The Great Hall, Leicester, built for the Guild of Corpus Christi, c. 1390
Photo: Jennifer Jahner
Helen Barr


The only surviving medieval architecture in Leicester is one fifteenth century brick wall and the foundations of the abbey and and the gateway to the college of Newarke in the south west. The sparse material remains give no sense of how important a place Leicester holds in medieval literary history.

The town witnessed major events and crises: plague, the aftermath of the revolts in 1381; the rise and dissemination of Lollardy, and was also the site of the first parliament of Henry V’s reign in 1414 with a hall newly built for the purpose next to the Franciscan Friary. Leicester was a Lancastrian stronghold – the castle the property of the dukes of Lancaster. Given that the early years of Henry IV’s reign were blighted by rumours that Richard II was still alive about to return to claim the throne (and Franciscans from Leicester were hanged in 1402 for their part in this), the choice both of Leicester and the location may have been politically symbolic (John Strecche’s Chronicle; Eulogium Historiarum; Rotuli Parliamentorum). The town was host to royal visits: especially Edward III who appeared to have enjoyed a special friendship with William Clown (abbot of St Mary’s Leicester), but also Richard II and Anne. The hospitality afforded both by the castle and the abbey, together with the central location of Leicester en route between London, Reading and the north via Nottingham and York, seems to have stimulated visits from the nobility. Lesser born colourful and charismatic visitors included William Swinderby, the Lollard preacher, and Margery Kempe in 1417.

St Mary’s Abbey of Augustinian Canons is a key locus of information about what went on in Leicester and well beyond its walls. There was a plentifully stocked library and while William Charyte’s 16th century catalogue is an imperfect guide to library contents in the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries some deductions can be made from donations by some of its canons. It was clearly rich in theological materials, canon law and devotional literature (Webber, Catalogue).

A key figure was Henry Knighton, canon of the abbey, whose Chronicle, ending in 1394, is a key source for major political and ecclesiastical events. The sheer volume of materials embedded in the chronicle is important evidence of the traffic of written and oral narrative in and out of Leicester. Alongside quotation from four major works including the Kuran and William St Amour’s De Periculis, over 100 political and ecclesiastical documents are quoted extensively within the work.  Although the abbey was isolated geographically from the rest of the town, situated in the meadows outside the walls across the River Soar, textually, through the collation and copying activities of Knighton, Leicester was very well connected with the rest of the British Isles and beyond.

Leicester is embedded in a much wider history and geography through this textual traffic. Knighton’s keen interest in prices can be seen to stem from Leicester Abbey’s power as a landlord (the town had ceased to be a major manufacturing outlet) but had become an important centre of trade. The dispute over the abbey’s advowson of Bearwood is sandwiched by Knighton between an account of the death of Guy of Warwick and a copy of the 1361 treaty of Brétigny. 

Despite the abbey’s geographical separateness, the presence of Leicester castle in the town clearly helped give Knighton access to secular as well as religious news. The blurring of the boundaries between the sacred and secular can be seen from Knighton’s account of how the fences between the grounds of the abbey and park of the castle were broken down to facilitate hunting.

Eyewitness accounts of events in France and Scotland found their way into the Chronicle and John of Gaunt’s Keeper of the Wardrobe appears to have furnished Knighton with news of events in 1381, especially the attack on the Savoy Palace in London. In addition, political documents are embedded in Knighton’s work, for instance: the letters of 1381 rebels - their barbaric English sandwiched between Knighton’s monastic Latin; the articles of appeal against Richard II (1388), and the terms of the Cambridge Statute of Labourers in the same year.

It is clear too that the ecclesiastical network furnished Knighton with  a complex set of documents, from offical letters of commision to more oppositionally positioned bills and schedules. Knighton records Archbishop Courtenay’s 1382 Commission to seek out Lollard teachings from a letter which travelled to the abbey via the bishop of London and via the bishop of Lincoln. The Chronicle preserves an account of the teachings of Wyclif condemned at Blackfriars in 1382, again collated from official sources.

