (a cultural and spiritual boycott) of the city for hundreds of years. Whilst there has been a return of the Jewish community over the last century or so, it is very small compared to that in many other UK cities.
Reconciliation has started to occur between the city and Jewish people in recent decades. Now run by English Heritage, Clifford’s Tower includes information on the pogrom within its exhibition, as well as having a memorial stone dedicated to those who lost their lives during the massacre. Alongside this, in 1992, 20,000 daffodil bulbs were planted on the castle’s mound, creating a memorial that blooms every spring. The flowers, chosen because of their similarity to the Star of David, honour those that died and also act as a reminder of the horrors that took place within the city. Similarly, commemoration events take place each year on the massacre’s anniversary, and the city works with the York Liberal Jewish Community on events to ensure that York is a more welcoming and diverse place to visit and live.
However, York still has a way to go. Even now the former site of the Jewish Synagogue on Coney Street offers no indication of its historic importance for Jewish people in York. The site in question already has a blue plaque commissioned by the York Civic Trust, which marks the location as the former George Inn, where Charlotte and Anne Brontë stayed in 1849. In this way, other histories have been prioritised, whilst Jewish history is ignored. Furthermore, when the city does discuss Jewish history, it usually either takes the form of impermanent, temporary exhibitions or initiatives which focus only on the pogrom at Clifford’s Tower. Very rarely does it celebrate the contributions and achievements of Jewish people who came from the town, such as Aaron of York, who was appointed the chief official of England’s Jewish community in 1236. In doing this, it could be argued that the city sees Jewish history in York as being separate from York’s history, indicating that York is not as inclusive and welcoming as it has been labelled.
The title ‘City of Sanctuary’ might reflect how York treats its current migrants and refugees, but by suggesting that York has always been a place of refuge, the title ignores the realities of people in the past who were denied sanctuary and instead were victims of a mass hate crime. It also ignores the realities of those who still feel the effect of that hatred hundreds of years on. It’s interesting to think about how titles and honours awarded to cities, as well as the language used to talk about places, can change the way that we understand those places, regardless of the historical events that surround them.
Written by Sophia Nicol
York is the newest member of the Uncomfortable Cities family, and our tours of the city now run every Saturday. You can find more info and book a place on a tour at the Uncomfortable York website.
 ‘York is awarded City of Sanctuary Status’, The York Press (18 December 2016).
 ‘Human Right’s City Declaration’, York Human Rights (accessed 13 June 2023).
 Daniel Powell ‘Belief, History and Engaging the Other: The View from Clifford’s Tower’ in Religion & Literature 44:3 (2012), p. 180.
 PM Tillot, A History of the County of York: the City of York (Victoria County History 1961), pp. 47-49.
 Sethina Watson, ‘Introduction: The Moment and Memory of the York Massacre of 1190’ in Sarah Rees Jones and Sethina Watson, eds, Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Context (Boydell and Brewer 2013), p. 1.
 ‘Stunning springtime display at Clifford’s Tower thanks to 100,000 new daffodils’, YorkMix (16 March 2023).