While browsing through my files, I ran across this piece written almost 25 years ago. For readers who may not be familiar with the SCA (the medieval recreation group I belong to), we develop a persona–a medieval person who might have actually lived (but didn’t) as a focus for our research, clothing, etc. For most of my time in the SCA, my primary persona has been a 13th century Englishwoman (Nicolaa) from Leicester.
The clouds that had earlier covered the sky now opened up as I drove along the A47. But it mattered not– I was “home” at last.
My husband’s relatives had thought it rather odd that I should want to visit Leicester–nothing particularly famous there, after all. I spared them the lengthy explanation of the SCA and personae and simply said it was a place I had studied extensively. It looked for a long while like I would not get to see Nicolaa’s “hometown”–but the discovery that two one-way train tickets from Cambridge to Birmingham cost about the same as a rental car allowed us the luxury of making our own way.
By the time I passed the county line and entered Leicestershire, I was reasonably familiar with driving on the left and with the ubiquitous roundabouts and could enjoy the scenery, wet though it was. Leicestershire is a moderately rolling county without much visible industry beyond the sheep which dotted the hills. To this day it remains, as it was in the medieval era, a “model shire”–its largest city centrally located, and all parts of the shire reachable in a day’s walk. Today, Leicester is a mid-sized city, at around 100,000 about the size of Oxford or Cambridge. Like those towns, the city’s medieval heritage can still be found in the layout of the city streets, particularly on the western edge of today’s city, which was formerly the centre of town: buildings sit nearly on top of the streets, which run at crazy angles to each other and are linked by a maze of small laneways. One of the two main marketplaces, once on the eastern edge of town, now sits centrally and is still busy today with sellers hawking wares, although a permanent roof has now been added.
Leicester’s history is quite extensive. Before the Romans arrived and installed a walled garrison town called Ratae, an Iron Age tribe had a settlement on the shores of the Soar, the river that runs just west of the current town. Ratae was quite an important town, and boasted numerous houses in the villa style with mosaic-tiled floors, some of which were excavated by modern archaeologists. The Romans also built a forum and public baths at Ratae, the remains of which still survive on the west side of town. A large colonnade, the Jewry Wall, survives from this period and is one of largest surviving pieces of Roman masonry in Britain. The wall takes its name not from the presence of a Jewish quarter in the area, but from the Jurats–the medieval town councillors, who apparently met nearby. The name jurat itself is a relic of the ninth century incorporation of Leicestershire into the Danelaw, which also left its imprint on both local dialect and on local street names (a number of streets on the eastern side of town outside the old walls have names derived from the Norse gata meaning “street”: thus Gallowtree Gate and so forth). Sometime before the Danish occupation, Leicester’s name had changed: first to the Latinized Legorensis Civitas, then to the Saxon Ligera Ceaster, and thence to Leicester.
After the reconquest of the shire from the Danes, the city grew in importance. Being inland, it was at little risk from Viking raids, Leicester could afford to put up new buildings, including the church of St. Nicholas, which may have served as a cathedral in Saxon times. Parts of the Saxon works remain to this day. After the Conquest, William provided the city with a castle, which overlooked the crossing of the river Soar. Domesday Book suggests that the town at that time had about 2,000 inhabitants. Leicester became part of the holdings of the Earls of Leicester, and the town’s fortunes became tied to those of subsequent Earls. Several sponsored building projects in the town–including Robert Beaumont, who built the first bridge over the Soar, and Robert Bossu, who endowed an abbey of Augustinian Canons in town; but others, such as Robert Blanchmains, who joined a rebellion against Henry II, had a more disastrous affect on the town. This particular rebellion resulted in the destruction of the town walls, which were rebuilt and later expanded. Things calmed considerably in the thirteenth century; even when the most famous Earl of Leicester, Simon de Montfort, eventually revolted against Henry III and died in battle, the town was not dragged into the fray. By then, Leicester had at least six stone churches, and besides the Augustinian canons had gained Franciscan, Dominican, and Austin Friars.
The fourteenth century saw even more building in Leicester, including Trinity Hospital for the infirm (the chapel of which still remains), which stood in an expansion of the city walls called the New Work, or Newarke. The Newarke also contained a gateway which housed a magazine, still standing to this day and housing a military museum. Trinity Hospital also still exists and was most recently rebuilt in 1902. The hospital proved useless against the plague, which hit in 1389 (claiming 1480 victims in the three main parishes of the town) and in 1361. Also begun in this century was the Guild Hall, which marked the rise of the Guild Merchant in Leicester, which also provided the town’s government, still termed the jurats, as well as the various religious guilds, which were attached to churches and presented feasts and processions in honour of the churches’ patrons each year. The Guild Hall still stands to this day and originally was the meeting place of the Corpus Christi Guild, the most influential of these religious guilds; it was attached to the Church of St. Martin just across the street. The Guild Hall was expanded in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, and later became the depository for both the city archives and a lending library. To this day it remains a beautiful example of medieval half-timbered architecture.
In Leicestershire can be found Bosworth Field, site of the final battle of the Wars of the Roses, where Richard III defeated and killed in battle. Richard and 12,000 of his men stayed the night in Leicester the day before the battle, the king himself in a four poster bed which he had brought to the White Boar Inn, which bore the name of his personal badge. After Richard’s defeat, his body was brought back to Leicester and buried on the grounds of the Franciscan friary, later to be tossed into the Soar when the monasteries were dissolved under Henry VIII. (Note from 2019: The body was famously rediscovered buried under a parking lot in 2012) The White Boar changed its name to the Blue Boar after the battle, and the bed became a curiosity piece and £300 in gold found in a false bottom made one seventeenth century man so suddenly rich that he later became Mayor. Meanwhile, the town had grown enough because of the wool trade that in 1588, Queen Elizabeth gave it a Charter of Incorporation, but it was not until 1919 that Leicester was elevated to city status.
Leicester was unusual among the English towns I visited in that the centre of town has shifted significantly east of where it once stood; where once the High Cross market stood at the centre of town a roundabout now encircles a parking lot. St. Nicholas’ and St Martin’s Churches are still nearby, however, and one can walk south from there along the river to St. Mary de Castro and to the remains of the castle–just the great hall remains today after the rest was destroyed in the English Civil War, and it is cunningly disguised as a Georgian building from the outside. There is a large prison on the south end of town which, because of its crenelated towers, is often mistaken for the castle. Quite a lot of archaeological work has been done on this side of the town, from excavations in the Roman areas to others upon the site of the Leicester Abbey, which was destroyed when the monasteries were dissolved. The Guildhall is perhaps the highlight –it still looks essentially the same as it did in the fifteenth century; finding secular buildings this old and this unspoiled is quite difficult, even in England. Even more than an imposing castle, this would be the ideal setting for an SCA feast, with its huge main hall with balcony and many smaller adjoining rooms.
I’m very glad, in retrospect, that Leicester is Nicolaa’s hometown. It is nearly impossible to get any feel for the medieval town in London, thanks to the ravages of the Great Fire of 1666 and the abandonment of the City proper to business in the ensuing centuries; its Guildhall, which survived the fire, is now walled in by modern buildings on all sides. Oxford and Cambridge, while containing a large number of medieval buildings, are too dominated by the universities to retain the feel of small medieval towns–their soaring towers and quadrangles are inspiring, but not as examples of medieval town architecture. I found no other town so easy to envisage in its medieval life as Leicester; as Nicolaa, I count myself lucky to be able to describe its streets and churches so familiarly.