Part 1: AD 43 to AD 1700
Just over 2000 years ago, in the late Iron Age, Leicester was a high status tribal centre. Traces of roundhouses, high quality pottery and jewellery have been found in the City. The settlement was on the east bank of the River Soar. The Romans recorded its name as “Ratae" which means “ramparts”.
After the Roman invasion in AD43, Roman Leicester probably began life as a fortress with occupation developing as a continuation of the native settlement. Jewry Wall is one of the largest pieces of Roman masonry surviving in Britain. Arches in it were the entrance to a public bath complex, built around AD150.
The Romans left Britain by AD410 and a period of raiding and settling followed. In Leicester there was a phase of upheaval but domestic life continued. Brooches from the 400s and 500s show the arrival of Saxons who lived in the modern Highcross area. In the 800s England was divided into a Saxon south and a Viking north and east “the Danelaw” Leicester was one of five Boroughs under the Danelaw until it was captured by Lady Aetheflaed in 918.
It is believed the name "Leicester" is derived from the words castra (camp) of the Ligore, meaning dwellers on the 'River Legro' (an early name for the River Soar). In the early 10th century it was recorded as Ligeraceaster , "the town of the Ligor people". The Domesday Book later recorded it as Ledecestre.
St Nicholas Church was built in the 9th Century from Roman Forum material.
By the time of the Norman Conquest, Leicester was a place of some importance with 322 houses and six churches recorded in Domesday Book (1086). A castle was built in 1068 by order of William the Conquer to dominate the town and ensure Leicester’s loyalty to the new dynasty.
In the 1100s and 1200s, Leicester experienced a development boom. The friaries and Leicester Abbey were built; the castle and churches were enlarged or rebuilt. The population of Leicester although reduced by the Black Death, stood at 4000 people in the 1300s. Key buildings from the medieval period survive in Leicester today: the great hall of the Guildhall (c.1350), the Newarke Gateway (c.1400) and Wygston’s House (c.1490).
Leicester sat on the fence but later supported the parliamentarians during the English Civil War. In 1645, forces of King Charles I laid siege to the town. The over-extended earthworks around Leicester and the stone Newarke walls, were quickly overcome and many lives lost. The victory was short-lived as Cromwell defeated the King at the Battle of Naseby a few days later. Artillery again fired on the Newarke walls and Leicester surrendered to the Parliamentarians. Skeffington House, now Newarke Houses Museum, was damaged during the siege and the Newarke Gateway became known as the Magazine from its use for storage of arms from this period.
Piped water first came to Leicester in the 1600s and stocking making became established as Leicester’s first industry, carried out at home and giving rise to the expression ‘as poor as a stockinger’.