Medieval burial site discovered under garden

A memorial stone was dedicated this week to mark the place of one of the oldest Jewish cemeteries in Britain.

The nearly 800-year-old burial site has lain beneath the Rose Garden in Oxford, just outside the city's Botanic Gardens, unknown to most people. Although a plaque was erected in 1931, it was on a wall that became covered in ivy, obscuring it from view.

"We wanted something more visible and explanatory," said local historian Pam Manix, who is a member of the Oxford Jewish heritage committee behind the project. "We have put up a granite stone in the middle where people come in."

Jews are believed to have settled in the city in the 1080s and established one of the most important medieval communities in England, which numbered around 200 people at its height.

Originally, the Jewish cemetery was located nearby in what is now part of Magdalene College but the Hospital of St John had its eye on the site. "Henry III was talked into giving the Jewish cemetery to St John by the warden of the hospital, who was also the king's almoner," Ms Manix explained. "Because the Jews were the wards of the king, technically anything they owned belonged to the King."

Instead, Henry offered the Jews some waste-land, which served as their cemetery until the expulsion of the Jews of England in 1290.

Ms Manix, who is not Jewish, came from the United States to study in Oxford in the 1970s and returned to the city 20 years later to explore the origins of a pathway known as Dead Man's Walk. That led her to research the medieval Jewish quarter. She has now produced a guide that lists around 100 of the people who are buried in the cemetery.

At the ceremony, Kaddish was recited from a rare medieval siddur owned by Corpus Christi College.

Last updated: 12:04pm, July 5 2012