12 April 2024

Two plaques on
the Town Hall
recall Jewish life in
mediaeval Oxford

Oxford Town Hall on Saint Aldate’s stands on the site of the house of David of Oxford, a prominent Jewish financier (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I have been in Oxford twice this week, rummaging through the bookshops and taking photographs. It's easy to get there from Stony Stratford, with a good bus connection through Buckingham. One day in Oxford recently, I went to see two plaques on the Town Hall that remember the mediaeval Jewish community, that prospered in the city until the mass expulsion of Jews from England in 1290.

A plaque on the front of the Town Hall in St Aldate’s reads: ‘This street known till 1300 as Great Jewry contained many houses of the Jews including the synagogue which lay to the north of Tom Tower 1931’.

The plaque was unveiled in 1931 by the Mayor of Oxford, Dr William Stobie. It is one of three plaques installed by Oxford City Council in 1931 to mark events connected with mediaeval Jewish life in Oxford. The other two plaques, which I have written about in earlier blog postings, commemorate the mediaeval Jewish Cemetery, by the Danby Gate at the Botanic Garden (29 March 2024), and the martyrdom of Haggai of Oxford, on the remains of Osney Mill (22 December 2023).

The three plaques were the initiative of Dr Herbert Loewe (1882-1940), lecturer in Semitic languages at Exeter College, Oxford, from 1913 until 1931, when he moved to Cambridge as Curator of Oriental Literature and Reader in Rabbinics. Before leaving Oxford in 1931, Loewe was responsible for erecting three plaques.

Loewe’s plaques celebrated the centenary of the birth of Neubauer, a noted Jewish librarian in the Bodleian. When the plaques were erected, fascism was on the rise across Europe. Mussolini was in power in Italy, Hitler was about to take power in Germany, and Oswald Mosley was forming new far-right parties in Britain, with funding from the Oxford industrialist Lord Nuffield, who held strongly antisemitic views. Five years after the plaques were erected, these trends in Britain reached their climax with the Battle of Cable Street in 1936.

A more recent plaque on the rere extension of the Town Hall in Oxford, facing Blue Boar Street, reads: ‘This extension to the Town Hall stands on land at the centre of the Anglo-Saxon town, later the heart of the Medieval Jewish Quarter and fronts a new street laid out by Christ Church in 1553. This plaque records a joint project by Oxford City Council and Amey Building, November 1995.’

Oxford Town Hall on Saint Aldate’s, a street in central Oxford, is the seat of Oxford City Council, a venue for public meetings, entertainment and other events, and the premises of the Museum of Oxford. Although Oxford is a city with its own charter, the building is known as the Town Hall. It is third town hall on the site; it was completed in 1897 and is Grade II* listed.

The town hall was designed by the architect Henry Thomas Hare (1860-1921) in a mixed Elizabethan-Jacobean style, later labelled as ‘Jacobethan’ by John Betjeman. Hare’s building included new premises for Oxford Crown and County Courts, a public library and police station as well as the city council offices. The Prince of Wales opened the new building in 1897.

The Town Hall stands on the site of the house of David of Oxford, a prominent Jewish financier in mediaeval Oxford. When he died in 1244, the house was handed over to the Domus Conversorum, the ‘home for converted Jews’.

The plaque erected on the town hall in Oxford in 1931 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

As the 1931 plaque on the town hall points out, until 1290 Great Jewry in Oxford ran from Carfax to Folly Bridge. Many of the houses there were owned by Jews, although some were let to Christians. There were Jewish houses too in adjoining Pembroke Street, once known as Pennyfarthing Lane, and Brewer Street, once known as Lombard Street.

The only remaining artefact of mediaeval Jewish life in Oxford today is the home of David of Oxford, which lies beneath the Town Hall on St Adate’s, formerly Great Jewry.

The town hall is on the site of the town hall that was built in 1752. The 1752 town hall, in turn, was built on the site of Oxford Guildhall, which in turn was built in 1292, shortly after the forced mass expulsion of Jews from England.

The town hall is on the site of two Jewish homes in mediaeval Oxford: the home of David of Oxford and the home Moses ben Isaac. The home of Moses ben Isaac was on the upper end of the site. It was confiscated from him in 1220 and given by the king for the use of the first Guildhall. The home of David of Oxford was seized after he died in 1244 and was used as a Domus Conversum until after the forced mass expulsion all Jews from England in 1290.

