Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Leicester Abbey - Special Feature

In 1143, Robert ‘le Bossu,’ the second earl of Leicester, founded the Abbey of St. Mary de Pratis (of the Meadows) in honour of the Virgin Mary. Situated on the south bank of the River Soar in what is now Abbey Park, about a mile north of the city of Leicester, the abbey became the most important religious building in the county.

Artists impression of Leicester Abbey at the height of its success
After its construction, all the possessions and wealth of the Collegiate Church of St. Mary de Castro, built by Robert’s father, Robert de Beaumont, were transferred to the new abbey, making it considerably well off. Over the years it grew into the second richest abbey in the country. The abbey was also one the largest and most influential landowners in Leicestershire, with more manors in it’s possession than any lord. It’s contributors included Simon de Montfort, Alan la Zouche, the Earl of Winchester and of course, the Crown.

It was founded as a community of Augustinian Canons who were known as the ‘Black Canons’ because they wore black cassocks and a black biretta (hat), but some believe it is because secret dark arts were practiced within the abbey walls. The canons followed a rule set down by Saint Augustine in a letter he wrote in 423 when he was Bishop of Hippo. This rule was not as strict as other orders and unlike monks, all canons were ordained. The new Augustinian house did not altogether replace St. Mary de Castro, which continued to exist under the control of the abbey, as were all the churches in Leicester, the church of Lilbourne in Northants, and the Manor of Asfordby. Earl Robert ‘le Bossu’ (the Hunchback) added the churches of Knaptoft, Erdesby, Cosby, Stoney Stanton, Whetstone, Shepshed, Knighton, Illston and Thurnby, and others from the neighbouring counties.

Before 1162, just about every church in Leicestershire was under orders from the abbey, including St. Mary’s Church in Humberstone. After the Norman Conquest in 1066, the lands of Humberstone were given to Hugh de Grentemaisnil, the first owner of Leicester after the conquest. But the first church was built by Robert ‘le Bossu’ at the same time as he built Leicester Abbey, and consisted of a simple nave and chancel in the Norman style.

Interestingly, both Leicester Abbey and the church at Humberstone were dedicated to the Virgin Mary and both are said to be linked by a secret underground tunnel. More interestingly both the abbey and Humberstone church are built so that they are directly facing each other. If you open up a map of Leicester and draw a line running straight through the long axis of the abbey’s main church and trace it some 3 miles eastwards, you end up at St. Mary’s church in Humberstone, again running straight through the long axis of the building. Both could be seen from each other when viewed from high up from their respective stone towers.

Humberstone was a very important settlement in Norman Leicester, as it was a resting place for the canons as they travelled to and from Launde Abbey in the east, hence the crude name of a now-dissapeared village building – the Monk’s Rest. Now remembered by the name of the village park, also called the Monk’s Rest, the building stood close to the church and there is another tunnel reputed to have run between them. A third tunnel was also apparently discovered during the English Civil War, as a group of Royalists who were locked inside Humberstone church, emerged via a tunnel, at a nearby nunnery. On exiting the tunnel, they are said to have moved the fabled Humber Stone over its mouth so that they could not be followed. Investigations of tunnels have never taken place in the village or at the Humber Stone, but as the Norman’s and especially Robert ‘le Bossu’ were known as master builders, and as the underlying geology of east Leicester is relatively soft, the tunnel theory is not all that impossible.

Earl Robert ‘le Bossu’ was well involved with the abbey and he even spent the last years of his life as a canon. Together with Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, Robert laid down certain regulations for the abbey to adhere to, and these were later confirmed by Pope Urban III. Robert died in 1168 and was buried in the prebytery, on the right hand side of the altar within the abbey church. On his death, the abbey, like the castle of Leicester, was passed down through the generations to each succeeding de Beaumont earl of Leicester, and they all added considerably to its structure. Petronilla, the wife of earl Robert Blanchemains, loved the abbey so much she paid for the nave of the church to be built. She was said to have plaited a long cord from her hair from which one of the lamps in the choir could be hung. For worshippers this became a treasured relic and became the basis of a well-told story, passed down over the years to the inhabitants of Leicester.

After the de Beaumont rule of Leicester, the abbey was in the hands of the Lancastrian earls. In October 1326, a violent attack was made on the abbey by the Earl of Lancaster’s own followers, who broke in and seized the property of Hugh Despenser, stored in the abbey for safe keeping. The glory years of the abbey were when it was under the control of Abbot William Clowne, who was elected in 1345.

Under his influence, the abbey enjoyed great prosperity and Clowne is descibed in most favourable terms in the writings of a canon of the abbey. In his time, Leicester became head of four other Augustinian houses and acquired a great deal of land and even more churches. Clowne’s close friendship with Edward III surely played a part in his power and wealth and also for the way he secured exemption for the abbots of Leicester from attendance at Parliament, a duty imposed on the abbots since 1265. It was also during Clowne’s abbacy that Henry of Knighton, a canon of Leicester Abbey, began to write his famous chronicle.

Clowne died in 1378, afterwhich the abbey entered a difficult period. In the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, the income obtained from the abbey’s lands began to decline, so were leased out to anyone willing to buy them. The abbey, once a major producer of corn and wool, now had only the immediate surrounding lands in Leicester, Stoughton and Ingarsby to rely on for cultivation.

A further problem came with a particular canon of the abbey, Philip Repingdon, who whilst studying at Oxford, became one of the great Wycliffe’s followers and in 1382 Repington’s opinions were declared heritical. As a learned man, Repingdon recanted and went on to become the elected Abbot of Leicester in 1392, and eventually Bishop of Lincoln in 1405. But it appears that Repingdon didn’t get on with his canons and only seven years after becoming bishop, the canons of Leicester Abbey obtained a royal licence permitting them to obtain from the Pope, exemption from Repingdon’s jurisdiction so long as he was bishop. This law was nullified the following year and Repingdon obtained a declaration from the Pope that Leicester Abbey should be fully subject to him and his successors.

