Charters

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Summary

Several factors have influenced the development of local politics in Chester. First, was the initial prominence of Chester as a port and as a large city whose nearest rivals were Oxford, York and Lincoln. It was the decline of the port, due to the silting of the River Dee and the advent of larger ships which perhaps pushed Chester's guilds and corportation to maintain many protectionist measures, one being that only "Freemen" could vote. Second, was the demise of the Earls of Chester, who had perhaps become a major successional threat to the Plantagenet royal house, and were getting well-connected with the rulers of Scotland and Wales. After Richard II briefly elevated Cheshire to a principality (with himself as Prince), the royal Earls took much less interest in Cheshire, apart from a brief interest during the Civil War and it's aftermath. From then on, Local Government seemed to be a largely local contest between Chester tradesmen and the landed gentry, mostly represented by the Grosvenors. Chester had no coal to fuel the Industrial Revolution and by the 1830's traditional manufacturing trades, including the making of clay-pipes, clocks and gloves were in serious decline, if not entirely extinct. Ship-building was entering a terminal phase and rope-making barely survived. Both of the two cotton mills had closed by the 1820's, so one of the leading industries of the Industrial Revolution had failed to establish itself in Chester. While in the 18thC. the City Fair's had been dominated by linen (the trade peaked in the 1760's), by 1830 the trade was dead. The reasons for the collapse of the linen trade center around the decline in the Chester/Dublin trade route, as its ends moved from Dublin to Belfast and Chester to Liverpool, as well as the substitution of cheaper cotton for linen. In the impoverished economy, areas away from the glamour of Eastgate Street and upper Bridge Street became progressively more decayed. Stanley Palace became "a decayed mansion", while Gamul House was divided into tenements. The polarisation of rich and poor was noted at the time - Hemingway thought that there were few places in the country where the gentry formed such a high proportion of the population and he was pleased that the lack of factories meant the absence of "the crowda of the lowest rabble they engender". George Lee Fenwick commented:

  • "..for a long time [Chester] lay almost motionless upon the great tidal wave of progress which was sweeping past, but at length a movement became apparent, and even ancient Chester.. ..could no longer withstand the onward rush of events. The turning point dates from the accession of Queen Victoria." (A History of the Ancient City of Chester, 1896)

It was not Victoria which brought the change in fortune but the coming of the railways (see: Chester Station) and the fortunate decision to follow George Stephenson's route to Holyhead. The vast expansion of Hoole and the passage of the Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 superseded most of the ancient methods of local government, and Chester fell into line with the younger communities. Through this act the companies lost their political influence and a ruling body sympathetic to their trading monopoly. The 1835 Act established a uniform system of municipal boroughs, to be governed by town councils elected by ratepayers (rather than simply freemen). The reformed boroughs were obliged to publish their financial accounts and were liable to audit. Each borough was to appoint a salaried town clerk and treasurer who were not to be members of the council. The first election of Town Councillors under the Municipal Reform Act took place on Saturday, the twenty-sixth of December, 1835, and the results were made known on the Monday following. One of the first acts of the new administration was that the tolls at the city gates were finally abolished, allowing goods to enter without payment.

The Players

Guild Merchant

"Free movement of goods and services" is a relatively modern idea. For much of its history Chester was, with exceptions on certain market days, a "closed shop" where, with some further exceptions only members of the various guilds could practice their trades. Movement of goods in or out of the city was the subject of tolls, usually payable at the city gates. In 1190 Henry II conferred the "Gilda Mecatoria" (the Guild Merchant) on the people of Chester - giving them the right to trade. The Guild Merchant also established an association of traders, and able to negotiate with their feudal lord to regulate the trade levy. The regulations agreed between the Guild Merchant and their feudal lord resulted in a Guild Merchant charter. The Guild Merchant charter allowed the merchants to pay an annual payment, or fixed sum, to the feudal lord who owned the land where the town was based. Many of the sculptures in the Town Hall are concerned with the various Charters granted to Chester over the years.

In 1193 grant was confirmed by the then Earl of Chester, Ranulf de Blondeville. Individual craft companies, or guilds, later developed to protect and maintain their monopolies, the quality of their goods and the interests and welfare of the merchants and craftsmen of Chester. In a supposed charter of 1208 Ranulf de Blondeville approved a law, as part of the market charter' to the efect that there cannot be another market within six and two third miles of Chester Market (as the crow flies). In 2014 this law was used to prevent the supermarket chain Tesco holding a monthly car-boot sale at it's premises in Frodsham Street. The charter also restricted trade in Chester to the "men of Chester and their heirs" - formally excluding non-residents and women from mercantile activities and establishing a system of hereditary trading rights.

The "Guild Merchant" was gradually replaced by separate companies of those in related trades. The Smiths and Cutlers Company also listed the Pewterers, Founders, Cardmakers, Girdlers, Headmakers, Spurriers, and Wiredressers among their numbers in their articles of 1490. Among the earliest Guilds to emerge were the Tanners, who are first mentioned in 1361, the Weavers in 1399 and the Ironmongers and Carpenters in 1422. Tradesmen who were not members of the guilds would have to pay a fine if they wished to trade without membership. In some cases the fine was low enough to be acceptable as a license, in others it was punitive.

Charters of privileges were granted to the city by the successive Norman earls, and these were confirmed and enlarged by Henry II and John, and Henry III in 1242 constituted the chief magistrate mayor: Henry VII, by charter, in 1506, made the city of Chester a county in itself, and granted to the mayor and corporation jurisdiction over the River Dee, from Heronbridge to Arnold's Eye, as well as many unique legal privileges and jurisdictions. The 1506 charter effectively placed much of the legal system in Chester in the hands of the "freemen", and hence in the hands of the Guilds.

One factor in the emergence of the guild system may have been the shortage of labour brought about by plague (1346–1353). The Black Death or Bubonic Plague, which killed more than one-third of the population of Europe, killed 30%−50% of the population in Britain, caused a dramatic decrease in the supply of labour. Lords suddenly faced a sharp increase in competition for workers to work for them. Labourers had increased bargaining power and commanded higher wages. The increase in labour cost also led to inflation throughout the economy. The elite class lamented the sudden shift in economic power. In an attempt to control labour costs and price levels, Edward III issued the Ordinance of Labourers in 1349. Parliament attempted to reinforce the Ordinance with the Statute of Labourers (1351). The statute set a maximum wage for labourers that was commensurate with wages paid before the Black Death, specifically, in the year 1346. It also mandated that able-bodied men and women work, and imposed harsh penalties for those who remained idle. The guild system ensured that tradesmen could to some extent "fix" prices. However the extent that this ordinance applied to Chester is difficult to determine.

The boundaries of Chester. The northern boundary is defined in part by the stream known as the Bishop's Ditch, Flookersbrook, Bache Brook and Finchett's Gutter. The shaded area shows where the River Dee estuary used to flood before the river was "tamed".

Freemen

No craftsman or trader could work in Chester, and avoid a fine, unless he was a "freeman" and a member of the relevant Guild. The parents or guardians of a minor would agree with a Guild's Master craftsman the conditions for an apprenticeship which would bind the minor for 5–9 years (e.g. from age 14 to 21), and pay a premium to the craftsman and the contract would be recorded in an indenture. Apprentices served at least five years to learn their trade. They could then become freemen of the City and seek admission to the appropriate Craft Guild. To become a freeman, a man had to be the son of a freeman, to have served his apprenticeship to a freeman or be admitted by order of the City Assembly. The system is similar to the ranks in Freemasonry, and the Guilds exhibited similar behaviors to the freemasons in terms of charity amongst members.

The actual rights of a freeman are not entirely clear: "free" may simply mean that the man is no-longer an apprentice, or it could mean that he is free to leave and enter the city as he chooses, possibly with a reduction of or an escape from the tolls (as was the case in Chester). Women could not join Guilds, but could continue the business of their husband if he was a member of the Guild and they became widowed. As an economic model, the guild system at it's worst was a form of "rent-seeking", where the guild members sought to gain a greater share of the available wealth without creating further, new wealth, simply by excluding others.

One of the oldest guild in Chester mentioned as having a charter was the company of Cordwainers (goatskin shoemakers), which was granted a charter in 1370 by the Black Prince. During the subsequent century many of the other Chester companies were formed, including a Guild of Bricklayers which, according to the Harleian MS 2150 f376, was part of the Guild of “Cappers, Pinners, Wyredrawers, Lynnen Drapers and Bricklayers” and which by 1602 was known as the Linen Drapers and Bricklayers’ Company. This curious combination of trades apparently arose owing to a bricklayer who at that time was Mayor of the City marrying a lady who was a linen draper, and thus the Linen Drapers became incorporated with the Bricklayers. Towards the end of the 17th Century various differences appear to have arisen between the members of these two trades; the Linen drapers appealed to the Mayor who, after hearing their complaints, decided in 1679 that the Lynen-Drapers should be separated from the Bricklayers, “the latter being troublesome and unserviceable to the former”. The Chester Bricklayers were incorporated by Elizabeth I in 1568, in the same year that the London Tylers & Bricklayers received their Charter, and the Chester Charter of Incorporation was similarly confirmed by James I. The Company, combined with the Linen Drapers, met at the Common Hall until the two trades separated in 1679, when the Bricklayers left. Subsequently, from 1689 until 1702, the Bricklayers met at the Smiths’ Hall. The Chester Tylers were in another guild formed jointly with the Wrights, Slaters, Daubers and Thatchers. Both companies are amongst companies, established in the 14th and 15th centuries, which are still in existence today, the others being the Joiners, Carvers and Turners, the Bakers, the Barber-Surgeons, the Brewers, the Butchers, the Cordwainers and Shoemakers, the Fletchers, the Bowyers, Coopers and Stringers, the Goldsmiths, the Innkeepers, the Masons, the Mercers, Ironmongers, Grocers and Apothecaries, the Merchant Drapers, the Merchant Tailors, the Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers and Stationers, the Saddlers and Curriers, the Skinners and Feltmakers, the Smiths, Cutlers, and Plumbers, the Tanners, the Weavers, and the Wet and Dry Glovers.

There were often disputes as each Guild fought to protect its own position and prosperity. To settle these disagreements and to enforce their privileges the Guilds turned to the Mayor or the Assembly. The Assembly was the ancestor of the modern day City Council. Its members were mostly also Guild members, so the Guilds had significant influence the political life of the City. Until the electoral reforms of 1835 only Freemen could vote in the city and parliamentary elections. It has been estimated that about one fifth of the population of Chester were Freemen, so the voting franchise was in the hand of a minority. During the Commonwealth the city was deprived of its privileges as a separate county, and the Corporation dissolved on 17 Sept. 1659. In 1664, Charles II confirmed the grant and charter of Henry VII.

From the 1740s the Corporation connived with the Guilds' misapplication of the Owen Jones charity, who by the 1780s were dividing the proceeds indiscriminately among their members, whether poor or rich, as each guild came round in rotation for its pay-out. Admission to the guilds was closely regulated as their own turn for the "bonanza" approached, some choosing to admit new members at inflated premiums, others to exclude new Guildsmen.

