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Touring Jewish Oxford

Touring Jewish Oxford

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TOURING JEWISH OXFORD

o        The Botanic Gardens and Magdalen College - the Jewish Cemeteries.

o        Christ Church Meadow and Deadman's walk - the path of Jewish funeral processions.

o        Merton College - the Ascension Day Cross, Beks Hall, and "the counting house of Jacob the Jew.

o        St Aldates, or Great Jewry Street - The synagogue, Talmudic academy, and Jewish halls.

o        The synagogue.

o        Moyses Hall.

o        Jacob's Hall.

o        The Houses of Moses ben Isaac, and David Of Oxford (now Oxford Town Hall).

o        Oxford Castle and the ‘Jew’s Mount’– Castle Street / New Road.

o        The Jew’s Mount or Jew’s Hill.

o        Jacob's Coffee Houses, High Street Oxford.

o        Miscellaneous sights.

Oxford is a highly recommended place for a tour of Jewish heritage, as there are a large number of well documented Jewish sites in Oxford, associated with a fascinating Jewish history. All are within the back-drop of the well preserved medieval colleges, and remnants of the medieval city.

Jewish Tour of Oxford 2005 001.jpgThe recommended Jewish tour of Oxford is devised to take in some of the finest sights around the Botanic gardens, Christ Church Meadow, and the High Street.  Additionally the tour is designed to enable the visitor to take in Magdalen, Merton colleges, and Christ Church - some of the finest colleges that Oxford has to offer, and which all have Jewish associations.

Much of the route is well away from Oxford's busy and hazardous roads, taking in open places, which makes the tour very suitable for children, as well as adults.

It is best to take a route, starting at the Botanic Gardens, the site of the medieval Jewish cemetery, and finish at St Aldates, the old Jewry, in the very heart of the city centre.  The route can be made circular by finishing further down the High Street, and going for a coffee at Queens Lane Coffee house, which is on the site of Cirques Jobsons Coffee House of 1654.

The walk can be comfortably completed by all in 1 1/2 hours, but 20 - 30 minutes should be added for each additional detailed college visit.  Those wanting to see the colleges should note most colleges open in the afternoon from 2pm to 5pm, with a few opening earlier on Sunday, and that the absolute maximum size of any group visiting the colleges is 20 persons (10 persons at Merton); 15 is about the optimum number for comfort.  Some colleges, including Christ Church, and Magdalen make a charge for entry.

The Botanic Gardens and Magdalen College - the Jewish Cemeteries.

Botanic Gardens.jpgThe starting point of the tour, contains the sites of the two medieval Jewish cemeteries.  The original cemetery (founded. c. 1190 - 1231) was established on vacant low laying flood-lands next to the west bank of the river Cherwell, outside the East Gate of the town.  The cemetery covered an area approximate to the extent of the present day medieval buildings of Magdalen College, but the finds of burials this century (1913 and 1976) suggest that the actual graves were confined to the driest south-western side of the cemetery (ie; St Johns Quad, and Chaplains' Quad near the tower).

The rest was probably an area planted with trees and shrubs, with - as archaeology reveals - some ash and willow, and a profusion of escaped garden herbs, plants, and wild flowers; including black mustard, corn-flowers, strawberry plants, and corn-cockle, bordering the swift clear waters of the Cherwell.  Surely a tranquil spot, and one which explains why Jewish cemeteries were called "Jews Gardens" by the Christians.

It is possible that the south-east corner of the site contained a ritual bath (mikveh) for bathing the dead.  The 1987 excavation revealed a remarkable spring-fed stone culvert in the old Hospital Chapel, which according to ones interpretation and dating of the mason's chisel marks, could date from the time of the cemetery rather than the Hospital.  If that is the case, there is the remarkable circumstance in which a Jewish ritual bath was reused for Christian purposes, and became integral to a Christian place of worship.

The Jewish community lost this site in 1231 when the king gave it to the nearby hospital of St John.  In compensation the Hospital gave them a smaller site opposite, an area which now closely matches the memorial rose gardens at the front of the Botanic gardens.  A memorial plaque (1931) on the wall to the right of the Danby Gate (ie the main entrance) record these facts.