Leicester was an early centre for Lollard activity. Despite his abhorrence of the sect (apparently every second person you met in the in the street in Leicester was a Lollard),  Knighton gives a full account of the activities of William Swinderby, many details of which are corroborated by the account of Swinderby’s eventual trial in Norwich in Bishop Trefnant’s Register. Knighton also had first hand access to the teachings of early close colleagues of Wyclif: Nicholas Hereford; John Purvey; John Aston and Philip Repingdon. The Chronicle contains ‘confessions’ of these men. The key figure here is clearly Repingdon. Although later the abbot of St Mary’s Leicester, and appointed bishop of Lincoln in 1409 and a scourge of the Lollards, in his early years while still a canon at St Mary’s, he was a close follower of Wyclif’s ideas and is very likely to have been the source of Wycliffite schedulae from which Knighton composed his accounts. Knighton is scrupulous in not mentioning his fellow canon. The ‘confessions’ are also preserved in MS Bodley 647 and Repingdon’s name appears clearly at the start of the second. In Knighton, Repingdon becomes one of Wyclif’s ‘nameless secretaries’, and ‘another whom I had heard preach’. Four works of Wyclif fetched up in the library of St Mary’s, and while we don’t know exactly when they were acquired, it makes more sense for them to have been donated during Repingdon’s days as a young canon than later. It is also intriguing that two copies of the extensive Lollard Sermon Cycle should have ended up in Leicester (Leicester Old Town Hall MS 3 and Leicester Wyggeston Hospital MS 10 D. 34/6). Whenand how they got there is unclear.

While Repingdon was a key source for the provision of textual material for the Chronicle, another crucial factor was the relationship of the abbey to the parish churches in the town. All but one parish (St Margaret’s which was in the bishop’s keep) were in the possession of the abbey. There were more parishes than the canons of the abbey could serve. The proximity of Leicester to Oxford and its heretical activities, together with an established system of patronage, made it possible for Lollard preaching at these churches whether or not the incumbent was a Wycliffite. Early  Lollardy flourished with traffic between Oxford and Leicester. Repingdon preached a sermon at Brackley, a parish in the living of St Mary’s, which was equidistant between Oxford and Northamptonshire. 

Knighton was a sensitive compiler and framer of documents. Whether it is through punctuating details of Lollard activities with Latin verses which ridicules their activities, reporting their teachings in demonising rhetoric in their description or bookending Wycliffite teachings with a lengthy excerpt from William St Amour’s De periculis, Knighton shows himself to be acutely aware of the significance of textual space – and geographical space too. Through the chronicle and other surviving documents, it is possible to reconstruct a map of activities centring on significant textual spaces in Leicester.

Gartree Hill, outside the city walls, to the south east of the town, was where citizens gathered anxiously in the aftermath of the risings in London in 1381. In the same year, John of Gaunt’s possessions were moved for safe keeping from the castle across to the abbey, but the abbot was so fearful of reprisal if the rebels realised that Gaubnt’s effects were at the abbey, that they were trundled right across town to the college of Newarke in the south east.

St Mary’s Newarke was the burial site of key members of the House of Lancaster and also an important locus for public recantations of Lollardy. Thomas Brightwell, dean of the college, and once a Lollard himself, was the recipient in 1388 of a copy of the king’s commission against Lollard books. 

St John’s Chapel was an early centre of Lollard ‘schools’ or conventicles. Knighton stresses that this was outside the city walls at the leper hospital (north and east). It is there that William Waytestaythe and William Smith (both depicted as outsiders in other important ways) burnt an image of St Katherine to cook their evening cabbage. William Smith’s copying activities took place at this cell, and it is also to St John’s chapel that  Swinderby, itinerant, once hermit in the woods (there is still a place known locally as the Lollard cave), eventually drifted,  and preached sermons while perched on a temporary ‘pulpit’ of  millstones.

