Lucian the Monk

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Nothing is known about Lucian except what can be infered from "De laude Cestrie" (in praise of Chester). His emphasis on Chester and on the proper organisation of monasteries makes it extremely likely he was a monk of St Werburgh’s. Though it seems Lucian was not a native Cestrian, he explicitly states that he was educated at St Johns before entering the abbey as a monk.

Lucian’s "De laude Cestrie" is preserved in a single late-twelfth-century manuscript: Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 672. It is likely the manuscript and perhaps its marginal apparatus are in Lucian’s own hand. It is not known what happened to the manuscript when he finished it: it may have passed to the monks of St Werburgh’s or the canons of St Johns, or even to a foundation outside Chester. Bodley 672 is a small, fat book which would have slipped easily into Lucian’s pocket. The leaves measure 150x110mm, and, as in other protogothic books, the text is densely written with between 23 and 26 lines per page and the frequent use of abbreviations. The manuscript is still in its original binding. It now consists of 198 leaves. One leaf, or perhaps several, has been lost at the end. Bodley 672 was one of nineteen manuscripts which Thomas Allen (1540?-1632) presented to the Bodleian in 1601, shortly after its foundation. Allen, a member of Gloucester Hall in Oxford, began acquiring manuscripts from a variety of sources in 1563. It is not known where Allen acquired the manuscript of De laude Cestrie.

At the time that Lucian was writing Chester was still the major port on the west coast of England, and largely unaffected by the silting of the River Dee in later times. Lucian describes the general layout of the city and its commerce as follows:

  • Chester has four gates corresponding to the four winds: from the East it looks towards India; from the West towards Ireland; from the North to greater Normandy (Norway); from the South to the narrow corner which God's severity left the Welsh to punish their innate rebelliousness. The English once subsumed Wales into England causing bitter discord and hatred. Every kingdom divided in itself will be foresaken which still afflict the surrounded people, when they tearfully read about these events. Meanwhile God has given our Chester an enriching river, which follows the line of the city walls and teems beautifully with fish. Concerning the estuary. and, in the south, a port for ships coming from Aquitaine, Spain, Ireland and Germany, which, with Christ as their helmsman, bring industrious merchants to replenish the city with a variety of goods, so that, consoled in all ways by the kindness of our God, we may often drink more and better wine, than those places in the region which glory in their success in viticulture.

His mention of India must be one of the first in English texts.

Chester was self-governing as a palatinate in function if not in name. For Lucian the Monk, Chester was a province bounded in the east by "the forest of Lyme", with privileges which distinguished it from the rest of England; through the indulgence of the king and the eminence of its earls, it attends (he says) "rather to the sword of its prince than to the royal crown, and even the most important affairs are freely discussed and settled within its borders". At the close of John's reign when in 1215 the English baronage extorted from John the Great Charter, Cheshire was left to secure a separate charter of liberties from its earl, as the "magna Carta" did not apply to Chester.


Page 2 of the original manuscript of "De laude Cestrie".

A central theme of "De laude Cestrie" is how the everday character of the city and its geography relates to religion and belief. Lucian is often said to have the distinction of being one of the first ever writers of a "guidebook" to anywhere in England outside of London. However, there are earlier descriptions of York and Durham.

The text proper begins with some reflections on the value of studying place and history:

  • The state of the times, the location of things and the occurence of events offer persuasive, unwritten instruction to each intelligent being. Manifoldness attracts the eye, variety provokes the intellect; and the subtler the eyesight of each being, the more penetrating will be his insight into these things. Certainly the field which is opened to human viewing for contemplation, consideration and reflection is so spacious and plentiful, that in this manifold variety fittingly might virtue be exercised and idleness reproached.

