William of Norwich

William of Norwich (2 February 1132 – c. 22 March 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 against Jews of ritual murder.

Saint William
(cult suppressed)
Saint William of Norwich.jpg
Painting at the church of St Peter and St Paul, Eye, Suffolk, c. 1500[1]
Holy Martyr
Born2 February 1132
Norwich, England
Diedc. 22 March 1144(1144-03-22) (aged 12)
Norwich, England
Venerated inRoman Catholic Church
CanonizedNever officially canonized.
Feast26 March (removed from the Universal Calendar)[2]
AttributesDepicted holding nails, with nail wounds or undergoing crucifixion
Catholic cult suppressed
After the Congregation[2]

William was an apprentice tanner who regularly came into contact with Jews and visited their homes as part of his trade. His death was unsolved; the local community of Norwich attributed the boy's death to the Jews, though the local authorities would not convict them for lack of proof. William was shortly thereafter acclaimed as a saint in Norwich, with miracles attributed to him.

William's story was told in The Life and Miracles of St. William of Norwich,[3][4] a multi-volume Latin work by Thomas of Monmouth, a monk in the Norwich Benedictine monastery. Thomas started The Life in 1149/50; he completed volume 7 by 1173.[5] Augustus Jessopp (1823–1914), one of the editors of the first printed edition of Thomas' work, describes Thomas as belonging to the class of those who are "deceivers and being deceived."[6]

The murderEdit

Since most information about William's life comes only from Thomas, it is difficult to distinguish the facts of the case from the story of martyrdom created around it by Thomas. Thomas wrote that William was born on 2 February 1132 to a local couple. He was apprenticed to a skinner and tanner of hides, often dealing with local Jews.

Shortly before his murder, William's mother was approached by a man who claimed to be a cook working for the Archdeacon of Norwich. He offered William a job in the Archdeacon's kitchens. William's mother was paid three shillings to let her son go. William later visited his aunt in the company of this man. His aunt was apparently suspicious, and asked her daughter to follow them after they left. They were then seen entering the house of a local Jew. This was the last time William was seen alive; it was Holy Tuesday.[7]

On Holy Saturday, the twelve-year-old William's body was found in Mousehold Heath, part of Thorpe Wood, outside Norwich.[5][8] A local nun saw the body, but did not initially contact anyone. A forester named Henry de Sprowston then came across it. He noted injuries which suggested a violent death and the fact that the boy appeared to have been gagged with a wooden teasel. William was wearing a jacket and shoes. After consultation with the local priest, it was decided to bury the body on Easter Monday. In the meanwhile, local people came to look at it, and William was recognised. The body was then buried at the murder site, and the following day, members of William's family, one of whom was a priest, arrived to confirm the identity of the body. They exhumed it and then reburied it with proper ceremony.[7]

The Christians of Norwich appear to have quickly blamed the local Jews for this crime, and to have demanded justice from the local ecclesiastical court. Members of the Jewish community were asked to attend the court and submit to a trial by ordeal, but the local sheriff, John de Chesney, advised them that the ecclesiastical court had no jurisdiction over them, as they were not Christians. He then took the Jews into protection in the 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 to let it drop.[7]

In the meanwhile, William's body had been moved to the monks' cemetery. Some of the local clergy attempted to create a cult around him as a martyr, but this plan did not succeed. There is no evidence that the initial accusations against the Jews implied that the murder was related to ritual activity of any kind, but as the cult developed, so did the story of how and why he was killed.[5][7]

Thomas' version of eventsEdit

The crucifixion of William depicted on a rood screen in Holy Trinity church, Loddon, Norfolk

Thomas of Monmouth arrived in Norwich around 1150. He decided to investigate the murder by interviewing surviving witnesses. He also spoke to people identified as "converted Jews" who provided him with inside information about events within the Jewish community. He wrote up his account of the crime in the book The Life and Miracles of St William of Norwich.[7]

In Thomas of Monmouth's account, of the murder he writes that “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 ad judged him to be fixed to a cross in mockery of the Lord's Passion . . .”[9] William's body was later said to have been found in Thorpe Wood with a crown of thorns atop his head.

One convert, called Theobald of Cambridge, told Thomas that there was a written prophecy which stated that the Jews would regain control of Israel if they sacrificed a Christian child each year. Every year, Jewish leaders met in Narbonne to decide who would be asked to perform the sacrifice; in 1144, the Jews of Norwich were assigned the task. According to Thomas, the man who claimed to be a cook had been employed to entice William into the house where the sacrifice would occur. William was initially treated well, but was then bound, gagged and suspended in a cruciform position in a room where he was tortured and murdered in a manner imitating the Crucifixion of Jesus: the Jews lacerated his head with thorns and pierced his side. His body was then dumped in the nearby woods.[7]

Thomas supports this claim by saying that one converted Jew told him that there was an argument over how to dispose of the body. He 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.[7]


The Jews in NorwichEdit

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.[10] The Jews were a French-speaking community, like the recently established Norman aristocracy and they were closely associated with them. The "Jewry" was very close to Norwich Castle, a pattern seen in other English towns where Jews were under the protection of the local aristocracy.[11]

