The Roman and later site at Heronbridge stands on the west bank of the River Dee two kilometres south of Chester city centre, between the river and the line of Watling Street (now Eaton Road). Much information has come to light due to the efforts of the Chester Archaeological Society. The history of the site is very complex, with Roman remains overlaid with remnants of burials from the Battle of Chester (see Dark Ages), later Civil War fortifications and various other uses of the site following this.
The name of the site prior to 1824 was Ironbridge, derived from the fourteenth-century 'pons ferreus'. Rather than iron, this seems to be an erroneous latinisation of the Old English word 'hyrne', meaning a nook, a corner or a secluded place. The name of Herne the Hunter has a similar root - from "horn" (although Herne was little known outside of Berkshire until very recent times). Thus the Anglo-Saxon form of the place-name 'hyrne-brycg' would mean 'bridge at a corner' - or "Herne's Bridge", perhaps referring to the bend in the river at this point. An outcrop of rock is visible near the west bank when the river level is low and recent inspection has noted a collection of worked stone protruding from the bank nearby. There are indications of a trackway leading westwards from this spot, which aligns with a break in the west side of the earthwork enclosure, the latter perhaps denoting the site of an entrance or gateway. Metal-detectorist finds of Roman and later material from the east side of the river support the notion of an ancient crossing as well as suggesting settlement in this area.
Another possible derivation is the "Bridge of the Cornovii". The Cornovii name may mean "People of the Horn". The first mention of the tribe occurs in the works of Ptolemy in the 2nd century A.D.:
- "From these¹ toward the east are the Cornavi, among whom are the towns: Deva,² Legio XX Victrix 17*30 56°45, Viroconium³ 16*45 55°45." (Ptolemy Geographia II.ii)
So could it be that people were living here even before the Romans?
Founded in the late first century at around the same time as Roman Chester, the site was continuously occupied until at least AD 350. The earliest buildings (around A.D. 90) appear to have been wooden, rectangular and were laid out at right angles to the road. Finds of bronze-slag and clay crucibles and moulds indicate that the site at that time was home to a bronze foundry manufacturing fittings for small chests and possible some jewellery. In around 100-150 the original buildings were replaced with more substantial stone structures some of which were open-sided towards Watling street and which were probably shops. The presence of fragments of Roman window-glass indicates that these buildings may have been glazed. From later fragments of pottery recovered at the site it seems to have continued in use until well into the third century.
The pattern of two major civil settlements close to a legionary fortress (the other being the one immediately outside the defences at Chester) is one that is repeated in many other locations. The reasons for this are the subject of much speculation, and have included the locations being distinct on class or other social basis, as the further site being that of "smelly" industries, or it simply being somewhere where the legionary troops could be "entertained" away from the eyes of their camp. In other words, it could have been the 'social housing estate', the lead-works or the brothel.
The earliest systematic excavations were conducted in 1930-31 and revealed a the large industrial complex containing what were believed to be several furnaces, dating from c100-150AD. Among the finds was a red sandstone altar now in the Grosvenor Museum, Chester. Further detail on the 1930's dig can be found on roman-britain.org.
Eccleston church is associated with records of Saxon crosses that were destroyed by seventeenth-century Puritans. These early churches and their communities seem to have retained the Romano-British preference for locating settlements on sandy soils. Eccleston is an example of an ‘eccles-’ placename (from ecclesia - church), suggesting a late Roman or early medieval ecclesiastical site. Earthworks and field boundaries visible on aerial photographs and maps hint at the potential survival of a curvilinear churchyard around the ruined church of St Mary the Virgin (NGR 413627), while entries in the Cheshire Historic Environment Record indicate activity in and around Eccleston from at least the Roman to the modern period.
Battle of Chester (616)
...And her Æðelfrið lædde his færde to Legercyestre, & ðar ofslóh unrím Walena
(..and here Aethelfrith led his fyrd to the Castle of the Legion and there slew uncountable Welsh)
The struggles of the period prior to 600 give rise to the legends of Uther Pendragon and King Arthur. It is sometimes said that Ambrosius Aurelianus, a possible leader of the Romano-British forces, was the model for the former, and that Arthur's court of Camelot is an idealised memory of pre-Saxon Romano-British civilisation. The ninth battle of the legendary King Arthur was supposedly fought at The City of the Legion ("nonum bellum gestum est in urbe legionis"). Some have suggested that this is Chester, while others propose Caerleon, York or Carlisle. The list of battles is given by Nennius in his Historia Britonum compiled some time around 820, and whether Chester was the site has been the subject of conflicting theories. The legendary battle is not mentioned by Gildas writing in the early sixth century, who only mentions "Mons Badonicus", the last Arthurian battle.
