Ask anyone about the historic sites of Leicester and they are likely to mention Richard III, the king whose bones were discovered in a city car park. But there is a surprising amount more to see, spanning the centuries from the Romans to the present day. I set out to discover more.
Although Ratae Corieltavorum (the ancient city of Leicester) was an important Roman town at the junction of two roads (the Fosse Way and the Via Devana), there is little of it to be seen today. However a considerable amount is known about the extent and layout of Ratae, and you can follow a walking trail which shows the major locations and their influence on the later development of the city.
One part of Roman Leicester that is still visible is the Jewry Wall, a substantial piece of 2nd century masonry dating from the 2nd century that was once part of the public baths complex. The Jewry Wall, and the associated museum of Roman Leicester, are currently closed for renovation, but are scheduled to reopen in the summer of 2024.
You can see the wall if you peer through the fence that surrounds the construction site. And look closely at the adjacent St Nicholas Church to see what later use was made of the baths building – you will see plundered Roman tiles built into the facade, and Roman columns in the churchyard.
Leicester In The Middle Ages
Start your exploration of medieval Leicester at the Castle Gardens area. Here you can climb up the mound where the 11th century motte and bailey castle once stood, and visit the ancient church of St Mary de Castro with its Norman relics. Beside the castle mound is the 12th century timber-framed Great Hall, a favoured dwelling of John of Gaunt and later a royal residence. (The Great Hall is open to visitors on the last Sunday of each month from May to October.)
Neighbouring the castle area was the Newarke, an enclosed area built by the 3rd Earl of Leicester to house a religious community and a hospital for the poor. You can still see bits of the wall that surrounded the Newarke, and two of the gateways into the precinct.
Today the Newarke area is occupied by a different kind of community – De Montfort University. The DMU Heritage Centre is a good place to learn more about Leicester’s Roman and medieval history. It also holds the remains of the arches of the Church of the Annunciation, thought to be where the body of Richard III was first taken after his death at the Battle of Bosworth.
The Cathedral And The Guildhall
The major medieval buildings in the centre of Leicester are the Cathedral and the Guildhall. The Cathedral is currently undergoing substantial renovation (due to re-open at the end of 2023) but the Guildhall is very much open to tourists and worth a visit.
This timber-framed building was built around 1390 for the Guild of Corpus Christi (a sort of rich people’s guild). Over the centuries it has variously been used as a law court, a theatre, and a prison. Today it is a museum and events venue. Explore the historic rooms, including the Great Hall with its ancient stained glass. The Guildhall is also rumoured to be home to a number of ghosts…
Richard III And Leicester
The discovery of Richard III’s bones in a council car park in 2012 sparked a new interest in Leicester’s history. The bones themselves are now safely installed in the Cathedral but you can learn much more about the king, his times, and his rediscovery in the excellent King Richard III Visitor Centre.
The centre is built on the site of the former Greyfriars Church where Richard was buried, and you can see the exact spot where his bones were found. Elsewhere in the museum are exhibitions, including holographic displays, telling the story of the Wars of the Roses and of the major personalities of the time.
The upstairs rooms have a very even-handed analysis of what I would call the “propaganda war” – did Richard murder the Princes in the Tower, or didn’t he? And there is lots of information about the discovery of the bones and their later DNA analysis.
If you have a bit more time you could also drive to the Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre, just over 20 km from Leicester. This is where Richard was killed in battle in 1485, and it has exhibits about the king and his contemporaries, and also about the different personalities of the Tudor dynasty that succeeded Richard. You will also find information about the Battle of Bosworth and about the recent search for the exact location of the battlefield.
Although there isn’t much to see at the battlefield itself, a 2.2 km walking trail outside the Heritage Centre gives you more information about the battle and the landscape in which it was fought.
Later History Of Leicester
Of course, Leicester’s history did not stop in 1485, and there is plenty more to discover. As you walk around you’ll see lots of themed noticeboards highlighting different aspects of the city’s history and heritage. These include the garment manufacturing industry for which Leicester has been known since the 18th century, and the diverse and culturally vibrant city that it is today.
Despite their name, the Newarke Houses are post-medieval, a pair of Tudor houses and gardens. The building itself is interesting, with wooden panelled walls and some old stained glass, but it is primarily a museum of more recent history.
The ground floor is devoted to social history and includes exhibitions relating to the garment trade and different communities in Leicester. A particular feature is a reconstructed cobbled street with old shops and a traditional pub. The upper floor features military history and includes a recreation of a First World War trench.
It was a reminder that I still had a lot more to explore in Leicester.
Thanks to Stacey Ballard and Visit Leicester for arranging my visit to Leicester, and to the sites visited for their hospitality.
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