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The Hidden History of Oxford’s Jewish Community

An unassuming memorial stone near the entrance to the Oxford Botanic Garden marks the site of the city’s first Jewish cemetery. Installed in 2012, the tablet is a testament to the hidden history of Oxford’s prominent medieval Jewish community. Although its presence was rendered largely invisible after the expulsion of the Jews from England in 1290, university groups and community organisations such as Chabad House and Oxford Jewish Heritage have worked tirelessly to research and commemorate the historical presence of Oxford’s Jewish community. Not only was Oxford home to one of medieval England’s oldest and largest Jewish populations, the community contributed significantly to the early life of the city and the founding of university institutions. In the early modern period, Jewish scholars and researchers translated the Bodleian Library’s collection of Hebrew manuscripts and taught Hebrew to undergraduates, and after they were officially admitted as members of the university in the mid-nineteenth century, greatly enriched Oxford’s academic life. Today, the University of Oxford and the surrounding city are home to a thriving Jewish community that can trace its roots back nearly one thousand years to a time before the university’s founding.

Medieval Jewish Oxford

The first Jews arrived in England with the Norman Conquest in 1066, and the Domesday Book of 1086 records a Jewish person living in Oxfordshire.[1] Arriving in Oxford circa 1080, the city’s Jewish population lived primarily in the commercial centre of St Aldates, which would become known as Great Jewry Street. An initially small population of around 80-100 Jews practised the professions of small trading, medicine, pawn brokerage, and moneylending, providing finance and housing for clerics associated with the university. During the university's early years, up to ten percent of all student accommodation was owned by Jewish landlords. A nearby street called Little Jewry Lane featured many Jewish homes in close proximity, and Copin of Worcester founded a synagogue on Great Jewry Street in 1228, located where the left tower of Christ Church stands today.[2]

Although Jews were prohibited from matriculating at the university unless they converted to Christianity, Christian scholars such as Roger Bacon and Bishop Grosseteste frequently consulted the rabbis and Jewish scholars living in the city.[3] St Aldates was also home to a Talmudic academy and a four-generation dynasty of rabbis and scholars founded by the philosopher Moses of Bristol and the liturgical poet Rabbi Simeon of Mainz, who produced works on Jewish law and wrote commentaries on the Talmud and the oral rendition of the Torah.[4] They also contributed significantly to the growth of the university; in 1264, the successful financier Jacob of Oxford sold two buildings to Walter de Merton for the establishment of Merton College.[5]

Compared to their co-religionists in other English towns and cities, the Jewish population of Oxford enjoyed relatively positive relationships with their Christian neighbours. Yet they also faced increasing antisemitism throughout the 13th century, including attacks that occurred primarily around Christian holidays such as Easter. After converting to Judaism, Haggai of Oxford (also known as Robert of Reading) was given an ultimatum by the provincial council that he must abandon his new faith or be burned at the stake. After refusing, on 27 April 1220 he was burned alive at Osney Abbey, where a plaque erected in 1931 commemorates his martyrdom.[6] In 1244 students rioted and burned several Jewish houses, and during the Ascension Day Riot of 1268, it was alleged that a Jew had attacked a university religious procession and trampled a crucifix to the ground.[7] The entire Jewish community of Oxford was temporarily imprisoned and forced to pay for a marble and gold crucifix to be installed in Merton College.

Marginal illustration from the Rochester Chronicle showing the expulsion of the Jews from 1290

A Jewish cemetery was established in Oxford with royal approval between 1188 and 1231 on the water meadows between the East Gate and Cherwell River, which was purchased by the Jewish community shortly after 1177.[8] However, in 1231, King Henry III granted part of the burial site on the north of High Street to St. John the Baptist Hospital, leaving only a small piece of land measuring 300 feet by 90 feet on the south side for Jewish burial.[9] The community gradually dispersed during this period, and only ten Jewish property holders remained by the end of the 13th century. On 18 July 1290, England’s entire Jewish population of sixteen to seventeen thousand was banished by King Edward I, beginning a period of exile that would last almost four hundred years. Some of their confiscated property was appropriated by Balliol College and later by Christ Church. However, recent evidence discovered in the Bodleian Library suggests that some Jewish converts and scholars may have remained in Oxford after the expulsion at a Domus conversorum, or house of converts, producing Bibles in Hebrew and Latin for 14th-century Christian scholars, although this remains heavily disputed.[10]