Members of Parliament

Chester returned two members to Parliament from the 1st year of Queen Mary (1553) the elective franchise being vested in the freemen and householders (ratepayers), but under the Redistribution of Seats Act (1885) the representation was reduced to one member the franchise having been previously extended in accordance with the Representation of the People Act (1867). For a long period (1715 to 1874) the Whig Grosvenors of nearby Eaton Hall, who derived enormous wealth from landed property in Cheshire, returned at least one of the two Members of Parliament, and frequently both. They controlled the tenancies of numerous Chester properties and exerted great influence over the 24 incorporated trades (Guilds) and the self-electing corporation or assembly of 24 aldermen and 40 common councilmen.

The Corporation continued to be elected under the 1506 charter of Henry VII until the passing of the Municipal Corporations Act (1835), by which the city was divided into five wards, each returning 6 councilors. This led to a Corporation consisting of a mayor, sheriff, eleven aldermen and thirty-three councilors. The Local Government Act 1888, copied "Chester Model" with the established a "new" sort of borough – the county borough. These were designed to be 'counties-to-themselves': i.e. administrative divisions to sit alongside the new administrative counties. They allowed urban areas to be administered separately from the more rural areas, as had long been the case in Chester. Under the Representation of the People Act (1918), the borough, with that portion of the county forming the Chester Rural District was merged in the City of Chester Parliamentary division, which returned one member. By the County of Chester Review Order, 1936, the city was increased by the addition of parts of the parishes of Blacon, Claverton, Newton, Great Broughton, Little Saughall and Marleston-cum-Lache. In 1954, Hoole was added to the county borough.

Current local government is under the mantle of "Cheshire West and Chester" a unitary authority area with borough status, in the ceremonial county of Cheshire. It was established in April 2009 as part of the 2009 structural changes to local government in England, by virtue of an order under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. It replaced the boroughs of Ellesmere Port and Neston, Vale Royal and Chester District and its council took over the function of the former Cheshire County Council within its area. The rest of ceremonial Cheshire is composed of Cheshire East, Warrington and Halton.

Pre-Conquest

Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred, re-fortified Chester as a "burh".

In about the seventh century, groups of ten families of freeholders or frank-pledges formed units called tens or tithings. The frank-pledges were persons that had to pledge surety to the sovereign against any infractions of good behavior for the benefit of the collective good of the group. Groups of tithings became an administrative unit known as a "hundred". The name "hundred" may be derived from the number one hundred; it may once have referred to an area liable to provide for a hundred men under arms, or containing roughly a hundred homesteads (as the land covered by one hundred "hides"). It was a traditional Germanic system described as early as AD 98 by Tacitus (the centeni). In early Anglo-Saxon England the "hide" was the amount of land sufficient to support a household. Later on it was used to assess how many men a landowner would have to provide for public obligation to the crown. It was also used as the basis for a land-tax known as "geld" to pay off raiding Vikings. Once the Viking threat was over, the tax was maintained, and the hide was used as the basis for assessing the amount of food rent (known as feorm - or "farm") due from an area.

Each hundred was responsible for the defaults of the individual freeholders or frank-pledges. The collective liability of the group made for a corporate form of government. Collectively, the hundreds formed into geographically based divisions known by the Anglo-Saxon word "scir", which means, "a piece shorn off". The word scir later became shire.

The Saxons extended and strengthened the walls of Chester to protect the city against the Danes, who occupied it for a short time (in 894) until Alfred seized all the cattle and laid waste the surrounding land to drive them out. Alfred's daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, that built the new Saxon "burh", from which comes the word "borough". The inhabitants of a "burh" were "burghers". For fortified locations, such as a borough, a "wic-reeve" would be in charge of the fortified area. This was a gentry member and a landowner in his own right.

The House of Leofric

A somewhat fanciful depiction of Leofric and Godiva

During the 10th century Chester became well established as a major Mercian port and appears to have been the only sizable port in the region. From the 990s the family of Leofwine of Mercia settled in Chester and helped to ensure the city's survival as a major provincial centre. Leofwine was an "Ealdorman". An "ealdorman" (from Old English ealdorman, lit. "elder man"; plural: "ealdormen") was one term used for a high-ranking royal official and prior magistrate of an Anglo-Saxon shire or group of shires from about the ninth century to the time of King Cnut. The term ealdorman was rendered in Latin as "dux" (duke) in early West Saxon charters, and as præfectus (which is also the equivalent of gerefa, (modern reeve), from which sheriff or shire reeve is derived). In the Life of King Alfred by the Welsh bishop Asser, the Latin equivalent is "comes" (count). Towards the end of the tenth century, the term ealdorman gradually disappeared as it gave way to eorl, probably under the influence of the Danish term "jarl", which evolved into modern English "earl".

The beginning of any settled form of local government may go back to the middle of the eleventh century at least. Charters of rights were granted by Edward the Confessor to various cities, possibly including Chester. Bodies Corporate were created with a common seal, one or more head officers, and a certain number of members, empowered by common consent to grant or receive in law, and to deal with any matter within the compass of their charter. After Eglaf's death in 1023 Leofwine's descendants succeeded to the whole Mercian earldom. Western Mercia retained an especial importance: Leofwine's son, Earl Leofric (d. 1057), enriched several important churches and cult centres in the area, including the two minsters in Chester, St. Werburgh's and St. John's.

Chester in 1066

Leofrics Mercian House was the only real rival to Wessex. Leofric's outlawed son, Ælfgar (who had a bit of a "history" with Harold), raided Mercia with help from the Welsh and particularly Gruffyd. In retaliation Harold and his - soon to be treacherous - brother Tostig subjugated Wales in 1063. After the death of Gruffyd, (at the hands of his own men) his half-brothers Bleddyn ap Cynfyn and Rhiwallon came to an agreement with Harold regarding the rulership of Wales and were given the rule of Gwynedd and Powys (they were later (in 1069-70) to rebel, with Eadric the Wild and the men of Chester, against the Normans). When Harold married Ealdgyth he not only married the widow of his enemy Gruffyd, but also the daughter of his enemy Ælfgar (who had died in 1o62). Ælfgar sons were Edwin, Earl of Mercia, and Morcar, Earl of Northumbria. One indication of the impact of such developments upon Chester itself was the fact that in Harold II's reign (January-October 1066) its mint was one of the few supplied with locally produced dies, and the continuing close association of the city with the comital house was demonstrated when Harold's widow Ealdgyth was sent there by her brother Earl Edwin after the battle of Hastings.

Harold dies - or does he? - a Chester legend has it that he later lived in the Hermitage near St John's Church. In any even there will some changes for the administration in Chester.

By 1066 Chester was a prosperous town with a population of perhaps 2,500-3,000. Rendering a farm of £45 and three timber of marten pelts (i.e. 120 skins), together with an additional payment from the moneyers, it was assessed as a half hundred including the adjacent townships of Handbridge, Newton by Chester, 'Lee' (Overleigh and Netherleigh), and 'Redcliff', expressly said to be 'outside the city' but taxed with it. The city had its own laws and customs, administered by its hundredal court, over which presided 12 judges or doomsmen (iudices civitatis) drawn from the men of king, earl, and bishop, and liable to fines payable to the king and earl for failure to attend. The judges have been regarded as evidence of Scandinavian influence on the city's institutions and equated with the 'lawmen' (lagemen or iudices) of certain boroughs in the Danelaw. The laws of Chester, which were recorded in Domesday Book in exceptional detail, suggest that, as in other western towns dominated by a great local magnate, the status of its citizens was comparatively low. They were obliged to pay 10s. on becoming burghers - taking up land in the city, and were also liable to heavy fines for failure to pay gavel or rent and for other misdemeanours. As elsewhere, burgage holdings were heritable and obliged to pay gavel (gablum) to the 'chief lords': before 1066 the king, the earl of Mercia, and the bishop of Lichfield; afterwards the Norman earls and bishops of Chester.

Post-Conquest

After the Norman conquest:

  • the title of "Maire" was conferred by the people upon the man chosen as the head of the municipality.
  • the Saxon "Wic-reeves" became "Bailiffs", and
  • the "burghers" were called "citizens."

The early Norman kings imposed an annual rent or fee-farm upon cities, which bargain, although accepted with a bad grace, was insisted upon for centuries. If concessions were granted, it was only for reasons which would have made the refusal of them arbitrary and oppressive. The hide, now used for tax-assessment, was given a set acreage, in the Domesday book the most common size in use was 120 acres (48.56 ha; 0.19 sq mi).

Norman Earls

The Anglo-Norman Earls of Chester were provided with their title by Chester, but from the beginning two-thirds of the income of the Earls came from outside of Cheshire. Their possessions were scattered through twenty counties, such that the value of simply a comparatively poor (but strategically vital) border holding was enhanced, but by lands which were scattered throughout the kingdom and therefore not easy to defend should the earl choose to rebel. The focus of the Earls activities would shift over the years and this had an impact on the development of local government in Chester. Hugh of Avranches largely focused his activities in conquest of North Wales, and so based himself in the City for much of the time. Ranulf de Meschines was much more concerned with his territories in Lincolnshire, and those of Ranulph De Gernon also concerned with the midlands. The northwestern bias seems to have returned under Hugh de Kevelioc, and continued through the earldom of Ranulf de Blondeville.

The Norman earls dominated the government of the city still more than had their English predecessors. By 1071 the royal officials had been excluded. The earl's reeve, however, remained. As late as c. 1210 Ranulf de Blondeville could refer to one of his grantees, William of Barrow, as 'my reeve of Chester', an indication that the city was still in effect a seigneurial borough. The duties of the earl's reeve are obscure. In particular, it is uncertain how they related to those of another representative of the earl, mentioned much more often: the sheriff of the city. The earliest reference to the sheriff of Chester (Winebald), the first for any English borough, was in the 1120s in Ranulf de Meschines's charter granting jurisdiction over the summer fair to St. Werburgh's abbey, in which provision was made for the amount received in fines by the monks to be deducted from the farm which the city sheriff rendered to the earl's chamberlains. The sheriff evidently accounted for the city's revenues, an arrangement whose origins perhaps date from before the 1070s, when the farm of the city was already distinguished from that of the earl's pleas in the shire and hundred courts, though both were held by the same person, the earl's man Mundræd. From an early period the sheriff's duties included policing.

In the time of Ranulph De Gernon, for example, he and the abbot's officials were charged with the arrest and detention of merchants who offended against the regulations governing trading at St. Werburgh's fair. The sheriff probably also, as later, presided over the portmote court, in existence by 1200, when Peter the clerk was exempted from attending it. Almost certainly the portmote represented a continuation of the hundred court of Chester, mentioned in 1086.

Henry II

Henry II - allowed the formation of the Guilds in Chester by his charter of 1160.

In 1160 a charter was granted by Henry II to the burghers of Chester to buy and sell at Durham "as they were wont to do". About the year 1171 Henry II. granted permission to the Burgesses (citizens) of Chester to buy and sell at Dublin,

  • "having and observing the same customs which they observed in the time of King Henry my grandfather."

This not only suggests an earlier charter, but shows that there existed a considerable trade, even at this early period, between the two ports.

Gradually the emphasis in the citizens' relations with their lord changed from duties to privileges, and by the late 12th century the occasional personal services for which they had been liable had largely disappeared. About 1178, for example, Earl Hugh de Kevelioc granted the sherrif of Chester a certain Payn, nephew of Iseult, land in the city as a free customary tenant, with quittance from toll, taking and guarding prisoners, taking distresses, carrying writs, doing night watch, and all other similar "customs and vexations".

