Leicester

LEICESTER, a borough and market-town, having separate jurisdiction, and the head of a union, in the S. division of the county of Leicester, of which it is the chief town, 97 miles (N. N. W.) from London; containing 48,167 inhabitants. Leicester, which had flourished from remote antiquity as the principal town of the Coritani, was, upon the Conquest of Britain by the Romans, made one of their stipendiary cities; and is clearly identified with the Ratæ of Antoninus, and the Ratiscorion of Richard of Cirencester. That it was a Roman station of considerable importance is evident from the remains of a temple, supposed to have been dedicated to Janus, and from numerous tessellated pavements and other relics of Roman antiquity which have been discovered in the vicinity: one of these relics, found in the year 1830, is a fragment of pavement 20 feet in length, and 17 in breadth, divided into octagonal compartments of great variety, ornamented with wreaths, and formed of tesseræ of exceedingly small dimensions, worked into a regular pattern. By the Saxons the place was, from its situation on the river Lear, now the Soar, called Legerceastre, of which its present name is simply a contraction. Under the heptarchy it belonged to the kingdom of Mercia, and was for about two centuries the head of a see, afterwards removed to Dorchester, and finally to Lincoln. In 874, the Danes, having overrun this part of the kingdom, seized upon Leicester, which they constituted one of the five great cities of their empire in Britain, and retained till Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred, and widow of Ethelred, Duke of Mercia (who, upon her husband's death, continued to govern the province), rescued it from their possession, after a successful encounter, in which the Danes were defeated with considerable slaughter.

At the time of the Norman Conquest, the castle, which had been nearly destroyed in the Danish wars, was rebuilt, and entrusted to Hugo de Grentemaisnel, on whom William bestowed the greater part of the town; but in the disputed succession to the throne after the death of the king, Hugo embracing the cause of Robert, Duke of Normandy, in opposition to William Rufus, the castle was demolished by the partisans of the latter, and remained for some time in ruins. In the reign of Henry I., Robert de Mellent, being created Earl of Leicester, repaired, enlarged, and fortified the castle, which he made his baronial residence; but his son Robert le Bossu, and grandson Robert Blanchmains, having taken part in the rebellious cabals formed against Henry II., Leicester was besieged by Richard de Lucy, and fell into the hands of the king. The royal forces set fire to the town in several places, razed the walls, and destroyed the fortifications; and, having ultimately reduced the castle, which held out for a considerable time, demolished it entirely. Blanchmains was afterwards taken prisoner at the battle of Fornham, but regained his liberty and the favour of his sovereign. His father, Robert le Bossu, founded the monastery of St. Mary de Pratis, near the town; in which, having assumed the habit of a monk, he spent the remainder of his life. A royal mint which was established at Leicester in the reign of Athelstan, and situated near the North bridge, was maintained till the commencement of this reign.

In the reign of King John, Robert Fitz-Parnel, Earl of Leicester, obtained from that monarch a charter of incorporation and many privileges, which were extended and confirmed by Henry III., at the solicitation of Simon de Montfort, then Earl of Leicester, who, rebelling against his sovereign, and engaging in the baronial wars of that reign, was slain at the battle of Evesham. Upon the death of Montfort, Henry III. conferred the earldom of Leicester on his second son, Edmund, Earl of Lancaster, whose grandson, Henry, made this place his principal residence; under him and his two immediate successors the castle was restored to its former strength and magnificence, and after the accession of the house of Lancaster to the throne, Leicester was frequently visited by the sovereigns of that family. A parliament was held here by Henry V.; and another by the Dukes of Bedford and Gloucester, during the minority of Henry VI. In the conflict between the houses of York and Lancaster, the castle is supposed to have suffered severely; and in the reign of Richard III. it had become so dilapidated, that when that monarch was at Leicester, a few evenings prior to the battle of Bosworth-Field, he preferred to sleep at an inn. During the parliamentary war the town was much impaired; it was taken by storm by the royal army in May, 1645, but was retaken by the republican forces under Fairfax, in June following, prior to which, orders had been issued by Charles I. to pull down what remained of the castle, and to dispose of the materials. The remains are intermixed with the various buildings that have been erected on or near the site; the most conspicuous and complete portion of them is a beautiful arched gateway tower, called the magazine, from its having been purchased by the county as a depôt for the ammunition of the trained bands, in 1682.