William's family were local Anglo-Saxons, several of whom were married priests following local tradition.[12] Conflicts with the Norman authorities may have been mediated through accusations against the "alien" Jews protected by the foreign Norman rulers themselves. Tensions were particularly strong in the chaotic reign of King Stephen (known as The Anarchy) when the murder occurred. Thomas of Monmouth claims that the sheriff was bribed by the Jews to protect them.[8] There may also have been background conflicts between the cathedral, the sheriff and local people about rights in the city and suburbs. Thomas repeatedly invokes God as a source of protection for the people against the corrupt Norman sheriffs, claiming that John de Chesney, the sheriff who protected the Jews, was punished with internal bleeding.[13]


The site of the chapel consecrated to William on Mousehold Heath (2010). The chapel was demolished during the English Reformation; its remains are listed as a scheduled monument.[14]

The wish of the clergy – in particular, William de Turbeville (Bishop of Norwich 1146–74) – to establish a cultus may have been partly financially motivated. De Turbeville encouraged Thomas of Monmouth to write his book.[5]

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 chapterhouse in 1150 and close to the High Altar in 1151.[15] Thomas devotes most of his book not to the crime, but to the evidence for William's sanctity, including mysterious lights seen around the body itself and miraculous cures effected on local devotees. Thomas 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. Thomas actively 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.[13] 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 Lynn.

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

Images of William as a martyr were created for some churches, generally in the vicinity of Norwich. A panel of painted oak, depicting both 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 in 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 the ruling class and Jews fuelled the general anti-Jewish and anti-King Stephen 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 Jews had become increasingly intolerant. 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, most notably in London and York, leading to massacres of Jews at London and York. The attacks were soon followed by others throughout England. When the local nobility of Norwich attempted to quash these activities, the local yeomanry and peasantry revolted against the lords and attacked their supporters, especially Norwich's Jewish community.

Hostility against Jews increased in the area until in 1290, Jews were expelled from all of England to Spain, Italy, Greece and elsewhere. Jews were not officially allowed to settle in England again until sometime 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 readmission.

Modern theories of the crimeEdit

A map of medieval Norwich reproduced in Jessopp and James' edition of the Life. The "Jewry" is to the left of the castle in the centre, part of the "New Town" area on the other side of the town from the monastery and the wood.

The story of William's supposed martyrdom in a Jewish conspiracy persisted for many centuries. As late as 1853, the author Susan Swain Madders, in her book on the history of Norwich, attributes William's death to a murderous conspiracy of "the Jews, then the leading doctors, merchants and scholars of the day". She also repeats the story that they escaped punishment "by some clever monetary arrangement with the authorities".[24]

Thomas of Monmouth's account of William's life was published in 1896 in an edition by Augustus Jessopp and M. R. James. James's introduction to the book is the first modern analysis of the evidence provided by Thomas. James notes that Thomas is keen to prove the truth of his version of events by citing witnesses to build up a consistent account. He argues that some testimonies seem to be pure invention, others are unreliable, but that some appear to describe real events, though facts are clearly being manipulated to fit the story. James dismisses the claim of planned ritual murder as a fantasy, which only emerges some years after the crime, promoted by the convert Theobald, keen to ingratiate himself with the Christian community. Independent support is very flimsy, such as the servant who is supposed to have glimpsed a child through a crack in the door, but did not report this until interviewed by Thomas years later.[25]

James suggests several possibilities: 1. an accident in the woods; 2. a murder by a Christian who arranged the scene to cast blame on Jews; 3. a murder by an unknown person that was blamed on Jews for reasons unrelated to the crime itself; 4. accidental or deliberate killing by a Jew that was then covered up by the Jewish community who feared they would all be blamed.[25] James thinks that all these are possible, including that a "deranged or superstitious" Jew might have killed William in a quasi-ritual way. He says that the convert Theobald himself is a possible suspect.

In an 1897 review of James' book Joseph Jacobs in the Jewish Quarterly Review argued that William's own family were the most likely suspects, speculating that they had held a mock crucifixion over Easter during which William fell into a "cataleptic" trance and died as a result of burial. Jacobs argues that it would make no sense for Jews to hide the body in Thorpe Wood, as they would have had to carry it through the whole of the Christian part of the town to get there.[26] According to a 2005 paper by Raphael Langham, Jacobs provided "no evidence" for his speculation about a family crucifixion.[7] In 1933 Cecil Roth argued that a different type of mock crucifixion may have led to the accusations against Jews, because of a masquerade involving the mock execution of Haman enacted by the Jews at Purim. In 1964 Marion Anderson developed this idea, combining it with Thomas's original arguments. She suggests that William had been told not to associate with Jews following one such masquerade; he was then kidnapped and tortured by the Jews to find out why they were being ostracised. He died as a result and the body was disposed of.[7]

In 1967, Vivian Lipman argued that the murder was a sex crime, suggesting that Thomas's comment that William was wearing a "jacket" and "shoes" implied that the boy's body was naked below the waist. It was probably perpetrated by the man who represented himself as a cook, and who enticed William away from his family to commit the crime. This man was never identified by Thomas and mysteriously disappears from the story without explanation.