In 1190 Henry II conferred the "Gilda Mecatoria" (the Guild Merchant) on the people of Chester - giving them the right to trade. The Guild Merchant also established an association of traders, and able to negotiate with their feudal lord to regulate the trade levy. The earliest charters did not materially alter the forms of local government; as a rule, they merely recognised and confirmed existing privileges. The immunities of the Guilds were respected, and in any proposed change exceptions were always made in their favour. The citizens jealously watched over their rights, which, as the name of "Guild" implies, had been handed down to them from Saxon times. The Sheriff at this time was one William Gamberell.

Ranulf de Blondeville

Ranulf de Blondeville (Town Hall staircase) - probably established the mayoralty and had his own version of the Magna Carta.

The office of mayor of Chester probably originated with Ranulf de Blondeville's confirmation of grant of a Guild Merchant to the city in the 1190s. Although he was the head of the guild, the mayor ranked below the sheriffs. The terms of the grant did not indicate whether the guild was created then or existed already, nor did they explain the nature of the organization involved. Even so it undoubtedly prepared the way for the emergence in the 1230s of a mayor and sheriffs responsible to the citizens rather than to the earl.

The next chatters, in order of date, are three granted at the beginning of the thirteenth century by Ranulf. That many of the privileges were not new is indicated by Ranulf de Blondeville's charter confirming the liberties and free customs which the citizens enjoyed under his predecessors. By then they included freedom from inquest (recognitio) and assize (proportamentum), to which Ranulf added the right to make valid wills whether death occurred within the city or elsewhere, and a restriction on the liability of citizens who purchased stolen goods. The confirmation of the privileges were linked with the beginnings of corporate action by the burgesses, first evidenced by their responsibility for paying at least part of the city farm during Ranulf III's minority (1181 to around 1188).

By his first charter (1208) Ranulf granted:

  • "that no - one may buy or sell any kind of merchandise, which shall come to the City of Chester by sea or by land , but them and their heirs, or by their favour, save at the fairs appointed at the Nativity of S. John Baptist and at the Feast of S. Michael Wherefore I will that my aforesaid men, and their heirs, may have and hold the before mentioned liberty from me and my heirs for ever, freely, quietly, honourably, and peaceably; and I prohibit on the forfeiture of 10 l. to be taken for my use, that no one may hinder or trouble them in respect of the aforesaid liberty."

These fairs were appointed to be held at the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24th), and the Feast of St. Michael, (September 29th). The same Earl confirmed this by his second charter:

  • "to all my citizens of Chester their Gild Merchant with all the liberties and free customs which they have ever had, better and more freely and more quietly in the times of my ancestors, in the aforesaid Gild."

His third charter, while again confirming previous grants, conferred certain legal privileges.

  • "If any citizen of my aforesaid city die, his will, reasonably made, may be made good in law, and from wheresoever made."

The next provision is curious, and probably relates to stolen goods :-

  • "If any citizen shall make any purchase in open day, and before witnesses, and a suit shall afterwards arise from a Frenchman or Englishman, who can reasonably dispute the purchase, he shall restore what he has purchased, but be liable to nothing further".

But, the charter proceeds,

  • "if suit shall arise from a Welshman who can reasonably dispute the purchase, he shall give back to the citizen the price of the article bought, which the same citizen can reasonably show that he gave for the thing bought."

This discrimination against the Welsh reflects the inferior status of the Welsh and can be also seen in the writings of Lucian the Monk:

  • "The native [Cestrian] knows how savagely our neighbour often approaches, and stimulated by hunger and cold haunts the place, and then cannot help but compare the difference in supplies. Yet he returns, but with hostile glance and evil thoughts envies the citizen within the walls."

According to some reports, in his charter of 1208 Ranulf de Blondeville approved a law, to the efect that there cannot be another market within six and two third miles of Chester Market (as the crow flies). In 2014 this law was used by the Local Authority to prevent Tesco holding a regular car-boot sale.

King John

John: lost his crown jewels

The next surviving charter, is one by John, Earl of Moreton, and Lord of Ireland, (afterwards King), confirming the charter of Henry II. enabling the citizens to trade in Ireland. Whether some resistance had been made to this charter does not appear, but later John enjoined all his Bailiffs in Ireland:

  • "to guard and protect the citizens of Chester, and all their goods and possessions, and not do, or allow to be done,to them any injury or annoyance . - - so that I hear no complaints thereof."

And after he succeeded to the throne John intimated to all his Justicianes, Constables, and Bailiffs in Ireland, that he had granted another charter to the citizens of Chester, confirming "all the free customs which they have been wont to have in our land of Ireland," and proceeds, evidently not without reason, "we strictly forbid you to harass them herein in any respect or to do or allow to be done to them therein any wrong or annoyance."

The shrievalty appears first to have been divided in the 1220s or 1230s, during the tenure of Stephen Fresnell, and there were certainly two sheriffs by 1244.

Chester's "Magna Carta"

Curiously, the Magna Carta did not apply to Chester (as a palatinate), and Ranulf de Blondeville therefore enacted his own version of it. The similarities between many of the clauses in the Magna Carta of Chester and those in the Magna Carta indicates that the former was written after King John issued the latter on 19 June 1215. Earl Ranulf's version was somewhat shorter and simpler than King John's.

John Canmore

John Canmore, the last of the Norman Earls of Chester, by a charter granted between 1234-37 confirmed:

  • "to my citizens of Chester, that no merchant shall buy or sell any kind of merchandise, which shall have come to the city of Chester, by sea or land, except the citizens themselves, or their heirs, or by their favour, except on the appointed market-days, that is to say, at the Nativity of St. John the Baptist, or at the Feast of St. Michael."

John Canmore also confirmed the charter as to purchase in market overt of goods which later turned out to be stolen (but still with the invidious exception in the case of Welsh plaintiffs!). The Guild Merchant, also, was confirmed, and a curious custom known as "caption" was defined ."Caption" was the seizing or taking of a certain proportion of the merchandise offered for sale. Then the charter goes on,

  • "that no caption be made in the city of Chester except for the use of the Lord Earl and his Justiciary whilst they are here, and that this should be thirteen pennyworths for twelve, except only ale, and caption of that was to be taken only to the extent of four pints of one brewing, and the price of each pint ought to be four-pence."

And no one was to have the caption of ale except the Lord Earl and his Justiciary.

Henry III

The division and redistribution of the estates held by Ranulf earl of Chester which took place in the 1230's was a major event in Henry III's reign. On the death of Ranulf, 1232 his far flung possessions in northern and midland England were divided between his four sisters and John the Scot, who look Cheshire as a single lordship, and was granted the Earldom of Chester. Towards the end of his life, Ranulf held 250-300 "knights fees", so the Earldom of Chester was huge by any standards.

Henry III - obsessed with Edward the Confessor

On the eighth of December, 1237, Henry III. confirmed the charter of Randal Blnndeville, this charter being under the hand of "the Venerable Father, R. Bishop of Chichester, Our Chancellor at Westminster." On the same day another charter was signed by the same high official confirming the charter of Randal granting Guild Merchant. In the following year the King himself confirmed the charter granting the exclusive right of trading in Chester to the citizens. On the sixteenth of July, 1270, Prince Edward, son of Henry III., by his letters patent to his Justiciary at Chester,

  • "desiring to show, as we are bound, to our citizens of Chester, a special favour, and that may be more closely defended and maintained in their rights,"

firmly enjoined him to take nothing from them

  • "save the due prises which are ours, the price of which take care to pay within forty days."

One indication that the office of Sheriff had been vested in the citizens, and had perhaps become elective, is the greater frequency with which it changed hands from the mid 13th century; the fact that at least 11 different combinations of holders served during the mayoralty of Richard the clerk. (c. 1251-68), for example, strongly suggests that by then appointments were for one year only.

Unlike the sheriffs and serjeants, the mayors originated as representatives of the citizens themselves. As elsewhere the mayoralty was never the subject of a formal grant. The earliest known holder of the office, William the clerk, was first named as mayor c. 1240, though he had been a senior civic figure, attesting documents, since the 1220s. The sudden occurrence of a clutch of royal letters and orders addressed to the mayor between 1244 and 1251 suggests that his office was a recent creation. The business with which he was required to deal, occasionally alone but more often in conjunction with the sheriffs and other prominent citizens, included a request for a loan, an adjudication on the closure of a lane near the Franciscan friary, overseeing paving and royal works within the city, and disposing of the remains of the king's wine after a royal visit.

The rise of the mayor to prominence in civic administration coincided with the growth of royal interest in the city, stimulated by Henry III's expeditions into Wales. Thereafter, in charters of the 1250s, the mayor was accorded a primacy of honour in the attestation of grants recorded at the portmote, yielding precedence only to the justice of Chester. Gradually, too, he seems to have taken on the role of chief representative and negotiator on behalf of the citizens in a variety of matters relating to the city's rights and privileges. In the 1260s he was associated with the sheriffs in defending Chester's legal privileges in the county court, and by the 1290s he was expected to adjudicate on civic custom and to prosecute the city's claims to immunity at the King's Bench.

A further responsibility came with the grant of the right to hold the seal of Statute Merchant. The larger portion of the seal was kept by the mayor, the smaller by a new associate, the clerk for the recognizance of debt. Early holders of the latter post, first recorded in 1291, included the son of a former mayor and a royal clerk. The grant of the seal made Chester a regional centre for the registration of debt and conditional bonds, some of which involved very large notional sums; by the 1340s proceedings were held before the mayor and clerk and enrolled among the records of the portmote.

Despite such wide responsibilities, the mayor did not apparently act as a judge within the city or preside over the city's courts before 1300; his involvement in judicial processes was apparently limited to punishing those convicted in the king's court of minor marketing offences. Occasionally, indeed, the sheriffs were expected to act against mayors who exceeded their role. In 1293, for example, the king's court empowered the sheriffs to attach the mayor, Robert the mercer, on a charge of inflicting the punishment of being drawn on hurdles.

Such evidence suggests that the mayoralty originated informally as the headship of some association of the civic élite, probably the Guild Merchant. It is also uncertain how the early mayors were chosen. If it was by election, then no term seems to have been put upon the successful candidate's tenure: mayors such as William the clerk, Walter de Livet, Richard the clerk, and John Arneway apparently held the office for uninterrupted periods of 10 years or more. From 1278, however, the mayors changed more frequently, although the same men often reappeared. That may well suggest a more open method of selection, perhaps accompanying the extension of the mayor's role in the late 13th century.

A Base for Invading Wales

Edward I

Edward I, used Chester as a base for his invasion of Wales, and contributed as a result to the prosperity of the city.

If John Canmore had a son, that son (whose mother would have been Elen ferch Llywelyn, daughter of Llywelyn the Great), or possibly a grandson, that child would have had a legitimate claim to the throne of Scotland as well as the Earldom of Chester - and very good Welsh connections. Had the Earldom of Chester continued in this manner, Edward I could have faced serious problems in both his attempts to conquer Wales and his wars with Scotland. However, the Earldom reverted to the Crown in 1237 on the death of John the Scot (aged 30).

