SHA 2013: Leicester’s History

The theme for SHA’s 2013 conference (‘Globalization, immigration, transformation’) not only references the location of the meeting away from North America, its international outlook, and the individual character and modern history of Leicester, but also acknowledges the transformation of historical archaeology into a global discipline. The formal call for sessions and papers will soon be available on the SHA website, in the newsletter, and on this blog. In the meantime, here’s a short history of Leicester.

A Roman mosaic on display in the Jewry Wall Museum

The City of Leicester traces its history back to an Iron Age village on the banks of the River Soar, which subsequently became a Roman military centre. When the military frontier was pushed further to the north and west, Leicester was tranformed into the Roman civilian town of Ratae Coritanorum. The presence of the remains of Roman Leicester have shaped the urban development of the modern city, and have been the subject of excavations carried out by University of Leicester Archaeological Services; artefacts and mosaics from Leicester’s Roman and later periods are on display in the Jewry Wall Museum. The above-ground remains of Roman Leicester include the thirty-foot tall Jewry Walland portions of the Roman Baths, while the layout of the Roman and medieval town is still reflected in the modern city’s street plan.

Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, Leicester formed part of the Danelaw, an area subject to Danish law, which also included the Kingdoms of Northumbria and East Anglia, and the boroughs of Nottingham, Derby, Stamford and Lincoln. A number of later medieval buildings survive in Leicester, including several early churches, a Norman motte, the twelfth-century castle hall, fifteenth-century timber-framed Guildhall, portions of a fifteenth-century Abbey and the sixteenth-century Magazine Gateway. The area around the castle and the Newarke is home Leicester’s other seat of learning, De Montfort University.

A painted angel on the ornate fireplace inside the Mayor's Parlour at Leicester Guildhall

In the post-medieval period, the heart of Leicester shifted from its medieval centre to a new focus on the city’s market, ensuring both the survival of portions of the medieval core and of planned eighteenth-century and later developments further to the south and east. Water power from the River Soar and transport changed the face of Leicester in the nineteenth century, as the town became a centre for the hosiery industry, and numerous mills and warehouses reflecting Leicester’s industrial heritage survive in the city; as industry in the city has declined, or moved into different areas of production, many of these mills and warehouses have been converted to offices and apartments. During the twentieth century, Leicester became a destination for emigrants initially from South Asia and East Africa (many of the latter fleeing Idi Amin’s oppressive regime in Uganda), and today from nearly every corner of the globe. Leicester is particularly famed for hosting the largest Diwali (Hindu New Year) celebrations anywhere outside of India. Leicester’s rich cultural tapestry is exemplified by a wide range of dining establishments throughout the city offering cuisines from around the world, and reflected in the University of Leicester’s ongoing ‘Mapping Faith and Place‘ project, which sets out to explore the ways in which the traditions and values surrounding places of worship are perceived and engaged in 21st-century Leicester. [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons [images 1 and 2]

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About Emma Dwyer

Emma is currently a postgraduate research student at Leicester University's Centre for Historical Archaeology, having previously worked for commercial archaeology units and museums across the UK. She is the social media liaison for the SHA 2013 conference in Leicester, and treasurer of the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology, which she encourages you all to join: http://www.spma.org.uk/