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Leicester in 100 Dates
By Natasha Sheldon
The History PressCopyright © 2014 Natasha Sheldon,
All rights reserved.
After the Battle of Hastings, the manor of Leicester, along with 100 others – sixty-five of them in Leicestershire – were awarded to Hugh de Grandmesnil, a close companion and major supporter of William the Conqueror. De Grandmesnil became Leicester's earl and its sheriff and settled down to make improvements to his new town.
In 1080, he repaired Leicester Castle and its adjoining church of St Mary de Castro. The improved castle defences came in particularly useful when, after King William's death, de Grandmesnil came under attack because of his support for Duke Robert against the new king, William Rufus.
But de Grandmesnil survived and on this day in 1094, Leicester's first Norman earl died at Leicester Castle. Yet, despite having lived out so much of his life in England, the earl's heart belonged to Normandy and that was precisely where he wanted his earthly remains to lie. On his death, his body was preserved in salt and sewn up in an ox hide. It was then sent back to Normandy, where it was buried on the south side of the chapter house of St Evroul. His wife had already made the journey at her death and so de Grandmesnil was buried at her side.
Today, Leicester was 'dismantled to wear the badge of its owner's disobedience'.
Robert Blanchemains, Earl of Leicester, was a chief supporter of Queen Eleanor and her children in their rebellion against King Henry II. Leicester became a 'chief refuge for the disaffected', so, on 4 July, the king's forces besieged the town in an attempt to break the earl's power.
Robert was captured at Bury St Edmunds and taken prisoner. But still Leicester held out. According to contemporary chronicler Matthew Paris, the Saxon townspeople were 'obliged' to fight by the earl's Norman soldiers, rather than from any loyalty to their lord. Either way, it did them little good. When the King's High Justiciary, Richard de Lucy, finally breached Leicester's walls, the earl's soldiers retreated to the castle to make a last stand, leaving the people of Leicester to fight for their survival.
Leicester burned as the king's men 'fired' the town. What they did not burn was destroyed by 'force of men and engines'. Finally, when the town walls were destroyed, the people surrendered. They bought their lives with £300 worth of silver, but many were also exiled from Leicester as punishment for their resistance. Some parishes were so conclusively destroyed that orchards, rather than houses, covered the land for many years to come.
The Portmanmoot was the town council of Leicester. Pre-Norman in origin, it was composed of twenty-four prominent townsmen, or jurats, presided over by the alderman (a precursor of the mayor). The Portmanmoot punished crime, controlled trade and commerce and effectively administered the town.
But its powers were limited by its obligations to its lord and the king – until today, for King John issued a royal charter, giving the Portmanmoot unprecedented powers and freedoms to trade and deal in land. The charter granted 'to the burgesses of the town of Leicester that they may go and come freely and without hindrance and may trade through all our land with all things and with their merchandise' and that 'all purchases and sales of lands of the town of Leicester which are and which shall be made reasonably in the portmanmoot of the town shall remain firm and stable'.
No other town in England received such freedoms until the signing of Magna Carta. But Leicester's privileges were given for a reason and came with a price. For while the king was giving up his right to a share in any deals the Portmanmoot might make, it had to pay him a 'fee farm' or yearly 'rent' for the freehold of the town, therefore guaranteeing John much-needed income for his military endeavours.
Today a law was passed which revolutionised the method of inheritance in Leicester. Up until this point, the town had practiced ultimogeniture, or the 'Borough English' method of inheritance. This meant that the youngest son or daughter inherited, rather than the eldest as in the growing Norman practice of primogeniture.
Ultimogeniture was also the method of inheritance commonly practised amongst unfree peasants and villeins. The elder children would usually leave home to make their own way in the world, leaving younger siblings to care for their elderly parents, and so inherit from them.
The pride of the Burgesses of Leicester no doubt suffered from the indignity of being obliged to pass on their property like peasants, while their neighbours in Nottingham inherited according to the French system of primogeniture. But ultimogeniture was also damaging. In practice, it meant splitting inheritances between all offspring, not just the youngest, impoverishing estates and so weakening businesses in Leicester.
