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 Holy Trinity, later 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

According to the "official version", 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, as some say, in 1820, during the course of repairs. A churchwarden (other version differ) 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. However, a drawing of Overleigh Hall, home of the Cowper's, shows what may be the High Cross located near that building: see Brown for more discussion of this.

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.

Buskers

Chester's High Cross is a favorite spot for "buskers". Some few of these are truly awful - so much so that the Council has proposed auditions might be needed. Among the good ones the most noted is Ed Alleyne-Johnson: a British electric violinist who has been busking since he was a Fine Art student at Oxford University in the early 1980s. He uses an electric violin he reputedly carved with a kitchen knife, a custom pedalboard and an amplifier he modified to run from rechargeable batteries. This setup has enabled him to perform on the street in almost every major city in Europe, and across the United States and Canada. He was a member of the English post-punk/alternative rock band New Model Army recording and touring with them for five years, in over 200 concerts worldwide, supporting acts such as Simple Minds, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, The Cure, Midnight Oil and Faith No More. Ed is listed as a musician on the albums Thunder and Consolation, Impurity and Raw Melody Men (an anagram of "New Model Army"). For more on the associations of the Puritans with the High Cross see: Bruen.

Preachers

Preaching at the cross in Chester is apparently allowed by bylaws. On many days Chester's noted evangelist Tembar puts in an appearance after walking around singing more capably than some of the buskers.

Town Crier and Bellmen

The funeral procession of Edward the Confessor - with "Bellmen" (the small figures) using low-slung bells. The association of the Bellman with funerals persisted - even Shakespeare refers to the owl as "that fatal bellman" in his Scottish play (and refers to the Town Crier in Hamlet). Edward spent 25 years in exile (he left Britain at age 8), probably mainly in Normandy, and may have brought the idea of bellmen back with him. His mother (Emma) was Norman

In Ancient Rome a praeco (public crier) would be called upon to make many different types of announcements, from announcing election results and trial verdicts or announcing the time and place of forthcoming public auctions and notifying the public of lost & found items to summoning mourners to a funeral and more. Their office, called praeconium, appears to have been regarded as rather disreputable: in the time of Cicero a law was passed preventing all persons who had been praecones from becoming members ("decuriones") of the town councils in the Roman municipalities. The traditional site for the Town Crier in Chester is at the High Cross outside what would have been the door of the Praetorium of Roman Chester (which is itself derived from a similar, but somewhat distantly related root). Among the Romans, the hour of bathing was announced by a bell.

Dark Ages

In the Dark Ages of northern Europe following the collapse of the Western Roman Empire a class of singers and bardic storytellers emerged called "skalds" (Proto-Germanic: *skalliz, lit. 'sound, voice, shout': Old High German: skal, lit. 'sound' and skellan, 'ring, clang, resound') who passed on in alliterative verse an oral tradition of legends and heroes. The Old High German variant stem "skeltan" is etymologically identical to the skald- stem (Proto-Germanic: *skeldan) means "to scold, blame, accuse, insult" and related to Modern English "scoff". The first word of Beowulf, hwaet (Lo!), is a call to attention, a skald’s silencing of the crowd anticipatory to the tale to come. In these cases the skald served as the teller and transmitter of his or her own culture throughout the widespread Scandinavian territories of the ninth and tenth centuries.

The "Bellmen" from the Bayeux Tapestry - they have no tonsure and so are not monks.

In England circa 1066, the Bayeux Tapestry shows "bellmen" in the funeral procession of Edward the Confessor - Dead Bell's were supposed to scare away malefic spirits (hence the use of "bell, book, and candle" to exorcise). Shortly thereafter Duke William of Normandy crossed the English Channel with his invading army, and he later sent out military Criers to the west and north of the island to cry his claim to the throne.

