C.J. (Charles James) Billson.

Mediaeval Leicester online

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may be gathered from a verbose petition which they addressed
to the Earl of Southampton, Chancellor of the Duchy of
Lancaster, in the year 1540. They complained that " where
before this time it hath been used and accustomed within the
said town that no foreigners dwelling out of the said town should
sell by retail any manner of wares or merchandise but only
victuallers for victuals vidthin the said town of Leicester except
in the time of the fairs there and then to sell by retail all things :
by which good custom the said town was by long time well
maintained in wealth unto now, of late within the space of
40 years last past or thereabouts, that foreigners dwelling out
of the said town have been suffered to sell wares and merchandise
within the said town by retail ; and by reason that foreigners
have such liberty many persons have withdrawn themselves from
inhabiting within the said town and daily do more and more
since they have been suffered to sell by retail within the said
town of Leicester as the inhabitants thereof do, so that the greater
part of the High Street of the said town within the said 40 years
is gone to ruin and decay, and other places of the said town like-
wise not only decayed but utterly desolate and now fallen in
great poverty to the loss of our sovereign lord the King and
the decay of the said town and more is Uke to do unless your
lordship's favour and honourable goodness herein unto them
be shewed."


In 1564 the number of families in the town of Leicester,
as officially returned to the Archdeacon, was only 338 ; and in
1580 the number of able persons mustered " of the body of the
town of Leicester," were but 600 and odd. In 1587 235 houses
that had belonged to dissolved colleges, &c., and 406 " bays,"
or parts of houses under one gable, were " in decay."* In one
of the many petitions which were drafted for presentation to the
Queen about this time, the Corporation appealed to her " for
the better relief of 4,000 of your loving subjects." But it is
doubtful if the actual population really reached this figure.
Throsby's estimate of 3,000 for the year 1558, and 3,480 for
1600, based upon the statistics of deaths, would seem to be nearer
the mark. At any rate, we may safely conclude that, when the
17th century opened, the inhabitants of the town were not more
than in 1500, and probably hardly reached 4,000.

Recurring visitations of the plague were met by better sanitary
measures for coping with the epidemic ; a policy of isolating
infected areas and cases did much to prevent the disease spread-
ing ; and yet the further progress of Leicester was undoubtedly
muclj retarded by this scourge, which in 1610-11 claimed very
many victims. According to the register of All Saints, more
than 600 persons died from it in that year at Leicester. Some
time later the devastation of civil war, and the calamity of a
great siege did far less to impair the population, which by the
year 1664 '^^^ considerably increased. The Leicester Hearth
Tax Returns for Lady Day, 1663, show rather more than 600
occupied houses, which would hardly give a population much
exceeding 3,000, but these returns were less complete than those
of 1664, which have been transcribed and published by Mr.
Henry Hartopp. It appears from the latter that at that time
Leicester contained about 889 occupied houses, and, bearing in
mind that the tax was not imposed upon the poorest cottages,
we may estimate the number of the inhabitants to have been
somewhere about 4,000.

* Most of these buildings, no doubt, were some of the 414 houses
unroofed or overthrown by the great tempest of 1563 which had not
been restored.


But the critical turning point in the long history of Leicester
was near at hand. Towards the close of the 17th century the
stocking-frame was introduced into the town, and the manu-
facture of hosiery very soon became established upon a com-
paratively large scale. It was estimated by Thompson that in
1700 the town of Leicester contained 6,000 inhabitants, and,
although this may be an exaggeration, there is little doubt that
a rapid increase had already set in. In the course of the next
hundred years the population became at least three times as large
as it had ever been. The return made to Parliament in 1800
showed that the number of inhabited houses at that period was
3,205, of uninhabited only 15. The Leicester families were
3,668, consisting of 7,921 males and 9,032 females, in all 16,953.

