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Within Leicestershire borders you’ll find beautiful undulating countryside, old forests- such as Charnwood, Martinshaw Woods and the relatively new National Forest Centre. In the heart of Charnwood, Beacon Hill- soaring 803 feet above the county- gives a great view of Trent and Soar Valleys.
Leicester lies close to the River Soar on the edge of the forest and was founded by the Romans. Most of the city’s buildings are Victorian with a few later developments which fit in quite nicely. It houses one of the country’s oldest buildings, the Old Town Hall where Shakespeare is said to have recited his verses to Queen Elizabeth I and if you visit the square with some imagination you will be able to invoke his spirit near the lovely fountain.
The heart of the city is the Clock Tower which is at the intersection of five routes into the city. The market is Europe’s largest covered market and the historic core of the city has some spare remains of Leicester Castle, medieval churches, the Guildhall and Jewry Wall whose museum contains Roman artifacts.
In fact, Leicester is one of the oldest cities in England with its history going back 2000 years! Originally inhabited by a Celtic tribe called the Corieltauvi, its first name was Tatae Coritanorum. According to an account by Geoffrey of Monmouth this was the Briton’s town for their King Leir, therefore the name of Leicester came from Kaerlir (Leir’s chester= i.e. fortified town). However, it is now commonly believed that Leicester is derived from the words “castra” and “ligore”. Castra means camp and Ligore was the original name of River Soar (actually River Legro.) The Domesday book recorded the city’s name as Ledecestre.
Leicester Castle’s most important role in the history of England came in 1265 when Simon de Montfort forced King Henry III to hold the first Parliament of England there, challenging the power of the monarchy. Today the site’s remains include the Great Hall, the original motte, John of Gaunt’s Cellar, which runs under a courtyard adjacent to the Castle Hall and some sparse ruins, such as the Magazine Gateway and what is now called the Castle Yard which are the remains of the inner bailey. Even though what you see of the complex of buildings termed Leicester Castle displays architecture from the 14th, 15th, 16th and 17th centuries, it is not a renaissance castle. It’s better to say that some of the Norman portions have survived along with the non-dedicated additions. According to Paul Johnson’s book British Castles the 17th century courthouse along with the original Norman Great Hall happens to be the oldest surviving aisled and bay-divided hall in Europe! The castle church, St. Mary de Castro, originally founded as a collegiate college by Robert de Beaumont (1st Earl of Leicester) in 1107, is an array of architectural styles which reflects the entire complex.
It suffered its first damage in the rebellion of 1101 after Hugh de Grentmesnil first established the beginning of the castle as a motte and bailey timber structure with a defensive rampart and ditch. It was placed in the southwest corner of the town, making some use of remaining Roman walls to the south and west on the River Soar. Later, Robert de Beaumont re-built the timber castle in stone by the early mid-12th century. (At that time the most powerful barons started to make separate peace treaties amongst themselves. Around 1150 it is guessed that there were about 1,115 unlicensed castles in Great Britain. They found that their own vassals, who were building edifices which could stand up to regular sieges , were becoming uncontrollable. The constant warfare made the lives of large landowners intolerable. It was easier for the Earl of Leicester to make these treaties with the Earls of Northampton, Hereford and Chester. In this demilitarized zone both Earls of Leicester and Chester were to combine to destroy castles built by others.)
King Edward the first (1300) and King Edward II (1310,1311) used this castle briefly as a residence. Eventually, it became the traditional seat of the Dukes of Lancaster in the 1400s. However, its true purpose remained as a courthouse primarily, especially since the medieval Great Hall and Church were the largest edifices of the castle complex. There is scientific evidence that the hall was open with no roofing until the early 1500s. This portion was probably built by Robert le Bossu, the second Earl of Leicester and founder of Leicester Abbey. After 1425, Parliament met in this hall, and court proceedings as well. Even though most of the original castle and its various buildings decayed and were eventually demolished, the Great Hall survived because it continued to be used as a court up to 1919. The brick front was added toward the end of the 17th century, was divided up into individual courtrooms in 1821 and final alterations were made in 1858.
The royal connections to Leicester Castle read like a Who’s Who in English castles because of the War of the Roses and most of the damages were done through the civil wars. Simon de Montfort was killed at the Battle of Evesham and shortly thereafter it was taken over by Henry III. He built a hospital next to the castle in 1331 and Henrys IV and V set about to develop the area as a religious precinct rather than build the castle itself defensively. The defensive structures that were built ( i.e. the Turret Gateway on the south side and the Magazine Gateway in the northeast corner) were insufficient for a siege. By 1485 when the Yorkist King, Richard the Third, stayed in Leicester before the fatal battle at Bosworth he found the royal apartments were uninhabitable and chose to stay at a local inn.
In May of 1645, the royalists breached the city walls with six ‘great cannons’. These were two demi-cannon, which fired 27 pound shots, two culverins (15 pound shots) and two twelve pound cannon balls. The cannon proper ( the big one) along with a crew of five men fired a 47 pound shot at Leicester Castle!
