24 September 2022

The mediaeval Jewish graves
and cemetery found at a car
park in York 40 years ago

The cemetery in Jewbury, York, one of only 10 Jewish cemeteries in mediaeval England, was discovered at the site of Sainsbury’s car park (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I have been writing in recent days about the Jewish community in mediaeval York, the horrific massacre at Clifford’s Tower in 1190, and the synagogues in mediaeval and contemporary York.

One of the most interesting insights into life and death in the Jewish community in mediaeval York was provided at Jewbury almost 40 years ago when archaeologists from the York Archaeological Trust discovered the lost cemetery of York’s mediaeval Jews at the site of what is now the multi-level car park at Sainsbury’s.

The cemetery in Jewbury is one of only 10 Jewish cemeteries in mediaeval England and the only one to be extensively excavated. It offers a glimpse into the lives and deaths of a what was once the largest and most prosperous Jewish community in England.

The site at Jewbury is outside the city walls, on a street leading from Monk Bar and Saint Maurice’s Road to Layerthorpe and Foss Bank and Foss Island’s Road.

The site of a mediaeval Jewish cemetery was unearthed in Jewbury almost 40 years ago. There were just a few documents suggesting that there was once a cemetery where holes were to be dug as part of new building in Jewbury. Archaeologists were called in to investigate the site before builders moved in.

Despite the lack of gravestones and the lack of traditionally nail-less Jewish coffins, the care that had been taken in the lay-out of the graves confirmed for archaeologists and modern religious Jewish authorities to agree this was a Jewish cemetery.

The cemetery was in use from around 1177 until the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290. However, it does not appear that any of the victims of the massacre at Clifford’s Tower in 1190 were buried there.

Almost 500 skeletons were excavated in 1983, although it is estimated that the entire cemetery held over 1,000 burials.

Jewbury is outside York’s city walls, on a street leading from Monk Bar and Saint Maurice’s Road to Layerthorpe and Foss Bank and Foss Island’s Road (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Most of the burials were in wooden coffins, and there were few personal items, in keeping with Jewish tradition of simple burials. Surprisingly, the burials were aligned to the north-west, unlike the modern Jewish practice of orienting cemeteries east towards Jerusalem.

Mediaeval writers often refer to Jewish cemeteries as being the ‘Gardens of the Jews’ – hortus iudeorum – immaculately kept by a garden keeper. The York burial ground maintained these high standards. Unlike the haphazard burials in mediaeval Christian cemeteries in York, the graves in Jewbury were evenly spaced. It is thought the graves were have been marked in some way, but there is no evidence of tombstones or other grave markers.

One man, aged between 20 and 30, bears evidence of surgery in response to a deep wound to the front of his skull. Unfortunately, the injury was too severe and the man did not live long after the procedure.

In all, the archaeologists discovered about 500 mediaeval graves and the skeletons in them. They considered digging further to carry out tests on the bones and teeth and to discover more about the diet and health of the times.

The archaeologists felt they should do as the Chief Rabbi wished. However, this ended their research, as the advice they received was: ‘Whatever the scientific and historical loss … the dignity shown to humans even centuries after their death can contribute more than any scientific enquiry … to the respect in which human beings hold each other.’

The skeletons were removed to a Jewish mortuary and then returned to Jewbury for a burial supervised by the Chief Rabbi, Dr Immanuel Jakobovits, and members of York’s modern Jewish community in 1984, seven centuries after they were first buried.

The archaeologists had excavated only parts of the cemetery that were threatened by the car park construction. The remaining 500 or more burials of the Jewish cemetery in Jewbury continue to lie undisturbed under the Sainsbury’s car park in York.

As one of only 10 Jewish cemeteries in mediaeval England and the only one to be extensively excavated, the cemetery in Jewbury offered a glimpse into the lives and deaths of the Jewish community in mediaeval York.

Thursday: The massacre at Clifford’s Tower

Yeserday: The mediaeval and modern synagogues of York

A plaque recalls the site of the mediaeval Jewish cemetery in Jewbury (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Praying in Ordinary Time with USPG:
Saturday 24 September 2022

The Wesley Memorial Church on New Inn Hall Street, Oxford, was designed by Charles Bell and completed in 1878 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Patrick Comerford

I am planning to be in London later today (24 September 2022) for the Annual Celebration and Reunion of former USPG staff and mission personnel at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square. This promises to be a wonderful time to catch up with news, renew friendships, meet some new USPG staff and share stories with people who are an important part of USPG history and family. The programme begins with a celebration of the Eucharist, followed by a sandwich lunch and some presentations by USPG staff.

