Murder of Jewish exiles in London – 700 years ago

This is a curious and terrible story I heard about years ago and found again in an old book on London history dating from the 1870s in my library. The story goes that when King Edward I of England expelled all the Jewish people from his kingdom, one ship captain deliberately murdered a group of Jews on the river Thames in London.

Under King Edward I in medieval London a terrible murder of a group of Jewish people took place on the river Thames as retold by historian Tony McMahon
Jewish people faced discrimination in medieval London

The book is called Old and New London and dates from about 1875. It details how Jewish people at that time still spoke in hushed terms about a terrible event that occurred near London Bridge in the 13th century.

After the Norman conquest of England in 1066, Jewish families were protected by the Norman kings and prospered. But things started to turn two hundred years later and then Edward I – famous as the king who executed Braveheart – decided to expel every Jew from England.

A group of Jewish Londoners hired a “mighty tall ship”, loaded all their possessions and sailed off down the Thames to an uncertain exile abroad. Accounts vary as to what happened next. One report claimed that at a place called Queenborough – near the mouth of the river Thames as it meets the sea – the captain set down the anchor.

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They were on dry sands and the captain popped over the side to take a walk. Then he suggested that the Jewish exiles might want to join him and stretch their legs. And so they did. But without noticing that as the tide rose, the captain shot off back to the ship and was hauled up quickly by a rope.

This took the Jewish group by surprise. As the water rose rapidly, they cried out to him for help. And he gave them a sarcastic response. He told them that they ought to “cry rather unto Moses by whose conduct their fathers passed through the Red Sea”.

“Raging floods” then gradually engulfed them and the captain with his crew made off with their goods. In some accounts, the captain and his fellow mariners went to see King Edward I and were rewarded for their murderous cruelty. But another account claims they were hanged for their “fraudulent and mischievous dealing”.

In the 1875 book I have, it claims that “the spot in the river Thames where many of the poor exiles were drowned by the perfidy of a master-mariner is under the influence of a ceaseless rage”. That no matter how calm the Thames was elsewhere, this stretch of water was always “furiously boisterous”.

And some tellings of the tale had this unusual river current occurring under London Bridge, for some reason. Apparently it became a point of pilgrimage with young and old Jews rowing out to the supposed location to see if the river really did rage non-stop as a constant reminder of the killing.

Napoleon and Hitler – Private Lives

In 2019, I appeared in every episode of Private Lives broadcast on UKTV’s Yesterday channel in the UKTV and other channels around the world such as the Smithsonian. Historical subjects included Napoleon and Hitler.

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Presented by Tracy Borman, curator of the Royal Palaces in England. I covered the private lives of six fascinating historical characters:

  • Princess Margaret – the late sister of the present Queen Elizabeth II. Margaret never stuck to the rules and caused constant scandal during her life. She’s featured in the Netflix series The Crown
  • Edward VIII – the king of England who gave up his throne to marry an American commoner and divorcee Wallis Simpson. The British Empire was rocked by Edward’s decision but what really lay behind it?
  • Napoleon – the diminutive French emperor who conquered most of Europe but was destroyed in his attempt to take Russia. His passionate affairs, tempestuous marriage and crushing defeat by the English exposed
  • Hitler – you’d think there was nothing left to say about Hitler but we delve into his fascination for teenage girls, frustrated artistic ambitions and the corrupt ambition that brought him down
  • Al Capone – the gangster known as Scarface terrorised Chicago but also had a great many admirers. The establishment seemed powerless to act as this street punk made vast profits from racketeering but eventually they got him on tax evasion
  • Peter the Great – the mightiest tsar that ever ruled Russia. A very odd character who loved dwarves, heavy drinking and women. His parties were notorious. His cruelty, even to close family, was highly disturbing.

Happy viewing – and hope you learn more about Napoleon and Hitler!!

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Boy Jones – stealing the underwear of Queen Victoria

What would possess any sane teenager to break into Buckingham Palace and steal the underwear of the reigning monarch. Queen Victoria has to suffer the indignity of a mischievous youth referred to as Boy Jones who kept doing exactly that.

Boy Jones had boasted many times to his workmates that he was going to stage a break in at the palace. Nobody really expected him to do it until….he was caught red handed, in the queen’s private chambers with her knickers stuffed down his front.

Why he targeted that particular garment – I’ll leave to your imagination. At the time, Queen Victoria was still a young woman of child bearing age. Not the dumpy old lady we see celebrated on countless statues and images. But a vivacious character deeply in love with Prince Albert.

Boy Jones and Queen Victoria

By all accounts, Jones was a very filthy and pretty ugly specimen. He was apparently mistaken for the chimney sweep. It’s not known exactly how many times he got into the palace but it’s like to have been more than the three times he confessed to.