Lucian then describes how he was inspired to write by an unnamed canon of St John’s. This canon inspired him to consider the etymology of Chester (Cestria), which Lucian explains derives from cis tria (‘threefold’), relating the name to the merits of Chester’s bishop, archdeacon and clergy; to its lords, citizens and monks; and to the supplies which come from Ireland, Wales and England. Nowadays it is believed that the name of Chester has nothing to do with cis tria, but derives from the Latin castrum which was probably originally the term for an estate or a tract of land enclosed by a fence or a wooden or stone wall of some kind: and from this come the Welsh place name prefix "Caer" and English suffixes "Caster" and "Chester"; e.g. Winchester, Lancaster. Even Lucian later admits that the Saxon name for the place is "Cestria, meaning city".

One example of his "threefold" comparisons is found in his description of the Eastgate:

  • Hec cum ita sint, ut dicamus pauca que restant: intendat Cestriae habitator, exeunti portam orientalem, qualiter ei trinus uiarum trames aperitur et pulcra super locorum uocabulis, que se offerunt, consideracio inuenitur; nec solum pulcra, set etiam iocunda. Nam progressus paululum a ciuitate si directus incedit, statim a fronte uenientem locus excipit, quem nominant Villam Christi; si uero flectit ad dexteram alter locus, quem uocant incole, Veterem Vadum; si autem uertitur ad sinistram, uenitur ad locum, quem de latibulis insidiantium, recte dicunt Vallem Demonum.
  • "The native of Chester remembers how three roads branch off outside Eastgate and how beautiful and pleasing are the names of the places to which they lead. The road straight in front leads to Christ's Town (Christleton), that on the right to the Old Ford (Aldford) but if it turns to the left it comes to a place which they rightly call the Valley of Demons (Hoole) with reference to the hiding places of those who lie in wait... the wanderer... is despoiled by thieves and robbers"

Lucien is sometimes short on detail - we cannot be sure which road junction he is referring to in his description reproduced above - is this outside the Eastgate at the branch of Frodsham/Foregate/St John streets? or the junction at Boughton? This not a simple puzzle, in the 1370s, after Lucien was writing, one source holds that the road to Hoole left Chester by the Northgate and turned right along Bag Lane (later George Street) ot St Annes Street, and only later did the route go from the Eastgate. An alternative source refers to the removal of a gate from the Kaleyards to what is now Frodsham Street in 1323. The road was realigned through the villages of Hoole and Mickle Trafford when it was turnpiked as far as the existing turnpike at Warrington in 1786 (it was disturnpiked in two parts in 1870 and 1883). Also, prior to the construction of the Groves, it would not have been possible to get from Eastgate to the Old Dee Bridge without re-entering the city. If Lucien is referring to Boughton, then he does not mention the old Roman road which was in use at his time as an important saltway from Northwich. It it probable that in describing road geography outside Eastgate, as in other places, Lucien distorts geography into allegory.

Watergate Street as shown in a sketch by the author of the Smith Map dating from c1588. St Peter, at the High Cross has since lost its spire.

Lucian describes Chester’s location, natural resources, trading partners and street plan, encouraging its citizens to notice how generously God has provided for the city. Lucian’s description culminates by encouraging anyone standing in the "marketplace" to look east to St Johns, west to St Peter, north to St Werburgh’s (the present Cathedral) and south to St Michael. This might seem odd, even when considering that the "marketplace" probably refers to the upper end of Bridge Street, as St Peter's is located at the "marketplace": however Lucian also associates the city gates with these four religious institutions. The Eastgate is associated with St Johns and St John the Baptist; the Watergate is associated with St Peter; the Northgate with St Werburgh; and the Bridgegate with St Michael. Once again, Lucian is prepared to distort geography to suit his religious comparisons - in this case a "fourfold" comparison. As noted his distortion is particularly extreme in associating St Peter's with the Watergate. The nearest church to the Watergate would have been Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity (now the Guildhall) which appears to have existed in 1188 according to Hughes:

  • "Passing Trinity Street we arrive at the Parish Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity the first foundation of which is lost in remote obscurity. So early as the year 1188 we find Walter, rector of this Church, witnessing a deed relating to the Church of Rostherne in this county. Very little if any of the original Church now exists;- the west side is perhaps the most ancient portion of the structure as it at present stands."

