Visiting Leicester and its ancient Castle I discovered what is, up until now, my favourite church I have ever set foot in. It had a historical ambience to it quite unlike any other church of its kind.
The name of the church literally translates to ‘Mary of the Castle’, a title that was given to differentiate the church from the Leicester Abbey, which is known as ‘Mary of the Meadows’
The church began in AD 1107 as a chapel for the castle, founded by Robert de Beaumont, Earl of Leicester. Local tradition suggests that there was a church on the site long before this in Saxon times, founded by Ethelflaeda, daughter of Alfred the Great. Ethelflaeda ruled the kingdom of Mercia and helped free the East Midlands from Danish occupation.
I visited on a September Saturday afternoon having had a fantastic walk around the whole of the Castle site beginning under the Turret Gateway (also known as Prince Rupert’s Gateway) along Castle Walk taking in the original Norman motte, John of Gaunt’s cellar and the site of the original buildings and Great Hall which is situated over the now small, peaceful green adjacent to the church.
It is said that The Great hall is probably the oldest aisled and bayed timber hall in England. The medieval core of the hall is now hidden behind a façade of the modern day Business School, but underneath that facade is a medieval timber building, with traces of original windows still visible in the south wall. Parliament met three times in the great hall; in 1349, 1414, and 1425/26. During the rule of Edmund Crouchback, the Great Hall began to be used as a criminal court, a function that the Great Hall performed until 1992. I can imagine the scene of Richard III sitting at the top of the table with all his courtiers hurrying around him as they dined underneath the great oak beams and drank into the night.
Finds of human remains in the castle mound suggest that criminals were executed atop the Norman motte on the gallows. Edward I stayed here in 1300, and his son Edward II visited in 1310 and again in 1311. Edward III followed suit, visiting with his court for a lavish hunting party in 1390. Simon de Montfort, became the 6th Earl of Leicester in 1208. He enlarged and improved the residential buildings of the castle.
John of Gaunt inherited Leicester castle in 1361. He was one of the most important and wealthiest noblemen in England. He took his last breath here in 1399. The Church was a fundamental part of the Castle complex and it’s history is as intriguing and varied as any building in Medieval Leicester.
The church was empty as I entered to discover wonderous, enchanting music playing which made the place ethereally tranquil and otherworldly. There was a special, deeply historical ambience which I have only encountered in very few other places.
One of the curiosities of St Mary’s is the tower. The base was constructed within the church, not beside it, so that you can walk around three sides of the tower while you are inside the church. The tower base has a much more practical purpose than just acting as a support for the rest of the structure. Slender slit windows suggest that the tower was part of the castle defences, built with arrow slits so that soldiers could fire upon attackers. The tower may have been directly linked to the castle walls and a parapet walk. The medieval spire was declared dangerous and demolished in 2013.
St Mary’s was in fact two churches at once, existing side by side. One church served the castle, the other church served the townsfolk. This dual-purpose arrangement did not last, and eventually the two congregations were combined. The legacy of the dual church is that the south aisle is extraordinarily wide, because it originally served as a nave.
The ‘church within a church’ theme is obvious everywhere you look. There are blocked clerestory window openings in the aisle, and Norman arches that lead nowhere. Some of this split-personality is the result of a restoration by Sir George Gilbert Scott in the late 19th century.
In its role as the castle chapel St Mary’s was used for the ceremony of knighting the boy king Henry VI at Whitsuntide in 1426, at the age of five, by his uncle John of Lancaster during the Parliament of Bats.
This was a Parliament of England held in 1426 in the great hall of Leicester Castle. The parliament is so-called because members were not allowed to carry swords by the Duke of Gloucester, and so armed themselves with clubs, or bats—tensions being high because of the ongoing dispute between Cardinal Beaufort, the Bishop of Winchester and off-and-on Lord Chancellor, and the Duke of Gloucester, the King’s uncle and regent.
I was informed this was Richard III’s church where he would have prayed and taken mass whenever he visited Leicester which he did on numerous occasions. It is highly likely to be the church he would have prayed in before his last battle at Bosworth. It is believed that Richard’s body was bought back here following the battle before being buried at the Greyfriars.
It was also the place where poet Geoffrey Chaucer was married to Philippa Roet, lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa of Hainault, and sister of Katherine Swynford, the mistress and later the wife of John of Gaunt, 1st Duke of Lancaster. The marriage took place sometime around 1366, when John of Gaunt owned Leicester Castle.
The church exterior is festooned with grotesquely carved heads that look out over the large churchyard – the oldest continuously used open space in Leicester’s city centre. At the far end of the churchyard is a section of the medieval wall separating the castle from The Newarke. It stands on the course of the old Roman city wall of Leicester.
The bogeyman figure of Black Annis, sometimes described as a blue-skinned witch, is said to haunt the area around the church. The story of Black Annis was used by parents to get their children to behave, as in “Do what I say or Black Annis will get you …”. There are regular ghost walk tours of the church, castle, and the surrounding area.
The last authentic record of the castle’s occupation, other than by the officials of honour, is a letter written by Richard III, dated “from my castle of Leicester, on 18 August 1483”
As I sat in this incredible place, I imagined Richard, kneeling at the alter on the eve of the great battle of Bosworth before he took the walk back to his rooms at the Blue Boar Inn on the medieval High Street (now Highcross Street)