By the time of Bishop Alnwick’s visitation in 1440, the number of canons at the abbey had fallen to a mere fourteen, a figure substantially lower than the thirty to forty who used to dwell there. The number of boys in the almonry was also reduced from about twenty-five to only six, and the abbot in charge was accused of admitting unsuitable boys in return for money.

The abbot at this time was Sadington, a man who kept a tight grip on the financial affairs of the abbey whilst pocketing various minor revenues for himself. He kept the offices of treasurer and cellarer in his own right but failed to render accounts to his canons. He also kept many lay servants, some of whom he favoured excessively, and he was also said to have indulged in occultist ‘magical practices.’ No serious immorality was disclosed on the Bishop’s visitation and Sadington managed to clear himself of the charge that he had practiced divination. After his visit, Bishop Alnwick ordered that the number of canons should rise back up to thirty, with at least sixteen boys in the almonry. The abbot was ordered to render accounts properly to his brethren and to behave more charitably towards his canons.

Little is known of the internal affairs of the abbey in the years that followed, but in 1518 William Charyte, Prior of Leicester and second only to the abbot, drew up an elaborate record of the possessions of the house. The books that were produced were kept in the abbey’s library and consisted of over 900 volumes. Many of the faults discovered in 1440 were still apparent under the leadership of the new abbot Pescall and he was charged with keeping financial control too much. Also, like when the abbey was under the control of Sadington, the boys in the almonry were not properly educated. There was also an excessive amount of hounds kept within the abbey grounds and many canons were in the habit of eating and drinking at unaccustomed hours.

The Bishop Attwater tried to deal with some of the problems at Leicester Abbey but when Bishop Longland came to power in 1521, the abbey was seen in the most unfavoured light. Pescall was extremely remiss in his attendance at the divine offices in the abbey’s church, and when he did enter, he was accompanied by ‘his fool’ who disturbed the services by “his buffoonery.” The canons were also lax in their attendance in choir. With twenty-five of them in the house, only eleven were present at any one time. Most were accustomed to roam about outside the monastery and two were also suspected of incontinence.

Leicester Abbey as you can see it today on Abbey Park
The abbey was falling into financial ruin and Bishop Longland found it necessary to appoint two administrators to control its business affairs. But Pescall underhandedly removed the bishop’s two nominees, making it increasingly difficult for the bishop to sort out the abbey’s growing problems. By 1528, the abbey had not improved. Pescall’s conduct had worsened and he rarely attended choir. He never ate with his fellow canons and he received a number of complaints about the excessive number, and also the conduct of the personal servants he employed. Bishop Longland was at the end of his tether and Pescall’s deposition was deemed essential. In the time just before he was deposed, Longland would intervene considerably  in the abbey’s day-to-day activities. Pescell, knowing his fate, tried to secure his position and future at the abbey by giving presents to Thomas Cromwell, the chief minister to Henry VIII, but after the fate of Cardinal Wolsey at Leicester Abbey in 1530, Pescall resigned and was granted a pension of £100 a year.

The new abbot was John Bourchier who was elected in January 1534. Bouchier had a difficult task on his hands as the abbey was £1,000 in debt and Pescall’s pension was an unnecessary additional burden. In the same year, Bourchier with his twenty-five canons acknowledged royal supremecy over the Church and as the abbey’s yearly income made it the richest religious house in Leicestershire, it was allowed to survive Henry VIII’s dissolution of the smaller monastries.

After Richard Layton’s visit in 1535, Bourchier was considered a wise and honest man, but Layton’s assessment of the canons was that they were factious and he brought on charges of adultery and unnatural vice against them. Layton took his findings to Thomas Cromwell and although the abbey presented gifts of money, livestock and land, it was finally surrendered in October 1536. Bourchier was successful in reducing the abbey’s debts from £1,000 to £411 and so was given a £200 a year pension for his hard work.

Before its dissolution, the abbey only held lands in Leicestershire but was still in possession of the churches of All Saints, St. Leonard, St. Martin, St. Mary de Castro, St. Michael, St. Nicholas and St. Peter, at Leicester, and many more throughout the county.

In total, the property owned by the abbey at the time of its dissolution had a net annual value of £786. 16s. 1¾d, all of which were given to the Crown, under the control of Thomas Cromwell. There was something very special about Leicester Abbey, because although Cromwell had a firm belief in the dissolution of monastries, he set up a scheme to try and save Leicester Abbey.

Sadly the scheme failed, the canons disbanded and the land was granted to the Marquess of Northampton, who later sold it to the Earl of Huntington. He built a house in the grounds of the abbey, using the abbey’s stone. In 1613, William Cavendish, the first Earl of Devonshire, acquired the property and it became known as Cavendish House.

It was used as the headquarters of Charles I before the Battle of Naseby but after the defeat of the royalists, those that remained at Cavendish House plundered it and set it alight.

In 1925, the Earl of Dysart offered the 32-acre grounds of Leicester Abbey as a gift to the town council, and the deed was signed on December 31, 1925. The new park was opened in April 1932 and was intended to serve as a recreation ground providing areas of sports such as cricket and tennis.

Today you can still view the ruined Cavendish House and the excavated foundations of Leicester Abbey, now a Scheduled Ancient Monument, both of which are major attractions of the beautiful Abbey Park.

Cardinal Wolsey at Leicester Abbey

The abbey is most famous for its connection with Thomas Cardinal Wolsey, Archbishop of York and Lord Chancellor of England.

Wolsey was a powerful figure, second only to the king. In spiritual terms, his power surpassed that of the Archbishop of Canterbury. He was made Cardinal in 1515 and eight years later became Prince-Bishop of Durham. He was also a candidate for the papacy on the death of Pope Leo X, when Adrian VI was elected. In 1529, Wolsey had a major falling out with King Henry VIII and was forced to return of his Archdiocese of York. The following year, Wolsey was accused of high treason and ordered to return to London where he was to be incarcerated in the Tower of London. On his way, he stopped at Leicester Abbey. “If I had served my God,” the cardinal said remorsefully, “as diligently as I did my king, He would not have given me over in my grey hairs.”

