Chamber's Book of days

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Chambers Book of Days is a much quoted work but is often problematic as a source because it does not give its own sources except in a few places. It is therefore difficult to determine whether the information given is reliable. One such section is that under December 24th for farm labourers. Chambers states that:

  • "From a contributor to Notes and Queries, we learn that on Christmas Eve, in the town of Chester and surrounding villages, numerous parties of singers parade the streets, and are hospitably entertained with meat and drink at the different houses where they call. The farmers of Cheshire pass rather an uncomfortable season at Christmas, seeing that they are obliged, for the most part, during this period, to dispense with the assistance of servants. According to an old custom in the county, the servants engage themselves to their employers from New-Year's Eve to Christmas Day, and then for six or seven days, they leave their masters to shift for themselves, while they (the servants) resort to the towns to spend their holidays. On the morning after Christmas Day hundreds of farm-servants (male and female) dressed in holiday attire, in which all the hues of the rainbow strive for the mastery, throng the streets of Chester, considerably to the benefit of the tavern-keepers and shop-keepers. Having just received their year's wages, extensive investments are made by them in smock frocks, cotton dresses, plush-waistcoats, and woolen shawls. Dancing is merrily carried on at various public-houses in the evening. In the whole of this custom, a more vivid realization is probably presented than in any other popular celebration at Christmas, of the precursor of these modern jovialities—the ancient Roman Saturnalia, in which the relations of master and servant were for a time reversed, and universal license prevailed."

However this annual influx of droves of farm-workers is not represented in the vast majority of other works. In many places in east Cheshire the hiring year was from October to October, and while Hole mentions hiring from January 2nd to the following Boxing Day, she does not give her source either - it may be Chambers. Counties for which data is available have types of agriculture which is quite different from that of Cheshire, and the records which are available show that yearly hiring may have been a relatively short a short-lived phenomenon which occurred at a time when farming was becoming intensified and labour was scarce due to migration to industrial districts.

The History of the Book

Robert Chambers, Scottish publisher, geologist, evolutionary thinker, author and journal editor.

Chambers Book of Days ("The Book of Days: A Miscellany of Popular Antiquities in Connection with the Calendar, Including Anecdote, Biography, & History, Curiosities of Literature and Oddities of Human Life and Character") was written by the Scottish author Robert Chambers and first published in 1864. The Book of Days was Robert Chambers' last publication, and perhaps his most elaborate. Like some current websites, it was a huge collection of short, purportedly factual pieces which today would generally be bracketed as "antiquarian trivia" (but very interesting trivia). The formula has been much repeated, especially in recent years. It is supposed that Chambers' excessive, even obsessive, labour in connection with this book hastened his death. It is a much quoted reference in many hundreds of other reference books. Unfortunately, some of the errors which he made, or copied from others, have been much propagated as a consequence. There is however much that is accurate, and illuminating, in Chambers' account.

Interesting trivia about Chambers himself abounds. Both Robert and his brother William were born with six fingers on each hand and six toes on each foot. Their parents attempted to correct this "abnormality" through operations, and while William's was successful Robert was left partially crippled. So while other boys roughed it outside, Robert was content to stay indoors and study his books. At the beginning of 1832, Robert's brother William started a weekly publication entitled Chambers's Edinburgh Journal, which soon gained a large circulation. Robert was at first only a contributor, but after 14 volumes had appeared, he became joint editor with his brother, and his collaboration contributed more perhaps than anything else to the success of the Journal. The two brothers eventually united as partners in the book publishing firm of W. & R. Chambers Publishers, which produced such well-known works as Chambers' Encyclopaedia.

There are sections in the "Book of Days" on Chester which elaborate many supposed facts on the city. Some these have a foundation in truth, but others contain errors or are much distorted. This article is a review of the contents (in bold text) with corrections as needed (given as bullet points). Of particular interest is Chambers' discussion of "Chester's Triumph in Honour of her Prince", which Chambers seems to consider is possibly the worst play ever performed in Chester, but which in fact is a far more complex work than he percieves it to be.

February 3rd - ST. WEREBURGE

Chambers' section on Werburgh is essentially free of errors and omits unlikely miracles. He does repeat the story of Werbode the "perverse heathen" who brought about the death of Werburgh's brothers. Adding some speculation this could be a vague reference to a situation where Werbode (if he even existed) saw an opportunity to become ruler himself, by disposing of the older heirs and marrying Weburgh (her surviving brother being too young to rule).

Werburgh in context

Wereburge was one of the earlier and more celebrated of the Anglo-Saxon saints, and was not only contemporary with the beginning of Christianity in Mercia, but was closely mixed up with the first movement for the establishment of nunneries in England. Her father, Wulfhere, king of the Mercians, though nominally a Christian, was not a zealous professor, but, under the influence of his queen, all his children were earnest and devout believers. These children were three princes, — Wulfhad, Rufinus, and Keured, — and one daughter, Wereburge. The princess displayed an extraordinary sanctity from her earliest years, and, though her great beauty drew round her many suitors, she declared her resolution to live a virgin consecrated to Christ. Among those who thus sought her in marriage was the son of the king of the West Saxons; but she incurred greater danger from a noble named Werbode, a favourite in her father's court, who was influenced, probably, by ambition as much as by love. At this time there are said to have been already five bishops' sees in Mereia, — Chester, Lichfield, Worcester, Lincoln, and Dorchester; and to that of Lichfield, which was nearest to the favourite residence of King Wulfhere, near Stone, in Staffordshire, St. Chad (Ceadda) had recently been appointed. It appears that Chad had an oratory in the solitude of the forest, where he spent much of his time; and that Wulfhere's two sons Wulfhad and Rufinus, while following their favourite diversion, discovered him there. The legend, which is not quite consistent, represents them as having been pagans down to that time, and as being converted by Chad's conversation.

According to legend Wulfhere had a fortified camp at "Wulferecester" (Bury Bank) near Stone. This kind of hill-fort dates to the Iron Age period, most having been constructed and occupied between the sixth century BC and the mid-first century AD - long before the actual time of Wulfhere.
  • Wulfhere (died 675 - for whom the primary source is the Venerable Bede - was King of Mercia from 658 until 675 AD. He was the first Christian king of all of Mercia, though it is not known for certain when or how he converted from Anglo-Saxon paganism. It is possible that he converted upon his marriage. His accession marked the end of Oswiu of Northumbria's overlordship of southern England, and Wulfhere extended his influence over much of that region. His campaigns against the West Saxons led to Mercian control of much of the Thames valley. He conquered the Isle of Wight and the Meon valley and gave them to King Æthelwealh of the South Saxons. He also had influence in Surrey, Essex, and Kent. He married Eormenhild, the daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent. No issue from this marriage are recorded in the earliest sources. Later sources record five possible children: Coenred, Berhtwald, Werburgh, Wulfad and Ruffin. Wulfhere brought bishop Wilfrid (c. 633 – 709 or 710), to Mercia. It is not clear where Wilfrid was bishop of. It is posssible that St Chad and Wilfrid were rivals at first for the see at York and then for the see at Lichfield.
  • St Chad of Mercia (died 2 March 672) was a prominent 7th century Anglo-Saxon churchman, who became abbot of several monasteries, Bishop of the Northumbrians and subsequently Bishop of the Mercians and Lindsey People. He was later canonised as a saint. He was the brother of Cedd, also a saint. He features strongly in the work of the Venerable Bede (who is the major source for his actual existence) and is credited, together with Cedd, with introducing Christianity to the Mercian kingdom. According to tradition, Wulfhad and Rufinus were led to Chad (and conversion) by a white hart. Tales of people being led to a religious location by a white hart (especially while hunting) are fairly commonplace and Chambers notes that the legend is inconsistent. A chapel of St Chad once existed in Chester.
  • Weburgh is first recorded as a daughter in a late 11th Century manuscript Liber Eliensis: "a history of the Isle of Ely from the seventh century to the twelfth". It was written to help buttress the claims of Ely to a judicial liberty, or the exercise of all the royal rights within a hundred. To do this, the Liber collected together earlier sources used to help the abbey evade episcopal control, prior to the abbey becoming a bishopric. These documents may have been forged or had their contents doctored to help the abbey's cause. Because of the tendentious nature of the collection, the work is used by historians with great caution.


Stained glass window from St Johns showing the founding of the Church (already built in stone) in 689. The "king" in the image is presumably Æthelred who was standing-in as ruler for Werburgh's under-age brother Coenred. One of the bishops may be intended to be Wilfrid. The woman on the right may be intended as Osthryth (died 697), queen of the Mercians, wife of King Æthelred and daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his second wife Eanflæd. She was murdered by the nobles of Mercia.

Werbode, also, is said to have been a perverse pagan, and, according to the legend, his influence lied led Wulfhere to apostatise from Christianity. The king approved of Werbode as a husband for Wereburge, but he was stoutly opposed by the queen and the two young princes; and the royal favourite, believing that the two latter were the main obstacles to his success, and having obtained information of their private visits to St. Chad, maligned them to their father, and obtained an order from King Wulfhere for putting them to death. This barbarous act was no sooner accomplished, than Werbode was poisoned by an evil spirit, and died raving mad; while King Wulfhere, overcome with deep repentance, returned to Christianity, and became renowned for his piety.

  • Werbode, together with Werburgh's two deceased brothers seem like almost unnecessary characters and there is little evidence that any of the three actually existed. Wulfhere was king for about 17 years and according to Bede was relatively young when he became king (658). Wulfhere's relationship with Bishop Wilfrid is recorded in Stephen of Ripon's Life of Wilfrid. During the years 667–69, while Wilfrid was at Ripon, Wulfhere frequently invited him to come to Mercia when there was need of the services of a bishop. This would be the very time of his supposed apostacy.

