Medieval Jewish Settlements in Oxford

The Crypt at Oxford Castle – built on Anglo-Saxon foundations

The first Jewish settlers arrived in Oxford not long after the Norman Conquest, around 1075AD residing in the commercial heart of the city at St Aldates which became known as Great Jewry Street, close to the original C8th oxen ford from which the settlement got its name and inside the line of the Norman city walls shown on the map below. They engaged in the usual commercial activities allowed during the medieval period – trading, medicine, pawn-broking and money lending. It is estimated there were around 90 Jewish families in Oxford in this phase. They were the only Jewish community mentioned in the Domesday book of 1086.

The Jewry was located on St Aldates within the city walls

Why did the Jews settle in Oxford at this time? It is thought that William the Conqueror encouraged Jewish re-settlement from Rouen in order to build a network of trading links and credit throughout his domains. They may have been encouraged or compelled to move and settled first in London and then moved to towns like Oxford where they were royal wards – under the direct protection of the monarch and exempt from certain tolls. The presence of the castle may have been another factor in the choice of Oxford as Robert D’Oyly held it for the crown and therefore it offered some protection to them as royal wards. In return the king could extract special taxes or ‘tallages’ from his Jewish wards and they were often under pressure to assist the monarch in raising funds for building projects, royal dowries or military campaigns.

There is evidence of good relations between the first Norman kings and their Jewish communities; William Rufus saw the value in fostering the Jewish presence in England and prevented the pogroms seen in France and the Rhineland which preceded the First Crusade of 1096 and engaged in religious debates at court where he suggested he might convert to Judaism if they had the better argument. Henry I continued to support the community and reiterated their privileges and protections but during the Anarchy when trade was severely disrupted and the highways became dangerous and lawless, many Jews abandoned trading enterprises in favour of money-lending in an effort to survive the instability of the civil war.

Aerial view of the Carfax showing the site of Aaron’s house which was burned by King Stephen in 1142

Aaron son of Issac had a property on the junction of St Aldates with the Carfax (under the current Edinburgh Woollen Mill Shop) which was burned during King Stephen’s attack on Oxford in 1142. Stephen used threats to extort money from the Jews of Oxford who had already paid Matilda to fund her campaign before she was besieged by Stephen at Oxford Castle. He threatened to burn the whole of the Jewish settlement to the ground if they didn’t finance him. It must have been a very insecure and frightening experience for the Oxford families as lawlessness was rife and the usual protections offered by the crown were withdrawn. If ‘God and his angels slept’ for the Christian community, it could only have been even harder for the Jewish communities to endure twenty years of fractured government, sporadic violence and constant economic upheaval.

Thankfully the re-establishment of firm centralised rule under Henry II enabled the Jewish community in Oxford, as elsewhere to recover from the hard years of civil strife but they were still under the threat of religious persecution and during the C12th many Jewish communities in England and across Europe were massacred due to false accusations of child murder. The ‘blood libel’ began in Norwich in 1144, when a disaffected Jew concocted a sinister story of a Jewish rite where a Christian child was abducted and crucified during the festival of Passover. Rumours spread and re-surfaced whenever a Christian child went missing or was murdered and the local population looked for a scapegoat. There were massacres of Jews in various cities during the 1180s and 90s, most notoriously at Clifford’s Tower in York where the victims committed suicide rather than surrender to the mob that had encircled them. Jews were also accused of poisoning wells and desecrating the host.

The 25 towns which held the archae

Crusading fervour did nothing to assist relations between Christians and Jews during this period. Richard I continued to offer nominal protection and established special Jewish exchequers begun in his father’s reign to protect records of Jewish property and money lending as each massacre had provided a useful excuse for burning evidence of all debts owed to the victims of the violence. 25 towns were to hold ‘archae’ – official chests with Christian and Jewish key holders where copies of all Jewish transactions were lodged for safe keeping. The archa in Oxford was held at the castle. Richard would need his Jewish financiers even more when he was captured on his return for the Holy Land and his mother had to raise an enormous ransom to free him. The Jewish financiers were expected, once more, to pay large sums to the crown to effect his release.

Archa – a lockable chest which held copies of all Jewish transactions

King John was equally persistent in taxing the Jews to pay for the dowry of his daughter, Princess Joan and the crushing Bristol Tallage fell heavily on the Jewish community, leaving many impoverished and without recourse to justice.

1207 Confirmation of Henry I’s liberties to the Jewish population in the reign of King John

Due to the preservation of monastic records by the Oxford colleges, we have an especially good record of the Jewish community in Oxford during the medieval period, including a roster of all Jewish households in the C13th which recorded about 250 individuals and provides a fascinating window into their world. The remains of a vaulted ceiling can be found under the current town hall which belonged to one of the five large properties in the Jewry. Excavations on St Aldates have unearthed various objects which belonged to Oxford’s Jewish residents such as a stone lamp, storage jars and the base of a stone cross with Old Testaments scenes. More recent excavations have found evidence of kosher food practices.

Between 1170 – 1220 there were around 100 Jewish people in a city of about 2,000, and they owned perhaps as many as 100 to 150 properties.

