CITY OF LEICESTER: A JOURNEY THROUGH HISTORY IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF RICHARD III AND BETWEEN ART BEAUTIES

Text and Photos by Roberto Alborghetti

The UK’s first full local lockdown has been announced in Leicester, with stricter measures imposed in the city. Non-essential shops have shut, and schools will close for most pupils because of a rise in coronavirus cases. The loosening of restrictions for pubs and restaurants in England on Saturday will also not be taking place there. The health secretary said measures would be enforced by police “in some cases”. Matt Hancock said the city had “10% of all positive cases in the country over the past week”. It comes after the City Council reported 944 positive tests in the two weeks to 23 June – about one in 16 of the total UK cases during that period.

As BBC reports, Mayor of Leicester Sir Peter Soulsby said the measures imposed by the government were “stricter than we anticipated but we understand the need for firm action”. He questioned whether a local lockdown should have been imposed earlier, adding: “If as seems to be the case, the figures suggest there are issues in the city, I wish [the government] had taken a more speedy decision. “[The government] are clearly determined to start with the maximum, as it were, to see how it works and then perhaps to use the learning from this in other areas I have no doubt will follow”.

Having experienced these dramatic moments in Italy, our thoughts go to those who are now facing hardships and fears. Just a year ago, being in Nottingham and Beeston for The Ghost Bus project, I had the opportunity to visit Leicester. Although it was a rainy day – and the photo gallery confirms it – the city struck me a lot, for its history, for its monuments, for the atmosphere in general, for the lively life of its historic center, for its shops and for its people. Of course, in my heart and mind I had above all a name – yes, Richard III – but Leicester reveals and tells much more.

It is a beautiful city in England’s East Midlands region. Leicester Cathedral, where Richard III was reinterred in 2015, has stood at the city’s heart for over 900 years. The Cathedral Church of Saint Martin, Leicester, usually known as Leicester Cathedral, is the Church of England cathedral and is the seat of the Bishop of Leicester. The church was elevated to a collegiate church in 1922 and made a cathedral in 1927 following the establishment of a new Diocese of Leicester in 1926.

It is considered one of the most beautiful cathedrals in the United Kingdom. As said, here lie the mortal remains – found only in 2012 – of Richard III, the last English king to perish on the battlefield and the last of the House York dynasty. His death ended the bloody War of the Two Roses. William Shakespeare dedicated a memorable work to him which, however, did not do him justice: the Bard was negatively influenced by some historians, then widely refuted, perhaps another case of fake news ante litteram…  Today the tomb of Richard III is a continuous destination for visits, which feed the myth and legend.

The exhumation and reburial of Richard III of England began with the discovery of the king’s remains within the site of the former Greyfriars Friary Church in Leicester, in September 2012. Following extensive anthropological and genetic testing, the remains of Richard III were ultimately reinterred at Leicester Cathedral on 26 March 2015, during a great televised memorial service held in the presence of the Archbishop of Canterbury and senior members of other Christian denominations.

On the edge of the tomb of Richard III, this sentence is carved:“Loyaulté me lie”. For  Richard III, King of England and Lord of Ireland, buried in Leicester, “Loyaulté me lie” is more than just a motto. In those feudal times, loyalty was an unavoidable value of the knightly code of honour. Richard, then Duke of Gloucester, chose this motto and made it the foundation of each of his actions. The motto was written in French, because Old French and Latin were then, in England, the languages used by high society, justice and the court. This is the reason why, on Richard’s flag, the motto is written in Old French, with an additional l added to the word Loyaulté.

Close by the cathedral, the King Richard III Visitor Centre tells the story of the king’s life and death and displays his original burial site. The ruins of Leicester Castle, where Richard III spent some of his last days, lie in Castle Gardens, near the River Soar.

In Leicester, the Church of England parish church of St Nicholas is the oldest place of worship in the city. Parts of the church certainly date from about 880 AD, and a recent architectural survey suggested possible Roman building work. The tower is Norman. By 1825 the church was in an extremely poor condition, and plans were made for its demolition. Instead, it was extensively renovated between 1875 and 1884, including the building of a new north aisle. Renovation continued into the twentieth century. A fifteenth-century octagonal font. from the redundant Church of St Michael the Greater, Stamford, was transferred to St Nicholas.

The cultural aspect of Leicester is also of great importance, so much so that the visit to the city cannot be limited to just a few hours, but needs at least two-three days. Leicester Museums and Galleries host collections of the finest objects of local, national and international importance. At Jewry Wall Museum you can discover the archaeology of Leicester’s past and find out about the people of Leicester, from Prehistoric times to the Medieval period. The museum grounds contain one of Leicester’s most famous landmarks, the Jewry Wall, part of the Roman town’s public baths and thought to be one of the tallest surviving pieces of Roman masonry in the country.

Newarke Houses Museum and Gardens is composed of two historic houses, Wygston’s Chantry House and Skeffington House and tells the story of contemporary Leicester and the history of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment. New Walk Museum & Art Gallery, Leicester’s original museum has wide ranging collections and displays spanning the natural and cultural world. The museum also has a well-stocked gift shop and café. The Museum hosts a number of permanent galleries, including Ancient Egypt Gallery, Dinosaur Gallery, Picasso Ceramics, Victorian Art Gallery, The Den, Wild Space, and the largest collection of German Expressionist artwork in the UK.

Leicester also impressed me as a lively commercial and business center. Central Leicester has two primary shopping “malls”: Highcross Leicester and the Haymarket Shopping Centre which was opened on the site in 1974, and was the first to be built in the City, with parking for up to 500 cars on several levels, two levels of shopping with bus station, and it is also the site of the Haymarket Theatre. Highcross Leicester opened in 2008 after work to redevelop “The Shires Centre” was completed creating 120 stores, 15 restaurants, a cinema, 110,000 m2 of shopping space.

St Martin’s Square and the Leicester Lanes area has numerous designer and specialist shops; several of the city’s Victorian arcades are located in the same neighbourhood. Leicester Market is the largest outdoor covered market in Europe selling a wide variety of goods. Central Leicester is the location for several department stores including John Lewis, Debenhams. The Golden Mile is the name given to a stretch of Belgrave Road renowned for its authentic Indian restaurants, sari shops, and jewellers; the Diwali celebrations in Leicester are focused on this area and are the largest outside the sub-continent.

Yes, Leicester really deserves a visit!  Even these few lines are meant to be an encouragement and a sign of hope. Leicester will reopen, stronger than before!