When walking past St Martin le Grand towards Ousegate, you would never think that this part of the city was home to some of the most important members of the city's medieval Jewish community, but for over 100 years during the 12th and 13th centuries it was.
The rise and fall of the Jewish community in York
The first Jews likely reached York around 1100 at the earliest. Barrie Dobson, the distinguished medieval historian, suggested that Jews could have been present as far back as Archbishop Gerard’s time (1100-1108), possibly employed as scholars of Hebrew in his household. However, the first unambiguous evidence for Jews in York did not appear until the 1170s. The community remained small until the 13th century, when, despite the mass-killing of 1190 (in which many of York’s Jewish residents were massacred), the community grew in size and prosperity.
However, this was not to last. The Jews in medieval England relied on the protection of the King, and a series of highly unfavourable and discriminatory demands from King Henry III and his son Edward I gradually deprived the community of their wealth, influence and livelihood, eventually leading to their unofficial abandonment of the city. The community was dealt a final blow in 1290 when the remaining Jews were exiled from England under the infamous Edict of Expulsion, ending Jewish life in the city until the 19th century.
Jewish life on medieval Coney Street
Jewish people worked a variety of different jobs; as doctors, scholars, money-lenders, pawnbrokers and shopkeepers. They were often highly mobile, and the Jewish communities of Coney Street and York were strongly associated with their peers in Lincoln and London, often owning properties and businesses in those cities as well as York and frequently travelling for social and religious events.
They also built structures to help York accommodate Jewish life. On Coney Street they built a schola - a synagogue or Hebrew school (or maybe both). As a synagogue it probably looked similar to those in Guildford and Lincoln, consisting of a modest room on the second floor with a niche at one side for the synagogue's Ark. On the edge of the city at Jewbury, a Jewish cemetery was built where the Jews could bury their dead following Jewish rites, which demanded special levels of care compared to local Christian practices. This cemetery was expanded in 1230 and it seems it served not only York but Lincoln as well. Today it lies beneath a Sainsburys multi-level car park just outside the city's walls, but is memorialised on a commemorative tablet.
Several members, often those living on Coney Street, became highly influential both locally and nationally. Rabbi Yomtov of Joigny wrote an exquisite hymn or piyyut for the solemn festival of Yom Kippur, a hymn that is still used by Ashkenazi Jews today. Aaron of York, perhaps the most influential Jew in York’s history, served as the Chief Rabbi or Judaeorum Presbyter of England. Aaron was also one of the wealthiest Jews in the realm, as was his father-in-law, Leo Episcopus.
Several Jewish women, notably Henna and Sara, were important local property owners in the city and tenaciously fought royal attempts at property appropriation throughout the mid-to-late 13th century. Sara was one of the last six Jewish property owners in the city upon expulsion in 1290. Some community leaders such as Josce of York and Benedict of York attended national coronations and inaugurations on behalf of the community, notably the coronation of Richard the Lionheart in 1189.
Accessing Coney Street’s Jewish heritage
The richness and vividness of Jewish life in the city is apparent from these details and historians have tentatively identified a number of places on Coney Street that were once owned by wealthy Jewsih people.
The community seems to have based itself between the churches of St Martin le Grand and St Michael Spurriergate. Aaron of York seems to have lived at 15 Coney Street (now Waterstones), next door to his nephew Josce the Younger at 17 (now Phonestore), and it is possible that both properties were once owned by Aaron’s father and Josce’s namesake and grandfather Josce of York. On Aaron of York’s death, his properties were given to his wife Henna and his son Elias.
19 Coney Street (Next and Monsoon today) was the site of the schola and several shops, and may have also been owned by Aaron. The houses of Leo Episcopus and Benedict of York are also thought to have been in this area, perhaps opposite Aaron and Josce the Younger, but they cannot be pinpointed exactly with current evidence.
In their heyday these buildings were probably made of stone and had multiple stories and storage areas. They would also have had large windows in the Norman or Gothic styles. It is quite likely that they looked very similar to Norman House on Stonegate, or to the remarkable stone houses of Lincoln, especially Jew’s House and Aaron of Lincoln’s House, both found in the Steep Hill area of the city. Whatever the details of these buildings, they acted as great symbols of status and prestige.