22 May 2024

There is more to see
in Leicester Cathedral
apart from the tomb
of King Richard III

Leicester Cathedral … the 220-ft spire was added in 1862 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Patrick Comerford

Ever since I was in Leicester 13 years ago for an intensive course on interfaith dialogue at Saint Philip Centre’s, I had promised to return to see Leicester Cathedral and some of the other places I had missed back in 2011.

I finally returned last week, and visited Leicester Cathedral, the Roman ruins, sites associated with the mediaeval Jewish community, the castle, the Guildhall, some city centre churches – and some good coffee shops.

Leicester Cathedral, or the Cathedral Church of Saint Martin, is near the centre of the mediaeval old town and is best-known today as the burial place of King Richard III. Over 100,000 people visit Leicester Cathedral every year, mainly to see the tomb of the last English monarch to die in battle.

Leicester Cathedral has been a cathedral since 1927, following the formation of a new Diocese of Leicester the previous year. In terms of size, it is the fifth smallest cathedral in the Church of England – smaller than Christ Church, Oxford, but bigger than the cathedrals in Birmingham, Chelmsford, Carlisle and Derby.

Over 100,000 people visit Leicester Cathedral every year, mainly to see the tomb of Richard III, the last English monarch to die in battle (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Middle Angles had a bishopric in 680 and the Anglo-Saxon cathedral may have stood close to or on the site of the present cathedral in Leicester.

The original diocese collapsed during the invasion by the Danes ca 870. After the establishment of the Danelaw in 886, the seat of the diocese was moved to Dorchester in Oxfordshire and became the Diocese of Dorchester.

The see later moved to Lincoln in 1072 under King William I and became the Diocese of Lincoln. At the Tudor Reformation, the Diocese of Lincoln was divided in three. In 1539 A new cathedral planned in 1539 was never built, and Peterborough became the seat of a new diocese.

The 19th century suffragan bishops of Leicester were part of the Diocese of Peterborough until the Diocese of Leicester was formed in 1926 from the archdeaconries of Leicester and Loughborough and part of the Archdeaconry of Northampton, and Saint Martin’s Church, Leicester, became the cathedral of the new see.

Seven figures in sandstone niches on the south porch or ‘Vaughan Porch’ illustrate the story of the diocese and the cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The south porch or ‘Vaughan Porch’ is currently closed off to visitors during renovations and building work. But I reyrned to Leicester earlier this week (20 May 2025) to see the seven figures in sandstone niches on the south porch who embody the story of the diocese and the cathedral (from left):

• Saint Guthlac (ca 673-713) from Lincolnshire lived when Leicester first became a diocese in 680.

• Hugh of Lincoln (ca 1135-1200) rebuilt Lincoln Cathedral in 1185, when Leicester was in the Diocese of Lincoln.

• Robert Grosseteste (ca 1175-1253), Bishop of Lincoln, was also Archdeacon of Leicester. He provided support for Simon de Montfort’s antisemitic rhetoric at a time when the Jewish community was forcibly driven out of Leicester.

• John Wycliffe (ca 1329-1384) was an early translator of the Bible into English before the Reformation.

• Henry Hastings (ca 1535-1595), 3rd Earl of Huntingdon – Mary Queen of Scots was a prisoner in his home in Lord’s Place off the High Street, Leicester, on her journey to Coventry.

• William Chillingworth (1602-1643) was an Oxford theologian, a friend of Jeremy Taylor and a nephew of Archbishop William Laud; he was Master of Wyggeston Hospital beside the cathedral, and a chaplain to the royalist army in the Civil War.

• William Connor Magee (1821-1891) was born in Cork, was a former Dean of Cork and later became Archbishop of York. As Bishop of Peterborough, Leicester was in his diocese, and he encouraged building many churches and schools in Victorian Leicester. He appointed the first suffragan Bishop of Leicester, Francis Thichnesse, in 1888.