The reversion was not as simple as most histories describe. William de Forz (Latinised as de Fortibus, sometimes spelt Deforce), 4th Earl of Albemarle, (died 1260) claimed that, as a Palatinate, it could not be divided, and his wife should get it as the oldest coheir. William got the title, but the court decided that the lands should be divided. However, he and his wife (Christina (d. 1246), daughter and co-heiress of Alan, Lord of Galloway) quitclaimed the earldom to Henry III in 1241 in exchange for modest lands elsewhere. So the last Earl of Chester may be described as William de Forz, and he held the title for four years, only a little less than John the Scot. William de Forz played a conspicuous part in the reign of Henry III of England, notably in the "Mad Parliament" of 1258. The Earldom was formally annexed to the Crown in 1246 when the rest of the honour of Chester (the land) was bought from the rest of Ranulph's sisters by Henry III. King Henry III passed the Lordship of Chester, but not the title of Earl, to his son the Lord Edward in 1254, and as King Edward I he conferred the title and the lands of the Earldom first on son, Edward, the first English Prince of Wales. By that time the Earldom of Chester consisted of two counties: Cheshire and Flintshire.

Edward by charter dated the twelfth of June, 1300, confirmed the previous charters, but stipulated fee-farm of £100 per annum (only half of what had been demanded in the 1230s), one-half to be paid at Easter, and the other moiety at Michaelmas. This charter was the product of royal interest in the city which culminated during the Welsh wars. Edward's charter of 1300 confirmed the mayor's precedence over the sheriffs. The increasingly abundant records after that date show clearly that the sheriffs were chosen annually, though occasionally in the early 14th century the same pair held office for two consecutive years. The mayoralty, however, continued to be held for several years at a time until the earlier 15th century or later. By the 1340s, and probably as early as 1320, the mayoral and shrieval years ceased to run from Michaelmas to Michaelmas. Instead the new officials began their term of office on the Friday after the feast of St. Denis (9 October).

Permission was given to the citizens to choose Coroners. The Mayor and Bailiffs were invested with the power to hold a Court for Crown Pleas, and citizens were permitted to hold certain Courts and to impose fines in certain minor cases. The grant of the Crown pleas to the citizens, at the time a unique privilege, replaced the king's court in the city with a new court presided over by the mayor and 'bailiffs' (that is, the city sheriffs). The association of the latter with the mayor in a new judicial role affected the standing of both offices.

The citizers were to receive toll or customs of imports; their goods were not to be seized for debt; they were not to be liable for the misdeeds of their servants; heirs, executors, and friends, of any citizen dying, should he be entitled to the estate; the City Bailiff only was to discharge the duties of Bailiff in the city: no person arrested within the city was to be taken to any prison other than that at the Northgate, where he was to be kept until he could be dealt with according to the law and custom of the city; and citizens were to be allowed to build upon vacant pieces of ground (in December, 1328, Edward III inspected and confirmed this charter).

By 1305 the mayor had taken over the presidency of the portmote for civil as well as criminal cases. By then, too, the portmote roll was dated by reference to both mayor and sheriffs, instead of the sheriffs alone, as had been customary earlier. The growth of mayoral power in the portmote also affected the sole remaining shrieval court, the Pentice. For a brief period, c. 1320-40, it was presided over by the mayor together with the sheriffs. When once again it became exclusively shrieval, much of its business had been eroded. Fair-time pleas and market offences were dealt with by the mayor in the portmote, and as a result proceedings in the Pentice became more and more routine.

The Black Prince

Edward (the Black Prince) Earl of Chester, who took a personal interest in the recruitment of archers from the Hundred of Macclesfield and Cheshire - a force which was to become the personal guard of Richard II.

In 1352 Edward the Black Prince, Earl of Chester, gave notice to the Mayor and citizens that he had granted the fee-farm of £100 payable by the city yearly to Richard, Earl of Arundel, for his life, commanding them at the same time:

  • "to be attentive and obedient to the said Earl and his attornies in the payment of the said Farm."

Three years later, the ninth of March, 1355, the Black Prince confirmed the previous charters and granted other privileges. The chattels of felons and fugitives, to the amount of £30 were to belong to the city, above that amount to the King. The Mayor, by virtue of his office, was to be escheater to the King. From the 12th century onward, the Crown appointed escheators to manage escheats and report to the Exchequer, with one escheator per county established by the middle of the 14th century. Upon the death of a tenant-in-chief, the escheator would be instructed by a writ of "diem clausit extremum" ("he has closed his last day", i.e. he is dead) issued by the king's chancery, to empanel a jury to hold an "inquisition post mortem" to ascertain who the legal heir was, if any, and what was the extent of the land held.

The boundaries of the city were described, and appear to have coincided in many parts with those of to-day (see: Flookersbrook), and the citizens were invested with Admiralty powers enabling them to arrest for tolls, dues, customs, and offences committed on the Dee between Chester and Arnold's Eye (Hilbre Island). This charter was signed by the Prince himself at Chester.

By the mid 14th century the roles of the main civic officers had been largely defined. The dominance of the mayor, already well established, was enhanced by the grant of the escheatorship in 1354, and by his increasing control over market offences, presented at inquests held in the courts over which he presided. The activities of the sheriffs, by then elected annually, were gradually restricted to the collection of local dues, policing, and the administration of summary justice for minor offences. The principal institutions remained those of a century before, the portmote and the unitary guild merchant. However the arrival of the Black Death in 1349 brought about some change. One third of the population of Chester is believed to have died.

The first successful "royal" charter to a guild was awarded in 1370 to the guild of Cordwainers, workers in Spanish ‘cordwain’ leather, who, in return, promised to pay ‘...8s 6d to the Black Prince’ for a monopoly on tanning leather.

Cheshire as Principality

By the end of the 14th Century the best days of the earldom of Chester were effectively over. The earldom had been a massive and often independent power-block at many times since the origins of the House of Leofric in the 10th Century. Henry III had broken it up as something independent from the crown. Edward I oversaw Chester's period of prosperity at the time of his welsh Wars. But decline was to come: while it's nearest rivals had once been York, Lincoln and Oxford, the rise of Bristol, Shrewsbury and Coventry had lessened the prospect for influence.

It has been suggested that during the Dark Ages the main harbour at Chester may have been above the present weir at The Groves. From Norman times an important anchorage developed to the south of Chester Castle and explains the location of the medieval Shipgate. As silting continued (and ships drew more draught) the harbour moved progressively downriver. The most upriver remains of docks, in Chester itself, can now be seen at New Crane Bank below the boardwalk installed in the 2000's. John McGahey's "View of Chester from a Balloon" shows the Old Port c.1855. The Old Port has been linked to the Groves by the Riverside Promenade Heritage Trail. Hemingway (Vol II, page 301) records the following as regards the port of Chester:

  • That the Dee was navigable for vessels of great burden from the sea up to Chester in very ancient times is beyond all doubt and it is equally certain that early in the 14th century the navigation had been materially impeded by the shifting of the sands. The first notice we have of the latter circumstance is contained in letters patent of Richard II who releaseth to the citizens £73 10s 8d parcel of the £100 for the fee farm reserved by the charter of Edward I which the city was in arrears in which also is assigned as the reason of this indulgence the ruinous estate of the city and of the haven. Henry VI in confirming all the former charters of the city recites what great concourse in times past as well by strangers as others has been made with merchandise into this city by reason of the goodness of the port thereof and also what great trading for victuals into and out of Wales to the great profit of the city and then shows how the same port of Chester was lamentably decayed by reason of the abundance of sands which had choaked the creek and for these considerations released to the city £10 of the fee farm reserved by Edward I.

Richard II

Richard II - deposed, imprisoned in Chester (with tales of a huge hidden treasure possibly hidden at Beeston

Richard II., by a charter dated tenth December, 1379, at Westminster, under his own hand, confirmed that of Edward the Black Prince. He had already ordered that "all the profits of the passage of the said water (the Dee) at Chester, and the Murage which used to be granted there for the Walls," were to be used for the repair of the bridge. In 1395 he, by his letters patent, wanted Murages for four years for the repair of the Walls and pavements. Near the end of his reign (the nineteenth of July, 1398 ) "the last of the Plantagenets," having erected the Palatinate of Chester into a Principality, inspected and confirmed the previous city charters at Chester, and sealed them "with the seal of our Principality." This was confirmed by Henry, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, on the twenty-third of February, 1401

The gradual dissolution of the earlier medieval framework of government was accompanied by the emergence of new civic structures, a process which seems to have crystallized in the 1390s, when the city was the object of Richard II's especial favour. Of the new institutions, the most significant was the "aldermanate" or Twenty-Four, in place by the early 1390s. Its early members, who despite their precise collective designation varied in number from 26 to over 30, were mostly former mayors and sheriffs and were associated with the current office-holders in making ordinances for the city; they met with the mayor to deliberate on the common good, and accompanied him on civic business, duties enforceable by fines exacted by the sheriffs if the aldermen did not comply.

Earl Henry (later Henry V)

Henry V

In November, 1403 the Earl of Chester prevailed upon the King of his special grace to grant a pardon to the citizens for

  • "their treasons, insurrections, rebellions, and felonies by them done or perpetrated before this against us, and their allegiance with Henry Percy the younger, now dead, and other our rebels with the assent of the same Henry Percy."

For this act of Royal leniency the Mayor and citizens had undertaken to pay a fine of 300 marks (£200) and find shipping for an expedition then on its way to the relief of the Castle of Beaumaris.

Another grant "Given at Chester the 5th day qf March, 1407," by Henry, Earl of Chester, confirmed previous charters and wants, giving to the "Mayor and Commonalty of our city of Chester" the profits and emoluments of prisa et captione of Murage for five years, which "before these times was wont to be taken and received," but one-half was to be faithfully expended upon the repair of the city walls, and the other in finishing the tower on the Dee bridge which had been commenced in the time of "Richard, late King of England." (quite some time before see: Old Dee Bridge).

Two years later the same Earl extended the licence to take Murage from five years "so long as it shall please us."

Henry VI

Charters or letters-patent now became less frequent, and it was not until the fourth of August, 1445, that another was granted. Henry VI. had been petitioned by his "beloved lieges, the Mayor and Citizens of our City of Chester," on the grounds that trade had suffered from the silting of the port and that 'restrictions and charges' had been imposed by the Welsh rebellion. Cestrians claim that the "greater part of the city lay in ruins" and that

  • "for forty years now the great flow of warer at the said port ... is taken away from the said harbour by the wreck of the sea sand so that the said harbour is wholly destroyed ... no merchant ship can approach within twelve miles of the said city"

Their prayer was granted, and £50 of the annual fee-farm of £100 was released for fifty years. But from letters patent dated the twentieth of November, 1456, we gather that in 1450 (twenty-five years only after it had been remitted), "by virtue of a certain Act of Resumption put forth in our Parliament," twenty-five marks (£16-13-4) annually were resumed. The King in consideration of the premises and of "the great burdens which the aforesaid Mayor and Citizens already have hardly in different manners borne," pardoned,remitted, and released the Sheriffs who were charged with the collection of it.

Richard III (20 June 1483–22 Aug 1485)

Richard III - died in battle (the last English monarch to do so - "Bought and Sold" by treason.

