I was really amazed by the people of Leicester. A city in the midlands of United Kingdom, where I came to attend a leadership course along with six Deans of different Universities of the Punjab, has salience for its multicultural character.
Situated in the North of London, Leicester is a city with approximately 2000 year old history. One of the unique features of this city is its sizable Pakistani population. The University of Leicester, our host institution, is one of the top seats of higher learning. On league table, the University of Leicester is ranked 24th.
During the last five days, we had several interactions with people of different hues, which was obviously very instructive. However, most of them were university academics and some represented Leicester University’s administration. Every speaker or the person we have interacted with seems quite conscious and concerned about the wellbeing of this city and more so of its heritage. Despite the fact that I am no stranger to this city, it is for the first time that I became aware of the sense of history of this city’s general populace.
Even if the presentation was structured around finance and revenue generation, the opening statement had a reference to Leicester’s history; most conspicuous of those references was that of Richard III, the last Plantagenet King of England from 15th century. It was in August 2012 that his ‘mortal remains’ were found when some routine digging was being carried out at the Grey Friars car park. When it was ascertained by the team of archaeologists that the individual exhumed at Grey Friars was indeed Richard III, Leicester all of a sudden became a centre of media spotlight. It will be pertinent to quote a historian of the city who notes, “The historic archaeological search has touched the hearts and minds of the nation and the world, with flocks of people visiting the city to retrace Richard’s last steps and discover the true story behind the legend.”
Obviously such an exclamation is indicative of a profound sense of history, and particularly the sense of ownership demonstrated by the city people towards Richard III is incredible. I will touch upon the last Plantagenet King of England but a brief reference to Leicester’s history seems warranted here. The story of Leicester, like our own Lahore, is a tale rich in history and heritage.
It is believed the name “Leicester” is derived from the words castra (camp) of the Ligore, meaning dwellers on the ‘River Legro’ (an early name for the River Soar). In the early 10th century, it was recorded as Ligeraceaster, “the town of the Ligor people”. For some time it was called as Ledecestre and it was much later that the city acquired its recent name. After the Roman invasion in AD43, Leicester probably began life as a fortress with occupation developing as a continuation of the native settlement.
By the time of the Norman Conquest, Leicester was a place of some importance with 322 houses and six churches. A castle, the most prominent of all the buildings, was built in 1068 by order of William the Conqueror to dominate the town and ensure Leicester’s loyalty to the new dynasty. Piped water first came to the city in 1600s and stocking making became established as Leicester’s first industry, carried out at home and giving rise to the expression ‘as poor as a stockinger’.
By 1700, Leicester’s knitting industry had grown out of its woollen trade. Steam engines ‘turned the skyline into a sea of smoking chimneys.’ Canal and rail transport enabled goods made here to be transported far and wide. From 1861 to 1901, much of the city was re-built. With the increased employment opportunities, the town’s population quadrupled. In 1919, Leicester was granted city status and gained a cathedral in 1927, reflecting its rapid growth in the previous years despite the First World War playing havoc with the British Isles in general.
Immediately after the War concluded, the University of Leicester was founded (in 1921) primarily to repair the damage and more importantly to give war-weary people a hope. Wide range of industries meant Leicester was better placed than many cities to weather the economic challenges posed to the entire world in the 1920s and 1930s. During World War II, Leicester persevered and its industrial growth did not falter. Socially Leicester is hospitable and welcoming.
The people from East Europe, Caribbean, Africa and the subcontinent form a unique cultural tapestry, which makes this city different from several other cities of UK. All the communities living here equally take pride in the rich history of the city. The exhuming of Richard III’s mortal remains has intensified people’s interest in the history and heritage of the city that is succinctly articulated.
Leicester city’s football club had a fairly good run in the last few years which is attributed by some, to the exhuming of Richard III’s remains which were subsequently buried in the choir of the Franciscan Church within Greyfriars. Important here to mention is that King Richard III was a regular visitor to Leicester and spent his last night in the city before his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485.
It will be of interest to the students of history and literature that the Battle of Bosworth Field was the last significant battle of the Wars of the Roses, the civil war between the Houses of Lancaster and York that raged across England in the latter half of the 15th century. Fought on August 22, 1485, the battle was won by the Lancastrians. Their leader Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, by his victory became the first English monarch of the Tudor dynasty. Our protagonist, Richard III was the last king of the House of York, who was killed in the battle.
Historians consider Bosworth Field to mark the end of the Plantagenet dynasty, making it a defining moment of English and Welsh history. Since that defining moment happened in Leicester, which has made that city very important for the historians. I wish, we can value Lahore and Multan along with several other historical cities as the people of Leicester value theirs.