Architecture and history section
From Roman times to 1800.
NEW – we now have a whole page devoted to the story of Richard III
Historic Buildings and Monuments, from Roman Times to 1800.
A series of buildings and monuments that indicate the history of Leicester/shire, from Roman times to the end of the Victorian era.
We have split our page on historical buildings of Leicester/shire into two parts:
This page looks at buildings and monuments from the earliest times to 1800. Part 2 covers 1800 to 1901.
The time line of pre-history
The periods of prehistory are displayed at the Jewry Wall Museum.
Upper Palaeolithic – 40,000 to 10,000 years BC
Mesolithic – 10,000 to 4,000 years BC
Neolithic – 4,000 to 2,200 years BC
Bronze Age – 2,200 to 800 years years BC
Iron Age – 800 BC to 43 AD
The Roman conquest of 43 AD marks the end of the Iron age in the areas of Britain occupied by the Romans.
Jewry Wall Roman Ruins, City of Leicester
The second largest surviving section of a Roman civil structure in Britain, the Jewry Wall is thought to have been part of the public baths which existed in Roman Leicester, or Ratae Corieltauvorum. Ratae means ramparts and this suggests that the site was originally a defended fortification. Iron Age round houses have been excavated in the city. The picture that emerges is that the Romans, following their conquest of Britain, founded their settlement on the east bank of the River Soar as early as 50 AD, although the precise location has not yet been clearly identified.
Nearly 2,000 years old, the wall was probably constructed around 125 to 130 A.D. and stands adjacent to St. Nicholas Church which dates from around 880 A.D. Some researchers believe that the origins of Leicester can be traced back to a settlement in the first century BC. There is increasing evidence of Iron Age occupation on the banks of the river Soar, at or close to the site now occupied by the remains of the Jewry Wall. This would suggest that the Romans built their Baths on a site that was already in use by people who had settled there in the Iron age. It has been suggested that the settlement was already of high status prior to the Roman conquest.
Other Iron Age settlements have been discovered in nearby areas such as Beaumont Leys and Humberstone. A Hill fort was discovered at Burrough Hill near Melton Mowbray.
Constructed from Roman brick and built using a construction technique known to the Romans as Opus Mixtum, the wall is 23 metres in length, 8 metres in height and 2.5 metres thick.
The surviving structure comprises the wall section, with two arches set in alcoves and a niche separating them on the eastern side.
The remains stand in the grounds of the Jewry Wall museum which is open to the public with no admission charge and includes a collection of Roman artifacts from various eras, with information on Leicester’s ancient history.
In Roman times, the garrison town would have been surrounded by a stone wall. This was probably built on in the middle ages and traces of it have been discovered by archaeologists. The line of the wall can clearly be seen on Stukeley’s map of 1722 (see below)
See our article The Romans in Leicester.
A breath of fresh air in the midst of the city, Abbey Park was designed by the firm of the famous Victorian gardener William Barron. Local architect James Tait was responsible for the designs of the lodges and pavilions and the park was opened by the Prince and Princess of Wales in May 1882.
Abbey Park contains the unearthed ruined foundations of Leicester Abbey which was founded by Robert Beaumont, the second Earl of Leicester in about 1143, as a community of Augustine Canons of the Order of Saint Augustine.
The Abbey stands along with the ruins of the 17th Cavendish House.
The Abbey would then go on to become of one of the most significant Augustine houses in the country. Today the ruins form a grade I listed building, which includes the visible foundations of the structure laid out across the lawn of the park.
The entire precinct was surrounded by a stone wall, although this was partly demolished in the late 15th early 16th century due to a southern extension. This extension was enclosed by a red-brick wall, known today as Penny Abbot’s Wall, which is adorned with various blue-brick patterns and symbols.
The downfall of Leicester Abbey came during the reign of Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536, with the demolition itself taking place over a period of time. Stone would have been in relative demand around the town of Leicester during this period, with some of the materials being used in the construction of the nearby Cavendish House.
Leicester Abbey is also the resting place of the famous Cardinal Wolsey, as he died of illness here on his way to London where he had been summoned for treason, although the site of his grave is now long lost.
Cavendish House was constructed around 1600 by William Cavendish, 1st Earl of Devonshire. The house is a grade I listed building, consisting of a tall stone rubble wall complete with mullioned and transom windows and the fragments of various other wall sections.