The new King, Richard III., was hardly crowned and seated upon the throne before the Mayor and citizens of Chester approached him with another long list of their grievances. Their petition set out:

  • that for sixty years past (that is from 1423) the river had been silted up, and no merchant ship could come within twelve miles of the city;
  • that the Toll demanded at the City Gates had driven away the trade of the March of Wales;
  • that in consequence " many citizens and other inhabitants of our said city withdraw themselves from out of the said city and are dwelling in other parts of our realm;
  • that in consequence of the great and insupportable burden of their fee-farm, the greater part of the city is wasted, in a desolate and ruinous condition, and very scantily inhabited.

This moving appeal had the desired effect. The King exonerated and acquitted the citizens from the payment of "custom-rent, long-gable rent, chamberlain rent," and all other payments, except £30 a year. These Letters were witnessed by the King himself at Chester on the tenth of April, 1484.

The Great Charter

Henry VII (August 22, 1485 - April 21, 1509)

Henry VII

Two years later Henry VII., supposedly for similar reasons, made further concessions. Although it is worth remembering that a major land-holding family associated Chester (see: Stanley Palace) has changed sides at the battle of Bosworth Field, effectively (and literally) crowing Henry Tudor as Henry VII, and leading poor old Richard III to die shouting "Treason! Treason! Treason!....".

  • "The humble supplication and lamentable information of the Mayor, Sheriffs, Citizens, and Commonalty.. [pleaded that Chester had been] ..one of the ancient cities of the kingdom of England, and built for the holding and safeguard of the Marches and the parts adjacent, and the Port of the same City with so crowded a concourse of foreign traders landing there at a gate called the Watergate of the same City, and others bringing their merchandise,"

..had formerly been very prosperous. But now the river was choked with sand. The markets were void. Entire desolation was imminent. Upon this the King remitted the whole of their burdens, except the payment of £20 annually. This document too was witnessed by the King (Henry VII.) himself, at Chester, on the twenty-first day of March, 1485.

The GREAT CHARTER of Henry VII (1506) proceeds:

1506 - Chester gets its reward for treason against Richard III?
  • "know Ye that we, for the great affection which we have and bear to our City of Chester, the Citizens and Commonalty of the same City, and in consideration of the good behaviour and great expenses of the inhabitants of the same City, as also of the voluntary service many ways rendered by them against our adversaries and rebels, willing the better estate of the same City, and especially to provide for the convenience and quiet of the said Citizens, their heirs and successors, of our especial grace and certain knowledge, and mere motion, have given and granted, and do give and grant, and by these presents have confirmed for us and our heirs to the aforesaid Citizens and commonalty, their heirs and successors for ever, that the said City, and all the ground within the said City, with the suburbs and hamlets within the precinct and compass of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of the said City of Chester and the aforesaid suburbs and hamlets, (wholly excepting our castle within the walls of the said City), be exempted and separated, as well by land as by water, from our shire of Chester; and that the said City, and the suburbs and hamlets of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of them, (except as before excepted), be henceforth a County by and in itself distinct and separate from our County of Chester, and that from henceforth it shall be called and named the 'County of the City of Chester.'"

The charter next provided for the election of a Mayor, two Sheriffs, twenty-four Aldermen, and forty Common-Councilmen, and one Alderman was to be appointed Recorder of the City. The Charter laid out the process for electing the Mayor. Every year the freemen were to vote for aldermen and councilmen, who made up the Assembly, the ancestor of the present day City Council. The aldermen then voted for the Mayor. In practice the Assembly itself elected men to fill any vacancies.

The Mayor and Sheriffs were invested with authority to hold a Court in the Common Hall of the City for the trial of offences and claims of all kinds arising within the City, its suburbs, and hamlets, "our Castle and our liberty within the boundary commonly called 'Gloverstone' only excepted." The Northgate Tower was to be continued as a gaol, and Port-mote and Crown-mote courts were to be held before the Mayor. The forfeited goods of felons were to be the property of the citizens, who were also freed from the payment of all customs except those on wine and iron. The management and regulation of the Dee fisheries was vested in the Mayor and Sheriffs, as well as the control of the city markets. The twenty-four Aldermen were automatically justices of the peace by virtue of their office, and special powers were conferred upon any four of them, the Mayor and Recorder being two of the four, to inquire from time to time, and as often and whenever they should think good:

  • "concerning all felonies, trespasses, forestallings (that is, purchasing goods elsewhere than in fair or market), and regratings (buying up goods or victuals for re-sale), from time to time there done and committed."

That the dignity of the Chief Magistrate/Mayor might be apparent, the charter runs :-

  • " Moreover, we have granted . . . that the Mayor of the said City of Chester, and his successors for the time being, have their sword, which we gave them, or any other as may please them, (in the absence of us or our heirs), carried before them with the point upright, as well in the presence of other the nobles and lords of our realm of England, who are related to us and any others, as in any other way."

Power was likewise given to choose two Coroners every year, and two Murengers or overseers of the City Walls were to be appointed to collect the accustomed murage and keep the Walls in repair. The officers of the King's household were forbidden to meddle with the affairs of the City, and the Council were empowered to make bye-laws for its better government.

The fee-farm of the City was fixed at twenty pounds, and permission was given to the Mayor and Citizens to build up all void places, and the citizens were also exempted from certain customary dues. From 1506 until 1835 the civil government of the City was carried on under the provisions of the Great Charter of Chester or some variant of it. For most of this period only the Freemen of Chester had the vote.

Later Charters

Henry VIII (April 22, 1509–January 28, 1547)

Henry VIII - got fat and boils, died

In the reign of Henry VIII. (the fourth of May, 1528) Letters Patent were signed by direction of the Lord High Admiral of England, confirming to the Mayor and citizens of Chester certain rights in connection with the Dee. Commissary - General Woodhall had examined their ancient privileges,

  • "in virtue of which the lands, possessions, and all and singular harbours within the dominions of the aforesaid liberty, as well by land as by water and sea, viz :- From Arnold's Eye to Eaton Weir; also the tenants, farmers, and all other men, all and singular within the same liberty have been and are fully exempt from all manner of jurisdiction and power of the Admiral of England and his officials whatsoever, so far that all punishments, corrections, Deodands, Waveson, Flottesam, Jetteson, and wrecks, and all other casualties, contingencies whatsoever, whensoever, howsoever, by land, water, and sea, with all and singular their appurtenances within the aforesaid liberties are found to belong to foresaid Mayor and citizens of the fore mentioned city of Chester; used moreover according to custom prescribed from time and for time immemorial."

Henry Gee, also known as “The Reforming Mayor of Chester” served two terms: 1534-1534 and 1539-1540. In his first term, Henry Gee was determined to change how the government operated. Henry Gee was puritan in outlook. Both as Sheriff and Mayor, Henry Gee

  • “acted against unlawful gaming, drink, and excessive celebrations on Christmas Day. He introduced regulations concerning women’s proper dress and parties accompanying childbirth and churching. He proposed to list legitimate beggars by ward, and required the able-bodied to present themselves for work each day and all [boys] aged six to attend school. He even forbade women aged between 14 and 40 to serve ale, invoking the need to preserve the city’s good reputation in order to attract visitors”.

The first Assembly minute book was begun on the initiative of Henry Gee during his second mayoralty, 1539-40. It seems to have been intended as a reference book, for the first folios contain copies of earlier records, for example a list of mayors and sheriffs from 1326; a description of the city boundaries and streets; a list of officers’ fees; and a list of Corporation property. Assembly orders dating from c.1453 are also copied in and it is not until c.1570 that decisions taken at Assembly meetings begin to be recorded on a systematic basis. Henry Gee was concerned about the quality of government. One of the changes he tried to make was to prevent mayoral nomination of aldermen. Gee also reformed the way the elections were carried out, so that the elections had to be carried out at the assembly meetings.

By the mid 16th century people were showing a reluctance to hold office, owing to the expense and other problems. A ruling in 1550 forced any who refused office to be fined £100 and those who tried to avoid office, £10.

Records from this period in the national archive include William Alderley's "History of the Mayors of Chester".

A further useful economic record of the time is the City of Chester Town Clerk records compiled by the Clerk of the Pentice, which mainly consists of copies of bills of exchange protested before him as notary public, with notes of the protests and the reasons for non-payment. The record also contains copies of instruments of protest made before him, by which masters of ships or merchants protested against all concerned all damage and losses due to storms at sea or to failure to observe the terms of charter-parties or trade agreements. The book also contains copies of a number of certificates from the Mayor, attested by the Clerk of the Pentice, that specified cargoes have been laded in the port of Chester, that the goods are English and belong to merchants of Chester, who are named, and that Chester is free from pestilence.

Elizabeth

Elizabeth, by her Letters Patent, confirmed the Great Charter of her predecessor, and added a provision for "the safety, defence, and government of orphans." Cooke records:

  • "In the year 1554 it appears that the mayor appointed the common council men. In 1574, the confirmation which Elizabeth gave, in the sixth year of her reign, to the charter of Henry the Seventh, was, by the immaculate corporation, surrendered for one that was more favourable to the encroachments they had made, on the privileges of their fellow citizens."

James I

James I. attempted to over-ride the liberties of the city, by requiring the citizens to elect Hugh Mainwaring to be their Recorder, which they declined to do. Cooke records:

  • "In 1604, James the First gave a confirmation of the charter; this seemed to have less sincerity than compliment. His majesty attempting, the year following, to nominate a recorder, is an evidence of that royal interference in the affairs of corporations which began in this reign, and was carried to such a dangerous excess by succeeding kings as almost to threaten an entire subversion of the few privileges charters had restored to the people."

The Commonwealth and After

During the Civil War government in Chester was thrown into turmoil. The siege of Chester by the Parliamentary forces in the Civil War forced the Mayor to be subject to a Royalist Military Governor. This office was held in 1643-44 by Sir Nicholas Byron and later by his nephew, Lord John Byron. Following the city’s surrender in February 1646, a Parliamentary Governor, Colonel Jones was appointed. The Mayor of Chester, Charles Walley, refused to sign the articles of surrender. He was fined and stripped of his authority.

National legislation in 1647 and 1654 exempted from apprenticeship requirements those who had served the parliamentary cause, but the Chester guilds still tried to defend restrictions, and some inter-guild disputes continued, as between:

  • the Saddlers and Spurriers and the Cutlers over the trade in spurs;
  • the Joiners and the Carpenters about timber supplies;
  • the Mercers and the Linendrapers over silk wares.

These were not the only disputes: the Mercers complained that the Innholders competed unlawfully in the distributive trades, and textile craftsmen were aggrieved by the Drapers' attempts to monopolize the sale of cloth. After a lengthy agitation, wheelwrights were admitted to the Joiners, Turners, and Carvers' company in 1657, whereupon they began to interfere with the privileges of the other occupations and were excluded from the guild aldermanship and custody of the records.

From 1647 to 1660 admissions to the freedom approached an annual average of 40, with 67 in 1647-8 in the immediate aftermath of the siege and plague. The leather crafts remained the largest category, and the biggest individual occupations included shoemakers, glovers, tanners, ironmongers, and tailors. During the 1650s there was a marked increase in the number of feltmakers, and in 1654 the Feltmakers' company claimed that 500 people were dependent on their work. Very occasionally the corporation waived the regulations in order to attract those with particular skills: in 1653 strangers were allowed to work in the building industry on payment of 1d. weekly to the guild concerned, and in 1655 Thomas Hancock, a gunsmith, was permitted to work for the garrison.

