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The Jews of Bedfordshire may well be able to claim origins going back into classical antiquity. The find of a 4th century Palestinian oil lamp in a gravel pit at Flitwick could indicate the presence of Jews in the areas with the Roman legions. What made the lamp of exceptional interest was that it was decorated with a menorah design. This is not the only Roman Jewish interest in the country, as a gold Roman coin discovered in Oxfordshire, is believed to have been made with gold taken from the Temple in Jerusalem, by Titus, at the sack of the Temple.
A Jewish community was definitely established in the town in the Middle Ages. Comparatively little is known of this early Jewry. It was centered around the markets in the High Street and is thought to have been small, though it was significant enough to be one of the 26 towns to have its own Archae or official chest for the storage an accounting of debts and dealings with the Jews.
However, the evidence that exists follows the general pattern of other smaller Jewries and it is reasonable to suppose that it was a largely typical medieval Jewish community. In the 13th century certain Jewish names appear much more than others in the records thus it is probable that these were the magnates and the richer members of the community.
The first definite documented reference is in 1185, when Solomon and Jacob, of Bedford, paid a large sum to Henry I to recover a debt. Also in 1194 seven Bedford Jews contributed towards the ransom of Richard I. Nothing is known of the history of the Jewry before this, though it was quite probably in existence before this date.
Interestingly Bedford was home to at least two Jewish business women. In 1194 a Fleur de Liz was a contributor to the Donum. Later a Belia, widow of Pictavin of Bedford, did much business on her own account and was one of the most prominent female money lenders of her time.
In 1202 Bonefand, a Jew of Bedford was charged with a strange crime of the "ementulation" (probably circumcision) and subsequent death of Richard, nephew of Robert of Sutton. The charge is thought to relate to a conversion of the said Richard to Judaism. Despite the dangers and severe penalties that could follow conversion there is evidence of at least a few conversions in the middle ages. The case was tried by jury and Bonefand was acquitted.
The Jews of Bedford suffered the common indignities and outrages increasingly perpetrated on Jews in the 13th century. The disturbances of the Barons Wars seem to have led to the burning of the Bedford chest in 1268. The sworn contents as to the lost contents of the chest suggest that the Jews of Bedford responded to the increasing restrictions on their money lending activities with dealings in the staples of wool and wheat.Next