Leicester Chronicler

Tempus omnia revelat
Time reveals all

 

Guildhall old picture Guildhall new picture
Listening to the historic heartbeat of the City of Leicester and its environs in the English East Midlands

A reflection of past and present thoughts and aspirations
Design and text Stephen Butt 2006
Rev 24/10/06
Leicestershire origins

 

 

Medieval motif   Leicester as an identifiable social community has been in existence for at least two thousand years. Its Roman history is well known.  Even after two millennia of development and change many of the streets and lanes in the central area of the city follow the pattern of the original Roman `grid'. 

However, is it really possible to trace the history of the area back even further to find evidence of a settlement that can be regarded as the true origin of the city of Leicester?

 

There is much that is still to be discovered about the nature of human occupation and activity immediately before the Roman invasion and in the centuries that followed their retreat.  Presented here are some views that may well need to be revised as further archaeological evidence is discovered.

 

Trees near Foxton

 

 

 

The Terrain

Before the creation of permanent settlements and large scale agricultural activity, Leicestershire presented a gently undulating landscape with woodland and forest through which flowed a number of small twisting rivers. 

Standing above this landscape are four prominent hills, Bardon (the highest point in Leicestershire at just over 900 feet), Breedon on the Derbyshire border,  Beacon to the east, and Burrough in the west.  Burrough is one of the best-preserved iron age forts in the country, and there is general agreement that there was another iron age hill fort at the summit of Bardon Hill.  

Researchers claim to have discovered significant alignments of churches, track ways and earthworks between these two points. Between them rise the less prominent Charnwood Hills. To the south of these landmarks was a low basin traversed by the River Soar which frequently flooded. 

  Church at Great Stretton  

 


It is perhaps surprising, given the popular assumption that settlements tended to be located on high ground to provide a natural defence against dangers, that the land which finally became the town of Leicester was in this low terrain.  However, a consideration of Roman road building strategies may offer a solution;  although the shortest route between two points is a straight line, armies could march at a regular pace for longer if steep gradients were avoided.

Additionally, unlike previous invaders, the tribe that occupied the area immediately prior to the arrival of the Romans normally chose to settle in lowland areas rather than on high defensive locations.  

 

 

Cross at Church Langton  

The Belgae

In the half century before the Roman invasion, areas of the east and south-east of England were settled by the Belgae, a race of warlike people from northern Europe. They had already developed a strong social structure, and from their coinage, which was being minted in England from about 70BC, we know that these people lived in tribal groups led by a separate rulers. One of these tribal groups was located in the area now known as the East Midlands.  

Unlike earlier settlers in these islands, the Belgae did not occupy hill forts, but lived in lowland settlements, usually beside streams, and in locations overlooked by hills, frequently surrounded, or even hidden, by areas of forest, and generally occupying a larger land area than that of hill forts. 

Although there were people living in this area in social groups before the Belgae (as in the hill fort at Burrough Hill, for instance), Belgic pottery found in Leicester, dating to the latter part of the 1st Century BC suggests that they were the first group of people to live in a community in the small basin beside the River Soar where the city of Leicester was to develop.

 

 

The Making of a Town

Confused debate can arise over the definition of a `town'.  It is a settlement, but it is more than a social gathering of individuals and their families. There must be an underlying order, a social cohesiveness and a structure of organisation that will involve the creation and maintenance of laws and orders. There is likely to be some form of trading, because if nomadic peoples move in order to seek food, sentient groups must either include farmers and husbandmen, or will need to have food brought to them. Merchants and markets will also therefore become part of the equation, and with them comes the necessity for coinage to enable transactions as well as bartering.

There has been much research and discussion regarding the geographical location of towns.  Some have been labelled as `river crossing' towns, and others as `gap' towns, suggesting that such settlements developed adjacent to a fording point or in a break between a range of hills;  but other investigators point to the numerous gaps and crossing points on maps where towns have never existed.

Towns were created to meet the specific requirements of a community. These needs may have been economic, thus requiring a location along a known trading route; but they may also have been defensive, or a location may have had some deeper psychological or even religious attraction such as an alignment of natural landmarks in relation to the sun and the stars. In practical terms, the location of a town was also related directly to the ability of a community to manage the environment. Those groups who travelled by sea could settle easily in coastal areas; communities who knew the skills of land drainage and agriculture could establish permanent settlements in marshland areas.  Those who were builders could colonise steep hills.

Leicester lies in a low basin through which runs the River Soar. It was adjacent to, if not surrounded, by forest and woodland, ancient geographical features now lost, but which have survived in a number of local place names such as Leicester Forest East and Woodgate.  We cannot say that Leicester was `founded' by the Belgae, nor that the presence of a river and woodland had any relevance to its location;  but given the evidence presently available, we can speculate that the invading Romans, as they pushed north, found an identifiable community here.  The Roman town in its heyday covered around 100 acres, and is the now confirmed as the civitas capital of the Coritani tribe of Lincolnshire, Leicestershire and east Derbyshire.


The Corieltauvi


There remains some uncertainty as to the precise name of the tribe that has been referred to as the `Coritani'. Ptolemy uses both the form Coritani and Coritavi. Graffiti found on a tile at Churchover suggests a tribal name of Corieltauvi. This is supported by the entry for Leicester in the Ravenna Cosmology which appears as Rate Corion, followed by the word Eltavori. Current thinking accepts Rate Corioneltavori as the place name and Corieltauvi as the tribal name.

 

Invasion

The Roman forces landed in 43AD and pushed north across south-east England, setting up a defended frontier zone on a line from Devon to the Humber. They built a road along this line - the Fosse Way as know it today - so that men and military machinery could  move swiftly along the line and could be provided with food, horses and other supplies efficiently.  Along the defence line, forts were built, with other roads providing communication routes with Roman positions behind the front line.

 

The Gartree Road   Leicester was one such fort on the Fosse, at its junction with at least two other Roman routes, one - the Gartree Road - to Colchester, and the other to a fort at Mancetter near Nuneaton.  Over a period of almost half a century, Leicester was a front-line garrison.  

The presence of a considerable number of fighting men no doubt attracted a strong civilian following of traders and others who benefited materially by meeting the various needs of a large body of well-paid soldiers, and when the focus of their military campaign moved to the north, the Romans needed to establish a means of controlling the civilian settlements that were left behind in occupied Britain.  

 

 
They recognised the old tribal groupings of the Belgae and established local councils reporting ultimately to the governor of the whole province of Britain. Hence the local civilian population found itself being governed and ruled by their own nobility and aristocracy, who in turn were well-rewarded by the Roman authorities if they maintained the peace and stability of their areas successfully.


An Arthurian Association?

In keeping with numerous other areas of Britain, Leicestershire claims an association with the fabled King Arthur.  St Gildas wrote of a battle called Badon at which Arthur totally defeated the Saxons, but the chronicler does not refer to Arthur by name.  Several locations for this battle have been suggested, the most acceptable being Liddington Castle near Swindon, and in the vicinity of the Badbury Rings in Dorset.

However, a less well known legend proposes Leicestershire's Bardon Hill as the location. Local stories claim that Arthur watched the approach of the Saxons from the summit of Bardon and that his forces then swept down the hill and massacred them.  The similarity between Bardon and Badon is obvious. A nearby field name is still referred to as `Battle Flat', and the local legend also claims that the dead were buried at nearby Billa Barra hill.
  Image of King Arthur

 

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