Cardinal Wolsey
On his arrival at the abbey, he told Abbot Pescall “I am come to leave my bones among you.” Wolsey died that night November 26, 1530. He was buried within the walls of the Abbey church like it’s founder Robert ‘le Bossu.’ In keeping with his practice of erecting magnificent buildings, Wolsey had designed a grand tomb for himself. But due to his hasty death, Henry VIII considered using the impressive black sarcophagus for himself, but Lord Nelson now lies inside it, in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral. Today a monument now stands on Wolsey’s resting place amongst the Abbey ruins on Abbey Park.

Wolsey at Leicester Abbey
Wolsey’s ordeal with Henry VIII and his death at Leicester Abbey were a subject of interest for William Shakespeare who used the story for his play named “Henry VIII.” Cardinal Wolsey has also been locally honoured with the naming of a Leicester-based clothing manuafacturer we all know as ‘Wolsey.’

by Matthew Sibson

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Richard III Project Update

Infilling of the Richard II dig trenches starts this week, so to protect the underlying archaeology for the future.

If you were not able to look into the trenches dug in the Greyfriars car park, you’ve now sadly missed your chance for the time being. Work has started to protect the underlying archaeology because as Leicester folk know – it’s a bit wet outside!

The excavations are very important but also fragile as they are largely loose soil, stone and mortar. The infilling is designed to protect them so that they do not deteriorate and is performed in such a way that they can be re-opened once the long-term future of the site is determined. The excavations will be covered by a special plastic membrane before being in-filled.

The area of the site thought to be the choir of the lost church of the Grey Friars, where human remains which are potentially Richard III were found, is not being in-filled and will be protected from the elements in a different way.

The valuable information which these excavations have provided has been carefully recorded and will be used in future interpretations of the site and medieval Leicester. Discussions about the long-term future of the site are ongoing.

For more information, see

by Matthew Sibson

Memorial Unveiled to Honour Bomb-Crash Crew

A memorial has been unveiled to the crew of a Lancaster bomber which crashed near Plungar in the Vale of Belvoir.

The plane was piloted by Royal Canadian Air Force Sgt Russell Avey and came down on March 5, 1943 with only one survivor.

Nine members of Mr Avey's family from Canada were among relatives of the dead servicemen to attend a service to mark the dedication of the memorial at St Helen's Church, in Plungar, this Saturday.

The Lancaster was returning to its base in Grimsby when it diverted to try to land at nearby Langar airfield because of poor weather. But the aircraft crashed close to the village, killing six of its crew, including two Canadians, one Barbadian and three British servicemen. Sgt DS Davies was the only survivor.

The granite memorial bears a plaque containing the names of the men who died and the surviving crew member. It is placed alongside the Grantham canal, near the village.

by Matthew Sibson

Was Queen Elizabeth Actually the Earl of Leicester in Disguise?

Look at the pictures below. Is this one person or two? Do they look similar? Do they look almost identical?

Was Elizabeth I actually a man? Yes it is an old theory and many women believe this has been said because men don’t like powerful women. I'm not saying that I agree with this theory myself, but I stumbled across it and thought I’d put it here for us all to think about.

Was Queen Elizabeth I actually a man? And more than that was Queen Elizabeth I actually Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester? Look at the next picture. On the left we see Elizabeth as a girl - as a princess – and on the right she is a woman – a queen. The two really look nothing alike. The girl on the left looks feminine but the lady on the right looks rather masculine, don’t you think?

Robert was Queen Elizabeth’s closest advisor and friend (and arguably, lover) and she even attended his wedding to Amy Robsart. Robert’s father, John Dudley, was the man who attempted to make Lady Jane Grey Queen of England, instead of Mary Tudor. The plot failed and John and his brother, Guildford Dudley, were executed along with the tragic Lady Jane Grey.

Robert Dudley was imprisoned in the Tower of London for his part in the conspiracy and he only narrowly escaped death. Whilst he was imprisoned, in the Tower of London, he was joined by another prisoner, the future Queen Elizabeth. It was there where a friendship began.

Both were eventually released and Robert Dudley sold some of his lands to help Elizabeth, who was in need of financial help. Elizabeth never forgot the help that Robert had given to her and rewarded his loyalty when she became Queen. At this point, some believe Robert was involved in a plot to take the throne for himself, a plot in which he and his supporters murdered Elizabeth and hence Robert Dudley took on her appearance. This sounds ludicrous, but the likeness between the Queen and the Earl is remarkable. Both had high foreheads, they had the same eyes and if you remove his moustache they are almost identical. Look at the picture at the top of the page. Can you tell which is which?

You could say it was due to the style of paintings of the time and maybe that’s true, but there are other reasons to back up the claims. Robert Dudley had many death threats and maybe this was the only way to protect himself. He was also bitter about the death of his father and uncle and he craved the power his forebears tried so hard to get. Maybe he would have tried anything to get to the top?

Elizabeth and Robert were extremely close but were never publically lovers and they had a very odd and complex relationship. Is the real reason why they never became lovers and married, because they were one and the same? Were they so close throughout their lives because whenever Robert spent time with her, instead of getting intimate with her, he was actually acting as her? It has been claimed that the two of them shared the same birthday, the exact dates being a cause of debate ever since. This comes from Dudley's contemporaries in the 16th century who said he 'shared the same nativity' as the Queen - which means he would have been born on the same day and perhaps even the same year as Elizabeth (7th September 1533). The word 'nativity' at the time would have been understood as an astrological reference - that they would have shared the same placements of Sun and Moon etc. At times when Robert Dudley was out of the country, it appears that Elizabeth was also out of the country, on others matters of course. When he was “Robert”, did somebody close to him impersonate the queen, a decoy perhaps? Dudley was also given extremely high honours and real powers so even when he could be himself, he was a powerful man. Between his two personalities, Robert Dudley had such immense power, more than just a monarch alone.