The house was used by Charles I during The Civil War and the siege of Leicester, after which it was set ablaze (the damage is still visible) and gutted under uncertain circumstances.
The park is open to the public today, where visitors can discover more about the history of the grounds and experience the sights of the ruins first hand.
Trinity House was built in 1331. Standing in The Newarke, it is now part of the De Montfort University, being occupied by the Corporate Affairs Department of the University.
The building, including its chapel, has seen constant and change since its first construction. It was rebuilt in 1901 to provide accommodation for 36 elderly residents.
Originally called Trinity Hospital, it was Henry Grosmont, third Earl of Leicester and Lancaster, who founded the original building in 1331. It cared for 50 poor, sick and elderly persons , although it is suggested that the name Trinity Hospital came into use in around 1615.
Florence E. Skillington has written ‘The original Letters Patent made provision for a warden, four chaplains, fifty poor and infirm folk and certain women – five – who cared for the inmates in sickness and in health.’ Skillington, Leicester University. She later comments that ‘Twenty of the fifty poor folk were perpetual inmates … They lived together in a house adjoining the church, and received a daily allowance for their maintenance.’ ibid.
The oldest part of the existing buildings on the site is the chapel. The walls of the chapel house several large wooden plaques on which are inscribed tables of benefactors, going back the original donation of Henry in 1331 which paid for the four acres of land and the first building.
The Duchy of Lancaster was responsible for the appointment pf the Chaplain of Trinity Hospital.
Trinity Hospital now provides 22 purpose built flats, the residents being moved there in 1995 following the closure of the Almshouses that were part of the site.
Henry Grosmont’s son, the Duke of Lancaster, founded the Chantry College in 1354-56 and this was linked to the Hospital. It was in 1614 that King James I granted a charter under which the institution was named The Hospital of the Holy Trinity.
The medieval building was rebuilt in 1776 with funding from King George III.
15th Century Leicester
It is thought that the site of Leicester was where the Roman Fosse Way crossed the River Soar, probably at a point where animals frequently crossed the river.
The map of fifteenth century Leicester wass drawn by John Cook. It was based on archaeological evidence. Some older line drawn maps of Medieval Leicester exist and from these we can see the position of the town walls and the main streets relative to the position of known buildings such as the Castle and the churches.
There was a settlement here in the Iron Age, populated by people of Celtic origin. A Cathedral (‘See’ or ‘Diocese’) was established in 679/80 A.D., but in the 9th century it became a Danish borough when it was captured by the Vikings. The status of being a Cathedral city did not return until the twentieth century.
Simon de Montfort, the 6th Earl of Leicester, called the first ever Parliament here in 1265, on the site of the Castle. In the Middle ages, the site was part of the kingdom of Mercia.
In the fifteenth century, the town was still protected by its walls, the lines of which were probably laid down during the Roman occupation. The gates of these walls remain today in street names such as Sanvey Gate (‘Senvy Gate’), Churchgate, Eastgates and the Newarke Gateway, now called the Magazine, that led to the Great Hospital in the Newarke, established in 1331.
It is likely that there were one or more bridges crossing the river in the fifteenth century, including the Belgrave Bridge and the Bow bridge.
In the 14th century Leicester had a population of around 4,000 people. The centre of the medieval town is said to be the High Cross, at the point where Highcross Street meets the High Street. The first cross was the last remaining pillar of the old Market House. The High Street ran between the North Gate and the High Cross and was lined with wealthy houses, often detached with gardens, in the fourteenth century. It was here that the more important inns stood.
1070 – 1150
Leicester Castle, City of Leicester
Leicester’s original timber castle is said to have been built around 1070 after the Norman Conquest of 1066 by order of William the Conqueror (the mound and ruins are still visible), with the later structure being built around 1150.
The castle complex consists of the Castle Gardens, Castle Mound, the Church of St. Mary de Castro, The Great Hall, John of Gaunt’s Cellar, Castle Yard, Turret Gateway, Magazine Gateway, John of Gaunt’s Cottage and various other buildings that are more recent.
Most of these locations can still be seen today in the heart of the Old Town, although the majority of the castle was demolished during The Middle Ages. The Great Hall was one of the largest buildings in the castle (built around 1150), and is said to be one of the finest Norman Halls in England. Although the frontage that was added in 1790 does not portray the image of a stereotypical ‘castle’. like the ones we might recognise, it hides the original medieval structure and is the building most associated with Leicester Castle today.