What is known for a fact is that there was a major battle at Chester in post-Roman times, and that may have later been drawn into the Arthurian legends (despite it being a Northumbrian victory over the Welsh). Dates given for the Battle of Chester vary, but 616 seems a reasonable estimate. Battle of Chester: Æthelfrith of Northumbria against Kings Selyf Sarffgadau of Powys and Cetula (possibly Cadwal Crysban of Rhôs) and possibly also Iago ap Beli. The Battle of Bangor-is-Coed follows in quick succession. King Bledric of Dumnonia is killed in the fighting. A large number of Saint Dunod's monks are slaughtered (said to be in keeping with Augustine's prophecy that if "they would not accept peace with their brethren, they should have war with their enemies"). Some have argued that the battle of Chester drove a wedge through British territories in the north-west and separated the British of the ‘old North’ from their compatriots (British combroges, later cymry) in what became Wales. However this older view that the battle cut the two British areas off from each other is now "generally understood" to be outdated, as Æthelfrith died soon after, and there is "almost no archaeological evidence for Anglo-Saxon settlement within the pagan period in Cheshire or Lancashire".
Bede describes the battle as follows:
- That very powerful king of the English Aethelfrith… collected a great army against Civitas Legionis which is called Legacaestr by the English and more correctly Caerlegion by the Britons, and made a great slaughter of that nation of heretics. When he was about to give battle and saw their priests, who had assembled to pray to God on behalf of the soldiers taking part in the fight, standing apart in a safer place, he asked who they were and for what purpose they had gathered there. Most of them were from the monastery of Bangor… After a three-days’ fast most of these had come to the battle in order to pray for the others. They had a guard named Brocmail whose duty it was to protect them from the swords of the barbarians while they were praying. When Aethelfrith heard why they had come he said “If they are praying to their God against us, they are fighting against us…” He therefore directed his first attack against them, and then destroyed the rest of the accursed army, not without heavy loss to his own forces. It is said that that of the monks who came to pray about 1200 perished in this battle and only 50 escaped by flight. Brocmail and his men took to their heels at the first assault leaving those whom they should have protected unarmed and exposed to the sword strokes of the enemy. - Bede Ecclesiastical History of the English People Book 2, chapter 2 (translated by Leo Sherley-Price for Penguin Classics)
Æthelfrith's death, possibly later in 616 came when he was defeated and killed on the east side of the River Idle by an army under Raedwald. Bede says that Æthelfrith had the inferior army, because Raedwald had not given him time to bring all his forces together. Possibly his losses at Chester contributed to this.
During the original excavations in 1930 and 1931, a mass burial site was discovered within an earthwork and skeletons excavated. These were lost during the Second World War, but have since been rediscovered. Recent information has come to light due to the efforts of the Chester Archaeological Society, which does seem to pin the battle down to Heronbridge or nearby. The evidence takes the form of a mass grave pit containing only male skeletons, of no more than middle age who seem to have died from battle wounds. The care with which the bodies are laid out seems to imply that this is a burial by the victorious Æthelfrith. There were at least fourteen individuals. Two skeletons were fully excavated and removed for analysis and radiocarbon dating. Both had clearly sustained fatal head injuries. The results of subsequent osteoarchaeological study (by Malin Holst of York Osteoarchaeology Ltd) confirmed them as males and showed that both had died as a result of several sword blows to the head. They were both well-built individuals and the elder, aged around forty, if not both, had been in battle before, suggesting that they may have been experienced soldiers. Bone samples from the two skeletons removed from the mass grave, along with two flax seeds from the fort ditch fill, were submitted to the Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre for Carbon 14 dating. The results for the former were as follows:
- Sample 1 = 95% probability within range AD 430-640, 59% probability within range AD 530-620.
- Sample 2 =95% probability within range AD 530-660, 51% probability within range AD 595-645.
If it is accepted that this is the site of the Battle of Chester then this is the the earliest positively identified battle site in England. It has been suggested that the name Herne is derived from the title Herian, a title used for Woden in his role as leader of fallen warriors (Old Norse Einherjar). That could mean that the name of Heronbridge is derived from Herian-Bridge.
The flax seeds turned put to be slightly more modern. Possibly indicating that the ditch of the enclosure was used for "flax retting".
