A Short History

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Grosvenor Bridge, once the largest single span stone bridge in the world.The Old Dee Bridge, Weir and Minerva ShrineThe Castle and the Military Museum. The Grosvenor Museum is very close by.You can take a tour to the top of the Cathedral for a stunning view.The Water Tower once stood in the River DeeThe Phoenix Tower - but can you see Rowton Moor from herePossibly the most painted Church in the world?Did King Harold live here?Edgars Field has a real Roman ShrineHave they got the shields mixed up?The River Dee, from source to seaThe Roodee, once a Roman harbour now a racecourseThe center of the famous "Rows" of ChesterEastgate - a place to start a walk around the WallsNorthgate - a scary prison once stood hereView of Chester from a Balloon
A view of Chester from a balloon : for the weather.. Other notable features of Chester include: Chester castle, the City Walls, The Rows, the Hermitage, the Amphitheatre, the Cathedral, the partly ruined church of St Johns, the Minerva Shrine, Suspension Bridge, Old Dee Bridge, Grosvenor Bridge. Grosvenor Museum and Military Museum. For those more interested in archaeology on the edge there is even Heronbridge a place which, like many, has stories yet to tell.

Contents

Introduction

The purpose of this brief history is not to make Chester seem any more important than it was but to provide an outline of history which is grounded in the familiar and provide some structure to further exploration of this site and others. At the end of each section are a list of "related pages" on this website. These often cover fairly specific aspects of Chester's history. often touching on matters that are not covered in the widely available guidebooks. Links in the text lead to furher information and detail. For a discussion of the history of historical approaches to Chester see: Historiography.

..Owen Jones's cameo on the front of the Bank in Eastgate Street. Hundreds of people pass this every day without a second glance.

Chester is the county town of Cheshire, England. It was founded by the Romans around the year 74 on the River Dee, close to the border with Wales and, as befits a border town, is one of the best-preserved walled cities in the country. The Romans left around 400. During the Dark Ages which followed, a major battle took place at Chester in 616. The city was re-fortifed by the Saxons in the 10th Century (another battle followed) and during the 11th Century became the home to powerful Saxon earls. Equally powerful Norman Earls of Chester replaced these after 1066, when Chester was the last city to fall to the Normans, who promptly added Chester castle to the defenses of the city. During the time of Edward I Chester was an important base for the conquest of Wales. Later it was a much-favored city of Richard II (who was eventually imprisoned in Chester) and a source of revolt for his successors. Once a major port, Chester declined but was still important during the Civil War when a protracted siege and a further major battle took place. The Cathedral was an important center of learning and scholarship with such writers as Lucian the Monk, Ranulf Higden and Robert of Chester.

Save possibly for the manufacture of lead shot (bullets - from the Leadworks), Chester has seldom had any manufacturing industry of national importance, but was an important center for Tanning and a major trade port (skins and cheese) until overtaken by nearby Liverpool, which could handle larger ships of deeper draft. Attempts to bring further industry to Chester, by canal, improvements to river navigation and railway all largely failed. From being the base of a Roman legion, an important power-base for rivals of the Crown in Anglo-Saxon, Norman and medieval times to being the site of a critical battle in the Civil War, Chester, beneath it's mock-tudor facade, is steeped in military and political history.

Parry's Railway Companion of 1848 describes Chester thus:

  • There are few cities in Europe, or perhaps in the Universe, which have a stronger claim to attention than Chester. The eye of a stranger will have an ample field for admiration. The man of taste who may pay it a visit, will not depart ungratified; nor will the antiquarian search in vain, for some rich and profitable treasure of investigation within its walls: in short, such is the antiquity of Chester, that the stranger who can pass through without bestowing some little share of attention, must have an incurious eye indeed. It is situated on the northern bank of the River Dee — a river which has been the theme of poesy and the admiration of the ancients.

The theme of this version of the history of Chester is to link the history to places that can be visited in the present day as well as casting some light on the contents of the rest of this site. A good place to start any exploration of the history of Chester is the Grosvenor Museum, most noted for its collection of Roman remains, an excellent art collection relating to Chester and a "period house" which explores daily life at various times. The Military Museum (entry fee) tells the story of the Cheshire Regiment. The Town Hall has amusingly innaccurate sculptures about the history of the City and on rare occassions Chester Castle may be open. However this site is mostly about what can be seen of historical interest simply by walking around the streets. Another way of accessing the history van be found by using the links on the left: "People" for example, will open a gallery of people who have had something to do with the history of Chester.

Further Reading

Chester is famous for being a historic city, and as such has been the subject of much historical writing. The Victoria County History is avaiable free online and is a scholarly and well-referenced history of Chester, although its vast size makes ot of limited use to a visitor who seeks accesss to the history while wandering the city streets. There are a number of well-written books on the general history: "CHESTER, A History" by Simon Ward is a good chronological account for the general reader. Then there are specialist books which focus on a particular period or subject. Some of the "historic" histories are worth a look, often for amusement rather than as entirely factual accounts: Hemingway is available online.

History

(see also The Chester Timeline)

General sources and links

  • British History Online: huge, well-referenced but not really suitable for someone who wants a quick intro to the history of Chester. This is the go-to reference to anyone starting to look in detail at the history of the city;

Specialist Sites

Before the Romans

The early coastline, showing swamps and hillforts. The River Gowy was a much more major river than it is today. The swamps on the banks of the Mersey and the sea in front of Helsby and Frodsham define what is almost an island on which Stanlow Abbey later stood. "Blacon Point" was on the river which covered what is now "Sealand".

(see Before The Romans for more)

The geology of Cheshire and North Wales not only played a large part in the development of the science of geology, but has also shaped the landscape and the lives of those who lived and worked upon it. These are discussed on the pages relating to the River Dee and the Gowy.

Life in and around Chester did not start with the Romans. Poulton lies on the western bank of the River Dee and is home to the Poulton Project, a landscape archaeology research project jointly established between Liverpool University and Chester Archaeology. The initial impetus for the dig at Poulton was the investigation of a medieval chapel site, but the discovery of Stone-Age flints, along with large quantities of Roman material, occasional Saxon ware and numerous burials has extended the historical scope of the project back at least as far as the 7th millennium BC.

The area was eventually settled by the Cornovii, a Celtic people of Iron Age and Roman Britain, who lived principally in the modern English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, north Staffordshire, north Herefordshire and eastern parts of the Welsh county of Powys. The tribe developed no known coinage, but their control of the south-Cheshire salt-making industry and parts of its distribution network probably gave them a fair degree of wealth. Their economy was mainly a pastoral one with cattle breeding and possibly cheese-making.

The major relic of the Cornovii today, apart from extensive forest clearance in the Cheshire plain, is a series of hill-forts along the central Cheshire ridge. Bickerton Hill, for example, has an Iron Age promontory hill fort dated around 600 BC (Maiden Castle) that encloses an area of 1.3 acres adjacent the cliff edge. It was destroyed by fire in around 400 BC, although the area was probably used as a settlement until around the 1st century AD, when the Romans arrived, built their city, and appear to have systematically wrecked at least some of the hill forts.

The Gloverstone? - middle Ordovician dolerite - about 460 million years old - twice the age of the local red sandstone. Photo by James Button

Signs of Iron Age settlement (including post-holes near the Amphitheatre) have been found in Chester itself - although the post holes may be late Roman or even later. Finally there is the enigmatic Gloverstone: a blue-grey boulder of (middle Ordovician ("speckled") dolerite - otherwise known as "Bluestone" and as used in the construction of Stonehenge. A connection between Chester and Stonehenge may seem unlikely, but, a 4,500 year-old limestone plaque has been found at the at the Poulton excavation. This bears a mysterious crisscross pattern - and there are faint hints of a similar pattern on the "back" of the Gloverstone. The closest previously known parallel to this was a chalk plaque found in 1969 on Salisbury Plain, just a kilomerer from Stonehenge. The markings on the Poulton stone were made with a flint tool and flint from Salisbury Plain has previously been found on the Poulton site.

Exploring the History

Apart from many examples of red sandstone geology, in the city itself there is little to see of pre-Roman remains, the exception possibly being the Gloverstone. Taking a trip to the top of the Cathedral can give a good view of the surrounding landscape, but for any real contact with the deeper history before the Romans travel outside of the city is required. There are a number of stone circles along the upper part of the River Dee and various hill-forts within reasonable travelling distance. The Poulton Project is a multi-period rural excavation 5 miles south of Chester, which has produced extensive evidence for 10,000 years of human activity. LIDAR is particularly useful for visualising hillfort sites.

Related Articles

  • Geology of Chester: a short look at the local geology and how it has influenced the human history of Chester;
  • Gloverstone: an ancient piece of stone that may be a very ancient marker which gave its name to a part of the city of Chester;
  • Road Transport: how this evolved over the years and possibly dates back to a trade in salt and copper across a natural border;

sources and links

Roman Chester(c 79 - c.400)

(see Roman Chester for more)

A "Roman" in Chester - Chester still has full-time Roman soldiers employed - they can be hired as mercenaries for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, etc.

Chester is an ancient city dating back nearly two millennia to 79CE. The Romans built successive forts there in wood and stone and called the place Deva Victrix or Deva. They chose a spot high above the river to avoid flooding, but close enough to defend the crossing where the Old Dee Bridge now stands. Water could be piped in from natural springs at Boughton and there was a quite sheltered natural harbour. The location had relatively low rainfall and was close to high quality farming land. The Romans have left their mark on modern Chester by the significant influence the layout of the Roman city had on the modern street plan. The four principal Roman streets still exist, and many minor streets and alleyways in the city center follow the course of their Roman predecessors.

The Roman city overlaid on the modern city prior to the construction of the inner ring road in the 1960's.

The fortress was designed in the standard "playing card" shape, with some modifications to the normal plan of buildings. It had four gates, corner towers (the remains of one of which is still visible) and interval towers between the gates. The Roman gates had double arches and the Roman Eastgate had a statue of Mars, the Roman god of war, in the middle of the two arches. A fosse or ditch was dug around the north and east sides to provide extra protection - a line now followed in part by the canal. It has been calculated that the fortress was designed to accommodate 6,000 soldiers. The internal buildings consisted of barracks, baths, a hospital, a granary and some "headquarters" buildings. The main fortress baths were located halfway down the modern Bridge Street on the right-hand side (parts can still be seen). The full plan of Roman Deva is still not known because only limited excavations have taken place following demolition work of later buildings. It has been speculated that a Roman temple may have existed under Chester Cathedral – this is yet to be proved. Contrary to a popular misconception much of the building work at Chester was done by the Legionary soldiers themselves, who spent much more of their time on "police" work and construction than they did on actual warfare.

