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

Praying in Ordinary Time
with USPG: 3 February 2023

Saint Werburgh’s statue at the south west-corner of Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The Feast of the Presentation yesterday (2 February) concluded the 40-day season of Christmas and Epiphany.

In these days of Ordinary Time before Ash Wednesday later this month (22 February), I am reflecting in these ways each morning:

1, reflecting on a saint or interesting person in the life of the Church;

2, one of the lectionary readings of the day;

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

The majestic interior of Saint Werburgh’s Church, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Saint Werburgh of Chester:

Saint Werburgh, whose feast day is today (3 February), is the patron saint of of Chester and has close associations with Lichfield and Ely.

Saint Werburgh was born an Anglo-Saxon princess in Mercia at Stone in Mercia (now in Staffordshire) ca 650. She was the daughter of King Wulfhere of Mercia and his wife Saint Ermenilda. With her father’s consent, she entered the Abbey of Ely, which had been founded by her great-aunt Etheldreda (Audrey), the first Abbess of Ely and former queen of Northumbria.

Werburgh was trained at home by Saint Chad (afterwards Bishop of Lichfield), and by her mother; and in the cloister by her aunt and grandmother. Werburgh was a nun for most of her life. During some of her life she was resident in Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire.

Werburgh was instrumental in convent reform across England. She eventually succeeded her mother Ermenilda, her grandmother Seaxburh, and he great-aunt Etheldreda as the fourth Abbess of Ely. She died on 3 February 700 and was buried at Hanbury in Staffordshire.

Following Saint Werburgh’s death, her brother Coenred became king of Mercia. In 708, he decided to move his sister’s body into the church in Hanbury. When the tomb was opened, her body was found to be intact, and this was taken as a sign of divine favour. A year later, he abdicated and become a monk in Rome.

According to one story about Werburgh, she restored a dead goose to life. A stained glass window in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Weedon Bec, Northamptonshire, recalls to another tale in which she banished all the geese from the village.

Saint Werburgh’s shrine remained at Hanbury until the threat from Danish Viking raids in the late ninth century, when they were moved to Chester, where a new shrine was established at the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, later the site of Chester Cathedral. The church has since been rededicated to Saint Werburgh and Saint Oswald of Northumbria.

A monastery in the names of Saint Werburgh and Saint Oswald was attached to the church in the 11th century. The Abbey church was rebuilt by 1075 and further endowed by Leofric, Earl of Mercia.

Saint Werburgh’s shrine remained a place of veneration after 1066 and the Norman conquest. Hugh d’Avranches, Earl of Chester, endowed the abbey with additional property in 1093, enlarged and rebuilt the church, and established a Benedictine monastery. The monks came from Bec Abbey in Normandy, which also provided the first two post-Conquest Archbishops of Canterbury, Lanfranc and Anselm.

Hugh d’Avranches entered the monastery shortly before he died and was buried there. During the Middle Ages, the badge of a gaggle of geese became a symbol of a pilgrimage to Saint Werburgh’s shrine.

Monks from Chester or perhaps Bristol later brought the cult of Saint Werburgh to Ireland, and Saint Werburgh’s Church in Dublin was first built in 1178.

The dissolution of the abbey in 1540 led to the creation of Chester Cathedral, which was rededicated to Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. Her elaborate 14th century shrine was broken up and her relics were lost. Parts of the surviving stonework were reassembled in 1876.

Saint Werburgh remains the patron saint of Chester. The churches dedicated to her include churches in Dublin, Derby and Spondon. The village of Warburton near Manchester is named after its parish church of Saint Werburgh.

I have often taken services and preached on Sundays in Saint Werburgh’s Church, Dublin, which ws one of the churches in the Christ Church Cathedral group of parishes until it closed recently. It is one of the oldest churches in Dublin, dating back to 1178, when a church was built on this site shortly after the arrival of the Anglo-Normans in Dublin. The church is first mentioned in a letter of Pope Alexander III dated 1179.

In the 18th century, Saint Werburgh’s became a fashionable city centre church, attended by the Lord Lieutenant and his entourage, and with a reserved Viceregal pew. Saint Werburgh’s was the Chapel Royal attached to Dublin Castle, the Viceroys were sworn into office there and seats were reserved for the officers and soldiers of Dublin Castle until 1888.

Saint Weburgh is one of the many saints carved on the west front of Lichfield Cathedral. The Two Saints’ Way is a project to recreate a pilgrim way linking the shrines of Saint Chad in Lichfield and Saint Werburgh in Chester. This pilgrim way gives its name to Cross in Hand Lane in Lichfield, where I stay regularly at the Hedgehog on the corner with Stafford Road.

The project owes everything to David Pott, an experienced long distance walker. At an early stage, his dream was of a pilgrimage trail from Stafford over Cannock Chase along the Heart of England Way to Lichfield Cathedral and the shrine of Saint Chad.

Later, he learned about the pilgrimage route between Chester Cathedral and Lichfield Cathedral. Many pilgrims on that route would continue to Canterbury or even to Rome or Jerusalem. He then thought of linking Lichfield with the shrine of Saint Werburgh, using existing paths to create a revived pilgrimage route between the two cathedral cities.

The discovery of the Staffordshire Hoard some years ago brought a new interest in Mercian heritage, attracting support from people with links with Staffordshire University, British Waterways, local tourist boards, and the cathedrals in Chester and Lichfield.

Saint Werburgh or Saint Barbra? … Werburgh Street in Dublin is named after Saint Werburgh of Chester, Ely and Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Mark 6: 7-13 (NSRVA):

7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, ‘Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.’ 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.

The Two Saints’ Way … markers along the road at Cross in Hand Lane (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

USPG Prayer Diary:

The theme in the USPG Prayer Diary this week is the ‘Opening Our Hearts.’ This theme was introduced on Sunday by James Roberts, Christian Programme Manager at the Council of Christians and Jews, who reflected on Holocaust Memorial Day last Friday and World Interfaith Harmony Week, which began on Wednesday.

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

Let us pray for a world where persecution is no more. May we examine our own prejudices, work for an end to discrimination and campaign against injustice.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

Saint Werburgh’s Church in inner-city Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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