While the actual relation between the various religious houses in Chester is unclear from Lucian he is very clear that the secular canons and the monks had different roles to play in society. In the mid 12th century a 'monastery' of St. Michael in Chester was supposedly among the gifts of William fitz Niel to Norton priory. It was presumably the 'mighty minster' of St. Michael later said to have been burned in the great fire of 1180 - something which Lucian again omits to mention - stating instead that he went to hear mass there. A parish church with the same dedication, apparently on the existing site, was first mentioned in 1178. The parish was entirely intramural and its boundaries suggest that it was formed at the same time as its neighbour St Bridget's. That Lucian (a monk) went to hear mass at a secular minster says something about his views on "rivalry" between the different religious houses.

The Buck brothers engraving (1747) of two arches from the Nunnery in what was to become the Architects garden

Lucian also describes the nuns of Chester. On a site, to the north west of Chester Castle, were to be built the conventual buildings and a church dedicated to St. Mary. Little is known about the size or state of the house in its first 150 years. It was evidently regarded as an attractive place for burials and in an agreement with the monks of St. Werburgh's and the canons of St. John's the nuns promised not to entice any of the inhabitants of Chester to be buried with them and to share the offerings of those who chose to be buried within their precinct. The ruins of the Nunnery (see: "The Mystery of the Architect's Garden") were to eventually end up (in part) in Grosvenor Park.

As regards the inhabitants of Chester, Lucian has some interesting views:

  • If anyone should seek, either in full or the part, to compare the habits of the locals to those living elsewhere on earth they will be found somewhat dissimilar, somewhat better to other Englishmen, and somewhat the same. When compared to usual habits, they seem particularly sociable in feasting, lively at table, generous in hospitality, quick to anger, eloquent, intolerant of servitude or subjection, kindly to the afflicted, compassionate to the poor, favourable to their kin, not working too hard, free from the gall of deceit, not at all greedy, honest, often borrowing other people's property without leave, richly supplied with woods and meadows and with meat and cattle, adjacent to the Welsh on one side and, through a long exchange of customs, for the most part similar.

As a "guidebook" Lucian's text is actually of little use. He descibes how Chester has two straight main streets which cross at the marketplace, but this would be evident to any visitor.

When was "De laude Cestrie" written?

Lucian appears to have worked on the manuscript (and his text) over a number of years, conceivably mostly between 1195 and 1200 - although the text does mention the later King John (6 April 1199 – 18/19 October 1216) being present "a very few years ago" at a joust in Chester (still as Prince John) - a fact which is not backed-up by any alternative source except the Chronicle of St Werburg which has Prince John and Philip of Worcester in Chester in 1185 (possibly accompanied by Gerald of Wales) waiting for a favourable wind for Ireland. If taken literally this would place Lucian's work between around 1187 and 1199 (when John became king), and would have been within the Earldom (1181-1232) of Ranulf de Blondeville. It is interesting to note that Lucian refers to John as "the King's son" as his father (Henry II) died in 1189, and thereafter Prince John was the brother to the new king (Richard).

The most likely abbot at the time of Lucians writing was either Geoffry, the seventh Abbot (1194-1208) or less likely Geoffry's successor, Abbot Hugh Grylle (elected 1208, died 1226), who was afterwards remembered as overseeing a major building phase at the abbey (which building work Lucian never mentions). Geoffry frequently complained that the church was in ruins, and that there was no money with which to rebuild it, but he succeeded in getting sufficient funds together to rebuild the choir. Pastoral letters appealing for funds are extant from Peter de la Roche bishop of Winchester dated in 1205 and from William bishop of Coventry shortly after which describe the state of the church as deplorable with the choir open to the weather and without doors. Geoffrey, in language doubtless exaggerated, describes the state of the choir at the time as:

The abbey buildings at the time of the dissolution (from Parker 1858). The plan shows the parts of the Abbey from the 12th Century which Lucian might have been familiar with.
  • "intolerably threatened with ruin, and threatening with danger of death those who assisted at the divine offices."

