Reconstructing St Mary’s Vicarage at the time of Leicester’s “Riot” in 1524

Last year (2016) the DBHG undertook a large digital reconstruction of the Newarke area of Leicester, looking at its development since the Late Medieval period. This extensive animated reconstruction is now on show in De Montfort University’s Heritage Centre  which is open to the public. The Newarke is the area which now forms De Montfort University’s campus and was fist established by the Dukes of Lancaster in 1330 with a hospital named after the Holy Trinity for the care of the elderly and infirm. It was subsequently enlarged by them with a chantry church for their dynasty and made a collegiate foundation dedicated to St Mary from at least 1360. As a hospital college it would have been a seat of learning as well as (to couch it in today’s parlance) a source of primary health care. It had a large number of other buildings within its high walls as well at the church and hospital themselves, everything from gate-houses, kitchens, bakery, brew house and guest lodging to houses for the Dean, twelve Canons, and twelve Vicars, six choristers and servants for all of these, a chapter house, refectory, stables, lavatories, laundry, treasury, library and store-houses as well as other ancillary buildings. The only above ground remains of these buildings are the chapel of the Trinity Hospital, some of the arches from the main hospital hall and what is now known as St Mary’s Vicarage, a diminutive single story stone building on the corner of The Newark and the Gateway.

St Mary’s Vicarage: Left - as it is today, now called the “Chantry Building”, it’s used as the offices for DMU Global. Right – as it was at the end of the nineteenth century, with two additional storeys, the top-most is probably a later addition) - Courtesy of Leicestershire County Council Record Office.

St Mary’s Vicarage: Left – as it is today, now called the “Chantry Building”, it’s used as the offices for DMU Global. Right – as it was at the end of the nineteenth century, with two additional storeys, the top-most is probably a later addition) – Courtesy of Leicestershire County Council Record Office.

This was once a house for a Canon and Vicar of the Collegiate Church of St Mary of the Annunciation (they lived in pairs) and was probably built no later than the mid fifteenth century, the exact date is uncertain. There would have been at least twelve such houses within the Newarke, probably of two storeys in height built-in well-dressed stone, with twin chambers above, a stone stair up and kitchen / store and reception room below. They had indoor toilets, large fireplaces and were well-lit with glazed windows. They were high quality houses much better than those in the rest of Leicester out with the Newarke which were generally less durable and less fire-proof timber frame with lath and plaster walls.

It was in all probability in one or more of these well-built stone houses in the College precinct of the Newarke that Mary 4th Baroness Hungerford and her second husband Sir Richard Sacheverell lived in the early 1500’s. Sir Richard had been receiver-general to Edward Hastings, 2nd Baron Hastings, who died in November 1506: less than three years later Sacheverell married his widow, Lady Mary. He thus became the senior representative of the most powerful family in Leicestershire. He was later to be a Member of Parliament (MP) for Leicestershire in 1523 and 1529. Described as a “wealthy West Country heiress,” Mary Baroness Hungerford shared her late husband Edward, 2nd baron Hastings dislike of the Grey family of Bradgate, the two families of the Greys and Hastings were rivals at court and at home with both families having extensive landholdings in Leicestershire and elsewhere in England. By 1517 and probably before this date Lady Mary and Sir Richard lived in apartments within the College of St. Mary in the Newark. The best of these apartments would have been houses like St Mary’s Vicarage, if not this building itself, a possibility that has prompted our historical and architectural interest. Having recently reconstructed in some detail the ecclesiastical buildings of the college, the opportunity to reconstruct a small residential building like St Mary’s Vicarage to show how the people of the college would have lived was an attractive option. Fortunately there is good evidence on which to start a reconstruction. In 2005 Neil Finn, at that time with University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) carried out an archaeological survey of the building in advance of De Montfort University’s conversion of it into offices and an audio studio. Neil’s published report on his investigation provides an interesting insight into the now hidden parts of the interior but as with many ancient buildings raises questions of interpretation because of ambiguous or missing evidence. Neil very graciously agreed to talk us through his up-to-date understanding of the evidence he found in 2005, insights which are now helping the Digital Building heritage Group inform the development of a 3D digital reconstruction of the building.

An initial “body-map” drawing by the DBHG’s Ahmed Hassan who is studying for an MA at DMU of St Mary’s Vicarage, Leicester as it was in 1524 based purely on the written evidence in the 2005 ULAS archaeological report. This configuration was used as a starting point to develop though expert discussions further evidence sources and interpretations which have altered a number of aspects of this initial configuration.

An initial “body-map” drawing by the DBHG’s Ahmed Hassan who is studying for an MA at DMU of St Mary’s Vicarage, Leicester as it was in 1524 based purely on the written evidence in the 2005 ULAS archaeological report. This configuration was used as a starting point to develop though expert discussions further evidence sources and interpretations which have altered a number of aspects of this initial configuration.

