Tracing 1,000 years of history at Leicester Castle

Leicester is one of England’s oldest cities, with a history dating back 2,000 years. During Roman times it was a large, thriving town known as Ratae. After this period, the town shrank in size and the area around the De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) campus and castle was probably not settled or used for farming.

William the Conqueror invaded England in 1066, with Leicester captured by the Normans in 1068. The town was given to Hugh de Grentemesnil, a trusted and powerful follower of William. A motte and bailey castle was constructed of wood, with the earthwork of the motte (mound) all that remains. This would have been about five metres higher than it stands today – it was levelled in 1840 for use as a bowling green. The location, then on the edge of town, gave a good strategic command of the river. The bailey, an enclosure at the foot of the mound containing the hall and other buildings, would have been surrounded by a moat and accessed via a timber bridge and gatehouse.

Hugh’s son Ivo became keeper of the castle in 1093, but staged a rebellion and was heavily fined. He pledged his lands to Robert de Beaumont in return for financial assistance. Robert was a powerful nobleman who fought at the Battle of Hastings and was renowned for his wise counsel to three successive kings of England. After becoming the 1st Earl of Leicester in 1107, Robert began work replacing the wooden castle with a more permanent structure of stone and lead.

Robert’s son Robert de Bossu (“the Hunchback”) inherited the title in 1118. It is likely that he began construction of the great stone hall that forms the core of the castle today. The hall had a nave seven metres wide and aisles three metres wide, with thick sandstone walls. The space was divided by wooden arcades made from huge oak trees sourced from the royal forests. The hall is claimed to be the oldest surviving aisled and bay-divided timber hall in Britain, despite later changes to the structure.

The north end of the hall would have been more elaborate, with a raised platform holding the lord’s table. The hall acted as a communal living space for castle residents, although the lord and his family had a private area reached from stairs behind the platform. In addition, the hall was used as administrative offices for the Earl’s vast lands and as a court where the lord dispensed justice. To this end the castle had its own prison. Other surrounding buildings included a dancing room, chapel, kitchen block, large stable block, treasury, official rooms and a mill on the river.

The whole precinct was surrounded by walls. The Turret Gateway leading through to Trinity Hospital was a later addition (1422) and originally had two stories and a portcullis. It was damaged during a riot in 1832. The gateway next to St Mary de Castro dates to around 1446 and is made of moulded wood. It is now known as the Judge’s Lodgings.

Read part 2: Rebellion, revelry and royalty

Read part 3: Trials and tribulations