• The first castle on this site was probably built in 1068 on the order of William the Conqueror
  • The height of the motte was reduced in the 19th century to make a bowling green
  • Leicester was besieged for three weeks by a royal army in 1173. The town surrendered after these three weeks but the castle held out for eleven months

Leicester’s first castle

The first castle on this site was probably built in 1068 on the order of Duke William of Normandy (William I). It was located at the south-west corner of the Roman town walls, in a dominant position overlooking the Saxon town of about 350 houses, and the river crossing. The first keeper of the castle was Hugh de Grandmesnil, a Norman lord and supporter of Duke William.

How would it have looked like in 1068?

The castle originally consisted of a large mound of earth, or motte, encircled by a ditch, with a timber tower and palisade (defensive wall) on top. On the town side of the motte was the bailey, an adjacent enclosure defended by a ditch and rampart. The bailey would have contained a timber hall, stables, a chapel and various other buildings.

The motte survives today and is still 30m in diameter and 9m high, but it would have originally been much higher, perhaps as much as 18m. Archaeological excavation in the Newarke Houses garden has also revealed that the bailey ditch was at least 10m wide and 5m deep.

The de Grandmesnil family forfeited the castle in 1101 following a rebellion against Henry I. It was acquired by Robert de Beaumont, Count of Meulan who became the first earl of Leicester in 1107. Sometime afterwards Earl Robert started to rebuild parts of the castle in stone.

Leicester Castle from Braunstone Gate Bridge, John Throsby, 1791. The Motte can be seen to the right

The siege of Leicester, 1173

In 1173, Earl Robert’s grandson Robert ‘Blanchmains’ (White Hands), third Earl of Leicester, became a principal supporter of a rebellion against Henry II. On 3 July, whilst the earl was in his castle at Breteuil in Normandy, the king’s ‘Army of England’ under the command of Richard de Luci, the Chief Justice of England, marched north and laid siege to Leicester.

Significant efforts were made to besiege the town and surviving records mention the royal army comprising at least 410 archers, over 300 knights, and 156 carpenters and an engineer ‘to make machines for the army at Leicester’ (siege weapons).

The defence of Leicester was led by the constable of the castle, Ansketil Mallory, and the town successfully resisted for three weeks, until an outbreak of fire forced the townspeople to sue for peace. This was allowed, and the town was fined 300 marks, its burgesses were expelled and the town gates and parts of the walls were dismantled.

The castle continued to hold out, however, and the royal army was eventually forced to break off the siege on 28 July. Earl Robert was subsequently defeated and captured at the Battle of Fornham in Suffolk on 17 October. Despite this Leicester Castle was not formally surrendered to the king until June 1174, nearly a year later.

Subsequently, the castle was garrisoned with royal troops who had orders to dismantle its defences. Excavations in the Newarke Houses Gardens have found that the bailey ditch was partially backfilled with stone rubble at this time, presumably from the castle walls, but many of the castle buildings, including the Great Hall, appear to have been spared.

The Motte in recent times

Use of the motte in the later history of the castle is unknown. It may have been used as a temporary cannon emplacement during the 1645 siege of Leicester during the English Civil War but this and any earlier structures on its summit were lost in the early 19th century when the motte’s elevation was lowered some twenty or thirty feet to create a bowling green for the adjacent Castle Inn (now gone).

During the 19th century works, eight skeletons were found buried side by side near the top of the motte. These are probably the remains of executed criminals who were sentenced to hang from the earl’s gallows.

The Castle Motte is open to the public and can be accessed through a path in Castle Gardens or from the Castle Square.

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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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