Werburgh becomes a nun

Wereburge now, with her father's consent, became a nun, and entered the monastery of Ely, which had been but recently founded, and which was then governed by her cousin Etheldrida. As a nun of Ely, Wereburge soon became celebrated for her piety, and, according to the legend, her sanctity was made manifest by numerous miracles. Ethelred, Wulfhere's brother, succeeded him on the throne of the Mercians in 675; and one of his first cares was to call his niece Wereburge from Ely, and entrust to her care the establishment of nunneries in Mercia. Within a very short time, assisted by his munificence, she founded religious houses for nuns at Trentham and Hanbury (near Tutbury), in Staffordshire, and at Wedon in Northampton-shire, of all which she was superior at the same time. She died at Trentham, on the 3rd of February, 699, having declared her will that her body should be buried at Hanbury; when the people of Trentham attempted to detain it by force, those of Hanbury were aided by a miracle in obtaining possession of it, and carried it for interment to their church. Years after-wards, when the Danes ravaged this part of the island, the body of St Wereburge was carried for safety from Hanbury to Chester, and deposited in the abbey church there (now the cathedral), of which she henceforth became the patroness.

  • Ely was founded about 672 and Werburgh seems to have risen from novice to a position of resposibility very quickly. There is nothing contentious about the dispute over her relics and their eventual translation to Chester when the Danes overwintered at Repton.

Bradshaws fire

Such is the history of St Wereburge as we gather it partly from tolerably authentic history, but more largely from the legend. The latter was set forth in English verse early in the sixteenth century, by a monk of Chester named Henry Bradshaw, whose book was printed in a black-letter volume, now very rare, by Pynson, in 1521. Bradshaw's verses are too chill to be worth quotation as specimens of old. English poetry, and the posthumous miracles he relates are certainly not worth repeating. There is one, however, which gives us such a curious picture of the proceedings of the citizens when a mediaeval town was on fire, and bears also such curious points of resemblance to the description of the confusion in London at the great fire of 1666, that, as shewing how little progress had been made during the period between the time of Henry Bradshaw and the reign of Charles II, we are tempted to give some verses from it. Some houses had accidentally taken fire while the inhabitants were at their devotions in the churches:

Chambers' "Book of days" presents an illustration of the High Cross which shows a structure far larger than what stands outside of St Peter's in Chester.
This fearefull fire encreased more and more,
Piteously wastyng hors, chambre, and hall.
The citizens were redy their cite to succour,
Shewed all their diligence and labour continuall;
Some cried for water, and some for hookes dyd call;
Some used other engins by crane and policy;
Some pulled downe howses afore the fire truly.
Other that were impotent mekely gan praye
Our blessed Lorde on them to have pit'e
Women and children cried, "Out and waile away!"
Beholdyng the daunger and perill of the cit'e.
Prestes made hast divine service to suppl'e [complete]
Redy for to succour their neyghbours in distree
(As charit'e required), and helpe their hevyues.
the fire contyuned without any cessynge,
fervently flaiuyng ever contynuall,
From place to place mervaylously rennyng [running],
As it were tynder consumyng toure and wall.
The citizens sadly laboured vaync all;
By the policie of man was founde no remedy
To cesse [stop] the fire so fervent and myghty.
Many riall [royal] places fell adowne that day,
Riche marchauntes hoses brought to distraction;
Churches and chapels went to great decay.
That tyme was burnt the more [greater] part of the towne;
And to this present day is a famous opinion
Howe a mighty churche, a mynstre of saynt Michaell,
That season was bruit and to ruyne fell.'

The citizens, finding themselves powerless to put out the fire, addressed their prayers to St Wereburge, and the monks then brought out her shrine, and carried it in procession through the flaming streets. This, it was believed, stopped the progress of the conflagration.

  • St Michael's minster in Chester was supposedly burned down in the great fire of 1180 and is mentioned by Lucian the Monk. Bradshaw was writing in about the year 1513 and in this passage is trying to demonstrate how Werburgh bring material salvation, the prevervation of goods as well as souls.


Chambers' Chester "Easter" does not restrict itself to the date given, but touches on a number of festivals and events through the year from Easter to Michaelmas.

The city

Most people are aware how much of a mediaeval character still pertains to the city of Chester, — how its gable-fronted houses, its 'Rows' (covered walks over the ground floors), and its castellated town walls, combine to give it an antique character wholly unique in England. It is also well known how, in the age succeeding the Conquest, this city was the seat of the despotic military government of Hugh d'Avranches, commonly called, from his savage character, Hugo Lupus, whose sword is still preserved in the British Museum.

  • "Gable-fronted" refers to the structure of the City center as a series of "burgage plots" along the main streets and particularly The Rows. Each property ("burgage tenement") usually consisted of a house on a long and narrow plot of land, with a narrow street frontage. The street frontage, with its opportunity for trade being the main determinant of the value of a property. During the 18thC, the half-timbered medieval buildings were mostly re-fronted in brick, cutting away the jettied storeys to give a flat facade, but leaving much of the original timber framing behind; often, but not always the row level was preserved. In the "Vernacular Revival" (after about 1860) the brick frontages were embellished with their "mock Tudor" appearance of the current day. Chester at the time of Chambers would not have had quite such a "medieval" appearance as it has today.
  • "Castellated" is generally taken to mean having towers and "battlements". Chester's City Walls have a few towers but are not generally "castellated" in the sense that they had "merlons" which provided protection for defenders while allowing them to shoot from the gaps between.
  • The city was indeed the seat of Hugh of Avranches. The sword does not appear to be on public display at the British Museum.


A wooden hand (not a glove) is shown hanging from the side of St Peter's at the High Cross in this engraving. The Pentice has gone, so this is after 1803. See: Gloverstone for more.

Chester was endowed by Hugo with two yearly fairs, at Midsummer and Michaelmas, on which occasions criminals had free shelter in it for a month, as indicated by a glove hung out at St. Peter's Church, — for gloves were a manufacture at Chester. It was on these occasions that the celebrated Chester mysteries, or scriptural plays, were performed.

  • There were fairs at Midsummer (which lasted a week) and Michaelmas (which was shorter). Their origins are uncertain: from an early period the monks of St. Werburgh's claimed that Earl Hugh (d. 1101) had granted them the right to hold a fair on the three days around the feast of St. Werburg's translation on 21 June. Almost certainly, however, the fair was reorganized in the 1120s by Ranulph I, who provided new regulations governing its hours of opening. The origins of the Michaelmas fair are even more obscure.
  • The reference to "criminals" may not be entirely accurate and may be a confusion. Earl Hugh established three "asyla" in Cheshire and the King's writ did not run to Cheshire, where the Earl enforced the law (save for treason). These asyla were at Hoole Heath near Chester, Overmarsh near Farndon and Rud Heath near Middlewich. These were places to which a felon from any place in England (or Wales) could flee and seek the protection of the Earl. A "glove" (actually a wooden hand) was hung from the end of St Peter's (see Gloverstone) during the time of the fairs. Crimes committed during the course of the fairs were not exempted.
  • The Chester Mystery Plays were at first performed at Corpus Christi which usually falls in June, but can be anywhere from 23rd May to 24th June, depending on the date of easter. Around 1521, they were moved to cover the three days of Whitsuntide, Whit Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. They were never performed at Michaelmas, which falls at the end of September;

The Roodee

Braun and Hogenberg's 1581 map shows a boundary-marker cross standing on what is still called the Roodee.

As the tourist walks from the Watergate along the ancient walls towards the Cathedral, he cannot fail to notice the beautiful meadow lying between him and the river; it is the Rood-eye, or as formerly written, the Roodee; the scene of the sports for which Chester was so long famous, eye being a term used for a waterside meadow; and the legend of the rood or cross was the following:--A cross was erected at Hawarden, by which a man was unfortunately killed; and in accordance with the superstition of those days, the cross was made to bear the blame of the accident, and was thrown into the river; for which sacrilegious act the men received the name of Hárden Jews. Floated down the stream, it was taken up at the Rood-eye, and became very celebrated for the number of miracles it wrought. Sad to relate, after the Reformation it again became the subject of scorn and contempt; for the master of the grammar-school converted it into a block on which to chastise his refractory pupils, and it was finally burnt, perhaps by the very scholars who had suffered on it.

  • Chambers' route from the Watergate to the Cathedral is a clue that he possibly had never visited Chester.
  • In the local legend it is not a man killed at Hawarden, but a woman: Lady Trawst, the wife of the Governor of Hawarden. Chambers appears to copy this error from Hanshall. According to one version of the legend, she had gone to church to pray for rain but when her prayers were answered by a tremendous thunderstorm the statue was loosened and fell, killing her.
  • Chambers then seems to mix up a couple of local legends, possibly also taken from Hanshall and William Cowper. One legend refers to the Holy Rood at St Johns, a silver-gilt crucifix supposedly containing wood from the True Cross. Its origins are uncertain. Some sources state it was brought from the East by Ranulf de Blondeville, who was on Crusade in 1219-20 (but only reached Egypt). On the other hand it may have been associated with the cult of King Harold (see:Hermitage), boosted in 1332 by the discovery within the church of his alleged remains, "still fragrant and clad in leather hose, golden spurs, and crown". Harold's links with the cult of the "Holy Rood" and in particular with the miracle-working crucifix of Waltham (Essex), perhaps suggested the introduction of an analogous devotion into Chester.


We need not wonder that in so ancient and thriving a city old customs and games were well kept up; and to begin with those of the great festival of Easter. Then might be seen the mayor and corporation, with the twenty guilds established in Chester, with their wardens at their heads, setting forth in all their pageantry to the Rood-eye to play at football. The mayor, with his mace, sword, and cap of maintenance, stood before the cross, whilst the guild of Shoe-makers, to whom the right had belonged from time immemorial, presented him with the ball of the value of "three and four pence or above", and all set to work right merrily. But, as too often falls out in this game, "greate strife did arise among the younge persons of the same cittie", and hence, in the time of Henry the Eighth, this piece of homage to the mayor was converted into a present from the shoemakers to the drapers of six gleaves or hand-darts of silver, to be given for the best foot-race; whilst the saddlers, who went in procession on horseback, attired in all their bravery, each carrying a spear with a wooden ball, decorated with flowers and arms, exchanged their offering for a silver bell, which should be a "rewarde for that horse which with speedy runninge should run before all others."

