Leche House is located at 17 Watergate Street and Row, Chester, Cheshire, England. It is designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building, and incorporates a section of the Chester Rows. It is considered (by some) to be the best preserved medieval town house in Chester. Frank Simpson wrote (Journal of the Chester and North Wales Archaeological & Historic Society 1915) of it:
- This old house is situated in Watergate Street, nearly opposite Goss Street. Strange to say, it is, perhaps, the least known of all the old half-timbered houses in Chester, yet it contains some remains of its ancient grandeur, not at the present time to be seen elsewhere in the City. The half- timbered front may safely be included among the six best specimens of this old Cheshire style of architecture still remaining in the City, and in this case it has never undergone any modern restoration. It has always been described as the town house of the Leches of Garden (sic), near Chester, erected about 1570 ; but the architectural details of the building do not support this view.
That is not the only mystery about Leche House: the architecture of the house incorporates what appear to be references to Catherine of Aragon, but the time from which these date is not at all clear and the reason for them being present remains a puzzle.
The Leche Family
John Leche, was surgeon (i.e. "leech") to King Edward III (13 November 1312 – 21 June 1377) who by patent (50 Edw. III.) was grantee of Castle Warin, and other lands. He appears to have continued as surgeon the Richard II as Simpson records (Cheshire Recog: Rolls) the following:
" 1381-2 January 17. Grant to John Leche, the King's Surgeon by the King [Richard II.] of an annuity of ,10 to be received out of the issues of the Mills of the Dee, in lieu of a like annuity granted to him by Edward, Prince of Wales, to be received at the Exchequer at Chester."
The Leches of Carden are a complex family to trace as we few exceptions they named their eldest son John, and there are twenty John Leche's named on deeds and other documents. There is even a run of ten consecutive Johns from John Leche III (found not guilty of murdering Thomas Deck in Eastgate Street in 1384) to John XII (died 1711). Simpson observes:
- George Leche was the second son, by survival, of John Leche of Garden (sic), by Margaret, daughter and heiress of John Main waring of Ightfield. He eventually settled at Mollington, and founded there a branch of the Leche family. He had for his arms those of Leche of Garden (sic), with a crescent on a crescent for difference, as allowed by Sir W. Dugdale. George Leche is always described as "Merchant of Chester". He was an Alderman, and one of the Sheriffs of Chester, 1536-7. He and his brothers, Henry and William (the latter of whom was one of the City Sheriffs in 1544-5, and the former in 1564-5), were admitted to the Freedom of the City, December 4th, 1552. This William Leche appears to be the one who sold the three shops, then in a very decayed state, at the north-east angle of the Cross, to the City for 20. They were, at that time, May, 1593, known as the " Butter shops." The site is now occupied by the clothiers, grocers, etc., we see to-day. The receipt for this transaction is in the Muniment Room at the Town Hall. In the Freemen's Rolls, he is described as an Ironmonger, but in Hanshall's Cheshire, p. 176-7, he is described as a Draper.
It is also possible to determine that there is a branch of the family involved by considering the coat of arms on the fireplace in the house. Simpson descibes it as follows:
- In the upper portion is a shield bearing the arms, and above, the crest of the Leche family of Carden, Cheshire, with a crescent on a crescent for difference; which in heraldic language are: Ermine, on a chief dancettee gules, three ducal coronets or, with a crescent for difference; that is to say, on a field of ermine is placed at the top a red band, the lower edge indented in a large and broad manner, on this three golden coronets, or crowns; in the centre of the field a crescent denoting that the arms are those of a second son. Crest: on a wreath a cubit arm proper, the hand grasping a snake vert.
George Leche married Alice, daughter of John Dutton of Helsby, by whom he had three sons:
- William Leche (William Leche married Elizabeth, daughter to Thomas Clud de Orlton, in the county of Salop, by whom he had issue two sons, John and George, and two daughters, Ann and Jane. He died November 27th, 1618, and was buried in St. Michael's Church, Chester (Cheshire Funeral Certificates)).
- Robert Leche, LL.D., Chancellor of the Diocese of Chester, 1562-1587 (Robert Leche was appointed by patent from William (Downham) Bishop of Chester, December 9th, 1562. He was buried at Malpas);
- Richard Leche, who became a Citizen and Merchant of London.