Did Robert’s wife, Amy Robsart die in mysterious circumstances (falling down the stairs) because she opposed what her husband was doing? Was she a problem to be sorted? Did Robert murder her like he murdered the queen? Did she know too much and was therefore a threat? In 1578, Robert married Lady Lettice Knollys, widow of the Earl of Essex and Queen’s Elizabeth’s cousin. Apparently Elizabeth was furious with Robert but she eventually ‘forgave him.’ Were there suspicious minds? Did Robert try to distance himself from his character of Queen Elizabeth I by marrying her cousin? Were the people looking too closely at his presumed ‘relationship’ with the Queen that he was worried? Did he want to deflect the attention elsewhere?

When Robert Dudley eventually died in 1588, the Queen was oddly close to Robert’s son and was until she died. Now there is a possible explanation - that maybe Robert didn't die after all.

After the death of Robert, and after the death of the Queen, the town of Leicester, the town Robert was Earl of, adopted a slogan. This wasn’t Robert’s slogan though; it was Queen Elizabeth I’s slogan – ‘semper eadem,’ which translates to ‘always the same.’ Did Robert as the Queen leave a motto to his town as a cryptic message of his true identity?

The theory says that Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Queen Elizabeth were semper eadem. They were always the same. Look at the picture at the top again - on the left is Queen Elizabeth on the right is Robert Dudley, minus a moustache.

Well it's an interesting theory and would need a lot more evidence. Like I said at the top, I'm not sure how credible it is, but is worth a debate. What do you think readers?

by Matthew Sibson

King Leir of Leicester

William Shakespeare made him famous, but to the inhabitants of Leicester, King Lear is more than just a fictional character from a celebrated play.

He’s the real king after whom Leir-cestre, or Leicester, is named – isn’t he? He’s buried locally, too – somewhere under the River Soar. Well, that’s the myth anyway. But is there anything in the story? Who was this Lear and when did he live? Did he really give his name to Leicester? In fact, the truth behind Leicester’s name could be even stranger than we thought.

The story of King Lear and his three daughters is an old one, well-known in England centuries before Shakespeare wrote the definitive play on the subject. The first English account of Lear can be found in The History of the Kings of Britain, written by a Benedictine monk known a Geoffrey of Monmouth, in 1135. Geoffrey’s account spawned several 16th century narratives, eventually leading to Shakespeare’s play, written in about 1605. Let’s concentrate on Geoffrey of Monmouth’s first written account of the monarch he spells as “Leir”. Geoffrey describes him as a pre- Christian warrior king whose greatest achievement was that he “built, upon the river Sore(Soar) a city, called in the British tongue Kaerleir, or in the Saxon, Leircestre”. In Geoffrey’s tale, Leir asks his three daughters, Gonorilla, Regau and Cordeilla, which of them loves him the most. Gonorilla and Regau claim to do so extravagantly, but Leir’s favourite and youngest daughter, Cordeilla – irritated by this love test, no doubt – simply says she loves him as a daughter should. Poor Cordeilla is immediately disinherited and sent abroad to Gaul, while the two flattering sisters get good husbands and half Leir’s kingdom. Of course, the two sisters soon get fed up of doting Dad and he is eventually forced to flee to Gaul himself, to be reunited with Cordeilla. Eventually, Cordeilla’s Gaulish husband raises an army, Leir defeats his enemies and regains his kingdom. King Leir once again takes possession of his lands around Leicester and reigns well for the next two years, until he dies. Cordeilla then buries her father under a temple in a vault which runs under the River Soar, in Leicester.

It’s a good story, but how much of this “historic” Lear tale is true? Was Geoffrey of Monmouth a recorder of facts or a storyteller – or a bit of both? The truth is that since the 17th century, the majority of historians have considered Geoffrey of Monmouth to be a forger who made up stories. They point out that there is not a scrap of other evidence that a real King Lear and his daughters ever existed.

Modern historians tend to take a slightly more sympathetic view, however. The feeling now is that Geoffrey did have earlier sources for his tales – but they were as likely to be based on old pagan myths as actual historical figures. Stories associated with the pagan water god Leir are recorded in a variety of ancient texts, including the Troedd Ynys Prydein (Triads of the Isle of Britain) – a group of medieval manuscripts which preserve fragments of Welsh folklore, mythology and traditional history. We know from sources such as this that the water god Leir was supposed to have had three children. There are also tales of one of the children defeating the other two in a battle to regain his land. So, parts of Geoffrey’s work seem to have their origins in ancient Celtic mythology, while others could have come from works by earlier authors still, such as Gildas, Nennius and Bede. Charles Bilson, an authority on Leicester folklore and customs, confirms that Leir and Lir are both versions of the “Celtic sea god or water spirit’’. He says Leir “became transfigured into a mythical king of Britain’’ and that this King Leir, or Lear, was associated in tradition with Leicester. Geoffrey’s Lear story may have derived not from a real king but a mythical one – Lir, the ancient Irish god of the sea. Which means, of course, that there was no actual King Lear who lived in Leir-cestre.

Don’t be too disappointed, though – the story now gets interesting again. According to Myths and Legends of the Celts, by Thomas Rolleston, there’s more than just a casual association between ancient Leicester and the water god Leir. He says Leicester was once a major centre of worship for the water god, a deity who had quite a following throughout ancient Britain. It wasn’t just the settlement of Leicester that was named after Leir. Leicester’s major source of water is a river that flows through the heart of the city, known today as the Soar. At the time of the Domesday survey in 1086, it was called the Legra, and before that the Leir. The river, too, was named after Leir. There is another Leicestershire settlement, near to the head of the stream, which seems to have taken the name, and which is known today as Leire. It seems the main settlement, the main river and perhaps several other settlements were all named after the same god. It is clear that the city we now know as Leicester and the area around the city had a powerful link to an ancient water deity.

So, is there any physical evidence for Leicester being a major centre of worship for a pagan water god? Perhaps there is. The much-needed proof may lie with two very important archaeological finds from the now-demolished Blue Boar Lane, which, until the 1960s, ran from between 80 and 82 Highcross Street, Leicester. Archaeologists digging there found two stone relief carvings. The first, part of a Roman column, was described by museum authorities as unique to the area.

