High Cross

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Looking down Upper Bridge Street in 2015 with the High Cross in the foreground and Eastgate Street to the left. This wss the site of the headquarters of the garrison of Roman Chester. The building left of center is by Thomas Meakin Lockwood (1888) one of the architects who developed the "Chester Look". The High Cross was broken up at the end of the siege of Chester in the Civil War and some surviving parts only restored to its ancient original site at the intersection of the city's main streets in 1975, after an absence of some 329 years.
Watergate Street in 2014 seen with the High Cross in the foreground. The building with the spire is the Guildhall.
The High Cross, in 1951 when it stood in the Roman Gardens (48:47 in video Ketcham Home Movies: Europe 1951).

Formally known as the High Cross, but colloquially as just the Cross, the Cross can be found outside the door of St Peter's at the intersection of the four main streets in the midst of The Rows: (Northgate Street, Bridge Street, Eastgate Street and Watergate Street) that formed the original roads within Roman Chester.

The cross is constructed in red sandstone. It consists of a crown surmounted by a finial with a ball on its top. It stands on a shaft on a plinth below which are three steps. The head is hexagonal, while the shaft, steps and plinth are octagonal. The head, and possibly parts of the shaft, date from the 14th century; the rest of the structure is modern. The head is badly weathered; niches which formerly contained statues are on each side, but two of these have been weathered away.

The Cross was first mentioned city records in 1387. It has been the site of public proclamations since medieval times. The earliest known official mention of Chester's Town Crier at the Cross was a famous proclamation by a 15th century Crier. In the 17th century, the Town Crier was permitted to have a stall at the Cross and take the profits.

In 1594 a gibbet was erected at the high cross to encourage good behaviour on the part of troops being shipped to Ireland.

During the Civil War, the Cross had served as a rallying point for the Royalist citizens, but after their eventual surrender to Parliamentary forces at the end of the siege in 1646, it was feared they would destroy it, an iconoclastic ordinance of 1643 having called for the "utter demolishing of all monuments of superstition and idolatry". After their surrender, the citizens had received reassurances that "no church within the city, evidences or writings belonging to the same shall be defaced" and assumed this also applied to the Cross. They were wrong, and it was demolished in 1646.

Hughes writes:

  • We are now fairly arrived at the High Cross and close to the spot where that sacred emblem of the faith in old time stood This ancient landmark which was of stone and elaborately carved had for centuries ornamented this part of the city and was a relic much and deservedly prized by the citizens The Puritans however on obtaining possession of the city in 1646 with their characteristic abhorrence of the beautiful and in direct breach of the articles of surrender demolished this fayre crosse No cross no crown was in a perverted sense the motto of these fanatics whose organs of destructiveness must beyond doubt have been largely developed Some fragments of the Cross were picked up at the time and hidden within the porch of St Peter's Church hard by where a century or so afterwards they were discovered and now ornament the grounds of Netherlegh House near this city.
The base of the High Cross, at Plas Newydd in Llangollen

The ornate top section, with its carved figures of saints, apostles and the Virgin Mary, vanished without trace. The base of the Cross ended up, around 1817, at Plas Newydd in Llangollen, North Wales, where it remains to this day. The remainder was hidden under the steps of nearby St Peter's Church, and stayed there forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1820, during the course of repairs. A churchwarden placed the pieces in his garden in Handbridge, until they were acquired by the 1st Duke of Westminister some 60 years later, who had them placed in the newly-opened Grosvenor Museum.

The city council re-erected the Cross in the Roman Garden in 1949, but, with the coming of pedestrianization, it was restored to its ancient original site at the intersection of the city's main streets in 1975, after an absence of some 329 years.

The original appearance of the High Cross according to Hanshall.

Hughes (echoing Fletcher):

  • Near the Cross was the Conduit to which water was of brought in pipes to this city from St Giles Well in Boughton this conduit it was that according to ancient records was made run with wine on all public and festive occasions Here also upon the south side of St Peter's Church was the Penthouse Pentice of the city where the mayor and magistrates of the regime sat to administer justice with the one hand and feed turtle with the other A lean alderman was as great a curiosity those days as a fat parish pauper would be deemed in the present The Pentice which with its accessories the Stocks and the Pillory had too long obstructed this quarter of the city was pulled in 1803 and its jurisdiction removed to a more commodious in the north end of the Exchange. This locality crowded as it must have been before the removal of these obstructions was also annually the scene of the Corporation Bullhait thus vividly described by Cowdroy a local scribe of the last century The Cross is famous for being the annual scene of exhibition of that polite play called a bull bait where four or five of these horned heroes are attended by several hundred lovers of that rational amusement Till within a few years the dramatis persona of this elegant scene included even magistracy itself the mayor and corporation attending in their official habiliments at the Pentice windows not only to countenance the diversions of the ring but to participate in a sight of its enjoyments A proclamation was also made by the crier of the court with all the gravity and solemnity of an oration before a Romish sacrifice the elegant composition of which runs thus Oyez Oyez Oyez If any man stands within twenty yards of the bull ring let him take what comes After which followed the usual public ejaculations for the safety of the king and the mayor of the city when the beauties of the scene commenced and the dogs immediately fell to Here a prayer for his worship was not unseasonable as even the ermined cloak was no security against the carcases of dead animals with which spectators without distinction were occasionally saluted In many ancient boroughs a law formerly prevailed that no bulls should be slaughtered for food without having been first thus baited by dogs They loved tender beefsteaks in those days This barbarous recreation of a bygone age has long since been put down by the strong arm of the law and we can now from the very spot study the character of yonder Row which commanded in those days so near a view of the revolting spectacle.

Crosses were set up in other public spaces within the liberties. At Hough Green there was a hexagonal pillar surmounted by images of the Crucifixion and Virgin and Child, destroyed in 1646. A stone cross by a public way outside the Northgate was pulled down in 1584. Other crosses stood on the Roodee and by the road from the Bars to Spital Boughton, as well as in various ecclesiastical precincts.

The "dog leg" at the High Cross (with Watergate Street behind the Cross), with the corner of St Peter in the middle and Northgate Street on the right.

links and sources

  • B.L. Harl. MS. 1944, f. 91; Harl. MS. 2073, f. 104; Harl. MS. 7568, f. 130; C.C.A.L.S., ZMB 6, f. 33v.
  • Hemingway, Hist. Chester, i. 404; Harris, Chester, 41.