Leicester's Preserved Past
Dr. Srutimala Duara
Every time I go to Leicester, England, I walk along the narrow lanes past the Guildhall wondering at the way such an old building has been preserved. It is one of the best preserved timber framed halls in the country dating back 600 years. Located in the old walled city, on a street now known as Guildhall Lane, the Great Hall was built in about 1390 as a meeting place for the Guild of Corpus Christi, a small but powerful group of businessman and gentry. The hall was used for many purposes, including council meetings, feasts, as a courtroom, and for theatrical performances. The Guildhall was also used as a home for a priest who prayed for the souls of Guild members in the nearby St Martin's Church. The small room upstairs just at the corner of the staircase leading up looked quite eerie. Might have been my imagination but I felt as if he was still there! The ground floor has cells where prisoners were kept, torture instruments where the criminals were tortured. Another creepy area. Leicester's first police force had its station in the Guildhall from 1836. Hence those police cells on the ground floor. In 2014, during one of my visits to the Guildhall, I found posters, newspaper clippings and writings with illustrations displayed on one wall of the cell. They exhibited the news of those eras, criminals caught and tortured. Though I had found the place creepy I lingered long in the cell reading the pieces, finding them quite interesting. The Guildhall is reputedly Leicester's most haunted building. I read that there were five reported ghosts. Because of its reported hauntings, it has appeared on various TV programmes, including on the television show "Most Haunted".
On another visit a year later, I saw very old books displayed in two of its upper rooms. The books in the collection included New Testament in Greek from the 15th century. The Guildhall was also a place of the third oldest public library in England. It was established in 1632. That year of my visit, the centuries-old books were taken out of locked almirahs and displayed.
It is said that William Shakespeare visited the Guildhall. In recognition of this, the television company, Maya Vision, brought the Royal Shakespeare Company to perform at the Guildhall as part of its 2003 series for the BBC, "In Search of Shakespeare". It is also said that Shakespeare first came across the tale of King Leir at the Guildhall and this inspired him to write his own play "King Lear". Though there is no actual evidence to support this, the legend of King Leir is associated with Leicester.
When the building was becoming increasingly dilapidated, by the 1920s there were plans to demolish the building. After the intervention of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society, the council began restoration work on the building, finishing it in 1926. After restoration, the Guildhall was opened to the public as a museum in 1926. In fact it is open all year for special events and is entry free. In 2015 I had watched a musical performance with the singer tracing the history of England with specific reference to Richard III. There was much excitement regarding the discovery of the remains of Richard III in a car park. To help mark the re-interment of King Richard III, new permanent displays which celebrate the rich heritage of the building were launched. It encouraged visitors to explore life in Leicester in the middle ages. This is how history is preserved and not just recorded in pages of books.
In 2017 at my son’s Graduation Day for his Masters, in the University of Leicester I met a member of the archaeological team who enthusiastically narrated to me how the remains of Richard III were unearthed from the car park and how the identification was done.
The remains were buried in the Cathedral. It is located next to the Guildhall. It is a church dedicated to St Martin for about a thousand years, being first recorded in 1086 when the older Saxon church was replaced by a Norman one. The present building dates to about that age, with additions and various restorations over the years. Never fails to impress me with its age old vaults, stained glasses, the magnificent altar and now the addition of the tomb of Richard III. When I was in Leicester in July 2014, the cathedral was going through a redesign of its gardens. I was pleasantly surprised to find the statue of Richard III installed in the garden when I was there in 2015. The garden too looked very beautiful.
Knowing my interest in historical structures and past eras, this time my son asked me to visit the Roman Wall , a very short walk from our service apartment in Leicester. We were walking towards our apartment when I saw a painting of a Roman king on the wall at the entrance to our lane. It read "Vida Vein Vice" which I knew to be a Latin phrase meaning "I came, I saw, I conquered." It is attributed to Julius Caesar. I decided to walk up to the Roman Wall. Did not hear about this site before. Then got to know that the site was opened to public after some works were done on the grounds in 2016. The site contains extensive ruins of a former Roman bath house. Here and there on the grounds stood small attractive boards that gave bits and pieces of information on the history related to the Roman Wall which is also known as the Jewry Wall. Julius Caesar raided into Southern England in 55 and 54 BC. Then he withdrew. A century later Claudius invaded and Romans consolidated its hold in the South. After the Romans conquest in AD 43 Leicester developed into a Roman town. Many Roman buildings including the baths were constructed during that time. Today the only visible reminder of Leicester's Roman past is the wall known as the Jewry Wall. It is one of the largest remaining pieces of Roman masonry in England. I gathered some knowledge about the Roman or Jewry Wall from the writings right on the spot. Short crisp lines about the Wall really help visitors like me to not just visit a historical site but also to know about its past. In the same complex there is a museum telling the story of Leicester from prehistoric times to the middle Ages. I spent some time in the museum.
Standing on the remains of Roman Leicester, my mind flew back to those centuries wondering at the life during that time. Touching, feeling the hard wall I tried to connect with the hands of the past. It is so proudly preserved. Had it been our own city such a ruin of a wall would've been demolished as something unnecessarily occupying space and in its place an apartment or a mall would've come up. How I wish we could preserve our very own heritage in Assam. Unfortunately every old house, gate, even historical ones had been demolished in Assam. We lack the concept of preservation.
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