The town is pleasantly situated nearly in the centre of the county, and on the banks of the river Soar, over which are four bridges, named respectively North, West, Branston, and Bow bridges; the first a handsome structure erected in 1796, the others ancient buildings lately repaired. The principal thoroughfare, extending from south to north, is upwards of a mile in length, and there are many other spacious streets: the houses, which, within the last half century, have been much improved, are chiefly built of brick and roofed with slate; the town is paved, lighted with gas, and well supplied with water. A promenade, called the New Walk, which extends nearly three-quarters of a mile in length, in a south-eastern direction, was formed about the year 1785; the ground was given by the corporation, and laid out by subscription: it affords, in many parts, pleasing views of the town, and of the hills of Charnwood Forest, which abound with beautiful scenery. In the environs several handsome villas have been recently erected. The town library, established by the corporation in 1632, consists chiefly of theological works. The public rooms, in Wellington-street, comprise a hall, a room used as a mechanics' institute, a newsroom, and other apartments. A new theatre was erected in 1837; and assemblies are held during the winter, in a suite of rooms in a building originally erected for an hotel, and purchased by the county for the accommodation of the judges of the assize, and for the meetings of the county magistrates: the ball-room is elegantly painted by Reinagle, and lighted on assembly nights by eight splendid lustres, and branches held by statues, after designs by Bacon. A very handsome edifice was erected in Belvoir-street in 1837, as a general newsroom and library, at an expense of about £6000, from the designs of Mr. Flint; it contains a gallery for the library, and committee-rooms, and apartments for the librarian. The Literary and Philosophical Society was instituted in 1835, the Atheneum in 1845, and the Mechanics' Institute in 1833. Races are held in September, on the south-east side of Leicester, where a grand stand has been erected, and every means adopted for the improvement of the course; and on the north-east side of the town is an extensive inclosed cricket-ground. An agricultural society holds its meetings in October.

The staple manufacture, that of worsted and cotton hosiery, has been established for more than two centuries; the number of frames in the town and county is about 14,000, and the number of persons employed in the frame-work knitting, worsted-spinning, wool-combing, and dyeing, about 30,000. In addition to those engaged in the manufacture of hose, of which a great quantity is exported, there are manufacturers of lace, cotton, thread, ropes and twine, stocking-frames, needles, and pipes, and several woolstaplers; the trade in thread and cotton gloves also employs a large number of hands; and shawls, a new article of manufacture in the town, are now made in great variety. In 1791 an act of parliament was obtained for opening a communication with the Loughborough canal, and through that with the various lines of navigation connected with the Trent, the effect of which was to introduce the coal of Derbyshire by the cheaper conveyance of water carriage. The Leicester and Swannington Railway, principally for the conveyance of coal, granite, and paving-stones from the collieries and quarries near Ashby-de-la-Zouch to Leicester, whence they are sent to London and other places, and also for a few passengers, was commenced under an act of parliament in 1830, empowering the company to raise a joint-stock capital of £140,000, and £35,000 by loan; the line was completed at an expense of £175,000, and was opened to the public in July, 1832. The most important means of communication, however, is the Midland railway, which has a large station here. An act was passed in 1846 for a railway from Wigston Magna, near Leicester, to Nuneaton; and in the same year another act for a branch at Leicester, 2¾ miles long, of the Swannington railway. The market, which is on Saturday, is principally celebrated for the quality of the butcher's meat: the fairs principally for horses, cattle, sheep, and cheese, are on Jan. 4th, March 2nd, the Saturday before Easter, May 12th (which lasts for three days), June 1st, July 5th, Aug. 1st, Sept. 13th, Oct. 10th (for three days), November 2nd, and December 8th.