Today this complex which was referred at one time as the Newarke is situated between St. Nicholas Circle on the north and De Montfort University to the south. Most recently the Magazine Gateway was saved by public outcry against demolition. The church of St. Mary is the oldest part still standing (dating from 12th century) which is still in use as a Church of England parish. There are also castle gardens which were set along the bank of the canal.
There are four other visits you might want to make while you’re in Leicester. Newarke Houses Museum was newly refurbished just this past June. It traces and illustrates Leicestershire’s history (spanning five hundred years) and heroes with five hundred authentic exhibits and collections that will keep your interest.
New Walk Museum and Art Gallery presented the town with various collections in 1849 with the help of the Literary and Philosophical Society. The collections have increased over the past 150 years into one of the premier collections and as a museum in the Midlands area. Musical performances are scheduled here as well. Six permanent exhibits include an Ancient Egyptian Gallery, German Expressionist, Victorian, European Art and more. The Discovery Room is a wonderful interactive for children.
The Guildhall was built around 1380 and belonged to the Gild of Corpus Christi. This became the mayor’s town hall in the 15th century until 1876. During the Reformation the Gild was dissolved and the property was returned to the Crown even though the town continued to use it as a public meeting place. In a charter granted in 1589 the property reverted to the corporation of the borough. Today this building houses a 17h century library and Victorian cells. It’s also a theatrical and music hall.
The Jewry Wall Museum Site at St Nicholas Circle is a chance to get a peak at prehistoric times up to 1485. There are Roman mosaics and wall paintings along with the skeleton of the Saxon ‘Glen Parva Lady’ with many other legacies from this Roman settlement. The actual structure is 18 feet high and 70 feet long near where many of the Roman relics were found. There are also remains of a Norman Castle and the ruins of an abbey founded in 1143 in which Cardinal Wolsey died in 1530.
North of Leicester, two miles north of Belgrave, off Thurston Road, Belgrave Hall can be found in a garden walled atmosphere. It was built in the early 1700s by Edmond Cradock in a vernacular Queen Anne style with an interestingly placed veranda. It passed through various hands throughout the 18th and 19th centuries eventually being transformed into a museum depicting Victorian upper middle class domestic life in 1936. In 1999 Belgrave Hall made international news when security cameras recorded what looked like two ghostly figures standing outside. The ISPR determined that the apparitions were normal phenomena and not supernatural in nature but who really knows? Personally, I side with the ISPR! The Gimson collection is on display here and will be a great diversion!
Bradgate Park is seven miles northwest of Leicester in 850 acres which were originally cleared by the Greys of Groby in the 15th century. The river Lin runs through the park and it is neighbor to Swithland Woods. The house was built by Sir John Grey in 1490 which became the birthplace of Lady Jane Grey who was Queen for a mere nine days. This has been designated a medieval deer park and flora and fauna alike are allowed to flourish freely in and around the ruins of the house. A much later park landmark is a folly known as “Old John” on the top of the highest hill in the park. It was built in 1784 and does add interest to the area. It was accredited to the work of the Greys who were then Earls of Stamford. It was granted to the people of Leicester in 1928 by Charles Bennion, who bought it from the Grey heirs.
Going clear up to the border on the north, Prestwold Hall is three miles east of Loughborough amidst 20 acres of gardens. This Italianate magnificence was remodeled in 1843 by William Burn and it has been the home of the Packe family for 350 years. Inside you’ll find beautiful Italian plasterwork along with the 18th century English and European furniture and a collection of family portraits. Unfortunately it cannot be toured but is a corporate, conference and wedding venue with excellent chefs and a well-stocked wine cellar.
Three sites in this entry are funded and protected by English Heritage which receives government and private grants in order to keep these sites available and safe for public access. These are Kirby Muxloe Castle, Lyddington Bede House and Ashby-de-la-Zouch Castle- all in the western portion of Leicestershire.
Kirby Muxloe is only four miles west of Leicester and is actually connected to Ashby-de-la-Zouch by the fact that Lord Hastings, Edward IV’s Chamberlain, built a tower and chapel at Ashby. Interestingly, he was not able to finish Kirby Muxloe because he was executed by Richard III before he was able to finish it. He started building in 1480 after receiving a license to build in 1474 and apparently it was formidable at one time. Building continued some time after but the money ran out most likely after confiscations were made.
Presently, only the northwest corner tower and the gatehouse up to the second storey remains. Lord Hastings employed John Cowper as a master-mason to build a moat (which still exists), drawbridge and portcullis and two-leaf doors at either end of the gateway, flanked by octagonal turrets enclosing spiral stairways. The buildings that remain still show off the high quality workmanship. What no longer remains apparent is that it was actually a manor-house first and the rectangular castle was built around it.
