17 May 2024

The Jewry Wall, Roman
remains, and the suffering
of the Jewish community
in mediaeval Leicester

The Jewry Wall in Leicester … 19th and early 20th century historians agreed it was part of the mediaeval Jewish quarter in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

I was back in Leicester earlier this week, for the first time since I was there in 2011 for a course on interfaith dialogue. During this week’s visit, I went to visit the Jewry Wall, which is closed off to the public at present as the site is being redeveloped.

Jewry Wall in Leicester is one of the most impressive fragments of standing Roman building work in Britain. It is now identified as part of the palaestra or gymnasium attached to the Roman town’s public baths complex. But the name of the Jewry Wall has never been explained satisfactorily, and late mediaeval and early modern writers persistently associate Jewry Wall with the mediaeval Jewish community in Leicester.

Despite speculation down through the centuries, however, the name of Jewry Wall continues to defy explanation. The earliest known occurrence of the name is found ca 1665, when the town authorities proposed removing the ruin and Edward Hunt asserted that ‘he hath a right unto the Jury Wall and hee is very loath for to demollish it for Antiquitye Sake’.

It is named as ‘the Jews Wall’ (1683), ‘the Jury wall’ (1698), ‘Judaeorum murus’ and ‘Jews Wall’ (1709), ‘Jewry Wall’ (1712, 1724), ‘the Jews or Jewry wall’ (1732), and ‘Iury Wall’ (1741). By the end of the 18th century, the name ‘Jewry Wall’ was used consistently, although some outsiders called it ‘Old Jewry Wall’, probably through the influence of the name of Old Jewry, a street in London.

The Jewry Wall was part of the Roman baths complex and survived because it was built into the wall of Saint Nicholas Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

However, two other names have also been associated with the site: Janus’ Temple and Holy Bones. The association with Janus is found in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s in the 1130s, telling how Leir, the town’s legendary founder, was buried by his daughter Cordelia in an underground chamber beneath the Soar, which was dedicated to Janus. It has been suggested that the story was inspired by the arches and recesses of the Jewry Wall itself, or by other Roman ruins in the vicinity.

The name Holy Bones is found from the mid-14th century on, and was usually given to the land or thoroughfare to the immediate east of Saint Nicholas Church. On occasion, however, it also included the Jewry Wall site to the west.

William Burton, writing in 1622, linked the traditions of the Temple of Janus and the Holy Bones, saying the bones of sacrificed to Janus had been dug up on the site. Later writers in the 17th century also referred to the Temple of Janus, but Celia Fiennes, writing in 1698, conflated the Holy Bones tradition with the name of Jewry Wall, claiming the ruin as ‘a place where the Jews burnt their sacrifices’.

Other writers suggested it was the site of a British temple where oxen had been sacrificed or even, for one writer, the site of pagan child sacrifice.

The name Janus also played its part in the emergence of an alternative interpretation of the ruin as that of a Janua, or gateway, of the Roman town. This idea was first put forward by William Bennet, Bishop of Cork and Ross, ca 1790.

A new Jewry Wall Museum is being developed in Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

John Throsby made the earliest attempt to explain the name of Jewry Wall in 1791, when he surmised that it ‘might happen from the circumstance of the Jews, some centuries ago, being compelled to live together in certain districts of every city in England: in Leicester, they might be compelled to live together, in habitations, near this wall’.

This suggestion of a Jewish quarter was accepted by the majority of 19th and early 20th century historians, and for a time an interpretive plaque was fixed to the wall presenting it as the name’s origin.

However, in 1793, Thomas Robinson suggested that the term was ‘more likely to be a transition from Janus, than from the Jews inhabiting thereabout.’ But his view found little support.

HW Hawkins argued in 1936 that the name might be a form of the word jury, referring to the mediaeval town government by a council of 24 jurats, who met beside the wall, in Saint Nicholas churchyard. His explanation was supported by Kathleen Kenyon, the archaeologist who excavated the Roman site, the architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, and Barrie Cox of the English Place-Name Society.

Another, unconvincing hypothesis suggests the name of the wall is derived from the Western or ‘Wailing’ Wall in Jerusalem. But this is unlikely as the Jewish settlement in mediaeval Leicester lasted only a few decades and was always small-scale.

Cecil Roth put forward a theory in 1951, suggesting ‘Jewish’ attributions were given to ancient building of unknown origins. He cited parallels in France, Germany, Poland, Spain – where the walls of Tarragona led to it being called a ‘city of Jews’ in the 12th century, and Greece – where the name Evraiokastro (Εβραιόκαστρο, ‘Jews’ castle’) was given to a number of ancient sites.