At the expulsion the Hospital took over the second cemetery, and it joined the first as a Christian cemetery for the dead of the hospital.  Masses of bones were discovered in 1641 on the site of the second cemetery, when the Botanic Gardens were being set up.

Christ Church Meadow and Deadman's walk - the path of Jewish funeral processions.

Jewish Tour of Oxford 2005 002.jpgOn entering Christ Church Meadow through the gate at Rose lane, and turning right, the path quickly reaches the old south east corner of the medieval city walls, and follows the wall and the back of Merton College.

This path is called Deadman's walk, and is by tradition the path that Jewish funeral processions took from the Jewry to their "Jew's Garden".  The tradition is supported by the fact that it is the most direct route to the cemetery from the Jewry, and would have avoided any difficulties presented by processing through the city centre.

But against this picturesque tradition, recorded by the historian Cecil Roth, is the fact that they would have had to cross two wide water courses (which I have seen partly excavated) running up to arches in foot of Merton College wall, one of which was big enough for the passage of a rowing boat!

Whatever the truth, the name has nothing to do with the Jewish funeral processions, or even the Royalist spies alleged to be shot against the wall.  It is almost certainly an adapted ancient field name, relating to a tumulus (a burial mound) not far off in the Meadow. 

Merton College - the Ascension Day Cross, Beks Hall, and "the counting house of Jacob the Jew.

Jewish Tour of Oxford 2005 004.jpgAt the end of this immediate run of wall is a gate, at the junction of Merton and Corpus Christi Colleges, giving access to a path -  Merton Grove, one of the most picturesque spots in Oxford, which itself gives access to Merton Street, and the entrance of Merton College itself.

On walking along this path there is on the right, and over the railings, an area of grass at the back of the chapel, the site of the former college brew house and latrines, and running down to the Grove building.  This was the area on which stood the infamous Ascension Day cross mentioned earlier

After the Ascension Day riot in 1268 the king ordered the Jewish community to pay for an elaborate marble cross to be set up opposite the synagogue.  Eventually he decided against this and had it set up in Merton College.  It was by all accounts lavish; of marble trimmed in gold with a crucified Jesus, and a representation of the Virgin Mary.  There was, at the foot of the cross, an inscription in Latin belabouring the "guilty" Jews.  The cross survived until it fell down in the 15th century.  I have in my possession a chunk of green purbeck marble from an excavation, which could be an enigmatic relic of this cross.

Entering the front quadrangle of the college itself, and turning back to look at the front range of buildings, the building making up staircases 6 and 7, stands on the site of Bek's Hall, an academic residence let out by Jacob of London, a leading Jewish financier of his day.

Bek's hall was sold to Bishop Walter de Merton, the founder of Merton college, in a historic property deal, which meant that one of Oxford's Jews had participated in the foundation of Oxford's first true college. In 1266/7 the property was sold to the Bishop by an increasing infirm Jacob.

The contract (or starr) survives, and is written in both Latin by a scribe, and in Hebrew in the shaky and weak hand of Jacob.  It is the oldest collegiate document that survives.

Going through the corner of the front quad, and turning right into the famous Mob Quad, the famous "counting house" of Jacob the Jew, also known as the Muniment Room of Merton, can be seen.

This is the old college strong room, it has a very unusual steep pitched ashlar roof, containing a stone vaulted security chamber, approached through a stair turret - but the vault is not open to visitors.  The building could have conceivably been used by Jacob as a security room, but it is more likely to be a college strong room, as these elsewhere are also on upper floors, whereas Jewish strong rooms where usually fortified stone basements, underneath a dwelling.  But just to complicate matters, the stone corner of a 12th century house is preserved in a pit under the manhole cover just yards away...

St Aldates, or Great Jewry Street - The synagogue, Talmudic academy, and Jewish halls.