The current form of St Mary’s Vicarage belies the fact that it has undergone a number of transformations in the last five hundred years not least of which was the demolition of its upper two storeys, the removal of several windows and chimney breasts to the point where the current external is very different indeed from the original. Fortunately the position of original windows and doors were still partially visible from the stripped interior during the 2005 survey. There is also some evidence of wooden mouldings on surviving floor beams and stone mouldings around windows and doors. There are of course examples of other priests’ houses in colleges in England from around this time many of which appear close in design to the form suggested by the evidence at St Mary’s Vicarage. There were some surprises, not least of which was a decorative and large chimney on the west face of the building which is now completely absent.

Some of the sources of similar buildings being used for reconstruction of St Mary’s Vicarage, Leicester. Left – Vicars lodgings at Wells cathedral, in particular the large and ornate chimney, evidence for a chimney of similar size was found at St Mary’s Vicarage. Right – Rupert’s Gateway, one of number of similar structures built at the same time as St Mary’s Vicarage which used to form part of the defensive boundary wall around The Newarke. Many of the window and door details are similar to those found in St Mary’s Vicarage.

Some of the sources of similar buildings being used for reconstruction of St Mary’s Vicarage, Leicester. Left – Vicars lodgings at Wells cathedral, in particular the large and ornate chimney, evidence for a chimney of similar size was found at St Mary’s Vicarage. Right – Rupert’s Gateway, one of number of similar structures built at the same time as St Mary’s Vicarage which used to form part of the defensive boundary wall around The Newarke. Many of the window and door details are similar to those found in St Mary’s Vicarage.

We hope to be able to use this reconstruction to tell a more complex and detailed story about a series of events in the late 1490’s and early 1500’s in the town and county of Leicestershire which reflected at a very immediate level the power politics being played out nationally and internationally at the court of King Henry VIII. In Leicester these focussed on the Grey and Hastings Families. The Greys were based at Bradgate where they built an extraordinary new minor palace, Bradgate House and the Hastings were based in Ashby de La Zouch Castle which they substantially expanded but they also controlled the town of Leicester with their headquarters here in the Newarke. Mary 4th Baroness Hungerford and her second husband Sir Richard Sacheverell took up residency in the College in the early 1500’s – it is not clear how but would most likely have involved inheritance or a significant bequest. It seems as if they treated the college and its precinct of the Newarke as their own fiefdom, that is until the appointment of the Lord George Grey as Dean of the college of St Mary of Annunciation in the Newarke from 1517-1530. This appointment of one of the leading sons of their most antagonistic rivals the Greys to a position of highest authority in the college precipitated a decade of what started as petty squabbles but eventually led to deadly quarrels between the two families in Leicester. Lady Hungerford, according to Mary L. Robinson’s essay, “Court Careers and County Quarrels,” let her dogs run free in the chapel, organized bear-baiting on the grounds, and allowed her servants to be rude to Grey’s supporters. Both factions retained more men in arms than the law permitted and in 1516 Cardinal Wolsey himself intervened by summoning the principals to appear in the Star Chamber in London to give bonds for good behaviour. Early in 1519 he ordered the parties to discharge their forces and to avoid the county courts and quarter sessions which were occasions for lawlessness. This had little real effect, there was an action by the Greys for murder against Sacheverell’s servants and the rivalry grew so heated that by the spring of 1525, Lady Hungerford and her husband took an armed escort of nearly two hundred men whenever they travelled outside of Leicester. Lady Mary and Sir Richard retained scores of liveried servants who in July 1524 were involved, along with hundreds of Leicester townsfolk in a “riot” with Grey supporters at the high cross in Leicester, a town traditionally loyal to the Hastings, at which several of Lord Thomas Grey 2nd Marquis of Dorset’s men were forcibly ejected. Lord George Grey (Thomas’s brother and the Dean of the College of St Mary in the Newarke) accused Sacheverell of profiting from the sale to the college of the manor of Ashley in Wiltshire and of obtaining leases without fine in the dean’s absence. The matter was taken to the Council but its settlement was remitted to Bishop Longland of Lincoln: the judgement is lost but Sacheverell and his wife appear to have gone on living in the College until their deaths. Lady Mary died sometime between 30th June 1530 and 10th July 1533 and Sir Richard died on 14th April 1534. They were laid to rest in tombs in the collegiate Church of St Mary of the Annunciation under a pillar in a chapel off the south transept.

This colourful period of Leicestershire’s history has more than local relevance as the dynastic rivalries acted out in the town and county also played out at a greater scale in the Royal Court of Henry VIII in London with Mary’s son George Hastings, 1st Earl of Huntingdon (whose wife Anne was the Henry VIII’s mistress in 1510) battling it out with Lord Thomas Grey 2nd Marquis of Dorset and master of Bradgate House for power in court and abroad. We think that a reconstruction of one of the houses that formed the backdrop to these events in Leicester and further afield, the interiors in which the politics, power and personalities were discussed, where plans were made and history was played out might be of interest to a wider audience and this is what we hope to achieve with the St Mary’s Vicarage reconstruction.

About Douglas Cawthorne

Reader in Digital Heritage at De Montfort University.
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