Tucked away by the banks of the River Wensum is probably the oldest dwellings in Norwich. In almost nine centuries it has been a merchant’s house, a sanctuary from violence, a brewery – and now a bar for an adult education centre.

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A chequered history.

The house has had many lives. It is also known as the Jews House and the Music House but the current name commemorates the family who settled here in the 12th century and became wealthy through trade. Isaac fil Jurnet was among the Jews who came to Norwich after the Norman Conquest. It used to be believed the Jurnets built the house, but recent research points to it being founded in the 1140s by a Norwich man named John Curry. Its proximity to the river must have been among the attractions of the property, as this was the economic heart of the city. Most of the Jews who settled in Norwich the community was estimated at 200 in a city of 5000 people lived between the castle and the market place. This was for security, as times were difficult for them. Anti-Semitism had been inflamed across Europe, partly by the religious zeal unleashed by the Crusades. In 1144, by which time the Jurnets are believed to have been established in Norwich, a 12-year-old skinners apprentice called William was found dead just outside Norwich. Without evidence, the Jews were blamed. This was the first recorded example of the so-called blood libel the widespread claim that Jews were involved in forcible circumcision and ritual murder of Christian children. It led to popular hatred and, at local level, William became a saint and the centre of a cult.

Who was Isaac Jurnet?

Isaac came from a wealthy merchant family resident in England for at least two generations. According to Francis Blomefields 18th century History of Norfolk, he married a Christian Miryld, daughter of Humphrey de Havile but had to pay a huge sum of 1800 marks for the privilege of living in England. The Jews of Nowich were not confined to a ghetto, but free to live where they chose at their risk. When Isaac bought the King Street house in about 1170, the fact it was built like a fortress would have helped. There was no door to the street but a stone porch and entrance at the side with courtyard behind. The arched and vaulted ground floor had only a few narrow windows, adding to its security from thieves and other attackers. The family lived and slept on the floor above. On the accession of Richard I, the new kings pledge to go on crusade to reclaim the Holy Land incited anti-Semitic riots across England. In York it led to the notorious Cliffords Tower massacre of Jewish families, while in Norwich early in 1190, mobs killed Jews in their homes. Most took refuge in the castle, as they had done after Williams death. The Jurnets were safe in their fortress-like home, but they must have lived in fear.

How did they make a living?

Jews were banned from most trades, so were money-lenders and pawnbrokers instead a profession in turn prohibited to Christians as usury. The Jurnets lent to rich and poor alike. This was lucrative, but led to resentment. One of the reasons for outbreaks of persecution was that records of debts could be destroyed. In the 13th century the Jurnets had property in London, where the Bank of England now stands, and Kings Lynn as well as Norwich. The quay near the Norwich house indicates that, like the occupants of nearby Dragon Hall, the Jurnets were inolved in the import and export of goods. Their house had a shop and storeroom where the bar now stands. The Jews had a strange relationship with the monarchy; they were officially protected by the crown, and lent money to the king, but were at the mercy of his whims. Isaacs father was among the wealthiest English Jews, and regularly lent to the Crown. His son, also Isaac, took over the family business on his fathers death in 1197. Known simply as Isaac of Norwich, he once paid an eighth of the entire tax levied on the city 400. The depleted Jews of Norwich contributed a large sum to help ransom Richard I when he was imprisoned in Austria coming home from crusade.

So the kings were allies?

When it suited them. In modern parlance the Jews were lucrative tax points. They could be relied to pay up when the king wanted money to go to war. But when, in 1210, Isaac Jurnet failed to pay his contribution to King Johns war effort, he was locked up and his goods, including the King Street house, confiscated. Fortunately for him, John soon died, and the new king, Henry III, released him. Isaacs grandson suffered the same fate he was sent to the Tower of London charged with treason. To save his life he converted to Christianity, but the family lost their property for good. Time was running out for English Jews; in 1290 Edward I expelled them. They were not to return for nearly 400 years.

What happened to the house?

Henry III gave it as a reward to Lord William de Valeres. A number of wellknown Norfolk families have also owned it, including Sir John Paston from the 1470s and, from 1613, Chief Justice Coke, whose descendants were to build Holkham Hall. In the second half of the 19th century Norwich brewers Youngs, Crawhay and Youngs were the owners. They in turn gave it to the city corporation. Norfolk County Council bought the rest of the site in 1964, turning it into the adult education centre at Wensum Lodge, and leased Jurnets House from the city. Today it is a bar for the centre, and its atmospheric undercroft hosts regular acoustic music sessions. The King Street area is undergoing a long overdue renaissance, restoring some buildings to their former glory while new ones go up alongside them.

Wensum Lodge, 169 King Street, Norwich. Telephone 01603 666021.

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