The Jewry Wall is a substantial ruined wall of 2nd-century Roman masonry, with two large archways, in Leicester, England. It stands alongside St Nicholas' Circle and St Nicholas' Church. It formed the west wall of a public building in Ratae Corieltauvorum (Roman Leicester), alongside public baths, the foundations of which were excavated in the 1930s and are also open to view. The wall gives its name to the nearby Jewry Wall Museum.
The origin of the name of the wall (first recorded c. 1665) is debated. It is unlikely to relate to Leicester's medieval Jewish community, which was never large and which was expelled from the town by Simon de Montfort in 1231. One theory, which has achieved widespread currency, is that the name bears some relation to the 24 jurats of early medieval Leicester, the senior members of the Corporation of Leicester, who were said to have met (as a "jury") in the town churchyard – possibly that of St. Nicholas. However, it seems more likely that the name in fact derives from a broader folk-belief attributing mysterious ruins of unknown origin to Jews. Such attributions are found at a number of other sites elsewhere in England and in other parts of Europe.
The wall is an impressive example of standing Roman masonry. It is dated to approximately 125–30 AD, and so is nearly 2000 years old. It measures 23 metres (75 ft) long, 8 metres (26 ft) high and 2.5 metres (8 ft) thick. It is among the largest pieces of surviving civil Roman architecture in Britain, and is comparable to the "Old Work" at Wroxeter. The structure comprises alternate bands of Roman brick and coursed masonry, of local granite, limestone and sandstone. In the centre of the wall are two large arched openings about 3 metres (10 ft) wide and 4 metres (13 ft) high; and there are further arched alcoves on the eastern side.
The remains of the Roman town's public baths, lying immediately west of the wall, were excavated in four seasons from 1936 to 1939 by Kathleen Kenyon. The wall and some of the foundations of the baths are now laid out to public view. They are adjoined by a 1960s building housing the Jewry Wall Museum (and formerly by Vaughan College), which stands on the remainder of the baths site (including the site of the three furnaces). The museum contains excellent examples of Roman mosaics, painted wall plaster and other Roman and pre-historic artifacts from sites around Leicester.
The wall was taken into state care in 1920, and is now the responsibility of English Heritage. The wall itself is a Grade I listed building; while its wider site, including the adjacent remains of the baths and of St Nicholas' Church, forms a scheduled monument.
The wall appears to have formed the western (long) side of a large rectangular basilica-like structure. However, the precise character and function of this building has been a matter of much debate. 18th- and early 19th-century antiquaries tended to identify it as a Roman (or British) temple, sometimes said to have been dedicated to the god Janus. The ruin was also occasionally identified as "part of a bath". For much of the 19th century it was widely believed to have been a town gate, despite the fact that this was suggested by neither its structure nor its location: nevertheless, this interpretation still appeared as a statement of fact in the generally authoritative Victoria County History as late as 1907. The prevailing view in the early 20th century was that the ruin was part of the town basilica.
When she began her excavations in the late 1930s, Kathleen Kenyon initially thought that the overall site was that of the town forum (of which the basilica would have formed a part). Although she modified her views when she uncovered the remains of the baths, she continued to believe that the area had originally been laid out as the forum, with the Jewry Wall the west wall of the basilica; but argued that in a second phase of building, only about 20 years later, the site had been converted to become the public baths. This interpretation later had to be abandoned when, in a series of excavations undertaken between 1961 and 1972, the true remains of the forum were firmly identified a block further east (Insula XXII). The Jewry Wall was then identified as the wall of the palaestra (gymnasium) of the baths complex, and this continues to be the explanation which is most commonly accepted, which is given in the official scheduled monument descriptions, and which appears in the interpretive material on site.
There are still a number of unanswered questions, however, and the issue remains open.
The Jewry Wall Museum faces the Jewry Wall ruins, and houses artefacts from iron age, Roman, and medieval Leicester. The building is Grade II listed and located below Vaughan College, home to Leicester University's Institute for Lifelong-Learning. The museum is run by Leicester City Council and is free to enter.
In 2004, as part of a scheme of cost-cutting on the part of Leicester City Council, it was proposed that the opening hours at the Jewry Wall Museum would be reduced. An interest group was created in response, and the 'Friends of Jewry Wall Museum' have been actively promoting the museum since.
Regardless of this, Leicester City Council reduced the museum's opening times to save money, and the museum is closed for several months over the winter. Councillor John Mugglestone, rationalised the decision at the time, saying: "At Jewry Wall, we have more curators than visitors".
The museum was threatened again in 2011, when Leicester City Council announced plans to close the museum (along with two others in the city) to save money. This decision was overturned following a motion by the City Council's backbench Labour councillors, led by former Labour Council leader Ross Willmott.