Jump to content

William of Norwich

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia


(cult suppressed)
William depicted in St Peter and St Paul's Church, Eye, Suffolk (c. 1500)
BornNorwich, Kingdom of England
Diedc.22 March 1144(1144-03-22) (aged 12)
Thorpe Wood, Norwich
Venerated inFolk Catholicism
CanonizedNever officially canonised.
Feast26 March (removed from the Universal Calendar)
AttributesDepicted holding nails, with nail wounds or undergoing crucifixion
Catholic cult suppressed
After the Congregation for the Causes of Saints

William of Norwich (died c. 22 March 1144) was an apprentice who lived in the English city of Norwich. He suffered a violent death during Easter 1144. The city's French-speaking Jewish community was blamed for his death, but the crime was never solved. William's case is the first known example of a medieval blood libel.

The only detailed information about William is from Thomas of Monmouth, a Benedictine monk and a member of Norwich Cathedral's Priory, which took possession of his relics. William was promoted as a Christian saint by the Priory. They commissioned Monmouth to write the hagiographical The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich in 1150 to state the case for William's claim to sainthood. However he was never formally canonised, and the Priory's claims were largely ignored by the people of Norwich: "There is not a single extant calendar from the vicinity, other than those from the priory itself, that includes a commemoration of William."[1]


Anglo-Saxon Chronicle[edit]

The Peterborough Chronicle, a continuation of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, contains an account of the murder of William of Norwich which dates it to c. 1137:[2]

In his time the Jews of Norwich bought a Christian child before Easter, and tortured him with all the same tortures with which our Lord was tortured, and on Long-Friday hanged him on a cross for love of our Lord, and afterwards buried him—imagined that it would be concealed, but our Lord showed that he was a holy martyr, and the monks took him, and buried him reverently in the minster, and through our Lord he performs wonderful and manifold miracles; and he is called St. William.

Thomas of Monmouth[edit]

Since most information about William's life comes from Thomas of Monmouth, it is difficult to distinguish the facts of the case from the story of martyrdom created around it by Monmouth. Thomas of Monmouth was a Benedictine monk that lived in the Priory at Norwich Cathedral, having arrived in Norwich in around 1150. Encouraged by the bishop, he appears to have interviewed surviving witnesses of the event and claimed to have obtained inside information about Norwich's Jewish community. His account is set out in The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich (Vita et Passione Sancti Willelmi Martyris Norwicensis).[3]

According to Thomas of Monmouth, William was born on 2 February 1132 to a local couple. He was apprenticed to a skinner and tanner, often coming into contact with members of the city's Jewish population.[4] His mother was approached by a man claiming to work for the Archdeacon of Norwich, who offered William a job in the Archdeacon's kitchens. Agreeing, she was paid three shillings to let her son go. William and the man then visited the child's aunt, who told her daughter to follow William and the man. The last time William was seen alive by his family was on Holy Tuesday, was when he and the man went into the house of a local Jew.[3]

Thomas claims William was tortured before being murdered:[5]

Having shaved his head, they stabbed it with countless thornpoints, and made the blood come horribly from the wounds they made...some of those present adjudged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord's Passion.

According to Thomas, the body was found on Holy Saturday in Thorpe Wood, north of the city.[6][7] It was seen by a nun, before a forester, Henry de Sprowston, came across William in his jacket and shoes. Henry saw that the boy had been gagged before suffering a violent death. It was decided to bury the boy in unconsecrated ground on Easter Monday. People came to look at him, and William was recognised. The body was then buried at the murder site. The following day, members of William's family, one of whom, Godwin Stuart, was a priest, confirmed him as the victim. He was then reburied following a Requiem Mass.[3]

William's family and their fellow English quickly blamed the local Jewish community for the crime and demanded justice from the ecclesiastical court of Bishop William de Turbeville. Members of the Jewish community were summoned by the Bishop to attend court and submit to trial by ordeal, but the local Norman sheriff, John de Chesney, advised them that the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them, as they were not Christians.[3]

