The History of Leominster
The lovely old market town of Leominster (pronounced Lemster) has a peaceful aspect in contrast with its history, which as a marcher settlement has seen plenty of conflict through the years.
Given the verdant countryside and its position on the river Lugg it is probable that the site of Leominster was occupied by ancient man. But it was in the 7th century that our firm knowledge of the place begins.
Depending on the source it was in 658 or 660 that a nunnery was founded by King Merwald of Mercia, the Northumbrian priest St Ealfrid according to legend having performed a miracle on the site where Merwald probably had a fortified hall.
There is much uncertainty about the origin of the name Leominster, a variety of suggestions being made for it: the miracle performed by Ealfrid involved a lion feeding from his hand, giving the prefix Leo to the suffix minster denoting a Christian community or church; or Leo is corrupted from the Welsh lei meaning to flow, referring to the river; or Leo is a compounding of the names of two waters, the Lugg and the Oney (the old name for a stream there); or yet that it refers to Leofric of Mercia of Lady Godiva fame, a later landholder there.
In 777 the nunnery and much of the Saxon town was devastated by British raiders; in 980 the Danes sacked the place, so ruining the nunnery that a new foundation funded by Leofric was required. In 1052 Gruffudd ap Llywelyn raided over the border, his forces meeting the English in a battle that was called by the Welsh name for Leominster – Llanllieni.
Leominster was worth raiding because of the wealth it derived from wool production. Such was the importance of sheep rearing there that the fleeces of the local Ryeland sheep were dubbed Lemster Ore (Gold).
Henry I gave Leominster and its revenues, worth £666 annually, to Reading Abbey, which duly founded a Benedictine priory there in 1121 or 1123. But Welsh incursions were by no means over: in 1207 William de Braos of Brecknock took the place by surprise, looted its treasures and burned priory, town and church. And again in 1402 Owain Glyndwr and his army seized the town and stole everything of value.
Welsh fortunes changed in 1461 when the Battle of Mortimer's Cross , one of the most significant in the Wars of the Roses , took place nearby: Owen Tudor was captured and taken away to be executed; and thousands of Welshman on the losing Lancastrian side were put to the sword.
But of course the Tudors eventually prospered, bringing mixed fortunes to Leominster: Henry VIII in 1539 seized the priory and its considerable revenues for the crown; but Mary Tudor for once had a positive influence. When Edward VI died and the attempt was made to grab the throne for Lady Jane Grey , the people of Leominster attacked men organising for the Protestant cause, killing some in a minor battle and executing those they captured. Mary was grateful enough to confer a charter on the town, its first, granted on March 28 1553.
Catholic power died with Mary, however, and the Protestant cause prevailed: Leominster in 1610 saw a brutal example of Protestant authority when a Catholic Priest, Roger Cadwallader, was tried there, then hung drawn and quartered. Sectarianism reared its head again in 1684 when local MP John Dutton, a staunch anti-Catholic, was tried for treason against James II , and fined £10,000, a vast fortune.
During the Civil War William Waller seized Leominster for Parliament in 1643; though it fell into Royalist hands again in 1645. After this the town’s history is peaceful, though in 1695 a great fire destroyed the priory roof.
Nearly the last event to note in this history is a strange one, and anachronistic, for the ducking stool abandoned nearly everywhere else in Britain long before was last used in Leominster in 1809, one Jenny Pipes its victim. The modern world caught up with the place in 1858, when the railway arrived, though Leominster’s architecture still today has much about it of the Tudor period and even earlier.