Ormerod writes of the state of the abbey at this time as follows:

  • "Geoffry 7th abbot was confirmed on the deposition of Hastings in 1194. The situation from a document contained in the red book of the abbey appears not to have been particularly enviable at this period. The greater part of the church was in ruins and the rebuilding had proceeded no further than the choir from want of money. The inroads of the Welsh had deprived the monks of a valuable rectory and two manors and the inundations of the sea had been equally fatal in Wirral and Ince. Abbot Geoffry died May 7 1208 and was buried in the chapterhouse on the left hand of the entrance near the door."

Lucian completely omits to mention the "ruinous" state of the abbey in his book. In the mid 13th century the abbey embarked on an ambitious reconstruction. Between 1250 and 1280 the work was extended to include the reconstruction of the entire eastern limb of the church, a process which lasted until c. 1340 and involved at least six master masons. The rebuilt choir was of six bays, with aisles ending in polygonal apses and a Chartres-like elevation comprising richly moulded arcade, trefoil-arched triforium, and tall clerestory.

De Laude Cestrie contains, in addition to much praise of the virtue and learning of the monks, several accounts of the hospitality provided both to fellow religious and to travellers. One such example reads:

  • The seats about their table are worn by reason of the many meals given to strangers, such is their innate liberality. Here travellers to and from Ireland find rest, companionship and shelter while waiting for wind and tide.

He also writes of the rare "respite from columns or troops".

There does seem to have been a strong connection with Ireland at the time - unsurprising given that the English were busy conquering it, and Chester was a major port in the campaign (hence the reference to the monks having "seldom respite from columns and troops"). However it is of course impossible for the monks to have fed large numbers of troops, and "travellers" may refer only to those visiting a colony of monks which was sent to Ireland from Chester in 1183. At that time John de Courcy gave ten carucates of land to the abbey in order that it should supply a prior and monks to replace the secular canons whom he had expelled from the church of St. Patrick in Downpatrick, Patrick's burial place. This abbey was independent of that at Chester and was destroyed by an earthquake in 1245 having been part-ruined for some time. The restored Cathedral was burned down by Edward Bruce in 1315 and subsequently rebuilt and destroyed several times.

Ranulf de Blondeville - as depicted in the stained glass on Chester's Town Hall staircase. In 1181 he was actually only nine years old.

A sub-text?

Lucian may have a sub-text in writing of such generous hospitality by the monks. Robert II had died 31st August 1184 leaving the abbacy vacant. This came at an unfortunate time: Hugh de Kevelioc had died in 1181 and his son Ranulf de Blondeville (born 1170) was a ward of Henry II until 1187. Henry took the oportunity to seize the abbey and pass it on to Hugh de Nonant - bishop of Coventry.

Key to Parker's plan above (click to enlarge).

The vacancy was ended by the appointment in 1186 of Robert of Hastings, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury and a partisan of Archbishop Baldwin - Archbishop of Canterbury between 1185 and 1190. William of Newburgh noted that Baldwin (a Cistercian) has sought to replace monks with secular canons at the great cathedrals - de Nonant had acted in a similar way. Nonant had a dispute with the monks of his cathedral chapter which led to Nonant replacing the monks with secular clergy. He was said to have commented that "I call my clerks gods and the monks demons." Nonant was very shrewd and eloquent, but he was also violent in his attempts to reform or expel his monastic clergy from Coventry. In October 1189 he attempted to persuade his fellow bishops who had monastic cathedral chapters to expel the monks and replace them with secular clergy. He also attempted to get all the bishops to prosecute a joint case at Rome to expel the monastic cathedral chapters, but gave up that idea after the Archbishop of Canterbury, (Baldwin) declined to go along. Nonant did, however, receive papal sanction for the replacement of monks at Coventry.