On leaving Merton, St Aldates and the old Jewry, can be reached by returning to the meadow, and following the wall, and the boundary of Christ Church westward - by far the most pleasant route. Alternatively more rapid progress can be made via Oriel Square, and thence left into Bear Lane and Blue Boar Street.

Going via Christ Church Meadow, St Aldates is reached through the Memorial Gardens.  Heading up the street an impression of the former Jewish quarter can be gained.  St Aldates stands on the ground rising to Carfax, up from the Norman bridge of Grandpont (the remains of which are incorporated into Folly Bridge) and the former marsh and flood plains of the Thames or Isis.  The junction with Brewer street marks the old South Gate of the city, and indeed the retaining wall of Pembroke College in Brewer Street is part of the original city wall leading away from the gate.

Jewish properties started from here on up the hill, with the majority, and the most superior houses (or halls as they were called) being concentrated at the head of the street where Carfax, the old Saxon centre of the city is formed.

The synagogue

CHCH.jpgThe site of the former synagogue is the first major feature of the Jewry to be reached, as the slight hill is climbed.  It is on the right of the street, where the North-west corner tower of Christ Church's famous Tom Quad now is, over looking the junction with Pembroke Street and the St Aldate’s Coffee House.

The synagogue was founded in circa 1228 by Copin of Worcester, a wealthy benefactor.  It was not a purpose built structure.  Instead it was an existing town house adopted for the purpose.  All these houses in Oxford were long narrow rectangular affairs with a narrow street frontage.

The synagogue would have been in an upper room at the back well away from the street, and from attracting unwanted attention to itself, though recent evidence suggests it could also have been at cellar level. The street frontage would have had a shop, and the cellar could have been a tavern.  The access to the synagogue itself would have been through a narrow passage or entry, archaeological remains of narrow lanes across Tom Quad have been excavated and one I have seen on the north side of the quad and could have led to the synagogue and resounded to Jewish feet.  Examples of these entries survive on the south side of the High Street.

After the expulsion the synagogue became either a pub called the Dolphin, or an oratory (chapel) for Burnel's Inn, an academical hall which for a while was called "Burnel's Synagogue".. 

Moyses Hall

Opposite and on the left, at 13 Pembroke street is a 17th century house (known as "House Thirteen" to Pembroke graduates) now belonging to Pembroke.  The site of this house is approximate to that of Moyses Hall, which was the home of the first Rabbi Moses who lived in Oxford, and also Jacob of Oxford and Lombard of Cricklade.  In its day it was a large property with three shops, with first floor dwelling areas above called solars, and a garden.

Turning back up St Aldates there were a number of other Jewish houses on the left hand side of the street, going up the hill.  The most important and substantial properties were however at the very top of the street, on either side of the street.  These were mostly substantial luxury dwellings of stone, being "first floor halls".

Jacob's Hall

At the very top of the street where St Aldates becomes Carfax, is 121 St Aldates, better known as the Abbey National Building Society.  This property the historic site of Jacob's Hall, in its day one of the largest and most luxurious residences in Oxford.  The property was L shaped and had a second frontage in adjacent Queen's street.

The property belonged to Jacob of Oxford, and after his death to his son Moses, between 1270 and 1279.  Jacob was an important financier, and a patron of Jewish learning.  He was a member of Oxford's distinguished line of rabbis and scholars. 

The balance of evidence is such that if there was a Talmudic academy in Oxford (which there almost certainly was) then one of its most likely sites would have been here.

There were striking subterranean remains of Jacob's Hall until the early 20th century, in the form of substantial Gothic cellars, said to be "perhaps some of the most curious ranges of cellars in the whole of England".  The cellars were very extensive and linked to other cellars in the street.  It was possible, until early this century, to cross the street underground, and emerge from other cellars some way further down the other side of St Aldates!  Additionally, there was a strange sub-cellar or passageway, under the main range of cellars.  All this could have been in aid of storage of goods and valuables, as well as to provide other means of escape, or passage to other Jewish houses.

These historical associations, as well as its central location, inspired it choice as the location of the L'Chaim Society, until 1995. 