The scaled Roman column
The heavy column section has an unusual pattern that is reminiscent of fish scales and could have formed part of a temple structure. The second find was even more spectacular – a fragment of a stone sculpture showing the appearance of a bearded and draped male god.

The water god, Leir?
This figure has been interpreted by Malcolm Todd in his book ‘The Coritani’ as a pictorial representation of an ancient water god, very similar in appearance to Poseidon, the ancient Greek god of the sea. If this interpretation is correct, the relief may be the only surviving period representation of the god Leir. The carving, according to Todd, once formed part of an altar or was possibly, part of a much larger relief. The find is on display in the Roman section of Jewry Wall Museum, in Leicester.

The Leicester Mercury article of the finds in Blue Boar Lane
Geoffrey of Monmouth also reports that an annual festival dedicated to Leir took place in an ancient temple in Leicester. We know that Geoffrey isn’t always a reliable witness, but here he may be on more solid ground. Geoffrey is known to have visited Leicester on occasions throughout his life and could have witnessed this festival in person. Certainly, no other source which pre-dates Geoffrey’s narrative mentions such a celebration. Annual festivals were commonplace throughout the country before the Christian era began, to honour the gods that governed the ordinary citizen’s relatively simple existence. Some of these festivals, such as the May Day celebration, continued into the 17th century, and remnants linger to the present day.

There is still a slight problem, however. The Geoffrey of Monmouth account says the Leir ceremony took place at a temple dedicated to the Roman god Janus, not the water god Leir. Maybe even this is just a hiccup. Janus’s association with the festival of Leir was probably due to the Roman invasion of 43AD, after which the native gods of the Britons were replaced by the deities of Rome and British religious buildings were altered to honour Roman gods. Like the early Christians, the Romans built their multitude of temples over earlier religious sites. It is reasonable to assume that the temple of Janus was constructed over  the place where the people of Leicester venerated Leir. The Roman god Janus was known as the custodian of the universe. He was the god of beginnings, the guardian of gates and doors and was known as the protector of Rome. He was an obvious choice to replace the British water god in the newly acquired settlement of Leicester, which was a major centre of worship. To the inhabitants of Leicester, Leir was their god of beginnings, their protector and, without him, life would not have been possible. It is, though, the legend of Leir that has lived on in Leicester, as opposed to that of Janus. It is likely that the Leir festival and the water god worship continued in Leicester throughout and long after the Roman age. So, when the Romans left, Leir simply took over again from Janus in the Roman temple. The Romans, it seems, were unable to suppress the “people’s god”.

So, now we’re saying that Leicester had a major temple which was dedicated to Leir, then to the Roman god Janus, then reoccupied by Leir worshippers. Where is this temple, the major site where the people of the city would worship The ancient British water god? One obvious position would be around Blue Boar Lane where the “water god” relief was discovered. Sadly, no remnants of a religious building have been found there. The answer, though, may lie in the heart of Roman Leicester (known as Ratae Coritanorum), in the area that is now St Nicholas Circle.

St. Nicholas Circle before The Holiday Inn was built
It was excavated in 1969. Archaeologists found something there that had been hidden from view for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. Close to Leicester’s Roman forum and the famous Roman baths, where Jewry Wall is situated, lie the foundations of a vast structure that fits the appearance of an ancient religious building. It was a large, aisled building, more than 30 metres in length, with one room more than12 metres long. In his book, Malcolm Todd comments on this impressive ancient site. “The main part of the structure was divided into nave and aisles, the nave floor being about 46cm lower than that of the aisles,” he says. The size and prominence of the temple’s siting, being central in Roman Leicester, makes it likely to have been dedicated to Janus. Leicester was an important city in Roman times. It was the civitas – capital – for the Corieltauvi tribe, which occupied land that is now Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire and Lincolnshire. This temple was likely to be one of regional importance.

We also have a link between Black Annis and Leir, Black Annis possibly being the ancient mother goddess to the pagan Brits. Black Annis's Bower (a cave in the Dane Hills) is mentioned in Nicholls with a King Leir connection. It says:

"There is in the Park a cave, digged out of the rock, where it is said king Leyer [Leir] did hide himself from his enemies - a cowardly part!"

The story of Leir by Geoffrey of Monmouth says that he was laid to rest in a cave on the banks of the River Soar, which was also dedicated to Roman god Janus. Black Annis's Bower, some say, is this cave - the final resting place of King Leir. I, obviously don't believe in an historical Leir, but there is a body of thought that the water level of the River Soar could have been a lot higher than it currently is, at some time around 3200 BC, and Black Annis's Bower would have been situated on the banks. Maybe the cave in the Dane Hills was a site dedicated to the water god? We'll never know I guess!

But anyway, here is the whole story that I can piece together: Leicester was once a major centre of worship for a British water god, Leir. We have a possible site for the temple and archaeological discoveries of a pillar with scale-like decorations and a possible head of the god himself. The god’s influence was considered so powerful in the area that the city was named Leir-cestre after him. Stories were told about the ancient god long after the worship stopped – and it is these that Geoffrey of Monmouth and, later, Shakespeare picked upon. No real King Lear ever lived in Leicester. It is the ancient god’s influence – not a real person’s – that extends to modern times. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the theory is this: Despite 2,000 years of history and many different civilisations occupying the area since, you can’t keep an old water god down. His name stuck and Leir-cestre is pretty much Leir-cestre today, the city’s name a direct and striking link to a mysterious pagan past.

by Matthew Sibson

Huncote on a Pig

Today I received a lovely email from one of my readers and twitter followers, @Hel_Mc, about some of the Leicesterisms she was told as a child.  After I posted about Black Annis, somebody tweeted me and said how the story scared her as a child, but @Hel_Mc hadn't heard of it - it was the nine o'clock horses she was threatened with.

