William of Norwich

Saint William
(cult suppressed)
Saint William of Norwich.jpg
Painting at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul, Eye, Suffolk, c. 1500[1]
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 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.

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 murder

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 Anglo-Saxon couple, Wenstan and Elviva. 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 him 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 appeared to have quickly blamed local Jews for the 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. 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 events

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]

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