During the Commonwealth the city was deprived of its privileges as a separate county, and the Corporation dissolved on 17 September 1659. The City had remained loyal to the Royalist cause and in this way drew upon it the displeasure of Cromwell. The decision of Parliament was however inoperative, as before it could be acted upon Charles II had been called to the throne.

Charles II and James II

The MPs returned in 1661, Sir Thomas Smith, Bt., and the recorder, John Ratcliffe, upheld the city's interests in parliament but were not especially active. The contested byelection on Ratcliffe's death in 1673, between Colonel Robert Werden, a courtier with local connections, and the recorder, William Williams, involved serious disorder and accidental loss of life during the poll. Werden had a majority of 50 in a total of 1,152 votes, but his election was confirmed only in 1675, after the Commons had considered complaints about the mayor's admission of new freemen during the contest to secure votes for a preferred candidate.

Charles II - This affable character had most of those involved in his father's death beheaded, including those who had since died and were dug-up especially to be "executed".

Cooke states that Charles II, by an order in Council removed nearly all the members of the Corporation, and the same year (1688), by Letters Patent, formed a new one, with Sir Thomas Stanley as Mayor. But in the following October he issued a proclamation restoring to Corporations-Chester among the number-their "ancient charters, liberties, rights, and franchises" (including the Great Charter of Henry VII). William Streete was restored to the Mayoralty, Sir William Williams, Baronet, to the office of Recorder, and the other expelled members to their several positions. One major problem with the vesrion as told by Cooke is that Charles II died in 1685. What is recorded, from 1676, is:

  • June 6 16 Charles II: Charter to the Mayor and Citizens confirming the provisons of the Charter of Hen VII as to the City being a County of itself but vesting the Election of the Aldermen etc. in the Select Body.

Cooke records the events of those times as follows:

  • "In the year 1662, Lord Biereton, Sir Peter Leicester, Sir Richard Grosvenor, and Sir Geoffry Shackerby, acting as commissioners, for regulating the corporation, endeavored to remove several aldermen and common councilmen, who appeared too much attached to the interests of their fellow citizens to be the avowed tools of governments. To this origin may be traced those divisions and animosities, which have frequently risen to such an alarming height in this city, and which can scarcely be said to have subsided."
James II - his attempts to create religious liberty for English Roman Catholics and Protestant nonconformists were against the wishes of the Anglican establishment, so he had to go.

The great subject of dispute between Charles the Second and his parliament, was the excluding his brother, the Duke of York, a "professed papist", from succeeding to the crown. Towards the close of his reign an information was filed in the nature of a quo warranto, aiming at the dissolution of the Corporation. The citizens had resisted the attempt by the King to exclude certain civic officers opposed to the introduction of Catholics, and for the exclusion of the Duke of York from the succession. The "Exclusion Crisis" ran from 1679 through 1681 in the reign of King Charles II. The Exclusion Bill sought to exclude the king's brother and heir presumptive, James, Duke of York, from the thrones of England, Scotland and Ireland because he was Roman Catholic (and might have the same tendency towards absolute monarchy as his father). James, Duke of York, the second surviving son of Charles I, would later become James II, but be deposed in the "Glorious Revolution" (1688) when his Protestant son-in-law and nephew, William of Orange, landed an invasion army from the Netherlands. Chester was the scene of the only spontaneous resistance to the Revolution. On the news of the landing of William of Orange, the Roman Catholic Lord Molyneux with two Irish regiments seized Chester Castle, but on 18 December 1688 the Earl of Derby entered the city, which had declared for the Prince, and Molyneux’s forces were disarmed and disbanded.

The Abhorrers — those who thought the Exclusion Bill was abhorrent (and that James should be King) — were named "Tories" (after a term for dispossessed Irish Catholic bandits), while the Petitioners — those who supported a campaign in favour of the Exclusion Bill (and that James should not become King) — were called "Whigs" (after a term for rebellious Scottish Presbyterians). The Tories later became the Conservative Party, while the Whigs became the Liberals.

Cooke records:

  • "To such a degree was popular discord carried, that, at a parliamentary election in 1672, the Recorder, Mr. William Williams, and Colonel Warden, who had been gentlemen of the bed-chamber to the Duke of York, afterwards James the Second, being opponent candidates, eight men were killed in the crowd, at the foot of the stairs of the common-hall; and the poll was in consequence adjourned to the Roodee. This is one of those unfortunate and disgraceful casualties that too frequently attend those times when the people are called together to exercise their elective privileges at a period; when the voters of this kingdom should be suffered to chuse their representatives, with that peace, order, and decency, which ought to characterise the constitution of a parliament, discords are fomented and outrage abetted. The people are at first intoxicated, and afterwards bullied out of their reason: the very instant in which they are assembled to preserve their lives, rights, and properties, privilege is banished, rapine, encouraged, and murder committed. These are the blessings we have enjoyed ever since a seat in parliament has been more advantageous to the representative than the constituents, To countenance such proceedings, encroachments were made on this and all other corporations. In this general abridgment of independence, the charter of Chester was altered; for, in 1676, a new charter was made, which, although it left the right of election, as prescribed in that of Henry the Seventh, unaltered; it introduced several innovations, with respect to the election of all the corporate offices, so as to render their possessors more immediately dependent on the sovereign. The opposite parties, being nearly equal in strength and affluence, agreed for a time to divide the representation."

Cooke continues with:

  • "Chester men .. were ready to adopt any measure, however despotic, provided they were permitted to share the unconstitutional authority. To this end, a voluntary surrender of their old charter was attempted; but the measure, being too despotic, proved abortive. It was therefore necessary to have recourse to compulsion. An information was filed, and the result was that judgment was given that the liberties of Chester should be seized into the King's hands, until the court should further order, which was accordingly executed, by a writ of seizure. A rule of final judgment being given next term, and the corporation shewing no cause against it, a farther rule for entry of that judgment was made, which, however, from some neglect, was omitted. The Tories availed themselves of these circumstances to obtain a new charter, have their own mayor, and to fill the corporation entirely with their own creatures. Regardless of the reproaches and execrations of their fellow citizens, whom they had thus despoiled of those rights restored to them by charter, they triumphed in the smiles and sunshine of court-favour; and, as if tyranny had completely vanquished the patriotism of Chester, a tablet was placed over the pentice door, with an inscription importing "that the new charter was acceptable to all good men.""

Charter of 1683

Thomas Grosvenor in 1678 by (or after) Peter Lely. Thomas brought the Grosvenors back into local politics but faced steep opposition from the other factions within the city.

A new charter was procured in 1683 through Sir Thomas Grosvenor (see: Grosvenors). It largely confirmed the city's constitution, also empowering the mayor to appoint a deputy, but with a clause, normal at the time, allowing the Crown to remove civic office-holders. The charter disfranchised eight men, including Recorder Williams and Aldermen Street, Mainwaring, and Roger Whitley, and made Sir Thomas Grosvenor mayor and Sir Edward Lutwyche, a newcomer, recorder; it also named the sheriffs, the clerk of the Pentice, and 22 aldermen, of whom six were new to the Assembly, and made changes among the Forty. In 1688 the government removed the entire Assembly and obliged the city to petition for a new charter, which named the corporation and principal officers, reserved the Crown's right to dismiss individuals, dispensed all members from the prescribed oaths, and restricted the franchise to the corporation. Of the 24 aldermen named in addition to the mayor and recorder only 11 had already served as aldermen and four as sheriffs. Grosvenor and William Stanley, earl of Derby, were among those displaced. Members removed in the purge of 1685 and restored in 1688 included Mainwaring, Roger Whitley, and Peter Edwards. The attempt to conciliate Whigs and those with nonconformist connexions was fruitless: the nominated corporation apparently never met, and in October 1688 the charters of 1683 and 1688 were annulled and the city resumed its earlier privileges.

Creating Votes

In the 1690s the city's political alignment was in the balance. Chester needed influential connections to obtain a scheme for the River Dee navigation, relief from heavy taxation, and a relaxation of the regulations hindering the import of cattle and hides. Economic and political issues were therefore linked as Whig and Tory groups, led respectively by Roger Whitley and Thomas Grosvenor, vied for control of parliamentary representation. There were also differences about the rights of dissenters and the method of choosing officers and members of the Assembly, though the parliamentary franchise undisputedly rested with the freemen. In 1690 Grosvenor and Levinge were returned, and Whitley and Mainwaring complained that the mayor had wrongly created 125 new freemen during the election.

As evidence of the way in which the Assemby was organised: the Assembly Book of 1689 records:

  • "Thomas Crichley, draper, stated in his petition that last Midsummer Randle Minshall, Macebearer, "being very aged and infirme and almost blind" by consent of the Mayor and Justices, employed him as his servant to attend the Mayor, carry the mace and officiate in his stead. The Mayor and Justices ordered that Minshall should pay him £20 a year as reward, but he had not done so. He asked that the house should make an order for his relief. It was ordered that Critchley should be deputy Macebearer for Randle Minshall, who should pay him £4 quarterly to begin at the previous Christmas. Thereupon Critchley took a solemn oath to conceal the secrets of the Assemblies so often as he should be admitted to them."

In 1689 there was a sharp contest for the city's seats in the Convention Parliament. This was the irregular assembly of the Parliament of England which transferred the Crowns of England and Ireland from James II to William III. Roger Whitley and the Whig alderman George Mainwaring were opposed unsuccessfully by Thomas Grosvenor and Richard Levinge, the former recorder. The latter’s prospects of success in the next election (1690) had been strengthened by a combination of the election of eight of their allies to the assembly in 1689 and the support of the lord lieutenant Lord Cholmondeley, so that on 17 Feb. Whitley’s and Mainwaring’s supporters attempted to hold the election before Grosvenor and Levinge had been able to organize their interest. This effort proved unsuccessful and a bitter campaign ensued, allegations being made that while canvassing Grosvenor had spoken against the new monarchs. Much to the disgust of Whitley, Mainwaring and their interest, agents for the Tory candidates, including the recently removed governor of Chester, Peter Shakerley, began enrolling large numbers of freemen, their entry fees allegedly being paid by Grosvenor, so that over 120 freemen were created in late February and early March. Polling began on 17 Mar. and was soon beset by complaints from Whitley and Mainwaring against taking the votes of the recently created freemen, and by disputes between the borough’s two sheriffs, acting as returning officers. The complaints of the Whitley and Mainwaring interest reached a crescendo when the senior sheriff closed the poll, as the Whig candidates claimed they had ‘several in the crowd that called out to be polled’. When the court of election reassembled the following day requests for the poll to be re-opened were rejected, and both pairs of candidates were declared elected by separate sheriffs. Grosvenor and Levinge, who had led the poll at the end of the 17th, were returned.