Inside Leicester Cathedral, one of the smallest cathedrals in the Church of England (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Leicester Cathedral has a large nave and chancel with two chancel chapels, and a 220-ft spire that was added in 1862. The building has seen many restoration projects over the centuries, including work by the Victorian architect John Raphael Rodrigues Brandon (1817-1877), and the building appears largely Gothic in style today.

Saint Martin’s Church was built on the site of Roman ruins. Archaeological discoveries show evidence of a Roman building on the site, with many believing it was the site of a Roman temple.

The church is dedicated to Saint Martin of Tours, a fourth century Roman officer who became a bishop. It is almost certainly one of six churches in Leicester referred to in the Domesday Book (1086), when the older Anglo-Saxon church was replaced by a Norman one.

Parts of the present church can be traced to a 12th century Norman church that was rebuilt in the 13th and 15th centuries. In the Middle Ages, its site next to the Guild Hall made Saint Martin’s the civic church of Leicester, with strong ties to the merchants and guilds of the town.

Much of the present building is predominantly Victorian, including the tower, completed in 1862, and the 220-ft spire added in 1867. This Victorian work by the architect Raphael Brandon is in the Early English style, although his work in other parts of the church is in the perpendicular style.

The architectural historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner says the tower and spire are ‘intentionally impressive’ and loosely based on the Church of Saint Mary the Virgin at Ketton in Rutland.

The East Window in Leicester Cathedral was designed by Christopher Whall (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint Martin’s was dedicated as Leicester’s Cathedral in 1927 with the formation of the Diocese of Leicester, over 1,000 years after the last Anglo-Saxon Bishop of Leicester fled from the invading Danes.

The tower and spire were restored both internally and externally in 2004-2005. The main work was to clean and replace any weak stonework with replacement stone quarried from the Tyne Valley.

The Vaughan Porch on the south side of the cathedral was designed by JL Pearson, who was also the architect of Truro Cathedral. It is named the Vaughan Porch because it was erected in memory of the Vaughans who served successively as vicars of Saint Martin’s throughout much of the 19th century.

Saint Katharine’s Chapel on north side of the chancel in Leicester Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The cathedral has four separate chapels, one dedicated to Chapel of Christ the King and three dedicated to different saints.

The new Chapel of Christ the King, with the Great East Window, was created at the east end of the cathedral in the former chancel as part of re-ordering the cathedral for the burial of Richard III.

The East Window, a monument to the dead of World War I, features unusual but beautiful colours of stained glass designed by Christopher Whall. Christ the King sits enthroned, with one hand raised in blessing and the other holding a starry orb, his feet resting on the earth or creation.

Surrounding the figure of Christ are eight angels with wings made from a red glass. To the left and right stand Saint George and Saint Michael the Archangel, each standing on a vanquished dragon.

The bottom row depicts the deposition from the cross in the three centre panels, with Saint Joan of Arc and Saint Martin of Tours in the side panels.

The large wooden screen separating the nave from the chancel was designed by Charles Nicholson and carved by Bowman of Stamford. The screen was moved eastward in 2015 to stand in front of the tomb of Richard III, as part of the reordering of the chancel by van Heyningen and Haward Architects.

Saint Dunstan’s Chapel on the south side of the chancel in Leicester Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Saint Katharine’s Chapel is on the north side of the east end of the cathedral, to the left of the sanctuary. Saint Katharine of Alexandria is depicted in the window above the altar. The carved panel below shows the Crucified Christ with the Virgin Mary and Saint John.

Saint Francis of Assisi and the 17th-century poet Robert Herrick are also depicted in the chapel – the chapel is sometimes referred to as the ‘Herrick Chapel’.

The two Redemption windows (2016) in the chapel, designed by Thomas Denny, tell stories from the life of Richard III.

Saint Dunstan’s Chapel, to the south of the chancel, is set aside for prayer and the reserved sacrament. Saint Dunstan was Archbishop of Canterbury in the 10th century, and scenes from his life are depicted in the south-east window.

Saint George’s Chapel at the west end of the cathedral is enclosed by a carved wooden screen. It was the chapel of the Guild of Saint George. An effigy of Saint George was kept here and borne through the streets on 23 April in an annual procession. The chapel was rebuilt in 1921 with memorials to the Royal Leicestershire Regiment.

