The venerable Church of St Martin, Leicester, was late to the Cathedral party, being elevated to Cathedral status only in 1922. Built on the site of Roman ruins, it is very likely one of the six churches referred to in the Domesday book of 1086. Its namesake is a fourth-century Roman officer turned Bishop, St Martin of Tours.
Bits of the building remain from a 12th-century Norman church, but it was largely rebuilt in the 13th and 15th centuries. The exterior was Perpendicular Gothic but was rather heavy-handedly restored in the Victorian era. Olive Cook describes the steeple as “heavy, insensitive and pedantically correct, Victorian historicism at its most forbidding’. Quite.
So far, so ordinary.
Inside, it has one of the weirdest layouts I’ve ever had the misfortune to experience. And that’s thanks to this fellow: Richard III, briefly King of England from 1483 to 1485, when he met his gruesome end at the Battle of Bosworth, the final and decisive battle of the War of the Roses.
Richard (or his tomb) is why Leicester Cathedral attracts more than 100,000 visitors a year; his body was discovered in 2012 under a nearby local carpark (of all places). After an almighty ruckus between various factions vying for the rights to his remains, he was re-interred in a hastily and specially built tomb in the Cathedral, necessitating much internal reorganisation.
Richard III is one of the more controversial monarchs, to say the least. The subject of a Shakespearean play, his characteristics and likely guilt or innocence are hotly disputed, even today. The Ricardians of the Richard III Society, some historians and authors uphold his innocence: he was framed. Others are convinced that he is guilty.
Of what? You might ask. The most serious accusation is the murder of two of his nephews, the 12-year-old King Edward V and his 9-year-old brother, Richard, who disappeared from public view while staying in the Tower of London in the 1480s.
Skeletons of two children of similar ages to the missing princes were discovered in the White Tower of London in 1674, nearly two hundred years after their disappearance. But – whodunnit? If you’re curious, check out Richard III—Victim, Villian or Victor. It might influence your opinion of Leicester Cathedral, into which we will now go.
The architects engaged in reworking the interior of Leicester Cathedral, van Heyningen and Haward Architects, were initially appointed in 2008; they describe their work at Leicester:
… following the more recent discovery of Richard III under a nearby car park, the brief was radically amended to include a new memorial. Tortoise-paced at first, the project was suddenly accelerated to lightning-quick, resulting in the transformation of the existing chancel to accommodate the new tomb.
The tower crossing of the former nave is now the Sanctuary; the block-like structure (the altar) and the new Bishop’s chair just behind it to the left (the yellow-orange-red chair with the drooping cross above it). Not kidding…
The design of the new altar subtly invites different readings. Its carved alabaster form successfully represents both ‘sacrificial’ altar block and ‘memorial’ table cloth, and the final design incorporates both meanings perfectly.
The newly installed screen between the new Sanctuary and the tomb of Richard III (coming to that) completely dwarfs the delicate screen into the chancel (now the Chapel of Christ the King).
Poor thing. It looks quite paltry, doesn’t it?
From whichever angle you look, the altar looks like a combination of a butcher’s block and a kitchen island. Ok – maybe a marble butcher’s block. What did they call it? The “sacrificial altar”? Yup. (and they seem to have meant that as a positive). You can also see the exceedingly heavy Victorian restored piers (columns), echoing the short, squat appearance.
The former Sanctuary now houses Richard III’ ‘s remains; the stone of the sarcophagus-shaped tomb is Swaledale fossil stone quarried in North Yorkshire. The marble plinth is made from darker Kilkenny marble; the cut surfaces of Richard’s name, dates, and motto, Loyaulte me lie (loyalty binds me), can be clearly read.
The inlaid stone coat of arms is made of marble and semi-precious stones.
Richard’s recently discovered bones were re-interred in 2015 after a tug of war (read lawsuit) between Leicester’s city fathers, eager to retain the tomb-tourist-magnet, much as medieval monks courted saintly relics, and Richard’s DNA ancestors (who, granted, could have numbered in the tens of thousands, all in disparate locations) to have his remains returned to his home town of York.
Also on permanent exhibition is the Pall, a decorative cloth which covered King Richard’s coffin during his reinterment. Designed and created by artist Jacquie Binns, the embroidery relates King Richard’s life and the discovery of his body. During medieval burials, coffin palls made from heavy materials such as velvet were typically employed, displaying figures linked to high-status decedents.
More information is here.
If you look carefully in the top left in the photo above, you can see a crown suspended above the pall, designed and commissioned by Dr John Ashdown-Hill. Unfortunately, the medieval crown Richard III and other Plantagenet kings used was destroyed during the English Civil War of 1642-51.
The modern replacement is of open style, similar to the one Richard wore over his helmet at the Battle of Bosworth. Its style is further influenced by the crown of Richard’s sister, Margaret of Burgundy, which survives. Gold plated, with enamelled white roses set with garnets and sapphires interspersed with pearls, the red and blue semi-precious stones reflect the Yorkist colours.
The same style of crown is seen in the hands of the statue of Richard III outside the Cathedral.