Richard married a daughter of Deane of Reading, and had one son, John, who was apprenticed to William Pixley, of Chester, Mercer, from whom he took up the Freedom of the City on January 29th, I584. He, like several other members of the Leche family, became Sheriff, 1628-9, and an Alderman of Chester. William Pixley, or Pichley, was related, by marriage, to John Leche; the former having married Dorothy, daughter of Henry Leche, second son of John and Margaret Leche of Garden, and brother to George Leche. In the Cheshire Funeral Certificates he is described as:
- "William Pichley of the Citty of Chester, Gent., he dyed sans yssue"
His widow eventually married her fifth husband,
- "John Aldersey of the Citty of Chester, Alderman and Justice of Peace, [who] was maior of the Citty 1603. She died on the xxvj th day of May 1611, and was interred in St. John's Churche in the Citty aforesaid."
George Leche died around 1551. In his will he left land in Watergate Street, but none of these can be clearly associated with Leche House.
Leche House divides the parishes of St. Peter and the Holy Trinity. In the Registers of the latter Simpson writes that he found:
- "..the name of John Leche frequently mentioned; but not that of any other member of this family except Randle (once) and William, which points to the fact that Leche House was not the Town-house of Leche of Garden, but that it was the residence of John Leche, grandson of George Leche the founder of the Mollington branch of that name; and nephew of Robert Leche, Chancellor of the Diocese of Chester."
And that he found in the in the Burial Register:
- "John son of John Leech, Mercer bur[ied] in St Patrick's Isle 3 May, 1616."
- "1639 Mr John Leech Alderman bur[ied] 3 Feb. 1639, in St. Werburghs."
- "..that the date of the burial, 3rd February, is rather confusing, as the Alderman was drowned at Darbeston Bridge, Staffordshire, December 23rd, 1639, whilst on a journey to London to see some of his relatives. His body was brought to Chester and deposited in a vault he had had made in the North Aisle of the Choir of the Cathedral; of which, unfortunately, there is now no trace, as the lettering on many of the stones is obliterated."
To complicate matters further Alderman John Leche had been twice married; first to Margret, co-heiress of John Frodsham, Rector of Eccleston, by whom he had issue Francis, 8 his son and heir, born 1619 (who subsequently purchased the Mollington estate), and Mary. His second wife was Ann, daughter of John Peyes of Hull, in the County of York, merchant, by whom he had two daughters; Ann who died during childhood, and Margret. The following year, 9th October, 1640, his widow married Thomas Aldersey, who that year, 1640-41, was Mayor of Chester. On the west wall of the south transept, Chester Cathedral, is an oak tablet, by Randle Holme,
- "to the memory of "John Leche of the Citty of Chester Alderman dyed on the 27 th day of Decemb: 1639."
and indeed it appears that the house was rebuilt in the 17thC. for alderman John Leche of Mollington. John (d.1639) had a son John (m.1613-d.1657) who could have lived in the house, possibly after his mariage to Alice, the daughter of William Aldersley, alderman of Chester.
The original undercroft dates to the late 14th century and is of good quality sandstone ashlar and originally measured 14.6 x 5.8 metres internally. It is divided into five equal bays with braced ceiling beams carried on stone corbels, the two to the rear are partly hidden by a later brick barrel vault over a rear extension. A moulded timber bressumer from the original street frontage survives, with mortice holes that indicate "close-studding" and a central doorway. In the late 15th century the house was rebuilt with the upper storeys consisting of a timber framed box of posts carrying roof trusses, tied by beams at their feet and resting on a sill beam placed on the undercroft. The undercroft was also extended to the rear to carry the full depth of the new building above.
In many ways Leche House is one of the easiest buildings to understand in terms of the structure of a typical Rows building. It has a surviving full height hall, a chamber above the Row and some smaller rooms to the rear. There is a passage running through the building from front to rear, and this supports a gallery giving access from the rear stairs to the chamber over the Rows.
Simpson describes the front of the building as follows:
- The front of Leche House contains some interesting details of carving. The whole length of the lower beam is carved with a running vine and bunches of grapes. Above and below this beam a row of dentels is cut out of the solid oak. The oak pilasters on either side each bear at the top grotesque heads, below which are two naked figures, male and female, each wearing a crown. The beam inside the Row is supported by three oak pillars with attached brackets carved with a floral design. The two centre pillars are round. The beam above the window is decorated with a scroll and leaf ornamentation, in which are carved five grotesque heads. The facia also bears the leaf ornamentation. The eight plaster panels above are partly filled in by shaped pieces of oak, on each of which is carved the fleur-de-lys. The two centre panels still show some of the old design of plaster decoration, bearing in each division a three leaved ornament. Above these panels is another massive beam on which are carved some scroll decoration and grotesque heads of animals. The scroll pattern at the extreme right, or west end, terminates with a carved thistle and leaf, and at the extreme east end with a fine Tudor rose and another large thistle leaf. The gable above is filled with curved and straight struts, the spaces between being filled in with plaster. The panels at the extreme ends, and in the centre, still show the original designs of ornamentation; in the centre of each is a Tudor rose. The barge boards are cusped; between each circle is a six-leaved flower, and along the top a row of carved dentels. In the centre of the gable is a fine finial carved with some floral decoration, and at the base a large head, above which is a large leaf. The finial is surmounted by a carved fleur-de-lys.