A Grade I listed single-story building with attic range, the frontage comprises red brick with a double entrance below a Venetian window, with a number of flat-arched modern two-light transom and mullion casements in moulded frames.
The Great Hall was converted into courts in the 19th century, with a central hall and a court of justice at each side of the building, with further alterations being made in 1858.
John of Gaunt’s cellar or The Castle Dungeon’ was added between 1400 -1410 and runs below the Castle Yard (a site dedicated to public executions) adjacent to The Great Hall. This subterranean chamber was built with large sandstone blocks with a vaulted ceiling and earth floor, running approximately 14 by 6 metres in length and width.
Once serving as a gateway into the Newarke (an addition of Leicester Castle), the Magazine Gateway monument was constructed around 1410 by the Third Earl of Leicester.
A grade I listed sandstone building in ashlar, the Magazine comprises of three storeys and is rectangular in plan. The sandstone structure has angled bertizans and a domed octagonal stair turret, with rectangular windows (mostly Victorian restorations) set in a rather irregular pattern and an impressive vaulted ceiling.
The building acquired its unusual name during the Civil War, when it was used as a gunpowder and weapons store. Existing as a regimental museum up until the late 1990s, it was closed due to the conditions of the buildings ancient stairway. Located just off The Newarke on Castle View, The Turret Gateway was built around 1422 to 1423 as a south entrance to the inner bailey.
Although a considerable amount of the structure remains, it stands mostly in ruins as a grade I listed building, today. Comprising mostly sandstone rubble with an arched gate and portcullis chamber with a four centred archway, the gateway originally included a third storey section which was demolished during an election riot in 1932.
Restoration work on the structure’s stonework was completed in in the 1880s, ensuring that this 15th century treasure stands as a popular reminder of Leicester Castle.
The portico has a vaulted stone ceiling. As with The Guildhall, the complex of Leicester Castle has been associated with paranormal activity for many years. Tales of ringing bells and strange sounds from the deserted John of Gaunt’s Cellar, phantom apparitions around the Castle Yard and the legend of the infamous Black Annis are among a few of the stories.
It is also said that a dungeon was discovered here in 1634, where several skeletons remained shackled to the walls beneath the castle. There are various guided tours of the complex today, although the Great Hall, John of Gaunt’s Cellar and the Magazine Gateway are not generally open to the public.
Kirby Muxloe Castle, Oakcroft Avenue, Village of Kirby Muxloe
Tucked away in the small village of Kirby Muxloe, not too far from the city, is the site of Kirby Castle. Begun in 1480 by William Hastings, 1st Baron of Hastings and designed by the master mason John Cowper, the castle is a red-brick fortified manor house that remains incomplete to this day.
It was one of the last quadrangular castles to be built, as well as one of the earliest brickwork buildings to be erected in England. Only one of the four main corner towers is completed (the three-story West Tower), which boasts a number of gun-ports to the base of the structure that are unusually positioned for a defensive tower.
The gatehouse also still stands (though only by a single story) where a timber drawbridge would once have led across the moat; this is adorned with a variety of carvings and black diamond patterns that are implemented into the brickwork.
The carved initials ‘WH’ can also still be seen above the threshold, along with the Hastings coat of arms, a reminder of the original owners. The moat itself is perhaps of one of the most interesting elements of the site, lined with brick and filled with water that is directed from the nearby brooks.
During The Wars of the Roses, William Hastings had allied himself with the sons of the late Edward IV, who at the time (along with Edward’s widow Elizabeth Woodville) were an obstacle to the ambitious Richard of Gloucester (later Richard III).
During a political meeting at the Tower of London, Hastings met his unfortunate end when Richard had him beheaded in the courtyard (reputed to be the first recorded execution at the tower) in 1483.
Edward’s two sons (Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, 1st Duke of York) would also meet their untimely fate so it seems, both mysteriously disappearing from the tower around the same time, (most likely murdered) later becoming The Princes in the Tower.
Kirby Muxloe Castle is now an English Heritage site and is open seasonally to the public subject to a small admission charge.
The Guildhall, Guildhall Lane, City of Leicester
The Guildhall is probably Leicester’s most celebrated historical building, as it is steeped in history and boasts one of the finest timber framed halls in the country. Located next door to St. Martin’s Cathedral on Guildhall Lane, the surrounding cobbled streets and neighbouring buildings really contribute to the ‘long ago’ atmosphere that the general area seems to conjure.