The name of De Montfort University has been controversial because he expelled the Jews from Leicester in 1231 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Much of the history of mediaeval Jewry in Leicester can only be traced through the lives of the wealthier members of the community who were active as financiers and money-lenders. The earliest evidence of a Jewish presence in Leicester dates from 1185, when we the pipe rolls record a pledge of 7 marks (£5 6s 8d) by William de Georz to ‘the Jews of Leicester’.

The first named Jew associated with Leicester is Aaron the Jew of Leicester, who in 1193 owed £21 17s. to the estate of the wealthy Jewish financier Aaron of Lincoln, who died seven years earlier. It is possible that Aaron of Leicester was a local agent for his namesake in Lincoln.

He may be the same Aaron of Leicester whose son Samson witnessed a grant in Canterbury ca 1180, the same Aaron whose daughter Gigonia contributed to the Lincolnshire quota of the Jewish tallage of 1223, and whose son Fanlon, ‘a Jew of Canterbury’, was a moneylender in 1224.

A Jew named Josce of Leicester contributed to the Nottinghamshire quota of the 1194 tallage. Another Jew, Benedict of Leicester, is noted as a money-lender in 1205.

There was a small Jewish community in Leicester by the closing decades of the 12th century. They were living there without licence, but in 1226 Ranulf, Earl of Chester, who then held half of what was known as the honour of Leicester, including the lordship of the town, received royal permission for the Jews to remain unmolested. Joe Hillaby speculates that the Jewish community of Warwick, which disappears briefly from the record in the 1220s, may have moved to Leicester, attracted by the greater level of protection offered by Ranulf.

Ranulf’s benign paternalism in Leicester did not last long. His interests in Leicester were held it in custody for the young Simon de Montfort (1208-1265), 6th Earl of Leicester, who recovered his estates in August 1231, Within a matter of months, Simon de Montfort issued a charter banishing Jews from living in the liberty of the town, ‘in my time or in the time of any of my heirs to the end of the world.’

He claimed he was acting ‘for the good of my soul, and the souls of my ancestors and successors.’ Today, we would recognise he was motivated by religious zealotry, combined with discontent at the perceived financial power of leading members of the Jewish community in Lecester. But his views may also have been shaped in France, where in 1217 his mother had given the Jews of Toulouse a stark choice of conversion or death. Simon de Montfort may also have been swayed by Robert Grosseteste, then Archdeacon of Leicester.

The ordered expulsion was an ominous portent of events 30 years later. During the barons’ rebellion, led by Simon de Montfort, his supporters massacred the Jews of London, Worcester and Derby, slaughtered Jews in large number of Jews in many provincial centres, from Winchester to Lincoln, looted Jewish property and destroyed Jeish records.

De Montfort University was established in 1992 and takes its name from Simon de Montfort (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Jews ejected from Leicester found refuge outside the city on the lands of Simon de Montfort’s great-aunt, Margaret de Quincy, the widowed Countess of Winchester, who held the other half of the honour of Leicester in a territorial partition originally made in 1204-1207.

The dispute was settled in January 1232, when the King decided in Margaret’s favour. It seems likely this dispute was triggered by the Jewish question, with Simon’s intention of expelling the Jews from Leicester undermined by Margaret’s offer of sanctuary on the outskirts of the town.

Archdeacon Grosseteste intervened, writing a strongly-worded letter to Margaret on how the refugees should be treated. He argued vehemently that the Jews, as murderers of Christ and obdurate unbelievers, were cursed to wander the earth. They were to be held them in captivity, banned from money-lending, and forced into physical labour.

Grosseteste later became Bishop of Lincoln. His extremist anti-Jewish views were equalled among 13th-century English bishops only by John Pecham, Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Edward I. In Oxford, Grosseteste claimed jurisdiction over 45 students who had been arrested by the sheriff and imprisoned in the royal gaol for robbery and assault upon the Jews of Oxford. Soon after the students were handed over to him, Grosseteste freed them all without charge.

Nothing more is heard of the Jewish community in Leicester. But a few Jews with roots in the town are later found in other places. Josce of Leicester was based in Nottingham in 1241-1242, Moses of Leicester was in Lincolnshire in 1244, and a Jossce of Leicester was living in Canterbury ca 1249. This last Josce of Leicester had died by 1254, but his sons, Aaron and Salle, became prominent in the Jewish community in Canterbury. Yet another Josce of Leicester was active as a money-lender in Kent and Warwickshire in the 1270s.

