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King Lear’s Town
A Little History of the City of Leicester

by Katherine Ashe

The City of Leicester. In the so called “dark” and “middle’ ages, Leicester was not a happy place. In 1173, by order of King Henry II, the city was besieged, razed and depopulated as punishment for its earl, Robert “White-Hands’” support of Queen Eleanor (of Aquitaine) and her son Richard the Lion Hearted. On Richard’s ascension to the throne, the Earl of Leicester was forgiven, and rebuilt his hall. But the town recovered very slowly and sporadically, being still sparsely populated within its walls as late as 1722.

The situation was so bad that White Hands forgave any taxes the townspeople owed him. Of course, it was his fault they had suffered at all, so renouncing his taxes was the least he could do.

Roman ruins at Vaughn College, Leicester

But Leicester had a prominent past. In the early Christian era Leicester had been a major Roman town at the crossing of two of the most important of the Roman legions’ roads in Britain. Fine mosaic floors in costly Roman villas have been excavated near the city. Endearing objects may be seen in Leicester’s museum, such as a bowl inscribed from a centurion to his lady love.

Massive stone arches, perhaps a part of the Roman baths, still stand. In the Middle Ages those thick walls with their gaps served as the Jewish district, with shacks built against the walls, using the gaps as part of the shelter. Jews were not permitted to own land. But since no one owned the ancient stretch of wall and arches, the Jews remained there undisturbed. At least until the shameful incident of Simon de Montfort’s youth, when he evicted them from the city.

Since Montfort had no title, and no knights or henchmen at the time, so he probably didn’t accomplish that eviction single-handed. It’s most likely the people of Leicester joined in the rout, thus cancelling their debts to the Jews who were chiefly money-lenders. Similar attacks against Jews in London and elsewhere occurred and seem to have been motivated by a desire to not pay back loans, rather than for any religious reasons. Being a Jew in England in the 13th century was hazardous.

The Jewry Wall

It may not be coincidence that when young Simon drove out the Jews of Leicester, his mentor, Fr. Robert Grosseteste, had just founded a refuge for homeless Jews, in London: later the site of the Public Record Office. However, the Jews Simon drove from the old Roman wall probably knew that the local priest (Dean of Lincoln Cathedral) was offering not just hospitality, but an attempt at conversion. They simply crossed the River Soar to Simon’s grand-aunt’s house, where they found sympathetic shelter. From there they spread all over England the news of their mistreatment by the would-be Earl of Leicester. It made a very bad beginning for a young Frenchman hoping to redeem an English title.

Another instance of the impact of the youthful Simon de Montfort on Leicester appears in the royal court’s legal records. The villeins of the Leicester fief brought suit against Simon for fencing their fields. He had done more than fence the fields, he had tried to persuade them away from the age-old three-field system of cultivation and toward the raising of sheep and cattle. It may be that the depopulation of Leicester had made the three-field system too unproductive, with too many of the field rows going uncultivated. It’s well to remember Montfort’s mentor again, the ubiquitous Robert Grosseteste, who had published the then most respected “modern” work on manor management.

Saint Mary de Castro church, favored retreat of Robert Grosseteste

It is unlikely Montfort ventured such a change without Grosseteste’s advice. As for the future of Leicester, woolen processing became its chief industry and remained so until after WWII.

Old Guild Hall, Leicester

Old Guild Hall, Leicester

But let’s go further back in time. After the conquest of Britain by the Angles and Saxons, and the division of Britain into the heptarchy, the “seven kingdoms, in 753, Leicester became the capital city of the kingdom of Mercia. The name “Leicester” derives from “Legre-caestre,” Lyger, or Legre, was the old name of the River Soar, which encloses two sides of the old city. If King Lear is not to be looked upon merely as mythical, then Leicester was the site of his castle. There is a mysterious conical mound with a door set in it on the castle grounds. A fairy hill? My inquiries when I was there only gained the answer, “It was where m’lord kept his wines.” Well, that too – probably.

In 874, Leicester fell to the Danes. Its Roman walls protecting its perimeter (not the walls of the baths, that became the Jewry) were destroyed and the city became incorporated in the Danish “five boroughs,” which included Nottingham, Lincoln, Derby and Stamford.

In 920, Ethelfloeda, the daughter of King Alfred, succeeded in raising an army and driving the Danes from Leicester, Derby and Nottingham. She caused the Roman walls to be rebuilt, with an assortment of stone and Roman tiles cemented together with an extraordinarily sturdy mortar that adhered in clumps, making any subsequent reuse of the building materials all but impossible. City and castle walls were knocked down and rebuilt regularly in medieval times. The Palestinian castle at Caesaria was disassembled and reassembled with every passing phase of Moslem or Christian crusading success. To not be able to reassemble the cut stones of a city or castle wall was an unusual and serious problem.