Norman and later
It is possible that Gilbert de Venables, one of the Norman barons of Hugh of Avranches lived nearby. The Domesday book tends to list holdings of the Normans in a particular order; the major holding is named first, which in Gilbert's case is Eccleston. In 1071 Eccleston was described as 'waste' (possibly having been devastated by the Normans) but at 1086 had been improved so that it was worth 50s. Eccleston was one of only three 5-hide units in Cheshire. This places its importance just below Chester and Halton (10-hides), even though Eccleston value had risen from 10s to 50s in 1086, there were only two plough-teams for the six units of plough-lands. (Darby, 1962). The Ordnance Survey map shows an insignificant ‘mound’ (described ), located at grid reference SJ 414; 428, at the north-eastern end of the village over looking the River Dee. It is documented as:
- ‘Below the church, in one of the glebe fields, was formerly a Tumulus (adjoining a bath), the site of which is now planted with trees. It stood on the Roman road which ran from Chester to the Iron Bridge over the Dee. The tumulus was opened by the rev. Charles Mytton, then rector, about half a century ago, and a great quantity of human bones and, some say, coins were discovered.’ (Ormerod 1882)
- A ‘round earthen mound; diameter 20m height 3m. Many human bones and, according to some, coins found in late 18th century. Mound was badly disturbed in c.1770 and 1850. ’ - 'The Victoria History of the County of Cheshire, Vol.1', University of London Institute of Historical Research/OUP, 1987
- ‘Mound, variously suggested as a Bronze Age barrow or a medieval Motte. Ormerod records that the tumulus stood on the Roman road which ran from Chester to the Iron Bridge over the Dee. It was opened ‘about half a century ago (c.1830) and a great quantity of human bones and some say coins were discovered’. … [The} site consists of an oval earthen mound, mutilated on east side and partly surrounded by a ditch and bank with other banks to south and south-west. [The] Motte measures 28m x 14.5m and is 3m high. … [It] is one of several castles in Cheshire that were constructed in the medieval period to defend the rich agricultural resources of Cheshire from raids.’ - The Cheshire County Sites and Monuments Record (ref: 1965/4) ‘Motte & associated earthworks east of Old Rectory’, 1993.
The mound has been re-scheduled and classified as a motte.
In 1066 Claverton, a village which has now disappeared, was clearly of some importance. Held by Osmaer and assessed at 2 hides, like several other manors near Chester its appurtenances included burgesses (eight within the walls, four in Handbridge) and it also had a salthouse at Northwich. By 1086 it had passed to one of Earl Hugh's leading tenants, Hugh fitz Osbern. In the 13th century its importance seems to have waned and it was apparently regarded as an extension of the town fields in the southern part of the liberties. There was no manor house and probably few if any inhabitants. In the 13th and 14th centuries the main estate was held by the Pulfords, but other prominent citizens of Chester, including Philip the clerk, members of the Dunfoul family, and John Brunham, chamberlain of Chester, had agricultural holdings there. The site of the village is believed to be to the west of Heronbridge.
Heronbridge House dates from c1830 and is grade II listed.
The most modern piece of "archaeology" on the site is the large circular pit near the northern end of the eastern field and quite close to the road. This is actually believed to be a WW2 German bomb crater. Across the field on the eastern side of the line of the Roman road is another relic of WW2 - a pillbox.
Be warned, unless you are very interested in archaeology there is not much to see. The walk is pleasant, but don't expect to see anything in terms of remains unless you know what to look for.
You could drive down the Roman road, park and have a look, but a better way to see Heronbridge is to walk along the River Dee. Start from the river bank at the south end of the Suspension Bridge. Head east, following the path around the meadows, which turns south, following the river. Eventually the path dips between the river and a cliff which appears to have been quarried - the building here is part of the water-works. Past the water-works one comes to Heronbridge House and the site of the Roman village. From here you can either continue along the river Dee to Eccleston, or cross the Roman road and cut through the woods to what was once the approach to Eaton Hall. Whichever way is chosen, the walk back along the Eaton approach (or through the paths in the woods to either side) will bring you to the south end of the Grosvenor Bridge, and crossing it, back to Chester.
Sources and Links
- Chester Arch. Soc. report on Heronbridge
- Chester Arch. Soc. report on Eccleston
- Chester Arch. Soc. report on Claverton
- Carbon dating of some remains from Heronbridge.
- More on the mound at Eccleston.