  • Chester did have a local variant of "mob football" which nowadays might be called "no-rules football". It has been described as follows: "upon Goteddsday (Shrove Tuesday) at the Crosse upon the Rood Dee, before the Mayor of the Cittie did offer unto the company of Drapers an homage, a ball of leather, called a footeball, of the value of 3s 4d, which was played for by the Shoemakers and Saddlers to bring it to the house of the Mayor or either of the Sherriffs. Much harm was done, some having their bodies bruised and crushed, some their armes, heads, legges".
  • In 1533, this unruly and dangerous football match was banned and similarly, the ancient practice of the Saddlers to present "a ball of wood painted with flowers to be fought for by the mob" was discontinued. It was replaced, by races which originally took place on Goteddsday (Shrove Tuesday) until 1609, and thereafter on St George's Day. The first recorded race was held on 9 February 1539 (although other sources list this as 10 January 1511): "In the tyme of Henry Gee, Mayre of the King's citie of Chester, in the XXXI yere of King Henry Theght, a bell of sylver, to the value of IIIs IIIId, is ordayned to be the reward of that horse which shall runne before all others". Victors were later, in 1610 and afterwards, awarded the "Chester Bells", a set of decorative bells for their horse's bridle, and from 1744 the "Grosvenor Gold Cup", a small drinking tumbler made from solid gold (later silver).


Peppergate in 2014, with base of the Roman Corner Tower on the right.

It would appear that the women were not banished from a share in the sports, but had their own football match in a quiet sort of way; for as the mayor's daughter was engaged with other maidens in the Pepper-gate at this game, her lover, knowing well that the father was too busy on the Rood-eye with the important part he had to play at these festivities, entered by the gate and carried off the fair girl,—nothing loth, we may suppose. The angry father, when he discovered the loss, ordered the Pepper-gate to be for ever closed, giving rise to the Chester proverb—' When the daughter is stolen, shut the Pepper-gate;' equivalent to our saying, "When the steed is stolen, shut the stable door."

  • There are many versions of this story about the Peppergate. According to a typical version: in 1573, Ellen, the daughter of Alderman Rauff Aldersey defied her father and eloped through the gate at night to marry a draper. Her father persuaded the city to lock the gate at night for many years, leading to the local expression ‘when the daughter is stolen, shut the Peppergate’ which is the local equivalent of ‘close the stable door after the horse has bolted’. The various versions name different parties involved over a period of several hundred years.


The good and healthful practice of archery was not forgotten at these Shrove Tuesday and Easter Monday meetings; the reward for the best shot was provided, not by the guilds, but by the bride-grooms. All those happy men who had not closed their first year of matrimonial bliss, if they had been married in the said city, were bound to deliver to the guild of drapers there before the mayor, an arrow of silver, instead of the ball of silk and velvet which had been the earlier offering, to be given as a prize for the exercise of the long-bow. In this the sheriffs had to take their part, for there was a custom, 'the memory of man now livinge not knowinge the original,' that on Black Monday (a term used for Easter Monday, owing, it is supposed, to the remarkably dark and in-clement weather which happened when Edward the Third lay with his army before Paris) the two sheriffs should shoot for a breakfast of calves' head and bacon. The drum sounded the proclamation through the city, and from the stalwart yeomen on the Rood-eye, the sheriffs each chose one, until they had got the number of twelve-score; the shooting began on one side and then on the other, until the winners were declared; they then walked first, holding their arrows in their hands, whilst the losers followed with their bows only, and marching to the Town Hall took their breakfast together in much loving jollity, 'it being a commendable exercise, a good recreation, and a lovinge assembly;' a remark of the old writer with which our readers will not disagree.

  • Initially those who had been married in the previous year offered a "homage" to the Drapers company. This was later changed to a silver arrow for which the town archers competed. The Saddlers gave a ball of silk which was fought over by the crowd into which it was thrown.
  • The Easter Monday contest and feast was a real event, but all the participants got to enjoy the breakfast of calves heads and bacon. It was instituted by the Sherrifs during the mayorality of Thomas Smith (1511-12). The reason for this is not known, although Dublin, which had close trade ties with Chester, held a muster on Black Monday. Chambers lifts most of his text from Daniel Lysons who mentions the feast in his "Magna Brittanica": "There is an anchant custome in this cittie of Chester the memory of now livinge not knowinge the original that upon Monday in Easter weeke yearely commonly called Black Mondaye the two sheriffes of the cittie shoote for a breakfaste of calves heades and bacon comonly called the sheriffes breakfaste the maner beinge thus the daye before the drum through the cittie with a proclamation for all gentelmen yeomen and fellowes that will come with their bowes and arrowes to take parte with one sherriff or the other and upon Monday morning on the Rode dee the mayor shreeves aldermen and any other gentelmen that wol be there the one sherife chosing one and the other sherife chosing another and soe of the archers then one sherife shoteth and the other sherife he shoteth to shode him beinge at length some twelve score soe all the archers on one fide to shote till it be shode and soe till three shutes be wonne and then all the winers fide goe up together firste with arrowes in their handes and all the loosers with bowes in their hands together to the common hall of the cittie where the mayor aldermen and gentlemen and the reste take parte together of the saide breakfaste in loveing manner this is yearly done it beinge a comendable exercise a good recreation and a lovinge assemblye".
  • Edward III did not encounter the Black Monday hailstorm in Paris but at Chartes in 1360. Lyson's gets this wrong (basing his story on How's Chronicle) and Chambers simply copies him. In a half-hour, the incitement and intense cold are said to have killed nearly 1,000 Englishmen and up to 6,000 horses. On 8 May 1360, three weeks later, the Treaty of Brétigny was signed, marking the end of the first phase of the Hundred Years' War.
A panoramic view of the Roodee from the belvedere containing the "binoculars" which give a view of the "Roman Harbour". The Roman Quay can be reached by going down the steps to the right. In Roman times the entire Roodee would be flooded at high tide.

But time, which changes all things, led the sheriffs in 1640 to offer a piece of plate to be run for instead of the calves' head breakfast; we may be sure there were some Puritans at work here, but with the Englishman's natural love of good fare, this resolution was rescinded in 1674, and it was decided that the breakfast was established by ancient usage, and could not be changed at the pleasure of the sheriffs; yet these great men were not easily persuaded, for we find that two years after they were fined ten pounds for not keeping the calves' head feast. When the last of these festivities came off; we know not: it is now kept as an annual dinner, but not on any fixed day. The shooting has, alas! disappeared; the care with which they trained their children in this vigorous exercise may be traced from a curious order we find in the common council book, that, 'For the avoiding of idleness, all children of six years old and upwards, shall, on week days, be set to school, or some virtuous labour, whereby they may hereafter get an honest living; and on Sundays and holy days they shall resort to their parish churches and there abide during the time of divine service, and in the afternoon all the said male children shall be exercised in shooting with bows and arrows, for pins and points only; and that their parents furnish them with bows and arrows, pins and points, for that purpose, according to the statute lately made for maintenance of shooting in long bows and artillery, being the ancient defence of the kingdom.'

  • Lysons adds that in 1640 the Sheriffs did indeed change to an item of "plate", but "In the year 1640 the sheriffs gave a piece of plate to be run for instead of the calves head breakfast In 1674 a resolution was entered in the corporation Journals that the calves head feast was held by ancient custom and usage and was not to be at the pleasure of the sheriffs and leave lookers In the month of March 1676-7 the sheriffs and leave lookers were fined £10 for not keeping the calves head feast The sheriffs of late years have given an annual dinner but not on any fixed day "
  • The Statute of Henry VIII of 1511-12 required that "All Men under the Age of Forty Years shall have Bows and Arrows, and use Shooting; certain Persons excepted".


If we walk through the streets of the city on this festive Easter Monday, we shall probably see a crowd of young and gay gallants carrying about a chair, lined with rich white silk, from which garlands of flowers and streamers of ribbon depend; as they meet each fair damsel, she is requested to seat herself in the chair, no opposition being allowed, nor may we suppose, in those times of free and easy manners, that any would he offered. The chair is then lifted as high as the young men can poise it in the air, and on its descent a kiss is demanded by each, and a fee must be also paid. It would seem that this custom called 'lifting' still prevails in the counties of Cheshire, Lancashire, Shropshire, and Warwickshire, but is confined to the streets; formerly they entered the houses, and made every inmate undergo the lifting. The late Mr. Lysons, keeper of the records of the Tower of London, gave an extract from one of the rolls in his custody to the Society of Antiquaries, which mentioned a payment to certain ladies and maids of honour for taking King Edward the First in his bed, and lifting him; so it appears that no rank was exempt. The sum the King paid was no trifle, being equal to about £400 in the present day. The women take their revenge on Easter Tuesday, and go about in the same manner: three times must the luckless Wight be elevated; his escape is in vain, if seen and pursued. Strange to say, the custom is one in memory of the Resurrection, a vulgar and childish absurdity into which so many of the Romish ceremonies denerated.

  • "Lifting" (or "Heaving") is a Cheshire custom recorded by Christina Hole, and also known elsewhere. While Chambers gives it a christian origin it is probably a pagan agricultural custom to encourage crops to grow. It took place on Easter Monday (women lifted) or Tuesday (men lifted). It was known at Barthomley, Neston, and at Heswall (in the 1880's). On March 26th 1771 the Adams Weekly Courant (in Chester) printed an infuriated letter requiring that the custom be put down by the magistrates. The writer asserted that a person coming to Chester on business might be hoisted into the air several times on one day and held to ransom before being let down. Evidently the practice degenerated into a way of making money by accosting tourists and was discontinued after cases were taken to the Magistrates courts. Coward reports a similar story in his Cheshire - Traditions and History. The earliest mention of it may go as far back as Edward I’s reign (1290) when seven of Queen Eleanor’s ladies invaded the king’s bedchamber, tossed him into a chair and didn’t set him down until he paid them a fine of fourteen pounds.