The building has served many different purposes across the centuries and undergone multiple alterations; fortunately, it remains standing today to tell its tale. The Guildhall is a Grade I listed building, with The Great Hall dating back to around 1390 when it was constructed for the Guild of Corpus Christi.
The majority of the structure dates from the 15th century, as the Christi Guild extended the original hall by a further two bays around 1450. Built around an inner courtyard, it is L-shaped in plan and set upon a stone base with a large one-story hall (the oldest feature) to the northern section.
The restored slate roof, charming timber framework and multiple bay and casement windows really contribute to the building’s Tudor image, although there are various features that emphasise it’s much earlier heritage.
During the reign of Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries and religious guilds, the Corpus Christi were dissolved and the building purchased by the Corporation of Leicester in 1563 for conversion into a town hall. The town library moved here in 1632 making it the third oldest public library in the country, with a number of rare volumes amongst the collection, such as the 15th century New Testament in Greek, or the Codex Leicesterensis.
The room on the ground floor west wing which became known as the Mayor’s Parlor, contains some magnificent oak wall-pannelling, the curious mayoral chair which was presented by Richard Inge and a number of interesting historical works of art.
The building became the first borough police station in 1836, when Leicester’s first police force was created. Holding cells where installed on the ground floor of the east wing which remain popular features today, along with a cottage for the Chief Constable on the south side of the courtyard.
After years of neglect the building risked demolition in the early 1920s, although the council came to their senses and decided on a restoration project instead. The Guildhall was officially opened as a museum on May 19th 1926, which remains its current purpose. It is not at all surprising that the Guildhall is considered Leicester’s most haunted building, said to be the home of at least five ghostly residents. Tales of mysterious sounds and footsteps, phantom apparitions and bizarre goings on are popular amongst locals. Especially intriguing is the tale of the infamous White Lady, who is said to be responsible for nocturnal interference with the large King James I Bible and the shifting of the heavy Tudor furniture after hours.
The Chantry House and Newark Houses, City of Leicester
A Grade II* listed building, Wyggeston’s Chantry House forms part of the Newark Houses Museum. It was built around 1511 to 1513 by William Wyggeston, a wool merchant and great benefactor of Leicester.
The Newark Houses Museum incorporates the Museum of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. It once housed priests who served at the nearby church of St. Mary of the Annunication (now St. Mary de Castro.)
After the dissolution of the chantries in 1547 it became a private dwelling for the gentry and is the only surviving example of its kind, in Leicestershire, of an Elizabethan house.
The three storey building was constructed from stone rubble with ashlar quoins and
The Newarke was once the ancient borough of Leicester, forming what was then the south field of the town.
The Newark Houses comprise two historic structures: The Wygston Chantry House and Skeffington House.
The Chantry house was built by William Wygston, who was at the time, Leicester’s richest citizen. When the chantries were abolished in 1547, it became a house for the gentry, the only surviving example in Leicestershire of a building from the Elizabethan era.
William Wyggeston’s chantry house was built around 1511. It houses two priests who served in the chantry chapel of the nearby St Mary de Castro church. The Chantries were abolished by Henry VIII in 1545 and 1547.
The Newark Houses Museum and gardens, incorporating the Museum of the Royal Leicestershire regiment, now occupies the main premises.
William Wyggeston (sometimes spelt Wygston or Wigston) was a wool merchant. He was twice Mayor of the Corporation of Leicester and he and his family were benefactors to the city. In 1513 he established what is now called Wyggeston’s Hospital. After his death, his brother Thomas used money from the trust funds to establish a grammer School which later became the Wyggeston’s Grammer School for Boys.
William Wyggeston is honoured by having a statue of him on Leicester Clock Tower (where it is spelt Wigston.) Wyggeston’s Chantry House is believed to have been built in 1511/12. It housed the chantry priests who sang masses for his soul. There was a chapel next to the house was this demolished in 1548.
Originally a two story building, a third floor was added in the late 16th century. In 1940 the building was damaged by bombing. It was restored in the 1950s and now houses the Museum that bears its name.
The entrance to the Newark Houses Museum.
Bradgate House, Parish of Newtown Linford
In the grounds of the 850 acre Bradgate Park that lies between the villages of Newtown Linford, Anstey, Cropston, Woodhouse Eaves and Swithland, stands the ruins of Bradgate House. The house dates back to the late fifteenth-century, and together with Kirby Muxloe Castle is one of the oldest brick buildings in the county.
