A local medieval Jewish community  
An essay by Murray Freedman (2002) and reproduced here with his kind consent.

When I was beginning my research into the history of the Leeds Jewish community, I came across an article entitled "The Coming of the Jews to Leeds" in the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1918.   In it was mentioned the fact that some of the Leeds community members at the time were of the opinion that there were Jews living in Knaresborough centuries before any appeared in Leeds.   Because I had never heard of this theory before, and because there was in any case apparently no evidence to support it, I promptly forgot about it - until I was informed by a friend on a visit to the town he had been told by the assistants of its library that there was some local evidence of this.  So I went back to my notes and after much searching I eventually found the original reference I had forgotten about (and mislaid), and decided to see if I could find out for myself what evidence there was of a Jewish community in Knaresborough. 


I first went to the Knaresborough library, which is situated in Market Place, and spoke to the librarians.  They confirmed what they had told my friend and informed me that the alleyway by the side of the library was known locally as Synagogue Lane (though it may never have had a street name plaque on it and doesn’t today).  I consulted all the books they had on the history of Knaresborough but could find no mention of a Jewish community, but they then showed me a folder of documents containing a section on the Knaresborough synagogue. These documents, I discovered, were actually printouts from an excellent website on the town and its history called ‘Knaresborough Online’.


The website contains a lot of information about the synagogue, including an 1890 map showing the alleyway as being named Synagogue Yard.  This information has been collated by the former town crier of Knaresborough, Mr. Sid Bradley, and even includes a plan of what he thought was the site of the synagogue.   This consisted of some stone foundations, first discovered by the earliest town historian, Hargrove, in 1768.  Unfortunately, he is wrong, for because of the style of structure of these foundations, archaeological advice (which I sought) suggested that they could not have been constructed prior to the 16th century - so it could not have been the synagogue site.  However, what I found particularly interesting was that Hargrove had reported the finding of a Jewish phylactery (tefillin) in Knaresborough castle in 1738, though it is not known where that artifact is today.  (As an aside, only one scroll was found so that it must have been the contents of the Tefillin Shel Yad – the phylactery that is worn on the left arm.  Because it was only one scroll it is also not impossible that it was actually the contents of a mezuzah, from a doorpost, rather than tefillin.)  Looking for other evidence, I managed to see the earliest plan of the town (a lovely hand painted map) dating from 1629, which is in the library of the Yorkshire Archaeological Society, but it did not show the street names other than those of the main roads.  Incidentally, on this map was drawn every dwelling in the town and their number to me indicated a population of about a thousand at that time.  It would have been even less than that in medieval times.  Meanwhile I traced the details of the area in the national census returns back to 1841 when the yard was just called 'Synagogues' and consisted of about half a dozen dwellings.


None of the general Anglo-Jewish history books of the medieval period mention Knaresborough.  For example, the doyen of Anglo-Jewish historians, Cecil Roth, in his book ‘History of the Jews of England’ lists over 120 Jewish communities which existed in England in the medieval period - but not Knaresborough.  Professor Barrie Dobson, who has written authoritatively on the period and especially about the massacre at York in 1190, considers that, other than Newcastle and York, there were no other Jewish communities in the north of England - especially in the 13th century.                     


There is a lot of written evidence of the presence of the Jews in England at the time. Pleas, Pipe Rolls and Starrs are the names of the types of the many documents which are extant.  Written in Latin, and often Hebrew, they mostly record the Jews' financial transactions - for the main Jewish occupation was money lending.  Many of these documents have been published in translation and I naturally consulted them - but again there was no mention of Knaresborough. The latest book on the Jews of the period came out only about five years ago and in that I at last found a mention of Knaresborough   So I wrote to the author, Dr. Robin Mundill, about my quest, and he came back to me with two names on these documents at the Public Record office, concerning debts outstanding to them.   At last I had obtained external proof of Jews living in the town, and to actually have their names, Manser and Brunne fil Manaser of Knaresborough, who may have been father and son, with the date 1262 was terribly exciting! (Manser and Manaser were the English medieval forms of the Hebrew name Menashe.)  So here we have pretty conclusive evidence that there were Jews, probably with their own synagogue, living in Knaresborough in the 13th century.  I later heard from Dr. Mundill that these are perhaps the only references to Knaresborough there were in the contemporary documents.


Although this is not the place to give an account in detail about the life Jews in medieval England - one or two features might be of interest.   Although money lending was probably their main occupation, some were also physicians, goldsmiths and general artisans.  Amongst themselves they spoke Norman French, but all had knowledge of Hebrew and some also of Latin.  They were literate when, other than the nobles and clergy, everyone around them was illiterate. Even some of their women engaged in business. They maintained very close connections with the Jewish communities of Northern France from whence they had come at the time of William the Conqueror.   Although a few of them became very wealthy and all were theoretically under the protection of the king, on the whole they led a precarious life and were subject to swingeing taxation and persecution - especially after 1190.  Having been bled dry financially by the king and having outlived their usefulness as moneylenders, they were all expelled from England a century later in the year 1290. 


It is probable that there is little more we will be able to discover about these medieval Jews of Knaresborough.  Yet many questions remain.   For example, when was the community founded, and how long did it survive?  We know that building new synagogues was forbidden in the year 1222 and this might at first sight indicate that the Knaresborough community (kehilla) was established before then, possibly as an offshoot of the larger and more important York community - perhaps even made up of survivors of the 1190 massacre.    Of course the synagogue may not have been anything more than a modified dwelling large enough to accommodate a quorum of ten men (minyan), or even just a suitable room in one of the houses, and may therefore not have been affected by the 1222 ban.


What brought the Jews to Knaresborough in the first place?  It is known that Knaresborough was a munitions centre in the 13th century.   It manufactured 'quarrels' i.e. the special arrows shot by crossbows.  But would that 'industry', and the possible financial transactions it may have engendered, have attracted the Jews?   Another question is: how big was the community?  A synagogue with a regular minyan suggests the presence of at least 40-50 souls, yet it is doubtful that the total population of Knaresborough was more than a few hundred at the time.  And where exactly on Synagogue Yard was the synagogue situated? 


Most of these questions will forever remain unanswered, but I still think it can be said, with some degree of certainty, that over 700 years ago (and more than 500 years before the presence of any Jews in Leeds) there really was a Jewish community and synagogue in Knaresborough - a town hardly more than a dozen miles from the present day Jewish community in Leeds.


Knaresborough Castle (12th Century)

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Created: 22 September 2005
Latest revision: 14 December 2011

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