He then took the Jews into protection in Norwich Castle. After the situation had calmed down, they returned to their homes. The issue was revived two years later, when a member of the Jewish community was murdered in an unrelated incident. King Stephen agreed to look into the matter, but later decided not to pursue it.[3]

In the meanwhile, William's body had been moved to the monastery cemetery. Bishop de Turbeville and other members of the local clergy attempted to create a cultus around him as a Christian martyr, but this plan did not succeed. There was no evidence in the initial accusations against local Jews that the murder was related to religious activity of any kind, but as the cult developed, so did a story of how and why William was killed.[6][3]

Thomas of Monmouth's account is attributed to the testimony of a monk and former Jew named Theobald of Cambridge. Theobald alleged that the murder was a human sacrifice and that the "ancient writings of his fathers" required the yearly killing of a Christian on Good Friday. This was allegedly for two reasons: to one day return to the Holy Land during the Messianic Age and to punish Jesus Christ for the religious persecution that the Jewish people continued to experience at the hands of his followers.[8] While there is no such commandment for human sacrifice anywhere in Jewish theology or Rabbinic literature, Theobald further alleged that William's murderers were heretics according to the standards of conventional Orthodox Judaism. The murder was allegedly ordered at Narbonne, by a cult leader who had, similarly to Sabbatai Zevi, declared himself to be the Jewish Messiah and who had cast lots to select where in Europe his followers were to commit the murder. The lots had allegedly fallen first upon England and then upon Norwich and the pseudo-messiah informed his followers among the French-speaking Jewish communities of England by both messengers and letters.[8]

According to many Jewish primary sources from the period, self-appointed Messiahs and their followers were far from unusual in Europe or the Middle East during the 12th century. For example, Maimonides' 1173/4 Epistle to Yemen warns the Jewish community of Yemen against joining similarly heterodox and syncretistic cults led by pseudo-messiahs and mentions the recent violent deaths of just such a pseudo-messianic cult-leader and his followers in France. According to Jewish Medievalist Jacob R. Marcus, "The Crusades, which began in the eleventh century, stimulated Messianic movements all over the world. Both in Christian and Moslem lands the Jews looked forward to the coming of the Messiah and the return to the Holy Land. Persecutions at the hands of Christian Crusaders and Moslem fanatics, the Christian conquest of Palestine, the political changes in the map of Asia Minor, the oppressive taxation – all these things induced in the Jews of almost every land the hope that the day of their redemption had also come. Self-proclaimed Messiahs arose to lead the expectant masses back to Jerusalem."[9]

If Thomas of Monmouth's claims about the case were accurate, however, both Jewish and Christian records and chronicles in Southern France would have made at least some mention of a violent messianic cult based at Narbonne.

Thomas of Monmouth supported his claims by saying that another converted former member of the Messianic cult told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body. Monmouth also says that a Christian servant woman glimpsed the child through a chink in a door. Another man is said to have confessed on his deathbed, years after the events, that he saw a group of Jews transporting a body on a horse in the woods.[3]

Thomas of Monmouth also quoted Theobald as follows, "I was, at that time at Cambridge, a Jew among Jews, and the commission of the crime was no secret to me. But in process of time, as I became acquainted with the glorious display of miracles which the divine power carried out through the merits of the blessed martyr William, I became much afraid, and following the dictates of my conscience, I forsook Judaism, and turned to the Christian faith."[10]


The Jews in Norwich[edit]

The Jewish community is thought to have been established in Norwich by 1135, only nine years before the murder, though one Jew 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.[11] The Jews were a French-speaking community, like the recently established Anglo-Normans, and were closely associated with them. The "Jewry" was very close to the Castle, a pattern seen in other English towns where Jews were under the protection of the Normans.[12]