It may be the best preserved mediaeval Jewish site in England. It includes the living room of the mediaeval home of David of Oxford, replete with windows and the outline of a door that gave access to the subterranean cellars that criss-cross St Aldate’s.

The plaque erected on the rere extension of the Town Hall, facing Blue Boar Street, in 1995 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

David of Oxford, formerly known as David of Lincoln, was one of the most prominent Jews in 13th century England. His father was Asher, and it is not clear when exactly he moved to Oxford. However, in 1219, he was one of the six representatives of the wealthy class selected from all English Jewry to apportion tallage or taxes.

David of Oxford had dealings throughout England, including Warwick, Berkshire, Buckingham and Northampton, and his clients included many members of the aristocracy. He did business with other prominent Anglo-Jewish financiers, including Aaron of York, Hamo of Hereford, one of the wealthiest Jews of the day, Benedict of Crispin of London and his brother Jaqcob, and his fellow townsman, Copin of Oxford.

He also played an important role in communal life, though not always by choice. The king used David’s influence to ensure other Jews were paying the tallages (taxes) imposed on them. He was also one of the commission of eight Anglo-Jewish magnates appointed at the request of the communities in 1238 to collaborate with Justices of the Jews in an inquiry ‘touching Jews who are clippers of coin, thieves, and receivers’, in order to root out the alleged abuse and rid the community of a perpetual opportunity for blackmail.

David’s private life became a focus of controversy within the Jewish community in mid-13th century England, and in Oxford in particular, involving the king and leading rabbinic scholars in England and France. David was married to Muriel, who appears to also have been involved in his business affairs. But in 1242, David decided to divorce Muriel because they did not have any children. It seems David wanted a son to inherit his enormous fortune, and so gave Muriel a bill of divorce or get.

When the rabbis ruled against David, the crown intervened on his behalf in two directives issued on 27 August 1242. Cecil Roth, in his book Jews of Oxford, explains the royal intervention. The royal letters were addressed to three masters (magistri) or rabbis – Moses of London, Aaron of Canterbury and Jacob of Oxford – who formed a Jewish court of law or Beth Din.

Rabbi Gershom of Mainz, ‘the Light of the Exile’, a rabbinic authority generally respected in Northern Europe, had ruled it was improper for a man to divorce his wife without her consent, or to remarry if he did so. A Jewish court had the power to invalidate any divorce that did not accord with its rules.

When Muriel protested and sought help, her relatives from Lincoln offered to support her. They included her brother Peytevin – presumably Peytevin the Great, who had his own synagogue in Lincoln, and who was one of the victims of the ritual murder allegation in 1255 associated with Hugh of Lincoln.

French rabbis discussed the case and ruled in favour of Muriel. An ad hoc Beth Din, composed of the three magistri named in the royal letters, then met in Oxford, quashed the divorce and instructed David to take Muriel back again.

David appealed to Henry III and also won the support of Walter de Gray, Archbishop of York. The ruling of the three English rabbis was quashed by royal order, and the divorce was upheld.

In Jewish law, provision must be made for a divorced wife. David’s own house was at the top of Great Jewry, on the site of the present Town Hall on St Aldate’s. But he assigned Muriel a life interest in another house around the corner, at the junction of Jury Lane and Saint Edward’s Lane, and she continued to live there long after his death;

David married his second wife Licoricia of Winchester in 1242. She was an independent financier, the widow of Abraham of Kent, and the mother of three sons, Cokerel, Benedict and Lumbard, and a daughter Belia. She has been described as ‘the most important Jewish woman in medieval England.’ She gave birth in 1243 to a son for David, who was named Asher after his grandfather, but he was usually known as Douceman or Sweteman. However, shortly after his second marriage, David of Oxford died early in 1244.

Licoricia was given administration of her husband’s property after setting relief or death duty of 5,000 marks that was given to the royal Treasury. £2,591 of the amount was ordered to be paid to the new Exchequer recently established at Westminster in connection with the king’s ambitious building projects there. This was used in rebuilding Westminster Abbey and the shrine of Edward the Confessor.

David’s main residence in the Great Jewry may once have housed of a synagogue. Immediately after his death, however, his home, with all the utensils, furniture and clothing, was presented to the Home for Converted Jews (Domus Conversorum) that had been set up recently by the king in London. The house still exists today beneath the Town Hall.

Blue Boar Street on the south side of Oxford Town Hall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Sabbath Shalom

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