There is evidence of a few Jews living in other parts of Leicestershire, including Market Harborough in 1274. A Jew named Cressant of Harborough was hanged for coinage offences amid wider accusations that Jews were involved in coin-clipping and forgery in the late 1270s and early 1280s. A ‘treasure’ of silver plates and clippings found at Melton Mowbray was treated as the hoard of a Jewish financier. Solomon of Bosworth is named in 1279, indicating a Jewish presence in either Husbands or Market Bosworth.

A convert to Christianity, Joan of Leicester was living in the Domus Conversorum in London by 1280, and she remained there for over 60 years until she died in the early 1340s. Her son, William of Leicester, who had become a king’s clerk, also died there in 1349. Another William of Leicester lived there from 1401 to 1417, although he may have been of Spanish origin.

The Jewish community in mediaeval Leicester was always small. Even at its peak, it probably numbered no more than a handful of families. Leicester was never among the Jewish settlements formally recognised for purposes of taxation, or provided with an archa, a chest for the secure deposit of bonds, and in this it ranked well below its counterparts in, for example, Northampton, Nottingham, Warwick and Coventry.

Simon de Montfort’s expulsion of the Jews from Leicester was largely effective: the Jewish community in Leicester had ceased to exist by 1231, barely a generation after it had been established. His action in Leicester ushered in a series of local expulsions. Jews were subjected to increasing burdens, restrictions and abuses throughout England, and in 1290 Edward I expelled the entire Jewish community from England.

The remains of the Roman public baths, immediately west of the Jewry Wall, were excavated by Kathleen Kenyon in 1936-1939 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

As for the Jewry Wall, it is a substantial ruined wall of second-century Roman masonry, with two large archways. It was the west wall of a public building in Ratae Corieltauvorum or Leicester, alongside public baths.

The foundations of the wall were excavated in the 1930s. It is made of local stones – granite, limestone and sandstone. There are layers of red tiles that run along the wall. These layers are known as levelling or bonding courses. They are typical in Roman building methods and made the wall more stable and even.

The wall was part of the Roman baths complex and this section of the Roman bath house wall survived because it was built into the wall of a church that which preceeded the present Saint Nicholas Church. Some of the stone from the Roman building is visible in the walls of the church.

The wall is an impressive example of standing Roman masonry and is one of the largest pieces of surviving civil Roman architecture in Britain. It dates from ca 125-130 CE, and it is 23 m (75 ft) long, 8 m (26 ft) high and 2.5 m (8.2 ft) thick. The centre of the wall has two large arched openings about 3 m (9.8 ft) wide and 4 m (13 ft) high, and there are further arched alcoves on the eastern side. The wall is immediately west of Saint Nicholas Church, which includes much reused Roman brick and masonry in its late Saxon and early mediaeval fabric.

The remains of the Roman public baths, immediately west of the wall, were excavated by Kathleen Kenyon in 1936-1939. The Jewry Wall Museum, formerly Vaughan College, stood on the remainder of the baths site, which is now being redeveloped. In the past, the museum displayed examples of Roman mosaics, painted wall plaster and other Roman and Iron Age artefacts from sites around Leicester.

The wall appears to have formed the long west side of a large rectangular basilica-like structure. The precise character and function of this building has been a matter of much debate.

When she began her excavations in the late 1930s, Kenyon initially thought the site was that of the town forum, of which the basilica would have formed a part. During excavations in 1961-1972, the true remains of the forum were firmly identified a block further east. The Jewry Wall was then identified as the wall of the palaestra (gymnasium) of the baths complex, and this continues to be the most commonly accepted view.

De Montfort Square in Leicester … in 2001, Leicester City Council ‘rebuked De Montfort for his blatant antisemitism’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The later Jewish presence in Leicester only emerged in the mid-19th century. After visiting Jewry Wall, I walked across the city to visit the synagogue on Highfield Street, built for Leicester Hebrew Congregation and opened in 1898 – but more about that on another Friday evening.

As for Simon de Montfort, he was killed by forces loyal to the king at the Battle of Evesham in 1265. He is often regarded as one of the progenitors of modern parliamentary democracy in Britain.

Leicester City Council made a formal statement in 2001 that ‘rebuked De Montfort for his blatant antisemitism.’ Yet De Montfort University in Leicester is named after him, as is the nearby De Montfort Hall, and he is remembered in many street names in Leicester, including De Montfort Square and De Montfort Street – hardly a ‘rebuke for … blatant antisemitism.’

De Montfort Students’ Union continues to campaign to change the name of the university, having declared: ‘De Montfort is not a name we should be promoting. This is not a name we say with pride. It is not reflective of our core values and beliefs.’

Shabbat Shalom
De Montfort Students’ Union continues to campaign to change the name of the university (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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