The story of Leicester castle
Part of our of series on Leicester’s history
28th September 2014
We visit Leicester Castle
By Trevor Locke
The first thing you notice about Leicester Castle is that it does not look anything like a castle. There used to be a castle on the site, adjacent to the banks of the River Soar, but very little of it remains visible. The castle occupied the south-west corner of the town that still had a similar layout to when the Romans left in the fourth century and commanded a position overlooking the River Soar, which would have been an important transportation route in medieval times and earlier.
It is possible that there has been a castle or fortification on the site since at least Roman times, in all probability even earlier. It is known that the Romans erected their forts on sites that had been used earlier by Bronze-age or Iron-age peoples.
The original castle was constructed by the Normans as a motte and bailey (around 1070.) The motte was mound of earth below which there was a bailey (a kind of keep.) The motte is now about ten metres high but would originally have been much higher. About five metres were removed to make way for a bowling green, in 1840.
Surrounding this was a moat filled with water over which ran a bridge, leading to the main entrance of the Bailey. The original mott and bailey would have had a stockade made of wood. Within the Bailey the church of St, Mary was built (now called St. Mary de Castro, meaning Saint Mary of the Castle.) The Church dates from around 1107.1
In 920, Queen Aethelflaed liberated Leicester from the occupying Danes; her fame was such that when she arrived at the gates of the town, the Vikings capitulated without a fight. In the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles it says
This year Ethelfleda got into her power, with God’s assistance, in the early part of the year, without loss, the town of Leicester; and the greater part of the army that belonged thereto submitted to her.
The castle in Norman times
In 1068, The Normans built a castle in Leicester, soon after their conquest of the country in 1066. They built over the Roman remains of the original south wall. It was the centre of power for the first Norman overlord of the town, Hugh de Grentnesnil (1032 to 1094.) Robert de Beaumont, first Earl of Leicester, rebuilt the castle’s defensive walls in 1107.
Leicester appears in the Domesday Book; the entry (in 1086) states that it was a large town with 71 households, consisting of 3 villagers. 12 smallholders. 1 priest. 17 burgesses. At that time it had two churches. The lord was Hugh of Grandmesnil (sic) who died in Leicester but was buried in France. Robert de Beaumont, third earl of Leicester (to 1190), in 1173 attempted to relieve the siege of Leicester Castle, then in the hands of the king (Henry II) but was defeated at the battle of Fornham, and was taken prisoner. He was restored to favour by Richard I.
We will be looking at the earles of Leicester ina forthcoming article (currently in preparation.) In the meantime, you can find more about them on Wikipedia.
The castle in medieval times.
It is said that the castle was once under the ownership of Henry Bolinbroke, 1366 to 1413. (later Henry IV from 1399). Several other castles were built on the sites of ancient forts, such as motte and bailey castle in Henley-in-Arden, Warwickshire.
In medieval times Leicester was a walled city, the castle forming the south-west corner of the walls. The castle’s timber structure began to be replaced by stone in the early twelfth century. Castles were hubs of activity in medieval times, with an important impact on the surrounding area, and acted as a spur to the local economy. The construction and maintenance of the building would have provided employment for local craftsmen, masons, carpenters and blacksmiths.
Leicester Castle was formerly a royal castle and the residence of the head of the house of Lancaster. It has been visited by several monarchs and parliaments have been there. It is a place of national significance and interest. Its great hall has been described as second only in importance to Westminster Hall, in the Houses of Parliament.
It was the hall of a Norman baron and would have seen many royal festivities and assemblies, including those of the English parliament. The kitchens would have required a frequent supply of food for feasts and often very large numbers of people would have stayed there when very important people visited, with their often considerable retinues.
What we see today is the much later exterior of a building that once served as a courthouse, and was in use right up to 1990. The front of the building was constructed in 1790. During the 19th century, the Great Hall of the castle was divided into separate court rooms, in which now can be seen the wood work of the Victorian courts.
The castle is now a Grade I listed building. The building was used as the Assize Courts. In Victorian times when the castle was held by the Crown and placed under the control of a constable. Below the courtrooms are the police cells that once held the prisoners awaiting their trials.
Below the courts, there are many cells and rooms for the police whose job it was to hold prisoners before their trials in the criminal court above.
The cells were added in 1858, after the great hall was converted to accommodate the courtrooms, in the early 1820s.
The Great Hall
Robert de Beaumont (sometimes referred to as Robert leBossu), built a great hall within the Bailey of the castle. Robert was the second Earl of Leicester from 1118 and died in that year. He was of Norman-French ancestry and was brother to Robert de Beaumont, 2nd Earl of Leicester, 1104–1168 (distinguishing between the various members of the Beaumont family becomes difficult. Four generations were all called Robert and were all earls of Leicester.) It was Robert, the second earl who built the great hall in 1150.
The Great Hall was enlarged with an aisle and bays. The walls were constructed of sandstone and its central nave had two aisles, each of which was divided into arcades made of timber. Oak columns supported the roof. The hall was the third biggest aisle-and-bay hall in the country (the other two being Westminster Hall in London and the so called ‘Pilgrims’ Hall’ at Winchester, built around 1380.)
Each column had a scalloped capital, one of which is exhibited in the castle building, close to the lobby. A new roof was added after 1523. The timbers of the roof have been dated to around 1500 and are thought to be similar to their Norman originals.
