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Building a Solid Foundation for Leicester

Previous page: The Roman Take-over

In the days of the good and wise Julius Agricola, not more than thirty years after their first arrival in this locality, the Romans set to work to construct a permanent Station at Leicester or Ratae on the lines of their existing encampment; and the earthen mounds of defence now speedily gave place to thick walls of stone, probably quarried from the neighbouring Dane Hills, mixed with small loose boulders collected in the valley of the river, and all cemented together by a means known only to these ingenious builders ; while the dwellings, both of the Legions and civilian inhabitants assumed a more solid and lasting character, and buildings of architectural importance gradually arose.

The outline of the walls closely followed by those of a later date, was as follows: The north wall extended in a straight line a little inside the present Soar Lane and Sanvey Gate, from the river to the angle of Church Gate ; the east wall ran inside the line of Church Gate and Gallowtree Gate to the angle of Horsefair Street; the south wall proceeded by Horsefair Street and Millstone Lane to a point in or near St.. Mary's Churchyard and the west wall, whose existence is somewhat problematical, completed the enclosure by passing from this point to the end of Soar Lane, where we started.

Near the centre of each wall was an entrance gate, which on the north side probably stood on the spot always since identified with the North Gate, at the angle of Cumberland Street with Northgate Street. It is possible, however, that this gate in Roman times was situated a little further eastward along the line of Sanvey Gate. The South Gate is supposed to have stood about the centre of the present Mill-stone Lane, near Wiclif Street.

The Gate in the east wall was probably at a point further north than the present "East Gates" which represents the site of the medieval entrance; and the Roman West Gate, like the Roman west wall, has always had a disputed existence, some authorities maintaining that Leicester was undefended on this side, as the river afforded sufficient protection, while others assert that a west wall undoubtedly ran parallel with the river and that the mass of brickwork still existing behind St. Nicholas' Church, and called the "Jewry Wall" was once the Western Roman Gateway into the city.

This theory would seem extremely probable, as the structure is in a direct line from the known Roman road which crossed the river below the town on or near the site of the present Bow Bridge, and after traversing Leicester, passed out at the East Gate. The theory of the existence of a western wall is further strengthened in the discoveries said to have been made from time to time of portions of wall-foundations in the direct line it would take from St. Mary's Churchyard to the river-end of Soar Lane, but it is difficult to substantiate these alleged proofs.

The Jewry Wall fragment appears to have been the work of two distinct periods the outer or western side, said to resemble the usual construction of Roman gateways, being of much earlier date than the inner or eastern face, winch was afterwards built partly across the earlier arches.

It is therefore quite possible that hat it originally formed the Western Gateway of the town, and that at some subsequent period of the Roman occupation, it passed into disuse for this purpose, and was absorbed into some other public building, probably Baths is or a Basilica, or both combined in one of the large and imposing structures devoted to several purposes which appear to have been not unusual in the Roman cities of Britain.

While excavating near this spot for laying the foundations of a modern factory, the discovery of a large mass of masonry in which were embedded fragments of earthen pipes and flue-tiles, and also of a large sewer in the immediate neighbourhood, passing downwards to the river, both being of undoubted Roman construction, strengthens the supposition that a public Bath at one time existed at or near thus place, the Romans chiefly employing hot air for bathing purposes in the manner of the modern Turkish bath, although water, both hot and cold was also used.

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