Medieval Jewish Guildford

Haimishe since 1180

Medieval Jewish Guildford
From whence they came...
The Jews in Guildford probably arrived during the 12th Century. It is widely believed that they built a synagogue (circa 1180) in the High Street, on a site that is now occupied by Monsoon.
Remains of the Medieval Synagogue...
The chamber was discovered in 1995 when excavations where taking place on the site.
Archaeologists discovered a chamber with steps down from street level. It was ornately decorated with pattern designs. In the East of the room is an alcove and a pillar where scorch marks demonstrate that a light was often burning in this place. The assumption is that the alcove is the Aron Kodesh (Holy Ark) and the mark is left from a Ner Tamid (Everlasting Light).
Being the only chamber of its kind in England, there has been much dispute over its use, but the most popular theory and all the evidence points towards the probability that Guildford has the oldest synagogue remains in the British Isles and one of the oldest in Western Europe.
Today, the modern synagogue contains a stone presented by Guildford Museum of the original Jewish museum. Within Waterstones are various exhibits illustrating the Medieval chamber and various finds. Unfortunately, the actual chamber is under concrete although both the owners of the site and commentators have expressed their regret at not having a glass floor! (click here for colour photo)
Medieval Sources...
The Jews of Guildford can be found mentioned in the Calendar Rolls and from this document we learn that the dowager Queen Eleanor, expelled the Jews from all her lands in 1275.
Isaac of Southwark resided and had a business in Guildford. Guildford, before the time of the Black Death was one of the centres of the woollen trade. "Guildford Blue" was sold throughout Western Europe. It is thought that Isaac was involved in this trade and it was he who owned the private synagogue in the town, although this is disputed.
Towards the end of the 13th Century there were anti-Jewish attacks on Jews and their property.
Unfortunately, Guildford has lent its name to the "Guildford Tallage", a major tax on the Jews of England during the Middle Ages.
Josce, the last Jew of Guildford...
Josce, a Jew of Guildford was murdered in 1283. The reports of his murder suggest that he was murdered for his money. However, the Sheriffs were able to hand over 20 livres which the victim had on his body. The evidence does not seem to weigh up and his death is still a mystery.
The Jews of England were expelled by Edward I in 1290, not long after Josce's death.
Whilst Josce is the last Jew of Guildford to recorded by the Calendar Rolls, it is likely that some of the Jews of Guildford did survive to the expulsion and lived out their days outside of England.

(Photo Credit: With kind thanks to Philip Hutchinson who runs Guildford Ghost Tours for the photo)