Chester was at times the home of the Second Legion (Legio II Augusta) and then later the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix). Civilian settlements such as that at Heronbridge also developed outside the fortress walls. Chester was an important Roman military base but not the only one. Indeed for periods of its long history (over three hundred years from 74 CE to around 400 CE) Roman Chester was quite neglected and fell into a state of disrepair. At other times there were extensive building programs. A "Timewatch" investigation by the BBC speculated that, from the size and scale of the fort, had the Roman Empire not begun to collapse, Deva would have become the Roman capital of Britain and a launch post for invasions on Ireland. Romano-British occupation continued in some form even after the Roman departure from Britain and remains of the Amphitheatre, parts of the walls, the quay and the columns and reconstructed hypocaust in the Roman Gardens may still be seen today in Chester. Many sections of the walls show the original Roman stonework and there is an extensive collection of Roman artifacts in the Grosvenor Museum. They also left relics such as the altar of Taranis. The collection of Roman artifacts in the Grosvenor Museum contains a large number of tombstones which had been re-used to repair the City Walls during later Roman Chester: which raises still unanswered questions about why the views of their ancestors monuments changed for the people of that time. Some remains at the Amphitheatre may point to the establishment of an early regious community at Chester.

The Romans are in part responsible for The Rows Chester's famous double-layer shops. As the Roman buildings fell into decay they left mounds of rubble separated by the streets. When new construction started along the streets, the land at the back of the houses was higher than the street, so a two level architecture was developed.

The Roman Empire fell after 300 years, and the Legions left Chester forever. But they had left an important legacy, both written language and the Christian church were left behind by the Romans. The line of many of the roads and railways leading to Chester follows routes that were in use by Roman times (and may even have been used earlier). Some of these routings show the influence of the Geology of Chester.

Exploring the History

The Roman Festival Trail provides a "self-guided tour" of the Roman sites in Chester. There are no surviving Roman buildings above their foundations and while some parts of the City Walls have what may well be Roman stonework exposed most of the walls have been rebuilt over the years. The Grosvenor Museum has a notable collection of Roman remains. The densest collection of Roman remains outside of the museum is the Amphitheatre, the nearby Roman Gardens and the foundations of one of the corner towers. The other thing which should not be missed is the Minerva Shrine. Other Roman sites which lie a short journey from Chester are listed on the Roman Chester page.

Related Articles

The Minerva Shrine
  • Roman Chester: the footprint of the Roman city was smaller than that of the current City Walls;
  • Legio II: two different legions with the same number were involved in Roman Britain;
  • Legio XX: the 20th Legion. A look at its history and the various theories as to how it came to be named "Valeria Victrix";
  • Minerva Shrine: the only surviving rock-cut Roman shrine which is still in situ at its original location in the whole of western Europe;
  • Heronbridge: a Roman civilian settlement where slight remains of a Roman "port" have been excavated;
  • Amphitheatre: one of Chester's most spectacular remains, and possibly, the site of a shrine to early christian martyrs;
  • Grosvenor Museum: has an excellent collection of Roman artifacts, including a large collection of tombstones;
  • The Rows: these are laid out along the line of the Roman streets, and may originate from the collapse of Roman buildings leading to a difference in ground level;

Links and Sources

Post Roman and Saxon Period (c400-1066)

(see Dark Ages for more)

Before the Roman withdrawal Britannia had been converted to Christianity and produced the ascetic Pelagius. After the Roman legions departed, pagan tribes settled the southern parts of the island while western Britain, beyond the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, remained Christian. This native British Church developed in isolation from Rome under the influence of missionaries from Ireland and was centred on monasteries instead of bishoprics. Other distinguishing characteristics were its calculation of the date of Easter and the style of the tonsure haircut that clerics wore. Modern historians call this period the "Early Medieval", although the earlier term "Dark Ages" testifies to the lack of historical evidence as to what was happening.

Evidence for the survival of Christianity in Britain during this time includes the occurrence in place names of eccles, derived from the Latin ecclesia, meaning "church" (as in "Eccleston"), or in place names like "Christleton" (settlement of Christians). Some other place names are reference to Roman remains "street", "Stratford" and "Trafford" being a reference to still used, and still straight, Roman roads. There is no evidence that these native Christians tried to convert the Anglo-Saxons. Following the decline of Rome in the west, Chester was first part of the celtic region, then part of Mercia (Old English: Mierce, "border people") - one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, centred on the valley of the River Trent and its tributaries in the midlands. The Mercian kings seem to have been concerned with two things: dynastic murder and war with the Welsh.

Wat's Dyke and Offa's Dyke

The Romano-British established a number of petty kingdoms in its place. Chester is thought to have been part of Powys at this time. The legendary King Arthur is said to have fought his ninth battle at the city of the legions whereas in fact (after St Augustine came to the city to try and unite the church and hold his synod with the Welsh Bishops), in 616, Æthelfrith of Northumbria defeated a Welsh army at the Battle of Chester (probably at Heronbridge) and possibly established the Anglo-Saxon position in the area from then on.

Refortification (c800-900)

(see: Farndon and Battle of Brunanburh for more)

According to Bradshaw in the late 7th century, Saint Werburgh (died 699) founded a religious institution on the present site of St Johns Church which later became the first cathedral. He is probably wrong: she is unlikely to have ever visited the city (while alive). However, there may be more truth in the story that her body was removed from Hanbury in Staffordshire in the 9th century and, in order to save its desecration by Danish marauders, she was reburied in the Abbey of SS Peter & Paul in Chester (the present Cathedral). Her name is still remembered in St Werburgh's Street which passes alongside the Cathedral, and near to the City Walls. The Mercians, are believed to have built Wat's Dyke and Offa's Dyke to protect their western borders, and Chester. It is mentioned by the monk Asser in his biography of Alfred the Great: "a certain vigorous king called Offa ... had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea". The dyke has not been dated by archaeological methods, but most historians find no reason to doubt Asser's attribution. Offa was an actual King of Mercia from 757 until his death in July 796, but debate still rages in some circles as to whether the association between Offa and the dyke is as simple as some suggest.

Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred - rebuilt the City Walls.

With the death of Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric of Wessex the focus of power shifted to the House of Wessex. Under Egbert, Wessex rose to become the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, overthrowing the supremacy of Mercia. Ecgberht of Wessex briefly captured Chester in 828. The Saxons extended and strengthened the walls of Chester to protect the city against the Vikings, who occupied it for a short time until Alfred the Great (c894) seized all the cattle and laid waste the surrounding land to drive them out. In fact it was Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd Lady of the Mercians who built the new Saxon 'burh', to protect the Mercian flank and rear while she and her brother, Edgar the Elder (who died at Farndon near Chester), and later Æþelstān campaigned against the Danes on the North Sea coast (917-927). The Anglo-Saxons called Chester Ceaster or Legeceaster. Chester may have had some influence in broader politics through Plegmund who is said to have lived at Chester and later became Archbishop of Canterbury.

Sometime shortly after 900 Chester was the site of an almost farcical seige in which, if legend is to be believed, the inhabitants defended the city with boiling beer and bees. In 937, at the Battle of Brunanburh (possibly just north of Chester) Æþelstān and his half-brother Edmund subjected the combined armies of Olaf III Guthfrithson (Viking King of Dublin), Constantine (King of Scotland) and Owian (King of Strathclyde) to a crushing defeat. The Mercian and West Saxon army attacked in two divisions: Mercians faced the Scandinavians, and the Saxons headed off against the Scots. The precise location of the battle has never been established, but some evidence points to Bromborough on the Wirral, a few miles north of Chester.

From c.890, Chester was the most likely site of a mint which is known to have been operated in north-west Mercia. Under Æthelflæd, the coins minted were of a distinctive north-western design, but they reverted to more standard types under Edward the Elder (899–924). Under Edward's son, Æþelstān (924-939), a distinctive type was again issued: these did not feature the head of the "foreign" West Saxon king. It is also probable hat the mint was involved in trade that passed along the Irish Sea routes; in accordance with Hiberno-Norse prejudices it entirely eschewed portrait heads in, and even after the recoining of 973. Examples from the last years of Edgar’s reign of Chester coins lacking a portrait head are to be found exclusively in hoards from Ireland, Scotland, and Man, and perhaps represent a concession to the special requirements of the city’s trade with the Norsemen, exempting it from conformity with the new portrait issue.

King Edgar At Chester (973)

(see: Edgar's Field for more)

A fanciful depiction of Edgar as cox on the Dee - Chester did not have a castle and walls (including the Watertower - built in 1323) like this at the time, and Edgar is heading in the wrong direction

In 973, two years after his coronation at Bath, King Edgar came to Chester, where he held his court in a palace in a place now known as Edgar's Field near the Old Dee Bridge in Handbridge. Taking the helm of a barge, he was rowed the short distance up the River Dee from Edgar’s Field to St Johns by six tributary kings called "reguli" (the monk Henry Bradshaw records he was rowed by eight kings). The kings' names are given as Kynath, King of Scots; James, King of Galloway; Maccon, King of Man, Malcolm and Inkil, Kings of Cumberland; Sifreth and Hywal, Kings of North Wales; and Dufnal, King of South Wales. The kings then swore fealty and allegiance to him at a service at the church, and then rowed him back to the palace. The event was recorded by Ranulph Higden, a monk of St. Werburgh's Abbey in Chester in his famous Polychronicon:

  • "The cyte of legyons that is Chestre in the marches of Englonde towarde Wales betwegne two armes of the see that bee named Dee and Mersey Thys cyte in tyme of Britons was hede and chyefe cyte of all Venedocia that is North Wales This cyte in brytyshe speche bete Carthleon Chestre in Englyshe and Cyte of Legyons also For there laye a wyn ter the legyons that Julius Cezar sent for to wyne Monde And after Claudius Cezar sent legyons out of the cyte for to wynn the islands that be called Orcades Thys cyte hath plente of lyveland of corn of fleshe and specyally of samon Thys cyte receyveth grate marchandyse and sendeth out also Northubres destroyed this cyte sometyne but Elfreda lady of Mercia bylded it agayn and made it mouch more In thys cyte ben ways under erth with vowtes and stone worke wonderfully iwrought three chamberd werkes grete stones igrave with old mennes names there in Thys is that cyte that Ethelfreda king of Northumberlonde destroyed and sloughe there fast by nygh two thousonde monkes of the myn ster of Bangor Thys is the cyte that Kyng Edgar cam to some tyme with seven kyngs that were subject to hym"

It is also mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

  • "In this year Prince Edgar was consecrated king on Whit Sunday at Bath, in the thirteenth year after his accession when he was twenty nine years old. Soon after this, the king led all his fleet to Chester, and there six kings came to him, to make their submission, and pledged themselves to be his fellow workers, by sea and land."
The Countess of Chester ensuring that history remembers her visit to Coventry.