After the expulsion, the Jewish cemetery was appropriated by the hospital for its own burial ground until it was dissolved in 1457 and the land granted to William Waynflete for the site of Magdalen College.[11] The Botanic Garden was subsequently established across the street in 1621 by Henry Danvers, 1st Earl of Danby. A History of the County of Oxford states that Danby "bought the lease of the occupier of meadowland just outside the boundary of the city, where once the Jews’ cemetery had been, and obtained a new lease from Magdalen College."[12] The presence of a Jewish cemetery is corroborated by the fact that bones were discovered when the wall of the Botanic Garden was built from 1621 to 1633.[13] In 2016, more bones were found on the site of the medieval kitchen of Magdalen College and determined by the historian Lawrence Brockliss to originate from the Jewish cemetery.[14] One of the walks within the nearby Christ Church Meadows continues to bear the name ‘Deadman’s Walk’, referring to the route taken by Jewish funeral processions up to the 13th century that linked Great Jewry Street to the cemetery.[15] In 1931, a plaque on the Botanic Garden gates was unveiled by the City Council to commemorate the site of the ancient Jewish cemetery, and the Oxford Jewish Heritage Committee erected a more prominent memorial on 4 July 2012.[16]

New memorial to the former Jewish cemetery

1600s to the Present

The Jewish population began to return to Oxford in the early seventeenth century, primarily to assist with cataloguing Hebrew manuscripts in the Bodleian Library and teaching Hebrew to university students. Jewish tradesmen, peddlers and grocers contributed to the vital life of the early modern city even before enforcement of the expulsion edict eased in 1655, such as Jacob Cirques Jobson, who opened what was supposedly the first coffee shop in Europe in 1654 at the corner of Queen’s Lane and High Street (where Queen’s Lane Coffee Shop still stands today).[17] During this period, the university began to place greater emphasis on Hebraic and Talmudic studies. Sir Thomas Bodley, who founded the Bodleian Library in 1602, took a particular scholarly interest in Hebrew manuscripts. In 1607, he instructed his librarian Thomas James "To gette the helpe of the Jewe, for the hebrewe catologue, for it can not be done witout him."[18] The earliest Hebrew manuscripts were collected in 1601, and the library’s first 1605 catalogue records 58 books with titles in Hebrew script, mostly of Venetian origin, which soon grew to become one of the most comprehensive collections in the world.

During this period, a German Jewish man named Jacob Wolfgang converted to Christianity in order to become a member of the university in 1608, becoming the first known Jewish person to do so. A reader at the Bodleian Library, he was a respected instructor of Hebrew despite being scorned by Christian scholars for not being able to "dictate (without much difficulty) two lines in that language (Latin) with congruity".[19] Wolfgang was also most likely the man recorded as ‘Jacob of Merton College’, who catalogued the first Hebrew manuscripts in Oxford. Another significant Jewish member of the university in the early modern period was Jacob Bobart the Elder, a German botanist from Brunswick who relocated to England to accept the position of the first head gardener of the Botanic Garden. In 1648, he published an anonymous catalogue of sixteen hundred plants under his care, which would become a significant contribution to botanical and medicinal studies.[20]

By the 1730s, a small Jewish community had formed in St Clements Village close to the East Gate, outside the religious and civic jurisdiction of the university. During this period, the Jewish population became more socially and economically integrated into the surrounding community, and the Oxford Jewish Congregation was founded in 1842 in St Ebbe’s.[21] Although the community remained small throughout the nineteenth century, religious barriers to university admissions were finally removed; in 1856 Jewish undergraduates were accepted, and in 1871 college fellowships were opened to all scholars.[22] By 1882 there were 25 Jewish undergraduates, and in the same year, Samuel Alexander became the first Jewish person elected a fellow of an Oxford College. The first Jewish professor was the mathematician J. J. Sylvester, who was made Savilian Professor of Geometry in 1883. Adolf Neubauer subsequently became the first Jewish scholar to catalogue the Bodleian’s Hebrew manuscripts, gaining his MA in 1873 and becoming Reader in Rabbinical Literature in 1884 and an Honorary Fellow of Exeter College.[23] Up until World War II, however, there were still few Jewish undergraduates, and Isaiah Berlin became only Oxford’s fifth Jewish academic when he was awarded an All Souls Fellowship in 1932.[24] Scholars such as Berlin, a prominent philosopher who helped to found Wolfson College, and Rabbi Michael Weissmandl, a visiting scholar and an expert on Hebrew manuscripts, played a significant role in the life of the university during the war years.

