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Leicester’s oldest civic building

A meeting place for the Guild of Corpus Christi

The Guildhall dates back to medieval times and would have been a building of importance during the time of Richard III. The Great Hall, built in 1390, was a meeting place for the Guild of Corpus Christi, a select group of influential businessmen and gentry founded in 1343. This Guild was the richest in the town and a powerful force in medieval Leicester. The emblem of the Guild, the Host and Chalice, is featured in 15th century painted glass window fragments in the Mayor’s Parlour. The Guild had their own altar in the Church of St Martin (now Leicester Cathedral) and used the Great Hall for banquets at times of high festivals. Originally the Great Hall had a beaten earth floor which would have been laid with rushes and heated by an open hearth, with smoke rising to the roof.  The Guildhall in its present form incorporates a later Tudor extension to the original Great Hall.

Leicester’s first Town Hall

Many of the Guild’s members were associated with the Corporation of Leicester who began using the Guildhall as a place of assembly from 1495. By 1563 the building belonged to the Town Corporation and had become Leicester’s first Town Hall with its west wing, including the Mayor’s Parlour, added in 1489.  The painted panels in the Great Hall ceiling are from the 1600s and show the coat of arms of the Borough and the arms of the Hastings family. Over the Hastings coat of arms is a painted quotation reminding courts and corporations that “God shall bring every work into judgement”.

A place for entertainment, feasting and learning

Over the centuries, the Guildhall has had many different uses.  In the 16th and 17th Centuries, as well as being used for civic business, the Quarter Sessions were held there and public meetings, civic dinners, concerts and dramatic entertainment were hosted. There is a tradition that William Shakespeare was a member of one of the theatre companies that performed within its walls. In 1588 it is recorded that the Mayor used the Guildhall for a feast to celebrate the defeat of the Spanish Armada. Arms and armour were kept in the building at this time in readiness for possible invasion.

In 1632 the Town Library was moved into the Guildhall from the bell tower of nearby St. Martin’s church. It is the third oldest public library in the country. The library rooms were originally quarters for the chantry priests of the Corpus Christi guild. Volumes in the library include the Codex Leicestrensis, an important manuscript of the New Testament  in Greek dating to the 1400s, a Latin grammar of 1592 with the signature of Ben Jonson (the playwright and contemporary of Shakespeare), a copy of William Harvey’s 1639 classic work on the circulation of blood: De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis and a New Testament in an American Indian language intended for missionary work in New England.

Painted glass on display at The Guildhall

The Mayor’s Parlour

The elaborate decorative features in the Mayor’s Parlour date from the early 17th Century. The panelling and overmantle were added in 1637 and Richard Inge, the then Mayor, gave the Mayor’s chair with the arms of Charles I above.

The Siege of Leicester

During the English Civil War the Mayor and Corporation met at the Guildhall to make their key decisions, including how to respond to royalist demands for money. Prince Rupert eventually attacked the town on 30th May 1645 and breached its walls. The last stand made by the defenders was outside the Guildhall and St Martins. The Royalists then entered the Guildhall and looted the town’s archives, mace and seal. Within a few weeks the Royalists had been defeated at the Battle of Naseby and Oliver Cromwell advanced on Leicester. The Royalists surrendered and a thanksgiving dinner was arranged at the Guildhall to celebrate Cromwell’s victory.

Leicester outgrows its Town Hall

From the later 1700s, Leicester was a larger and more important town. The Municipal Reform Act of 1835 was passed and ratepayers voted in a new council including local trades-people such as hosiers, grocers, drapers, spinners and bankers. The reformed Corporation came to power on 1st January 1836 and at once held an auction in the Great Hall to dispose of the civic silver and china including the Great Mace, the ceremonial trappings of an earlier age. By now the medieval Guildhall had become hopelessly inadequate for a rapidly growing 19th century town and so a new Town Hall was built in 1876. The Guildhall had a variety of uses after this time including as a domestic science school for girls with cooking lessons taking place in the Great Hall.

A threat of demolition

With its main civic purpose gone, the Guildhall became neglected. Townspeople considered it old-fashioned and gloomy and it was under threat of demolition in 1876. Fortunately the newly-created City Council embarked on a major renovation programme in 1922, spearheaded by the Leicester Archaeological Society. The Guildhall was reopened to the public in 1926 and today, as one of the city’s most important medieval buildings and an iconic local landmark,  enjoys protection as a Grade I listed building.

The Guildhall, 2014

The Town Hall’ (circa 1830) by Leicester artist John Flower

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