Thus, after remaining through many centuries a Uttle
community of from two to four thousand souls, the city of
Leicester began to develop from a small country town into a
densely-populated centre of modern commerce. Ever since
1800 its rate of increase has been maintained with a healthy
regularity, and the following returns of the Census show with
what irresistible steadiness its transformation has been effected :

I80I .

• 16,953

I86I .

. 68,056

I8II .

. 23,146

I87I .

• 95,084

I82I .

• 30.877

I88I .

. 122,376

I83I .

• 40.517

1 891 .

. 142,051

1 841 .

. 50,853


. 211,579

1851 .

. 60,584


. 227,222



FOR many years after the Conquest the leading people
of the town of Leicester were of Norman blood. This
was owing, of course, to the power of the Norman Earls
of Leicester, without whose appointment and approval no man
could prosper, or obtain any high office, for the Earls naturally
preferred men who were of their own race and who spoke their
own language. The first Englishman who held the title of
Mayor seems to have been William le Engleys, who was appointed
in 1278, and in three subsequent years. It is possible, however,
though not very likely, that he was a Norman nicknamed " The
Englishman." He was not, at any rate, the first Englishman to
bear rule among the burgesses, for as early as 1209, as we shall
see, a man was at the head of the Guild Merchant, under the
title of " Alderman of the Guild," who bore a Saxon name.

A curious Norman appellation was borne by the Curle-
vaches, a well-to-do family who owned land in the North suburb
of Leicester. One of them deserves to be remembered as one of
the ruling men who shaped the destinies of Leicester during its
early days. Simon Curlevache was born about the year 1175,
for he must have been a prominent member of the Gviild Mer-
chant, and probably over 25 years of age, when he witnessed
the very important charter in which Robert, Earl of Leicester,
who died in 1204, granted to the Burgesses of the town the right
to pasture beasts in the Cowhay meadow beyond the South
Gate. About the same time he witnessed also a deed executed
by Petronilla, the Earl's mother, who died a few years after her
son. In the first decade of the 13th century he was established
as a merchant of considerable importance. Walter of the
Churchyard, who afterwards became a member of the Guild
Council, entered the Guild as " Simon Curlevache's man." It
is clear that in the year 1209 Simon was carrying on an extensive
trade. In that year King John granted him a license to export
five lasts of leather (720 hides) from England to St. Valery, for


which license he paid the King loo shillings, 20s. for each last.
The management of the Guild Merchant soon passed into his
hands. " In the year next after the death of William Pepin,
Abbot of Leicester " (which took place in 1224), Simon Curle-
vache was acting as Alderman in conjunction with John Warin.
Shortly afterwards his name appears on the Guild Roll as the
one " Alderman of Leicester." During his sole tenure of this
office — which corresponded with the later Mayoralty — the election
of the Council of the Guild was for the first time placed on record .
The names of 24 burgesses are given in the roll, who were chosen
by the Guild to come to all summonses of the Alderman " ad
consulendam villam et ad eum sequendum in negotiis villge pro
posse suo si sint in villa sub pena de vid." It may also be said
that Simon Curlevache is the first recorded Treasurer of the
Borough Funds. It appears from the Guild Roll that in or
about the year 1225 he had the receipts of the Guild paid over
to him, out of which he disbursed the wages of clerks and Ser-
jeants, and accounted for expenses incurred on the North Bridge,
with a small balance over. No one else seems to have been
associated with him in the chief office of the Guild until the
27th day of February, 1234, when William de St. Lo was
appointed to act as Alderman with him. In a deed executed
about 1240 the attestation clause begins thus : — " Hiis testibus
Simone Curleu et Willelmo de Sein Lo tunc aldermannis
Leircestriae." These men were still the two Aldermen of the
Guild in 1241-42. For some unknown reason Curlevache had
the misfortune to fall under the displeasure of Simon de Montfort,
who, in the year 1239, extorted from him a sum of 500 marks
(^333 6s. 8d.) — a very large amount in those times. The affair
is known only from a letter in which Robert Grosseteste, the
Bishop of Lincoln, took the Earl to task for his harsh and im-
politic conduct. The punishment, he told him, was too heavy,
and quite out of proportion to the offence. Notwithstanding
this remonstrance, Simon de Montfort was obdurate. His
namesake was wealthy enough to pay the fine, but we hear
nothing of him after 1242 ; and, as he cannot then have been
far short of 70 years old, he may have died soon after receiving
this severe imposition,