Leicester is a borough by prescription. King John, in the first year of his reign, granted a charter, which was extended by succeeding sovereigns, and renewed, with all former privileges and immunities, in the 41st of Elizabeth; the government being vested in a mayor, 24 aldermen, and 48 common-councilmen, assisted by a recorder, town-clerk, high bailiff, steward, chamberlain, and subordinate officers. The corporation, by the act of the 5th and 6th of William IV., cap. 76, now consists of a mayor, 14 aldermen, and 42 councillors; the borough, divided into seven wards, comprises 2126 acres, the municipal and parliamentary boundaries being co-extensive, and the number of magistrates is 24. The freedom is acquired by servitude, and inherited by all the sons of a freeman born after the father has taken up or been admitted to his freedom: among the privileges are, exemption from toll in all the fairs of England, and the liberty of pasturing cattle in certain grounds near the town. The present seal of the corporation bears the inscription, "Seal of the Mayor, Aldermen, and Burgesses of Leicester, 1836." The elective franchise was first exercised in the 23rd of Edward I., since which time the borough has returned two members to parliament; the mayor is returning officer. The recorder holds quarterly courts of session for offences not capital; and a court of record, for the recovery of debts to any amount, was formerly held by prescription, confirmed by charters of Elizabeth and James I.: there are petty-sessions every Monday and Friday; and one of the magistrates attends at the guildhall every morning for hearing night cases. This being the county town, the assizes and general quarter-sessions are held in it; and it is also the place of election for the southern division of the county. The powers of the county debt-court of Leicester, established in 1847, extend over the registration-districts of Blaby and Leicester, and part of those of Barrow and Billesden.

The Guildhall is a building of rude character, of which the hall is embellished with a portrait of Sir Thomas White, lord mayor of London, and founder of St. John's College, Oxford, and the portraits of several other benefactors to the town. The County rooms, appropriated as the judges' lodgings, and to the weekly meetings of the county magistrates, were originally built by subscription as an hotel, and were purchased in 1819, under an act of parliament, for the use of the county. The Courthouse, for holding the assizes and quarter-sessions for the county, was the great hall of the ancient castle. The Borough gaol, nearly in the centre of the town, was originally the gaol for the county, but, on the erection of a new county gaol, was purchased by the town magistrates, who made considerable alterations and improvements. The County gaol, situated on a commanding eminence near the entrance to the town from Welford, was erected in 1828, at an expense of £50,000, and was greatly altered and enlarged in 1846, at an expense of about £25,000; the county house of correction was built about thirty years since.

The old borough, which comprised 325 acres, consisted of the parishes of All Saints, containing 4608 inhabitants; St. Leonard, 466; St. Martin, 2889; and St. Nicholas, 1501; and part of the parishes of St. Margaret and St. Mary, the former wholly containing 31,249, and the latter 8406 inhabitants. The living of All Saints' is a discharged vicarage, with the vicarages of St. Clement's, St. Michael's, and St. Peter's, the churches of which are demolished, and of which St. Clement's and St. Michael's are not in charge; it is valued in the king's books at £6. 13. 5., and in the patronage of the Crown, and the net income is £126. The church is an ancient structure, combining various styles, with a tower on the north side of the north aisle. The chancel is modern, but in various parts of the church are fine old portions intermixed with later insertions; the interior contains a font of curious device, and some carving in wood: the edifice was repewed in 1843, at a cost of £400. The living of St. Leonard's is a vicarage, valued in the king's books at £23. 8. 6½.; net income, £50. The church was demolished during the parliamentary war. The living of St. Margaret's is a vicarage, with the chapelry of Knighton; net income, £440; patron, the Prebendary of St. Margaret's in the Cathedral of Lincoln. The church is a beautiful structure, combining portions in the early, decorated, and later English styles, with a tower; it contains some wooden stalls and seats richly carved, and among the monuments is an alabaster tomb of Bishop Penny, who before his elevation to the prelacy was abbot of the neighbouring monastery of St. Mary de Pratis, from which the monument was removed at the period of the Dissolution. In the churchyard is the tomb of Andrew, Lord Rollo, decorated with military trophies. The living of St. Martin's is a discharged vicarage, valued in the king's books at £6. 13. 4., and in the patronage of the Crown; net income, £140. The church is a venerable cruciform structure, in the Anglo-Norman, early English, and later styles, with a tower rising from the centre, supported on four semicircular arches; the lower part of the tower is in the Norman style, and it is surmounted by a spire of later date. The interior was despoiled of its ornaments by the parliamentary troops, who converted it into barracks during their occupation of the town, but it has been restored with due regard to its ancient character; the chancel is decorated with three stone stalls under the south-east window, and the church has a noble organ, built by Snetzler, and a fine painting of the Ascension, by Francesco Vanni, presented by Sir William Skeffington, Bart. The living of St. Mary's is a discharged vicarage, valued in the king's books at £8, and in the patronage of the Crown; net income, £221. The church is an ancient structure, combining almost every variety of style, from, perhaps, the Saxon to the latest English: the tower, which is surmounted by a lofty spire, is at the west end of the south aisle, and detached from it; the spire was erected in 1783, at the expense of £300, in the place of one destroyed by lightning. On the south side of the old chancel are three fine Norman stalls, with double shafts and enriched mouldings; and on the south side of the Hungerford chantry, or present chancel, are three early English stalls, highly ornamented. The font is of curious and beautiful design; and the oak roofs, which are exquisitely carved, are in good preservation. This church was restored in 1846. The living of St. Nicholas' is a discharged vicarage, valued in the king's books at £3. 11. 3., and in the patronage of the Crown; net income, £150. The church is in the early Norman style, with a tower between the nave and the chancel, and is said to have been partly built with the materials of a Roman temple, of which a considerable fragment still remains in a wall adjoining the churchyard.