Chester Criers and Bellmen

The town criers of Chester date back to at least 1553 when the unnamed crier was paid 13d by the Smith's, Cutler's and Plumber's company for ‘ridunge the Banes’ for the Chester Mystery Plays. The Crier took part in the Midsummer Watch Parade: each guild was required to provide an armed escort, and its members attended the mayor in their gowns on St. John's Eve, where they were summoned by the crier (as in 1637, see Simpson) to process in an established sequence from the Northgate (where they gave a few coins to the prisoners) round the other town gates, ending at the Common Hall (B.L. Harl. MS. 2150, f. 208). Midsummer was a busy time for the Town Crier, who was also involved in the Minstrel Court.

Over the years, the role of Crier attracted some perks, including a tax on boatloads of fish and later on baskets of coal. According to Gordon Emery Chester records of 1540 show fees due to the bellman included:

  • "of every worshipful gentyllman that goyth onye gounes at ther buryall ...one goune [at funerals gowns would be given to mourners]. when he gythe or aneything that is lost ...jd [one penny]. for every bote lode with powder mellwylle [salted fish] ...one fyshe, for every boute lode with fresh fyshe that he goeth for ...jd [one penny]."

Not everything written about the Bellman and Crier should be taken at face value. Transcriptions of the city papers state that in 1556, a record shows:

  • "To ye belman for p'claimyng ye Founder's dyryge 27 Januarij ...ijd [two pence on proclaiming Henry VIII's death (as a dirge), the founder of the King's School]."

Henry VIII was the founder of the King's School, but died in January 1547 - in January 1556 "Bloody Mary" was on the throne and although being plotted against, not dead (as suggested by the current Crier this was probably at "Founders Day"). In 1620, there was a fight at the Chester cross between the butchers and the bakers at the annual bullbait where the "Cryer brake his Mace in peeces Amonge them". The "mace" may well refer to a wooden staff, tipped with silver of the kind borne by Thomas Richardson and handed on to Richard Woodcock in 1598. As noted above Hughes writes that Crier's job involved calling out a warning at the bullbait:

  • "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!"

In 1707, one public notice read by George Tunnall, the bellman (who took over in 1685), forbade tipping rubbish in the River Dee between the Old Dee Bridge and the Roodee (where the skinners had their "houses" and generated a lot of noxious waste). In 1715, Henry Prescott, a local diarist and solicitor (in the habit of walking around late at night) recorded that the:

  • "Belman at the Cross … Reads publicly a proclamation in the Mayor's name, commanding all persons in the City to be of peaceable and civil behaviour, not to walk around the Streets or Rows at unreasonable hours of night."

Chester once had a crier, a day bellman and a night bellman, but in 1734, Thomas Posnitt took over as both "Day and Night Bellman."

In order to gain the attention of the crowd, the crier would yell "Oyez": believed to be French-Norman derived from the imperative form of the archaic French word "ouïr" (nowadays replaced by entendez or écoutez) and it means "Hear ye!". Proclamations, local bylaws, market days and adverts were all proclaimed by a bellman or crier. Proclaiming the news was not their only role: jobs were swapped around between Crier and Bellmen and included to patrol the streets after dark, acting as peace keepers, arresting miscreants and taking them to the stocks for punishment (the Chester Town Crier still has his own set) and posting their crimes to show why they were there. In Chester the Sheriffs and their Bailiffs plus Constables were involved in this process which included a peculiar administrative hand-over at the Gloverstone. The Crier (and/or Bellman) also escorted the destitute to the Workhouse and administered floggings. It was also the Bellman's job to make sure fires were damped down for the night after the curfew bell ("curfew" once meant "cover your fire"), and, in times of epidemic, to call "bring out your dead". At times, the Chester Crier even had to look after the fire-engines - which led to a dispute over his payment. Perhaps the most famous "Bellman" in literature is the captain of the ship in "The Hunting of the Snark" (all his crew begin with the letter "B").