Whitley and his supporters were not, however, prepared to accept a Tory ascendancy in Chester, and in 1690 Whitley launched a campaign to gain control of the corporation, in order to establish the dominance of the Whig interest in the borough. The annual election of Chester’s mayor proved ideal for Whitley’s purposes. Mayoral elections were conducted in a number of separate rounds, voters having two votes in all but the last round. Having been previously restricted to various combinations of corporation officials, in the penultimate round voting was thrown open to the freemen, who were permitted to nominate new candidates if unhappy with those put to them by the corporation, and the two candidates with most votes in this round were then ‘housed’. In the final round of voting the aldermen chose one of the ‘housed’ candidates as mayor. The role of the freemen in this procedure encouraged Whitley and his supporters to nurture their interest among the freemen in an attempt to secure the mayoralty for their interest. Whitley stood unsuccessfully for the mayoralty in October 1690. The following year he stood in alliance with Lord Warrington (Henry Booth) and although defeated in the early, closed rounds of voting Whitley and Warrington comfortably carried the popular vote. Forced to choose between the two Whigs, the aldermen elected Warrington mayor. October 1692 saw Whitley chosen mayor and he was to hold this post for the next four years.

Shortly after he was elected Whitley began to question the authority of his opponents in the assembly, and in the spring of 1693 rumours began to circulate that Whitley, with the assistance of Chester’s former Member and current recorder, Sir William Williams, intended to establish annual, popular elections of the borough’s common councillors, claiming that this right had been granted to Chester in the charters of Henry VIII and Elizabeth I and had not been revoked in subsequent charters. A petition requesting annual elections, signed by 400 citizens, was presented on 5 June 1693 and, despite opposition from Tories, including Levinge and Shakerley, such an election was held ten days later, establishing a majority of Whitley’s supporters in the assembly.

Whitley’s opponents petitioned the Privy Council and initiated a legal case against the mayor, but the Council refused to involve itself, preferring that ‘the whole matter [be] left to the determination of the law’, and the mayoral election of October saw Whitley, Williams, Warrington succeed in Whitley’s re-election despite opposition led by Grosvenor and Shakerley. A mandamus for the restoration of the old common councillors and the swearing of a Grosvenor supporter as mayor was twice rejected by Whitley in the winter of 1693, and in June the following year between 200 and 300 ‘citizens’ participated in a common council election which strengthened the position of Whitley and his interest in the assembly. The case against popular election initiated by nine of the common councillors removed by popular election reached the court of King’s bench in the Michaelmas term of 1694, but was dismissed as the unseated councillors had filed a single, collective writ rather than individual ones. Bolstered by this victory, the dominance of the corporation by Whitley’s interest was confirmed in the common council election of 1695.

The Grosvenor Monopoly

Given the position Whitley and his supporters had established, the prospects of Tory success at the 1695 MP election appeared bleak and the likely MP's seemed to be Whitley and Williams however Whitley appears to have deserted Williams. Whatever the reason for Whitley’s desertion, Williams was clearly angered by it and his petition, heard by the Commons on 13 December, attributed his defeat to clandestine arrangements between Whitley, Grosvenor and Mainwaring, and to the improper use of the mayor’s powers by Whitley. Whitley stood down from the mayoralty in October 1696, probably due to his declining health, and, though two of his supporters comfortably carried the closed rounds of voting, the freemen returned two of Grosvenor’s supporters in the subsequent round, forcing the aldermen to elect a Tory mayor. The Groosvenor faction scoured the city for supporters eligible for the freedom who had not yet exercised this right resulting in the admission of over 120 new freemen in the two weeks before the contest, a possible repetition of the Grosvenor interest’s tactic from the 1690 parliamentary election. Whitley attempted to rally his supporters, but his death in July 1697 signalled the demise of the Whig interest at Chester. Grosvenor’s supporters dominated the common council election of June 1697, and in October the same year annual popular election of the common council was replaced by co-option to the assembly for life. January 1698 saw the Tory Thomas Cowper chosen unopposed to replace Whitley, and the newly established Tory domination of Chester was confirmed in the general election later the same year when Grosvenor and Shakerley were returned in opposition to Francis Gell (who had proposed a scheme for the navigation of the River Dee). It was to be Shakerley and Grosvenor who piloted a bill through Parliament in the 1699–1700 session granting the corporation the authority to embark upon the navigation of the Dee.

The Grosvenors of nearby Eaton Hall, who derived enormous wealth from landed property in Cheshire, Dorset (from 1822), North Wales and by developing the London residential suburbs of Belgravia, Mayfair and Pimlico on their Middlesex estate, returned at least one of the two Members of Parliament continuously from 1715 to 1874, and frequently both. While originally taking the Tory side, they changed to the Whig cause in 1806. The Grosvenors controlled the tenancies of numerous Chester properties and exerted great influence over the 24 incorporated trades (Guilds) and the self-electing corporation or assembly of 24 aldermen and 40 common councilmen, whose control of municipal affairs and offices was resented and had spawned an independence party. The leaders of the Independents within the city were successively a merchant, Ralph Eddowes (of which more below), a gentleman, Roger Barnston of Forest House, Foregate Street, and a brewer, Alderman William Seller. Other prominent supporters included members of the Wrench family, owners of the Dee Mills. The Independents' political headquarters in Chester from 1784 were at the Royal Hotel in Eastgate Street, but they were forced from there in 1815 when Earl Grosvenor bought it (it is now the Grosvenor Hotel), and from 1818 used the Albion Hotel in Lower Bridge Street.

Riotous Elections

Cooke writes of what appears to have been the last Welsh "invasion" of Chester which took place in 1732:

  • "a large body of colliers, and other countrymen, were brought from the neighbourhood of Wrexham, by the direction and under the influence of Mr. W. W. Wynne. The citizens hearing of their approach, retired into the castle, and there armed themselves with old swords, helmets, and breast-pieces; and, thus formidably accoutered, sallied forth to meet their foes. A bloody encounter ensued in Bridge Street; and the Welshmen, after several of them were dangerously wounded, were soon routed and put to flight".

Hanshall (1816) notes that these ancient arms were actually those surrendered at the end of the Siege of Chester during the Civil War:

  • "These head pieces remained in the Castle, till late in the last century and one of them is now preserved in the iron room of the County Gaol. They were not however always employed in military disputes, they have been used in the riots of electioneering contests During the memorable BARON'S ELECTION in 1732, part of the citizens availed themselves of the helmets to repel an irruption of Welsh colliers, &c, who were employed by one of the parties. The conflict took place in Lower Bridge street and the Cambrians were forced to retreat exclaiming in reference to the iron defences 'Strike hur head, what strike a pot' "

This fracas was part of the general disturbances around the 1732 Majoral and Assembly election. To protect their position the Grosvenors needed to retain the support of the mayor, whose prerogative it was to call the Assemblies at which honorary freemen could be created. The Whigs first tried to win over the mayor of 1731-2, Trafford Massie, by offering clerical preferment for his son. Shortly before the election in 1732 the Whig candidate for mayor left £100 in gold with Massie in return for a written promise to call no further Assemblies. Meanwhile sporadic disorders culminated in the clash in Bridge Street in early October (1732) between a Whig mob (allegedly reinforced with disguised soldiers, revenue officers, and Liverpool sailors) and Tory supporters who included the Welsh colliers. The latter came off worse, and the Whigs, suspecting that Tory aldermen were admitting more freemen after dark, broke into and wrecked the Pentice. The mayor called for dragoons from Warrington to help restore order and appointed c. 270 special constables. The violence shocked the faction leaders into a truce, but when polling was adjourned the Whigs, supposing that their man had won, pursued the mayor and justices into the coffee house under the Exchange and carried off the mayoral sword and mace. In fact the Tories had won by c. 1,100 votes to c. 850, perhaps in part through intimidation, and perhaps in party by admitting freemen who guaranteed a vote.

In 1733, incensed by the Tories' allegedly irregular co-option of Sir Robert Grosvenor and his ally Watkin Williams Wynn as aldermen, the Whigs went to law to assert the rule of election by freemen laid down in 1506; a jury of Cheshire gentlemen, however, basing themselves on a "lost" (and conveniently now found) order of 1525, ruled that the charter's terms should be overridden by constant practise. From 1734 the Tories also adjusted the method of electing the mayor and the freemen's sheriff, thenceforth entirely excluding the freemen; later mayors were normally chosen in order of seniority of their membership of the Assembly. Several times the mayoralty was held by the Grosvenors or their aristocratic or gentry allies in the county, two serving successively in 1736-8, and three between 1759 and 1762. By then the next mayor but one was also being formally designated at the time of his predecessor's election. Only twice, in 1744 and 1784, did open division among the aldermen permit the freemen to vote.

In 1784 when Richard, 1st Baron Grosvenor, was made an earl, the independents unsuccessfully put up John Crewe of Bolsworth against the sitting Members, Thomas Grosvenor, the earl’s brother, and Richard Wilbraham Bootle, a Lancashire landowner, both of them former participants in the abortive St. Albans Tavern venture who were now supporting William Pitt the Younger. For the next six years the independents, led by Ralph Eddowes, a merchant, fought a legal battle to try to establish their right under the city’s original charter, to participate in the election of members of the corporation. Although they obtained a favourable decision in the Lords early in 1790 (Journal of the HOL, 31 Geo III), they were financially exhausted and in too much disarray to enforce the ruling, which the corporation simply ignored. Eddowes, on whom most of the cost had fallen, gave up the struggle in disgust and later went to live in America.

Further Malpractice

Owen Jones as depicted in his portrait from Chester Town Hall (its in the Mayoress' Parlour) also had his charity plundered.

This was not the only "malpractice" at that time, the Corporation's management of local charities in the 18th century was at best lax and in many respects clearly corrupt. In many cases, no separate accounts were kept for the municipal charities, but all income was merged into general funds, from which it was diverted to non-charitable purposes. St John's Hospital, by far the richest charity before Owen Jones charity had its leaden "windfall", was the most severely plundered. In addition the Corporation sold what were supposed to be permanent rent-charges in order to pay its debts, let charity property to aldermen and councilmen on long leases at low rents. From the 1740s the Corporation connived with the Guilds' misapplication of the Owen Jones charity, who by the 1780s were dividing the proceeds indiscriminately among their members, whether poor or rich, as each guild came round in rotation. Admission to the guilds was closely regulated, some choosing to admit new members at inflated premiums, others to exclude new guildsmen as their own turn for the "bonanza" approached every quarter-century. While the Corporation was strongly in favour of the intended canal to Nantwich and beyond, it was a heavy investor through the Owen Jones charity in the company's shares, thus risking the funds of the charity rather than its own.

In the late 18th and early 19th century Chester was not a propitious place in which to establish new industries. It was not on a coalfield, and water power was restricted to the weir on the Dee, which was affected by the tide. The hinterland was mainly rural and was poorly served by transport. There seems also to have been a lack of enterprise on the part of Cestrians, and the residual power of the city guilds may have restrained development. It was observed in 1814 that:

  • "corporate privileges are not often calculated to foster commerce, and in this city, although we mark the infancy of several manufactures, few arrive at maturity" (Wardle and Bentham's Commercial Guide, 1814).