After Ethelfloeda’s death, at Castle Tamworth in 922, Leicester passed back and forth between the Anglo-Saxons and the Danes, resulting in further demolition — no longer repairable thanks to Ethelfloeda’s mortar.

In 1068, the Saxon, Earl Edwin of Coventry and Leicester (grandson of the minimally covered Lady Godiva of Coventry and Leicester – one always hopes that notable ride was in summertime), surrendered and did homage to William the Conqueror. Leicester passed to William’s follower Hugh de Grantmesnil, as Norman governor.

After William’s death, Hugh supported Robert of Normandy, rather than William’s heir, William Rufus, or his brother Henry. When Henry succeeded as Henry I, Hugh retired to a monastery in France, and the king created his friend Robert de Beaumont the first Norman Earl of Leicester. After him came Robert de Bosso, who enjoyed the earldom for fifty years.

Then there was “Robert White Hands.” His son and heir, Robert FitzParnel died without heirs and the inheritance of the earldom of Leicester passed to father White Hands’ surviving sisters. One of those ladies was Margaret, the Countess of Winchester, the very one who welcomed the fleeing Jews – she already had complaints of her own against her grand-nephew for putting up his fences and encroaching on a corner of her lands. But Margaret only got twelve of the seventy-eight fiefs belonging to the earldom.

The other sister, who inherited the earldom’s titles and sixty-six fiefs, was the mother of Simon de Montfort the crusader and harrier of Albigensians. There was a prediction, in his time, that the people of England would rise up and elect Simon de Montfort their king. The crusader announced he would “never set foot in a land given to such prophecies.” And he never did.

Chartres window – this image has roused a great deal of confusion regarding the arms of Simon the Earl of Leicester, whose blazon, as depicted by his friend Matthew Paris in his Chronica Majora, shows a two tailed RED lion rampant on a White ground – suitably differenced from his father white-lion-on-red arms as a younger son’s would be.

Simon Pere might have been disappointed if he had claimed his titles. Of those sixty-six fiefs, sixty were held by the knights whom the earl was expected to lead in battle. Most of those knights paid no rent, giving military service instead, although one of them was compelled, in lieu of rent, to deliver to the earl each year a single red rose. (This echoes of Beauty and the Beast, but it’s true. One wonders how commonly acceptable a single roses was for the clearing of a debt. There were certain advantages to living in the Middle Ages.)

Simon de Montfort’s son and namesake, after the father’s death and the family’s relative bankruptcy, not only set foot in England, but did everything he could to gain the titles. But fighting the Welsh for King Henry III accomplished little for him. It was when he fell in love with the King’s sister, who was a nun, and the marriage was secret and hasty – followed by a successful effort at bribing the Pope to lift the nun’s vows — that King Henry finally granted Simon the title Earl of Leicester and its companion honor, Steward of England. A few decades later, much to Henry’s chagrin, the people of England did elect Simon de Montfort to be their king. Luckily for Henry, he refused the Crown.

With Simon’s death at Evesham, and the stripping from his sons of all of their claims of inheritance in England, Leicester passed to the Crown and became a bonus for royal relatives, enjoyed by a series of Lancastrians until John of Gaunt’s heir ascended the throne as Henry IV.

The earldom then remained in the Crown’s keeping again until Queen Elizabeth’s favorite, Robert Dudley, was granted the title in 1564.

With the fall of Dudley from royal favor, Leicester went back to the Crown — to be lobbed like a tennis ball out to the Sidney family in 1618, where it bounced happily for the next hundred and fifty years before a royal serve sent it to Thomas Coke. Strangely, Coke’s descendants didn’t receive the earldom after his death in 1795, but it was lobbed back to them in 1837, and has remained with the Coke family ever since, the Seventh Coke Earl of Leicester receiving the title in 1994.

Dugdaleleicester view

Leicester’s chief industry, from the time of Earl Simon on, was the processing of wool. Prior to WWII a major business was the lindsey-woolsey works, where a sturdy fabric of wool and linen was manufactured. During the war the factory was taken out of private hands for the war effort.

In recent years Leicester has blossomed as an academic center, with Montfort University perhaps the largest and fastest growing educational institution in England. Earl Simon, whose statue is one of four ringing the base of the town clock, would be pleased.

See History and Antiquities of the antient Towne and once Citte of Leicester, MS, Thomas Staveley, 1679; History and Antiquities of the Town of Leicester, John Throsby, 1791; History and Antiquities of the Town and County of Leicester, John Nichols, 1795. History of Leicester from the time of the Romans to the end of the seventeenth century, James Thompson, 1849. Roman Leicester, James Francis Hollings, The Literary and Philosophical Society, 1851.

Interestingly, despite the battering the town suffered, a merchants’ guild was in existence in Leicester from as early as Oct. 9, 1196. See Stenton, F.M. “Documents Illustrative of the Social and Economic History of the Danelaw,” British Academy, 1920, no. 347; cf. no. 392.)