Pace Eggs

We may be sure that the Pace, Pask, or Easter eggs were not forgotten by the Chester children. Eggs were in such demand at that season that they always rose considerably in price; they were boiled very hard in water coloured with red, blue, or violet dyes, with inscriptions or landscapes traced upon them; these were offered as presents among the 'valentines' of the year, but more frequently played with by the boys as balls, for ball-playing on Easter Monday was universal in every rank. Even the clergy could not forego its delights, and made this game a part of their service. Bishops and deans took the ball into the church, and at the commencement of the anti-phone began to dance, throwing the ball to the choristers, who handed it to each other during the time of the dancing and antiphone. All then retired for refreshment: a gammon of bacon eaten in abhorrence of the Jews was a standard dish; with a tansy pudding, symbolical of the bitter herbs commanded at the paschal feast. An old verse commemorates these customs:

'At stool-ball, Lucia, let as play,
For sugar, cakes, or wine;
Or for a tansy let us pay,
The loss be thine or mine.
If thou, my dear, a winner be
At trundling of the ball,
The wager thou shalt have, and me,
And my misfortunes all.'
  • Pace eggs (pace is derived from Latin paschal) and the associated Pace Egg plays were once a widespread rural custom - although the actual term is only attested to from as early as early 18th cent Lancashire. In the play, the drama takes the form of mock combat between the hero and villain, in which the hero is killed and brought back to life, often by a "quack doctor". In some the plays the figure of St George smites all challengers, and the fool, "Toss Pot", rejoices. Traditionally, "Pace Eggs" were part of the Easter Sunday breakfast: eggs were wrapped in onionskins and carefully boiled (a practice that gave their shells an appearance of mottled gold) - gorse flowers also work. For the wealthy eggs could be coated with real gold - in 1290 Edward I had 450 eggs coated with gold leaf for Easter (at a total cost of 18 (old) pence), while a young Henry VIII recieved one in a silver case from the Vatican.
  • Chambers "gammon of bacon" seems to be a tradition he has made up, whereas the "bitter herbs" (replaced by the Tansey Pudding) are traditional in the Jewish Passover meal. However this somewhat obnoxious custom does seem to have taken place in Chester, or at least be recorded before Chambers (in 1826). In 1570, on the 15 January William Kethe (a minister) mentioned, somewhat mockingly, that the traditional Roman Catholic feast at Easter was bacon and eggs.
  • As for the Tansy, it is toxic in large enough doses and could have been taken (in carefully controlled moderation) as a purgative or to treat intestinal worms once believed to be caused by eating fish during Lent.
  • "Stoolball" (the quote is from Robert Herrick, writing about the year 1648, in his ‘Hesperides’) is an ancient game. There is a tradition that it was played by milkmaids who used their milking stools as a "wicket" and the bittle, or milk bowl as a bat. However in Shakespeare's "Two Noble Kinsmen" as a euphemism for sexual behaviour. In one version of the "Peppergate" story (from Crane, 1808), the mayor's daughter "had been playing stoolball with some maidens in Pepper Street".


The churches were adorned at this season like theatres, and crowds poured in to see the sepulchres which were erected, representing the whole scene of our Saviour's entombment. A general belief prevailed in those days that our Lord's second coming would be on Easter Eve; hence the sepulchres were watched through the night, until three in the morning, when two of the oldest monks would enter and take out a beautiful image of the Resurrection, which was elevated before the adoring worshippers during the singing of the anthem, 'Christus resurgens.' It was then carried to the high altar, and a procession being formed, a canopy of velvet was borne over it by ancient gentlemen: they proceeded round the exterior of the church by the light of torches, all singing, rejoicing, and praying, until coming again to the high altar it was there placed to remain until Ascension-day. In many places the monks personated all the characters connected with the event they celebrated, and thus rendered the scene still more theatrical.

  • In Chester the "Christus resurgens" (a mortuis) procession seems to either have been performed by nuns or (according to a stage direction in "Resurrection") incorporated in the Chester Mystery Plays.
Illustration fron the "Book of Days" is probably just a generic illustration.

Minstrel Court

Another peculiar ceremony belonging to Chester refers to the minstrels being obliged to appear yearly before the Lord of Dutton. In those days when the monasteries, convents, and castles were but dull abodes, the insecurity of the country and the badness of the roads making locomotion next to impossible, the minstrels were most accept-able company 'to drive dull care away,' and were equally welcomed by burgher and noble. They generally travelled in bands, sometimes as Saxon gleemen, sometimes having instrumentalists joined to the party, as a tabourer, a bagpiper, dancers, and jugglers. At every fair, feast, or wedding, the minstrels were sure to be; arrayed in the fanciful dress prevailing during the reigns of the earls Norman kings—mantles and tunics, the latter having tight sleeves to the wrist, but terminating in a long depending streamer which hung as low as the knees; a hood or flat sort of Scotch cap was the general head-dress, and the legs were enveloped in tight bandages, called chausses, with the most absurd peak-toed boots and shoes, some being intended to imitate a ram's horn or a scorpion's tail. In all the old books of household expenses, we meet with the largesses which were given to the minstrels, varying, of course, according to the riches and liberality of the donor: thus when the Queen of Edward I was confined of the first Prince of Wales in Carnarvon Castle, the sum of £10 was given to the minstrels (Welsh harpers, we may suppose them to have been) on the day of her churching. In another old record of the brotherhood feasts at Abingdon, we find them much more richly rewarded than the priests themselves; for whilst twelve of the latter got fourpence each for singing a dirge, twelve minstrels had two-and-threepence each, food for themselves and their horses, to make the guests merry: wise people were they, and knew the value of a good laugh during the process of digestion.

It was customary for the minstrels of certain districts to be under the protection of some noble lord, from whom they received a license at the holding of an annual court; thus the Earls of Lancaster had one at Tutbury, on the 16th of August, when a king of the minstrels and four stewards were chosen: any offenders against the rules of the society were tried, and all complaints brought before a regular jury. This jurisdiction belonged in Chester to the very ancient family of the Duttons, who took their name from a small township near Frodsham, which was purchased for a coat of mail and a charger, a palfrey and a sparrowhawk, by Hugh the grandson of Odard, son of Ivron, Viscount of Constantine, one of William the Conqueror's Norman knights. Nor did the Duttons soon lose the warlike character of their race, for we find them long after joining in any rebellion or foray that the licentious character of the times permitted.

  • More on the Dutton's can be found elsewhere on this site. "Ivron Viscount of Constantine" is presumably "Yvron of Cotentin", although little can be discovered of him outside of family history websites.

The Duttons

Harry Hotspur inveigled , the eleventh knight, to join him in his ill-fated expedition; happily, however, the king pardoned him. Much more unfortunate were they at Bloreheath; at that battle Sir Peter's grandson, Sir Thomas, was killed, with his brother and eldest son. The way in which they gained the jurisdiction over the Cheshire minstrels was characteristic. We have previously mentioned the extraordinary privilege granted of exemption from punishment during the Chester fairs, a privilege which could not fail in those days to draw together a large concourse of lawless and ruffianly people.

One of the carvings at the Town Hall showing buskers and beggars marching (thirty miles) to the aid of Ranulf de Blondeville against the Welsh.

During one of these fairs, Ranulph de Blundeville, Earl of Chester, was besieged in his Castle of Rhuddlan, by the yet unsubdued Welsh; when the news of this reached the ears of John Lacy, constable of Chester, he called together the minstrels who were present at the fair, and with their assistance collected a large number of disorderly people, armed but indifferently with whatever might be at hand, and sent them off under the command of Hugh Dutton, in the hope of effecting some relief for the Earl. When they arrived in sight of the castle their numbers had a highly imposing appearance; and the Welsh, taking them for the regular army, and not waiting to try their discipline, or discover their lack of arms, immediately raised the siege, and marched back to their own fastnesses, leaving the Earl full of gratitude to his deliverers; as a token of which, he gave to their captain jurisdiction over the minstrels for ever.

This, then, was the origin of the grand procession which took place yearly on St. John the Baptist's day, and was continued for centuries, being only laid aside in the year 1756. In the fine old Eastgate Street, the minstrels assembled, the lord of Dutton or his heir giving them the meeting.

The Inn from which the procession started is thought to have been in Northgate Street, possibly on the same site as the "Legs of Man" (i.e. Manx "legs"). The "Eagle and Child" legend is associated with Stanley Palace. Despite the name changes, the "Legs of Man" was well known to be a "house of ill repute" - Chester Chronicle's "Police Report" of Saturday 12th April 1851 told of the licencee of the Forester's Arms, "better known as the Man, in Shoemaker's Row", being charged with "harbouring females of bad character there on Saturday night last".

His banner or pennon waved from the window of the hostelry where he took up his abode, and where the court was to be held; a drummer being sent round the town to collect the people, and inform them at what time he would meet them. At eleven o'clock a procession was formed: a chosen number of their instrumentalists formed themselves into a band and walked first; two trumpeters in their gorgeous attire followed, blowing their martial strains; the remainder of the minstrels succeeded, white napkins hung across their shoulders, and the principal man carried their banner. After these came the higher ranks, the Lord of Dutton's steward bearing his token of office, a white wand; the tabarder, or herald, his short gown, from which he derived his name, being emblazoned with the Dutton arms; then the Lord of Dutton himself, the object of all this homage, accompanied by many of the gentry of the city and neighbourhood—and Cheshire can number more ancient families than any other county in England; of whom old Fuller tells us:

  • "They are remarkable on a fourfold account: their numerousness, not to be paralleled in England in the like extent of round; their antiquity, many of their ancestors being fixed here before the Norman conquest; their loyalty; and their hospitality.' Thus they moved forward to the church of St. John the Baptist, the which having entered, the musicians fell upon their knees, and played several pieces of sacred music in this reverent attitude; the canons and vicars choral then performed divine service, and a proclamation was made, 'God save the King, the Queen, the Prince, and all the Royal family; and the honourable Sir Peter Dutton, long may he live and support the honour of the minstrel court.' The procession returned as it came, and then entered upon the important business of satisfying the appetite with the fine rounds of beef, haunches of venison, and more delicate dishes of peacock, swan, and fowls; followed by those wondrous sweet compounds called `subtleties,' with stout, ale, hippocras, and wine, to make every heart cheerful. The minstrels did not forget to make their present of four flagons of wine, and a lance, as a token of fealty to their lord, with the sum of fourpence-halfpenny for the licence which he granted them, and in which they were commanded 'to behave themselves lively as a licensed minstrel of the court ought to do.' The jury were empannelled during the afternoon, to inquire if they knew of any treason against the King or the Earl of Chester, or if any minstrel were guilty of using his instrument without licence, or had in any way misdemeaned himself; the verdicts were pronounced, the oaths administered, and all separated, looking forward to their next merry meeting."


Henry Frederick, Earl of Chester - died of typhoid 1612. His death placed the future Charles I in line for the throne, otherwise he would have become Henry IX

Chambers' coverage of the Chester Mystery Plays is quite interesting. He touches briefly on the well-known plays but then turns to discuss in detail the much lesser known "Chester's Triumph in Honour of her Prince", which is possibly best described as a "unique work", beginning with an actor climbing the spire of St Peter and doing a handstand at the summit. This was played in 1610, in honour of Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales who was the eldest son of James VI and I, King of England and Scotland, and his wife Anne of Denmark.

