• Leicester Abbey’s full name is the Abbey of St Mary de Pratis, meaning the abbey of St Mary of the Meadows
  • One of the few surviving pieces of Leicester Abbey is its precinct wall circa 1500. The red-brick wall is noted for bearing over forty patterns or symbols picked out in contrasting blue bricks
  • Leicester Abbey is famously the last known resting place of Henry VIII’s Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Wolsey

The abbey in the meadows

Leicester Abbey (demolished around 1538) lay just to the north-east of medieval Leicester, beside the main road leading to Nottingham and Derby, in a pleasant spot next to the River Soar. A number of magnificent ruins related to the abbey complex remain today and can be seen in the grounds of Abbey Park.

It was founded in 1138-9 as an abbey of Augustinian canons by Robert ‘le Bossu’ (the hunchback), the second Earl of Leicester. Earl Robert transferred to the abbey the lands that his father had used to endow a college of canons at St Mary de Castro. The abbey was also granted all of the other churches in Leicester, together with a number in Leicestershire and further afield.

On his death in 1168, Robert was buried on the right hand side of the high altar and the earldom passed to his son Robert ‘Blanchmains’ (white hands), whose devout wife, Petronilla, is said to have plaited a long cord from her hair from which to suspend one of the lamps in the choir of the church.

The abbey was dissolved in 1538 and demolished soon afterwards. In the later 16th century, the Hastings family converted the gatehouse into a mansion; this was enlarged by the next owners, the Cavendishes, in the early 17th century, before being burnt down in 1645, during the Civil War.

The Cavendish House ruins today

The abbey complex

Leicester Abbey grew to become one of the wealthiest religious houses in the country, with a community of canons under the charge of an abbot. The abbey precinct was enclosed by a substantial wall with a gatehouse on the north side.

Apart from the precinct walls, all trace of the abbey had disappeared by the 18th century and it was only in the 19th and 20th centuries that the plans of the principal buildings were revealed through archaeological excavation.

In common with other similar establishments, the church lay to the north of a series of buildings that were arranged around a cloister. On the east side was the chapter house, and above it, at first floor level, the dormitory. On the south side was the refectory, beyond which was the kitchen, detached from the main buildings to prevent the spread of fire.

The kitchen was investigated by the University of Leicester in 2002-5 and found to be a large square building with corner fireplaces, making the interior octagonal in shape. At nearly 12 metres across internally, it was one of the largest monastic kitchens in the country.

There were further courtyards to the south of the main ranges of buildings, with guest accommodation, an infirmary and lodgings for pensioners.

A artist impression of Leicester Abbey in its heyday. John Finnie

Famous visitors

Hospitality was an important part of monastic life, and the abbey was expected to extend a warm welcome to visitors. Located on a principle route to London from the north, many important travellers passing through Leicester were entertained at the abbey, including Edward III, Richard II, and Richard III.

Senior members of the clergy also stayed here, the most famous of whom was Cardinal Wolsey, who died at the abbey whilst travelling back to London to face King Henry VIII in 1530: he was subsequently buried in the Lady Chapel of the abbey church.

Find out how to visit.

Visitor information
Public access to ruins

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.

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