Leofric and Godiva

From the 990s the family of Leofwine of Mercia settled in Chester and helped to ensure the city's survival as a major provincial centre. The family of Leofwine (known as the "House of Leofric") were to acquire immense wealth and power, and effectively create the "Earldom" of Chester that survived as an institution separate from the monarchy into the time of Edward I, and the death of the last non-royal earl in 1237. Leofwine's son Leofric (married to the famous Godiva) was known as the "earl of Chester" (or "count of Chester"). According to some sources, Leofric (Leof=dear (love), ric=ruler (reich)) was the third son of Leofwine, but as both his elder brothers were killed in battle Leofric succeeded his father. Leofric used a double-headed eagle as his personal emblem, and this has been adopted by various units of the British Army as a symbol for Mercia.

By 1066 Chester was a prosperous town with a population of perhaps 2,500-3,000. Rendering a farm of £45 and three timber of marten pelts (i.e. 120 skins), together with an additional payment from the moneyers, it was assessed as a half hundred including the adjacent townships of Handbridge, Newton by Chester, 'Lee' (Overleigh and Netherleigh), and 'Redcliff', expressly said to be 'outside the city' but taxed with it. The city had its own laws and customs, administered by its hundredal court, over which presided 12 judges or doomsmen (iudices civitatis) drawn from the men of king, earl, and bishop, and liable to fines payable to the king and earl for failure to attend. The judges have been regarded as evidence of Scandinavian influence on the city's institutions and equated with the 'lawmen' (lagemen or iudices) of certain boroughs in the Danelaw. There is, however, no indication that they enjoyed the same status as the lawmen, who had extensive properties and judicial privileges. Indeed the laws of Chester, which were recorded in Domesday Book in exceptional detail, suggest that, as in other western towns dominated by a great local magnate, the status of its citizens was comparatively low. They were obliged to pay 10s. on taking up land in the city, and were also liable to heavy fines for failure to pay gavel or rent and for other misdemeanours. The tension between the local "magnate" and the "Corporation" continued for many years.

Harold dies - or does he? - a Chester legend has it that he later lived in the Hermitage near St John's Church. It has never been quite clear whether Harold is the one with the arrow in his eye or the one getting slashed in the groin by cavalry.

Harold

Leofrics Mercian House was the only real rival to Wessex. Leofric's outlawed son, Ælfgar (who had a bit of a "history" with Harold), raided Mercia with help from the Welsh and particularly the Welsh king Gruffyd ap Llywelyn. In retaliation Harold and his - soon to be treacherous - brother Tostig subjugated Wales in 1063. Leofric's grand-daughter, Ealdgyth married firstly the Welsh prince Gruffyd (also known as "King Of The Britons" - killed 1063), and secondly in spring 1066 to Harold Godwinson (of Battle of Hastings fame).

Chester was the last city to fall after the Norman Conquest, Ealdgyth having fled there after Hastings. A local legend holds that Harold did not die at Hastings but to survived to become a hermit in Chester living in the Hermitage. Even the death of the hermit does not end the tale - as Harold is said to haunt the environs to this day. Some tennants left the property after unaccountable slamming of doors (but they were French). Chester is noted for its "hauntings" - see: The Mystery Tour for a list.

Exploring the History

The clearest relic of Dark Age Chester is the layout of the City Walls, which follow the lines laid out during the refortification around the year 900. However they have been much restored and rebuilt over the years. The eastern entrance of the Amphitheatre may have been adapted into a shrine at that time. It is possible to visit the probable site of the Battle of Chester, although there is comparatively little to see. The shrine of Werburgh in the Cathedral echoes events in the Dark Ages, but is of a later date. Plegmunds well is associated with the archbishop of the same name, but the structure to be seen there is again from much later.

Related Articles

  • Dark Ages: a general look at this period of history;
  • Battle of Chester: where as it fought, by who, and why - the historical writers on the battle perhaps illustrate how the way history is related can be influenced by current issues;
  • Plegmund: King Alfred's archbishop is believed to have lived near Chester and may have had a significant effect on the history of the area, as well as being involved in a very macabre trial;
  • Farndon: did Æþelstān kill to be king?
  • Battle of Brunanburh: was it fought near Chester?
  • Edgar's Field: Edgar's famous cruise on the River Dee at Chester - what did it achieve?;
  • Hermitage: a look at the local legend that has Harold surviving Hastings and living on in Chester;
  • Ælfgar: Chester at the end of the Dark Ages
  • Olaf II: Norwegian king to whom a Chester church was dedicated - saint or psychopath?;

sources and links

Middle Ages

(see Chester Castle and The Earls of Chester for more detail)

The Norman Earls

After the 1066 Norman invasion and the harrying of the north, the Normans took Chester, destroying 200 houses in the city. Hugh of Avranches, effectively the first Norman earl (it was first given to Gherbod the Fleming, who returned to Flanders where he was captured, and probably later died) built a motte and bailey near the river. It is now known as Chester Castle. The Norman Earls of Chester Hugh of Avranches, Richard of Avranches, Ranulf de Meschines, Ranulph De Gernon, Hugh de Kevelioc, Ranulf de Blondeville and John Canmore span the period from the Norman Conquest of 1066 to the first parliament under Henry III (1 October 1207 – 16 November 1272), and were often second only to the king (or queen) in power and influence. Chester was at this time the center of a "Palatine" earldom, which meant that the earl was largely free to decide on any legal matter save treason. Chester had its own parliament, consisting of barons of the county, and was not represented in the parliament of England until 1543.

Gruffydd ap Cynan escapes after 11 years in Chester

The Earls of Chester were indeed a law unto themselves. In many ways Cheshire stood apart from England. Although the importance of the county’s absence from the Pipe Rolls has been minimized by some scholars, that absence reflects a considerable degree of independence. The king's writ did not run to Cheshire. The chief administrative official, the justice of Chester, was at times neither appointed by the king nor responsible to him. The king derived no benefit from scutages or tallages levied in the county. Royal justices did not visit it; fines and amercements levied there did not reach the king. Only with the Henrician reforms of the 1530s and 1540s, was Cheshire subjected to English justices of the peace (1536), national taxation (1540), and Parliamentary representation (1543). Palatine practices remained in place because they were grounded in a pair of county specific institutions: the county court (presided over by the justice and roughly equivalent to the Queen's Bench) and the Exchequer of Chester (supervised by the chamberlain and roughly equivalent to the Chancery Division), both of which continued in one form or another until 1830. The apartness should be obvious to any visitor: dominating the Cheshire plain from its perch atop a steep bluff, Beeston Castle guards the southern and eastern approaches to Chester, "all too obviously defending the county from England rather than Wales".

They kept vast hunting forests - Hugh of Avranches was said to have 'preferred falconers and huntsmen to the cultivators of the soil', and Ranulf de Meschines converted the Wirral farmlands into another hunting forest. Before Ranulph, Hugo's son, Richard of Avranches, had inherited at the age of seven but died in the White Ship (the "Norman Titanic"), along with the king's heir, William, on his way to England from France, where he was educated under the guardianship of Henry I (it may even have been murder!). Ranulph De Gernon, Ranulf de Meschines's son, helped to capture King Stephen in 1140, changed sides several times in the war for the Crown and ended up controlling a third of England after supporting Henry II's claim to the throne. Then he was probably poisoned.

Other earls were Hugh de Kevelioc, Ranulf de Blondeville and John Canmore. The earls are remembered with their shields on the Queen's Park Suspension Bridge over the River Dee (except that they are not quite correctly labelled). With the death of the last Norman Earl the earldom was retained by the Crown and has since become a secondary title of the Prince of Wales - it was far too powerful an earldom to let exist outside of royal control.

The first earl endowed a great Benedictine monastery dedicated to Saint Werburgh in 1092 on the site of a church of c 660 dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, which relocated to a site by the High Cross. The monastery was dissolved under Henry VIII in 1540 and was rededicated to Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary to become Chester Cathedral - however most people still call the Cathedral "Saint Werburgh's". Previously, the first Chester Minster or Cathedral had become plain St Johns Church after the see was transferred to Coventry in the early 12th century. St John's has been falling down for centuries and has some spectacular ruins, a Victorian exterior and a Norman interior.

Map of the world from Rannulf Higden's Polychronicon, written in Chester. Britain is the red blob at the bottom left (east is at the top).

Chester was once a major port. Originally the port was located to the north of the Watergate just below the city wall. There is a popular belief that it was the silting of the River Dee that created the land which is now Chester's racecourse (known as the Roodee). Here the base of a stone cross still stands which is said to have been erected in memory of Lady Trawst, who died as a result of an image of the Virgin Mary called "Holy Rood" falling upon her in Hawarden church a few miles down the river. Parts of the Roodee were in existence as early as the 13th and 14th centuries. The silting which led to the Roodee's current form is seen on a sequence of post-medieval maps dating from the later 16th century. The 14th century port watch tower, now known as the Watertower, projects from the north-west corner of the City Walls and while this tower was originally built out into the river, it is now quite a way from the water. Despite stories to the contrary, the weir above the Old Dee Bridge was not built by the Romans but by Hugh of Avranches (Earl of Chester) between 1077 and 1101 to hold water for his river mills. The purpose of the weir on the river was to keep water levels high for these mills, one of which gave rise to the traditional song "Miller of Dee". It also (mostly) prevents the salty tidal waters from entering the Dee. Chester's port flourished under Norman rule. In around 1195 Lucian the Monk wrote 'ships from Aquitaine, Spain, Ireland and Germany unload their cargoes of wine and other merchandise'. In fact, wine was only imported through four other English ports.

Chester's Heyday - Invading Wales

Although the Crown's annexation of the Norman earldom of Chester in 1237 made no immediate impact upon the city's institutions, it brought it into direct contact with the king and royal officials for the first time since 1066. Henry III was anxious to be seen as the legitimate successor of the Norman earls, and especially of Ranulf de Blondeville. Royal confirmations of Ranulph's three Charters to the citizens, guaranteeing their liberties, free customs, and guild merchant, were issued in 1237 and 1239. Henry also took over the earls' charitable responsibilities within the city. In 1239, for example, he provided for three beds for the poor and infirm in St John's Hospital without the Northgate, as Ranulph had done. Trade attracted monks seeking alms, the Dominicans were established in Chester by 1237 or 1238 when the appearance of the Grey Friars alarmed their patron, Alexander Stavensby, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. So vehement was his reaction to the prospect of the two orders competing for alms that he has been thought responsible for establishing the Dominicans in Chester, although there is no definite evidence and it is equally possible that they came there under the patronage of Ranulph III, earl of Chester. Other sources suggest there is evidence that Henry III founded the friary and that it was under royal patronage. Eventually, the broad strip of land to the west of the Roman city was to become "monastic land" remembered today in the street-names "Blackfriars", "Whitefriars" and "Nuns Road".