The influence of the guilds did not ebb as quickly as in other towns, due mainly to their subvention by the Owen Jones charity. Their final decay came about in part because of restrictions on membership imposed in order to maximize existing members' benefits from the charity, but their authority was destroyed finally in 1825 when an unsuccessful case was brought against a tanner for trading when not a freeman. A few attempts to create new wealth were successful: a Leadworks was established by the canal in 1799; its shot tower, which was used for making lead shot for the Napoleonic Wars, is the oldest remaining shot tower in the UK. However, at the end of the 18th century, industrialisation of the Lancashire and Manchester mill towns saw Cheshire farms abandoned as workers sought a better living in the industrial towns. These lands were absorbed into bigger estates culminating in 98% of Cheshire land belonging to only 26% of the population. Other developments moved the center of industry away from Chester itself. The completion of the Trent and Mersey Canal in 1777 and innovations such as the Anderton Boat Lift, allowed Cheshire cheese and salt to become major county exports - but not through Chester.

During the first third of the 18th century at least some guilds were still active in economic regulation, passing and sometimes enforcing rules about the number of apprentices who might be taken on and the length of apprenticeships, and restraining members who tried to entice journeymen away from other masters by offering higher wages. Some still tried to control access to their raw materials, notably the Tanners in the 1710s. Most effort, however, was directed towards preventing non-members from trading in the city. The Feltcappers frequently took action, though it took two costly lawsuits over 10 years before they finally put a non-member working from Boughton out of business in 1740. The Shoemakers were vigorous in making prosecutions in the 1720s and 1730s, and the Bricklayers in 1737 fined members who sold bricks to unfree journeymen working on their own account. Such efforts gradually petered out after the 1730s, and by 1750 they had all but stopped. The Brewers frequently asserted their monopoly before 1761, but not at all afterwards, and they last regulated the price of ale in 1762.

The Oddfellows

Bridge House, previously home of the Oddfellows for over a century, in 2014: still a "grace and ornament to the city".

A journeyman is a skilled worker who has successfully completed an official apprenticeship qualification in a building trade or craft. They are considered competent and authorized to work in that field as a fully qualified employee. A journeyman earns their license by education, supervised experience, and examination. Although a journeyman has completed a trade certificate and is able to work as an employee, they are not yet able to work as a self-employed master craftsman. The term journeyman was originally used in the medieval trade guilds. Journeymen were paid each day. The word "journey" is derived from journée "day" in French. Each individual guild generally recognised three ranks of workers: apprentices, journeymen, and masters. A journeyman, as a qualified tradesman could become a master and run their own business, but most continued working as employees. Guidelines were put in place to promote responsible tradesmen, who were held accountable for their own work, and to protect the individual trade and the general public from unskilled workers. To become a master, a journeyman has to submit a master piece of work to a guild for evaluation. Only after evaluation can a journeyman be admitted to the guild as a master. The Masters wished to keep their own numbers small and one way of going this was to require the guild members to attend meetings in expensive robes, which the journeymen could not afford. This precluded the journeymen from enjoying the benefits of guild membership, including the "friendly society" benefit of charity if they became ill and could not work. To provide this benefit for themselves the journeymen formed an "Oddfellows" society opem to any qualified fellow craftsman irrespective of his trade. Odd Fellowship began in England sometime previous to 1745 with the earliest mention being of a Loyal Aristarcus Lodge meeting held at the Oakley Arms, Borough of Southwark, London. The Oddfellows of Chester met at Bridge House (Numbers 16-24) in Lower Bridge Street from the 1870's until 1998, when the property became too expensive to retain and they moved to Saltney.

Improvement Act (1761) and Municipal Corporations Act (1835)

From 1689 until 1761 the civil government of the City was carried on under the provisions of the Great Charter of Chester, but at that date an Act of Parliament was obtained "for the better regulating of the poor, maintaining a nightly watch, lighting, paving, and cleansing the streets, rows, and passages, and providing fire engines and firemen, and regulating the hackney-coachmen, chairmen, carters, and porters, within the City of Chester." After the establishment of the Reformed Corporation very few years elapsed before a school of election managers sprang up. This organization was not large in numbers, but by the skilful manipulation of the electorate, to which perhaps the indisposition of many to take part in these annual contests contributed, they wielded great power. Almost every ward had its price. These men could name a sum which would secure the return of a candidate quite irrespective of his fitness, and in this way men were introduced into the council, and ultimately to the highest offices. The principal weapon used in this peculiar warfare was beer, but, no doubt, the "Bashi-Bazouks", as these men were locally known, had their price in money. In 1784 the Grosvenors spent £24,000 in all, of which £15,000 (over £7 Million, in 2014 money) went on drink and £1,600 on yellow ribbons and cockades (their opponents sported blue and red). In 1812 the total came to £23,000. Treating, generosity to the poor at times when food was dear, paying admission fees for freemen, offering well paid employment during elections, and sponsoring public works were all part of the currency; when the machine moved up a gear in the 1810s and 1820s there was coercion and outright bribery. Elections in Chester continued to be riotous affairs. Hemingway, writing in 1826, reported:

This 1825 map of Chester shows how little development has occurred both within and outside of the City Walls.
  • "Of all the places in the kingdom which have heen contested during the late general Election, the city of Chester has heen distinguished ahove most others for the virulence of party feeling, the acrimony of personal hostility, and the violence of popular outrage."

In twenty years the system had become a grave scandal, and each recurring election day was a "demoralising orgie". The same men were also very prominent workers in Parliamentary contests, but were on such occasions less potent for mischief, because a much greater proportion of the people took an interest in the election of members of Parliament.

The Municipal Corporations Act of 1835 superseded most of the ancient methods of local government, and Chester fell into line with the younger communities. Through this act the companies lost their political influence and a ruling body sympathetic to their trading monopoly. However, by this time trade diversification and industrialisation had virtually destroyed the identity and protectorate role of the companies of Chester, with many existing as no more than social clubs. The Beer-brewers Company, for example, had just three members in 1835, while the Skinners and Feltmakers had just two. Forty years later (43 Geo. III.) this Act was amended, and a further Act (The Chester Improvement Act) was passed in 1845. In 1884 another Act was passed giving further powers. The 1835 Act established a uniform system of municipal boroughs, to be governed by town councils elected by ratepayers (rather than simply freemen). The reformed boroughs were obliged to publish their financial accounts and were liable to audit. Each borough was to appoint a salaried town clerk and treasurer who were not to be members of the council. The first election of Town Councillors under the Municipal Reform Act took place on Saturday, the twenty-sixth of December, 1835, and the results were made known on the Monday following. One of the first acts of the new administration was that the tolls at the city gates were abolished, allowing goods to enter without payment. From 1836 the mayor and a single sheriff were elected each year by the council as a whole.

While the guilds of Chester still exist today, almost all freemen and Guild members are admitted by birth. New freemen are enrolled at the annual Pentice Court: now held at the Town Hall.

By the 1830's traditional manufacturing trades, including the making of clay-pipes, clocks and gloves were in serious decline, if not entirely extinct. Ship-building was entering a terminal phase and rope-making barely survived. Both of the two cotton mills had closed by the 1820's, so one of the leading industries of the Industrial Revolution had failed to establish itself in Chester. While in the 18thC. the City Fair's had been dominated by linen (the trade peaked in the 1760's), by 1830 the trade was dead. The reasons for the collapse of the linen trade center around the decline in the Chester/Dublin trade route, as its ends moved from Dublin to Belfast and Chester to Liverpool, as well as the substitution of cheaper cotton for linen. By 1840 Chester's older and wider trade connexions had withered and it had been forced into a diminished role servicing the local region. Modest new industries had appeared in the leadworks, steam milling, and ironfounding, but the heavy reliance on providing services for the hinterland implied a dependence on its fortunes and the need for improved transport connexions. From 1840 the railways provided the means by which that could be achieved.

The effects on local development brought by the railway station can be seen in this 1898 map, which shows the growth of property delevopment in Hoole and north-west of the City as compared with the older 1825 Map.

The extension of the franchise in 1867 (under the Representation of the People Act (1867)) rang the death-knell of this rotten system. In Chester the number of voters was more than doubled, and thus became more unwieldy for such purposes, and another factor in bringing about the change cannot be overlooked :- From 1832 to 1868 no Conservative had ever represented the city in the House of Commons. In the latter year (with the election of Henry Cecil Raikes) the record was broken, and from that period municipal elections have been contested mainly on political lines, and by the use of political party organizations, but it was not until the first of November, 1895, that the Conservatives had a majority in the city council. Under the Local Government act 1888 , Chester is declared a " county borough " for certain purposes of that Act .

Although Chester's population doubled between 1841 and 1911, its social character changed little. The city was polarized between a middle- and upper-class population whose income came from land, agriculture, trade, and, increasingly, inherited wealth, and a working class employed in declining manufactures or in unskilled and casual jobs in the service sector. The distinctive economic base meant that Chester lacked both a significant class of industrial capitalists and a sizeable skilled working class employed in modern industries. The City council had difficulty in finding land for development within the borough boundaries, and sometimes had to buy sites for housing in the surrounding rural districts. In such areas the cost of roads, electricity, sewerage, and other services laid on by the borough could not be recovered because the rates went to the county.

Hoole and Blacon

With the coming of the railways, Hoole's population grew from 177 people in 1801 such that there were c.5,900 in the smaller Hoole Urban District during the period 1911–31. Hoole Urban District was an Urban District in Cheshire between 1894 and 1954, when it was absorbed by Chester CB and Chester Rural Districts. Hoole remained a separate unit of local government the Offices of the Hoole Local Board, set up in 1864 (forerunner of Hoole Urban District Council), were initially at 21, Hamilton Street. Later meetings were typically held in the Westminster Road schools.

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

Modern Times

Under the Representation of the People Act, 1948, the term of office of mayor was changed to run from May to May, and the terms of the mayor and sheriff elected in 1947 were extended to May 1949.

A major reorganisation of local government took place in 1974. In that year a Petition by Chester Council led to the Queen granting the City a new charter. Chester became a District Council, but the Queen, by Letters Patent, gave Chester the status of a City.

On St Valentine’s Day 1992, it was announced that the Queen would grant Lord Mayoralty status to Chester. She presented the Letters Patent confirming this honour to Chester’s first Lord Mayor, Councillor Susan Proctor on 16 April 1992. Councillor Proctor was only the ninth woman to hold office. The first woman Mayor of Chester was Phyllis Brown in 1938/39. The Lord Mayoralty was given to Chester in recognition of its historical and economic importance. The full title of the Mayor is now ‘The Right Worshipful, the Lord Mayor of the City of Chester’. Chester shares this honour with only 24 other cities, which are: City of London, Westminster, Belfast, Birmingham, Bradford, Bristol, Canterbury, Cardiff, Coventry, Kingston-upon-Hull, Leeds, Leicester, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, Norwich, Nottingham, Oxford, Plymouth, Portsmouth, Sheffield, Stoke-on-Trent, Swansea and York.

Current local government is under the mantle of "Cheshire West and Chester" a unitary authority area with borough status, in the ceremonial county of Cheshire. It was established in April 2009 as part of the 2009 structural changes to local government in England, by virtue of an order under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. It replaced the boroughs of Ellesmere Port and Neston, Vale Royal and Chester District and its council took over the function of the former Cheshire County Council within its area. The rest of ceremonial Cheshire is composed of Cheshire East, Warrington and Halton. The decision to create the Cheshire West and Chester unitary authority was announced on 25 July 2007 following a consultation period, in which a proposal to create a single Cheshire unitary authority was rejected. Chester City Council had proposed the new authority be called "The City of Chester and West Cheshire" but this was also rejected.

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