@Hel_Mc's email mentions a few others:

"A saying which completely confused me as a kid was "its a bit black over bills mothers". On being told this, i would immediately run to the front window looking out in panic. Why? Well my dad's name is Bill and his mum lived opposite our house!!! Of course i know what it means now, but when i was little i expected to see dark things hovering over my gran's house!!"

"Sometimes if dad went out & I asked where he was going his response was "Huncote on a pig". No idea where that one comes from though."

I've never heard of the 'Huncote on a pig' saying, and I thought I knew almost everything about Leicestershire history! From the research I've conducted, it seems that the phrase comes from the fact that the locals of Huncote once put a pig on a wall as they watched a marching band go past to celebrate the yearly feast. Apparently the pig looked on in trepidation as the locals from Huncote would later slaughter that same pig for the feast! I've also been told that the Huncote village sign carries a picture of none other than a pig on a wall!

What an interesting, yet rather heart-wrenching little story - the poor pig! :-)

Thanks @Hel_Mc for your email.

Do you know any interesting local Leicestershire phrases? Please comment below, tweet me on @thiswasleics or email and I'll do some research into it.

by Matthew Sibson

Monday, 24 September 2012

Stunning Picture of the Humber Stone

I thought you'd all like to see the Humber Stone - Leicester's best example of a standing stone, which has numerous myths and legends surrounding it. An article will be coming soon, but the below picture is a starter for 10 to get you intrigued!

A glacial erratic or stone of mystical power? Find out soon!

by Matthew Sibson

What is the Origin of the Leicester Wyvern?

Have you ever taken a stroll through the streets of Leicester and observed the beautiful Victorian architecture? If you haven’t then it’s worth taking a trip to the city centre, but instead of doing a spot of shopping, let your eyes wonder above the shop windows and take a look at some of the highly eccentric and slightly out-of-place carvings that decorate the city streets.

Wyvern's are everywhere in Leicester architecture
From horned mythical beings to what look like Greek gods, there really is nothing new about Leicester’s multi-cultural heritage. But there is one particular symbol that really stands out above the rest and you can spot it all over the city. Carved into many Victorian buildings as well as sitting on top of the Town Hall itself, is the figure of a reptilian beast. You can even find it on top of Leicester’s iconic Clock Tower and the Corn Exchange building in the form of a weather vein. In appearance it looks like a two-legged, or sometimes legless, winged creature similar to a dragon, having a barbed serpent tail and green scaly skin. It shares its name with a local primary school, a business centre and a public house, and sits proudly on top of the Arms of the City of Leicester.

It is of course the wyvern.

But why should such a creature be associated with Leicester? Surely a fox would be more appropriate? The wyvern is here for a reason, a prominent, yet rather unusual symbol that is the key to identifying one of the most important yet greatly forgotten characters in English history.

The origin of the word wyvern comes from thirteenth-century word wyver, which is derived from the French wyvere, meaning both "viper" and "life." The earliest mention of the wyvern is in folkloric tales where it is generally depicted as a violent predator. In heraldry, the wyvern is said to represent war, envy and pestilence, but it is also a symbol of power.

Leicester’s wyvern connection originates from 1619 when the Arms of the City of Leicester were confirmed during a Heraldic Visitation. Originally consisting of a simple cinquefoil with a battle-scarred wyvern perched on top, the inspiration for the design came from motifs that were associated with the city’s historic earls.

The Arms of Leicester
After contacting Leicester City Council, they stated that the wyvern was the crest of Thomas Crouchback, more commonly referred to as Thomas of Lancaster, a powerful earl of five cities including Leicester, living in the early fourteenth century. This character was new to me and I was surprised that I had never come across him before. His symbol is everywhere in the city, but his story has all but disappeared.

So now it’s time to dust away the cobwebs and tell everybody about a character that is possibly more influential than the great Simon de Montfort himself.

Born in 1278, Thomas was the eldest son of Edmund Crouchback, the first earl of Lancaster and previous earl of Leicester. His mother was Blanche of Artois, the niece of French king Louis IXAfter his father’s death, Thomas inherited the earldoms of Lancaster, Leicester and Derby and through  his marriage to Alice de Lacy, he became the earl of Lincoln and Salisbury as well as the eleventh Baron of Halton.

So not only was Thomas the most powerful man in Leicester, he was also one of the most powerful men in England. He was the country’s most premier earl with an impeccable ancestry. He was the grandson of Henry III, nephew of Edward I and first cousin of Edward II. Royal blood flowed through his veins and through inheritance Thomas acquired an immense amount of wealth and power.

For the first sixteen months of Edward II's reign, Thomas openly supported his cousin, and he enjoyed Edward’s favour and company. In the summer of 1308, Edward gave Thomas a royal grant of the stewardship of England. But their relationship was soon to change and Thomas began to move into opposition against the king. No single event can pinpoint the reason why their relationship broke down. It only became evident when Thomas ceased to witness royal charters and when his favours from the king began to dry up. It was also shown when Thomas moved northwards away from the king, to settle within his own territories, amongst his ‘own’ people.

King Edward II
Spontaneously in the spring of 1309, Thomas led a call for reformation, a direct move against the king. Due to Thomas’ power and support, the king had to give in to his cousin’s demands and in February 1310, Edward was forced to appoint lords ordainers, and ordinances were published the following year. For the rest of his life, Thomas’ adherence to his new reforms would be his chief principle of action, to give people a fair and just governing body. His popular programme was termed ‘a remedy for the poor and oppressed’ and as he was already in control of a large proportion of the country, it meant that his support was great.

Thomas also led the revolt against the king’s closest ‘friend’ and ally, Piers Gaveston, who is believed to have been Edward’s homosexual lover.

Unsurprisingly, Gaveston also proved unpopular with Edward’s wife, Isabella, and her husband’s preference for the company of Gaveston led to early discord in their marriage. Thomas constantly mocked him as “the fiddler” and when Gaveston demanded that the king dismiss one of Thomas’ men, he swore revenge. There were many official attempts to remove Gaveston from England and although successful, the king would defy Thomas and the ordainers by welcoming him back. When he returned in 1312, Gaveston was restored to full power and consequently, was faced with great hostility.

