The remains of 17 victims of an 800-year-old murder were buried on Tuesday in Norwich’s Jewish cemetery nine years after their bones were uncovered by archaeologists at the bottom of a medieval well.
The ceremony, attended by 50 people from the city’s tiny Jewish community and from local churches, went ahead despite doubts from some local heritage experts over whether the victims were Jewish.
Alex Bennett, Norwich Hebrew Congregation’s lay minister, who conducted the service, said it was a “historic” moment of closure and reconciliation”.
The East Anglian city was the site of England’s first blood libel, when the murder of a 12-year-old boy, William of Norwich, was blamed on the local Jewish population in 1144. The fragmented bones of th
e six adults and 11 children from the excavated well were buried in five boxes covered by a tallit.
Bishop David Gillett, the Church of England’s interfaith adviser in Norwich, said in his eulogy at the service: “We are all aware of the pain and agony often caused for the Jewish community following the false accusations of blood libel”.
Mr Bennett said: “I adapted the memorial prayer which we use for Holocaust memorial — omitting the reference to Germany — for Jews who died at their hands of their oppressors.”
DNA tests suggested that some of the victims had come from an area stretching from south-East Europe to central Asia, rather than Western Europe, lending plausibility to the theory that they were Jewish.
But Sophie Cabot, engagement manager of the city’s Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust, felt the Jewish scenario was “reasonably unlikely. We have good records for Norwich Jewry but we do not have indication of an incident of such large scale. Everyone is agreed that the people died in unpleasant circumstances, but we may never understand what occurred.”
Mr Bennett said: “I think we did the right thing in accepting they were Jewish and burying them.” Their bodies, he said, “had been shoved down a well at a time when Jews were under attack, men, women, and children, making it highly unlikely that they’d be other than Jews.”
The Board of Deputies said that approval for the burial in Jewish grounds had been given to Norwich deputy Clive Roffe by Rabbi Hershel Gluck of the Committee for the Preservation of Jewish Cemeteries in Europe.