The Jewish History of the Medieval Tower of London

World-famous as a royal fortress and prison, the Tower of London is also one of the most substantial standing remains of medieval England’s Jewish history. From the mid-twelfth century to the expulsion of the Anglo-Jewry in 1290, the Tower was both a place of imprisonment and of refuge for hundreds of Jews.

The Constable of the Tower had sole authority to arrest and imprison the London Jewry and even Jews arrested elsewhere in the country were normally transferred to the Tower. Yet, the Constable was also charged with protecting the city’s Jews during pogroms and the Jewish community even helped defend the castle from a siege by rebel barons in 1267. This two-year project explores the Tower’s central place in this complex story of coercion and coexistence.

About the project

Building on prior research on the Tower’s Jewish history by former HRP curators Drs Sally Dixon-Smith and Jeremy Ashbee, this project further explores the Jewish prisoners, sanctuary-seekers, and staff of the medieval Tower.

The main aims are to create a catalogue of the surviving archival sources for Jews in London or the Tower in the medieval period and a dataset of Jewish prisoners, refugees, and staff at the Tower from c.1189 to 1290. 

Exterior view of the White Tower

Once complete, the catalogue and database will be available through this webpage. They shall highlight these archival sources to encourage new research, as well as provide a basis for individuals wishing to examine the place of the Tower in the history of England’s Jewish community, engender a deeper understanding of medieval Jewish lives, and allow contemporary researchers to better access their documentary heritage.

Image: From the manuscript accounts of the Constable of the Tower of London from 1288 to 1301. The passage here is from the account for 1289 to 1290, which records the Constable receiving £23 6s in customs from 1335 Jews crossing from London to Wissant at the Expulsion in 1290, each Jew paying 4d, and a further 126 poor Jews, each paying 2d.

© The National Archives, E 101/4/25, m. 3

St Thomas' Tower, looking south-east towards the steps leading to the tower entrance. No visitors are seen in this image.

This project will highlight and make more accessible Jewish documentary history by identifying and cataloguing archival evidence relevant to the history of the Jewish community in London, particularly in relation to their presence at the Tower of London and in the city during the medieval period.

The project (undertaken in association with the Birkbeck Institute for the Study of Antisemitism at Birkbeck, University of London) will encourage further research by scholars in the field and enable a reappraisal of some key aspects of Jewish history. Moreover, by revealing the extent of historical documentation and evidence of the lives of members of the medieval Jewish community, it will play a key part in enabling researchers and curators at Historic Royal Palaces and other institutions to examine the history and curating of diversity, violence, immigration, royal protection, and justice.

As a consequence of this project, it is hoped that further research can be undertaken that will lead to a deeper understanding of the Jewish community at the Tower of London and enable HRP to broaden educational opportunities for young people visiting it.

Research questions

  • How many Jews were imprisoned at the Tower? How were they treated and where were they held?
  • What was the Jewish community’s relationship with the Tower?
  • What was the nature of the Constable of the Tower’s relationship with London’s Jewish community?
  • Did any Jews work at the Tower?

Outputs and findings

The project’s two main outputs, the catalogue and dataset, will be hosted on this webpage once they are completed. Alongside this, there will be blog posts about the project’s progress on the Curators’ Blog and the project’s findings will be shared through conference papers and academic articles. Pen-portraits of noteworthy prisoners and refugees and their stories will appear on HRP’s social media channels in November 2021, to coincide with the 731st anniversary of the expulsion of the Anglo-Jewry on 1st November 1290.

The catalogue
Standing at over 700 manuscripts, the catalogue of archival material for the Jewish history of medieval London and the Tower will be hosted here once it is completed in late 2021.

The dataset
The dataset of Jewish prisoners, refugees, and staff at the medieval Tower, which includes biographies of over 150 named individuals, and hundreds more unnamed, will be hosted here when it is completed in late 2021.

St Thomas' Tower (the Medieval Palace), showing a close up of the iron door ring at the entrance to the tower.

Research team

Dr Rory MacLellan, Post-doctoral Research Fellow, Historic Royal Palaces

Advisory panel: Professor Anthony Bale (Birkbeck College, University of London)

Volunteers: Stephanie D. Balk, MA Heritage Management (Historic Royal Palaces/Queen Mary University of London)

January 2020 – January 2022