The Fleur-de-lys, Tudor rose and thistle are all emblematic of James I (of England), King of England from 24 March 1603 until his death in 1625. The repeated use of these symbols in the building indicates that it was decorated, if not substantially rebuilt during the years 1603-1625, with the chamber above the Row was raised in height and carried forwards on posts. At the same time two closets and the 'Lady Bower, a gallery carried on wooden Renaissance columns, were added around a small courtyard at the rear. Later, 18th century, alterations include encroachment on to the street, the addition of sash windows to the facade and the insertion of a floor in the over-Row chamber. The final encroachment of 1.4m into the street includes the posts carrying the chamber above the Row.
Simpson continues with his description as follows:
- The building is entered at the Row-level. Passing through the doorway of what is now an antique dealer’s, the visitor immediately enters what was originally the vestibule, which extended to a depth of nine feet; adjoining was the banqueting hall; remains of the old floor are still to be seen in the shape of stone slabs, which extend from just below the first beam to the rear of the shop. To the left is a large open fire-place measuring, inside, eight feet eight inches by five feet two inches; over which is a massive oak lintel resting on corbels. In the lower part of the lintel can still be traced remains of a bold moulding, but whatever carved decoration it formerly possessed has been roughly cut away. A fine massive chimney-piece rises to a height of nineteen feet four inches. The hall formerly measured twenty-five feet by twenty feet, and twenty feet six inches in height; but the insertion of a modern floor has reduced the room to half its former height. To see the full beauty of the chimney-piece it is necessary to ascend to the room above, where it is possible to examine closely the upper portion. The lower part, above the fire-place, is composed, for a depth of fifteen inches, of herring-bone brickwork, and above this three square panels containing ovals in which the plaster decoration is almost obliterated. In the upper portion is a shield bearing the arms, and above, the crest of the Leche family of Carden.
An open gallery four feet wide partly surrounds the hall and was a modification apparently made in Simpson's time, where part of the floor that had been inserted in the hall was removed. The building no-longer houses an antique dealers, but is the home to "SOFA WORKSHOP", who are quite happy for visitors to simply examine the building (they have an explanatory poster for sale as well). Simpson continues with his description of the Jacobean origins of the building as follows:
- In the rear of the banqueting hall, on the ground floor, is a small room panelled all round with oak. The window opens upon what was formerly called the Court-yard. Although it is now only fifteen feet by twelve feet, it was originally much larger and continued under the gallery to the outside wall on the west side, and probably much further south. The gallery on the west side is five feet six inches in width, and rests on a massive carved beam supported by a fine fluted oak column with stone base. In the upper portion are thirteen flat oak pilasters, of Jacobean design, filled in with plaster. This, with the plaster decorations of the lion rampant of Scotland, and the unicorn of Scotland, is further evidence that the building was erected subsequent to 1603. The gallery is known as “The Lady’s Bower,” probably owing to the fact that it was so named by the late Mr. T. P. Ivison, a well-known local artist, who executed a series of pen and ink drawings in connection with this house. It is entered from the landing by two steps. Below the treads is a moulding in which beautiful dentels are carved; and on the inner side of the doorway.
So Simpson's case, built on the church records and decorative style is that the house, or at least the decoration of the house, dates from the time of James I (1603-1625). Later writers seem to agree with him, dating the two "closets" around the rear courtyard and the "Lady Bower" to the early 17thC.
This peculiar structure is located high in the rear wall of the hall, at a casual glance it looks like a decorative feature. It is only on close examination that it's true nature is revealed. Simpson describes it as follows:
- In the south wall is a framed opening oval in shape measuring thirteen and a half inches by eleven inches, which appears to have been a squint. This, some forty years ago, was covered with a Spanish or egg-shaped shield of oak grilled with paly concave divisions, and scroll border. About thirty years ago it was shown to Mr. Frank Williams, of this City, by thè late Mr. Crawford, antique dealer, of Watergate Street Row, who had procured the same from Leche House. All trace of it is now gone.