St. George's church, in the parish of St. Margaret, and to which a district containing a population of 14,000 has been assigned, was erected by the Parliamentary Commissioners, at a cost of £18,000, from the designs of Mr. Parsons. It is a handsome edifice in the later English style, with a tower surmounted by a spire, the view of which from one of the principal streets has been obstructed by the injudicious erection of a schoolroom in the churchyard. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the gift of the Vicar of St. Margaret's; net income, from pew-rents, £250. Trinity church, in the parish of St. Mary, was erected and endowed by Thomas Frewen, Esq., in 1838, and is from a design by Mr. Sydney Smirke. In its external appearance there is an absence of architectural taste, but utility and not ornament was the object proposed in the building of the edifice; it contains 1040 sittings, one-third of which are free. The living is a perpetual curacy, in the hands of the Frewen family. Christ Church, in St. Margaret's parish, is a handsome edifice, built entirely by subscription, at a cost of £7000, and consecrated in July, 1839: a district with a population of 7000, has been assigned to it, which, for all ecclesiastical purposes, is a distinct parish: the living is a perpetual curacy, in the patronage of Trustees. There are places of worship in the town for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Huntingtonians, Independents, Wesleyans, Primitive Methodists, and Unitarians; and a Roman Catholic chapel, a good edifice in the early English style.

The Free Grammar school was founded by Thomas Wigston, and was refounded, and a new school-house erected by the corporation, in 1575. There are two exhibitions of £6 per annum to Lincoln College, Oxford, established by Mr. Thomas Hayne, for boys of the school; an annuity of £4 to be paid to two poor boys so long as they continue in the school; and an exhibition of £6 per annum to Oxford or Cambridge, tenable for five years, founded by Henry, Earl of Huntingdon. Two proprietary schools, one called the Collegiate school, and the other the Proprietary school, have been erected by subscription; the Collegiate, in the English style, is supported by members of the Established Church, and the Proprietary, of the Tuscan order, with a very fine portico, belongs to dissenters. The Green-coat charity school was founded by Gabriel Newton, alderman, and was rebuilt in 1808. The Old Trinity Hospital was founded in 1330, by Henry, Earl of Leicester and Lancaster, who endowed it for 50 infirm and aged men, and five women to attend on them; also for a master, four chaplains, and two clerks. In 1354, the foundation was greatly augmented by his son, Henry, Duke of Lancaster, who engrafted on it a collegiate church, or Collegium Novi Operis; and it was further extended by John of Gaunt, son-in-law of Duke Henry. The establishment eventually consisted of a dean, twelve prebendaries, thirteen vicars-choral, three clerks, six choristers, one verger, one hundred poor men, and ten nurses and other attendants. There are at present about ninety men and women. An hospital for a master, confrater, twelve aged men, and twelve aged women, all unmarried, was founded, and dedicated to St. Ursula, in the latter part of the fifteenth century, by William Wigston, merchantstapler, and mayor of Leicester, and other persons. The hospital of St. John the Baptist, founded in 1235 for a master, brethren, and sisters, was given by Queen Elizabeth to the corporation, it having been previously converted into a hall for wool; in the reign of James I. they placed in it six poor widows. The Infirmary, at the southern extremity of the town, was erected in 1771, and is supported by subscription; the building consists of a centre and two wings, and attached is a house of recovery from fever or other contagious diseases, added in 1820. Adjoining the infirmary was formerly the County lunatic asylum, towards the erection and support of which Mrs. Topp bequeathed £1000, and Mrs. Ann Wigley, £200; but this having become inadequate, a more capacious structure was built in 1836-7, on an eminence to the south-east of the town: it will accommodate about 200 patients. Sir Thomas White bequeathed a portion of the rents of certain estates, which have since accumulated to upwards of £16,000, to be lent for nine years, without interest, in sums of £50, subsequently enlarged to £100, to the inhabitants of Leicester; and there are various other bequests for distribution among the poor, including the produce of a grant by Charles I. of 40 acres of land in the forest of Leicester. The union of Leicester comprises the whole of the town parishes, and the townships of New Works and Castle-View, and contains a population of 50,932.

