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Royal Connections: City of Leicester

The Royal Connections is a series of articles that delves into a certain place that has had prominent links to Royalty over the past thousand years. The series began earlier this year and after a short break we are back with many more cities, towns and villages for our readers to get to know. So do come along on a journey of Royalty in a place that may not be so far away from you.

This instalment of Royal Connections looks at the city of Leicester.

Leicester Castle Gate

Leicester Castle Gate

Leicester is one of England’s oldest cities with its roots going back at least 2,000 years, however little is known of the city until the Medieval era. In 1070, soon after the 1066 Norman Conquest, Leicester Castle was built and it is reported that the castle did house some English Kings at times; Kings Edward I and Edward II being prime examples of this. What is also known about the castle is that John of Gaunt died here in 1399; John was the son of King Edward III and Phillippa of Hainault. Sessions of parliament were also held at the castle, particularly in the great hall, in 1426 when conditions in London and the links to the Plantagenet family were not on good terms.

In 1143, Leicester Abbey was founded by the Earl of Leicester. The Abbey would become much more prominent in Leicester’s royal history in another three hundred years, but why? And would it be for the right reasons?

It was in 1485 that a connection with Royalty began in Leicester that is still very much apparent to this day. On 20th August 1485, King Richard III arrived in Leicester ready to fight in what would be later known as the Battle of Bosworth. Richard ascended the throne in 1483 when his nephew, Edward V whom Richard was acting as Lord Protector, was declared unfit for the throne. The Princes in the Tower mystery plagued Richard’s reign with intrigue and suspicion, and to this day there are continuing arguments as to what actually happened to Edward V and his younger brother, Richard. Across the channel Henry Tudor was seizing on the erosion of Richard’s support so that he could challenge Richard’s position on the throne with his own claim, as a descendant of the diminished House of Lancaster.

The fighting began in the early hours of August 22nd, with Richard and his army at first holding the crest of Ambien Hill and Henry’s army sustaining heavy casualties. The battle turned in favour of Henry when Richard took it upon himself to target Henry himself; Henry’s guards however closed ranks to protect the future King. Richard III was eventually killed by the army of Sir William Stanley and his bloodied body was draped over a horse and taken to Leicester to be quickly buried.

Fast forward over 500 years to September 2012 and an archaeological investigation took place on the possible burial site of Richard III at the suspected location of Greyfriars Church. A skeleton was unearthed which appeared to be that of the last Plantagenet King and this was further confirmed with the comparison of DNA from the remains to two descendants of Richard III’s sister. After a High Court battle over where the King’s remains should be buried, it was confirmed earlier this year that the skeletal remains will eventually be re-interned in Leicester Cathedral.

The remains of Leicester Abbey

The remains of Leicester Abbey

The Tudor era saw immense change in Leicester. With a population of around 3,000 it was, like many other Tudor towns, troubled with the outbreaks of various plagues. Although, somewhat unusually, Leicester continued to grow despite periodic outbreaks of the disease. It was when the dissolution of the monasteries, under Henry VIII, occurred that saw dramatic changes transpire in Leicester. Leicester Abbey was surrendered to the Crown for dissolution in 1538 and the Abbey buildings were demolished within a few years.

In 1539, the Abbey was granted to Dr Francis Cave on a 21 year lease; he was one of the commissioners who had negotiated the surrender of the Abbey. His lease was cut short though when, in 1551, Edward VI granted the Abbey to William Parr (brother of Queen Catherine Parr), although he only held the Abbey for two years. Owing to William’s support for the nine days Queen, Lady Jane Grey, when Mary I ascended to the throne she granted the Abbey and mansion to her Catholic supporter Edward Hastings. Hastings subsequently fell from the monarch’s favour when Mary’s half-sister, Elizabeth, became Queen in 1558. So within 20 years the Abbey had been demolished and had witnessed a series of owners who were both in and out of favour with the present monarchs.

The English Civil War which broke out in 1642 was a series of armed conflicts fought between the Parliamentarians and Royalists, also referred to as the Roundheads and Cavaliers. The first wave of the war from 1642-1646 saw Charles I and his army in conflict with the supporters of the Long Parliament. It was the year 1645 that saw Leicester play a prominent role in the bloody wars. In an attempt to divert parliament from the siege of his main base at Oxford, Charles I launched an attack on Leicester. The city was taken by storm and there were heavy losses. The parliamentarians were alarmed by the loss of Leicester, and Sir Thomas Fairfax was now instructed to abandon the siege on Oxford and engage the King’s main army. The aftermath of the Leicester siege resulted in one of the bloodiest battles of the war, the Battle of Naseby, which saw the main Royalist military force shattered. Within a year of the battle, the first part of the civil war ended in a parliamentarian victory.

It appears that in the 18th and 19th centuries, Leicester’s Royal Connections are quite scarce. As readers will know, the reign of Queen Victoria also saw an industrial revolution. Leicester became a wealthy city and the development in canal and rail transport enabled goods made in Leicester were able to be transported across the globe. By the time of Queen Victoria’s death in 1901, the population growth of Leicester had begun to slow compared to that of the previous decade.

What many readers may be surprised to learn is that Leicester lost its city status during the 11th century; the reason for this was down to strife between the church and aristocracy. Fast forward nine centuries and to the culmination of the First World War and Leicester finally retrieved its city status from King George V, in thankfulness of their effort during the Great War. The King made a visit to the newly restored ‘city’ on 10th June 1919 alongside his wife Queen Mary, again to thank the city for its effort during the war, but also to confer a knighthood upon the Mayor of Leicester, Jonathan North. North had held the post for almost the entirety of the bloody conflict. While visiting the city, the Royal couple took part in a Royal walkabout where there were rapturous applause from onlookers for the King and Queen.

In 1946 George VI and Queen Elizabeth visited the city in November 1946 to see a city that was recovering from the effects of the Second World War. The couple visited various factories and chatted with the workers, while it was also a great day for Leicester’s schoolchildren as around 6,000 of them were given the day off to celebrate the Royal visit.

Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Leicester

Queen Elizabeth II arrives in Leicester

As we move forward into our modern day monarchy, Queen Elizabeth II has made various visits to the city of Leicester, including official trips for her Silver and Golden Jubilees. Her most recent visit to the city came in 2012 when Her Majesty was celebrating her Diamond Jubilee. Leicester was the first port of call on The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Tour and she was accompanied, as is customary, by the Duke of Edinburgh and, more unusually, by the Duchess of Cambridge which was her first engagement accompanying Her Majesty. The Royal trio visited Leicester University, Leicester Cathedral and even found time to stop in the city centre.

Other modern day Royals to visit the city include The Princess Royal, Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall, Earl and Countess of Wessex and The Duke of York.

So there we have it, Leicester really has had some remarkable Royal Connections over the centuries. And it seems that the Royal Family continue to go back for more! When the eventual re-internment of Richard III goes ahead at Leicester Cathedral, do we think that our Queen could make history and attend the service? Stranger things have happened…

photo credit: WyrmworldWyrmworld and kev747 via photopin cc

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