Coppin of Worcester founded a Jewish synagogue on the site of the current Tom Quad at Christ Church in 1228 for the Jewish residents and they acquired land to the east of the town for a Jewish cemetery. There is a memorial plaque in the rose garden beside the Botanical Gardens which marks the site.

Jacob of Oxford bought the land for Merton College, one of the earliest colleges in Oxford, was established in the 1260s. Balliol College and Christ Church were also endowed with properties that were originally owned by the city’s medieval Jews. Students would often pawn their books to local Jewish moneylenders in order to fund their studies and entertainments. In 1244 there was a riot amongst the students over how many of their books were being held as surety for their debts. The chancellor of Oxford, Robert Grosseteste set up a university-run loan chest, called St Frideswide Chest, to enable students to borrow money without jeopardising their studies and banned them from pawning their books to the Jewish money lenders.

David, Licoricia and Asher

David of Oxford was a highly successful businessman with a large property on St Aldates under the site of the current Town Hall. He sought divorce from his wife Muriel as she was unable to give him children and after a lengthy legal dispute, which even involved the intervention of King Henry III who prohibited the Beth Din from opposing the marriage, he married Licoricia of Winchester who’s father was a wealthy member of Winchester’s jewry. Licoricia was already a widow with three sons and a daughter when they married and she would become the most wealthy and influential Jewish woman in society. Although her marriage to David only lasted two years before his death in 1244, she had a son called Asher by him who would leave his only mark on history. Licoricia was confined the Tower of London whilst the crown established the worth of David’s estate and she was compelled to pay substantial death duties in order to inherit his estate (part of which paid for the construction of the shrine of St Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey). Licoricia was an adept business women and returned to Winchester where she continued to finance the court and royal family for thirty years and became a conduit for the Jewish population to have their grievances heard by the king as she was often at his court when he came to Winchester. There were several Jewish business women operating like Licoricia at this time. Sadly Licoricia was to become the victim of her own success. She was found be her daughter Belia with multiple stab wounds in her home along with her Christian maid Alice of Bicton in 1277. Three men were implicated in her murder but none were ever tried or brought to justice for her murder.

Her son Asher also suffered from persecution and was imprisoned with his brothers during coin clipping arrests, leaving his lament on the walls of his prison cell at Winchester Castle.

The new statue of Licoricia and Asher which is due to erected in Jewry St Winchester in 2022

Once the university was established, the Jewish community acted as money lenders to the scholars and landlords, with an estimated 10% of rented rooms being owned by Jewish landlords. Archaeological excavations in the Jewry area suggest that some of the Jewish residents may have been engaged in producing coinage and that there was a secret tunnel which connected their properties in St Aldates to the Castle – perhaps in order to transport coinage there for safe keeping. Oxford’s Jews also sought protection within the castle walls on several occasions when anti-Semitic violence threatened them.

‘Excavations in 2015 from the old Jewish quarter included vessels that had been used for smelting metals, supporting theories that the Oxford Jewish community was involved in both the procurement of bullion for the Royal Mint and the actual production of coins. Earlier excavations revealed that houses in the Jewish quarter were connected by underground passageways, possibly designed for the safe traffic of money to and from the castle mint.’

Pressure on Jewish communities was becoming more intense due to a number of factors. Christian money-lenders began to operate in competition, taxes were heavily applied and new laws were passed in 1269 which limited Jewish property ownership to their own houses and those rented to other Jews. Their children could no longer inherit their property and in 1275 they could no longer lend money. They were being backed into an impossible situation and many resorted to crime in order to survive.

In 1278 293 Jews were convicted of coin clipping and were hanged in the Tower of London. In 1290 Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from the country by 1st November. Those who remained either converted to Christianity or kept their identities secret. Many thousands fled to Europe but faced further hardship and persecution there as other European countries followed suit in expelling their Jewish populations too.

It was a sad end to the thriving Jewish community in Oxford which had benefitted both Jewish and Christian townspeople alike. Many scholars had learned Hebrew from the community including Roger Bacon who had great admiration for the Jewish scholars he engaged with. Students had been glad of the credit extended to them and for Jewish landlords who had provided accommodation during their studies. The Jewish business people of both genders had brought prosperity to the town and the crown had ruthlessly taxed and exploited their royal wards over several hundred years from the Norman Conquest onwards; often turning to their Jewish subjects at times of financial crisis and using their wealth to finance royal dowries, military campaigns and building works.

The Jewish population certainly left a fascinating legacy in Oxford in terms of physical remains and artefacts but also in terms of learning and economic achievements which add to the rich history of the town.,outbreaks%20of%20anti-Semitic%20violence%20threatened%20the%20Jewish%20community.,Bundy%20jury%20of%2012%20Jews%20which…%20More%20


Tags: ,

3 Responses to “Medieval Jewish Settlements in Oxford”

  1. giaconda Says:

    Reblogged this on murreyandblue.


  2. Leofranc Holford-Strevens Says:

    >Balliol College and Christ Church were also endowed with properties that were originally owned by the city’s medieval Jews.< I understand what is meant, but Christ Church did not exist, even as Cardinal's College, before the sixteenth century.


    • giaconda Says:

      Christ Church was build on land from St Frideswide’s Priory after it was suppressed during the reformation. As you say, you understanda what was meant as I mentioned the Jewish synagogue which was sited where Tom Quad now stands during the period in question.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: