12 May 2023

Searching for a mediaeval
Jewish community and
synagogue in Knaresborough

A plaque in Market Place commemorates the 13th century synagogue in Knaresborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

During our visit to York this week, two of us spent much of yesterday afternoon in Knaresborough, a market and spa town on the River Nidd in North Yorkshire, 5 km east of Harrogate.

Knaresborough appears in the Domesday Book in 1086 as Chenaresburg, meaning ‘Cenheards fortress.’ Knaresborough Castle is Norman and dates from ca 1100. The town grew up around the castle, providing a market and attracting traders.

A plaque in Market Place, placed by the Knaresborough Civic Society in 2008, commemorates the 13th century synagogue to the rear of the Market Place. This plaque indicates that a Jewish community lived and worshipped in Knaresborough in the 13th century. The synagogue was situated at the exit to Synagogue Lane or Jockey Lane, but the exact location is not known.

Jockey Lane had horse dealers’ stables as well as the synagogue. This lane has had other names in the past, including Ten Faith Lane, which is believed to be linked to the mediaeval synagogue.

It is thought the Jewish community in Knaresborough was dissolved in 1275, 15 years before Jewish people were expelled from England in 1290 on the orders of Edward I. The plaque reads:

‘Knaresborough Synagogue. In the 13th century a Jewish community lived and worshipped in Knaresborough. The synagogue was situated at the exit to Synagogue Lane, at the rear of these buildings, the exact location is unknown. It is believed the Knaresborough Jewish community was dissolved in 1275, before all of the Jewish faith were expelled from England in 1290.’

A phylactery in Hebrew was found in Knaresborough Castle in 1738 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The fact that there was a Jewish community in Knaresborough is not in doubt since a phylactery in Hebrew was found in Knaresborough Castle in 1738. However, archaeological opinion is divided on the excavations on the site.

Christopher Walton, who uncovered 4 ft-thick stone walls in 1768, attributed those walls to the synagogue. However when the library was built an excavation revealed no mediaeval foundations.

The late Dr Murray Freedman (1928-2011) , a Leeds dentist and author of Leeds Jewry: The First Hundred Years (1992) and Leeds Jewry, A history of its Synagogues (1995), also published extensive research on the Jewish community in Knaresborough in 2002.

At Knaresborough Library on Market Place, the librarians confirmed they had been told that the alleyway beside the library was known locally as Synagogue Lane.

An 18th-19th century local historian, Ely Hargrove (1741-1818), claimed in 1768 that he had discovered the site of the synagogue, consisting of some stone foundations. However, Freedman says archaeological advice suggests that these foundations could not have been built before the 16th century, and so that could not have been the synagogue site.

Hargrove also reported a phylactery or tefillin had been found in Knaresborough Castle in 1738, although it is not known where that artefact is today. Freedman points out that only one scroll was found, and so suggests it must have been the contents of the Tefillin Shel Yad, the phylactery worn on the left arm. As this was only one scroll it is possible that it was the contents of a mezuzah from a doorpost rather than tefillin.

The earliest plan of the town, a hand-painted map dating from 1629 in the library of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, does not show street names other than those of the main streets.

In the 1841 census returns, the yard was called ‘Synagogues’ and included about half a dozen dwellings. A map in 1890 names the alleyway as Synagogue Yard.

However, the main accounts of Jewish history in England do not include Knaresborough among over 120 Jewish communities in mediaeval England, and suggest that at the time of the massacre in York in 1190, there were no other Jewish communities in the north of England other than those in York and Newcastle.

But Dr Freedman has come across two documentary references to Jews in Knaresborough at that time, offering evidence of Jews living in the town in the mid-13th century. Manser and Brunne fil Manaser, who may have been father and son, were living in Knaresborough in 1262. Manser and Manaser were the English mediaeval forms of the Hebrew name Menashe.

Dr Freedman suggests this is conclusive evidence that there were Jews living in Knaresborough in the 13th century, probably with their own synagogue.

The documents in the Public Record Office concern debts. But, while money lending was one Jewish occupation in mediaeval England, others were physicians, goldsmiths and artisans. Among themselves, they spoke Norman French, but all had knowledge of Hebrew and some also of Latin. They were literate and maintained close connections with the Jewish communities in northern France. All Jews were expelled from England in 1290.

Dr Freedman points out there are many remaining questions about the mediaeval Jewish community in Knaresborough. When was the community founded? How long did it survive? Because building new synagogues was prohibited after 1222, was the community (kehillai) in Knaresborough established before then? Was it an offshoot of the larger, more important community in York, perhaps even made up of survivors of the massacre in 1190.

Dr Freedman concedes the synagogue in Knaresborough may have been nothing more than a modified dwelling large enough to accommodate a minyan or quorum of 10 men, perhaps even a room in one of the houses and not affected by the ban in 1222.

The ‘Jewish Statute’ issued by Edward I in 1275 required all Jews in England to live only in towns that had archae or official chests with three locks and seals, in which all records, deeds and contracts involving Jews were deposited and preserved. This makes 1275 the likely date for the disbandment of any Jewish community in Knaresborough, when the Jewish residents probably moved to York, the nearest town where archae were kept.

Dr Freedman wonders what brought Jews to Knaresborough in the first place, and how big the community was. A synagogue with a regular minyan suggests the presence of at least 40-50 people, yet it is doubtful that the total population of Knaresborough at the time was more than a few hundred. And, he asks, where exactly on Synagogue Yard did the synagogue stand.

But he concludes that that over 700 years ago – and more than 500 years before the presence of any Jews in Leeds – there was a Jewish community and synagogue in Knaresborough.

Shabbat Shalom

Synagogue Lane, beside the plaque in Market Place commemorating the 13th century synagogue in Knaresborough (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

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