The name recurs in the 14th century, when another Simon
Curlevache entered the Guild in 13 18-19 ; but he does not
seem to have flourished, for his goods and chattels were assessed
in 1336 at no more than 5s.

Another prominent Norman family, of which we catch
glimpses in 13th century Leicester, was named de Sancto Laudo,
St. Lo, or Seynlowe. Willaim de St. Lo was a contemporary
of old Simon Curlevache, and, as we have seen, acted jointly
with him in the chief office of the Guild Merchant until 1242
or later. About the year 1250 William de St. Lo and Peter
Roger's son, " Mayors of Leicester," were the first witnesses
to a deed still extant. In 125 1 Peter Roger's son appears as the
only Mayor. But St. Lo had not died, for he was alive in 1253,
in which year his name heads the list of Jurats chosen to enquire
into the origin of Gavelpence and Bridge-silver.

Another Norman family which is conspicuous in the early
annals of Leicester is that of the Costeyns. Henry Costeyn,
its most prominent member, was a contemporary of Simon
Curlevache, and, like him, a witness to the Earl's grant of the
Cowhay pasture and to other important documents, including
the Earl's quit claim of his Cowhay rights in 1239. Henry
Costeyn may have been rather older than Curlevache, for we
find him acquiring property in the suburbs of Leicester before
the 1 2th century had expired. He was a merchant of some note,
dealing on a large scale, as we may conclude from the fact that
he found it worth while to make the King a present of three
palfreys in order to secure the royal protection and aid for the
conveyance of his merchandise. A palfrey was then considered
equal to 15 marks or ^10. About 1225 he was chosen a member
of the Guild's Council under Alderman Curlevache. The house
in which he lived was situated in the old High Street, at the corner
of what is now Peacock Lane, overlooking on its eastern side
the wide-spreading grounds of the Grey Friars' Monastery,
which was built in his lifetime. Two of his sons are mentioned,
Ralf, who entered the Guild in 1239, and Henry, who entered
in 1254. It was probably this son Henry who had some cases

in the Portmanmote Court about 1260, and who, on one occasion,
" claimed the Court of the Lord Abbot and had it."

In the year 1271 the two largest tax-payers in Leicester
were Robert de Scharneford and Henry de Rodington. Robert
of Sharnford acted for some years as Receiver for the Guild
Merchant, and when he died, some time before 1276, the town
owed him one mark, which they paid to his executor, Roger the
Chaplain. The Robert of Sharnford, who was one of the two
first Parliamentary Representatives of the Borough in 1295, and
afterwards Receiver of Guild moneys, may have been his son.
There were several Sharnfords living at Leicester at the end of
the 13th century. Three persons of that name, Robert, John
and Gervas, were each fined in 1292 for using false yard-measures.
Again in 1299 Robert was charged with contravening the rules
of the Guild Merchant. He had traded in partnership with the
Sisters of St. Leonard's Hospital, who had lent him their money,
although they were excluded from the Guild. To this offence
he pleaded guilty. Another Sharnford, William, entered the
Guild in 1273, and a record of one of his business transactions
is interesting, and throws some light on mediaeval shopping and
on the importance of medig^val dress. In the year 1300, William
Sharnford sold a garment for ^5 13s. ^d. The fur lining cost
£2 more ; and there were also some extra payments, which
included a gratuity of 13s. 4d. given to the vendor's brother
Philip, the same amount bestowed on his clerk Adam, and one
shilling to each of their four grooms. The total expense of the
purchase was no less than £

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