William and his family were of Anglo-Saxon descent and several of his relatives were married priests following local tradition.[13] Conflicts between local Anglo-Saxons and Normans may well have lent themselves to conspiracy theories regarding capital crimes by French-speaking Jews being covered up by French-speaking Normans. Tensions were particularly high during the reign of King Stephen when the murder occurred. Thomas of Monmouth alleges that the sheriff was bribed by the Norwich Jewish community to protect them.[7]

There may also have been background conflicts between the cathedral, the sheriff and local people about rights in the city and suburbs. Monmouth repeatedly invokes God as the sole source of justice for Anglo-Saxons against corrupt Norman sheriffs. He also claims that John de Chesney, the sheriff who protected the city's Jews, was later punished with internal bleeding.[14]


The site of the chapel consecrated to William on Mousehold Heath in 2010

The wish of the local clergy, in particular, of Bishop William de Turbeville, to establish a cultus may at least in part have been financially motivated. The Bishop encouraged Thomas of Monmouth to question local people and to write his book.[6]

After being buried in the monk's cemetery, the body of William was moved to progressively more prestigious places in the church, being placed in the chapter house in 1150 and close to the High Altar in 1151.[15] Monmouth devotes most of his book not to the murder, but to the evidence for William's sanctity, including mysterious lights seen around the body itself and miraculous cures effected on local devotees. Monmouth admits that some of the clergy, notably the Prior, Elias, were opposed to the cult on the grounds that there was little evidence of William's piety or martyrdom. Monmouth promoted the claims by providing evidence of visions of William and miracles.[15]

Historian Paul Dalton states that the cult of William was predominantly "protective and pacificatory" in character, having similarities to that of another child saint, Faith of Conques.[14] Despite its origins, the cult itself was not associated with the promotion of anti-Jewish activity. The cult was a minor one even at its height. There is little evidence of a flourishing cult of William in Norwich – surviving financial records listing offerings made at his shrine at Norwich Cathedral suggest that, although its fortunes waxed and waned, for much of its history there were few pilgrims, although offerings continued to be made until at least 1521.[16] A temporary boost to the shrine's popularity occurred after 1376, when William was adopted by the Norwich Peltier's Guild, whose annual service at the Cathedral included a child who played the part of William.[17] There was also a scholars' guild dedicated to St William in the Norfolk town of Bishop's Lynn.

The rood screen of St John's Church, Garboldisham, Norfolk

Images of William as a martyr were created for some churches, mostly in the vicinity of Norwich. A panel of painted oak, depicting William and Agatha of Sicily, is in the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London; William is shown holding a hammer and with three nails in his head. The panel was formerly part of a rood screen at the Norwich Church of St John Maddermarket. The screen was commissioned by Ralph Segrym (died 1472), a merchant who became a Member of Parliament and Mayor of Norwich.[18]

William is depicted on the rood screens of a number of other Norfolk churches: St Mary's Church, Worstead[19] and St John's Church, Garboldisham[20] depict William holding nails; the screen in Holy Trinity Church, Loddon depicts William being crucified.[19]


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 corrupt sheriffs and nobles and Jews fuelled the general anti-Jewish and anti-Norman mood of the population. After Thomas of Monmouth's version of William's death circulated a number of other unsolved child murders were attributed to Jewish conspiracies, including Harold of Gloucester (d. 1168) and Robert of Bury (d. 1181).[21] The best-known of these was Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (d. 1255).[22] This became known as the blood libel.

By the reign of Richard the Lionheart attitudes towards English Jews had become less tolerant. This, in conjunction with the increase in national opinion in favour of a Crusade, and the conflation of all non-Christians in the Medieval Christian imagination, led to the Jewish deputation attending the coronation of Richard in 1189 being attacked by the crowd.[23] A widespread attack began on the Jewish population, leading to massacres of Jews at London and York.[24]

The attacks were followed by others throughout England.[25] When the Norman nobility of Norwich attempted to suppress these activities, the yeomanry and peasants revolted against the lords and attacked their supporters, especially Norwich's Jewish community. On 6 February 1190, the Jews who were found in their own houses at Norwich were killed; others had taken refuge in the castle.[26]