Henry was not present for the performance - he was at his residence at Richmond on St Georges Day (23rd April) 1610 when the triumph was performed. On the 4th June 1610 Henry took part in a lavish ceremony which celebrated his coming of age and creation as Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. Precedents were remote. England had not witnessed the creation of a Prince of Wales since Henry VIII’s installation in 1504 – some 106 years earlier. Interestingly therefore, Henry was not formally the Prince of anything when the triumph was performed.

London had a similar pageant: London's Love to Prince Henry (31 May 1610), a pageant on the River Thames organised by the city of London for the investiture of Prince Henry. It was organised by the Lord Mayor of London, and written by Anthony Munday who subsequently published an account of the spectacle. On 5 June 1610 the aquatic theme continued with the court masque Tethys' Festival. The script of Tethys was written by Samuel Daniel at the request of the queen, who appeared in person as Tethys a goddess of the sea. Inigo Jones designed the staging and scenery.

At the age of 18 (6 November 1612), Henry predeceased his father when he died of typhoid fever, during the celebrations that led up to his sister Elizabeth's wedding. His younger brother Charles succeeded him as heir apparent (Charles I) to the English, Irish and Scottish thrones. Immediately after Henry's death, the prince's brother Charles fell ill, but he was still the chief mourner at the funeral, which his father, King James (who detested funerals) refused to attend. The funeral was held at Westminster Abbey on 7th December (parallel funerals were also held in Oxford, Cambridge and Bristol). Two thousand mourners attended in the procession accompanied by the music of fifes and drums and people of all ages lined the streets. Archbishop Abbott gave the funeral sermon. A magnificent hearse was erected on which was placed his richly clothed funeral effigy. The robes were those worn by the Prince at his creation as Princes of Wales and Earl of Chester in 1610 (these robes had been stolen as early as 1616 and the head had gone by 1872).

Henry's titles of Duke of Cornwall and Duke of Rothesay passed to Charles, who until then had lived in Henry's shadow. Four years later Charles, by then 16 years old, was created Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. Henry (IX) is the great "what-if" of British monarchs – highly intelligent and dynamic, an art collector to rival his brother had he lived, a zealot for sports and a natural leader: he had much stronger anti-catholic views than his younger brother. The Venetian ambassador wrote of him:

  • "His authority was great... His designs were vast; his temper was grave, severe, reserved, brief in speech. All the hopes of these kingdoms were built on his high qualities."

The title "Prince of Chester" was created by Richard II in 1398 when he errected Chester as a principality. In the process the Maelor Saesneg (the part of Maelor under the see of Lichfield and Chester) was merged with the County Palatine of Chester to form the Principality of Chester. Chester was reduced to an earldom again in 1399 by King Henry IV. Whereas the Sovereign's eldest son is born Duke of Cornwall, he must be made or created Earl of Chester (and Prince of Wales; see the Prince Henry's Charter Case (1611): 1 Bulst 133; 80 ER 827).

The Letters Patent of James I, creating his son Henry, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester (1610). The heraldic coats of arms which decorate the golden border represent the dignities and estates of the Prince in ascending order: the badge of the Earl of Chester, with its sheaves or Garb Or; that of the Duke of Cornwall, withits fifteen gold coins; and the feathered badge of the Prince of Wales.

The better-known plays

The mystery or miracle plays, of which we read so much in old chronicles, possess an interest in the present day, not only as affording details of the life and amusements of the people in the middle ages — of which we have no very clear record but in them and the illuminated MSS. — but also in helping us to trace the progress of the drama from a very early period to the time when it reached its meridian glory in our immortal Shakspeare. It is said that the first of these plays, one on the passion of our Lord, was written by Gregory of Nazianzen, and a German nun of the name of Roswitha, who lived in the tenth century, and wrote six Latin dramas on the stories of saints and martyrs. When they became more common, about the eleventh or twelfth century, we find that the monks were generally not only the authors, but the actors. In the dark ages, when the Bible was an interdicted book, these amusements were devised to instruct the people in the Old and New Testament narratives, and the lives of the saints; the former bearing the title of mysteries, the latter of miracle plays.

  • Gregory of Nazianzen (329 – 25 January 390) actually lived much earlier than Chambers implies. Hrotsvitha (c.935 – 973) was a German secular canoness, who wrote dramas and poems during the rule of the Ottonian dynasty and lived at Gandersheim Abbey. She is considered the first female writer from the German Lands, the first female historian and the first person since antiquity to write dramas in the Latin West. The name given to her means "mighty shout". Hrotsvitha's work was largely ignored until re-discovered and edited by Conrad Celtis in the 1600s. Neither of them can actually be said to be the origin of the Chester Mystery Plays.
  • The "interdiction" referred to is probably "De heretico comburendo" ("Regarding the burning of heretics", 2 Hen.4 c.15) a law passed by Parliament under King Henry IV (Henry Bolingbroke) in 1401, punishing heretics with burning at the stake. This law was one of the strictest religious censorship statutes ever enacted in England.

Their value was a much disputed point among churchmen: some of the older councils forbade them as a profane treatment of sacred subjects; Wickliffe and his followers were loud in condemnation; yet Luther gave them his sanction, saying, "Such spectacles often do more good, and produce more impression, than sermons". In Sweden and Denmark, the Lutheran ecclesiastics followed the example of their forefathers, and wrote and encouraged them to the end of the seventeenth century; it was about the middle of that century when they ceased in England. Relics of them may still be traced in the Cornish acting of "St George and the Dragon" and "Beelzebub".

  • There was never any general ban on the bible during the "middle ages". Production of Wycliffite Bibles would be officially banned in England at the Oxford Synod (1407) in the face of Lollard anticlerical sentiment, but the ban was not strictly enforced and since owning earlier copies was not illegal, books made after the ban were often simply inscribed with a date prior to 1409 to avoid seizure. John Wycliffe (c.1320s – 31 December 1384) does not actually condemn the (York) plays, but rather uses their existence as a justification for the translation of what is now known as "Wycliffe's Bible" (1382 to 1395) into English.
  • Chambers seems to be a little confused about traditional Mummers Plays and the Cornish Ordinalia. In Cheshire the mummers plays were typically performed at Halloween as "Soul caking". This involved groups of soulers visiting farmhouses performing a death and resurrection play. One of the members would wear a horse-skull without which the play could not be performed. The plays were presided by Beelzebub (the Devil) and if two Soulers' gangs met, they had to fight and smash the losers' horse skull. The Ordinalia are a series of three mystery plays dating to the late fourteenth century, written primarily in Middle Cornish, with stage directions in Latin. The three plays are Origo Mundi (The Origin of the World, also known as Ordinale de Origine Mundi, 2,846 lines), Passio Christi (The Passion of Christ, also known as Passio Domini Nostri Jhesu Christi, 3,242 lines) and Resurrexio Domini (The Resurrection of Our Lord also known as Ordinale de Ressurexione Domini, 2,646 lines).
The illustration from Chambers "Book of Days" is probably not Chester but Coventry, where similar "wagons" were used to those employed at Chester. The illustration, together with the wrong attribution has been re-used many times. This elaborate image, "Representation of a Pageant Vehicle at the time of Performance," was commissioned as the frontispiece to A Dissertation on the Pageants or Dramatic Mysteries Anciently Performed at Coventry by the Trading Companies of that City, (1825) by Thomas Sharp, (1770-1841). The image was designed and executed in copper engraving by David Gee (1793-1872). It recreates a 15th-century Passion play (The Trial and Crucifixion of Christ) by the Smiths' Company of Coventry.

They were usually performed in churches, but frequently in the open air, in cemeteries, market-places, and squares, being got up at a cost much exceeding the spectacles of the modern stage. We read of one at Palermo which cost 12,000 ducats for each performance, and comprised the entire story of the Bible, from the Creation to the Incarnation; another, of the Crucifixion, at the pretty little town of Aci Reale, attracted such crowds that all Sicily was said to congregate there. The stage was a lofty and large platform before the cathedral, whilst the senate-house served as a side scene, from which issued the various processions. The mixture of sacred and profane persons is really shocking: the Creator with His angels occupied the highest stage, of which there were three; the saints the next; the actors the lowest; on one side of this was the mouth of hell, a dark cavern, out of which came fire and smoke, and the cries of the lost; the buffoonery and coarse jests of the devils who issued from it formed the chief attraction to the crowd, and were considered the best part of the entertainment. Sometimes it was productive of real danger, setting fire to the whole stage, and producing the most tragic consequences; as at Florence, where numbers lost their lives. Some of the accounts of these stage properties, in Mr. Sharp's extracts, are amusing to read:

Item, payd for mendyng hell mought, 2d.
Item, payd for kepyng of fyer at hell mothe, 4d.
Payd for settyng the world of fyer, 5d.'

We seem to have borrowed our plays chiefly from the French; there is indeed a great similarity between them and the Chester plays; but the play of wit is greater in the former than the latter, each partaking of the character of the nation. At first they were written in Latin, when of course the acting was all that the people understood: that, however, was sufficient to excite them to great hilarity; afterwards they seem to have been composed for the neighbour-hood in which they were performed.

  • "Sharpe's extracts" is a reference to the Coventry plays. The last play occurred around nightfall. This was Doomsday, the end of the world, when all would be judged. In this there was a huge monstrous head with a massive gaping mouth from which bellowed smoke and flames. Occasionally the devil would leap out and grab someone and, amid the roars of the crowd, drag them screaming through the mouth and into hell. Doomsday ended spectacularly with a huge model of the world bursting into flames. Other expenses at Coventry included:
Paid for five sheepskins for god’s coat and for making . . . three shillings.
Paid for John Croo for mending of Herod’s head (vizored mask) and a mitre and other things . . . two shillings.
Paid to Wattis for dressing of the devil’s head . . . eight pence.
Paid for mending Pilate’s hat . . . four pence.
  • An antiquarian who came across the Chester Mystery Plays in 1609 prayed to God that "neither wee nor oure posterities after us maye nevar see the like abomination" again. For a while he got his wish, at least in part: until Dodsley, the manuscripts of early English drama circulated only amongst small circles of aristocrats and their librarians.
  • The Chester plays do seem to have some association with French plays, which can be dated back to the 10th century. As in Britain, liturgical dramas were eventually transferred from the monastery church to the chapter house or refectory hall and finally to the open air, and the vernacular was substituted for Latin.


