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Leicestershire was one of the most regularly shaped shires, with Leicester itself almost exactly in the middle, on the river Soar. The western boundary with Warwickshire ran along the line of Watling Street, the north-west between Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire was the angle formed by the Soar joining the Trent, and the southern border with Northamptonshire followed the rivers Avon and Welland.

Leicester was not far from the intersection of two great Roman roads, Watling Street and the Fosse Way. It became an important town of some 2,000–3,000 people, Ratae Corieltavorum, the tribal capital of the Coritani. In the course of the 6th cent. the area was occupied by Anglo-Saxon settlers and became part of the kingdom of Mercia in the 7th cent., under the episcopal jurisdiction of Lichfield. Breedon-on-the-hill, where there are magnificent Saxon carvings, was founded as a monastery about the year 675. For a while there were bishops of Leicester, but the see did not survive the Danish occupation, and when it was recovered was placed under the diocese of Lincoln. Leicester became one of the five boroughs when the Danes overran the region in the late 9th cent., and though it was reconquered by Æthelfleda on behalf of Mercia in 918, Danish influence remained substantial. The shire was divided into wapentakes rather than hundreds, and many of the place-names—Ingarsby, Scraptoft, and Barkby Thorpe—are of Scandinavian origin. The name Leicester made its appearance in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 917 as Ligera ceastre: this has been variously explained, but seems to be the fort of the people of the river Legra—possibly a tributary of the Soar.

Throughout the medieval period, Leicester remained an important town, granted a charter during John's reign. The de Montfort family in the 13th cent. took its earldom from the shire. Wyclif, the morning star of the Reformation, was vicar of Lutterworth in the later 14th cent.: in 1428, many years after his death, his bones were dug up as those of a heretic and thrown into the river Swift. Parliament met at Leicester in 1414 and 1426 and it was to Leicester that Richard III summoned his troops in August 1485 before marching out to fight his last battle at Bosworth.

The north-west of the shire around Charnwood Forest was still heavily wooded, but the open country to the east of the Soar was ideal for rearing sheep. Local wool became the basis of a flourishing textile industry, and though the county was rather thinly populated, Loughborough, Melton Mowbray, Market Harborough, Hinckley, and Ashby de la Zouch developed as small market towns. Camden, in Elizabeth's reign, described Leicestershire as ‘champain country, rich in corn and grain’, though he had no great opinion of the inhabitants of Market Harborough, complaining of their ‘harsh and ungrateful manner of speech’.

The shire was hotly disputed during the Civil War. Leicester itself was held for Parliament, Ashby and Belvoir for the king, which made for harassing sorties. The royalists achieved almost their last success in May 1645 when Rupert stormed Leicester and sacked it, but the victory was cancelled by the shattering defeat at Naseby the following month. The war damaged the Hastings family, which had been predominant, and marked the rise of the Manners at Belvoir, though their county interest was always shared with the country gentlemen.

Defoe visited the shire in the 1720s and thought the sheep the best in England for wool, and commented that ‘the whole county seems to be taken up in country business’. It was still isolated. In Market Bosworth, where Samuel Johnson spent a few miserable months as a schoolteacher, the inhabitants were said to set their dogs on strangers. But the character of parts of the county began to change in the later 18th cent. Attempts to overcome the liability that the main river, the Soar, was not navigable had been made since the early 17th cent. But improvements in turnpike roads, canals, and then railways fastened the shire into a national network of communications. The Soar navigation, or Loughborough canal, linked Leicester with the Trent and Mersey canal in the 1790s, and was followed by the Oakham canal (1802), the Ashby canal (1804), and the Grand Union (1814) which, with a branch to Market Harborough, linked the county to the Grand Junction near Rugby, and thence to London, Birmingham, and the north. The dramatic reduction in the cost of conveying coal led to the opening of a number of pits in the north-west. The first steam railway was the Leicester to Swannington, largely a mineral line but carrying passengers. At the opening, in May 1832, George Stephenson drove his Comet, whose chimney hit the roof of Glenfield tunnel. The first major link was the Midland Counties railway, which joined the London to Birmingham at Rugby in 1840.

The growth of industry and population in this period was extraordinary. The domestic system of textiles production gave way rapidly to a factory system. Leicester itself, some 17,000 in 1801, was 60,000 by 1861, and 211,000 by 1901: it continues to dominate the shire, with nearly half the population in 1951. Coalville was an almost overnight growth. In 1801 it was not in existence. The opening of the Whitwick colliery in 1824 led to 1,200 people by 1846, 15,000 by 1901, and 25,000 by 1951. Hinckley and Loughborough also grew rapidly. By the local government reorganization of 1972 Leicestershire took over the neighbouring county of Rutland, but it was restored in 1995. Leicestershire retained its county status, but Leicester itself was made a unitary authority.

J. A. Cannon

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Leicestershire County in e central England; the county town is Leicester. The area is drained chiefly by the Soar and Wreak rivers. The uplands of the e are devoted to farming; the w has more industry. Wheat, barley, sheep and dairy cattle are important, and the region is famous for its hosiery, Stilton cheese and Melton Mowbray meat pies. Area: 2553sq km (986sq mi). Pop. (1994) 916,900.