During the development of Chapelfield, Norwich, in 2004 a well with the remains of the remains of at least 6 adults and 11 children was discovered. Analysis showed strong affinities to living Ashkenazi Jewish groups.[27]

Hostility against Jews continued until, in 1290, Jews were expelled from England by King Edward I. Jews were not officially allowed to resettle in England until after 1655, when Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell commissioned the Whitehall Conference to debate the proposals made by Menasseh ben Israel. While the Conference reached no verdict, it is seen as the beginning of resettlement of the Jews in England.

Other theories of the crime[edit]

19th century[edit]

Map based on Jessop's and James's Map of Norwich to illustrate the story of St William (1896). The "Jewry" is in red, with the Norman quarter is shown (in green) enclosing it. The English burgh is show in purple.

The story of William's supposed martyrdom in a Jewish conspiracy persisted for many centuries. In 1853, an author attributed William's death to a conspiracy of "the Jews, then the leading doctors, merchants and scholars of the day", and that they escaped then punishment.[28]

The first analysis of the murder was written by M. R. James in 1896. Noting Thomas of Monmouth's use of testimonies to construct a consistent account, James argued that these were inventions or were unreliable, or were manipulated to fit the story. James maintained that the murder's ritual nature emerged only after a man named Theobald, keen to ingratiate himself with the Christian community, promoted the idea. James suggested other causes for William's death, including the possibility of it being an accident, or that William was killed and his murderer (or accidental killer) escaped detection by causing blame for the crime to be placed upon the Jews.[29]

The literary critic Joseph Jacobs speculated in 1897 that William's family had held a mock crucifixion over Easter, during which William fell into a cataleptic trance and died as a result of burial. Jacobs pointed out that Jews would have had to carry the body through Norwich to get to the wood.[30]

20th century – present[edit]

In 1933, historian Cecil Roth argued that a different type of mock crucifixion may have led to the accusations against Jews, because of the traditional mock execution of Haman enacted by Medieval Provençal Jews during the festival of Purim. In 1964, Marion Anderson developed this idea, suggesting that William had been told not to associate with Jews following one such masquerade; he died after being tortured by the Jews to find out why they were being ostracised.[3]

In 1984, Canadian Medievalist Gavin I. Langmuir endorsed a theory that the murder was a sex crime, probably perpetrated by the self-described "cook", noting that Thomas of Monmouth's account would imply that William's body was naked below the waist.[6] Langmuir dismissed previous theories, adding that Theobald appeared to have been in Cambridge when the murder was committed.[6] The theory that Theobald killed William was revived in 1988 by Zefirah Rokeah.[who?][citation needed] It has been suggested that the killer was an unknown sadist, while the accusation of the Jews was made by William's family, who may have been prejudiced against them, including hatred of Jews in general, hatred of the Jews for being foreigners allied with the Normans, and hopes for gaining the local Jews' wealth for themselves.[31] Raphael Langham, writing in 2005, believed that Theobald was a disturbed individual with a hatred of his own community and thus the most likely killer.[3] In The Murder of William of Norwich (2015), the medieval historian and journalist E. M. Rose points out that a botched road robbery or kidnapping, which was a frequent cause of death in the region during this period, could explain William's death.[32][a]

Writing in 1938, Jacob R. Marcus commented on the legacy of William of Norwich and other alleged cases like his: "Generations have believed that no Christian child was safe in Jewish hands. Hundreds of Jews have been imprisoned, killed, or burned alive on this charge. The Papacy has frequently denounced this charge, yet it is equally true that in numerous instances the accusation of ritual murder was not made except with the vigorous support of local Church authorities. The author, Thomas of Monmouth, a monk in the Norwich Benedictine monastery, was an exceptionally credulous person. Jessop, one of the editors of Thomas's work, believes that our monkish author belongs to the class of those who are 'deceivers and being deceived'. In the specific case of William of Norwich, the evidence, critically sifted, leads one to believe that he actually existed and that his body was found after he had died a violent death. Everything beyond this, however, is in the realm of speculation."[35]


