48/50 Stonegate Y01 6AS

Demolition work in 1939 behind Nos.48 and 50 Stonegate revealed two walls of York’s oldest house. It is unusual for minor domestic architecture from the 12th century to survive, particularly in city centres. Timber-framed houses from this period have been either completely replaced or substantially altered over the centuries; a handful of houses built from stone have proved more enduring.

The remaining two walls, built from dressed magnesian limestone, are viewed from what was originally the inside of the house. Set back around 14m from the shopfronts on Stonegate, the house comprised an undercroft used for storage and, above this, a first-floor hall lit by windows in the south-west wall. One of these windows, with two arched lights divided by a shaft with moulded base and water-leaf capital, survives relatively intact. Window glass was first developed by the Romans for use in important public buildings and prestigious villas. It remained a luxury in the medieval period and the Norman House windows had only timber shutters. A rebate for shutters can be seen on the inside of the window and one hinge survives. Excavations in 1939 found that the floor of the undercroft was approximately one metre below the current level of the courtyard and the foundations of three central columns were discovered. These supported the timber floor of the upper hall. A setback in the masonry indicates the original position of the first floor. There was also evidence of the base of a garderobe, a medieval toilet. This was a closet off the main hall on the first floor, corbelled out from the main wall. Waste would drop to the level of the undercroft into a cess pit.

Jewish community in York

No records of the house survive prior to 1376 so the early tenants of the house are unknown. Only the wealthiest citizens could afford to build in stone. York was experiencing an economic boom in the 12th and 13th centuries and amongst the richest men in England at that time were Jewish financiers. The remaining Norman stone urban houses in England are sometimes associated with Jewish owners as they had the necessary wealth and also required security from possible anti-Semitic attacks or robbery. There are two Norman houses on Steep Hill in Lincoln, one formerly called Aaron the Jew’s House – now known as the Norman House – and the Jew’s House. The surviving window in the York house is almost identical to one in the Norman House in Lincoln so it is likely that the two dwellings were constructed at the same time.

The Jewish communities in York and Lincoln were closely linked. Aaron of Lincoln was a Jewish financier specialising in lending money for the building of abbeys and monasteries and was said to be the wealthiest man in England, richer than the King himself. He had a national network of agents including Benedict and Joceus in York. On Aaron’s death in 1186, Benedict and Joceus became the leading money lenders in England. The 12th-century historian and chronicler William of Newburgh, a canon of the Augustinian priory at Bridlington, wrote, ‘with profuse expense they [Benedict and Joceus] had built houses of the largest extent in the midst of the city, which might be compared to royal palaces and there they lived in abundance and luxury almost regal, like two princes of their own people’.

Clifford’s Tower massacre

Clifford’s Tower, all that remains of the Norman castle

The two men would pay a severe price for this ostentatious flaunting of wealth. William of Newburgh recounts that, in 1189, the two Jews travelled to London to attend the coronation of Richard I. Resentment to the imposition of taxes to fund the Crusades had been growing and there was opposition to the presence of Jews at the coronation. The situation came to a head at the coronation ceremony and anti-Semitic riots broke out in the streets of London. Benedict was wounded and died of his injuries whilst fleeing back to York. Due to their importance to the economy of England, Jews benefited from royal protection and when Richard I left for France in December 1189, he ordered that they should be left in peace.

However, the king’s command was not heeded and, in March 1190, rioting broke out in King’s Lynn, Norwich, Stamford and Lincoln. In York, Richard de Malbis (Richard Malebisse – mala bestia or “evil beast”), a debtor of Benedict, incited the mob in York and led an assault on the Jew’s house in Spen Lane. Benedict’s family was slaughtered, his treasure stolen, the house set on fire and the loan agreements publicly burned. Led by Joceus, the remaining Jews sought protection in the castle. They were besieged by an angry mob and, on 16 March, fearing capture and forced baptism, they committed mass suicide. It is thought that around 150 Jews died.

When the king learned of the massacre, he sent his chancellor, William de Longchamp, to York to punish the rioters. The Sheriff of Yorkshire was dismissed along with the Constable of the Castle; Richard Malebisse fled to Scotland and his lands were confiscated by the Crown; heavy fines were inflicted on the other ringleaders. By 1240, the Jewish community in York had been re-established and Leo Episcopus and Aaron of York, both residents of the city, were said to be amongst the six richest Jews in England. However, the turbulent history of Jews in England would continue and, in 1290, the entire Jewish population was expelled from the country by Edward I.

Prebends to York Minster

By 1376, the Norman House was the home of the Prebend of Ampleforth, one of the 36 prebends of York Minster. The system of prebends to cathedrals was introduced sometime after 1150. A prebend is a canon of the cathedral supported by revenues from a specific ecclesiastical estate. Income varied and some prebends were extremely wealthy. The manor of Ampleforth was granted to the Archbishop of York in the 11th century and this supported the Prebend of Ampleforth. An Anglo-Danish chief, Ulf, transferred several manors, including Ampleforth, to the Dean and Chapter of York in the 11th century. As a form of transfer deed, he presented the cathedral with a ceremonial drinking horn inscribed with the words “Ulf, a prince in Western Deira, gave this horn with his lands”. A rare survival from the 11th century, the horn is an elephant tusk carved with Islamic style figures which may originate from workshops in Salerno in Italy. The horn disappeared during the Civil War (1642-51) but was, later, returned to York Minster where it is on display today.

The house continued to be used by clergy attached to York Minster but later development surrounded the house and, by the eighteenth century, the Norman House had mostly disappeared until the two remaining walls were discovered in 1939.


YAYAS, Report,1951–52, pp36–39

“Houses: Stonegate”, An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 5, Central (London, 1981), pp. 220-235. British History Online – www.british-history.ac.uk/rchme/york/vol5/pp220-235 (accessed 12 April 2018).

Jewish Heritage Walk, York Civic Trust, www.yorkcivictrust.org.uk/heritage/walks-in-york/

York Jewish History Trail, www.historyofyork.org.uk (York, 2012)

© Richard Wilcock

photos by Rachel Semlyen