Reg Little on a new Town Hall exhibition and a network of underground tunnels in the city
A medieval doorway lying deep below Oxford Town Hall is set to open visitors’ eyes to a medieval city that very few even knew existed.
Beyond the doorway is an underground passageway leading on to a complete network of underground tunnels, connecting the homes of Oxford’s Jewish quarter.
Anyone who might doubt the important position Jews held at the very heart of the city’s life in the Middle Ages need only reflect on the fact that Oxford Town Hall in fact stands on a site once occupied by five medieval Jewish stone houses.
So Oxford Town Hall is a most fitting venue to stage a permanent exhibition created to reveal the rich and diverse story of the city’s medieval Jewish community.
The exhibition opened last week by the Lord Mayor of Oxford, Dee Sinclair and the president of the Oxford Jewish Congregation, Jon Rowland, will display for the first time a wealth of medieval artefacts from the city’s impressive Jewish quarter.
Among objects dating from the 11th to 13th centuries is a stone lamp, jars and most intriguingly the base for a large stone cross bearing Old Testament scenes. It is believed that Jews were ordered in 1268 to erect the cross, originally located in the courtyard of the parish church of St John the Baptist on the south side of what is now Merton Street. The cross was dismantled when Merton College chapel was built there in 1291.
The exhibition features maps showing the extent of the quarter, south of Carfax, spread over both sides of the street we know as St Aldates, then called Great Jewry Street.
The original cellar far below the exhibition still exists and can be viewed by appointment, with hopes that it may later become open to Town Hall visitors.
Sadly, it will not be possible to enter the huge tunnel complex linking the Town Hall to what is now the Santander bank building and houses in Carfax and High Street.
But visitors to the Town Hall are already being offered a glimpse of the history lying beneath their feet, with 360-degree virtual tours of the medieval vaulted cellar that belonged to one of the Jewish houses.
The exhibition has been curated by the Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee, set up by the Oxford Jewish Congregation in 2006, as part of an effort to expand awareness of the community.
Pam Manix, of the Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee and a medieval historian, said: “We are lucky that Oxford has the best documented medieval Jewish community in the world.”
The Jews first came to England with William the Conqueror and settled in Oxford from around 1080.
Whereas Jewish populations elsewhere suffered persecution and even massacres, Jews in Oxford enjoyed royal protection, with successive monarchs happy to profit from their economic success.
As wards of the king, they were under the direct protection of the king’s Constable of the Castle.
But royal protection proved double-edged. They faced relentless depredations imposed by Richard I, needing money for his crusade and later to pay for his ransom after being taken prisoner, and then from his brother John, who levied a crushing tax.
While Jews were prevented from taking part in many trades and profession, being unable to swear Christian oaths, Oxford’s Jews played an important role in the early life of Oxford University, serving as doctors, landlords, pawnbrokers and teachers of Hebrew.
They also lent money to scholars, taking manuscripts in pawn, which sometimes sparked student riots when books remained in Jewish hands.
Michael Ward, another member of the heritage committee, said: “The exhibition is the culmination of quite a lot of time and effort.
“It is not the first thing we have achieved.
“For example we unveiled an information board about the medieval Jewish community in the Norman underground crypt at Oxford Castle in October 2010.
“Oxford is extraordinary in the amount of information we have, because the university has preserved so much of the historical evidence. This means we have a unique memory of those medieval Jews.”
The life of one wealthy Jewish financier, David of Oxford, figures in Simon Schama’s book The Story of the Jews, published to coincide with his acclaimed BBC television series.
“It was his funds that built both Oseney Priory and Oxford Castle, a stronghold the Jews had an interest in seeing built even if they became, from time to time, involuntary residents,” writes Schama.
Such was David’s standing that he was able to turn to King Henry III when the Jewish courts refused to allow him a divorce.
A bribe of silver spurs was sufficient to secure the king’s support.
The grand house David owned survived as part of the Town Hall complex until 1751. Known as The House with the Stone Chamber, it was used by King John to house royal crossbowmen, when crossbows had been outlawed by the Pope for being too murderously accurate.
But it was his successor Henry III who in 1228 gave the building to the town, for the building of the new guildhall, with successive town halls built on the site.
Elise Benjamin, who became Oxford’s first Jewish Lord Mayor in 2011, said she was looking forward to the exhibition.
She said: “It’s great that it’s at Oxford Town Hall, because the hall is built on the old Jewish quarter. It’s very much part of the physical history of the city. I think it will highlight yet another element of Oxford’s history.”
A 45-minute walking tour has also been created, which takes in other city centre sites such as the Jewish cemetery located under the modern Rose Garden, in front of Oxford Botanic Garden, and the site of the medieval synagogue near the northern tower of Christ Church.
The thriving medieval Jewish population is thought to have numbered over 200 in a city of several thousand inhabitants.
But their presence, lasting over two centuries, was to come to an abrupt end in 1290.
After 1275 all forms of usury were forbidden to Jews and properties were confiscated by the crown.
As they reached financial exhaustion, and were viewed as little use to the crown, Edward I expelled the depleted Jewish community from England.
Allowed to take only the chattels they could carry, Oxford’s Jews headed for Northern France, from where they were also expelled in 1306.
The last trace of any medieval Oxford Jew was found in a list of Jews living in Paris in 1296, which refers to Meir of Oxford.
However, by then they had truly left their mark in history, for it is now thought that a number of Oxford colleges, such as Balliol, Merton and Christ Church, were all endowed with properties that had been originally owned by medieval Oxford Jews.
It all adds up to quite a legacy that Oxford Town Hall’s new exhibition both recognises and celebrates.