Plaque commemorating Isaiah Berlin at Headington House on Old High Street

During the postwar period, Eastern European refugees increasingly began to arrive in Oxford, and the university saw sharp growth in the number of Jewish students and academics. Today, approximately seven to nine percent of University of Oxford students are Jewish.[25] The Oxford Centre for Jewish Studies, Chabad House, the David Slager Jewish Student Centre, and the Oxford University Jewish Society all signify a vibrant Jewish presence within both the university and local community. As Oxford continues to commemorate and celebrate Jewish heritage and history, it should also remain dedicated to acknowledging its past legacy of oppression and unearthing new discoveries about the historical presence and rich contributions of the city’s Jewish community.

Written by Eliza Browning

Eliza is a recent graduate of the MSt in English: 1900 to the Present at the University of Oxford. Her research focuses on modernist poetry, the intersection of literature and visual art, material texts and periodical studies, and gender and sexuality studies.


References [1] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford University Botanic Garden: A Jewish Perspective’, Oxford Chabad Society (22 November 2018). [2] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford University Botanic Garden: A Jewish Perspective’, Oxford Chabad Society (22 November 2018). [3] Marcus Roberts, ‘A Brief History of the Jews of Oxford’, Oxford Chabad Society (2005). [4] Marcus Roberts, ‘Jewish Learning in Mediaeval Oxford’, Oxford Chabad Society (2005). [5]Oxford Mediaeval History’, Oxford Jewish Heritage (20 March 2009). [6] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford Jewish Personalities’, Oxford Chabad Society. [7]Oxford Mediaeval History’, Oxford Jewish Heritage (20 March 2009). [8] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford University Botanic Garden: A Jewish Perspective’, Oxford Chabad Society (22 November 2018). [9]Mediaeval Jewish Cemetery’, Oxford Jewish Heritage. [10] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford University Botanic Garden: A Jewish Perspective’, Oxford Chabad Society (22 November 2018). [11] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford University Botanic Garden: A Jewish Perspective’, Oxford Chabad Society (22 November 2018). [12]Hospitals: St John the Baptist’, British History Online. [13] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford University Botanic Garden: A Jewish Perspective’, Oxford Chabad Society (22 November 2018). [14]The First Oxford Jewish Cemetery’, Oxford Jewish Heritage. [15] Azania Patel, ‘Afterlives of the Town: Politics of Burial and Personhood in Oxford’, Uncomfortable Oxford (4 September 2022). [16] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford University Botanic Garden: A Jewish Perspective’, Oxford Chabad Society (22 November 2018). [17] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford Jewish Personalities’, Oxford Chabad Society. [18] Marcus Roberts, ‘A Brief History of the Jews of Oxford’, Oxford Chabad Society (2005). [19] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford Jewish Personalities’, Oxford Chabad Society. [20] Eli Brackman, ‘Oxford Jewish Personalities’, Oxford Chabad Society. [21]Oxford Modern Period’, Oxford Jewish Heritage (26 June 2009). [22] Marcus Roberts, ‘A Brief History of the Jews of Oxford’, Oxford Chabad Society (2005). [23]Oxford Modern Period’, Oxford Jewish Heritage (26 June 2009). [24] Marcus Roberts, ‘A Brief History of the Jews of Oxford’, Oxford Chabad Society (2005). [25] Marcus Roberts, ‘A Brief History of the Jews of Oxford’, Oxford Chabad Society (2005).

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