"Crawford" appears to be the same G. H. Crawford who had the antique shop at St Michael's Rectory (43 Upper Bridge Street). Clearly someone thought to replace the object as a "squint" (if that is what it is) is present in the north wall today. If this is a faithful replica of an actual "spyhole" from the Renaisance, then it would be apparent to anyone who was actually looking for a spyhole that it was such. "Squints" are normally found in Churches, but have been known from various manor houses where they typically look into the banqueting hall. Perhaps the intention here would be to "eavesdrop" on conversations and gain an advantage in business transactions for the Leches. Priest holes and squints are rare in Cheshire although SECRET CHAMBERS AND HIDING PLACES by Alan Fea records:
- "At Lyme Hall, Cheshire, the ancient seat of the Leghs, high up in the wall of the hall is a sombre portrait which by ingenious mechanism swings out of its frame, a fixture, and gives admittance to a room on the first floor, or rather affords a means of looking down into the hall .. (and that at) .. Moreton Hall, where a secret room, provided with a sleeping-compartment, situated over the kitchen, has been modernised into a repository for the storing of cheeses.. Bramhall Hall, Cheshire—two secret recesses were discovered not long ago during alterations."
Less widely recorded is the supposed priest-hole in Leche House (in the fireplace, but it may just be a cupboard), and there is said to be others in Lion House (which is just behiind Leche House) and Stanley Palace.
Catherine of Aragon
Leche House is frequently associated with Catherine of Aragon, but it is difficult to support any argument that she actually visited it, or as some have claimed, even stayed there. The evidence connecting her to the house is sparse. There are (as Simpson records):
- On the north side is a shield which, it is said, bore the arms of Catherine of Aragon, but nothing is to be seen on it at the present time. Above this is a smaller shield bearing a bull’s head with horns; on either side are flying horses, some scroll work, roses, and pomegranates. It is evident, therefore, that this decoration has reference to this Spanish princess, for she had for her badges the rose, a sheaf of arrows, and the pomegranate, the latter of which she introduced into this country.".
- "On the opposite side of the room the Tudor rose is very projninent, as also is a small shield containing a bull’s head, similar to that on the north side. This decoration evidently refers to King Henry VIII., who, it will be remembered, took for his first wife Catherine of Arragon, the young widow of his brother, Prince Arthur";
- ..."the Prince of Wales feathers, with P on the dexter, and C on the sinister side, the whole enclosed by the garter, with coronet above; and on either side a flaur-de-lys. The letters P and C appear to allude to Catherine...";
To tell a complex story in brief: Catherine, the daughter of Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, had come to England in 1501 at the age of sixteen to marry Arthur, Prince of Wales (from birth) and Earl of Chester (from 27 February 1490), the fifteen year old son of Henry VII. The wedding was arranged as part of the Treaty of Medina del Campo which also established a common policy for England and Spain regarding France and the reduction of tariffs between the two countries. Henry Tudor would also gain the acceptance of his position by a major foreign power - he was always nervous about his shaky claim to the throne.
The wedding was solemnized in St Paul's Cathedral on 14 November. However Arthur died of the "sweating sickness" on 2 April 1502, within five months of the marriage. King Ferdinand demanded the return of that half of the dowry he had already paid, 100,000 crowns, and on Catherine's behalf he claimed her promised marriage settlement, one third of the revenues of the earldoms of Wales, Cornwall, and Chester. Henry VII, very loath to lose either Catherine's dowry or the Spanish alliance, arranged for her to be engaged to Arthur's younger brother Henry, then aged twelve. A papal dispensation from the first degree of affinity was necessary in order to make an eventual marriage possible, and this was issued by Pope Julius II in 1504: the papers sent to Rome, and the dispensation assumed that Catherine's marriage to Arthur was consummated. Over the next few years Henry VII probably reached the conclusion that a political marriage of Prince Henry to Catherine was no longer as advantageous as before. The situation changed suddenly when Henry VII died on April 21, 1509, and Prince Henry became King Henry VIII. Catherine made a solemn affirmation, confirmed by ladies of the Spanish court, that her marriage with Arthur had never been consummated, and that she came to Henry as a virgin-bride.
Catherine and Henry were married on June 11, 1509, at Greenwich. Catherine was 24 years old and Henry was 19. In January, 1510, Catherine miscarried a daughter. She and Henry quickly conceived again, and with great rejoicing, their son, Prince Henry, was born on January 1 of the next year. He was made prince of Wales -- and died on February 22. Catherine gave birth to a healthy daughter (Mary) her only surviving child on February 18th 1515. With England allied against Catherine's nephew, the Emperor Charles V, and with Henry desperate for a legitimate male heir, the marriage of Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII, once a supportive and, it seemed, loving relationship, unraveled.