The tomb of Richard III in Leicester Cathedral was designed by van Heyningen and Haward architects and made by James Elliott (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

Richard III was killed in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field in Leicestershire and was buried hastily, with little ceremony, in the Greyfriars, Leicester. Leicester City Council, the University of Leicester, and the Richard III Society, inspired by the work of Philippa Langley, began a search for his remains at a car park in August 2012. His remains were exhumed and following DNA testing were confirmed in February 2013.

Meanwhile, the cathedral completed a redesign of its gardens in July 2014, including installation of the 1980 statue of Richard III, and plans were made to reinter him in a new tomb, with a wider reordering of the cathedral interior.

After five days of commemorative events, Richard III was reburied in Leicester Cathedral on 26 March 2015 at a service conducted by Archbishop Justin Welby of Canterbury and the Irish-born Dean of Leicester, the Very Revd David Monteith. The last previous burial of an English monarch was of the Duke of Windsor (Edward VIII) in 1972.

The lead ossuary is inside an English oak coffin crafted by Michael Ibsen, a direct descendant of Richard III’s sister, Anne of York. The coffin lies in a brick-lined vault below the floor, under the plinth and tombstone.

The tomb was designed by van Heyningen and Haward architects and made by James Elliott. The tombstone features a cross deeply incised into a single block of Swaledale fossil stone quarried in North Yorkshire. It rests on a low plinth of dark Kilkenny limestone, incised with Richard’s name, dates and motto, carved by Gary Breeze and Stuart Buckle, and with his coat of arms in pietra dura by Thomas Greenaway.

Inside Leicester Cathedral, facing west (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The cathedral also has a set of 14th century wooden carved figures, each ‘afflicted’ with some kind of illness. One has a medieval hearing aid, while another is suffering from sore shoulders.

The cathedral has close links with Leicester Grammar School which once stood beside it. After the school moved to Great Glen, seven miles south of Leicester, the site was refurbished extensively, and the cathedral offices moved into Saint Martin’s House in 2011.

In 2021, Leicester Cathedral Revealed embarked on a project to transform the cathedral and to ensure a more sustaining and welcome future, making the cathedral fully accessible and building a space for heritage and learning.

The 1980 statue of Richard III in the gardens on the south side of Leicester Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The Very Revd Frederick MacNutt (1873-1949), who was born to Irish parents, was the first Provost of Leicester Cathedral (1927-1934), and also Archdeacon of Leicester (1921-1938). He was later a canon of Canterbury Cathedral (1938-1948).

The Very Revd Viv Faull was the first Dean of Leicester after the post was renamed in 2002. She was also the first woman dean in the Church of England. She became Dean of York Minster in 2012, and she has been the Bishop of Bristol since 2018. The present Dean of Canterbury, the Very Revd David Monteith, who was born in Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh, was the the Dean of Leicester in 2013-2022. The present Dean of Leicester, the Very Revd Karen Rooms, was installed earlier this year (9 March 2024).

Canon Alison Adams is Canon Pastor; Canon Emma Davies is Canon Precentor; Christopher Ouvry-Johns is Director of Music; and Rosie Vinter is Assistant Director of Music and Head of Music Outreach.

The organ in Leicester Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

The cathedral choir joins the choirs of Derby Cathedral, Coventry Cathedral and Southwell Minster in the Midlands Four Choirs Festival each year. The present organ was installed by JW Walker & Sons Ltd in 1873 and was rebuilt by Harrison and Harrison in 1929 and 1972.

The cathedral tower has 13 bells, including a peal of 12. These are heard on Thursday evenings and Sunday mornings, with peals being rung on special days.

• Leicester Cathedral is open daily. The Cathedral Eucharist is celebrated on Sundays at 10:30, with Evening Prayer or Choral Evensong at 3:30. During the week, the Eucharist is celebrated at 8:30 on Mondays and at 12:30 Tuesday to Friday.

Leicester Cathedral reflected in the windows of BBC Radio Leicester (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2024)

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