03 February 2023

The remains of a mediaeval
synagogue lie beneath a pub
and restaurant in Northampton

The remains of Northampton’s mediaeval synagogue lie beneath the the Bear and Al-Fairoz (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

Al-Fairoz is an ordinary-looking kebab shop in Sheep Street behind the bus station in the centre of Northampton. When I called in yesterday, the staff were welcoming but seemed to know little of the extraordinary place in Jewish history they share with the Bear, the pub next-door.

The Bear and Al-Fairoz stand on the site of Northampton’s mediaeval synagogue, part of an archaeological site discovered in 2010 by Marcus Roberts, the director of National Anglo-Jewish Heritage Trail (JTrails).

JTrails researches English Jewish cultural heritage, and Marcus Roberts identified the site of the mediaeval synagogue after many years spent researching mediaeval Jewish history in Northampton. The synagogue probably dates from the 13th century, and what remains is located under the pub and the restaurant.

Inside Al-Fairoz, Sheep Street … on the site of the mediaeval synagogue in Northampton (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Northampton was once one of the most important in mediaeval England, and the Jewish presence in Northampton dates from the Middle Ages. In the 12th century, this was one of the largest Jewish communities England, and Rabbi Isaac ben Perez of Northampton was one of the most distinguished mediaeval Anglo-Jewish scholars.

The first record of Jews living in Northampton is in 1159. Samuel of Northampton is recorded in 1180, when he obtained a divorce from his wife and owed the king 5 marks. Four years later, Samuel made arrangements for the marriage of his son to the daughter of Margaret, a Jewess of London.

When Richard I returned from Germany in 1194, he issued the Northampton Donum, a rescript to the Jews of England imposing a levy of 5,000 marks to be paid by them towards the expenses of his ransom from captivity. In all, £1,803 7s 7d was collected, with 36 Jews of Northampton contributing £163 13s 11d.

The figures indicate the Jews of Northampton were the second largest Jewish community in England at that time. The community included Jews who had come from Bungay, Colchester, Nottingham, Stamford and Warwick.

Northampton was one of the towns in mediaeval England with an archa or chest that served as repository for the records of the Jewish community. This indicates that the Jews of Northampton had the right of residence there until their expulsion.

Jews were sometimes welcomed in the 13th century, and sometimes persecuted and excluded, depending on the rulers and directives, and the records show that Jews in Northampton had to pay heavy taxes.

Although Jews were expelled from Northamptonshire in 1237, they were allowed to remain in Northampton itself.

The Jewish community in Northampton was attacked by rebels during the Barons’ War in 1263-1264 and took refuge in the castle. There were accusations of a ritual murder in 1277, and some local Jews were executed in London in 1278 for coin-clipping.

When a boy was found murdered in Northampton in 1279, some Jews of that town were taken to London, dragged at the tails of horses, and hanged. A lawsuit in Northampton in 1286 involved a dispute over a house belonging to Leo fil Mag Elie Baggard.

Yet, the community in Northampton continued to expand until the expulsion of all Jews from England in 1290. At the expulsion, the names of only five Jews were recorded holding landed property in Northampton, and this was handed over to the king. The community itself held five cottages, a synagogue, and a cemetery, the rental of which was paid to the prior of Saint Andrew’s. The cemetery was surrounded by a stone wall, probably to protect the bodies from desecration.

The synagogue may have survived the expulsion of Jews in 1290 and the great fire of Northampton in 1674 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Records show that the synagogue may have survived the expulsion of Jews in 1290 and the great fire of Northampton in 1674. The records of the town clerks from 1751 describe the building as ‘very substantial; a fair stately hall.’

Although Jews were permitted to return to England in 1656m it was not until the mid-19th century that Jews returned to Northampton in any noticeable numbers. At the end of the 1880s, when a small congregation was formed by Russian Jews. The Northampton Hebrew Congregation was formed in 1888. Two years later, the community bought a site for a synagogue on Overstone Road. It was destroyed and rebuilt on the same site in 1965.

The Jewish population in the town was small from then until today, with a peak during World War II, when Jews from London took refuge there. There were 300 Jews in Northampton in 1969, 322 in 2001 and about 100 today. The Jewish community uses the Towcester Road cemetery.

The remains of the mediaeval synagogue in Northampton found over a decade ago include stone walls and a stone staircase 12 ft beneath Al-Fairoz and the Bear. A wall in the cellar of the Bear was part of the mediaeval synagogue. Archaeologists have also discovered the remnants of the Jewish cemetery in Northampton.

The remains of the mediaeval synagogue include stone walls and a stone staircase 12 ft beneath Al-Fairoz and the Bear (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Shabbat Shalom


Anonymous said...

Any citations

Unknown said...

I researched and wrote a novel about medieval Northampton and the expulsion of the Jewish community in 1290. It is called Northampton 1290, and you can find it on Amazon! A little boy was attacked and found injured in the grounds of Holy Sepulchre Church as you say,(prior to the vents in my novel, although it was still remembered) but I have always understood that he wasn't killed, only injured (probably a sex crime) The Jews were blamed for this and some were hanged, as this blog notes,although there was absolutely no evidence that they were in any way involved. It was just 'blame the immigrants', the people who are 'different from us' as still can happen today. I'm not Jewish, just interested in the lost history of Northampton.

Unknown said...

That's almost the story of William of Norwwich b 2 Feb 1132, a 12 year old apprentice to a tanner. Found murdered 22 March 1144 and attrbuted to the work of a group of jews,in the rampant contemporary belief of Jews sacrificing children. They were arrested but later released from lack of evidence. Thoughts are this might have been a sex crime.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it was widely believed that the Jews sacrificed children and these stories were current in several towns. A little boy found drowned in a pond in Lincoln was created a saint because it was thought he had been 'martyred' by the Jews. The church at the time encouraged people to blame the Jews for crimes which, if they were actually child sex abuse, may well have been committed by monks. The church and the Norman nobles used to borrow money from the Jews in order to enlarge their mansions/castles and build elaborate churches, but then didn't want to pay the money back!