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)

Morning prayers in Easter
with USPG: (34) 12 May 2023

Dean William Manecestre and Bishop Alexander Stavenby in the ‘Manecestre Window’ window in the Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are approaching the end of the Fifth Week of Easter. Two of us have been staying in York for the past few days, and spent the day in Harrogate and Knaresborough yesterday. We are returning to Stony Stratford and Milton Keynes later today.

Today, the calendar of the Church of England in Common Worship commemorates Gregory Dix (1952), priest, monk and scholar. Before this day gets busy, I am taking some time this morning for prayer and reflection. Following my recent visit to Lichfield Cathedral, I am reflecting each morning this week in these ways:

1, Short reflections on the windows in the Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The ‘Manecestre Window’ in the Chapter House depicts William Manecestre, Dean of Lichfield, and Alexander Stavenby, Bishop of Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Dean Manecestre and Bishop Stavenby window:

The Chapter House in Lichfield Cathedral is currently the venue for the exhibition ‘Library and Legacy,’ showcasing the collections in the cathedral library.

The chapter house was decorated with frescoes and stained glass in the late 15th century by Thomas Heywood, who was Dean of Lichfield in 1457-1492. The glass in the Chapter House once contained figures of the apostles, with other depictions above. These all predated the Cromwellian era, and were destroyed by the Puritans during the Civil War in the mid-17th century.

In the 19th century, the glazing of the chapter house displayed armorial bearings, more or less correct, in imitation of glass known to have ornamented the cathedral in the past. This armorial glass gradually gave way to glass representing scenes in the history of the cathedral. Six of the windows were glazed with these images in the late 19th and early 20th century, and the original but unfilled plan was to fill all the windows in the Chapter House.

The sixth window I am looking at this morning, like many of the windows in this series, is by Charles Eamer Kempe, and was made ca 1900.

The ‘Manecestre Window’ continues the historical series in the Chapter House windows, and depicts William Manecestre, Dean of Lichfield (1222-1254), and Alexander Stavenby, Bishop of Lichfield (1224-1238).

Alexander Stavenby took his name from Stainsby, Lincolnshire, and may have studied under Stephen Langton, later Archbishop of Canterbury. He taught theology at Toulouse, and it has been suggested that his students there included Saint Dominic, founder of the Order of Preachers or Dominicans. He also taught at Bologna and was a chamber clerk for Pope Honorius III.

He became Bishop of Lichfield in April 1224 while William Manecestre was Dean of Lichfield. As bishop, he urged the people in his diocese to receive Communion three times a year. He wrote a set of statutes for his diocese, including rules to prohibit his clergy from entering a tavern. While he was bishop, both Coventry and Lichfield were named as the seats of the see, with a new bishop being elected by the chapters of Coventry or Lichfield in turn.

As bishop, Stavenby founded the Franciscan Friary in Lichfield in 1227-1229, when he granted the friars ‘certain free burgages in the town for them to set their house on’.

He undertook many diplomatic missions for King Henry to Rome and France, negotiated at Antwerp with envoys of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick II, and spent time negotiating truces in Wales.

Alexander died in Andover, Hampshire, on 26 December 1238 and was buried in Lichfield Cathedral. A chantry was established in his memory near the altar of Saint Chad. The only buildings of the Franciscan Friary in Lichfield to survive the Dissolution of the monastic houses at the Reformation were the Dormitory on the west range and a house known as ‘Bishop’s Lodging’ in the south west corner.

The panels in the lower parts of this window depict Dean Manecestre in the new Chapter House in Lichfield committing a special trust to the Prior of Coventry in 1249, and Bishop Alexander de Stavenby, as a generous benefactor to Lichfield Cathedral, dedicating a religious house for the use of the Franciscan friars.

The east light in this window is a memorial to Canon Charles Bodington, the west light is a memorial to Archdeacon Thomas Bucknall Lloyd.

Canon Charles Bodington (1837-1918) was an Anglo-Catholic priest and an early member of the Society of the Holy Cross (SSC), was prosecuted for his Anglo-Catholic ritualism in 1877. He was born in Aston, Warwickshire, in 1837 and studied theology at King’s College London, and was ordained deacon by the Archbishop of York in 1863 and priest in 1864. He conducted a series of missions in New Zealand and was Vicar of Christ Church, Lichfield, before he was appointed a Canon Residentiary and Precentor of Lichfield Cathedral in 1899.

He was the author of a guidebook on Lichfield Cathedral (1914), published before five years before he died on 23 November 1918.

The Ven Thomas Bucknall Lloyd (1824-1896), Archdeacon of Salop (1886-1896), was a grandson of Samuel Butler, Bishop of Lichfield (1836-1839). He was educated at Saint John’s College, Cambridge, Cambridge, and was the Cambridge cox in the 1846 Boat Race. He was ordained deacon by the Bishop of Lichfield in 1848 and priest in 1849.

He was the Rector of Edgmond, Shropshire, Prebendary of Freeford in Lichfield Cathedral (1870), Rural Dean of Shrewsbury (1873-1887), Proctor of the Diocese of Lichfield (1885-1886), and a member of the council of Lichfield Theological College. He was 71 when he died at Edgmond rectory on 25 February 1896.

The lower part of the window depict episodes in the lives of Dean William Manecestre and Alexander Stavenby in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

John 15: 12-17 (NRSVA):

[Jesus said:] 12 ‘This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.’

Bishop Alexander Stavenby helped found the Franciscan Friary in Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Today’s prayer:

The theme this week in the prayer diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel) is ‘The Work and Mission of the Laity.’ USPG’s Regional Manager for Africa, Fran Mate, reflected on Sunday on the work and mission of the laity.

The USPG Prayer invites us to pray this morning (Friday 12 May 2023):

Let us pray for the Anglican Communion. May the Churches seek to nurture disciples who are confident of their faith and assured in their mission to love their neighbour.


Almighty God,
who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ
have overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life:
grant that, as by your grace going before us
you put into our minds good desires,
so by your continual help
we may bring them to good effect;
through Jesus Christ our risen Lord,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

Post Communion:

Eternal God,
whose Son Jesus Christ is the way, the truth, and the life:
grant us to walk in his way,
to rejoice in his truth,
and to share his risen life;
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Canon Charles Bodington was a former Vicar of Christ Church, Lichfield (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Yesterday’s reflection

Continued tomorrow

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