Tuesday, 25 September 2012

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

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