Henry had begun his flirtation with Anne Boleyn sometime in 1526 or 1527. In 1527, Charles V's army sacked Rome and took Pope Clement VII (Giulio di Giuliano de' Medici) prisoner. Henry VIII saw this as an opportunity to go to the bishops who could use the Pope's "incapacity" to themselves rule that Henry's marriage to Catherine had not been valid. In May of 1527, with the Pope still a prisoner of the Emperor, Cardinal Wolsey held a trial to examine whether the marriage was valid. John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, refused to support Henry's position (he was later executed). Henry sent an appeal with his secretary to Pope Clement VII in 1528, asking for his marriage to Catherine to be annulled on the grounds that his first marriage had not been a true marriage. The request was amended quickly to also ask that the Pope permit Henry to marry "within the first degree of affinity" though not a brother's widow, and permit Henry to marry someone previously contracted to marry if the marriage was never consummated. These circumstances fit the situation with Anne Boleyn completely. He had previously had a relationship with Anne's sister, Mary. The Pope, instead of responding positively to Henry's plea for an annulment, issued an order forbidding Henry from marrying until Rome came to a final decision on the annulment. The Pope also ordered secular and religious authorities in England to stay out of the matter.
So, in 1531, Henry held a clerical court that declared Henry the "Supreme Head" of the Church of England. This effectively overrode the Pope's authority to make decisions, not only about the marriage itself, but about those in the English church who cooperated with Henry's pursuit of the annulment. On July 11, 1531, Henry sent Catherine to live in relative isolation in Ludlow, and she was cut off from all contact with their daughter, Mary. She never saw Henry or Mary in person again. In 1532, Henry obtained the support of Francis I, the French king, for his actions, and secretly married Anne Boleyn. Whether she became pregnant before or after that ceremony is not certain, but she was definitely pregnant before the second wedding ceremony on January 25, 1533. Catherine's household was moved several times to different locations on Henry's orders, and such close friends as her long-time companion (from before Catherine's marriage to Henry) Maria de Salinas were forbidden contact with Mary. Catherine died on January 7, 1536. The fate of Henry's wives is best remembered as “divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived”: although technically there were four annulments (two of which were followed by executions) and no divorces.
There is little indication of enthusiasm for new doctrines in Chester, which contained no notable protestant laymen, and whose overseas trade was not with ports where protestantism was entrenched. John Bradford, a renowned protestant proselytizer, preached in the city during the 1550s, and John Bird, bishop of Chester 1541-54, took a strongly protestant line, but in general the clergy probably remained conservative and compliant.
A postcard gallery
Here is a gallery of postcard images of Leche House, including one which supposedly shows what was claimed to be Catherine of Aragon's bedchamber. The room is actually described by Simpson without any mention of the supposed "bedchamber":
The Puzzle of Leche House
The big puzzle here is dating the references to Catherine and working out why there should be an association with Chester at all. The possible periods they could date from are:
- While Catherine was betrothed/married to (Catholic) Arthur (before 1502):
- While Catherine was betrothed/married to (then Catholic) Henry VIII (1502-1527):
- While Catherine is still alive but separated from a now protestant Henry VIII (1527-1536):
- After Catherine has died, but while (Protestant) Henry VIII is still alive (1536-1547 ):
- In a complicated period (1547-53):
- While (Catholic) Mary is queen (1553-58):
- While (Protestant) Elizabeth is queen (1558-1603):
- During the reign of (Protestant) James (1603-1625):
Clearly if the house was only built/renovated in Jacobean times then the "evidence" relating to Catherine dates from over a century after her marriage to Arthur (when she became Countess of Chester) and at least around forty years after her death, and it would appear quite impossible for Catherine to have slept in a room that would not be constructed for many years to come. Perhaps the truth lies in the fact that for many years the property was used as an antiques shop, and the proprietors would have undoubtedly been happy to pass onto their prospective clients the story of how "Catherine of Aragon slept here".
However there is a connection which may have been overlooked. After the death of Elizabeth I, her successor, James I, quickly sought to end the long and draining Anglo-Spanish War (1585–1604), and the Treaty of London was negotiated. The "Spanish Match" was a proposed marriage between Prince Charles (later king), the son of King James I of Great Britain, and Infanta Maria Anna of Spain, the daughter of Philip III of Spain. Of course, a previous "Spanish Match" had brought Catherine of Aragon to England. Negotiations took place over the period 1614 to 1623, and during this time became closely related to aspects of British foreign and religious policy. There was in fact no chance that Pope Paul V would have issued the required dispensation for the Infanta to marry a Protestant - a fact apparently well known to the Spanish king but of which the English negotiators were ignorant (it was also kept from the Spanish ambassador). Paul V died early in 1621, and his successor Pope Gregory XV was thought amenable to the idea of the match. However by the 1620's events on the continent stirred up anti-Catholic feeling to a new pitch. In fact there was so much discussion of the "Spanish Match" that on the 24th December 1620, King James issued a strongly worded proclamation to put a stop to it:
- "forasmuch as it comes to Our eares, by common report, That there is at this time a more licentious passage of lavish discourse, and bold Censure in matters of State, then hath been heretofore, or is fit to be suffered, Wee have thought it necessary, by the advice of Our Privie Councell, to give forewarning unto Our loving Subjects, of this excesse and presumption; And straitly to command them and evry of them, from the highest to the lowest, to take heede, how they intemeddle by Penne, or Speech, with causes of State, and secrets of Empire, either at home, or abroad, but containe themselves within that modest and reverent regard, of matters, above their reach and calling, that to good and dutifull Subjects appertaineth."