The late 13th and early 14th century probably saw the peak of Chester's prosperity in the Middle Ages. Though there was a corn market in Eastgate Street by the 1270s, and though some corn was undoubtedly grown in the county and by the citizens themselves in the town fields, considerable quantities of wheat and barley were brought in from further afield, principally Ireland. The grain was not simply for home consumption: the city also acted as a center for distribution throughout it's region. Although trade with the native Welsh was suspended during Edward I's campaigns, such disruption was more than counterbalanced by the citizens' provisioning of the English armies. Edward I used Chester as his base for military campaigns against North Wales in 1277 and 1282, and hundreds of masons, carpenters and labourers employed to build the "Welsh" castles had their winter billet in Chester. Wealthy merchants could embark on a building boom with some of the country's most highly skilled craftsmen on hand. One such architect was Richard the Engineer. The Rows seem to have been largely in place by c1350. Trade rose to a peak during the campaign of 1282-3, when foodstuffs, including peas, beans, wine, salmon, cheese, and salted meat as well as corn, flowed through Chester in quantities which far exceeded those from any other province apart from Ponthieu. With the establishment of peace Chester resumed its wider distributive role. The extremely high tax income of the Dee Mills throughout the 13th and earlier 14th century perhaps reflected toll income resulting from Chester's role as an entry-port for wheat, oats, barley, and malt. During the 13th century, Chester was famous for its fur and leather trade and even by the mid-16th century the port was importing large numbers of pelts and skins. In 1543 one ship alone brought in '1600 shhep fells, 68 dere, 69 fawne skins and 6300 broke (badger skins)'.

Thomas of Woodstock - the Justicar of Chester fell out with the "Prince of Chester" and was strangled by the "Cheshire Guard"

In the reign of Edward II (the first English Prince of Wales and the first "Royal" earl), tolls (when they were first recorded in detail) were levied on the goods of 'foreign' merchants as they entered and left the Chester, the citizens themselves being exempt. At the Eastgate, the principal entry for land borne traffic and the only gate at which tolls could be paid in cash, there was a tariff for wool, salt, coal, timber, 'long boards', bark for tanning, turf, knives, cups, dishes, and tankards. Merchandise produced within Cheshire, including corn, malt, lead, iron, steel, and livestock, was exempt. At the Northgate the sergeant took toll on a wide variety of sea fish and shellfish, ale, fruit, sheep, timber, shingles, coal, firewood, and turf. At the Bridgegate tolls were taken on cattle brought in from Wales, fish and shellfish of various kinds, barley, hops, nuts, firewood, turf, coal, timber, shingles, laths, bark for tanning, knives, cups, and dishes. Levies were presumably also made at the two adjacent gates, the Shipgate and the Horsegate, for which the sergeant of the Bridgegate was also responsible. Edward II supposedly suffered a horrible fate involving a red-hot poker, although there are some indications that a conspiracy based in Chester may have secured his escape.

In 1361 the citizens of Chester claimed that they lived by trade. In the later Middle Ages, however, the port suffered from facing west, away from the Continent, and also perhaps from the silting of the Dee estuary, as was frequently alleged. Ships with a deep draught, or simply very heavy cargoes, such as wine and millstones, unloaded at anchorages in Wirral, and goods were transferred to smaller craft or carts, but the city's own harbour at Portpool handled fish, Welsh slates, woollen cloth, hardware, and malt, and at high tide the smallest vessels could reach the New Tower (Watertower) at the north-western corner of the city walls. However, the estuary was silting up so that trading ships to the port of Chester had to harbour at Neston, Heswall, Croyton and regularly at Redcliffe 16 miles downstream.

The traditional independence that Chester had under the earls was confirmed by a charter of Richard II in 1398 stating that "the said county of Chester shall be the principality of Chester" (with Richard as Prince protected by the "Cheshire Guard" - who seem like a bunch of thugs). It was not to last - in 1399, while Richard II is away on a military campaign in Ireland, Henry Bollingbroke, later Henry IV, landed in Britain after exile and took Chester without a fight. Henry captured Richard II who was briefly imprisoned at Chester Castle.

Exploring the History

The principal relics of Medieval Chester are St Johns, the Cathedral and some parts of Chester Castle. Parts of the Old Dee Bridge may also date from this period. Many of the city churches were established by this time, but all have been extensively rebuilt over the years. Outside of Chester the local geography was one cause for the establishment of a line of Cheshire Castles more or less along the River Dee. Most of the Norman castles are now little more than mounds and ditches, but the spectacular Edwardian castles of North Wales are much better preserved. Some of the present form of the The Rows of Chester may date from this period, including several surviving "undercrofts" - vaulted stone "cellars" that are still in use as retail premises.

Related Articles

  • Earls of Chester: William I created the "Honor of Chester" from the landed estates of dozens of pre-Conquest owners. This concentration of ownership within a single county was unique in Domesday's time and the only other lords which came close were Roger of Montgomery (Shropshire) and Williams half-brother Robert of Mortain (Cornwall);
  • Suspension Bridge: The 1923 bridge is adorned with the arms of the Earls, one slight problem being that there is a disagreement between the arms allocated on the bridge and those given elsewhere with two coats being interchanged and one wrong as well;
  • Chester Castle: one of the few castles in England or Wales that has been in constant use since first erected;
  • Cheshire Castles: Norman castles were built on dry ground which generally lay on the English side of the border partly defined by the River Dee;
  • Courts: one peculiar characteristic of Chester was its largely independent courts system;
  • St Johns: contains the best and most coherent Norman architecture in Chester;

sources and links

Tudor and Stuart

Richard II - King of England and Prince of Chester, before being deposed, imprisoned in Chester Castle (with tales of a huge hidden treasure possibly hidden at Beeston).

For the casual visitor Chester seems to possess a well-preserved Tudor town center. However, while "The Rows" have structure which dates from the middle-ages, the superficial, "black-and-white" Tudor facades mostly date from around 1900. There are some "real" Tudor buildings, but not as many as one might think.

The Wars of the Roses

In 1403, Sir Henry Percy ('Hotspur'), lately justice of Chester, stayed in the city and raised the standard of revolt there, where former kings men and veterans of the Cheshire Guard, the household guard of the the deceased & dethroned ‘Good King Richard’, King Richard II, still resided by the hundreds.. Percy formed an alliance with the Welsh rebel, Owain Glyndŵr. Before they could join forces, Hotspur was defeated and killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury as he raised his visor to get some air (he was wearing full plate) and was hit in the mouth with an arrow. Legislation of 1403, vigorously supported by the mayor of Chester, denied any arms to the Welsh - except a knife to eat with. It is from this time that the Shoot the Welsh story comes from In the weeks following the Battle of Shrewsbury the insecurity of both the new dynasty and some of the city authorities (i.e. those who had been on the King's side at the battle) was demonstrated in the instructions issued by Prince Henry in response to further defections in north Wales. On September 4, 1403, he wrote to the Mayor, Sheriffs and Aldermen of the City of Chester, who were required to impose a curfew upon all Welshmen visiting Chester, and to ensure that they left their arms at the city gates and did not gather in groups of more than three; all Welsh residents were expelled and any who stayed overnight were threatened with execution. Apparently, the actual wording was that: "all manner of Welsh persons or Welsh sympathies should be expelled from the city; that no Welshman should enter the city before sunrise or tarry in it after sunset, under pain of decapitation.". A local story is that it is still legal to "shoot the Welsh" (it isn't!).

In 1455 Queen Margret may have visited Chester to gather support for the Royalist cause. It appears that Thomas Stanley, Constable & Justice of Chester, mobilized a large force from Cheshire to help the Lancastrian cause (but arrived too late for the Battle of St Albans to be of help). Richard, Duke of York became Earl of Chester in 1460 despite the fact that Edward of Westminster was still alive: "Also it was ordeyned by the sayde parlement, that the sayde Rychard duk of York shold be called Prince of Wales, duke of Cornewayle, and erle of Chestre; and [he] was made also by the sayde parlement protectoure of Englond.". Shortly thereafter Richard was killed at the Battle of Wakefield.

Richard III - died in battle (the last English monarch to do so) cursing the traitors from Cheshire who changed sides and ruined his chances of funding the discovery of America.

Although relations with the crown cooled and (not least from the election of a Welsh mayor) there seems to have been much sympathy with Wales in Chester. Prior to his return, the Stanleys had been communicating with the exiled Henry Tudor for some time and Tudor's strategy of landing in Wales and heading east into central England depended on the acquiescence of Sir William Stanley, as Chamberlain of Chester and north Wales, and by extension on that of Lord Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby himself. On hearing of the invasion, Richard III ordered the two Stanley's to raise the men of the region in readiness to oppose the invader. However, once it was clear that Tudor was marching unopposed through Wales, Richard ordered Lord Stanley to join him without delay. According to the Crowland Chronicle, Lord Stanley then excused himself on the grounds of illness, the 'sweating sickness'. The Stanley's did turn up for the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), but stood by waiting to see who was likely to win before pitching in - which was unfortunate for Richard III. The Stanley's are remembered in Chester by Stanley Palace.

The accession of Henry VII in 1485 may be taken as the end of the "Middle Ages".

Medieval Chester housed no industry of national importance and, as a west-facing port, was unable to participate in Continental trade to any significant extent. The city's economy was broadly based but its activities were small in scale and none, with the possible exception of Tanning dominated: with one of the wealthier merchants being Robert Brerewood. Although Chester did not share the spectacular success enjoyed by towns more closely associated with the wool and cloth trades, it was spared the consequences of the dramatic slumps in those industries. Even so, for much of the period the city was far from prosperous, and occasionally, as in the 1450s, in considerable decay. The period was marked by much feuding between city factions. Chester's economy grew steadily from 1550 to c. 1600, not least because in the early 1580s and later 1590s the passage of troops bound for Ireland created more demand for goods and services. Recovery from the plagues of 1603-5 was hampered by national economic difficulties and by recurrent, though limited, local epidemics, but from the mid 1620s prosperity returned. Throughout the 16th century Chester was still the largest port in north-west England, although it carried only a small proportion of the country's trade, ranking 12th in a list of 18 provincial ports in 1594-5. However Chester's ships were small and the port was unfavorably located for trading with England's main markets overseas (except Ireland). Silting of the Dee continued, and the increasingly bigger ships could not make it upriver to Chester and so the port continued it's long decline. In 1484 the citizens claimed that Chester had no merchant ship of its own and that the port was "wholly destroyed" because no merchant ship had been able to approach within 12 miles for 60 years. Only two years later (1486) the citizens claimed that the city was "thoroughly ruined .. nearly one quarter destroyed because access for shipping had been impossible for 200 years".

The end of the Middle Ages co-incides with several major social and economic events which were to have far-reaching consequences. The Americas were discovered and the use of gunpowder became wide-spread, changing the nature of war. Ships increased in size, draft and range. Vastly different cultures came into direct contact, enabling the rapid growth of empires and contributing to the re-emergence of significant slave economies. Movable type enabled the rapid production of books, pamphlets and other printed works which were eventually to contribute to the undermining of the power of the church and the Reformation.