The Houses of Moses ben Isaac, and David Of Oxford (now Oxford Town Hall).

Town Hall1.jpgOpposite, and going down St Aldates, is Oxford Town Hall.  The town hall has strong Jewish associations, as it is entirely built on expropriated Jewish property.  The upper half of the town hall is built on the house of Moses ben Isaac.  His property was taken in 1229 for use as the Yeld Hall or Guild Hall.  His house was reconstructed in 1270 by the city.

The lower half of the town hall stands mostly on the property of David of Oxford.  When he died in 1228 the Monarch took his property and gave it to the Master of the Rolls in London, and its income was used to help maintain the House of Converts in London.  The building itself may have also been used as a Domus Conversorum, though there has been some debate over this.  Evidence which suggests that convert Jewish scribes stayed in town after the expulsion now tends to support this.

The building survived until 1751, when it was taken down to make way for the classical town hall, which has now been superseded by the Gothic town hall (see illustration).  The drawing of the building shows an old stone built first floor hall dwelling, with a tower inserted at one end at a later date.  If this was a house of converts it could be speculated that the tower at the end provides an oratory or chapel for the converts.  Jewish converts were required to reside in their places of maintenance, in a life of strict religious discipline.

Various stone remains of this or adjacent Jewish buildings were discovered when the present Town Hall was being constructed in 1893, and include elaborate stone traceries, door ways, and an elaborate pillared cresset or lamp stone (c. 1130 - 1160) which may well have provided lighting in one of the halls of the wealthiest Jews in Oxford.

Additionally, near the corner of Blue Boar Street, a bank of triangular stone "ashtar holes" or pigeon holes, were discovered built into a cellar wall.  It was claimed that these were used by a wealthy Jewish financier to keep his (or her) contracts or starrim.  This is not an improbable claim as Christian monks at great monasteries were at times in the habit of placing the most precious of manuscripts in recesses in the walls, so why not the Jews of Oxford?

In way of a foot note, I asked one of the recent Mayors of Oxford, a man who has been a great supporter of the Jewish community in Oxford, what he thought of the fact that his Town Hall was built almost entirely on confiscated Jewish property.  To which he replied diplomatically, if rather stiffly, that he preferred to concentrate on the more positive aspects of Jewish history in Oxford!

Oxford Castle and the ‘Jew’s Mount’– Castle Street / New Road

The site of Oxford Castle is important in the Jewish story of Oxford, but until recently you would have had to have been a guest of Her Majesty’s Prison Service to have access to the site.  The site has now been made into a major new heritage site.

The Castle has very strong links to Oxford Jews and would have been frequented by the Jews on a regular basis and its buildings – especially the Keep and towers - would have been familiar to them, inside and out.  Also some of the remaining buildings and features are among the few surviving from the time of Oxford’s medieval Jews and would be recognisable to them to day if they were able to travel in time.

The Jews as a group were the literal possessions of the King and under the protection and authority of the King.  This authority and protection was usually mediated by the Sheriff and the Constable or Keeper of the Castle. The Sheriff would take over-all responsibility for the local Jews and the Constable or Keeper of the Castle would provide physical protection for the Jews.  Jews tended to settle in the proximity of Royal Castles as their major refuge in times of many Jewish lives were saved by this recourse to the various Royal castles up and down the country.

The Constable at Oxford was especially important for the Oxford Jews as unusually, he was not just protector, but he took over some of the functions of the Sheriff in managing the Jews of the town.  This combination of roles was principally in the reign of Henry III and Imbert Pugeys was a notable Constable in this dual mode.

His jurisdiction over the Jews was much to the annoyance of the University, as he claimed priority in settling any disputes between Jews and scholars, though later the King was to allow the Chancellor of the University some say in such disputes.  It must be remembered that the Jews of Oxford were neither directly under the power of the Town or the University, but the King and his representatives and that they as a group predated the foundation of the University.

