In 1996, renovation work on a humble bookshop in Guildford revealed a stunning medieval chamber, forgotten beneath the ground for some 700 years. Archaeologists have interpreted it as a Jewish synagogue dating back to 1180, making it the oldest synagogue in the British Isles.
Stone steps leading down from what was the medieval street level reveal that it has always been a secret place. This is no surprise: Jewish people were treated appallingly in medieval Britain because of their faith and were considered legally to be the property of the king. Their oppression peaked in the reign of Edward I, who passed oppressive laws before banishing Jews altogether from several towns in 1290 with the Edict of Expulsion.
King Edward’s campaign against the Jews gathered pace in the 1270s, right around the time the Guildford synagogue was abandoned, the archaeological evidence suggests.
The chamber itself was ornately decorated with four columns, niches, a stone bench surrounding the whole chamber, and there is also evidence of a tiled floor. This all suggests that is was a high-status site.
After its discovery, there was a push to install a glass floor in the shop so patrons could see the impressive ruins. Alas, feckless builders concreted over the entrance to the chamber, and today it is only possible to view panoramic photos of it, two doorways, and some displays of archaeological finds in the Monsoon clothing shop that is now located above. The significance of the site in the lamentable history of antisemitism, nevertheless, makes it worth a visit.
- Helen Champman-Davies, Guildford's Hidden History (2010)
- M. Alexander, 'A Possible Synagogue in Guildford', in Religion and Belief in Medieval Europe, ed. G. de Boe and F. Verhaege (1997), pp. 201-12