Among the Monastic Establishments anciently existing here, was a collegiate church, founded long before the Conquest, within the precincts of the castle, and which was destroyed, with the city and the castle, in the wars during the reign of the Conqueror, and refounded in 1107 by Robert de Mellent, Earl of Leicester. The greater portion of its revenue was tranferred to the abbey of St. Mary de Pratis; but it continued, under the designation of St. Mary the Less, till the Dissolution, when the remaining part of the income was valued at £24. 13. 11. The abbey of St. Mary de Pratis was founded in the year 1143, by Robert le Bossu, Earl of Leicester, for Regular canons of the Augustine order, and dedicated to St. Mary. Here that earl ended his days; and the establishment became possessed of great wealth, and was visited by several of the kings of England and other illustrious personages, among whom was Cardinal Wolsey, who, lodging here on his route to London, after his disgrace, died within its walls, and was buried in the church. At the Dissolution its gross revenue was £1062. 0. 4¾.: the remains consist chiefly of the outer walls, on which is an inscription curiously worked in bricks of different colours. In the north part of the town was an Hospital for Lepers, founded in the reign of Richard I., by William, son of Robert Blanchmains. In the north-western part was a convent of Franciscan or Grey friars, founded in 1265, by Simon de Montfort; in the church of which was interred the body of Richard III., after the battle of Bosworth-Field. On an island in the Soar was a house of Black friars, founded in the reign of Henry III., and dedicated to St. Clement, by one of the earls of Leicester; and in the town was also a priory for Canons regular of the order of St. Augustine, dedicated to St. Catherine, which remained till the Dissolution.

Of the Roman relics, the most curious are a tessellated pavement, found in a cellar nearly opposite the town prison, in 1675; another discovered in 1830, in Jewry-Wall-street; and a milliary, or Roman milestone, discovered in the year 1771, on the side of the fosse-road leading from Leicester to Newark in Nottinghamshire, and about two miles from the town. This stone, which has given rise to much archæological research, was removed to the town by the corporation, and was till recently placed in Belgrave Gate, on a square pedestal, with a column above it, surmounted by a cross; it is now in the museum of the Literary and Philosophical Society. From the inscription, it appears to have been erected in the reign of the Emperor Hadrian, and it is said to be the oldest milliary that has been discovered in this country. About a quarter of a mile south of the infirmary are the ancient artificial embankments called the Rawdykes, supposed also to be of Roman origin; and among smaller remains is an abundance of coins, of which it is supposed that a complete series might have been formed from Nero to Valentinian. Dr. Richard Farmer, the learned author of an essay on the learning and genius of Shakspeare, was a native of the town. Miss Linwood, whose exhibition of needlework in London was much patronised by the public, died here at the age of ninety, in 1845. Leicester gives the inferior title of Earl to the Marquess Townshend; and T. W. Coke, Esq., of Holkham, in the county of Norfolk, was raised to the peerage by the title of Viscount Coke and Earl of Leicester, by patent of creation dated Aug. 12th, 1837: the family, however, is not connected by property or residence with the town or county.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, 7th edition, published in 1848.

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