Leicester does not have a cathedral to match the splendour of Salisbury, York or Lincoln. In fact St Martin’s is an enlarged parish church that was ‘nominated’ to cathedral status in 1927. There was discussion at the time that the nearby church of St Margaret’s or even the grand church at Melton Mowbray would be better alternatives, but in the end St Martins was chosen over the rivals.
Leicester was an important Roman town (Ratae) and perhaps would have had an early Christian church. Whether this was on the site of St Martins is open to conjecture but there was an earlier Saxon church on the site and St Martin the patron saint was a converted Roman soldier who performed miracles who became a hermit.
The church is first mentioned in 1220 when it belonged to Leicester Abbey and in 1225 the Bishop of Lincoln ordained a vicarage. The advowson passed to the Crown at the Dissolution until 1867 when it passed to the Bishop of Peterborough, it is now vested in the Bishop of Leicester.
The church has been closely associated with guilds during the medieval period and several were closely tied with the church. The guild of Corpus Christi was founded in 1343 as a social and religious guild attached to St. Martin’s Church, with four chaplains and endowed with lands to the value of £20 a year. They built a hall to the west of the church that became closely knit with the local town government, its ‘guildhall’ was used for meetings of the town council from the 15th century. Today the Guilldhall is still there as a museum and is well worth a visit. The guild of Corpus Christi was dissolved in 1548 and the vicar of St Martin’s at the time complained that without the chaplains help he would be unable to complete his parish duties.
The vicar at that time had a house next to the guildhall which was built in January 1457/58. The vicars lived there until 1760 when the house was demolished to extend the burial ground. For his loss he was given 10 shillings a year. This ‘new’ burial ground is now perhaps under the car park to the west of the cathedral.
A guild of St George is first mentioned in 1499 when the 48 members are asked to pay for it’s upkeep. The annual festival of the guild was the ceremony of ‘Riding St George’ in which the guild paraded as St George and the Dragon. However in 1543 the master of the guild was fined for not riding the ‘George’ and it is not mentioned again.
In 1528 the parishioners complained that ‘the clergy laughed and talked together during services and omitted to wear their surplices’. The vicar generally sent a Franciscan friar to visit the sick, and the friar was described as both neglectful and indiscreet.
By 1575 the church had long been regarded as the principal church in the borough and it was ordered that two or three members of every household in the borough and its suburbs should attend the Wednesday and Friday sermons in the church.
In February 1927 St Martins was hallowed as the cathedral and Dr Cyril Bardsley was appointed the first Bishop.
The church is a cruciform building dating back to the 12th century which originally had narrow aisles. Today it consists of a central tower and spire, two storey south porch, large nave, north aisle with double south aisle, choir (below tower), chancel, and two chapels from the chancel one being St Katherine’s and the other St Dunstan’s. There are also some clergy rooms to the south east.
Much of the fabric dates from the 13-14th centuries although the Victorians completed several restorations on the building and there were other changes when it became the cathedral. The central tower dates to the 13th century, the large second south aisle was added in the 14th century and in the 15th century the chancel was rebuilt and the two chapel added to it. The clerestory and west doorway date to the late 15th or early 16th centuries. In 1545-46 one of the aisles was extensively repaired and in 1633 the churchwardens repaired the chancel.
From 1846-1867 the church was restored by John Raphael Brandon with new roofs being built in 1847-48. The piers between the nave and north aisle were replaced and the southern ones were restored in 1851, the church was also re-seated during this period.
The tower rebuild was perhaps his greatest work. The Norman supporting pillars and the tower were demolished in 1861 and replaced by a completely new tower (1861-62) and spire (1867) which rise to 220 feet.
In the late 1890’s the south aisle was restored by J. L. Pearson and in 1897 the south Vaughan porch was added by G. F. Bodley in memory of Edward Vaughan and his three sons. Sir Charles Nicolson became architect when the church was created a cathedral and was assisted by William Keay of Leicester. The sacristy was built in 1927 and the vestries in 1939.
St Katherine’s chapel was rebuilt in 1865 and was also known as the Herrick chapel and contains a number of memorials to the family. Sadly in 1847 a medieval painting of St Katherine was obliterated on the north wall.
St Dunstan’s chapel was rebuilt in the at the same time and was dedicated to the Needham family. The west gallery was completed in 1930, the font is Victorian and all the wood panelling date to the first half of the 20th century. Before the Reformation there were five chapels in the church. The Lady Chapel used by the Corpus Christi guild was in the outer south aisle, St George’s Chapel was located where the present War Memorial chapel of the Leicestershire Regiment is sited at the west end.
There are various monuments scattered throughout the building mostly to the great and good of the city and although they have some interest there is not anything of great significance. The east window is very fine and there are are some good stained glass around the building. The cathedral is now part of the St Martins square project with Leicester Diocese having refurbished offices nearby and they have made the ‘Cathedral Square’ a much more attractive space with gardens and more open space.
The most important change to St Martins is of course the internment of King Richard III this coming March 2015. This is perhaps one of the most important events for the Cathedral and the City itself in many years. There was a memorial stone to King Richard III in the chancel between the stalls (installed 1980 – see 360° virtual tour below) which stated that he was buried in the parish at Greyfriars graveyard in 1485 after the Battle of Bosworth. You can find out much more at the link here. This virtual tour was completed in 2012, a new 360° tour will be completed in May 2015 and this page will be updated with new photos.
With the King Richard III Centre, Guildhall, The Roman baths and museums nearby there is plenty to see and do, and of course you are only two minutes away from the shops and cafes of the city. The Cathedral is always open and worth a visit, you can spend a good couple of hours looking around inside, but wait until after March 2015…