Stanley Palace in 2014. The house has been extensively modified over the years with the north wing (the rightmost bay) having only been built in 1935. Stanley Palace was built in 1591 on the site of the former Black (Dominican) Friary as the town house for Sir Peter Warburton, a local lawyer and Member of Parliament.

The Reformation

Beyond the control of the crown, despite the King (or his son) being Earl of Chester, early Tudor Cheshire was a lawless gangland in which warring local magnates battled for power. There was apparently an enduring faction struggle in Tudor Cheshire between the various Brereton clans and the Dutton family. In 1538, Bishop Roland Lee (as Lord President of the Marches) complained to Thomas Cromwell that the Brereton-Dutton feud "was destroying all order in the county". The protagonists were then Sir William Brereton of Brereton, the deputy-chamberlain, and Sir Piers Dutton of Halton, but thirty years earlier Dutton had been quarrelling with Sir Randolph Brereton, a quarrel which had ranged behind the chamberlain the Savage family, Sir William Pole, Richard and William Bone and the abbot of St Werburgh's. William Brereton complained that Sir Piers Dutton was, in 1531, impeding his duties as steward of Halton. Brereton was the one who gave Urian the greyhound to Anne Boleyn, and named the dog after one of his brothers. Urian was the dog which escaped its keepers while the court was on progress and ripped out the throat of a cow grazing beside the road. Henry VIII's accounts record compensating the owner of the cow. As Brereton stood in the way of Cromwell's plan to gain control of the Palatinate, he would have to go, and Cromwell soon found a pretext to have him executed.

Detail from a sketch by William Smith showing the City Walls from the Northgate down to the Watertower and St John's Hospital. Such preparatory works were used to prepare the 1588 Smith Map of Chester.

The Reformation (alternatively named the Protestant Reformation or the European Reformation) was a movement within Western Christianity in the sixteenth-century Europe that posed a religious and political challenge to the Roman Catholic Church and papal authority in particular. The separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII, beginning in 1529 and completed in 1537 brought England alongside this broad Reformation movement. Between 1535 and 1540, under Thomas Cromwell, the policy known as the Dissolution of the Monasteries was put into effect. The veneration of some saints, certain pilgrimages and some pilgrim shrines were also attacked. Huge amounts of church land and property passed into the hands of the Crown and ultimately into those of the nobility and gentry. The vested interest thus created made for a powerful force in support of the dissolution. Henry inherited a vast fortune and a prosperous economy from his father Henry VII, who had been frugal and careful with money. By comparison, the reign of Henry was a near-disaster in financial terms. Although he further augmented his royal treasury through the seizure of church lands, Henry's heavy spending and long periods of mismanagement damaged the economy. In Cheshire there was some transfer of monastic property to the gentry, but the gentry also held much land by ancient claims which dated back to the Norman Earls of Chester and their Barons. Relics of the monastic establishments of Chester can be found in some street-names: Blackfriars, Greyfriars and Whitefriars as well as Nuns Road and Abbey Street.

By the reign of Elizabeth, Chester had lost much of its independence: only the Palatine Courts were left. Cheshire accounted to the Crown, had justices of the peace, was part of the assize system and elected M.P.s like any other county. The change had not been unheralded; ever since the Crown annexed the earldom in 1237, the integration of the palatinate with the nation had been under way. But it was the sixteenth century which saw the decisive conclusion, after which the men of the county, or at least the elite, accepted that they were part of the English political nation.

Street Theatre

Elizabethan intrigue possibly touched Chester in the form of the Queen Dido pageant, and there may be links between Shakespeare and Chester. Some of the Shakespeare links might be of interest to conspiracy theorists, as he could have been influenced by the Mystery Plays, appears to have had a connection with Chester Booksellers and Clockmakers and it has even been suggested that the actual author of the plays of Shakespeare lived in Chester.

The Chester Mystery Plays were a casualty of the religious and political turmoil following the Reformation. As the hold of Puritanism on Chester grew tighter the Midsummer Watch Parade followed the same fate. In the early-seventeenth century the shows were reformed by mayor Henry Hardware (1599-1600) who: "caused the giants which used to go at midsummer to be broken. ... The dragon and naked boys he suffered not to go in midsummer show nor the devil for the Butchers, but a boy to ride as other Companyes".

Exploring the History

Debate has often raged as to whether the Chester Mystery Plays should be "modernised" to make them more relevant to a current audience, especially as regards their language, which can be impenetrable to some. Seen in a historical context they offer an insight onto the beliefs and political issues of their times, when many would have watched the entire cycle and not just an isolated play. Other survivals from Tudor and Stuart Chester include some early buildings: Stanley Palace being the best known, but there are others listed in the gallery below.

Related Pages

  • Stanley Palace: often said to be haunted, the house only has a loose association with the Stanley's who famously "chose sides" at the battle of Bosworth where Richard III died and the Middle Ages ended;
  • Shakespeare and Chester: no end of alternative authors have been propsed for the works of "William Shakespeare", including William Stanley who has associations with Chester;
  • Queen Dido: another "political play" with a surprising connection to the Minerva Shrine;
  • Chamber's Book of days: a collection of Chester folk-customs and some elaboration on what Chambers wrote;
  • Chester Mystery Plays: a discussion of why the guilds performed the plays they did, and how they came to end;
  • Elen of the Hosts: just picking a few lines out of the Mystery Plays illustrates the rich political and religous context, both in legend and reality;
  • Midsummer Watch Parade: Chester's parade was nationally known as a pageant, and has been re-created for modern times;
  • Minstrel Court: where prostitutes and musicians paid their annual dues;

Sources and Links

Explore Elizabethan Chester

Explore Queen Elizabeth I's Chester as it was in 1581 (without the plague, fear of robbery or having a building fall on you) "mouse-over" on the Braun and Hogenberg map below will reveal various locations. Clicking on a location will reveal more detail.

The Portpool, Chester's PortThe WatertowerBonewaldesthorne's TowerGoblin TowerMorgan's MountNorthgatePhoenix TowerAbbey GatewayEastgateWolfgate and NewgateBarnaby's TowerBridgegateShipgateWatergateSt BridgetSt JohnsSt MartinSt Mary on the HillSt PeterSt ThomasSt OlaveSt MichaelHoly Trinity (Guildhall)Market SquarePepper StreetNorthgate StreetEastgate StreetWatergate StreetChester CastleOld Dee BridgeWhitefriarsGreyfriars HouseCross on the RoodeeStanley PalaceChester CathedralHigh Cross
"Clickable" version of the 1651 Braun and Hogenberg map of Chester.

17th Century

The Civil War

(see Civil War for more detail)

Charles at the Phoenix Tower, having just seen his army pluck defeat from the jaws of victory in one of the major battles of the Civil War.

In 1610, with the confirmation of Prince Henry as Wales and Earl, Chester looked forward to the "return" of a prince and earl it had not really known since the visit of young Prince Arthur in 1499 (see: Cowper). Since 1506 the City of Chester had been a county in its own right, effectively ruled by a Corporation which had the right to hold courts and to control trade, buildings and social conditions. From well before the death of Henry VIII in 1547, the nearest thing to an effective Earl was the Chamberlain, based in the Castle precincts in the very center of the City, but not on City land, but there were prolonged disputes over jusidiction with the Corporation. These conditions created a complex interplay between the City of Chester and the County of Cheshire as a whole. The institutions of the wider Palatinate were based at Chester Castle, but the markets of the City served as the mercantile center of the entire county. Those who made money by trade in and through the City invested it in land in the countryside while rural men fought for civic positions. It was not to be. The "coming man" did not come to Chester for a triumph in his honour: as discussed in Chamber's Book of days. At the age of 18, the man who had been prepared for rulership all his life was taken ill after a swim in the Thames near his home at Richmond. His symptoms suggest he had water-borne typhoid fever, from which he died. Charles eventually inherited the throne 13 years later, having had little of the preparation Henry had for the role. The development of the Chester Militia echoes the emergence of the professional army as a distinct political unit which could defy both Crown and parliament.

In September 1642, tension between King Charles I and Parliament was growing and civil war looked a possibility. Charles visited Chester and ensured a pro-royalist mayor was elected; William Ince. The cause of peace was not helped by the activities of staunch Puritan Calvin Bruen in Chester. In March 1643, leading Chester royalist Sir Francis Gamull was commissioned to raise a regiment of foot soldiers to defend the city. And an experienced soldier by the name of Colonel Robert Ellis was asked to construct outer defences to the city. A series of earthworks were constructed around the city from Boughton through Hoole and Newton to the Water Tower. The earthworks consisted of a ditch and mud wall with a series of 'mounts' or gun platforms were added along with turnpike gates on incoming roads. Parliamentary forces began to lay siege to the city of Chester: their commander was Sir William Brereton who had "something of a history" with Gamull. In the early morning of 20 September 1645, parliamentary forces overran the eastern earthworks at the Boughton turnpike and captured the east suburbs of the city up to the walls. They began to construct cannon batteries in range of the city. A cannon battery placed in St Johns churchyard breached the city walls on 22 September near the Roman Gardens. A hole some 25 feet wide was made with 32 cannon shots. An attempt had been made to storm the city, but this was repelled. According to an account at the time by Lord Byron, the breach was stopped up with woolpacks and feather beds from all parts of the town. The Civil War saw old rivalries between neighbours and even differences within families erupt into violent conflict.

The tower of St Johns, used as a gun-platform in the Civil War collapsed on Good Friday, 1881.

On the evening of 23 September 1645, King Charles I entered the City of Chester with 600 men via the Old Dee Bridge. He stayed the night at Sir Francis Gamull's house on Bridge Street (still there, and now a bar). Also during the evening, Sydenham Poyntz, a Parliamentarian in pursuit of the King's forces, entered Whitchurch, 15 miles to the south, with 3,000 horses. A battle looked likely. Later on in the evening, the King became aware of Poyntz's movements as a messenger was intercepted at Holt. A decision was made to send out Lord Gerrard's horse troops and 500 foot soldiers in the morning. On the morning of 24 September 1645, the Battle of Rowton Moor started two miles to the south-east of the city on the modern A41 road. As the battle went on into the afternoon, the fighting reached the suburbs, it was watched by King Charles I and Sir Francis Gamull from Chester's Phoenix Tower (now also called King Charles' Tower) on the city walls. The king quickly withdrew to the Cathedral tower, but even this was not safe, as the captain standing next to him was shot in the head by musket fire from the victorious Parliamentarians who took residence in the St Johns Church tower. The battle cost the lives of 600 Royalists and an unknown number of Parliamentarians. Among the Royalist dead was Lord Bernard Stuart (1622-1645) Earl of Lichfield, the king's cousin. His portrait is displayed in the National Gallery. Also slain at the same time was William Lawes (1602–1645), a noted English composer and musician. He was buried in Chester Cathedral without a memorial. He was remembered by the king as the 'Father of Musick' and his portrait as a cavalier hangs in the Faculty of Music at Oxford. Today, there is a small memorial to the battle in the village of Rowton. It consists of a brief history and a battle plan of the field at the time.