So the burgesses petitioned their earl, Simon de Montfort, for a change in the law and on this day he was able to oblige. He secured a royal sanction to allow the eldest son to inherit 'for the improvement of the state of the town which on account of the feebleness and youthfulness of the heirs for a long time past has almost fallen into ruin and decay'.
An extract from the borough records relates an incident from this night in 1300 that illustrates the dangerous state of the streets of medieval Leicester after dark.
On this, St Stephen's Day, a William of Loughborough was out walking late along a lane near St Martin's church. It was some hours after curfew, so William should have been at home. But he was not the only one who was on the streets when he should not have been. While walking near the church, he encountered a man named Adam, a servant of a Lady Pitchford, who was accompanied by Richard Smith of Leicester.
Whether the three already knew each other and what exactly transpired between them is not recorded. But Adam and Richard Smith were armed and as a result of a quarrel, fuelled by Christmas drink or perhaps an attempt at robbery, Adam shot William of Loughborough through the back with a barbed arrow.
Adam immediately fled the scene in a panic, while for some inexplicable reason, a much cooler-headed Richard Smith lingered long enough to slice off the fingers of the still-living William's left hand.
William lived through his ordeal 'until the third hour', long enough to make it home to his wife, tell his tale and receive the last rites.
In the fourteenth century, the heretical Lollards were a growing threat to the authority of the Church. Looking to the scriptures rather than priests for guidance, they denied the Eucharist was the body of Christ and dismissed the validity of the images of the saints and church relics. Most damning of all, they undermined the authority of the clergy by insisting that lay people could also preach and teach.
The problem was of sufficient cause for concern for the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Courteney, to summon an ecclesiastic court at Leicester Abbey on 1 November 1389. A number of Leicester citizens – Roger Dexter, Nicholas Taylor, Richard Wagstaff, Michael Scrivener, William Smith, John Henry, William Parchmener and Roger Goldsmith – were charged with Lollardy. They did not appear and so were found guilty and excommunicated in their absence.
The condemned Lollards went into hiding in Leicester, so measures had to be taken to ensure the town gave them up for exile or repentance. So on this day, the archbishop laid the whole town under an interdict: until the fugitives were found, the people of Leicester were denied Christian offices. No church services could be held in the town and the people could not be attended to by a priest – denying them crucial sacraments such as the last rites and funerals.
Today, John of Gaunt, Earl of Leicester and Duke of Lancaster, died at Leicester Castle, reputedly his favourite of the thirty residences in his duchy.
The duchy was so vast that it was virtually an independent state within England. This made John of Gaunt – a son of Edward III, uncle to the then king, Richard II, and the richest nobleman in England – a force to be reckoned with.
Many attribute the 'time-honoured Lancastrian's' death at just 58 to grief over the exile of his son, Henry Bolingbroke. Bolingbroke had quarrelled with Thomas Mowbray, Duke of Norfolk, who had accused him of treasonous remarks. The king had exiled Henry but supposedly remained on friendly terms with his uncle. He reputedly visited the duke during his illness bearing a bundle of documents and, although they conversed amicably, after reading the papers John took a turn for the worse and died soon afterwards. Others, however, state that the three-times married notorious womaniser was killed by a venereal disease.
But whatever the cause of John's death, it became the ultimate trigger in the deposition of one king and the ascension of another. On his uncle's death, Richard deprived his errant cousin of his inheritance, causing Bolingbroke to invade England, overthrow Richard and proclaim himself Henry IV.
On this day, during the reign of Henry V, a parliament began in Leicester, which secured the rights of the commons – and disenfranchised heretics. It became known as the 'Fire and Faggot Parliament'.
