A new future for Leicester Castle

A brick building

The great hall at Leicester was once part of the castle. Photo by Helen Wells, CC-BY 2.0.

On the quiet, Leicestershire has quite a good line in castles. There’s Kirby Muxloe, Ashby-de-la-Zouche, and if you don’t mind 19th-century architecture masquerading as something else Belvoir Castle stands on the site of a Norman fortification. Despite this, not many people know that the city of Leicester has its own castle.

Nestled in the corner of the Roman city near the River Soar, the castle was built in the 11th century. It was held by the Earls of Leicester until 1265 when Simon de Montfort was defeated at the battle of Evesham, and the castle came under royal control. As tends to happen, later urban development has disguised the castle. You wouldn’t know it to look at its reworked exterior, but the great hall dates from the 12th century. In fact when Leicester Castle was slighted in the 1170s after the Earl of Leicester rebelled against Henry II, the hall was left untouched. That’s where my particular interest lies.

It is the great hall, where the Parliament of Bats was held in 1426, that is the subject of some recent news. In a nice piece of historical symmetry, a recent development has the effect of bringing De Montfort back to the castle.

Rather than this being another internment along the lines of Richard III (who will be buried in Leicester in late March), the university bearing the earl’s name has leased the great hall from the city council and will be turning it into a business school.

As recently as 1992 the building was used as a courthouse, but since then it’s struggled to find a use. While I was a first year undergraduate student (back in 2007) at the University of Leicester as part of one of our modules we were split into groups and asked to come up with proposals for ways of using and maintaining Leicester’s historic buildings. My group was given the great hall; I don’t entirely recall what we suggested (probably a museum of some sort) though I do recall that one of our early ideas was to turn it into a venue along the lines of Laser Quest!

There are two highly encouraging aspects of the news. First of all is that the hall will be open to the public. This has been a rarity in the recent past. Secondly, De Montfort University will restore the building, helping to preserve a structure while regularly appears on English Heritage’s At Risk register.

Good news all round.

For more on Leicester Castle Levi Fox’s history of the site, written in the 1940s, is a good place to start.

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How do you go about planning a castle tour?

Over the past few years I’ve visited depressingly few castles. In 2014 I managed the Tower of London and Chester, and I honestly think that might be it. I saw Oxford Castle in passing, but was en route elsewhere.

Many of the sites I cover in my research into slighted castles aren’t that impressive to look at in the first place. Not for my period anyway. The English Civil War left the likes of Kenilworth and Corfe as spectacular ruins. One of my key sites is Bedford, which is much less impressive. The same goes for Groby and Thetford, and many more.

So while site visits haven’t been essential to my research, they help rekindle the enthusiasm which helps you plough through the toughest parts. While the Tower of London is excellent, and well worth a day out, one per year isn’t quite enough and I’d like to visit more.

What I’d like to do is spend a weekend wondering round a few castles. But without a car I’m somewhat hamstrung, especially as some really interesting castles are in the country rather than towns or cities. Planning is key, so where to start? As with so many castle-related issues, the Gatehouse Gazetteer holds the answer. Its downloadable database includes information on the state of the castle as well as the type. So it lets you filter out those sites which might only have a few bits and pieces remaining or have been completely built over.

So to get things moving I used that to create a map so I could see which sites were close together, perhaps even near a train station with a bit of luck. Looks like the south east is the way to go. A bit of a change for someone from the north west!

I also found that you can do cool stuff with Google maps, as well as Google Earth (which is now free).

Dates for the diary

On Tuesday I missed a talk by Professor Patricia Skinner on the topic of medieval disfigurement. Sadly, I lost track of time and work got in the way. It is part of a project called Losing Face? Living with Disfigurement in the Early Middle Ages, and in 2013 I saw Professor Skinner give a talk at the European Perspective on Cultures of Violence conference. That resonated with my own research into castles and how they were treated when their owners rebelled against royal authority, so I was looking forwarded to refreshing my memory.

Another event I would like to attend but almost certainly won’t be able to is Contest and Collaboration: Chester Conference on the March of Wales. With Chester so close to the Welsh border, there is going to be plenty to discuss on the day. Best of luck to the organisers, and who knows: if I’m lucky I may even be able to find time to go.

Castles without borders

For a long time I’ve felt that the Gatehouse Gazetteer gives those researching castles an unfair advantage over people in other fields. Philip Davis has done an excellent job on creating bibliographies for every castle, fortified manor house, and fortified church in England and Wales (as well as including rejected sites). The more I’ve learnt about castles, the more important I’ve found this resource to be, not least because it includes links to sources where they are online. Cathcart King’s Castellarium Anglicanum was an index of castles in England and Wales and included key bibliographic items, but print format limits your space. Now everyone can build on that work thanks to Davis and his website.

The Internet has a very important role to play in the exchange of information and breaking down borders. While online translating tools such as Google translate are imperfect, they often let you get the jist of what’s going on and communicate to an extent. The only language I’m fluent in is English, which means a wealth of information about fascinating sites would otherwise be closed to me. Through books such as M W Thompson’s Rise of the Castle I can learn about trends in places such as France, or with Barker and Higham’s Timber Castles even further afield. But excavation reports about individual sites are rarely translated.

A castle on top of a hill

Marksburg Castle in Rhineland-Palatinate, Germany. Image by Tomislav Medak CC-BY 2.0.

All this means that the other week I was able to email the European Castles Institute (Europäisches Burgeninstitut) to ask them a question relating to my research. They’ve been very helpful and have pointed me towards a few potentially useful sources, and brought my attention to a wonderful illustration from a medieval manuscript which I intend to use in my thesis.

I don’t think I was aware of the Institute until a couple of weeks ago, partly because they are based in Germany. In fairness, the website of both the Castle Studies Group and Castle Studies Trust link to the institution and promote other organisations. The CSG newsletter even includes news from across Europe. My interest was piqued by the scope of ECI so I started exploring their website a bit. Importantly they have a database which covers nine countries: Austria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Netherlands, and Slovakia. It looks to be fully searchable online, which potentially makes it a very powerful tool, and there’s a notice on the site saying that it is regularly updated. It’s interesting to see that France and the UK aren’t included. I don’t know what the reasons are; I sincerely hope that the database keeps expanding as the Gatehouse Gazetteer has been so useful. Collections of data can only be a benefit as it gives researchers hard facts and figures on which to base analysis.

Journals such as Chateau Gaillard do a fine job of drawing together papers from across Europe, as does their bi-annual conference. I hope to attend at some point, but the fact I’m not fluent in other languages limits how much I might get out of it. Hopefully the works found in Chateau Gaillard and the availability of the database of castles in nine European countries means there is scope for exchanging information and approaches between languages.

On the other hand, the European Castles Institute are based in Philippsburg Castle, and the German Castles Association which owns the ECI is itself based in Marksburg (pictured at the top of this page). I’m not jealous, I just don’t think it’s fair they get two castles and I don’t have even one yet.