Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Focus on: Leicester Castle

It was the fortified home of the forefather of both Princess Diana and George Washington and once boasted the grandest stately hall in all of Europe. The great kings of England have walked its flagstone floors; like the noblemen who plotted against them and the founding father of democracy. This historic link with the days of knights still stands today, barely noticed in the heart of Leicester, a step back from the rude racket of daily life in the 21st century.

Leicester Castle as seen today
So who lived in a house like this? Well, read on.

Think of a castle, and you picture the mighty structures that defended the bluebloods of glum merrie England: imposing walls, turrets and a portcullis gateways. So a stray tourist catching their first glimpse of Leicester Castle could be excused a sharp bolt of disappointment. Welford Road prison seems closer to the real thing than the rather mundane-looking construction facing St Mary de Castro Church.

Apart from the ancient hall that is now almost entirely concealed beneath a modern disguise, very little survives.  The remains, for the most part, consist of a Tudor gateway with adjacent buildings, plus the Turret Gateway leading into the Newarke, an old cellar at the south end of the hall and part of the original boundary wall. There are no notes or drawings of the castle buildings at the time of their demolition or alteration and no complete building accounts exist.

But there are some original sources and the history of the castle can be traced with the help of national records such as The Pipe Rolls. These antique documents, coupled with knowledge gleaned by archaeological excavation, gives the most complete history of Leicester Castle possible.

So how did Leicester Castle come to be, and why did it hold such prestige?

Like any conquered people, the English of 1066 resented their new Norman masters. So in the years after the invasion, William the Conqueror went on a building spree, establishing castles in large towns and along important lines of communication. Leicester Castle was perfectly placed, strategically sited at the south west corner of the town, on the eastern bank of the River Soar. It’s thought it was built in 1068 and like many of the time, was of the motte and bailey type – a large mound of earth, surrounded by a ditch with a wooden palisade on top.  The castle and a quarter of the lands of Leicester were entrusted to Hugh de Grentemaisnil, a loyal follower of the Conqueror and Lord of the neighbouring Honour and Castle of Hinckley.

Leicester Castle in Norman times
But in 1088, Hugh joined the baronial rebellion against the new king of England, the Conqueror’s son William Rufus. The revolt was unsuccessful and in revenge for Hugh’s disloyalty, William Rufus assailed the castle of Leicester, either damaging or completely destroying it. Hugh himself escaped a similar fate: getting a royal pardon for his service to William the Conqueror.

Powerful Earl
However, revolt ran in the blood. After Hugh’s death, his son Ivo joined a rebellion against Henry I. When that, too, was crushed, Leicester Castle was again destroyed.

Ivo lost his honours and lands. And Leicester was now the possession of the king. He handed it to a powerful Frenchman who would become the first earl of Leicester – Robert de Beaumont. He was revered as “the wisest man from here to Jerusalem” and was a descendant of powerful, ancient kings and rulers such as Charlemagne, King of the Franks. Robert also left quite a legacy himself – his descendants include George Washington, Winston Churchill and the late Princess Diana. Not just that: it’s Robert we have to thank for St Mary de Castro church, known as one of the most beautiful in the country at the time. Robert rebuilt the entire settlement at the castle, re-establishing the motte and bailey defences and replacing the wooden palisades with a stone wall.

On his death, the earldom of Leicester passed to his son, Robert le Bossu – the hunchback. This Robert was responsible for building Leicester Abbey. He strengthened and enlarged the castle and built the stone Great Hall – the principle surviving part of the castle today – which had the reputation of being the grandest in Europe.

The next de Beaumont earl of Leicester was Robert Blanchmains, who married Petronilla, heiress of the de Grentemaisnil line. Like his father, Robert got the builders in. By marrying a de Grentemaisnil, Robert seems to have picked up a few other family traits: like Hugh and Ivo before him, he joined in a rebellion against the king. The upshot was predictable – once more Leicester Castle felt the wrath of a king. The Pipe Rolls records that 11s 9d and 40s was entered as having been spent on the “demolition of the castle and town wall”.  Thankfully, the Great Hall and St Mary de Castro escaped destruction.

Age of splendour
The next eye-catching owner was Simon de Montfort II. It is thought this Simon enlarged and improved the residential buildings of the castle, for it was grand enough to entertain King Henry III and his son Prince Edward in 1264. From the Great Hall of the castle, the father of democracy summoned the first parliament in England. On his death, the lands of Leicester, including the castle grounds, went back to the king and the de Beaumont family rule of Leicester came to an end.

Leicester Castle Great Hall in the 19th century
In 1265, the honour, earldom and castle of Leicester were given to Edmund Crouchback, the younger brother of Edward I. During his rule, the Great Hall first came into use as a criminal court, a function it performed until relatively recently. When Edmund died in 1296, the castle came into the hands of his son, Thomas of Lancaster, who was executed in 1322.

Two years later, the castle passed to Thomas’ brother, Henry. He died after just a year as earl, but not before founding the Newarke Trinity Hospital for the poor of Leicester. His son, Henry of Grosmont, completed the hospital in 1354, and built a gatehouse in the Newarke which survives today, known as Turret Gateway. He also added a collegiate church to the Newarke, in which he was buried after his death at in 1361.

On his death, his honours, titles and lands were given to his sister Blanche, who was married to John of Gaunt, the fourth son of King Edward III.  The great poet Chaucer was a frequent visitor and King Richard II and his queen were entertained with splendour in the Great Hall. As well as numerous expansions and improvements to the castle, which helped turn it into one of the grandest in the land, John built a kitchen to the south of the hall, with a very fine cellar underneath. Known today as John of Gaunt’s Cellar, it remains in excellent condition. The death of John of Gaunt saw the end to the Lancastrian earls of Leicester. The town and castle were now in the hands of the throne. From then on, the castle’s importance declined. It still attracted some royal attention though, as both Henry IV and Henry V occasionally stayed there and it was important enough for the famous Parliament of Bats to assemble in the Great Hall in 1426. Henry VI, Edward IV and Richard III also stayed on a number of occasions.

Leicester Castle in the times of John of Gaunt
The last authentic record of its occupation, other than by the officials of honour, seems to be a letter written by Richard III, dated “from my castle of Leicester, on 18 August, 1483”. From this point on, the castle deteriorated badly. In May, 1645, Leicester took the side of Parliament against the crown in the civil war and as a consequence, the town was attacked by Charles I and Prince Rupert. The castle, in no state to defend itself, was captured and further damage was inflicted. With the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the lands of Leicester were given back to the crown, who leased the castle.

Rupert's gateway & St. Mary de Castro Church
Damage is done
From the end of the 17th century onwards, the history of the castle centres mainly on the Great Hall which, although in a poor state, was used twice a year as a court. In 1695, during the reign of William and Mary, the eastern side of the original Norman hall was taken down and replaced by a brick front. Apart from its use as a court, the hall would occasionally be used as an entertainment venue for special functions, such as a town ball in 1722. Early in the 19th century, the hall went through its final transformation and was divided into two separate courts. Most historians agree that through the 900 years of turbulent history, this was the greatest damage. In 1832 the Turret Gateway was partially destroyed during an election squabble and then fell into a dilapidated condition. On March 26, 1888, the county justices bought the castle from the crown, terminating its long connection with the Duchy of Lancaster. Since Leicester’s court moved away from the Great Hall in 1992, it has ceased to be the administrative heart of Leicester, but as it remains the oldest surviving aisled and bay-divided hall in Europe, its historical value is priceless.

Leicester Castle from the rear in 1955

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