But, before the day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for reading, prayer and reflection.

Throughout this week, I have been 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.’

Inside the Wesley Memorial Church in Oxford, facing the east end (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

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

Luke 9: 43b-45:

43b While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, 44 ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ 45 But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying.

Inside the Wesley Memorial Church in Oxford, facing the west end (Photograph Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Wesley Memorial Church, New Inn Hall Street, Oxford:

The Wesley Memorial Church on New Inn Hall Street, Oxford, was completed in 1878, but Oxford is full of connections to the Wesley family and with the early beginnings of Methodism in the previous century, tracing its origins to 1783.

John and Charles Wesley followed their elder brother Samuel (1690-1739) to Christ Church, Oxford’s largest college. Their father, Samuel Wesley (1662-1735), Rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire, had been a student at Exeter College, and their grandfather, John Wesley (1636-1670), studied at New Inn Hall.

John Wesley graduated in 1724 and was ordained deacon in Christ Church Cathedral in 1725. He was elected a Fellow of Lincoln College in 1726, and was ordained priest in 1728, having left Oxford the previous year to assist his father at Epworth. Charles Wesley arrived at Christ Church in 1726.

A small group of students began meeting in Oxford in 1729 to pray, study, and express their faith in compassionate social outreach. This ‘Holy Club’ led by the Wesley brothers was the beginning of the movement that evolved into the Methodist Church.

John Wesley was invited to preach before the University in the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin. He preached his last University sermon, ‘Scriptural Christianity,’ on 24 August 1744, when he criticised the University for its spiritual apathy.

The first Methodist meeting house in Oxford was a building on the east side of New Inn Hall Street. It is now numbered 32-34 and is part of Brasenose College. A plaque on the wall recalls that John Wesley preached there on 14 July 1783 and on several later occasions. Wesley described ‘the new preaching-house at Oxford’ as ‘a lightsome, cheerful place.’

The congregation later moved to a second building on the west side of New Inn Hall Street. The foundation stone was laid in May 1817 and the chapel opened for worship in February 1818. It became the centre of the Oxford Wesleyan Methodist Circuit, with outposts gradually developing in the surrounding villages and small towns.

This building has since been demolished and the site has been incorporated into Saint Peter’s College.

Within 60 years of the completion of the first Wesleyan chapel, a new building was planned. As well as accommodating a growing congregation, there was a desire to emphasise the presence of Methodism in Oxford as the university agreed to admit Nonconformist students.

The Wesley Memorial Church was designed in the Decorated Gothic style by the architect Charles Bell (1846-1899), who designed more than 60 Wesleyan Methodist chapels. The church was built by Joshua Symm, a son-in-law of Daniel Evans, builder of the 1818 chapel. Henry Frith of Gloucester carved the capitals of the columns, which portray 12 different kinds of English plants.

The foundation stones were laid in July 1877, and the building opened for worship in October 1878.

A stained-glass window depicting the three virtues, Faith, Hope and Love or Charity, was donated by the builder Joshua Symm in memory of his only surviving child, Hannah Elizabeth, and her husband, Dr Joseph Lawson. A stained-glass window depicting the Risen Christ with Zechariah and Elizabeth was donated by Adeline Boffin in memory of her parents who ran a confectionary business in Oxford.

Both the church and the Oxford circuit experienced considerable numerical growth in the early 1880s, during the ministry of the Revd Hugh Price Hughes. The expansion of the city to the east led to building Wesley Hall, now Cowley Road Methodist Church, in 1904.

The three main branches of British Methodism united in 1932 to form the present Methodist Church of Great Britain. By 1941, there was a single Oxford Circuit. Meanwhile, a new suite of ancillary premises had been added to Wesley Memorial. The large hall and other meeting rooms, opened in 1932, proved ideal for the great expansion in student work that followed World War II. The heritage atrium opened in 2022.

• The Revd Peter Powers is the Superintendent Minister. Sunday services are at 10:30 am and at 6:30 pm on the first Sunday of the month.

A stained-glass window depicting the Risen Christ with Zechariah and Elizabeth (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)

Today’s Prayer (Saturday 24 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 has been ‘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:

We pray for a peaceful and just resolution to the war in Ukraine.

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

A stained-glass window representing the three virtues,Love or Charity (centre), Faith and Hope (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

‘O that the world might taste and see the riches of his grace’ … looking out on the world from the Wesley Memorial Church in Oxford (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2022)