William of Norwich

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William of Norwich (c. 1132 – March 22, 1144) was an English boy whose death was, at the time, attributed to the Jewish community of Norwich. It is the first known medieval accusation of Jewish ritual murder.

William, a 12-year old boy at the time of his death, was an apprentice tanner who regularly came into contact with Jews and visited their homes as part of his trade. His sudden death was quite mysterious and the local community of Norwich attributed the boy's death to the Jews, even though the local court would not convict the Jews for lack of proof. William was shortly thereafter acclaimed as a saint in Norwich, with miracles attributed to him.

William's story was recorded some 30 years after his death, in The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich [1], a Latin work written about 1173 by Thomas of Monmouth. Thomas was a monk in the Norwich Benedictine monastery, who has been described as "an exceedingly credulous person" by historians.


The background

The Catholic Encyclopedia[2] states the facts of the case, as accounted by Thomas, as follows:

...a boy's corpse showing signs of a violent death was found in Thorpe Wood near Norwich. It was not touched until Easter Monday, where it was buried without any ceremony where it lay. In the meantime a number of young men and boys had visited the spot and the Jews were suspected of the murder on account of the nature of the wounds ... The body was recognized as that of William, a tanner's apprentice, who with his master had been in the habit of frequenting the houses of certain Jews. The grave was opened by William's uncle, the priest Godwin Stuart, the body recognized, the burial Office read, and the grave recovered. A few days later the diocesan synod met under the presidence of Bishop Eborard, and Stuart accused the Jews of the murder, and offered to prove his accusation by ordeal. But the Jews of the Norwich Jewry were the king's men and under the protection of the sheriff, who pointed out that the bishop had no jurisdiction in the case. The failure to secure a condemnation against the Jews seems to have been largely due to the presence of this strong official who held the castle of Norwich. The only result of Sturt's action at this time was to secure the translation of the body from Thorpe Wood to the monks' cemetery on 24 April.

The story of a servant woman is presented:

Next day the messenger and William were seen to enter a Jew's house and from that time William was never again seen alive. On the Wednesday, after a service in the synagogue, the Jews lacerated his head with thorns, crucified him, and pierced his side. For this last scene Thomas produces the evidence of a Christian-serving woman, who, with one eye only, caught sight through a crack in a door of a boy fastened to a post, as she was bringing some hot water at her master's order, presumably to cleanse the body. She afterwards found a boy's belt in the room and in after years pointed out to Thomas the marks of the martyrdom in the room. When, a month after the martyrdom, the body was washed in the cathedral, thorn points were found in the head and traces of martyrdom in the hands, feet, and sides.

One may note that, unlike later tales of blood libel, the account does not mention the collection of William's blood nor the reason for the alleged ritual murder.

The Jews of medieval Norwich

A Jewish community is thought to have been established in Norwich by 1135, although a man called 'Isaac' is recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086. Most lived in a Jewish quarter or Jewry, located in what is now the Haymarket and White Lion Street.[3] This is very close to Norwich Castle, a pattern seen in other English towns which may have been for reasons of security. The Norwich community subsequently became one of the most important in England.

Reports from the mid-twelfth century state that, in 1144, William's body was found upon Mousehold Heath, an extensive woodland to the north-east of Norwich that still exists. Court records suggest that the boy was tortured before his murder (it was not the custom at the time to perform an autopsy). With no conviction by the court, the local community revolted against the authorities and attempted to form a free-court to hold a trial against the accused. Only the intervention of the local sheriff, representing King Stephen of England, saved the Jewish suspects from the mob.


The motive of the clergy – in particular, William de Turbeville (Bishop of Norwich 1146-1174) – to establish a cultus may have been partly pecuniary. De Turbeville encouraged Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk who lived in Norwich to write The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich. Monmouth was contemporary to the events he describes. His Latin work written about 1173 is the source of all subsequent folk-lore and myth upon William of Norwich. One might note that it was written a generation after the events it claims to depict. There was never any papal canonization of William, his cult always being "popular" rather than official.

Before any attempt at an autopsy as to how the boy met his death, the Prior tried to get the body for Lewes Priory in Sussex, for he realized that it might become an object ‘of conspicuous veneration and worship.’

There is little evidence of a flourishing cult of William in Norwich, although offerings were made at his tomb until the sixteenth century. There was a scholars' guild dedicated to St William in the Norfolk town of Lynn.


As a result of the feelings generated by the William ritual murder story and subsequent intervention by the authorities on behalf of the accused, the growing suspicion of collusion between the ruling class and Jews only fueled the general anti-Jewish and anti-King Stephen mood of the population. When Richard obtained power it was felt a new reform of national life would occur. Consequently, with the increase in national opinion in favor of a Crusade, and the conflation of all non-Christian others in the Medieval Christian imagination, the Jewish deputation attending the coronation of Richard the Lionheart in 1189 was attacked by the crowd.

A widespread attack began on the Jewish population in London and York leading to massacres of Jews at London and York. The attacks were soon followed by others throughout England. As a result of Norwich's local nobility's partisanship on behalf of Crusader King Richard's opponents, the local yeomanry and peasantry revolted against the lords and attacked their supporters especially Norwich's Jewish community. On Feb 6 1190, all Norwich Jews who didn't escape to the support of the local castle were slaughtered in their village. The Jews that did escape to the castle committed mass suicide. Jews were expelled from all of England in 1290 and repatriated to Spain, Italy, Greece and elsewhere. Jews were not officially allowed to settle in England until 1655 when Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell asked Parliament to allow Jews renouncing Papal sovereignty and who were fleeing Catholic persecution in the Low Countries and France to settle under writ of Parliament.

See also

Part of this article consists of modified text from Wikipedia, and the article is therefore licensed under GFDL.


  1. Jessop and James, The Life and Miracles of William of Norwich by Thomas of Monmouth, Cambridge, 1897.J. See also [1]
  2.  "St. William of Norwich". Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company. 1913. http://en.metapedia.org/wiki/Wikisource:Catholic_Encyclopedia_(1913)/St._William_of_Norwich. 
  3. Ayers, Brian (1994). English Heritage Book of Norwich. Batsford. ISBN 0713475684. 
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