• Medieval Leicester lay within the old Roman walls and its layout was heavily influenced by remaining Roman structures
  • Gallowtree Gate was named after the road that led to the gallows
  • Many of modern Leicester’s streets were established in medieval times and their names have medieval origins

What did Medieval Leicester look like?

Medieval Leicester’s Roman origins

Medieval Leicester lay within the old Roman walls. The town walls followed the lines of what are now Soar Lane, Sanvey Gate, Church Gate, Gallowtree Gate, Horsefair Street and Bath Lane in the west. Four fortress-like gates provided the main entrances into the town known as North Gate, East Gate, South Gate and West Gate. The Roman town walls were maintained throughout the medieval period, it was not until the later 15th century that they began to be pulled down and the stone reused for other purposes.

Until about the 13th century, the layout of streets and property boundaries was heavily influenced by the surviving remains of Roman structures.  The medieval High Street, for example, respects the corner of the Roman forum, suggesting its walls were still visible. Other boundaries and medieval buildings appear to have used Roman walls as part of their construction.

Leicester at the time of the Norman Conquest

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, Leicester was a thriving town with the Domesday Book of 1086 recording that there were 322 houses and six churches, suggesting a population of between 1500 and 2000.

The growth of medieval Leicester

In the 12th and 13th centuries, Leicester underwent a development boom.  Several major new buildings appeared both inside and outside the town walls, including the friaries and Leicester Abbey, whilst many existing buildings, including the castle and the churches, were enlarged or rebuilt. In 1265 Leicester passed to a line of wealthy Lancastrian earls who undertook further ambitious building projects such as that of the Newarke, a religious precinct south of the castle.

The medieval High Street (now Highcross Street) was at this time the principal trading street of the town.  The remains of what is thought to be a wealthy merchant’s house were found at the top of the modern Highcross Street under what is now the BBC building.  It had an undercroft of stone which was probably used for the storage of valuable goods. The undercroft can still be seen through a glass floor inside the BBC Radio Leicester building.

Modern Leicester’s medieval origins

By 1450 many of the streets that still exist today had been established, together with most of the main plots. The area around Guildhall Lane, Loseby Lane and St Martins East and West still gives a good impression of what medieval Leicester might have looked like with its densely built-up narrow streets. 

Modern Leicester’s medieval street names explained

Sanvey Gate – This is thought to be a corruption of Sancta Via (the Holy Way) and may have been a route for religious processions to St Margaret's Church.

Loseby Lane – This is named after Henry de Loseby, a local 14th-century landowner. The cattle market was held here in the middle ages.

Gallowtree Gate – This derives from the road ("gata") that leads to the gallows at the top of London Road.

Cank Street – It is thought this is named after the public well that lay there.

Butt Close Lane – The site of the town's archery butts.

Holy Bones – This name could be derived either from the discarded animal bones from the butchers trading close to St Nicholas Church or from the path leading to St Nicholas churchyard.

Friar Lane – The lane runs alongside the site of a Franciscan friary, occupied by friars who were called the "Grey Friars".

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Roman Leicester

(47- 500) A military fort was erected, attracting traders and a growing civilian community to Leicester (known as Ratae Corieltauvorum to the Romans). The town steadily grew throughout the reign of the Romans.

Medieval Leicester

(500 – 1500) The early years of this period was one of unrest with Saxon, Danes and Norman invaders having their influences over the town. Later, of course, came Richard III and the final battle of the Wars of the Roses was fought on Leicester’s doorstep.

Tudor & Stuart Leicester

(1500 – 1700) The wool trade flourished in Leicester with one local, a former mayor named William Wigston, making his fortune. During the English Civil War a bloody battle was fought as the forces of King Charles I laid siege to the town.

Georgian Leicester

(1700 – 1837) The knitting industry had really stared to take hold and Leicester was fast becoming the main centre of hosiery manufacture in Britain. This new prosperity was reflected throughout the town with broader, paved streets lined with elegant brick buildings and genteel residences.

Edwardian Leicester

(1901 – 1910) Electric trams came to the streets of Leicester and increased literacy among the citizens led to many becoming politicised. The famous 1905 ‘March of the Unemployed to London’ left from Leicester market when 30,000 people came to witness the historic event.

Early 20th Century Leicester

(1910 – 1973) The diverse industrial base meant Leicester was able to cope with the economic challenges of the 1920s and 1930s. New light engineering businesses, such as typewriter and scientific instrument making, complemented the more traditional industries of hosiery and footwear manufacturing.

Modern Leicester

(1973 – present day) Industry was still thriving in the city during the 1970s, with the work opportunities attracting many immigrants from all over the world. While industry has declined in recent years, excellent transport links have made Leicester an attractive centre for many businesses. The City now has much to be proud of including its sporting achievements and the richness of its cultural heritage and diversity.

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