The next day, the king slipped out of Chester and crossed the Old Dee Bridge en route to Denbigh. He left instructions for the city to hold out for ten days more. By 1646, after having refused to surrender nine times and with Lord Byron at the head of the city's defences, having only spring water and boiled wheat for lunch — the citizens (17,000) had already eaten their dogs — a treaty was signed. The mills and the waterworks lay in ruins and not one house from the Eastgate to the middle of Watergate Street had escaped bombardment. The exultant Puritan forces let loose on the city, despite the treaty, and destroyed religious icons including the High Cross, which was not erected again for over three centuries. In 1646, King Charles I was proclaimed a traitor beside it's base. Worse was to come; the starving citizens then bore the full brunt of the plague, with 2,099 people dead between summer 1647 and the following spring. Most of Chester was rebuilt after the Civil War.

The losers in the Civil War paid their dues and sank into long debates about ancestry. Sir Peter Leycester became involved in a years-long controversy with Sir Thomas Mainwaring as regards whether Earl of Chester Hugh de Kevelioc was the legitimate father of a daughter called Amicia.

Chester's port declined with most of the ships going from the colonies now going to Liverpool, although it was still the major port of passenger embarkation for Ireland until the early 1800s. A new port was established on the Wirral at Parkgate, but this also eventually fell out of use as silting of the River Dee continued.

Exploring the History

Gamul House was once home to the Mayor of Chester (Francis Gamull) and the place where Charles I slept before and after the Battle of Rowton Heath. Chester Cathedral was one of the places that Charles watched the battle from and where he was nearly killed by a sniper's bullet. Nowadays you can ascend the tower and look at the same view. The Phoenix Tower was another place from where Charles watched parts of the battle, the collapsed tower of St Johns Church was used by the besiegers as a gun platform and at the Roman Gardens a repaired wall breach which was the site of furious fighting can be seen. Morgan's Mount was a gun emplacement on the City Walls was also the site of furious fighting. Chester Castle was the site of the surrender of the city. The battlefields of Nantwich, Middlewich, Rowton Heath, and skirmish sites of Holt Bridge, Hoole and Delamere are all close by, as are the castles of Chirk and Beeston Castle.

Related Articles

  • Militia: the development of a professonal army led to what was in effect a military coup during the Civil war;
  • Bruen: Puritans in Chester and a small step on the road to Civil War;
  • Beeston Castle: changed hands in the Civil War after a daring assault;
  • Cowper: the Mayor of Chester and a mystery concerning "the other" Oliver Cromwell;
  • Brereton: Chester's MP and his role in the War;
  • Amicia: Chester gentry fight over ancestry;

sources and links

The Restoration (1660)

George Booth was nominated to the Barebones Parliament for Cheshire in 1653 and was elected MP for Cheshire in the First Protectorate Parliament in 1654 and in the Second Protectorate Parliament in 1656. In 1655 he was appointed military commissioner for Cheshire and treasurer at war. He was one of the excluded members who tried and failed to regain their seats in the restored Rump Parliament after the fall of Richard Cromwell in 1659. He had for some time been regarded by the Royalists as a well-wisher to their cause, and was described to the King in May 1659 (possibly by Roger Whitley) as:

  • "very considerable in his county, a Presbyterian in opinion, yet so moral a man ... I think Your Majesty may safely [rely] on him and his promises which are considerable and hearty".

The Booth Rising was arranged for 5 August 1659 in several districts, and Booth received a commission from Charles II to assume command of the revolutionary forces in Lancashire, Cheshire, and north Wales. Booth's Rising soon "failed", but can be seen as a key trigger for Monck's march on London and the Restoration of Charles II. It is often written-off as wholly unsuccessful, but the roles of Whitley and Booth in the Restoration are possibly underestimated. Amid modest jubilation the corporation sent a loyal address to the king in early May 1660. Soon afterwards the aldermen began to dismiss some of the main supporters of the previous regime, principally the Cromwellian alderman and city counsel Jonathan Ridge. Between then and the autumn three aldermen resigned, including the leading puritan Calvin Bruen.

During the Restoration period a deep fissure had emerged in Chester’s body politic. By the 1680s two distinct groups, led by local Tory and Whig gentry, had emerged, and the 1690s saw the antagonism between these groups reach new heights. Led by the Whig Roger Whitley and the Tory Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Bt, these rival groups engaged in an increasingly bitter conflict over the extent of popular participation in corporate government, a battle in which the allegiance of the freemen became the crucial factor. The freemen’s main concerns appear to have been the willingness of the two groups to preserve their rights and privileges and to mitigate the economic problems caused by the decline of Chester’s port. The popularity of Whitley and his followers among the freemen allowed the Whig interest to dominate the corporation in the early 1690s, but in 1696 Grosvenor and his allies captured the mayoralty and the following year had established a Tory dominance in the borough that was to remain in place throughout this period. During this time a winter social season developed for the gentry with a continual round of assemblies, card evenings and theatrical performances. The Groves and the city walls began to develop as a social promenade, or a place to walk off a hangover before resorting to the coffee-house.

Bridge House (1676-78) a well-proportioned Baroque Neo-classical mansion (the first in Chester), seen here in 2014: still a "grace and ornament to the city". The return of the king and his court from exile on the Continent led to the replacement of the Puritan severity of the Cromwellian style with a taste for magnificence and opulence, and to the introduction of Dutch and French artistic influences.

The late 16th and early 17th centuries witnessed a further building boom in the city. For a family to enjoy the new social life it had to have a large town-house. Large new houses were therefore built, and Row buildings were adapted. Medieval open halls were subdivided into chambers and large chimneys replaced the former open hearths. In some cases, lavishly decorated new chambers, like that in Bishop Lloyd's House, were created above the Row walkway. In other cases landed families began to demolish and rebuild their old town houses in the latest classical styles and sought to get rid of the Row, which was both unfashionable and lacked privacy. Thus, during the late 17th century and 18th centuries, some sections of the The Rows system (up to one third) were lost through enclosure or rebuilding. The manufacture of bricks was much improved, timber was becoming scarce and taller, deeper buildings with larger windows to provide more light demanded a stronger structure, and particularly one which would not flex causing glass windows to break. In many cases only the frontage of the building was replaced in brick, leaving the medieval timber-framed structure behind it. The local bricks, derived from the iron-rich local boulder clay were a deep red colour, and while early brickwork was often rendered, as bricks became more regular they were more often left exposed. Another influence on the contruction of bioldings was the city ordinance issued shortly after the 1666 Great Fire of London (in 1671) which required all new buildings in the main streets to have a roof of tile or slate rather tham inflamable thatch.

One of the most prolific officeholding families in Chester was that of Brerewood: Robert I was sheriff, Robert II mayor three times, his son John sheriff, and the latter's son, Robert III, recorder and alderman. Other members of the rags/riches/rags family included, a Professor of astronomy, a notable fraudster, and two brothers, one of whom married a 14-year old and inherited a vast fortune through her and the other who died impoverished. Their 250-year history illustrates how fortunes could be made and lost.

The Glorious Revolution (1688)

Charles II faced a political storm over who would become monarch upon his death. The normal choice would be James, Duke of York, the second surviving son of King Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria of France. Unfortunately, James's time in French exile had exposed him to the beliefs and ceremonies of Catholicism; he and his wife, Anne, became drawn to that faith, and around 1668 had become a convert. The prospect of a Catholic monarch was strongly opposed by the plot-steeped Anthony Ashley Cooper, 1st Earl of Shaftesbury.

In May 1682 Charles II fell ill and Shaftesbury's plots thickened. He convened a plot with Monmouth, Russell, Ford Grey, 3rd Baron Grey of Werke, and Sir Thomas Armstrong to determine what to do if the king died, but the king recovered. By mid-year the plotters were actively considering simultaneous rebellions in several parts of the country. Shaftesbury grew desperate. He arranged for the apparently charming but not too savvy Duke of Monmouth to tour Cheshire in the autumn of 1682. Monmouth was born in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the eldest illegitimate son of Charles II with his Welsh mistress Lucy Walter. It is clear that this tour of Cheshire had one purpose, to lay the ground for a "Cheshire Rising" similar to that of the early 1400's in favour of Richard II. After Charles II died in 1685 came the unsuccessful Monmouth Rebellion, an attempt to depose King James II and VII. It is perhaps unclear to what extent Chester plotters such as Roger Whitley were involved.

In August 1688 the government of James II removed the entire Tory Assembly in Chester, a political furore which drew in dissenting minister Matthew Henry of Trinity Street Chester. Various factions pressed for James' Protestant daughter Mary and her husband Prince William III of Orange to replace him in an essentially bloodless coup which became known as the Glorious Revolution. The "coup" can also be interpreted as a "successful" invasion of Britain by the Dutch.

Exploring the History

The architectural changes which occurred after the Restoration are clearly seen in Lower Bridge Street. By 1681 the Rows between the Falcon and Lady Mary Calveley's house had been enclosed. The house on the corner of St Olave Street has exposed structure which shows the development of the enclosure of The Rows. On the opposite side of the street the Bear and Billet is one of the last original half-timbered buildings (1664).

Related Pages

  • Roger Whitley: a noted diarist and serial plotter;
  • Brerewood: from before the Civil War until much later, the skinner to rich to skint story of a Chester dynasty;
  • Fiennes: a woman traveller visits Chester;

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Georgian (1714-1837) and Victorian (1638-1901) Eras

The Grosvenor Bridge (1827-1833) looking down a still River Dee.

The 18th century was characterised by numerous major wars, especially with France, with the growth and collapse of the First British Empire, and with the origins of the Second British Empire. By 1700 Chester was on the verge of losing its dominance as a regional economic hub, as nearby towns, especially the industrial and mill towns in south Lancashire and around Telford began to specialize in trade or manufacturing. The reopening of the Dee in 1737 did not halt Chester's decline as a port. In 1701 Chester shipowners had 25 vessels, and in the early 1710s the total tonnage, no more than 3,400, was less than half that owned at Liverpool. By the 1730s it had fallen to around 1,650 tons (a tenth of Liverpool's total) and in the late 1750s Chester's 1,000-1,400 tons was scarcely a twentieth of Liverpool's fleet. Efforts were made to improve the Dee by dredging a "new cut" in the estuary and cutting the canal, but the decline of traditional industry and trade continued. The owners of the River Dee Company were more interested in making quick money by reclaiming land than by maintaining the navigation.