It was the Marquis of Dorset Thomas Grey, son of Sir John Grey of Groby and Elizabeth Woodville, (who later married Henry IV) who initially began the building, which was completed by the second Marquis in the early sixteenth-century.
The house itself is grade II listed building, with a U-shaped layout that would have included the Great Hall and parlor to the north, private apartments and a chapel to the east, a bakery and kitchen to the west (where the oven and fireplace are still visible) and a number of polygonal towers, of which four as still clearly noticeable.
There is a formal garden to the east that is divided by walkways and is known as the tilt yard, which is also a grade II listed building. There is a leat in the tilt garden that runs south (now dry) to the site of a former watermill, which is now a below-ground feature.
There is also a garden wall to the south side which is a Grade II listed building, built of red brick, it dates from around the sixteenth-century.
The house is most known as a residence of the noblewomen Lady Jane Grey, eldest daughter of Henry Grey, 1st Duke of Suffolk, and his wife, Lady Frances Brandon. Jane was the great granddaughter of Henry VII, and famously took the English throne for just nine days between the 10th and 19th of July 1553, becoming the renowned Nine Days’ Queen.
When parliament declared Jane’s cousin, Mary I the rightful queen, Mary denounced and revoked Jane’s proclamation as that of a usurper. Jane was eventually beheaded inside the Tower of London on Tower Green, on the morning of February 12th, 1554. It is said that the oak trees around the park were pollarded following Jane’s beheading; the scars of which can still be seen today.
Over the following years, the house withstood assault during the English Civil War, a fire in 1694 and abandonment in 1719. Bradgate Park is now administered by the Bradgate Park and Swithland Wood Charitable Trust, with trustees nominated by Leicestershire County Council, Leicester City Council and the National Trust. The park is open to the public daily with no compulsory admission charge, although the house itself is open subject to opening hours.
The Museum cottages are the most complete example of half-timbered building methods in Hinckley and probably date from the mid-seventeenth century.
They are of box-frame construction, with a tie-beam roof, and the infill panels would have originally been of wattle and daub. The infill panels were replaced by brick in the 18th century. The present internal layout dates from the 1920s restoration of the cottages.
The frontage of the building bears a blue plaque stating: “William Iliffe d. 1698. introduced the stock frame to Hinckley in a building similar to this in 1640.
The building was once used for framework knitting. In 1589 a stocking frame was invented by William Lee, capable of perfectly imitating the hand-knitter’s movements. This improved frame was now a commercial success. In 1640 a Hinckley man, William Iliffe, bought a frame and so started the hosiery trade in Hinckley. The Hinckley Frame differs in no way to that of William Iliffe in 1640. Robert Atkins started the firm of Atkins Brothers in 1722 and the Hinckley Frame was one of the firm’s machines.
The East Midlands region, like East Anglia, had traditionally reared sheep that produced fleeces with long fibres. Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, and Lincolnshire sheep were reputed to have some of the finest quality fleeces in the country. Fleeces with long fibres or ‘staple’ were preferred in worsted production. In the knitting industry, worsted yarn became one of the main fibres used, the others being linen, silk and cotton. Worsted provided a cheaper alternative to silk and cotton, and produced garments that were more affordable for the wider population. The Leicester knitting industry developed to specialise in the production of worsted products.
Alderman Newtons School, 1700
In Peacock Lane, close by Leicester Cathedral, there is a plaque which reads:
Alderman Newton’s School, built in The Holy Bones AD 1700, re-built on this site 1804, enlarged in 1887 and again in 1897
and underneath a metal plaque that reads
Alderman Newton’s Girls’ School, opened in 1920 on the transference of the Boys’ school to High Cross Street.
This institution was also once home to the Wyggeston Boys’ school. Holy Bones is a street near Leicester city centre, lying behind St. Nicholas church, where you can now find the Guru Nanak Sikh Museum.
Alderman Gabriel Newton (1683 to 1762) was born in Leicester and became an alderman in 1726 and Mayor in 1732. His effigy can be seen on the Clock Tower. He was founder of the Green Coat School. The building in which the Boys’ School was housed, was used as a Girls’ school between 1920 and 1959. In 1864 the school transferred from its original location in Holy Bones (the building having been auctioned off) to its new premises in St. Martins.