Thomas demanded his exile once again but when Edward ignored his pleas, Thomas raised an army and on the May 4 attacked the king’s men at Newcastle. The king and Gaveston retreated to nearby Scarborough Castle. From there Edward headed south to raise more men, leaving Gaveston alone and vulnerable. Not to miss an opportunity, the opposition headed to Scarborough and Gaveston was captured by Guy de Beauchamp, tenth earl of Warwick. Together with Lancaster, the two earls judged the despicable Gaveston, proclaiming “while he lives, there will be no safe place in the realm of England.”

The seal of Thomas of Lancaster
On June 19, 1312, Thomas of Lancaster was responsible for the murder of Piers Gaveston, destroyed any chance of a reconciliation with the king. As well as alienating Edward, the murderous act of Thomas also split the ordainers and the country came close to civil war. But if the king didn’t have enough problems already, the prospect of civil war paved the way for the Scots to challenge the king for independence in 1314. Under the influence of Robert the Bruce, the Scots besieged England’s Stirling Castle, to bate the English to come out and fight.

Edward II and his army hurriedly marched northwards to counter the insurgence and reclaim the castle. But before they arrived, the king was stopped at Bannockburn and from June 23-24, 1314, the most famous Anglo-Scottish war in history took place – The Battle of Bannockburn. It is here you should note that Lancaster, as well as the earl’s of Warwick, Arundel and Warenne, all refused to serve the king in battle, arguing that the summons of armies had not passed through parliament as the ordinances decreed. This greatly limited the king’s army and was one of the main reasons why Edward suffered a humiliating defeat at the hands of the Scots.

The unexpected defeat at Bannockburn had dire consequences for the English king and he was now at the mercy of the leader of the opposition, Thomas of Lancaster, whom he submitted to and made him his chief councillor. Lancaster’s new powers made him the leader of the government, and effectively leader of England. The defeat by the Scots highlighted the importance of the ordinances, as going to battle without the consent of parliament led to the greatest English military disaster of the Middle Ages. But some historian’s now believe that before the Battle of Bannockburn, Thomas had an allegiance with none other than Robert the Bruce.

Battle of Bannockburn
Implications invoke that our earl played a dirty game to get to where he wanted to be and in fourteenth century England he committed the most treacherous act possible, he sided with the Scots. With Lancaster leading the opposition within the country and Bruce from outside, they fought the English king together for mutual gain, opening the door for Lancaster to take England, and for Bruce to take Scotland. But leadership was always going to be an uphill struggle for Thomas as the country was in a dire state. The Scots continued to push into northern England, the English famine of 1315-17 had lingering effects and the people had no faith in their king and country. Lancaster’s remedy, of course, was the full enforcement of the ordinances, which the king reluctantly agreed to. But Edward would not go away easily and was unwilling to enforce the new parliamentary procedures. The two cousins clashed violently and a catalogue of unfortunate events helped Edward to manoeuvre Thomas into political isolation.

The other English earls swore their allegiance to the king leaving Lancaster to become a one-man opposition and his political power lay almost entirely with his wealth and following. The Scots continued to ravage northern England and when they had reached as far south as Yorkshire, the king and his barons realised they needed Lancaster’s help. He still held lands that stretched the length and breadth of the country and had a strong, loyal army in his own right. But bringing Edward and Thomas together would be an almost impossible task, but like they say, money talks, and on this occasion it certainly did. The king had to make payments in return for a united country. But this did not mend their shattered relationship and quarrels continued and escalated to yet more conflict between the two, including the accusation that Thomas was in collusion with the Scots. It must have caused suspicion when Lancaster’s lands were spared by Bruce’s men, but Thomas would never have admitted to playing any part in England’s most humiliating defeat, as it would mean certain death.

All of the old divisions were re-opened and the reformations that Thomas had fought for, all of which were for the benefit of the people, had effectively died a death and the political system of England went backwards instead of forwards.

This is where we meet Hugh le Despenser, 1st earl of Winchester  and his son Hugh the Younger Despenser, who by 1319, had gained control of the courts, controlled access to the king and directed the royal household. This power gave the ambitious Despenser’s the chance to take land in England and Wales, by force if necessary, which upset many of the lords. They did not have the power to counter the Despenser’s and had to yet again plead to Lancaster for help. The country was again on the brink of civil war and Lancaster had to discuss a formal alliance with old friend Robert the Bruce, to remove the king and the Despenser’s. But Lancaster was out of time. King Edward had already sent his armies northwards and he was captured on the River Aire at Boroughbridge on March 16, 1322. During trial Thomas was not allowed to speak in his own defence, nor was he allowed to have anybody speak for him. Because of their kinship and Thomas’ royal blood, the king reduced the sentence to mere beheading (as opposed to being drawn, quartered, and beheaded) and on March 22, 1322, Thomas of Lancaster was convicted for treason and executed near Pontefract Castle.

Thomas's execution
Also executed was John de Mowbray, owner of the lands of Melton Mowbray and strong supporter of Lancaster. If you don't include Piers Gaveston, who technically wasn't earl of Cornwall at the time of his death, having been stripped of his title, Thomas of Lancaster was the first English earl to be executed since Waltheof in 1076. This is the reason that the Wyvern on the Leicester Coat of Arms has a wounded appearance with blood pouring from its wings, to commemorate Leicester’s executed earl.

Like Simon de Montfort whose lands he inherited and whose career superficially resembles his own, Thomas of Lancaster was revered as a ‘political saint,’ dying for a cause as opposition to a ruling regime. Only six weeks after his death miracles were reported from his tomb at Pontefract and an armed guard was sent by the king to close the church where his body lay. In 1323 there were riots as crowds of people tried to gain access to his place of execution, to pray and make offerings. They became the cult of ‘saint’ Thomas and his tomb at Pontefract Priory became a shrine. Hagiographies were written about him, and Edward III wrote three times to the Pope requesting his canonisation, but was sadly denied. For many years the earl’s hat and belt were preserved at Pontefract and were considered magical, being respective remedies for headaches and the dangers of childbirth.