The parliament met at Le Fermerier, part of the Greyfriars priory. Here, the commons moved to further secure their rights. They petitioned to have their right to remain a perpetual part of future parliaments recognised and moved that no law would be made without their agreement. But the king's uncle, the Bishop of Winchester, also raised the question of the continuing problem of Lollardism and other heresies. He proposed that anyone found guilty of such crimes should be deprived of their property.
Known as the Suppression of Heresy Act, the bill moved against 'whoever should read the Scriptures in English' – a central tenant of Lollardism – and stipulated that any such person 'should forfeit land, cattle, goods, and life, and be condemned as heretics to God, enemies to the Crown, and traitors to the kingdom; that they should not have the benefit of any sanctuary, though this was a privilege then granted to the most notorious malefactors; and that, if they continued obstinate, or relapsed after pardon, they should first be hanged for treason against the king, and then burned for heresy against God'.
At just 4 years old, King Henry VI was not old enough to rule in his own right. Unfortunately, this led to a struggle for power between the Chancellor of England, Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, and the young king's uncle and protector, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester.
When the king's elder uncle, John, Duke of Bedford, returned from France, he called a parliament to resolve the squabble between the bishop and Gloucester. Armed confrontation between the two factions had already occurred on London Bridge the previous October, so Bedford chose Leicester as a neutral spot, well away from the tensions of the capital.
But violence threatened to spill over into the parliament and so it fell to the duke, as the king's commissioner, to control the tension. To this end, he ordered that no one attending the parliament could enter carrying arms.
Using typical political guile, instead of bringing their swords, the politicians and their men hid stones and lumps of lead up their long sleeves, as well as staves and wooden bats that could be used as weapons, giving the parliament the name of the 'Parliament of Bats'.
But despite this less-than-promising start, not a bat was swung nor a stone thrown during the sessions at Leicester Castle. Indeed, on 7 March, the two protagonists at last reached a peaceful agreement.
As its earl was also the Earl of Lancaster, it was natural that the town of Leicester should be a loyal supporter of the House of Lancaster during the Wars of the Roses. But in 1462, the town's loyalties shifted when Leicester forces came to the aid of the House of York.
On this day, newly crowned Yorkist King Edward IV showed his gratitude for that support when, at a ceremony at Leicester Castle, he rewarded the mayor, Robert Rawlett, and the two parliamentary burgesses, Thomas Green and John Roberd, with an annuity.
The charter bestowed a grant of 20 marks per year (approximately £13 6s 8d) for the next twenty years to the town officials 'in consideration of the good and faithful and unpaid service which the Mayor and Burgesses of our town of Leicester have cheerfully rendered of late in our behalf against our enemies hostilely raising war against us as also of the heavy burden of their no small losses incurred touching such business of ours'.
The gratitude of the king to the Leicester officials for their support must have been deep indeed. Two years later, when Edward was withdrawing many similar grants from other towns in order to save money, he did not rescind the Leicester annuity.
Only a day after leaving Leicester at the head of an army thought to be heading for certain victory at Bosworth Field, the body of Richard III was returned to the town in very different circumstances.
According to Polydore Vergil, a contemporary chronicler, the evening after the battle, Henry Tudor retraced Richard's steps, leading his victorious forces to Leicester. In their midst was the corpse of Richard III.
The fallen Yorkist king's return to Leicester was very different from his dignified exit. Then, he was crowned and in armour. Now, any onlookers would have seen a filthy, bound and naked corpse slung like baggage over the saddle of a horse, with matted hair and blood obscuring its face. But besides the wounds of battle, they would have seen the signs of Richard's enemies' spite – the 'humiliation wounds' commonly visited on the bodies of fallen foes, which in Richard's case were visible on his buttocks.
The procession made its way over the Bow Bridge, the West Bridge and into the town via its west gate. From there, it made its way to the Newarke, where a final humiliation awaited the dead king: his body was publicly displayed in the Church of the Annunciation of the Blessed Virgin – the Lancastrian faction's preferred burial site.
