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.
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.
On Holy Saturday, the twelve-year-old William's body was found in Mousehold Heath, part of Thorpe Wood, outside Norwich. 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 teazel. 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
William's family were local Anglo-Saxons, several of whom were married priests following local tradition. 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. 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.
The motive of the clergy – in particular, William de Turbeville (Bishop of Norwich 1146–74) – to establish a cultus may have been partly pecuniary. De Turbeville encouraged Thomas of Monmouth to write his book.
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. 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.
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. 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. 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. There was also a scholars' guild dedicated to St William in the Norfolk town of Lynn.
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. Another rood screen in St Mary's church, Worstead also depicts him holding nails. One in Loddon depicts William being crucified.
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). The best-known of these was Little Saint Hugh of Lincoln (d.1255). This evolved into the so-called 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. 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. On 6 February 1190, all Norwich Jews who didn't escape to the support of the local castle were slaughtered in their village.
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 1655 when Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell asked Parliament to allow Jews renouncing Papal sovereignty and who were fleeing Catholic persecution in the Low Countries and France to settle under writ of Parliament.
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".
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.
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. 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 a review of James' book Joseph Jacobs in the Jewish Quarterly Review argued that William's own family are the most likely suspects, speculating that they had held a mock crucifixion over Easter during which William fell into a "cataleptic" trance. He died as a result of his 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. According to Raphael Langham, Jacobs provided "no evidence" for his speculation about a family crucifixion. 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.
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. 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 2008, believed that Theobald was a disturbed individual with a hatred of his own community and thus the most likely killer.
In 2015, E. M. Rose's definitive scholarly investigation of the subject, The Murder of William of Norwich 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" and was named a "Top Ten Book in History" by The Sunday Times (London)." 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.