In the early fourteenth century the people of Leicestershire supported Lancaster in all of his beliefs and actions. His life followed a complex sequence of twists and turns but he was always consistent with his aim in life, to reform the country. The earl had many negative traits, he was a bad husband, had bigoted views and committed treason to name but a few, but he sincerely wanted a better life for the common man, to make the country a fairer and more just place. His life is a reflection of his predecessor Simon de Montfort, both earls playing important roles in the fight for English democracy, yet one has failed to gain the same recognition.

Whether it was a nice decoration from the Arms of Leicester, or whether they remembered Lancaster with fondness, the Victorians have put his mark all over the city. The wyvern celebrates Leicestershire’s ‘political saint,’ once the most powerful man in the country. He may have openly showed defiance to the king of England, but he was always true to his word.He did everything he could to transform the country but the hurdles were just too high. He lived for the people and paved the way for a new system of government; he laid the foundations of democracy.

  • Learn more about Thomas of Lancaster in a publication by the University of Leicester’s Dr J. S. Bothwell. “Falling From Grace: Reversal of Fortune and the English Nobility 1075-1455” will be available in 2008 (Manchester University Press).

by Matthew Sibson

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

Bel - the Leicester Giant

Recently I came across a Puffin Book titled “Bel the Giant and Other Stories.” To the average person this wouldn’t mean anything, but for me – I was excited. For years I had known about the local Leicester myth of the giant called Bel and for the first time, I had found a book that told the story.

It’s only a child’s book but is of interest to a local historian. The book was written in 1956 but the story goes back for many, many years.

The story starts…

     “Once upon a time there was a giant who lived in Leicestershire, and his name was Bel. Now the worst thing about the giant Bel was the way he bragged and boasted….

It continues with Bel saying….

     “I could get to Leicester on my charger in three leaps! Three leaps from this very spot, or I’m not Bel the giant.”


     “At a place near Farmer’s house, he mounted his great sorrel charger. And that place is called Mountsorrel to this day.”
    “He gathered himself up, he called to his steed, and away he went, up in the air, a great long leap, and the people of Mountsorrel said, ‘O-o-oh!’ as he disappeared. In one leap he reached a place half of the way to Leicester. And that place has been called Wanlip ever since. All the people gazed to see the giant land.”
    “Then Bel drew himself up, he roared at his charger, and he leapt again, and all the people said, ‘There he goes!’ as he soared through the air.”
     “But then there was a terrible bursting and crackling noise, a noise like whips of leather, a roaring noise like a tree falling down. It was Bel’s harness, Bel’s horse, and Bel’s bones themselves, bursting with the great long leap.”
     “With a sigh like a storm at sea he came down galumph at a place two thirds of the way to Leicester. And that place has been called Birstall, ever since.”
     “Bel groaned and thought of the farmer’s sheep and cattle [his prize for winning the bet]. He urged on his dying charger with the great spurs, he gave an echoing shout, and away he went again with his harness flying in all directions. (Some of the children ran to pick up the pieces).”
      “But Bel had boasted too much. It was too long a leap for him, too great an effort for his great sorrel charger. He came down groaning like a winter wind at a place a mile and a half from Leicester. And there they rolled over dead, the boastful giant Bel and his sorrel charger. They were buried in once great grave where they landed, and that place has been called Belgrave from that day to this.”
     “As for the people round Leicester, they rejoiced greatly to know the greedy and boastful giant was dead, and their sheep and cattle safe. Especially Farmer Hook and his beautiful bay mare Jennet. He and his wife and his children danced round Jannet singing a rhyme, and this is the rhyme they sang:

                        Mountsorrel he mounted at
                        Rothley he rode by,
                        At Wanlip he leaped o’er,
                        At Birstall he burst his gall,
                        At Belgrave he was buried at.

     “You may still hear it sometimes, in Leicestershire.”

It’s a great story isn’t it! Mountsorrel, Rothley, Wanlip and Birstall form roughly a straight line between Loughborough and Leicester. Belgrave was once a village in its own right but now is part of the city of Leicester. If Bel had made his wager today he would have won his wager as he did indeed make it to Leicester in just three leaps! Other versions of the legend states that he started his journey from Belton near Loughborough (Bel’s tun) – another fitting place name for this legendary character!

At the time of Domesday, Belgrave was called ‘Merdegrave,’ but some historians believe it may have originally been called Belgrave. With Bel meaning ‘beautiful’ in French, some presume they change it to ‘Merde,’ which means ‘dung’ (to say it politely) as a way of oppressing the conquered. The other interpretation is that Merdegrave is the original Old English name, meaning the ‘grove in the meadows’ and it was actually the Norman’s who changed is to Belgrave – the ‘beautiful grove,’ to remove the French connotation of the word ‘Merde.’

We’ll never know the truth but the name Bel has been in the region for many years before the Norman invasion (Belton for example). To the ancient British pagans Bel was the sun god and it is after him that the ancient May Day festival of Beltaine is named after, a festival that continues to be celebrated to this day in Leicestershire. Two ancient British kings, Cassi-Belin and Cuno-Belin were also named after this important god.

We have read how Black Annis could have possibly represented the goddess Anu and by being dark and blue-faced, she represented the darker, more wintery times. It appears that her opposite and counterpart was the summer sun god – Bel. The story of Bel could well have been adapted over the years and originally his journey could be representative for the sun moving across the sky, falling when he reaches Belgrave. Belgrave is only just north east of the Dane Hills (Black Annis’ Bower) so by dying in Belgrave, he could have been giving way to his Winter Queen, Annis/Anu, to rule over the remainder of the year.

Beltaine fires were lit across Leicestershire on May Day to usher in the god of light, the sun god, Bel, and his name has lingered in local folklore ever since – in a child’s story – and long may it live!

by Matthew Sibson