23 September 2022

Finding the locations
of the two former
synagogues in York

There was a synagogue at No 3 Aldwark, York, from 1892 until 1975 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

During my visit to York last week, I went in search of the site of the mediaeval synagogue, which survived in the heart of the centre for 100 years, from the massacre at Clifford’s Tower in 1190 until the expulsion of Jews from England in 1290, and for the location of the synagogue that stood on Aldwark from 1892 until 1975.

The massacre of the Jews of York in 1190, which I was writing about last night, was a horrific catalogue of violence and murder driven by religious intolerance and greed. It was sadly only one of countless incidents of mob-violence against Jewish communities across England and Western Europe in the Middle Ages.

After the pogrom, the city of York was punished with a heavy fine, but by then the instigators had escaped and no individuals were ever punished for the crimes of that fateful night.

Clifford’s Tower, the scene of the massacre, was rebuilt 60 years after the massacre, but the earth mound on which it stands may still contain evidence from 1190.

Jubbergate, off Parliament Street, was once known as Jewe Bretagate and may have been the site of Jewish homes and businesses (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

A new Jewish community was established or re-established in York soon after the massacre in Clifford’s Tower, although it never regained its former importance. This community remained in the city for a century until 1290, when Edward I expelled all Jews from England.

It is likely that the noted Aaron of York or Aaron fil Josce, the financier and chief rabbi of England, was a son of Josce of York, one of the leading Jewish figures in York at the time of the massacre. It is probable that Josce and Samuel Hoppecole held the land in London on which the chief synagogue was built.

Jubbergate, off Parliament Street, was once known as Jewe Bretagate. It stands at the entrance to a bustling market and, as the name suggests, this may once have been the location of Jewish homes and businesses.

The building with the Next shop at No 32 Coney Street stands on the site of a 13th century synagogue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

As the Jewish community in York recovered after the massacre in 1190, Coney Street was at the heart of Jewish life in mediaeval York. The building that houses the Next shop at No 32 Coney Street stands on the site of a 13th century synagogue, although it is not known what the building looked like.

Several prominent Jews in York had their homes nearby. Aaron of York and his father-in-law, Leo Episcopus, were considered to be amongst the 12 most wealthy Jews in England in 1219.

Aaron in particular flourished between 1236 and 1243, and during that time he was appointed as the Presbyter Judaeorum or senior representative of the English Jews in 1237, in succession to Josce of London. He did not hold that office for more than a year, and he was succeeded in 1237 by Elias of London.

Henry III went to war in 1243, and in his absence Aaron of York was charged with transgressions against the King, although these are not recorded. He was sent to prison and left only when he paid a fine of £100. The following year, he was accused of forging a deed and was summoned before the King. Under the threat of imprisonment, he paid the sum of 30,000 marks in silver to the King and 200 gold marks as a gift to the Queen.

At this time, the king was desperate for money for his war in France, leaving Aaron of York in ruins. The king realised that he was no more use to him and dismissed him from his office.

In later years, the Jewish area of Coney Street became the site of the George Inn (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Jewish community in mediaeval York had its own cemetery outside the city walls at a place that became known as Jewbury.

York’s Jewish community was in serious decline by the 1270s, and Jews in England faced significant antisemitism under the rule of Edward I.

The property next to Aaron’s house was owned by his nephew, Josce, who was hanged in London in the late 1270s. Many Jews were executed during this time for alleged crimes of coin forging and clipping – undoubtedly a pretence to confiscate their wealth.

When Jews were expelled from England in 1290, the Archbishop of York, John le Romeyn, warned the Christians of York not to harm any Jews on pain of excommunication. By then, only six Jewish households still remained in York, including one on Coney Street, which was the home of a Jew named Bonamicus.

In later years, the Jewish area of Coney Street became the site of a mediaeval coaching inn, the George Inn.

No 3 Aldwark, once a joiner’s shop, officially became a synagogue in 1892 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Jews were only permitted to return to England in the 17th century. Jews began to return to York in significant numbers in the late 19th century, and the Jewish Chronicle reported in 1892 that a small number of Jews have recently settled in York.

No 3 Aldwark, once a joiner’s shop, officially became a synagogue in 1892. The Jewish Chronicle reported on 23 September 1892, that the Jews in York and had applied to Chief Rabbi for facilities to celebrate New Year and Day of Atonement.

The Chief Rabbi presented the new synagogue with Sepher and Shofar, and the report in the Jewish Chronicle noted, ‘Divine service will therefore be held on the New Year in York for the first time, in all probability, since the expulsion in 1290.’