Philip III died in Madrid on 31 March 1621, and, in November 1621, led by Sir Edward Coke, the Commons framed a petition asking not only for a war with Spain but for Prince Charles to marry a Protestant. Outside the political process, feelings that were both anti-Spanish and anti-Catholic ran high. In 1623 Prince Charles, and his father's "favorite" George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham, decided to seize the initiative and travel to Spain incognito, to win the Infanta directly. Wigs and false beards were obtained and off they went on a romantic if somewhat foolhardy journey.
Buckingham's crassness and quarrel with the Count of Olivares, the Spanish chief minister, was apparently contributory to the total collapse of the proposed mariage agreement. Contempory accounts evidently give Olivares an 'extravagant, out-size personality with a gift for endless self-dramatisation'. The Infanta said she would rather go into a nunnery than marry Charles. And when a drunken Sir Edmund Verney punched a priest, the English party were requested to leave Spain. The Spanish ambassador asked Parliament to have Buckingham executed for his behaviour in Madrid, but Buckingham gained popularity by calling for war with Spain on his return.
The Aldersey connection to James I
That John Leche (m.1613-d.1657) was a royalist there can be little doubt - he didn't break with the tradition of naming his eldest son "John", but named a subsequent son "Charles" - his house at Carden was plundered by the parliamentarians in 1643 and he was taken prisoner to Nantwich. The motto on the arms on the chimney-breast at at Leche house "Alla corona fidissimo" means "To the crown most faithful" (it is amazing that it survived the Civil War).
As noted above John (d.1657) could have lived in the house, possibly after his 1613 mariage to Alice, the daughter of William Aldersey, alderman of Chester. William Aldersey (b.1543-d.1616) was Mayor of Chester in 1614-15 and was also "a celebrated antiquary". The "Visitation of Chester" from 1613 records how the Aldersleys (spellings vary with sources) had produced a number of mayors of Chester (they would go on to produce more). The visitation records that Aldersley's second wife was the daughter of "Robert Whitley", "present mayor of Chester". This is a mistaken reference to Robert Whitby (mayor 1612-13). The actual sequence of mayors given by the Corporation was 1612–13 Robert Whitby; 1613–14 William Aldersey (junior); 1614–15 William Aldersey (senior). The "Visitation" makes no reference to Alice Aldersley/Aldersey.
Aldersey followed in his father's footsteps as a merchant ironmonger and so successful in overseas trade that he became a founding member of the East India Company in 1600, and is said to have been named in the patent incorporating the Company dated 31 December 1600 (although his name does not appear in available texts - he was more likely one of the 125 shareholders, rather than one of the 24 directors named in the patent). This proved to be an extremely lucrative investment, for although he had to subscribe £240 per share during 1601, the distributed profit on the first voyage by 1603 was nearly 300 per cent, and over all the East India voyages up to 1616 was never less than 220 per cent. He served as mayor of Chester in 1595–6 and 1613–4 and was particularly interested in the troops and horses which sailed from Chester to support the standing army in Ireland. Aldersey himself recorded the numbers and county of origin of the troops and horses dispatched between 1594 and 1616It is said that his pride in this related to a "special barracks" he had built for that traffic, and to Chester’s efficiency in revictualing warships. The presence of so many troops also brought problems. Demands strained local markets, especially during the shortages of the later 1590s: prices rose, ships' masters demanded large payments, there were difficulties with the authorities of Liverpool, disaffected men deserted in droves and were rarely captured, weapons were often found to be defective, moneys were embezzled, profiteering was rife, and Chester earned a reputation as a 'robber's cave'. Disorderly conduct was frequent, especially when troops were delayed by bad weather or lack of ships. To contain it, in 1594 the mayor erected a gibbet at the High Cross. It may well be that Aldersey's interest in the origin of the troops, his "special barracks" etc. had less to do with any civic pride, and more to do with keeping the peace in the presence of a large number of frequently drunken and unruly troops.
