The Jews in Medieval Worcester

Sadly the result of the Referendum in June appears to have raised levels of hostile feelings towards several minorities living in the United Kingdom. Such hostility is far from being a purely modern phenomenon. In 1290 King Edward I issued an edict expelling all Jews from England. It remained in force for 367 years, until lifted by Oliver Cromwell in exchange for Jewish finance. It might seem strange that the king should expel a group of people that had provided his government with large amounts of money. But it is probable that most Jews had been bankrupted by previous demands and therefore were of no further use to the royal finances.

Records in the Cathedral Library can give some insight into the Jewish community living in Worcester in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. These records are deeds, details of land and property purchases that include the names of the owners, the position of the properties, and the signatures of witnesses to the transaction. The deeds are usually written in Latin.

I have been able to look at these and am also most indebted to an article called ‘The Worcester Jewry, 1158-1290, Portrait of a Lost Community’ written by Joe Hillaby, an authority on the history of the medieval Jews both locally and nationally.

A clue to the Jewish position is recorded in a grant of land by Walter de Wiggemore to the Cathedral community. In return he received forty shillings and four pence “ad liberandum me de Iudaismo.” The money was to pay his debts and to “free me from the power of the Jews.” People borrowed from the Jews, sometimes could not repay and as we still see today the moneylenders often get the blame!

One person who appears several times on such deeds signs himself as “Richard Judeus” or Richard the Jew. While this surname or title clearly shows his Jewish origins, there is good reason to suppose that Richard had been converted to Christianity and was no longer practising his old faith. The clue to this conversion are other references to “Richard the clerk,” meaning the town reeve or financial manager. Practising Jews were not permitted to hold such offices. An example of such a deed is shown below, then translated into modern English.


                                             Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

‘An Agreement between 1. John son of Richard Judeus of Worcester with the assent of Avis his wife and their heirs and 2. Prior and Convent of Worcester

Quitclaim to a house and curtilage with appurtenances which John held from them in the street towards the Bar by the hands of the Almoner

Consideration 7 marks and 2 shillings (about £4.75 in today’s money)

Witnessed by Alfred the Draper and William Pidele, Provosts of Worcester; Robert de St Godwal; Richard the clerk; William Garefort; Nicholas son of David de Pechesley; Ingan the goldsmith; Geoffrey de Pechesley.’

The deed catalogued ‘B1015’ refers to land in the possession of John Judeus son of Richard, married to Avis daughter of Nicholas of Pechesley.  Such a Christian marriage is further strong evidence of the family’s conversion from Judaism. A quitclaim legally transfers ownership of property. The curtilage is the land and closely associated buildings immediately surrounding the house.

Other deeds refer to the property of Salomon of Cripplegate, and to Matilda his daughter. The name Salomon probably indicates a Jewish family and Hillaby suggests it was Salomon Levi who had been assessed for a tax payment of fourteen shillings in 1194. Cripplegate is now remembered in Worcester by the park opposite the cricket ground just over the river and by Cripplegate House at its eastern end. According to Hillaby the record dates to about 1200 and may show that Salomon had been forced to flee from the town during the reign of King John.

National records of the Exchequer called the Memoranda Rolls show that Richard Judeus had become the town reeve by the end of John’s reign. He was charged with repaying arrears of taxation from the previous years. One of these taxes was the ‘town farm’, an annual payment of twenty four pounds agreed when Worcester was granted its Charter in 1189. Other sums were owing from various arbitrary ‘tallages’ demanded by the king to finance his wars. Richard must have been a respected man of business to have been given this responsibility by fellow citizens.

Tallages were arbitrary taxes levied by the king on his demesne lands, on chartered towns and also on Jews, all of which were considered his direct property and liable for any sum that he might need. A separate Exchequer of the Jews was established to keep records of all their debts and taxes and its records provide a detailed picture of the personal finances of Jewish communities in England.

Thus the ‘Saladin Tallage’ was raised in 1189 to finance the Third Crusade and the ‘Northampton Donum’ in 1194 for King Richard’s ransom.  King John’s 1210 ‘Bristol Tallage’ was enforced with great cruelty. Blinding and tooth-pulling punished the wealthy for non-payment and even the poorest Jews could be expelled from the kingdom.

A Cathedral deed catalogued ‘B217’ is shown below in a slightly abbreviated form. It witnesses an agreement between a landowner named Thomas De Clive – a Shropshire village – and the Prior and Convent of Worcester.


                                        Image copyright the Dean and Chapter of Worcester Cathedral (UK)

‘Agreement conveying a half virgate of land with appurtances to the use of Thomas until he delivers to the Prior and Convent that land in Canterton which Lady Emma de Helewe grandmother of Thomas holds as dower . . .

Witnessed by Walter de Trenchefoil, Sheriff of Worcester; Master William de Poiwyk; Thomas de Stoke; Phillip Fukes; Richard the clerk, keeper of the Jews’ Chest of Worcester; Martin de Barton; John Iugement.’

The deed is witnessed and signed by the Sheriff and local worthies from Powick, Stoke and Barton, and also by Richard the clerk, with the added note that he is “keeper of the Jews’ chest of Worcester.” The Jews’ Chest was a safe local storage place for records of debts owing, with three separate locks and keys held by both Jewish and Christian representatives. The chests had been instituted in the reign of Richard I following riots which had destroyed records of debts owing to them, and hence ruined an important source of royal revenue.

There is much more that can be said about the situation of the Worcester Jews and I hope to return to the subject quite soon!

Tim O’Mara

Reference: Joe Hillaby, ‘The Worcester Jewry, 1158-1290, Portrait of a Lost Community,’ Transactions of the Worcestershire Archaeological Society, third series, Vol.12, 1990



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