The Aldwark Synagogue served the Jewish community in York from 1892 until 1975. Jewish community numbers had reached 124 by 1903. However, work in the joiner’s shop continued and the business and the synagogue seem to have been closely related. Work would stop in the shop so the joiner’s family could worship as well.

When the joiner’s shop closed in 1975, the synagogue closed too. The York Hebrew Congregation had declined in numbers and it affiliated to Leeds United Hebrew Congregation for religious services and burial rights. The building now houses the RAF Association.

For almost four decades, from 1975 until 2014, York had no synagogue, although 165 people in the city identified themselves as Jewish in the 2011 census.

York Liberal Jewish Community holds monthly services in Friargate Quaker Meeting House (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

A new Liberal Jewish community was formed in York in 2014, when the York Jewish Liberal Community organised the first regular Jewish services in York for almost 40 years.

York Liberal Jewish Community has one Friday night service and one Saturday morning service each month, with about 60 people attending the monthly services in Friargate Quaker Meeting House.

The services follow the Liberal tradition, with men and women taking part on an equal basis and prayers in English and Hebrew. Services are either community-led or led by a visiting student rabbi from Leo Baeck College. Services are held on all the major holidays and festivals, including the High Holy Days and a communal Passover seder.

The community is fundraising to hire a part-time rabbi for York, who would become the first appointed rabbi in York since 1290.

A shadow of a Mezuzah? … a doorpost at the former synagogue at No 3 Aldwark, York (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Yesterday: The massacre at Clifford’s Tower

Tomorrow: The mediaeval Jewish cemetery at Jewbury

Shabbas Shalom

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Friday 23 September 2022

Saint Ebbe’s Church, Pennyfarthing Lane, in central Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

Before today begins, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

This week I am reflecting each morning on a church, chapel, or place of worship in Oxford, which I visited earlier this month.

In my prayer diary this week I am reflecting in these ways:

1, One of the readings for the morning;

2, Reflecting on a church, chapel or place of worship in Oxford;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary, ‘Pray with the World Church.’

Saint Ebbe’s Church describes itself as a ‘conservative evangelical’ church, identifying with groupings such as ReNew, Reform and Gafcon (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

The Gospel reading provided in the lectionary in Common Worship for the Eucharist today:

Luke 9: 18-22:

18 Once when Jesus was praying in private and his disciples were with him, he asked them, ‘Who do the crowds say I am?’

19 They replied, ‘Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, that one of the prophets of long ago has come back to life.’

20 ‘But what about you?’ he asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’

Peter answered, ‘God’s Messiah.’

21 Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone. 22 And he said, ‘The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.’

The 12th century Norman doorway was restored and placed at the west end of the church in the 19th century (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Saint Ebbe’s Church, Pennyfarthing Lane, Oxford:

Saint Ebbe’s Church in central Oxford describes itself as a ‘conservative evangelical’ church, identifying with groupings such as ReNew, Reform and Gafcon.

The church stands on the site of one dedicated to Saint Æbbe before 1005. Most sources suggest that this was the Northumbrian St Æbbe of Coldingham, but it has been suggested that Æbbe of Oxford was a different saint. The name was first recorded in about 1005 when the church was granted to Eynsham Abbey by Ealdorman Æthelmær the Stout and it was already recorded as the ‘ancient Saint Ebbe’s.’

The earlier church had a nave and north aisle under the same roof, a chancel and north chapel, with a tower and north and south porches. The nave dated from the 12th century or earlier. The north wall was 15th century, as was the chapel.

The Franciscans arrived in Oxford in 1224 and settled beside the church, outside the city wall, where they built a large friary, Greyfriars, that completely overshadowed Saint Ebbe’s.

The Franciscans were given permission to make a ‘little gate’ in the city wall, to give them access to the city, and this is reserved in the name, Littlegate Street. An Oxford friar, Roger Bacon, was a scholar and scientist whose work included research into light, lenses and gunpowder. He died in 1294 and is buried in the parish. He gives his name to Roger Bacon Lane, where the church offices are now located.

The old Saint Ebbe’s Rectory in Paradise Square stands in the last remaining part of the grounds of the friary, once ‘a large plot of ground partly enclosed by a rivulet and whereon was so pleasant a grove of trees, divided into several walks, ambits and recesses, as also a garden and orchard adjoining, that by the citizens of Oxon was called Paradise.’

The mediaeval synagogue in Oxford was established in 1228 close to Saint Ebbe’s Church, opposite Pennyfarthing Lane.

Part of the church tower fell down in 1648 and the whole church was thoroughly repaired in 1696. However, due to its dangerous condition, the building was demolished in 1813, with the exception of the tower and the south-west corner.

The present church is the result of major rebuilding in 1814-1816. The church was designed by William Fisher and was paid for mainly by the Bishop of Oxford and Oxford colleges.