In 1984, Gavin I. Langmuir endorsed Lipman's "sane" account, dismissing Anderson's theories and criticising both James' and Jacobs' speculations, adding that Theobald was an unlikely suspect as he appears to have been in Cambridge when the murder was committed.[5] In 1988, Zefirah Rokeah nevertheless revived James' suggestion that Theobald was the killer. In 1997, John McCulloh followed Lipman in arguing that it was a sadistic sex crime. 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.[7]

In 2015, E. M. Rose's investigation of the subject, The Murder of William of Norwich[27] 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"[28] and was named a "Top Ten Book in History" by The Sunday Times (London).[29] Rose points out that road robberies and kidnappings gone wrong were a frequent cause of death in the region during Stephen's reign, when the Crown struggled to safeguard the roads, and could offer another explanation of William's death.

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Knott, Simon (2007). "St Peter and St Paul, Eye". suffolkchurches.co.uk. Retrieved 13 March 2013.
  2. ^ a b "St. William of Norwich", Saints & Angels, Catholic.org, retrieved 24 July 2009
  3. ^ Monmouth 2011.
  4. ^ Wiliam archive, UK: Global.net.
  5. ^ a b c d e Langmuir, Gavin I (1996). Toward a Definition of Antisemitism. University of California Press. ISBN 978-0-520-06143-9.
  6. ^ Halsall, Paul (October 1997), 1173: William of Norwich, Fordham University.
  7. ^ a b c d e f g h i j "Paper on William of Norwich presented to the Jewish Historical Society of England by Raphael Langham". Archived from the original on 1 May 2013.
  8. ^ a b "WILLIAM OF NORWICH - JewishEncyclopedia.com". www.jewishencyclopedia.com.
  9. ^ "Internet History Sourcebooks Project". legacy.fordham.edu. Retrieved 12 March 2018.
  10. ^ Ayers, Brian (1994). English Heritage Book of Norwich. Batsford. ISBN 0-7134-7568-4.
  11. ^ Carole Rawcliffe, Richard George Wilson, Medieval Norwich, Continuum International, 2006, p.18.
  12. ^ Catherine Cubbit, Images of St. Peter: The Clergy and the Religious Life in Anglo-Saxon England in Paul Cavill (ed), The Christian Tradition in Anglo-Saxon England, p. 52.
  13. ^ a b Paul Dalton, "Civil War and Ecclessiastical Peace in the Reign of King Stephen" in Diana E. S. Dunn, War and Society in Medieval and Early Modern Britain, p.55.
  14. ^ Historic England. "Site of St William's Chapel, List entry Number: 1003172 (1003172)". National Heritage List for England. Retrieved 21 March 2013.
  15. ^ a b Simon Yarrow, Saints and their Communities: Miracle Stories in Twelfth-Century England, Oxford University Press, 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 9780955879739. OCLC 751828243.
  21. ^ Skinner 2003, pp. 31, 130.
  22. ^ Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln at the Encyclopædia Britannica
  23. ^ Flori, Jean, Richard Coeur de Lion: le roi-chevalier, Paris: Biographie Payot, 1999, pp.94-5.
  24. ^ Madders 1853, p. 44.
  25. ^ a b "St William of Norwich, M.R. James". www.users.globalnet.co.uk.
  26. ^ Jacobs, J., The Jewish Quarterly Review, vol. 9, 1 July 1897, pp.749-55.
  27. ^ Oxford University Press: The Murder of William of Norwich retrieved October 4, 2016
  28. ^ Phi Beta Kappa Society: 2016 Book Award Winners retrieved October 4, 2016
  29. ^ The Sunday Times: REVIEW: The Murder of William of Norwich by Dan Jones, 26 July 2015 retrieved October 4, 2016


  • Bale, Anthony (2006). The Jew in the Medieval Book: English Antisemitisms 1350–1500. Cambridge University Press. fully discusses saint cults like that of William of Norwich in medieval England.
  • Madders, Susan Swain (1853). Rambles in an Old City. London: Thomas Cautley Newby.
  • Monmouth, Thomas of (2011) [First published 1896]. Jessopp, Augustus; James, M.R. (eds.). The Life and Miracles of William of Norwich. Cambridge Library Collection. Translated by Jessopp, Augustus; James, M.R. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 978-1-108-03976-5.
  • Nilson, Ben (1998). Cathedral Shrines of Medieval England. Boydell & Brewer. ISBN 0851158080.
  • Parkes, James (1976). The Jew in the Medieval Community: A study of his political and economic situation (2nd ed.). New York: Hermon Press. p. 125..
  • Rose, E.M. (2015). The Murder of William Norwich: The Origins of the Blood Libel in Medieval Europe. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-021962-8.
  • Skinner, Patricia, ed (2003). The Jews in medieval Britain: historical, literary, and archaeological perspectives. ISBN 978-0-85115-931-7.
  • Wallace, David (1997). Chaucerian Polity: Absolutist Lineages and Associational Forms in England and Italy. Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804727244.

Further readingEdit

External linksEdit