© Marcus Roberts (1995 and 2005)


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Discovered by archaeologists in 1996 when a shop on the High Street was being refitted, scholars are divided over whether the medieval Guildford synagogue was actually a synagogue or not.

The evidence, however, is compelling. Built circa 1180, when Jews are first known to have arrived in the town, it was destroyed circa 1275 when they were expelled by Queen Eleanor. (It was also around this time that Isaac of Southwark’s house was attacked and his windows and doors were smashed.)

The coincidence of dates aside, the location, structure and design of the building also all point to a late 12th century synagogue. Firstly, the structure bears all the hallmarks of a privately-owned family chapel rather than a communally-owned house of worship. The latter didn’t come into vogue until the 13th century. Instead, evidence from the time suggests, communities would have a number of prayer or study halls, built at the rear of properties in the heart of the Jewish quarter and often, as is the case in Guildford, below ground level.

Typical of the era also, the building is square in shape, and is located on an L shaped site, with frontages and entrances on two streets. Privacy and security would have been paramount. Hence, as with other synagogues of the age, the Guildford synagogue was built from stone, had substantial doors and just a few upper windows. The interior, however, was richly decorated and the designs included painted drapery – a common motif used by both Jews and Christians to represent the Aron Kodesh, the holy ark.

Furthermore, the room also had a series of recesses for seating (sedilias), indicating that it was a meeting place, and was also decorated with ornate colonnades – again a historic motif in synagogues, representing the columns of Tabernacle.

In style and design, the room boasts similarities with the chapel in the nearby castle keep, which also dates from the 1180s, and the same materials were used in its construction. Clearly the same masons built it, but given its square shape and domestic context, it seems unlike any other Christian chapel in this country. There are, however, ample parallels with square and sunken synagogues in medieval France and Germany, and also ancient Israel. The use of stone benches and recesses around the walls are also common in medieval German shuls.

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