The loss of the United States, at the time Britain's most populous colony, is seen by historians as the event defining the transition between the "first" and "second" empires, in which Britain shifted its attention away from the Americas to Asia, the Pacific and later Africa. With Chester's Port in decline it took little direct part in warfare although the Leadworks was to supply much shot for European wars after 1800.

Georgian Architecture

There is no mistaking Georgian architecture. Uniformity, symmetry and a careful attention to proportion both in the overall arrangement and in the detail characterised eighteenth century architecture. In Chester the most noted Georgian architect was Thomas Harrison. In the Georgian era, Chester became again a center of what passed for affluence, a town with elegant terraces where the landed aristocracy lived. This trend continued into the Industrial Revolution, when the city was populated with the upper classes fleeing to a safe distance from the industrial sprawls of Manchester and Liverpool. By the mid-C.18th, Chester was a busy coaching town. Elegant classical buildings replaced some of the medieval buildings on The Rows. The City Walls, no longer really needed to defend the citizens, (despite the scare of the Jacobite rebellion of 1745) were transformed into a promenade. The medieval gateways Northgate (1810), Bridgegate (1781), Watergate (1790) and Eastgate (1769) were demolished and replaced by ornamental arches. Behind this facade lurked the fact that Chester had little if anything to sustain its economy in the long-term. The traditional industries of lead, linen and leather were in a terminal decline. Tourism began to appear as a significant factor in the economy and the first guide Books on Chester appeared. Soon there was a growing category of writers on Chester.

  • "Thus this beautiful walk, the offspring of war, is now solely devoted to the purposes of pleasure, and salubrious enjoyment; and thus is evil sometimes the parent of good." (Cowdroy's Cheshire Directory, 1789.)

The Georgian architecture of Chester is often overlooked, or even covered by the Victorian nailing on of black and white "planks and boards" to create a Tudor theme - at times very crudely.

A panoramic view of Watergate Street showing typical Georgian architecture. Booth Mansion (1700) is left of center is actually pre-Georgian, being built during the reign of Queen Anne. Interestingly the rows have been retained, which may indicate that the Georgians had a different view of the past to those of the Restoration period, when much of the Rows were enclosed.

Politics

The influence of the medieval guilds and their Charters did not ebb as quickly as in other towns, due in part to their subvention by the Owen Jones charity. Their final decay came about in part because of restrictions on membership imposed in order to maximize existing members' benefits from the charity, but their authority was destroyed finally in 1825 when an unsuccessful case was brought against a tanner for trading when not a freeman. The Grosvenors of nearby Eaton Hall, who derived enormous wealth from landed property in Cheshire, Dorset (from 1822), North Wales and by developing the London residential suburbs of Belgravia, Mayfair and Pimlico on their Middlesex estate, returned at least one of the two Members of Parliament continuously from 1715 to 1874, and frequently both. While originally taking the Tory side, they changed to the Whig cause in 1806. The Grosvenors controlled the tenancies of numerous Chester properties and exerted great influence over the 24 incorporated trades (Guilds) and the self-electing corporation or assembly of 24 aldermen and 40 common councilmen, whose control of municipal affairs and offices was resented and had spawned an independence party. The leaders of the Independents within the city were successively a merchant, Ralph Eddowes, a gentleman, Roger Barnston of Forest House, Foregate Street, and a brewer, Alderman William Seller. Other prominent supporters included members of the Wrench family, owners of the Dee Mills. The Independents' political headquarters in Chester from 1784 were at the Royal Hotel in Eastgate Street, but they were forced from there in 1815 when Earl Grosvenor bought it (it is now the Grosvenor Hotel), and from 1818 used the Albion Hotel in Lower Bridge Street. Elections were riotous affairs. Hemingway, writing in 1826, reported:

  • "Of all the places in the kingdom which have heen contested during the late general Election, the city of Chestet has heen distinguished ahove most others for the virulence of party feeling, the acrimony of personal hostility, and the violence of popular outrage."

The system had become a grave scandal, and each recurring election day was a "demoralising orgie".

Sorting out the Dee

The gravestone of Thomas Gould, who fought his way through the Peninsular War with Wellington, was there at Waterloo at a critical moment and was buried in 1865 just outside of Chester Castle - his grave now sits in the middle of a traffic roundabout

Between 1732 and 1736, engineers from the Netherlands, paid for by local merchants and Chester Corporation, were employed in an attempt to improve navigation for shipping and reduce silting of the River Dee by narrowing the river and draining land. After four years' work, Sealand and Shotton were reclaimed from the estuary but the new narrow river was not a success. By 1840 Chester could no longer effectively compete with Liverpool as a port, although significant shipbuilding and rope-making continued at Chester. The use of larger ocean-going ships led to the diversion of the trade to the relatively young town of Liverpool and other locations on the River Mersey, which had long been rivals to Chester, such as Runcorn.

Eastgate Street circa 1892. Compare this illustration with the photograph below to get some idea of how much of the Tudor appearance of Chester was only added in or after the late 1890's.

The Industrial Revolution brought the Chester Canal and Boatyard (now part of the Shropshire Union Canal) to the city (which was dubbed "England's first unsuccessful canal", after its failure to bring significant heavy industry to Chester). The canal's history is fascinating. The "New Cut" briefly re-vitalised Chester as a Port, but in the 1770's a canal was needed to expand the Port's hinterland. Originally intended to go to Middlewich, this route was blocked by the Trent and Mersey Canal Company and the Chester Canal became an unsuccessf "dead-end" leading to Nantwich. In the 1790's, the proposed Ellesmere-Mersey canal was planned to link Shrewsbury with Liverpool; its route being down the Wirral to Chester, on to Wrexham and Ruabon and then on through Chirk towards Shrewsbury. The northern section of that canal joined the Chester Canal near its connection with the Riven Dee at Chester. Building Thomas Telford's 1000 foot long Pontcysyllte Aqueduct in 1805 almost ruined the Ellesmere Canal company leaving them with a 17-mile gap between Chester and Ruabon and no money. The Chester Canal was now brought back from dereliction as the central secion of the Ellesmere canal forming much of what was to become the Shropshire Union Canal. A Leadworks was established by the canal in 1799; its disused Shot Tower, which was used for making lead shot for the Napoleonic Wars, is the oldest remaining shot tower in the UK. A walk along Canalside reveals much industrial and social history. The canal also has its mysteries, such as that of Charles Moston.

Communication issues affected Chester. The Menai Straights Bridge opened in 1826. In 1830 the semaphore system between Liverpool and Holyhead through Hilbre Island could carry a message in 23 seconds. The Grosvenor Bridge was built between 1827-1833 in order to ease congestion on the Old Dee Bridge at Handbridge, which by the beginning of the 19th century was still the only crossing across the River Dee in Chester. It's arch, at 200 feet across and 60 feet high held the world record for thirty years. The railway brought two large central stations, only one of which (Chester Station) remains. Chester's fortunes were changing rapidly at the time. while the Grosvenor Bridge was completed in 1833 with space for ships to pass beneath, Robert Stephensons Dee Railway Bridge of 1846, which is a little way downstream of the Grosvenor Bridge is not nearly so high, showing how shipping had declined in importance.

Looking down Upper Bridge Street in 2015 with the High Cross in the foreground and Eastgate Street to the left. This wss the site of the headquarters of the garrison of Roman Chester. The building left of center is by Thomas Meakin Lockwood (1888) one of the architects who developed the "Chester Look". The High Cross was broken up at the end of the siege of Chester in the Civil War and some surviving parts only restored to its ancient original site at the intersection of the city's main streets in 1975, after an absence of some 329 years.

By the 1830's traditional manufacturing trades, including the making of clay-pipes, clocks and gloves were in serious decline, if not entirely extinct. Ship-building was entering a terminal phase and rope-making barely survived. Both of the two cotton mills had closed by the 1820's, so one of the leading industries of the Industrial Revolution had failed to establish itself in Chester. While in the 18thC. the City Fair's had been dominated by linen (the trade peaked in the 1760's), by 1830 the trade was dead. The reasons for the collapse of the linen trade center around the decline in the Chester/Dublin trade route, as its ends moved from Dublin to Belfast and Chester to Liverpool.

Thomas Baldwin's aerial view of Chester - the first ever image of the earth from the skies.

The plans for a Chester and Holyhead Railway were prepared and canvassed between 1838 and 1842, almost scuppered in 1843, and eventually given Royal Assent on 4 July 1844. The route chosen was George Stephenson's proposal through Chester, despite the complications this entailed through "gaps" which needed to be bridged at the Menai Straight and Conwy estuary. The resident engineer in Chester was William Moorsom. The project had significant political overtones. Ireland was then an integral part of Britain but suffering greatly from crop blight and the exactions of absentee landlords. Moreover, there was little coal to support industry. A glance at the 1872 OS Map shows that Chester has barely outgrown its City Walls by this time, but that the railways had definitely arrived. Some have gone so far as to claim that Chester can be regarded as a "railway town", but one in which the railway diversified and strengthened a faltering local economy rather than creating a town from scratch, as at Crewe.

Mock Tudor

"Victorian Architecture" comprised a series of architectural revival styles in the mid-to-late 19th century. The styles often included interpretations and eclectic revivals of historic styles. During the early 19th century, the romantic medieval Gothic Revival style was developed as a reaction to the simple symetry of Geogian architecture and of Neo-Palladianism.

The Victorians built Chester's Gothic Town Hall, which, along with the cathedral, dominates the city skyline. This was built after the original Exchange burnt down, and features a clock tower with only three faces, with the Welsh-facing side remaining blank. The reason for this was (supposedly) declared by the architects to be simply because "Chester won't give the Welsh the time of day". However, this did not stop the town hosting Wales's National Eisteddfod in 1866. In truth, the clock tower was a copy of one which only had three faces as well (and Chester Town Hall didn't get an actual clock until 1980). The Eastgate Clock (1866) was also built at this time, and is a central feature as it crosses Eastgate Street, and is part of the City Walls. The clock is very popular with tourists, and this has given it the grand title of the second most photographed clock in the UK (perhaps even the world) after Big Ben. In 1867, Chester Castle was the focus of an audacious plot by "Fenians" (supporters of Republicanism in Ireland) that ended in farce.