Further east, beyond the new Sanctuary and Richard’s tomb, is the chancel, now renamed the Chapel of Christ the King. The window (quite the most exciting part of the Cathedral) memorialises those who died in World War I. The top section features a sun-like orb with cherubs radiating from it. Jesus sits in the centre with a starry heaven in one hand and one foot in hell. Eight angels, wings depicted in red glass, surround him. St Michael the Archangel, standing on a dragon’s tail, is on the far right; the rest of the dragon extends left with its head beneath the feet of St. George on the far left. From left to right in the bottom row are St Joan of Arc, Mary, Jesus (with crying angels), Mary Magdalene and St Martin of Tours, the church’s patron sainChurchs shot is from 2014 and shows the nave looking westward. Note the organ pipes on either side of the entrance doors above the baptismal font.
The window at the west end is clear; the upper portion looks almost Art Deco.
The restored nave ceiling, with original colours. The gilded angels and bosses are from the dissolved and destroyed Greyfriars monastery (later covered by the car park under which Richard’s body was discovered).
Two great side aisles flank the nave. The south aisle was added in the 15th century, with an altar dedicated to Mary, the mother of Jesus. In the southeast corner are three seats, recessed into the wall for the use of the priests and assistants at the Mass, along with the remains of the sink used for washing the chalice and paten.
Water drained into the foundations, deterring “witches” from using the water for magic. The altar was replaced by the Archdeacon of Leicester’s Court, where church law cases were heard, similar to the consistory court at Chester Cathedral. It’s now been relocated to make way for an entrance into the new Chapter House building as part of an ongoing renovation to be revealed in the fall of 2023.
One window displays the Royal Arms (and persons) of the first three Kings George (1714–1801).
In the southwestern corner of the nave is St. George’s Chapel, which commemorates the armed services; its memorials are primarily to those from Leicestershire killed in past conflicts. It has a couple of attractive stained glass windows, this one with St. George slaying the dragon in the centre and significant engagements of WWII listed on the sides.
St Katharine’s Chapel is on the north side of the Cathedral to the left of the Sanctuary. If you’ve ever heard of a firecracker called a Catherine (or Katherine) wheel, it is named after the brutal way she was put to death. The Catherine Wheel was one of the most commonly used medieval torture devices. It was used to crush the limbs and bones of the condemned and often caused prolonged torture spanning multiple days. Charming! Popular throughout medieval Europe, it was more common in Germany and France.
Pregnant women used a small door in the northwest corner to pray to Katharine for safe delivery. The connection escapes me. Are they comparing labour pains to the Catherine Wheel?
Back outside, let’s have a look at the Vaughan Porch. Built by J L Pearson (architect of Truro Cathedral), the porch is a memorial to the four Vaughans who were parish priests here during the nineteenth century. A two-storey building, the upper part contains the Muniments Room, where some of the Cathedral’s records are kept.
Similar to the figures in the nave of St Alban’s Cathedral, above the porch doorway are seven statues of men connected to Leicester.
- Guthlac (673–714) — Guthlac renounced a life of violence to become a hermit living in the fens at Crowland. He was noted for his holiness and the advice he gave to many who found their way through the fens to seek his counsel.
- Hugh of Lincoln (1135–1200) — Leicester was within the Diocese of Lincoln in Norman times. Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln, initiated the building of Lincoln Cathedral.
- Robert Grossteste (1175–1253) — The most famous of the medieval Archdeacons of Leicester, Robert Grossest was a great scholar; Lincoln College of Education is named after him. A firm nationalist, he gained popularity by supporting the King in resisting the financial demands of the Pope.
- John Wycliffe (1329–1384) — An Oxford scholar famous for encouraging two of his followers to translate the Bible into English, though Wycliffe wanted a renewal of the ChurcChurchwas condemned for it. Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs”, commemorating the protestant heroes of the Reformation, begins with John Wycliffe.
- Henry Hastings (1535–1595) — leading Tudor Puritan, Henry Hastings was the 3rd Earl of Huntingdon whose Leicester home was where Mary Queen of Scots stayed as a prisoner on her journey to Coventry.
- William Chillingworth (1602–1643) — An Oxford theologian, Master of Wyggeston Hospital and Lecturer at Saint Martin’s. He became a chaplain to the Royalist army during the Civil War and died as a prisoner of the Roundheads in 1643.
- William Connor Magee (1821–1891) — Bishop of Peterborough, William Magee encouraged building many of Leicester’s Victorian churches and parochial schools. Bishop Magee became Archbishop of York.
I’m unsure who the saint is in the niche to the left.
Or to the right!
But I love the boar downspout.
We will now head over to the Visitor Centre to see what they have to say about Richard III. Once vilified as coming only second to King John in terms of pure evil, the discovery of his body by the Richard III society has reignited the debate. In writing this blog, I went back to re-read The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey; I loved the book the first time and enjoyed it even more on the re-read, especially in light of the visit to Leicester Cathedral. It’s described on Amazon like this:
Inspector Alan Grant of Scotland Yard, recuperating from a broken leg, becomes fascinated with a contemporary portrait of Richard III that bears no resemblance to the Wicked Uncle of history. Could such a sensitive, noble face actually belong to one of the world’s most heinous villains—a venomous hunchback who may have killed his brother’s children to make his crown secure? Or could Richard have been the victim, turned into a monster by the usurpers of England’s throne? Grant determines to find out once and for all, with the help of the British Museum and an American scholar, what kind of man Richard Plantagenet really was and who killed the Little Princes in the Tower.
The Daughter of Time is an ingeniously plotted, beautifully written, and suspenseful tale, a supreme achievement from one of mystery writing’s most gifted masters.
Enjoy! See you over at the visitor’s site.