In recognition of his duties towards the Jews in 1253, Imbert Pugeys, the Constable of Oxford Castle was granted, ‘that part of the mills below the Castle of Oxford which belongs to the King, and all the issues of the same part, and the keeping of the King’s Jewry in Oxford.’  It may also be recalled that the surviving St George’s Tower over looked these mills close to the tower and was part of  their protection.  A mill is depicted in a picture of 1814 as immediately adjacent and adjoining the tower

It is possible that the Oxford chirographer chest would have been lodged at the Castle as it was a secure location and royal property.  The chest was used to administer and lodge all Jewish bonds and transactions and was very important in medieval Jewish life.  The Oxford chest was one of the original chirograph chests.

Jews sought the protection of the Constable in 1244 during riots raised against the Jews by students who attacked and robbed Jewish houses.  The Constable intervened and threw 45 students in the town Jail at Bocarda and in the Castle.

It is more than likely that the Jews took refuge in Oxford Castle on a number of occasions as this was the standard recourse of Jews.  They were almost certainly there in 1141 and 1244 and during the Baron’s War.  Jews would usually take refuge in the Keep, the main stronghold of their local castle.  Sometimes they would use a subsidiary strong hold such as Clifford’s Tower at York, which is infamous for the mass suicide of its Jews in 1190 and partly stemmed from the belief of the Jews in the tower that the keeper of the castle was to betray them. The connection of Jews with the keeps of castles was so strong, that some were even named after them - the keep of Winchester Castle was actually called the ‘Jew’s Tower’ as early as the 13th century. Thus the Jews of Oxford may have been no strangers to the keep on the Castle Mound or other towers and defenses about the site.

If Oxford Jews were accused of breaking the law they would frequently be imprisoned in the Castle.  In 1236 the Jewish community removed a child who had been baptised, who was possibly the child of the convert John of Oxford, and spirited the child away to Exeter in an effort to keep the child in the faith.  As a result several Jews were arrested by William le Bretun, Justice of the Jews, and they were made over to the constable of Oxford Castle for imprisonment before trial.

Imprisoned Jews were held in various locations of their local castles, usually in a tower – graffiti used to survive in the location where they were kept in the keep of Canterbury Castle.  Dr Plot mentioned that in his time, 1672, that many of the stones on the north east staircase of the Canterbury castle keep were inscribed with "versicles" from the Psalms in Hebrew.  These may well have been incised during a time when the Jews took shelter in the castle, perhaps during the Barons' War, or when the community was imprisoned in the castle in 1278. At Hereford there was even a special prison tower, the ‘Jew’s Prison’, build for them, which was below the ring wall of the castle keep. During mass imprisonment’s at the Tower of London, Jews were even kept in the Elephant House at the Tower and other ad hoc locations in the precinct!

The Jew’s Mount or Jew’s Hill

The traditional link of the Oxford Jews with Oxford Castle is evidenced in the Jew’s Mount which used to survive at the Castle site.  The Jews Mount was an artificial hill, described by Tovey, a famous Oxford historian of the Jews, ‘as a small tract of rising ground’.  It seems to have been constructed of the surplus earth thrown up by the digging of the Castle Ditch.  The Jew’s Mount was north east of the Castle Hill, in line with the City Wall.  It is also linked with another artificial mound called Mount Pelham.  Wood, the Oxford historian, held that it had been made by the local Jews in 1141, under the compulsion of King Stephen.  Tovey, however, relates another local tradition that it is named after a number of converted Jews were burnt to death for reverting to Judaism

There is no clear historical evidence for these traditions, though it is now surmised that both mounts were raised during sieges of the Castle, which does link to the King Stephen tradition.  Tovey thought that the name arose out of the Juis or pit at the foot of the mount that was used for local ordeals by water.  Cecil Roth thought that there may have been a special fortification for the Jews at the site, as was the case at other castles – this is an entirely plausible explanation.  Evidence of other local Jewish place name traditions across the country, have frequently proved surprisingly accurate, but not infallible.  Therefore it is possible that the site of the Jew’s Mount is an important link with Oxford’s Jewish heritage.