We have no very authentic account of the year when the mysteries were first played at Chester; some fix it about 1268, which is perhaps too early. In a note to one of the proclamations, we are told that they were written by a monk of Chester Abbey, Randall Higgenett, and played in 1327, on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday in Whitsun week. They were always acted in the open air, and consisted of twenty-four parts, guilds of the city; the tanners beginning with each part or pageant being taken by one of the 'The Fall of Lucifer;' the drapers took the guilds of the city; the tanners beginning with 'The Fall of Lucipher;’ the drapers took the 'Creation;' the water-carriers of the Dee suit-ably enough acted 'The Flood,' and so on; the first nine being performed on Monday, the nine following on Tuesday, and the remaining seven on Wednesday.

  • Ranulf Higden (c. 1280 – 12 March 1364) was an English chronicler and a Benedictine monk of the monastery of St. Werburgh in Chester. He is believed to have been born in the West of England, taken the monastic vow (Benedictine) at Chester in 1299, and travelled over the north of England. Higden was the author of the Polychronicon, a long chronicle, one of several such works of universal history and theology. It seems to have enjoyed considerable popularity in the 15th century. It was the standard work on general history, and more than a hundred manuscripts of it are known to exist. The Christ Church manuscript says that Higden wrote it down to the year 1342; the fine manuscript at Christ's College, Cambridge, states that he wrote to the year 1344, after which date, with the omission of two years, John of Malvern, a monk of Worcester, carried the history on to 1357, at which date it ends.
  • Later reserach showed that Chambers' 1327 date was based on myths and mis-statements from a proclamation from around 1531/2 and the likely date for the current text of the plays dates from around 1532 with earlier versions of some or all of the plays being performed as far back as some time before 1422.
Attending to plays had the benefit of an indulgence of "1040 days of pardon" according to the Encyclopedia of Literary and Typograpical Anecdote. This is despite the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) banning all indulgences of longer than 40 days. The Pope's initial edict also contained the provision "that every person who disturbed the plays would be accursed by the Pope until absolved thereof"

Twenty-four large scaffolds or stages were made, consisting of two tiers, or rowmes' as they are called, and fixed upon four wheels: in the lower one the actors dressed and undressed; the upper one, which was open on all sides for the spectators to see distinctly, was used for acting. By an excellent arrangement, to prevent crowding, each play was performed in every principal street; the first began before the old abbey gates, and when finished it was wheeled on to the market-cross, which was the mayor's position in all shows; by the time it was ended, the second pageant was ready to take its place, and it moved forward to Water-gate, and then to Bridge Street, so that all the pageants were going on at different places at the same time. Great order was preserved, in spite of the immense concourse of people who came from all quarters to enjoy the spectacle; and scaffolds were put up in all the streets, on which they might sit, for which privilege it is supposed that payment was received. It was wisely ordered that no man should wear any weapon within the precincts of the city during the time of the plays, as a further inducement, were any wanting, to make the people congregate to hear the 'holsome doctrine and devotion' taught by them. Pope Clement granted to each person attending a thousand days' pardon, and the Bishop of Chester forty days of the same grace.

  • While Chambers does not explain it, he does note 24 wagons were used to put on 25 plays. The records of the Skinners et al., who put on the Resurrection contain no details of expenses in con­nection with the show. This leads one to suppose that the joint companies named hired the stage belonging to one of the other companies.


They were introduced by "banes", or proclamation, a word which is still retained in our marriage bans; three heralds made it with the sound of trumpets, and set forth in a lengthy prologue the various parts which were to be shown. ' The Fall of Lucifer' was a very popular legend from the earliest ages of Christianity, and its influence is felt to the present day, having been the original groundwork upon which Milton wrote some of his finest passages in Paradise Lost, which, as is well known, was intended to be a sacred drama commencing with Satan's address to the sun. Pride is represented as the cause of his fall; he declares, ' that all heaven shines through his brightness, for God hymselfe shines not so cleare;' and, on attempting to seat himself on the throne of God, he is cast down with Light-born, and part of the nine orders of angels, among whom there follows a scene of bitter repentance and recrimination that they ever listened to the tempter. The stage directions for these scenes are curious enough; a great tempest is to spout forth fire, and a secret way underneath is to hide the evil angels from the spectators' sight.

It is unnecessary to describe each of these plays, as for the most part they follow the Bible narrative very closely; but, in passing, we will notice a few of the legends and peculiarities mixed up with them. Thus a very popular part was that of Noah's wife, who preferred staying with her gossips to entering the ark; and, with the characteristic perverseness of woman, had to be dragged into it by her son Shem, when she gives her husband a box on the ear. The play of the' Shepherds of Bethlehem' gives some curious particulars of country life. The three shepherds meet and converse about their flocks, and then propose that each should bring out the food he has with him, and make a pic-nic of the whole. A wrestling match follows, and then the angels appear, and they go to Bethlehem; their gifts are curious, the first says

A shepherd on stilts. Apparently, some of the performers in the Shepherds play used stilts. One is recorded as being a "glasier" - who may have used the stilts to reach windows so as to perform simple repairs.
'Heale kinge! borne in a mayden's bower,
Proffites did tell thou shouldest be our succore.
Loe, I bring thee a bell;
I praie thee save me from hell,
So that I maye with thee dwell,
And serve thee for aye.'

The next

'Heale thee, blessed full borne (child),
Loe, sonne, I bring thee a flaggette,
Theirby heinges a spoune,
To eate thy pottage with all at noune.'

The last

'Loe, sonne, I bring thee a cape,
For I have nothinge elles.'

Their boys follow with offerings:

one 'a payre of ould hose;' another, 'a fayre bottill;' 'a pipe to make the woode ringe;' and lastly, 'a nutthooke to pull down aples, peares, and plumes, that oulde Joseph nede not hurte his thombes.'

In the 'Passion,' the 'Tourmentoures' are very prominent, with their coarse rough jokes and rude buffetings.' The Harrowing of Hell,' is a very singular part. Christ is represented as descending there, and choosing out Adam, Seth, Isaiah, and many other saints to go to Paradise, where they are met by Enoch and Elijah, who until this period had been its solitary inmates. There is in this piece a strong satire against a woman who is left behind; she says:

The Ale-Wife often got a negative portrayal in the late medieval or early modern period. This varied from the seductive bar-maid to witch-like figures. The Ale-wife in the Chester play also rode with the Devil in the Midsummer Watch Parade - with her "cannes and cuppes" - until she was banned.
'Wo be to the tyme when I came heare.
Some tyme I was a taverner,
A gentill gossipe and a tapstere,
Of wyne and ale a trustie brewer,
Which wo hath me wroughte:
Of cannes I kept no trewe measuer,
My cuppes I soulde at my pleasure,
Deceavinge manye a creature.
With hoppes I made my ale stronge,
Ashes and erbes I blend among,
And marred so good mm-the;
Therefore I may my handes wringe,
Shake my cannes, and cuppes ringe;
Sorrowful may I siche and singe
That ever I so dealt.'

These allusions to the taverners are so frequent in this description of writing, that we may feel sure they were guilty of much evil doing.

  • Chambers' omits to note that the "Ale-wife" who has given false measure, does not get released from Hell - presumably this was because her "sin" was seem as too great for any redemption. She was undoubtedly a great hit with the crowd as she took part, with the devil, in the Midsummer Show.

The play of 'Ezekiel' contains a summary of various prophecies, and especially the fifteen signs which were to precede the end of the world, a subject which then much engrossed the thoughts of mankind. The signs, as fixed by St. Jerome, were as follow:—The first day the sea was to rise as a wall higher than the hills; the second, to disappear entirely; on the third, great fishes were to rise from it, and 'yore hideously;' the fourth, the sea and all waters were to be on fire; the fifth, a bloody dew was to fall on all trees and herbs; on the sixth, churches, cities, and houses were to be thrown down; the seventh, the rocks were to be rent; the eighth, an earthquake; on the ninth, the hills and valleys were to be made plain; on the tenth, men who had hidden themselves in the caves were to come out mad; the eleventh, the dead should arise; the twelfth, the stars were to fall; the thirteenth, all men should die and rise again; on the fourteenth, earth and heaven should perish by fire; and the fifteenth would see the birth of the new heaven and new earth.

"Antichrist" the subject of the next play, was also a much expected character in the middle ages. He performs the miracle of self-resurrection, to deceive the kings who ask for proofs of his power; and brings all men to worship and sacrifice to him. Enoch and Elijah come from Paradise to expose their sin, and, after a long disputation, are martyred, Michael the archangel coming at the same moment and killing Antichrist, who is carried off by two demons; the martyrs rising and ascending with Michael. 'Doomsday' forms the last of the series, in which a pope, emperor, king, and queen are judged and saved; while a similar series confess their various sins, and are turned into hell. The queen says:

'Fie on pearls! fie on pride!
Fye on gowne! fye on hyde! (skin)
Fye on hewe! fye on gayde! (gold)
Thes harrowe me to hell.'
  • This quotation illustrates Chambers tendency to make simple errors - he swaps the references to "skin" and "gold" from the original text which has gown paired with guyde (gold, or possibly mantle) and hewe (colour as in cosmetics) paired with hyde (complexion).

Jesus descends with his angels, and complains of the injuries men have done to him: how his members bled afresh at every oath they swore, and that he had suffered more from them than from his Jewish persecutors.

There can be no doubt that the people of the most 'ancient, renowned citie of Caerleon, now named Chester,' were passionately fond of these ' Shewes;' and when the progress of enlightenment and refinement which the Reformation brought about banished the mystery plays, as bordering on profanity and licentiousness, as well as having a strong flavour of popery about them, they set about with alacrity to substitute in their place the pageants which became so general in the reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts, and are connected in history with the journeys or progresses of these monarchs. These pageants or triumphs have, like their predecessors, the mysteries, their relation to the English drama; not only were they composed for the purpose of flattering and complimenting their princes, but a moral end was constantly kept in view: virtue was applauded, while vice was set forth in its most revolting and unpleasing colours; and the altercations between these two leading personages often afforded the populace the highest amusement. The opportunity was also seized upon of presenting to royal ears some of the political abuses of the day; as in one offered by the Inns of Court to Charles the First, where ridicule was thrown upon the vexatious law of patents: a fellow appearing with a bunch of carrots on his head, and a capon on his fist, and asking for a patent of monopoly as the first inventor of the art of feeding capons with carrots, and that none but himself should have privilege of the said invention for fourteen years; whilst another came mounted on a little horse with an immense bit in his mouth, and the request that none should be allowed to ride unless they purchased his bits.