St Martin’s Church, closely associated with the Corpus Christi Guild, was in the later years of the fourteenth century as vigorous a site of Lollard activity as St John’s Chapel had been earlier. The record of Archbishop’s Courtenay’s 1389 visitation (Dahmus) recounts the excommunication of nine Lollards from this group (an elaborate ceremony that took place in Leicester Abbey). Amongst the charges against William Smith was that he had written out solemn texts in his own language. The anchorite Matilda from St Peter’s Church nearby was also investigated during the visitation. John Belgrave posted slanderous pamphlets  on the doors of St Martin’s in 1395 in which he vilified the corrupt established clergy, adducing the biblical example of Susannah before the elders in support. (Intriguing given the changes from ‘elders’ to ‘priests’ in the alliterative poem The Pistill of Susan). The visitation of Repingdon, bishop of Lincoln in 1413, rounded up 7 Lollard suspects associated with St Martin’s, including Belgrave who was charged with disrupting church services and preaching in taverns and other places both publically and privately. (Lincoln Diocescan Records Vj/o). As was the case with St John’s Chapel, earlier, St Martin’s was a site of Lollard copying activities.  In 1414, the same group of Lollards were charged with complicity in the Oldcastle rebellion.

While these churches were the locales of heretical activities, so too were they the sites, along with the Saturday market place, of elaborate ceremonies of public recantation (Records of Courtenay’s and Repingdon’s visitations, Calendar Close Rolls)..

The new site of the hall which housed the 1414 parliament witnessed the framing of important statutes: Statute of Truces, Statute of Law and Order – and despite a further presentation of the Lollard disendowment bill, the Statute against Lollards. (Rolls of parliament). At the same meeting, Leicester played host to the mysterious visitors (Strecche) from France and Burgundy engaged in secret diplomatic negotiations about the future of Anglo-French relations.

Activities at the gaol, the Guildhall and All Saints’ Church were, perhaps, no less exciting. While in 1385, the town gaoler allowed the imprisoned excommunicate (and possibly Lollard) William Whytsyde to wander about the town as he pleased (McHardy), in 1417, Margery Kempe was taken into custody in the gaoler’s house to prevent her being placed amongst men in the prison. She was examined in the Guildhall by the Mayor of Leicester, John Arnesby, and other respectable men of the town; accused of heresy, and threatened with rape by the mayor’s steward. Following the release of her fellow pilgrims from prison, Margery was taken to be examined again, this time in All Saints’ in the centre of the town by the abbot of Leicester Richard Rotheley, and the Dean of Leicester . She defended her orthodox beliefs while people stood on stools to look at her and marvel. Sent on to the abbey, she is fostered by the abbot and the brethren. She receives a letter from the abbot which puts on record what had occurred during her time in Leicester, and the Dean agrees to act as witness for her. After a good send off from the townsfolk, she goes to Philip Repingdon for a letter of validation, but not before the mayor detains her again for three weeks. The letter from Repingdon is forthcoming, including a warning to the mayor to leave her alone.

The episode in the Book of Margery Kempe has much symbolic value. MK, a former tradeswoman is tried in a town famous for its trade and triumphs over its mayor and wicked steward. In a town famous for Lollardy, and which had recently passed the statute against Lollards, Margery is shown to be unimpeachably orthodox, especially in her beliefs about the sacrament of the Eucharist. The people of Leicester are first hostile, then intrigued, and finally won over; they emerge themselves as an orthodox townsfolk. MK is validated by church authorities; the powerful abbey that once harboured Swinderby and Repingdon, vouchsafes the creature’s orthodoxy, and the trump card of her good standing is Philip Repingdon, erstwhile Lollard and source of so much of Knighton’s material, now guardian of Leicester’s religious rectitude. So many of the defining features of Leicester as a site for textual activity can be seen to be condensed in this episode.

Main Sources:

Knighton’s Chronicle

Fasciculi Zizaniorum

Eulogium Chronicle

Walsingham’s Chronicle

John Strecche’s Chronicle

MS Bodley 647

Rolls of Parliament

Calendars of Patent and Close Rolls

Lincoln Bishops’ Registers (Buckingham/Repingdon)

Archbishop Courtenay’s Visitation (Dahmus)

Repingdon’s Visitation (Lincoln Record Office Vj/0)

The Book of Maregery Kempe

Secondary sources: Anne Hudson, Alison McHardy, Ian Forrest, Margaret Aston, Geoffrey Martin

2006 publication about Leicester with essays by Tessa Webber on the library, also archaeology, trade, charters. G.H.Martin on growth of Leicester

Thompson, History of the Abbey

Crompton , ‘Leicestershire Lollards’