• Leicester Castle’s Great Hall is the oldest surviving aisled and bay divided timber hall in Britain. It still retains some of its original 12th-century timber posts
  • The castle was the favourite residence of John of Gaunt, first Duke of Lancaster, and the fourth son of Edward III
  • The criminal court in the castle’s Great Hall was the scene of Leicester’s notorious ‘Green Bicycle Murder’ trial in 1919

The beginnings of the Castle complex

A motte-and-bailey castle was built in about 1068 inside the south-west corner of the town, and became the centre of power for the first Norman overlord of Leicester, Hugh de Grandmesnil.

In 1107, Robert de Beaumont, first Earl of Leicester is thought to have replaced the timber defences with stone and also founded a college of canons (community of priests) in the church of St Mary de Castro in the bailey.

The Great Hall

In about 1150, his son Robert ‘le Bossu’ (the hunchback), the second Earl, built the Great Hall. This was an immense stone aisled building divided into a nave and two aisles, with a timber roof supported on oak posts. It still survives today, although much altered.

The lord and important retainers would have sat at the north end of the hall, and in the centre of the building was a large open hearth. Doors at the north end led to the lord’s private apartments, whilst at the south end there was access to a separate kitchen above an undercoft (John of Gaunt’s cellar), where ale, wine and food would have been stored.

An artist’s impression of a feast in the Great Hall of Leicester Castle in 1483. Graham Sumner

The later medieval castle

The castle later became the residence of the earls, later dukes, of Lancaster and reached its greatest extent in the 14th century, becoming central to Lancastrian interests in the Midlands. Thomas, Earl of Leicester and Lancaster invested heavily in renovating it and his successors spent much time there. During the latter half of the century, the castle was a favoured residence of John of Gaunt (the fourth son of Edward III).

The 14th-century accounts refer to many buildings which have long since disappeared, including a dancing chamber and the countess’s chamber, and there was also a herb garden and a watermill in what is now Castle Gardens.

In 1399, the castle ceased to be a ducal residence when the second Duke of Lancaster, Henry Bolingbroke, became Henry IV. As one of many royal residences it probably began to decline in importance after this point.

A royal residence

There was a flurry of building works in the first two decades of the 15th century, with the construction of the Turret Gateway dividing the castle from the Newarke, and remodelling of the kitchen block to the south of the Great Hall with the addition of a vault and polygonal turrets to John of Gaunt’s Cellar. Further rebuilding took place in the middle of the 15th century, following a fire, and the Castle Gateway was rebuilt as a timber-framed gatehouse with an adjoining two-storey range of apartments.

During the late 15th century the castle was still occasionally used as a royal residence - Henry IV, Henry V, Henry VI and Edward IV are all known to have stayed there. Richard III also stayed there twice in 1483, signing letters ‘from my castle at Leicester’. This is the last record of the occupation of the castle by a member of the royal family.

An artist’s impression of the bailey of Leicester Castle, viewed from the motte, as it may have looked c.1483. Graham Sumner

Later use of the castle

The castle continued to play an important role after the medieval period. Assizes and Quarter Sessions continued to be held at the castle until 1972, when they were abolished and replaced by the Crown Court.

In 1821, the Great Hall was divided into two court rooms with further alterations and the addition of a cell block in 1858. The courts were laid out as a civil court and a criminal court, with jury room, judges’ rooms and viewing galleries.

 

Crowds gathered outside Leicester Castle, date unknown. Leicestershire Record Office

The courts were in use until 1992 when they moved to a new location in the city centre. The Great Hall, previously known as the Hall of Kings and Palace of the Midlands, has remained largely vacant since, opening to the public for special events. De Montfort University is the newest resident within the building, opening as the Leicester Castle Business School in 2016. The university worked closely with Historic England to ensure much of the building remained untouched, and a few additional features including a Norman arch were discovered by archaeologists working on the exploration.

Leicester Castle is publicly accessible on Heritage Sundays, find out how to visit.

Visitor information
Public access inside on special event days

Gallery

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.

Change time period...
  • Roman Leicester
  • Medieval Leicester
  • Tudor & Stuart Leicester
  • Georgian Leicester
  • Victorian Leicester
  • Edwardian Leicester
  • Early 20th Century Leicester
  • Modern Leicester
story of leicester
Your ultimate guide to visiting the city