William Lawes, who possibly wrote the music for the first ever entrance of a carrot into a theatrical performance, and was later killed at Chester during the Civil War.
  • This was in 1633: in the "Antimasque of Projectors" apparently as a skit against Edward Somerset, the marquis of Worcester. In 1655 Somerset authored a book which consisted of textual descriptions of 100 separate inventions. It was eventually printed in 1663 and included a device described as his "Water-commanding Engine". Constructed from the barrel of a cannon, it was a prototype design for what would later become the steam engine, and clearly anticipated the power and applications of that machine, such as for the propulsion of boats. No one took him seriously. The "carrot sketch" appeared in "The Trivmph of Peace. A Masque, presented by the Foure Honourable Houses, or Innes of Court. Before the King and Queenes Majesties, in the Banquetting-house at White Hall, February the third, 1633. Invented and written, By James Shirley, of Grayes Inne". James Shirley was one of the leading playwrights in the decade before the closing of the theatres by Parliament in 1642. The scenery for his masque was provided by Inigo Jones and the Music by William Lawes (who died in Chester during the Civil War). Although the King was in mourning for his kinsman Bernard Stuart (killed in the same defeat), he instituted a special mourning for Lawes, apparently honouring him with the title of "Father of Musick".
  • There are many claims that Dutch growers created orange carrots in the 17th century to honor the Dutch flag at the time and William of Orange. Other authorities argue these claims lack convincing evidence. Modern carrots were described at about this time by the English antiquary John Aubrey (1626–1697): "Carrots were first sown at Beckington in Somersetshire. Some very old Man there [in 1668] did remember their first bringing hither." Much more on the history of the carrot can be found at the World Carrot Museum.

Considerable sums of money were spent on these pageants; the expense falling sometimes on the guilds, who each took their separate part in the performance, or the mayor of the city would frequently give one at his own cost; whilst the various theatrical properties would seem to have been kept in order from the city funds, as we often read such entries as these in their books: 'For the annual painting of the city's four giants, one unicorn, one dromedarye, one luce, one asse, one dragon, six hobby-horses, and sixteen naked boys.' 'For painting the beasts and hobby-horses, forty-three shillings. For making new the dragon, five shillings; and for six naked boys to beat at it, six shillings.' The first of these pageants of which we have any record as performed at Chester, was in 1529; the title was 'Kynge Robart of Cicyle.' 'The History of Aeneas and Queen Dido' was played on the Rood-eye in 1563, on the Sunday after Midsummer-day, during the time of the yearly fair, which attracted buyers and sellers in great numbers from Wales and the neighbouring counties. Earl Derby, Lord Strange, and other noblemen honoured these representations with their presence.

  • For the "triumph" of Aeneas and Queen Dido see: Queen Dido. The other props mentioned are those used in the Midsummer Watch Parade. For the involvement of Lord Strange see: Shakespeare and Chester. Once again Chambers leaves himself open to misunderstanding here Chester paraded a whole family of Giants in the Midsummer Watch Parade – the Father, the Mother and two Daughters. There were also fantastic giant Beasts including the Unicorn, the Elephant, the Camel and the Dragon. Originally the Dragon was beaten by six (not sixteen) naked boys, but this practice was banned by mayor Henry Hardware (1599-1600) who also had the giants broken-up.
  • Chambers implies that the various "Triumphs" replaced the mystery plays. In truth, the triumphs were relatively rare, never appear to have been repeated once performed and in no case appear to have been given at the mayor's own expense. The only instance of a major performance after the discontinuation of the Mystery Plays is that of the Triumph given in homage to the Prince of Wales as discussed in more detail below.

Chester's Prince

The pageant which we are about to describe, and which is the only one preserved to the present day, was given by Mr. Robert Amory, sheriff of Chester in 1608, a liberal and public-spirited man, who benefited his city in many ways. It was got up in honour of Henry Frederic, the eldest son of James the First, on his creation as Prince of Wales; and perhaps no prince who ever lived was more worthy of the festival.

  • According to Chambers "Chester's Prince" is a truly awful play, however a reading of it shows that Chambers is being a little unfair. Little is known of the producer, Robert Amery (or Armory) who was sheriff of Chester in 1608 and shared his name with at least three generations of ironmongers who held property in Bridge Street. According to Ormerod a family of the same name lived in Backford (at Coughall). According to Pennant other Amery sheriffs held the post in 1554, 1586 and a Thomas Amery was mayor of Chester in 1783. As noted by Chambers, he was sheriff in 1608 (this is sometimes mistakenly read as the date of the pageant).
  • Even less is known of the author - Richard Davies. He may have been a herald-painter: a collection of Heralds Arms from Chester is lettered on the back "Davies's heraldry".

The author addresses his readers with a certain amount of self-approbation; he says:

  • "To be brief, what was done was so done, as being by the approbation of many said to bee well done; then, I doubt not, but it may merit the mercifull construction of some few who may chance to sweare 'twas most excellently ill done. Zeale procured it, lone deuis'd (devised) it, boyes per-formed it, men beheld it, and none but fooles dispraised it. As for the further discription of the businesse I referre to further relation; onely thus: The chiefest part of this people-pleasing spectacle consisted in three Bees, viz., Boyes, Beasts, and Bels: Bels of a strange amplitude and extraordinarie proportion; Beasts of an excellent shape and most admirable swiftnesse; and Boyes of a rare spirit and exquisite performance."

These wonderful beasts consisted of two personages who took a leading part in all pageants, and were the 'greene or salvage men;' they were sometimes clothed completely in skins, but on this occasion ivy leaves were sewed on to an embroidered dress, and garlands of the same leaves round their heads; a 'huge blacke shaggie hayre' hung over their shoulders, whilst the 'herculean clubbes' in their hands made them fit and proper to precede and clear the way for the procession that followed. With them came the highly popular and important artificial dragon, 'very lively to behold: pursuing the savages, entring their denne, casting fire from his mouth; which afterwards was slaine, to the great pleasure of the spectators, bleeding, fainting, and staggering as though he endured a feelinge paine even at the last gaspe and farewell.'

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.

The various persons who were to take part in the procession met at the old 'Highe Crosse,' which stood at the intersection of the four principal streets in Chester, and the proceedings were opened by a man in a grotesque dress climbing to the top of it, and fixing upon a bar of iron an 'Ancient,' or flag of the colours of St. George; at the same time he called the attention of all present by beating a drum, firing off a gun, and brandishing a sword, after which warlike demonstrations he closed his exhibition by standing on his head with his feet in the air, on the bar of iron, 'very dangerously and wonderfully, to the view of the beholders, and casting fireworks very delightfull.' Envy was there on horseback, with a wreath of snakes about her head and one in her hand; Plenty came garlanded with wheat ears round her body, strewing wheat among the multitude as she rode along; St. George, in full armour, attended by his squires and drummers, made a glorious show; Fame (with her trumpet), Peace, Joy, and Rumour were in their several places, spouting their orations; whilst Mercury, descending from heaven in a cloud, artificially winged, 'a wheele of fire burning very cunningly, with other fire-works,' mounted the Cross by the assistance of ropes, in the midst of heavenly melody. Other horsemen represented the City of Chester, the King, and the Prince of Wales, carrying the suitable colours, shields and escutcheons emblazoned on their dresses and horses' foreheads. The three silver gilt bells, which were to be run for, supported by lions rampant, were carried with many trumpets sounding before; and, when all were marshalled, eight voices sang the opening strain:

The "Pentice" was a wooden structure on the south wall of St Peter as shown here by Randle Holme (Harl Man 2073) shortly after the end of the Civil War. The Pentice was taken down in 1803. The remains of the High Cross, destroyed in the Civil War, can be seen in front of the door.
Come downe, thou mighty messenger of blisse,
Come, we implore thee;
Let not thy glory be obscured from us,
Who most adore thee.
Then come, oh come, great Spirit,
That we may joyful sing,
Welcome, oh welcome to earth,
Joy's dearest darling.
Lighten the eyes, thou great Mercurian Prince,
Of all that view thee,
That by the lustre of their optick sense
They may pursue thee:
Whilst with their voyces
Thy praise they shall sing,
Come away,
Joy's dearest darling.'
  • Chambers misquotes the original work when he repeats the speech of Mercury - in the work he is "Joves dearest darling".
  • A song of eight voices would at the time have probably been a motet, madrigal or something of a similar style. It may have involved either the boys from the King's School and/or members of the choir from the Cathedral. The Cathedral certainly had an active song school at the time: Francis Pilkington, a "singing man" from the Cathedral published two books of madrigals in 1614 and 1624. His contemporary Thomas Bateson was cathedral organist from c. 1599 to 1608; among his works were an anthem, an important group of madrigals, and a setting of a cathedral service used until the early 18th century. Others who may have been involved include the brothers Robert and George Kelly - they are recorded as recieving payment for musical performances in Chester from the end of the 16th century to well into the 17th. They are also recorded as complaining about "strangers" performing music in Chester. The city waits performed the music at official and private events and gave public recitals; some also taught music and dancing. Their rivals locally were the minstrels licensed by the Dutton family, and there was a fracas between the two in 1610.