In 1887, John Bartholomew's Gazetteer of the British Isles described Chester like this:

Eastgate Street 2009 - note how the "Tudor" architecture has appeared since the Rayner watercolour.
  • "Chester.-- parl. and mun. bor., city, and co. in itself, locally in W. Cheshire, about 20 miles by the river from the Irish Sea, 16 miles S. of Liverpool. and 33 SW. of Manchester by rail -- parl. bor. (extending into Flintshire), 3289 ac., pop. 40,972; mun. bor., 2857 ac., pop. 36,794; 4 Banks, 6 newspapers. Market-day, Saturday; stands on a rocky height on right bank of river Dee, which is here crossed by a splendid stone bridge with a single span of 200 ft., the largest save one, it is believed, in Europe. C. is a great railway centre, and has one of the finest stations in the kingdom. It is connected with the Mersey by the Ellesmere Canal. As a port it has been injuriously affected by the silting up of the Dee, and its shipping trade is now inconsiderable. (For shipping statistics, see Appendix.) C. is a very ancient city; it was the Devana Castra of the Romans, and the Caerleon Vawr, or "City of the Great Legion," of the Cymri. It is the only city in England that still possesses its walls entire. C. was made the see of a bishop in 1541. The cathedral, a massive Gothic structure, is of great antiquity, as are also many of the churches. The city possesses several fine examples of the old timber houses of the 17th century. The castle was taken down towards the end of last century, and replaced by a barracks, a county jail, and assize courts. C. has mfrs. of boots and shoes for exportation and the wholesale home trade; furniture and upholstery; paint, shot, and lead pipes; it has also iron foundries and a shipbuilding yard. The principal exports are cheese, lead, copper-plates, cast-iron, and coal. The bor. returns 1 member to Parliament."

John Douglas was perhaps the most successful exponent of the vernacular revival in Chester. His work had a strong sense of craftsmanship and sensitivity to materials, exemplified by his best buildings in the city such as the east side of St. Werburgh Street (1895-9), Shoemakers' Row in Northgate Street (1899), and no. 38 Bridge Street. The work of Lockwood, a local man much patronized by the Grosvenors, was perhaps best exemplified at the High Cross. In 1888 he was responsible for one of the best known groups of Vernacular revival buildings in Chester, no. 1 Bridge Street, on the eastern corner of Eastgate Street and Bridge Street, and in 1892 he designed those on the opposite corner, between Bridge Street and Watergate Street, a more eclectic composition with renaissance and baroque elements in stone and brick interwoven with half-timbering. In the 1900's conversion of Chester's city center to "Mock Tudor" continued, as did controversy over the direction that some Architects had taken. The Brown's became a dominant political force in Chester. The two-member Parliamentary constituency of Chester, at first solidly Liberal and still much influenced by the Grosvenors, was riddled with bribery until events at the election of 1880 brought matters to a head under the 1883 Reform Act.

Exploring the History

Eastgate Street in Chester provides the best examples of the architecture of this period. Almost every building is in some "revival" style or another, often quite unrelated to that of the structures on either side. New methods of construction were developed in this era of prosperity, but ironically the post-Georgian architectural styles, as developed by such architects as Augustus Pugin, were typically retrospective. The effect works quite well, as the eye can dwell on the details of a specific building rather than grasping it in an instant and moving on. There are some buildings which have "planks and boards nailed crudely on", but the eye tends to skip past those. The history of the Industrial Revolution in Chester can be explored by a walk along Canalside, including a visit to the Canal and Boatyard or even a walk at Portpool.

Related Articles

  • Asylum: mental health in Chester;
  • Baldwin: the life and times of an early balloonist;
  • Grosvenors: a fascinating lot, well-known for being very wealthy and having a lot with their name attached (Park, Bridge, Road, Hotel, Shopping Arcade, Garden Center .. ). But there is a whole lot more, including the curious incident of the dog in the night time...
  • Time: Robert Lewis Jones and Railway Time;

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Chester in the 20th Century

In the early 20th Century the Grosvenors and other wealthy local families slowly lost their political grip on Chester. A similar weakening of the grip of the gentry happened across Cheshire for reasons including: parliamentary reforms eventually providing universal suffrage, the rise of a new and powerful class of industrialists (often from nonconformist backgrounds), the decline of agriculture in the face of cheaper imports, measures to tax income and in particular inheritance, and, social change, particularly after the Great War. A few of the gentry and aristocratic families survived with their estates intact. Some had financial interests other than agriculture, such as coal, canals or railways. Others, like the Dukes of Westminster, owned and developed valuable city centre sites. The branch of the Cholmondeleys from Vale Royal sought to regain theor fortunes in Africa and became involved in a major scandal.

The boundaries of Chester. The northern boundary is defined in part by the stream known as the Bishop's Ditch, Flookersbrook, Bache Brook and Finchett's Gutter. The shaded area shows where the River Dee estuary used to flood before the river was "tamed". Within this area, apart from the Leadworks there is no major industry to speak of.

The small size of a county borough such as Chester and the absence of significant (wealthy) patrons could lead to organizational inefficiency and a tendency to reactive, short-term decision making. The City sufferred a constant shortage of money during the first half of the 20th Century. This meant that there was little to be spent on preserving the City's past and parts of The Rows (especaiily in Watergate Street) fell into serious disrepair. Chester could perhaps have increased its revenues more if it had been able to extend its boundaries to include those areas of the surrounding rural districts, including Hoole, which had become suburbs and for which the county borough provided most of the services. They included both council and private estates, many of whose residents worked in Deeside or Ellesmere Port. Attempts at widening its boundaries, however, usually encountered strong opposition from Cheshire county council. In 1932 the City council planned a large extension into both Cheshire and Flintshire, but dropped the proposal when it became clear that a parliamentary Bill would be vigorously contested by Cheshire county council and that the government would not allow the borough to extend across the Welsh border. In 1936, however, the county agreed to surrender Blacon, the built-up part of Newton, and a part of Hoole which included the City Hospital (previously the Chester Union Workhouse) and Chester Station. It was not until 1954 that the rest of Hoole urban district was added to the City.

The city's existing reputation for neglecting or destroying its historic architecture was reinforced after 1918. Not only were Georgian buildings replaced, but genuine timber-framed houses were allowed to fall into disrepair. The council delayed, for example, over the restoration of Stanley Palace, purchased by the Archaeological Society but then sold to the earl of Derby, who presented it to the city in 1928. When work eventually began in 1932, it was greatly criticized as overzealous and undertaken at the behest of 'council reactionaries'. There were also allegations that Chester's "meagreness of civic pride" led it to neglect the walls, described as "squalid and depressing" and unfit to be open to the public (Ches. Observer, 5 Dec. 1925).

The taste for mock half-timbered buildings persisted in Chester well into the 1920s, even though they were going out of fashion in most other town centres. Not all Chester's buildings of that kind were of poor quality, notwithstanding the comments made in 1929 by the dean of Chester's son, Francis Bennett, who deplored the replacement of "decent, honest Georgian" by "wretched, ill-designed black and white". For example, the Manchester and District Bank (later Royal Bank of Scotland) at the corner of Foregate Street and Frodsham Street was built to a well detailed design of 1921 by Francis Jones. Nor did all new buildings in the centre conform to the black-and-white idiom. Several national chain stores built shops in their own house styles at the east end of the town centre, including the neo-Georgian Marks & Spencer, designed in 1932 by Norman Jones and Leonard Rigby of Manchester, and the cautiously Art Deco premises of Montague Burton, designed by Harry Wilson of Leeds in 1928, both in Foregate Street.

No-one knew for certain that Chester had an Amphitheatre until 1929, when a large curved wall appeared while an underground boiler room was being built onto the south side of Dee House, an eighteenth-century town house used as a convent school for girls. A local schoolmaster, W. J. Williams, was the first to recognise what this meant. Williams identified a stretch of masonry exposed in June 1929 as the outer wall of the amphitheatre. Controversial proposals had been put forward in 1926 by the City Corporation to straighten Newgate Street and Little St John Street between the City Walls and St Johns Church. Hostility to the scheme was increased by the discovery of the amphitheatre in 1929, when it was realised that the new road would cut directly across the centre of the monument. The City Improvement Committee delayed inviting tenders for the construction of the new road to allow the Chester Archaeological Society time to raise funds to cover the cost of diverting the road around the outside of the site, some £23,798. A special exhibition was held in 1932 at the Grosvenor Museum (which was then run by the Archaeological Society) to help raise money. The walls lining the proposed road had been built, cutting the site in two, and the New Gate through the Walls was under construction when the Ministry of Transport effectively blocked the scheme in 1933 by refusing loan sanction. This occurred as a result of extensive local and national protest at the imminent destruction of the amphitheatre; opponents of the scheme included the Prime Minister, Ramsay MacDonald. The Archaeological Society formed a Trust, which bought St John’s House, on the north-eastern corner of the monument. It seems unbelievable nowadays that the survival of a archaeological site of major importance was down to the local Archaeological Society collecting money.

What was once "Fleshmongers Lane" and now Newgate Street mostly went under a 1960's shopping center and a car park, leaving just a small remnant (photo 2015). During this phase of Chester's development there was much debate over the importance of preservation as opposed as opposed to modernisation. The result was an architectural hodge-podge of 60's "Brutalist", scraps of Georgian and unique (but often missed) features such as the "homage to electricity" found in this street.

The 20th Century saw considerable development in the City Center and massive out-growth inro the new suburbs. Some of the development has not stood the test of time well. The 1863 Market Hall was an airy building with a high (and waterproof!) glass roof supported on iron pillars and sheltering traditional "stalls". Unfortunately this was demolished in the 1960's to be replaced with the first version of "The Forum" - a particularly ugly shopping center with the new market hall tucked away at the back. The latest version of "The Forum" (1995) is barely better, and is itself planned for redevelopment. In 1966 Richard Crossman, minister of housing and local government, commissioned a pilot study of four towns of special historic importance, including Chester (the others were Bath, Chichester and York), to elicit what special problems such places faced in relation to their modern development. The study led to the formulation of a national policy on conservation which had extremely important consequences for many historic towns and cities. The report of Chester's consultant, Donald Insall, was a watershed in the history of conservation in the city. The content and status of his report, with the weight of central government behind it, changed the council's attitude. The crucial factor was the availability of central government funds for conservation.

Before the Ring-Road - a Pickford "Scammell" and a DeHavilland Comet negotiating the corner at the High Cross.

Exploring the History

The major 20th Century development in Chester may well be the development of Chester Zoo.

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sources and links

  • Creating the Chester Look - believed to be written by Phillip Jones, who is said to be the author of "Building Chester", reported to be a very informative book.
  • The Council's Chester Characterisation Study - a very interesting read on architecture and development issues in parts of the city;

Chester in the 21st Century

Chester in the 21st Century faces many of the challenges of other cities. The City Walls are a great tourist draw but are expensive to maintain and various parts seem continually closed for repair: such that on many occasions it is not possible to make a complete circuit. The Amphitheatre remains half-excavated and while conservation is now seen as important other remains of Roman Chester have been lost to development, particularly in the 1960's. Indecision surrounds the future of Chester Castle which has been closed to visitors except on certain days. Now a University Town, there is some tension between the needs of the students and those of the inhabitants and this has pushed up housing costs. The recession has seen the closure of many businesses or the conversion of local businesses into instances of national chains. Parking in Chester, can be a nightmare, particularly in residential areas just ouside the City centre which visitors treat like free car parks.

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