At the same time, Lord Hastings was refortifying and doing restoration work on Ashby-de-la-Zouch which is in the far west corner of Leicestershire a short distance north of Kirby Muxloe. He did much the same at Ashby-de-la-Zouch, in that he made a castle out of a fortified manor house (14th century). At Ashby he put up a high curtain wall on an undefended south side, raised a magnificent tower house (much like Tattershall in Lincolnshire) in the center. It had four floors, reaching a height of 27.5 m (90 feet) with a small east wing with its semi-octagonal angle turrets, which was divided into seven low storeys. In the main part of the structure a set of storerooms, kitchen and great hall with a great chamber above it was laid out and more in keeping with the style of the 12th century, interestingly enough. Even though it was unfinished it was slighted in 1648 which didn’t do it any good and Hastings’ beheading came shortly afterward at the behest of Richard III at a Privy Council meeting. His execution was carried out immediately. It is widely believed that the model for the castle in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe was Ashby-de-la-Zouch and that Mary Queen of Scots was brought here on two occasions The town has a lot of history and architectural interest and will be worth a stay, particularly around Market Street, the town’s main thoroughfare and also Bath Street. Staunton Harold Church, a short distance northeast, is worth a visit. It was one of very few churches built at the time of the Commonwealth. It was erected by Sir Robert Shirley and the interior contains many 17th century furnishings and includes fine paneling and ceiling frescoes.
Staunton Harold Church T-01332 863822
Just to the north of East Midlands Airport, Donington Castle has sparse remains which have now been incorporated into Donington House ( not to be confused with Donington le Heath ) but this early 12th century castle was an important stronghold. It was attacked around the time of the Magna Carta wars and was originally held by the de Lacy family. It passed into the hands of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, the cousin of Edward II, and eventually the castle became the property of the Crown.
North of Kirby Muxloe, Mountsorrel Castle is no longer a scrap, so if you visit the site there will be no remains to see. It was once held by the Earls of Leicester from 1140 until it was taken by Henry II after the revolt of his son, Prince Henry. Richard I and John both made improvements to the building. It was beseiged in 1216-17 and was leveled.
If you head for the eastern corner of Leicestershire next, you’ll run into the tiny county of Rutland which is centered around a vast expanse of lake, which is man-made, called Rutland Water. The previously mentioned Lyddington Bede House is in the southern portion of Rutland and was once a medieval Palace for the Bishops of Lincoln. Tucked away in its corner, it is actually an old ecclesiastical building surrounded by almshouses. This grand medieval residence was constructed primarily in the 14th century and accommodated many important occupants until 1547, when it was seized by the Crown. One wing of the bishop’s Palace remains and the entire complex is worth seeing.
On the other side of Rutland Water, far north and on the edge of the county between Rutland and Leicestershire, Oakham Castle on Catmos St. (just off Market Place in the Oakham town center) is a comparatively small gem with an interesting difference. It was built by Walkelin de Ferrers, a Norman baron circa 1180-90. It has also been in possession of the King who visited it occasionally. It is actually a Norman great hall dating from the 12th century with the original bailey and motte earthworks close by. The remains of other parts of this fortified manor house lie beneath the grass of the inner bailey. It was surrounded by earthen banks and stone wall which had at least two towers.
Uniquely, the hall contains over 200 horseshoes which had belonged to the royal equine and those of the peers of the realm, most from Edward IV onwards. The vaulted beams in the interior are beautiful and the stone work, which is attributed to the masons who built Canterbury Cathedral, is in wonderful condition, overall.
The farthest southern corner of Leicestershire, Stanford Hall, which is very close to Rugby (in Warwickshire) on the banks of the River Avon, has an equally attractive stable, much like Althorp (in Northamptonshire). It has been in the possession of the Cave family since 1430. There was an earlier existing manor house which Sir Roger Cave had removed by the Smiths before the 18th century to build the present structures. The hall contains a library with well over 5,000 books and rare old manuscripts- the oldest dating back from 1150! With an extensive art collection throughout, the standout rooms are the pink and gold ballroom with a coved and frescoed ceiling (see the photo in the Leicestershire album!) and trompe l’oeil corners, costumes are displayed in the Old Dining Room and Royal Stuart and Tudor portraits.
The stable building houses the Percy Pilcher museum, placed there in honor of his passing at Stanford Hall at the end of the 19th century. A wonderful rose garden completes this picturesque estate.
If you are so inclined, you can visit the site where Richard the III lost his life and then his crown to Henry VII. It is boundaried by A5, A444 and B585 and is clearly signposted from these roads. Re-enactments of the battle are held in the summer of each year. Do contact the ranger of the site through the Leicester City Council for more information.
Two other castles I want to mention in passing are Groby, Hallaton and Sauvy Castles of which there are no remains. I will do a little more research and see if I can’t dig up more than bits and pieces of history connected to them. In the mean time, remember…
The Castle Lady loves you with true ardor and lots of kisses!
To see more photos of Leicestershire check out the photo album below! Enjoy!