Mercury replies to this invocation, and then follow a series of most tedious speeches from each allegorical person, in praise of Britain in general, and Prince Henry in particular, with which we should be sorry to weary our readers. Envy comes in at the end, to sneer at the whole and spoil the sport; and in no measured terms explains the joy she feels,

The text of Chester's Triumph in Honour of her Prince can be found on-line.
To see a city burnt, or barnes on fire,
To see a sonne the butcher of his sire;
To see two swaggerers eagerly to strive
Which of them both shall make the hangman thrive;
To see a good man poore, or wise man hare,
To see Dame Virtue overwhelmed with care;
To see a ruined church, a preacher dumbe,' &c.
But Joy puts her to flight, saying,
'Envy, avaunt! thou art no fit compeere
T' associate with these our sweet consociats here;
Joy doth exclude thee,' &c.
  • Envy is a far more complex character than Chambers implies and he cuts out many of her more pungent lines to avoid upsetting Victorian sensibilities ("an Army (when their foode is scant) / Eate their owne excrement"). Her criticism of the play in which she is herself appearing is possibly a unique feature of the text: "a ranke of rustick Boyes / Shewing as childish people childish toyes / To grace a day with".
  • There is possibly some indirect evidence that the 1610 play was quite widely known at an early date. In 1623 a view of the city by Daniel Meisner was published in the "Libellus Novus Politicus Emblematicus Civitatum" ("New Book of Political Emblems of Civilization"). This is a collection of city views beside the well known works of Merian, Braun & Hogenberg and Münster. First published in 1623 in Frankfurt am Main by Eberhard Kieser. In the foreground of this view is a symbolic personification of envy; with snakes instead of hair - she is biting a human heart and holds a coiled serpent in her left hand. Meisner, who worked in Frankfort, produced a vast number of engravings distinguished by a motto (usually in Latin) above the image and emblematic verses (usually in Latin and German) beneath. These mottos and verses are intended to relate to the history or culture of the city depicted, although the connection can be somewhat cryptic. It is interesting to note that topographical and other details in these engravings are often more precise than many engravings of the era made on plates several times this size. How "envy" came to be associated with Chester can only be the subject of speculation: it may be derived from "The Royal King and Loyal Subject", a play by Thomas Heywood performed c. 1615-18) and later re-written as "The Loyal Subject" by John Fletcher, possibly with some influence from "Edol of Chester", a character from "The Birth of Merlin".

Thus ends the pageant of 'Chester's Triumph in Honour of her Prince:' what followed cannot be better described than in the words of the author, one Richard Davies, a poet unknown to fame. 'Whereupon all departed for a while to a place upon the river, called the Roode, garded with one hundred and twentie halberders and a hundred and twentie shotte, bravely furnished. The Mayor, Sheriffs, and Aldermen of Chester, arrayed in their scarlet, having seen the said shewes, to grace the same, accompanied, and followed the actors unto the said Roode, where the ships, barques, and pinises, with other vessels harbouring within the river, displaying the armes of St. George upon their maine toppes, with several pendents hanging thereunto, discharged many voleyes of shotte in honour of the day. The bels, dedicated, being presented to the Mayor. Proclamation being generally made to bring in horses to runne for the said bels, there was runne a double race, to the greate pleasure and delight of the spectators. Men of greate worthe running also at the ring for the saide cuppe, dedicated to St. George, and those that wonne the prizes had the same, with the honour thereto belonging. The said several prizes, being with speeches and several wreathes set on their heads, delivered in ceremonious and triumphant manner, after the order of the Olympian sportes, whereof these were an imitation.

  • Rev Robert Rogers (Archdeacon at Chester) recorded: "In AD 1609, Mr William Lester, mercer, beinge mayor of Chester, one Mr Robert Amerye, ironmonger, sometime sherife of Chester (ad 1608) he, with the assente of the mayor and cittie, at his own coste chiefly as I conceive caused three silver cupps or bells of good value to be made the whiche saide silver cuppes were upon St George's daye for ever to be thus disposed: - all gentlemen that woulde bringe their horses to the Rood dee that daye and there rune that horse which with spede did over rune the reste shoulde have the beste cuppe...". Amery seems obsessed with bells, he also provided the "Jacks" at St Peter's - these were wooden figures which struck the church bell at quarter hours (they have long-since vanished). King records that Amery died in 1613 and his burial is indeed recorded at St Bridget.
  • Amery’s project does seem to have had some limited staying power, even after his death. Over the following decades, payments towards both the St George’s Day races and the Shrove Tuesday races continued to appear in guild/assembly account books. Until 1623 the St George’s race winners received the bells from the original 1610 event as trophies to keep for the year until the next race (as well as a portion of the entry fees). Eventually, the St George’s Day meeting seems to have gradually replaced the Shrove Tuesday races altogether.


Puritan Nicholas Byfield was preaching at St Peter (c1600-1615) when the "Chester's Triumph" was performed. There is still a copy of a "Breeches Bible" from around 1579 at St Peter. Byfield was a influence on the iconoclast John Bruen.

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. "Chester's Prince" needs to be seen in that context, something which Chambers fails to consider. 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".

Cheshire’s brief tenure (1397–99) as a principality under Richard II (briefly imprisioned at Chester Castle) might have been seen as representing the county’s heyday, a cultural apex swiftly reduced to mere provinciality at the hands of the Lancastrian usurpers. It is not surprising that 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. 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 the 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.

In 1606 James I attempted to have Hugh Mainwaring elected as Chester’s recorder. The corporation reminded the king that only the previous year he had confirmed the city’s charter, which gave Chester the right to elect its own recorder. Consequently, James decided "to forbear to press you any further in the suit". Henry Frederick potentially represented a new hope for the city in the form of an independent Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. A complicating factor may have been the hold of puritanism in Chester. The absentee rectors of St Peter's between the 1550s and the Civil War provided curates who by the 1590s were unlicensed and generally unsatisfactory. However, the puritanism of St. Peter's was reinforced by its association with the city preachers, established in the reign of Elizabeth I to deliver sermons on Wednesdays and Fridays and partly paid by the Corporation. In 1610 a frequent preacher at St Peter was the staunch puritan Nicholas Byfield (1579–1622). He had intended to travel to Ireland to preach but had been asked to stay when passing through Chester in around 1600. The Bishop of Chester at the time, Lloyd of Bishop Lloyd's House (installed at Chester 1604-1615) was also sympathetic to puritans, even more so than his predecessor Richard Vaughan. James I's position on religion was complicated, whereas the prince had clearly anti-catholic views and appears to have been more sympathetic to puritans than his father.

Signage at St Peter's in Chester states that it remained a guild church even after the Fraternity of St George was dissolved.

The choice of Mercury as an opening character shows that the author of the Triumph had considerable knowledge of classics. He is the god of financial gain, commerce, eloquence, messages, communication (including divination), travelers, boundaries, luck, trickery and thieves; he also serves as the guide of souls to the underworld. His name is possibly related to the Latin word merx ("merchandise"; cf. merchant, commerce, etc.). The temple of Mercury in Rome was regarded as a fitting place to worship a swift god of trade and travel, since it was a major center of commerce as well as a racetrack. In the pageant Mercury also symbolises the young Prince and starts his performance by showing due respect to the "high justice officer" (the Mayor). The next three speakers are "Chester", "Britain" and "Wales" again emphasising the apartness of Chester. "Envy" appears with a distinct change of mood and exchanges a barrage of insults with "Love", before being banished by "Joy". The last speech is left to "Chester".

One point which Chambers fails to mention is the close association of the "Fraternity of St George" with St Peter. This body originated at the beginning of the 15th century and the "guild church" of the Fraternity was St Peter. First mentioned in 1462, when it was governed by four masters or wardens, it was open to both men and women, with two chaplains apparently required to pray for the souls of benefactors at St. George's altar. Its property within the city, which included shops in Watergate Street near the church, was sufficient to require two rent collectors. In 1489 Nicholas Southworth, son of a former mayor and clerk to the kitchen of Edward IV, gave it the large sum of £40 for ornaments. In the 1530s the guild's chaplain occupied a chamber "over the door" of St. Peter's, and in 1548 it had property bringing in annually some £12. The guild, like the church which housed it, had close links with the city government, and in the early 16th century its stewards were listed in the Mayor's Books after the civic dignitaries. It was still receiving bequests from aldermen in 1535, but was surpressed as part of the Reformation in 1547. St George became hugely popular in Cheshire in the 1490's and is mentioned by Humphrey Newton (1466-1536) of Newton (Prestbury) as a spirit leading the souls of the departed through purgatory. There is a curious connection of George with Chester: according to Orderic Vitalis, writing around 1200, Hugh of Avranches, 1st earl of Chester, had a clerk (chaplain) named Gerold d’Avranches who would recite edifying tales about George and other martial saints to the men and boys of the household during the 1070s. Gerold's aim appears to have been to encourage the household members to become monks, and it is reputed (with a notable lack of evidence) that Hugh became a monk at St Werburgh in Chester, four days before he died (1101). To the Prince, the "Fraternity of St George" would have meant the company of archers now known as the Honourable Artillery Company. To the audience of the pageant it would have had a much more nuanced meaning.

Chester's economy had grown 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: although recovery from the plagues of 1603-5 was hampered by national economic difficulties and by recurrent, though limited, local epidemics. Henry was seen as "the coming man", yet his father was still young enough that he could be expected to be Earl of Chester for some years. Undoubtedly one object of the Triumph of 1610 was to gain the attention, and hence the favour, of Prince Henry. But favour for whom? - Lucian the Monk would have seen the City as a mere extension of the Abbey: Bradshaw's Life of Werburgh tries to hang on to the central position through superstition - but both have been undermined by the Norman Earls and eventually the Reformation. The Chester Mystery Plays become a reflection of the appropriation of the ritualistic function of the Abbey by the lay community. "Chester's Triumph" is an expression of both the civic urge to further subsume the church's governance in the name of "Rome" and also an expression of the internal conflict over who governs in the name of the Prince. Perhaps the author of the play saw a continuing shift, first with rebellion against "Rome" and then with rebellion against a London elite.

It was not to be. The "coming man" did not come to Chester for the Triumph. 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. His reign ended with the English Civil War and the king being executed, sparking a century of tumult and conflict. Chester sided with Charles and he used the City to prosecute a war for his own ends, and lost all. For Chester, the consequences of that war and the plague which followed left the city with social and economic difficulties from which recovery was very slow.

From his viewpoint Chambers' does not appear to fully appreciate the subtle interactions between the parts of history he recites. He fails to interpret that some local traditions echo Roman-British, Mercian, Palatinate and then Civic identities, often featuring a "local" saviour, be that a "local" Emperor, Warrior Queen, Earl or Civic hierarchy.

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Chronicles and Texts

The Triumphs

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Pages in Chambers which mention Chester