On 2 July 1489, King Henry VII decided that too many 'persons of little substance and reason' who 'contributed little to the public purse' were involved in the town council of Leicester. So he issued a mandate to the town's mayor and burgesses, which stated that from then on only forty-eight 'wise and sad commoners' chosen by the town officials could be present at common halls and assemblies. Of the whole town of Leicester, only those forty-eight people could take part in council elections. With that, Henry effectively banned most of Leicester from having a say in the running of the town.
The mayor and burgesses accepted the ruling readily enough, but the people of Leicester were having none of it. Today, in defiance of the king, they rejected the mayor elected by the forty-eight, Roger Tryng, and held their own elections, selecting instead a man called Thomas Toutheby.
Henry was not pleased with this defiance of his ruling, but the town escaped lightly enough. To smooth things out, the king reinstated the original mayor at the time of the ruling, Thomas Davy, and made his tenure official under the privy seal just to be on the safe side. But Thomas Toutheby was punished – Henry permanently barred him from taking part in the town's assemblies.
It was customary in medieval times for wealthy men to undertake good works for the benefit of their souls. On 13 July 1513, Henry VIII granted a license to one such good work in Leicester – Wyggeston's Hospital. On this day, the hospital was completed and handed over to its master chaplain, William Fisher, to prepare for the first residents.
Founded by wealthy Leicester wool merchant William Wyggeston, the 'hospital' was situated on land along Friar Lane and St Martin's churchyard. It was not founded as an infirmary for the sick but rather as an almshouse for the elderly poor of Leicester. Under the terms of the license, Wyggeston was granted the right to 'create, erect and establish a perpetual hospital of 2 perpetual chaplains and twelve perpetual poor folk ... Men, blind, lame, decrepit, paralytic, or maimed in their limbs, and idiots wanting their natural senses'.
Excerpted from Leicester in 100 Dates by Natasha Sheldon. Copyright © 2014 Natasha Sheldon,. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Leicester in 100 Dates,
1094 22 February,
1173 28 July,
1199 26 December,
1255 22 October,
1300 26 December,
1389 2 November,
1399 3 February,
1414 30 April,
1426 18 February,
1462 5 May,
1485 22 August,
1489 21 September,
1519 16 May,
1530 29 November,
1538 28 August,
1554 9 March,
1556 21 April,
1577 10 May,
1589 17 February,
1593 4 November,
1603 1 May,
1605 3 February,
1645 31st May,
1717 4 August,
1766 30 September,
1771 11 September,
1773 15 March,
1774 28 March,
1778 17 May,
1785 29 April,
1787 1 December,
1793 17 April,
1794 27 October,
1817 17 April,
1832 17 July,
1832 11 August,
1836 29 January,
1836 10 February,
1841 5 July,
1842 19 August,
1847 16 February,
1849 19 June,
1853 3 March,
1853 21 December,
1856 25 July,
1861 7 January,
1868 18 July,
1870 25 March,
1876 7 August,
1877 23 October,
1878 22 April,
1882 29 May,
1885 23 March,
1886 22 February,
1887 5 January,
1889 8 March,
1891 31 August,
1892 16 September,
1896 9 November,
1900 7 February,
1902 2 May,
1904 12 May,
1904 18 May,
1905 4 June,
1907 11 April,
1912 15 April,
1916 13 April,
1916 22 April,
1917 28 January,
1918 11 November,
1919 14 June,
1919 29 June,
1920 12 June,
1921 4 October,
1925 4 July,
1926 2 December,
1929 26 February,
1932 5 April,
1935 13 July,
1936 9 March,
1939 9 June,
1940 19 November,
1946 12 March,
1953 9 May,
1961 5 April,
1967 8 November,
1972 29 September,
1981 10 July,
1981 9 October,
1984 10 September,
1985 2 August,
1987 11 June,
1997 1 April,
1997 28 July,
2001 30 June,
2008 24 August,
2009 25 July,
2011 5 May,
2012 8 March,
2013 4 February,