The East Window is a memorial to Thomas Valpy French, who was Rector until 1850 and who went to Lahore in Pakistan as a missionary, becoming the first Bishop of Lahore.

For centuries, Saint Ebbe’s Parish was a poorer part of the city. In the 19th century, poorer districts of Oxford, such as Saint Ebbe’s, tended to have the most pubs and beerhouses. Although Saint Ebbe’s Street is very short, in 1835 it had five pubs, of which the Royal Blenheim is the only one still surviving, and Church Street (now Pennyfarthing Place) had three pubs.

Saint Ebbe’s was restored in 1862-1868, and again in 1904. During these alterations, the diocesan architect GE Street added a south aisle and created a north aisle by arcading, and the Norman doorway of the 12th century was restored and placed at the west end.

The Church of Holy Trinity, Blackfriars Road, was demolished in 1957, having been deemed unsafe, and its parish was merged with Saint Ebbe’s. In 1961, the parish of Saint Peter-le-Bailey merged with Saint Ebbe’s when Saint Peter’s Church was transferred to Saint Peter’s College for use as the college chapel.

A slum clearance programme in the 1950s and 1960s saw many residents of the area relocated to newer housing estates on the periphery of Oxford. The gasworks beside the church were demolished in 1960, and the surrounding tightly-packed residential terraces were replaced by new houses and commercial property.

Today, the church is the parish church for the parish of Saint Ebbes, a portion of which was demolished to make way for the nearby Westgate Shopping Centre in the 1970s. The church underwent further restoration in 2017 under the direction of Quinlan Terry. During this restoration some internal fittings were sold as architectural antiques, and the organ was moved to Saint Denys Church, York.

Saint Ebbe’s describes itself as a ‘conservative evangelical’ church, but the Guardian recently described it as ‘a hardline evangelical church in Oxford.’ The church has passed resolutions to reject the ordination of women and female leadership in the church. It receives alternative episcopal oversight from the Bishop of Maidstone.

Canon Vaughan Edward Roberts has been the Rector of Saint Ebbe’s since 1998. He was educated at Winchester College, studied law at Selwyn College, Cambridge, and studied for ordination at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford. He was ordained deacon in 1991 and priest in 1992. He joined Saint Ebbe’s in 1991 as a curate under the Revd David Fletcher, who once ran the controversial, abusive Iwerne camps associated with his brother Jonathan Fletcher and the late John Smyth. When David Fletcher retired from Saint Ebbe’s, Roberts became rector in 1998.

Jonathan Fletcher, who had a high-profile and influential ministry, was the vicar of Emmanuel Church, Wimbledon, and was also a regular preacher in Saint Ebbe’s. A recent report has exposed his bullying, coercive and abusive behaviour over many years, with a long-running pattern of sexual and spiritual abuse.

Since 2009, Vaughan Roberts has also been Director of the Proclamation Trust, founded to train ‘conservative evangelical’ preachers by Dick Lucas and Jonathan Fletcher. Vaughan Roberts was one of more than 100 clerics who signed a letter in 2018 criticising the bishops in the Diocese of Oxford approach to sexual ethics, claiming ‘the situation [in the diocese] is serious.’ In a recent book, he described struggles with unwanted same-sex attraction, and later confirmed this in an interview, but said he does not define himself as homosexual and that he has chosen to remain celibate.

Saint Ebbe’s has three services each Sunday at 9:45, 4:30 and 6:30, with a fourth service at 11:45 during the university term. The church possesses beautiful Communion plates of Elizabethan and Jacobean date. The church says all of these are still in regular use, but I have been unable to find when or how often the Eucharist is celebrated in Saint Ebbe’s.

The mediaeval synagogue in Oxford was established in 1228 close to Saint Ebbe’s Church, opposite Pennyfarthing Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Friday 23 September 2022):

The Collect:

Almighty God,
whose only Son has opened for us
a new and living way into your presence:
give us pure hearts and steadfast wills
to worship you in spirit and in truth;
through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post Communion Prayer:

Lord God, the source of truth and love,
keep us faithful to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,
united in prayer and the breaking of bread,
and one in joy and simplicity of heart,
in Jesus Christ our Lord.

The theme in the USPG prayer diary this week is ‘Welcoming Refugees.’ Father Frank Hegedus, Chaplain of Saint Margaret’s in Budapest, spoke to USPG about how the Church in Hungary is helping refugees fleeing Ukraine.

The USPG Prayer Diary invites us to pray today in these words:

Let us pray for refugees seeking sanctuary from difficult and often violent circumstances.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

Saint Ebbe’s was restored in 1862-1868, in 1904 and again in 2017 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org