Between his work and his civic duties, Aldersey studied Chester's Roman archaeology and the documentation of its medieval re-emergence. He is particularly remembered for his compilation of a list of the past mayors of Chester. The list survives to this day in a badly damaged memorandum book which was handed down through the Leche family. Aldersey’s last honour was to attend a civic dinner when James I visited Chester in August 1616. As the most senior alderman, he presented the king with a gold "standing bowl" chock full of gold coins (100 Jacobins) on the city’s behalf. He records the event himself:
- "12 October 1616 - The Kinges maiesty Came the 23rd day of august to the Lea hall to Sir George Calueley and there had a banquet, and from thence the same day to the Citty of Chester, where he was banqueted in the pentice, and presented with a Cupp of gold by the Citty. and from thence went to Vale riall [word cancelled] the same night beinge Saturday where he rested till mondey, and then came to the nante wiche that night and so away." - ALDERSEY FAMILY COLLECTION CR 469.
The annalists of Vale Royal record the events as follows (one or other has the year wrong):
- "1617 On the 23d of August our city was graced with the royal presence of our sovereign King James who being attended with many honourable earls reverend bishops and worthy knights and courtiers besides all the gentry of the shire rode in state through the city being met with the sheriffs peers and common council of the city every one with his foot cloth well mounted on horseback. All the train soldiers of the city standing in order without the Eastgate and every company with their ensigns in seemly sort did keep their several stations on both sides of the Eastgate street. The mayor and all the aldermen took their places on a scaffold railed and hung about with green and there in most grave and seemly manner they attended the coming of his Majesty. At which time after a learned speech delivered by the recorder the mayor presented to the king a fair standing cup with a cover double gilt and therein an hundred jacobins of gold and likewise the mayor delivered the city's sword to the king who gave it to the mayor again. And the same was borne before the king by the mayor being on horseback The sword of state was borne by the Right Hon William Earl of Derby chief chamberlain of the county palatine of Chester. The king rode first to the minster where he alighted from his horse and in the west aisle of the minster be heard an oration delivered in Latin by a scholar of the free school after the said oration he went into the choir. And there in a seat made for the king in the higher end of the choir he heard an anthem sung. After certain prayers the king went from thence to the Pentice where a sumptuous banquet was prepared at the city's cost which being ended the king departed to the Vale Royal. And at his departure the order of knighthood was offered to Mr Mayor but he refused the same." (as quoted in Hemingway)
So there is a definite connection between Leche house and James I - in that the daughter (Alice) of an important and wealthy royalist mayor (with interests in history, heraldry and overseas trade) married into the family (Leche) who owned the property just before (1613) a visit to Chester by James (August 1616 - he was banqueted at the nearby Pentice) at a time that there was the beginnings of interest in another "Spanish Match" (and it was still safe to mention it) between the Spanish infanta and Charles (who became Earl of Chester in November 1616, and would later become king).
The other "Spanish Match" from Tudor times was that of Mary, the only surviving child of the first "Spanish Match" between Catherine of Aragon and Henry VIII. Her executions of over 280 Protestants, including George Marsh (in 1555) near St Giles Cemetery in Boughton, led to her posthumous sobriquet "Bloody Mary". In 1554, Mary married Philip II of Spain, becoming queen consort of Habsburg Spain on his accession in 1556 - the marriage produced no children and when Mary died in 1558, it ended Philip's reign as jure uxoris King of England and Ireland. Squints, priest-holes and such-like are straight out of the time of Mary. Could it be that the "squint", references to Catherine of Aragon and symbols of James I used in the decoration of Leche House are part of a subtle play to make James consider a further "Spanish Match", which would potentially of been of benefit to the foreign-trading Aldersey? Aldersey seems not to have been the type to have engaged in such theatre, so the parts of the historical jigsaw do not quite fall into place. Although, they do link the elements of the tale of Leche House quite closely, there is no absolute proof that the decorations of the Old Leche House are to do with hints of a third "Spanish Match" - and the puzzle remains unsolved for now. Indeed it is possible that the Aldersey's would have wanted to avoid any discussion of religion at all: in 1564 the otherwise somewhat lax Bishop Downham presented a report, not wholly accurate, which cast doubt on the religious loyalties of several aldermen, including the then mayor (Richard Poole) and three of his predecessors (John Smith, William Aldersey, and Randle Bamvill). There were also a few suspect absentees from church services in Elizabethan times, notably Fulk Aldersey and his wife.
