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 here View 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.

Introduction

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 a 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), Chester has seldom had any manufacturing industry of national importance, but was an important 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.

History

(see also The Chester Timeline)

General sources and links

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

(see Before The Romans for more)

Life in and around Chester did not start with the Romans. Poulton lies on the western bank of the 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-mmaking.

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.

Signs of Iron Age settlement (including post-holes near the Amphitheatre) have been found in Chester itself. 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.

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Roman Chester

(see Roman Chester for more)

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

Chester was the home of the Second Legion (Legio secunda Augusta) and then later the Twentieth Legion (Legio vigesima Valeria Victrix). Civilian settlements such as that at Heronbridge also developed outside the fortress walls. A recent 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.

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 300 years later, and the Legions left Chester forever.

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The Minerva Shrine

Links and Sources

Post Roman and Saxon Period

(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. 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") 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.

Refortification

Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred
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 probably established the Anglo-Saxon position in the area from then on.

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. 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, 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 the King of Mercia from 757 until his death in July 796.

With the death of Offa and Beorhtric 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. Egbert of Wessex captured Chester in 828. The Saxons extended and strengthened the walls of Chester to protect the city against the Norwegian Vikings, who occupied it for a short time until Alfred (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.

In 937, at "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

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.

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 cut down by cavalry.

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

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).

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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.

The Earls of Chester were indeed a law unto themselves. 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.

Gruffydd ap Cynan escapes after 11 years in Chester

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 1195 a monk, Lucian, 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

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.

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Tudor and Stuart times

(see Civil War for more detail)

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 facade mostly dates 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.

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 dominated. 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 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 Civil War

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 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. 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. 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 John's 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 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 and the late 16th and early 17th centuries witnessed a further building boom in the city. Large new houses were 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, many sections of the The Rows system were lost through enclosure or rebuilding.

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.

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Georgian and Victorian Eras

Politics

The influence of the medieval guilds and their Charters did not ebb as quickly as in other towns, due mainly 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

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 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.

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, Bridgegate, Watergate and Eastgate 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.

  • "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 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.

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.

Mock Tudor

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

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
  • "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.

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 parts seem continually closed for repair. 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. 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. Parking in Chester, can be a nightmare, particularly in residential areas.

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