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Scaling the walls became a strange obsession. It was a pattern of behaviour he didn’t seem able to break. Maybe he came to believe he had some kind of special relationship with the queen having got so close. And not even a spell in prison could stop the Boy Jones from coming back for more.

There were repeated attempts by the authorities to get rid of him – normally bundling Jones on to a ship bound for somewhere far away. But he kept returning.

Eventually, he ended up in Australia working as the town crier in Perth and with a big alcohol problem. It was during a drunk episode that he fell from a bridge and was sadly killed.

Here I am on UKTV’s Private Lives of the Monarchs discussing Jones:

Princes in the Tower – Richard III the killer?

In the summer of 1483, two princes of the English royal family disappeared off the face of the earth. The boys had been put in the Tower of London for their safekeeping. But it turned into a jail and their unmarked grave for centuries.

That was until 1674 when workers dug up a wooden box with two smaller than average skeletons. Academics have requested DNA testing to be done on the bones but the Church of England has refused. Its curious argument is that if one set of bones are tested then this will lead to multiple royal exhumations where there are surrounding historical mysteries!

If the Princes in the Tower were murdered – why?

If indeed they were murdered, of course. Though the evidence seems pretty damning. And the culprit is assumed by most people to be Richard III.

As any lawyer will tell you – getting somebody convicted or alternatively off the hook is as much about the power of story telling as it is about the facts. Portray the accused as a monster and you’re on the way to getting them banged up.

In the court of public opinion, Richard III has always been suspected of killing the Princes in the Tower – who were his own young nephews. Richard’s brother – King Edward IV – had died in 1483. The crown should have gone to his 12-year-old son – also called Edward.

But England had just been ripped apart in the preceding years by a civil war. The House of York (emblem a white rose) and the House of Lancaster (emblem a red rose) had struggled to take the throne of England. The bloody civil war that wiped out a good part of the English aristocracy was termed The War of the Roses.

The Lancastrians had been overthrown by the Yorkists. The last Lancastrian king, Henry VI, had died in rather mysterious circumstances. Official the cause of ‘melancholy’. Unofficially, he was murdered. Henry had come to the throne as a child and never really grown into the role. So the idea of another child monarch wasn’t attractive.

But uncle Richard also wanted the throne for himself – pure and simple. In the way was 12-year-old Edward and his 9-year-old brother, also called Richard. And one also has to note their resourceful and ambitious mother, Elizabeth Woodville.

Now she was an interesting character. Not royal or even very aristocratic. The late king had married her in secret and his choice of wife had gone down like a lead balloon with the court. It didn’t help that her family were all Lancastrians. But she was also bereft of titles – not even a Countess or a Duchess. Just plain Elizabeth Woodville. That would never do!

However, she enjoyed a long marriage to King Edward and gave him many children including the two Princes. When Edward IV died, most like of typhus, aged 41 – the 12-year-old son Edward journeyed to London expecting to be crowned king.

But the future Richard III, his uncle, rushed down from the north of England and intercepted the boy’s royal procession towards London. He imprisoned a couple of key protectors of the prince and escorted the 12-year-old to the Tower of London…..for his ‘protection’.

Elizabeth Woodville knew what Richard’s game was – and rushed to Westminster Abbey with all her servants, treasury and the younger son, 9-year-old Richard. His uncle couldn’t let that state of affairs continue for long and now he made a beeline for the abbey. Elizabeth was forced to surrender her son to join Edward in the Tower of London also….for his ‘protection’.

And the uncle Richard delivered his coup-de-grace. He went to parliament and had the Princes in the Tower declared illegitimate. That argument was that the secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville had never been legal in the eyes of the state or church. So now, the path was clear for uncle Richard to become King – and he was duly crowned.

As for the Princes in the Tower – they were seen playing in the precincts of the castle for a while before very suddenly vanishing. A contemporary account from an Italian diplomat is pretty damning, pointing the finger at king Richard III.

But Elizabeth Woodville would have the last laugh. One of her daughters married the future Henry VII – first of the Tudor dynasty. And it was Henry’s forces that defeated Richard III in battle at Bosworth and killed him.

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Under the Tudors, Richard III was completely vilified for his role as a child killer. Sir Thomas More, the famous chancellor to King Henry VIII, characterised Richard III as an evil character, both physically and morally deformed. This caricature was then taken up by William Shakespeare in his famous play.

It suited the Tudors – who had usurped the English throne – to portray Richard as a degenerate and murderer. And he does have supporters today – termed ‘Ricardians’ – who argue that he didn’t murder the Princes in the Tower. They feel this is Tudor propaganda designed solely to destroy his reputation.

Interesting, I have a history book from the 1920s that doesn’t mention the Princes in the Tower at all. And it portrays Richard III as a reforming king who passed many ‘beneficial laws’. But in all honesty – I find the case against him overwhelming.

Here I am perusing the book and an image of Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 – where he died and his naked body was displayed slung across a mule.