Leading from the Hall was a building that served as the kitchens. At the north end of the hall was a large window with its Norman-style curved arch.
Below this was the raised dias on which was set the Lord’s table. The earl would have sat here and dispensed justice. In the nave, there was an open fire, the smoke from which escaped through louvres set in the roof.
It was in the Great Hall that the Earls of Leicester sat in judgement. It was also used for feasting. In the 16th to 18th centuries The Hall was used by the Mayors of Leicester.
Leicester as the birthplace of ‘parliament.’
The Earls of Leicester used the castle as their headquarters. From there they administered their lands, which were quite considerable. Courts were held here and human remains have been unearthed, in the area of the castle motte, which could be those of convicts that were executed after being tried in the court.
The Barons and nobles met in the castle in 1349, 1414 and 1425 and these gatherings became known as the first parliaments. Parliament met in Leicester on three occasions – 1414, 1426 and 1450. The session of 1414 was held in the hall of the Grey Friars priory and was known as the ‘fire and faggot’ parliament because Beaufort delivered a sermon at this session which was about the rise of heresy.
The Parliament of Bats was held in the Great Hall at the castle in 1426. It was so-called because members were not allowed to wear swords and hence armed themselves with clubs and bats (bludgeons.) Parliament was called in Leicester because it was thought to be unsafe to hold it at Westminster, owing to feuds taking place between Beaufort and Gloucester. This was during the reign of Henry IV; Beaufort, as chancellor, opened the session in the great hall of Leicester castle in the presence of the four-year-old king. The origins of the term are explained by history writer Mrs Fielding Johnson:
“In consequence of the angry feud then existing between the Duke of Gloucester, younger brother of King Henry V and the fiery-tempered Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, the wearing of weapons by the members was strictly forbidden as likely to lead to bloodshed. To carry clubs or ‘bats’, however, and to load their hanging, pouch-like sleeves with stones and lead, appeared to the partisan barons to be an honest and suitable evasion of the letter of this prohibition; and serious mischief was averted only by the strenuous efforts of the neutral members, who succeeded in arranging the quarrel before a general melee took place.”
The parliament assembled in February and disbanded in June. No actual violence took place during this session of parliament. During the session, the infant king (Henry VI) was knighted in the nearby church of St. Mary de Castro. 2
John of Gaunt visited the castle in 1313 and spent large amounts of money entertaining his substantial retinue. John of Gaunt, who died at the castle in 1394, has a cellar in the castle named after him. King Edward I stayed there in 1300 and Edward II in 1310 and 1311. He died at the castle in 1399. Many of the kings of the middle ages would have visited the church of St. Mary de Castro.
Richard III stayed at the castle in 1483 and wrote to the King of France, signing the letter ‘from my castle of Leicester.’ 3 Richard arrived in Leicester two days before the battle of Bosworth and it is said that he stayed at an Inn, then called The White Boar Inn. Richard’s battle emblem was a white boar and it might have been that he thought that staying at an Inn called The White Boar would give him good luck. In any case, Leicester Castle was then in a poor state of repair, even more so than on his last visit there. In previous visits to Leicester, in 1483, two years before his death, Richard had stayed at Leicester Castle but, even then, the building had not been in a good state of repair. We know that Richard stayed there (on his journey between London and York) because he wrote letters with the Castle’s address at the top. Richard stayed at Leicester Castle again on the return journey to London in August. Richard would have feasted in the great hall or at least held court there.
In 1523 a survey of the buildings found much decay and disrepair and a new roof was installed. The royal connections of the castle came to an end in 1888 when the Leicestershire county justices purchased the building from the Crown Estates.
The Castle as a court-house.
The great hall of the castle was converted into law courts in 1821.
When the Great Hall was divided into separate courtrooms, in 1821, Assizes were held and criminal courts continued to held until 1972. The Great Hall was partitioned into the two courts in 1830. The Crown Court continued to sit there until 1992. A cell block was added in 1858. Cells below the court have a staircase leading up to the dock in which prisoners sat during their trial. Part of the police cells is underground, but because of the slope of the land, the rest is actually above ground level. One of the courts was a criminal court and the other tried civil cases.
On the upper floor, there was a jury room. Judges had a retiring room behind each court and there were rooms for barristers. The fittings that we can see today in the courtrooms are Victorian. The judges sat under a wooden canopy displaying the royal coat of arms.
In the Castle’s entrance lobby there is a tiled floor.
I do not know the date of these tiles but they are likely to be Victorian; they are similar in design to tiles typical of medieval times.
Several features from the Victorian period are still on display in the lobby.
This article is the first draft of a chapter from my forthcoming book The History of Leicester.
Tours of Leicester Castle take place on the last Sunday of each month. They are given by the Blue Badge guides who share their details knowledge of the buildings and sometimes take visitors into parts of the Castle that are normally restricted to public access. Find out more from Go Leicestershire.
Notes added later
1 The Norman south entrance to St. Mary de Casto can be seen today. It had a typically Norman arch with zig-zag mouldings. The ground level in those days was much lower than it is today.
2 For more information about the parliament of bats see the Wikipedia entry.
3 See our article on Richard III
See also my article on the Earls of Leicester (coming soon)
Article on the early history of Leicester
Leicester in the times of the Romans
Background to Richard III