It is sometimes said that Town Criers were very well protected by law. Anything they did was done in the name of the monarch, therefore to harm or impede a town crier could therefore be an act of "constructive treason", punishable by death. This was a necessary safeguard as the town criers often had to announce unwelcome news such as tax increases. However research by the Town Crier of Chester seems to show that no such special legal protection existed and this would be particularly true after the Treason Act of 1351.

Chester Town Crier David Mitchell by the Eastgate clock.

In 1801 the Town Clerk of Chester recorded the then duties of various officers of the Corporation:

  • "The present crier is William Ratcliffe. This likewise is a very ancient officer, and serves both Mayors and Sheriffs in their courts; attends them in all processions; attends coroners, and summons juries on all inquisitions; attends at making the free-men; fixing up of proclamations; attends the Mayors and Sheriffs in their entertainments, and repeats the toasts and ought to assist in keeping weights and measures in the city. The bellman is now John Yarwood. The office is also a very ancient office. and had formerly many privileges, which are now obsolete. He now is obliged to attend the Mayor in the same manner as sergeants. etc. and act as the common crier, except in the courts. The Mayor's Porter, now William Dermis, is a modern officer, is porter and sometimes butler to the Mayor, in whose house he ought to reside, but as it would be inconvenient for some gentlemen to have such persons in their houses, he now receives board wages; does duty as porter, is employed in that name but to this office, is added that of serving all the Mayors' and magistrates' summonses and keeping the city weights and measures which were formerly done by the Sergeant of the Eastgate; and is generally with the beadle, the principal constable. The foregoing officers may be suspended at the Mayor's pleasure but must be discharged as well as appointed at assemblies of Mayor, Aldermen and common councillors. The places used to be bought and sold, but by a very late laudable resolution of the Corporation they are never to be sold again. The beadle now Joseph Crofts, is officer to the Mayor and other magistrates, appointed by them and entirely employed as constable; takes up and whips all vagrants, etc., and has every year a suit of city livery"

Crier John Jeffery was appointed assistant collector of Cattle Market tolls in 1873, and in the following year he was appointed City Bellman and Mayor's Porter. Jeffrey held the office of Chester Bellman for around 24 years, until failing health caused him to resign in 1897 at the age of 76 when he kept the offical title but handed the job on to his deputy, a man named Earnshaw. The Chester Courant for 22nd September 1897 records him living in an "almshouse" in New Crane Street. He died in December 1903 at the age of 85 and was at that time described (see: The Chester Courant and Advertiser for North Wales: 30th December 1903) as the "last of the city’s bellmen", his deputy Earnshaw having died some years previously.

The role of Town Crier was revived in Chester on October 18, 1978, when Tom Clarkson took up the post. Tom was a familiar figure in the city until spring 1981 when his term ended. According to the local press, there was much speculation about what happened to him when he disappeared afterwards: "some say he went off on an expedition to Canada and reportedly walked across America in his full Town Crier regalia but not much was heard of him after that". Actually, he returned to be the Town Crier of Crewe and Nantwich.

David Mitchell is the current (2019) Town Crier of Chester (having been "promoted" from Bellman) the only place in Britain to have retained the tradition of regular midday proclamations at a fixed place and time (Tuesday-Saturday, May-August, at noon - or 11am on race days). He dresses in a red and gold coat, breeches, boots and a tricorne hat, a tradition that dates back to the 18th century: the red coat is often said to be because many criers/bellmen had a military past - but David has researched the point extensively and it appears that the military connection is largely a myth. David has hosted four World Town Crier Tournaments in Chester. As a competitor David was placed third in the 1999 World Championship on Vancouver Island, Canada, and in 2008 in Alnwick David became British Champion. Unofficially, the collective noun for Criers is "a bellow" (Middle English belwen, akin to Old English bylgan to roar (compare for the vowel Old High German bullôn).

connect

Northgate Street

Eastgate Street

Bridge Street

Watergate Street

Related Pages

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.