"Charming Miss Oldfield"
The words "Charming Miss Oldfield 1736" are reputed to have been scratched onto the glass using a diamond ring by Samuel Johnson.
Given the date of 1736, it is difficult to see how this could have been the case. Johnson had married Elizabeth "Tetty" Porter on 9 July 1735, at St Werburgh's Church in Derby (Johnson was 25 and Elizabeth was 46): she was a rich widow (described as : "a short, fat, coarse woman, painted half an inch thick, dressed in gaudy colours, and fond of exhibiting provincial airs and graces."). Johnson cannot really be considered a "ladies man". In June 1735, Johnson failed to secure a teaching position because he was "a very haughty, ill-natured gent, and that he has such a way of distorting his face (which though he can't help) the gents think it may affect some lads." (he is now thought by some to have suffered from "Tourette's Syndrome"). As well as strange gestures and a variety of nervous tics, Johnson was seriously scarred as a result of both scrofula and smallpox.
In the Autumn of 1735, Johnson opened Edial Hall School as a private academy at Edial, near Lichfield. He had only three pupils: Lawrence Offley, George Garrick, and the 18-year-old David Garrick, who later became one of the most famous actors of his day. The venture was unsuccessful, closed within a year, and cost Tetty a substantial portion of her fortune.
Johnson is known to have visited Chester in 1774 and he wrote of it as follows in "A Diary of a Journey Into North Wales, in the Year 1774" at that time:
- "In the afternoon we came to West Chester; (my father went to the fair when I had the smallpox). We walked round the walls which are compleat and contain one mile three quarters and one hundred and one yards; within them are many gardens: they are very high and two may walk very commodiously side by side. On the inside is a rail. There are towers from space to space, not very frequent, and, I think, not all compleat. We staid at Chester and saw the Cathedral, which is not of the first rank. The Castle. In one of the rooms the Assizes are held, and the refectory of the Old Abbey, of which part is a grammar school. The master seemed glad to see me. The cloister is very solemn; over it are chambers in which the singing men live. In one part of the street was a subterranean arch, very strongly built; in another what they called, I believe rightly, a Roman hypocaust. Chester has many curiosities."
This does not read like a diary of a return visit. The reference to Johnson's father (who died in 1731) seems to imply that Johnson was unable to accompany him to the fair because of illness (he contracted both scrofula and smallpox as a young boy). There is also some indirect evidence that Johnson had not seen much of Chester. In 1779 (letter of November 7th) James Boswell writes to Johnson (from Chester) as follows:
- "That I should importune you to write to me at Chester is not wonderful when you consider what an avidity I have for delight and that the amor of pleasure like the amor nummi increases in proportion with the quantity which we possess of it. Your letter so full of polite kindness and masterly counsel came like a large treasure upon me while already glittering with riches. I was quite enchanted at Chester so that I could with difficulty quit it. But the enchantment was the reverse of that of Circe; for so far was there from being any thing sensual in it that I was all mind. I do not mean all reason only; for my fancy was kept finely in play. And why not? - If you please I will send you a copy, or an abridgement of my Chester journal, which is truly a log book of felicity. The Bishop treated me with a kindness which was very flattering. I told him that you regretted you had seen so little of Chester. His Lordship bade me tell you, that he should be glad to shew you more of it. I am proud to find the friendship with which you honour me is known in so many places."
Nothing in the 1779 correspondence suggests that Johnson has had anything other than a brief visit to Chester (which would have been in 1774), so it seems most unlikely that "Charming Miss Oldfield" was written on the window by Samuel Johnson. While it may well be an inscription from that date, the attribution to Samuel Johnson seems likely to be another antique-dealer's invention.
Other graffiti on the window include: "Barker", "Miss Wantran" and "Llewlin Barry".
The face of an "old-fashioned sailor" is said to be sometimes seen looking out of the first floor window.
Sources and Links
- Leche House, Chester (Frank Simpson) G.R. Griffith, 1914;
- Priest-hole mentioned in Secret Hiding Places - The Origins, Histories And Descriptions Of English Secret Hiding Places Used By Priests, Cavaliers, Jacobites & Smugglers by Granville Squiers;
- James does an excellent review on ChesterTourist;
- Frank Simpson, Journal of the Chester and North Wales Archaeological & Historic Society 1913;
- Leche House on English Heritage;
- Leche House on Pastscape;
- Leche House on Wikipedia;
- Leche House on ChesterNow;
- The Deva Pentice has an article on William Aldersey;
- More on the "Spanish Match Crisis";
- The East India Company;
- Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Religion, 1550-1642 at British History Online;
- Early modern Chester 1550-1762: Military and political affairs, 1550-1642 at British History Online;