  1. ^ The study received the 2016 Ralph Waldo Emerson Award of the Phi Beta Kappa Society for "a scholarly study that contributes significantly to interpretation of the intellectual and cultural condition of humanity"[33] and was named a "Top Ten Book in History" by The Sunday Times.[34]


  1. ^ Rose, E.M., The Murder of William of Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe, p.98, Oxford University Press (2015)
  2. ^ Swanton 1997, pp. 265–266.
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Paper on William of Norwich presented to the Jewish Historical Society of England by Raphael Langham". Archived from the original on 24 December 2013.
  4. ^ Jessopp & James 1896, pp. 14–15.
  5. ^ Jessopp & James 1896, p. 21.
  6. ^ a b c d e Langmuir 1996.
  7. ^ a b Jacobs 1906, p. 524.
  8. ^ a b Marcus 1938, pp. 125–126.
  9. ^ Marcus 1938, p. 247.
  10. ^ Marcus 1938, p. 125.
  11. ^ Ayers 1994, p. 47.
  12. ^ Rawcliffe & Wilson 2006, p. 18.
  13. ^ Cubbit 2004, p. 52.
  14. ^ a b Dalton 2000, p. 55.
  15. ^ a b Yarrow 2006, p. 131.
  16. ^ Nilson 1998, p. 157.
  17. ^ Wallace 1997, p. 95.
  18. ^ "St Agatha Holding Pincers and a Breast; St William of Norwich with Three Nails in His Head (panel from a rood screen)". Victoria and Albert Museum. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
  19. ^ a b Pye, Adrian S. (2010). "Norfolk Churches". norfolkchurches.co.uk. ASPYE. Retrieved 8 June 2019.
  20. ^ Pye, Adrian S. (2010). A photographic and historical guide to the parish churches of Central Norfolk : as defined by the 1914 deaneries of: Hingham, Holt, Humbleyard, Rockland, Sparham, Thetford and most of Depwade, Ingworth, Redenhall, Repps and Taverham and part of Breccles. [England]: ASPYE. ISBN 978-0-9558797-3-9. OCLC 751828243.
  21. ^ Skinner 2003, pp. 31, 130.
  22. ^ "Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln". Britannica. 2024. Retrieved 21 January 2024.
  23. ^ Flori, Jean, Richard Coeur de Lion: le roi-chevalier, Paris: Biographie Payot, 1999, pp.94–5.
  24. ^ Skinner 2003, p. 31.
  25. ^ Skinner 2003, pp. 29–32.
  26. ^ Skinner 2003, p. 30.
  27. ^ Brace, Selina; Diekmann, Yoan; Booth, Thomas; Macleod, Ruairidh; Timpson, Adrian; Stephen, Will; Emery, Giles; Cabot, Sophie; Thomas, Mark G.; Barnes, Ian (30 August 2022). "Genomes from a medieval mass burial show Ashkenazi-associated hereditary diseases pre-date the 12th century". Current Biology. 32 (20): 4350–4359.e6. Bibcode:2022CBio...32E4350B. doi:10.1016/j.cub.2022.08.036. ISSN 0960-9822. PMC 10499757. PMID 36044903. S2CID 251935757.
  28. ^ Madders 1853, p. 44.
  29. ^ Jessopp & James 1896, Chapter 4.
  30. ^ Jacobs 1897.
  31. ^ McCulloh 1997.
  32. ^ Rose 2015.
  33. ^ "Ralph Waldo Emerson Award Winners". The Phi Beta Kappa Society. Retrieved 21 January 2024.
  34. ^ Jones, Dan (26 July 2015). "The Murder of William of Norwich". The Sunday Times. Archived from the original on 6 October 2016. Retrieved 21 January 2024.
  35. ^ Marcus 1938, p. 121.


Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]