The Jews Mount was destroyed in 1790 to make way for the new canal in Oxford.

Jacob's Coffee Houses, High Street Oxford.

The circuit of Jewish Oxford can be completed by turning right, into the famous High Street, and continuing down past St Mary's Church, and the Queen's College, to the junction with Queens Lane.  Here is the Queens Lane Coffee House, and almost directly opposite is 84 High Street, formerly famous as Cooper's Marmalade, and now a teddy bear Shop!

Both are sites of Jewish Coffee Houses.  In 84 High Street it is recorded on a marble plaque (to be seen on the right high up on the wall as one walks in the shop) That in 1651 one Jacob set up a coffee shop, the first in England on the site.  It was established in what was then the Angel Inn, one of the principal coaching Inns in Oxford.

In 1654 Cirques Jobson (who may be identical with our Jacob) set up shop across the street, on what is now the site of the Queens Lane Coffee House.  It might be appropriate to finish ones Jewish tour here with a celebratory coffee, remembering, contrary to the advertising on the canopy, that it is an exaggeration to claim that there has been a coffee shop on the site since 1654.  Unfortunately the proprietor, in his enthusiasm about my historical disclosures to him, over-looked strict history.

MISCELLANEOUS SIGHTS.

If one has time and energy there are a number of other sites worth seeing in Oxford.

In St Mary's Church on the High Street, there is a very discreet plaque recording that many of the German Lutheran congregation who use the church were former German Jews who converted in consequence of the war.  A plaque, which hints at some very sad individual stories in the wake of the Holocaust.  It is to be found on the left hand side of the Chancel arch, under the organ loft.

At Brasenose College Chapel is an interesting depiction in a stained glass window of St Hugh of Lincoln, holding a distinctive pink model of Lincoln Cathedral.  St Hugh was an enlightened and compassionate man, and a saviour of whole communities of English Jews.  In the Middle Ages, Oxford was part of the Bishopric of Lincoln.  The figure of St Hugh is a main panel, on the very right hand side of the window, situated on the south side of the ante-chapel.

The most difficult Jewish sight to find in Oxford (and perhaps almost anywhere) is the ruined entrance of the former Osney Abbey, near Osney Island in Oxford.  The entrance was reputedly the place where Robert of Reading met his death at the stake in 1222.  A plaque set up in 1931, to the left of the entrance records this fact, and reads: "Near this stone in Osney Abbey Robert of Reading otherwise Haggai of Oxford suffered for his faith on Sunday 17th April 1222 AD corresponding to 4 Iyyar 4982 A.M."

It is a sad, derelict, and paradoxically atmospheric and picturesque spot, set before the burnt out remains of Osney Mill, and accumulated iron junk.  It took me three years to find the place, it is on private property - a barge mooring - at the end of Swan Street, which is left off the Botley road, just between the Railway station and the canal, before the turning to Osney Island.

In The Bodleian Library there is one of the finest collections of Hebrew Manuscripts in the World, including the first volume of the Mishnah Torah complete with Maimonides' signature.  Hebrew manuscripts are frequently on display in the newly refurbished exhibition room in the Old Schools quadrangle of the Old Bodleian Library (open daily, except Saturday afternoons, and all Sunday).  Bona fide scholars can get temporary readers permits, and call up most Manuscripts from the main catalogue, as they desire.

The Ashmolean Museum, on Beaumont Street is host to one of the most important, and enigmatic, Anglo-Jewish relics, the so called Bodleian Bowl.  This bronze three legged pot, with a Hebrew inscription around its middle, is though to have come from the Colchester Jewry.  It may reasonably be thought to be a gift from one of the sons of the great Rabbi Yehiel of Paris, to the Colchester community, and has a religious, perhaps funereal use.  (See Colchester, and feature article the "The Bodleian Bowl")

It may be found within half a minutes walk, left of the main entrance, on the ground floor a few yards behind the famous "Alfred Jewel", and close to the door of the Archaeology Library.

jtrails logo © Copyright Marcus Roberts (2005)

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