After King Richard went off on the Third Crusade (1189–1192), Nonant supported the efforts of Prince John, King Richard's brother, to seize power in England. Nonant joined with John in trying to wrest control of the castles of Tickhill and Nottingham from William Longchamp, the Bishop of Ely, who had been named justiciar and chancellor during Richard's absence. It was probably Nonant that was responsible for the meeting at Loddon Bridge on 5 October 1191 that ended in the deposition of Longchamp from office. De Nonant supported John's side throughout the time that Richard was on Crusade and in captivity, and was tried with John after Richard's return to England in early 1194.

Hastings' appointment was not popular with the monks of Chester; the general confirmation of possessions and privileges obtained from Clement III contained a provision for the orderly election of abbots, and in 1194, after protracted litigation, Robert of Hastings' rival, Geoffrey, obtained the abbacy with the help of the now adult Earl Ranulf and at the price of a pension of 20 marks a year for Hastings. The death of Archbishop Baldwin at Acre in November 1190 probably helped Geoffrey's case as it deprived Robert de Hastings of his protector. As recorded in the Chronicle of Chester:

  • mcxciiij Confirmatus est abbas Galfridus in abbatia de Cestra disceptans et litigans coram archiepiscopo Huberto Cantuariensi contra Robertum de Hastinges quondam abbatem Cestrie tandem patrocinante Sancta Werburga et glorioso Comite Cestrensi Rannulpho Galfridus optinuit dignitatem suam reddendo annuatim supradicto Roberto de Hastinges xx marcas duobus terminis et sic pacificati sunt. (1194 The abbot Geoffrey was confirmed in the abbey of Chester after much dispute and litigation with Robert de Hastings the former abbot, before Hubert, archbishop of Canterbury; at last, by the assistance of S. Werburg, and of the glorious earl Randle, of Chester, Geoffry obtained his dignity on the terms of paying an annual pension to the above-mentioned Robert de Hastings of twenty marks by two half-yearly payments; and so peace was made between them.)

The "Hubert" here is Hubert Walter. Walter, as Archbishop of Canterbury had revived the scheme of his predecessor, Baldwin to found a church in Canterbury that would be secular and not monastic. He promised that the new foundation's canons would not be allowed to vote in archiepiscopal elections nor would the body of Saint Thomas Becket ever be moved to the new church, but the monks of his cathedral chapter were suspicious and appealed to the papacy. The dispute from the time of Baldwin of Forde flared up again, with the papacy supporting the monks and the king supporting the archbishop. Finally, Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) ruled for the monks and ordered Walter to destroy what had been built.


The opening of Lucian's text reads in parts like a personal notebook, where he writes in the first person of his perambulations around the city and his "inspiration" by a secular cannon of St Johns - "our venerable predecessor":

  • "I have not forgotten that, some months ago, with the exacting rigour of your rich mind, you explained to me the three syllables of the city in three ways. Having been sent with the monastery's answer and about to visit the earl’s residence, after hearing masses in the church of the Archangel Michael, and having obtained confidence to conduct my earthly business, I thought it also worth visiting the church of our venerable predecessor."

It is not clear what the phrase "some months ago" is supposed to mean given that the "church of the Archangel Michael" (the "mighty minster" of St Michael) is supposed to have been destroyed by a "great fire" in 1180. Lucian then returns to a description of his business that day:

Both the Braun and Hogenberg map of Chester (from around 1581) and later maps shows "ruin of the house of the count of Chester" by the River Dee in Edgar's Field (also known as "Kettle's Croft" prior to 1892), close to the location of Minerva Shrine.
  • "I must admit that time passed that day in a variety of ways: the castle was a nuisance, but the church was a consolation; the pride and pomposity of the age confounded me in the settlement of my business, but the integrity and affection of the community revived me; and whatever wounds the Earl’s palace inflicted, the precinct of the Forerunner of God fully soothed. There the throat of my mind tasted how much the salt sea and maternal love can differ; we are buffetted by one, consoled by the other. A storm teaches what calm weather can grant; whatever the harsh roaring of the ocean inflicted, the mercy of my kin softened and soothed."

Exactly what business Lucian has at the Earl's Palace or the Castle is never explained and it is worth noting that these were turbulent times for both the Earl and the Abbey. Ranulf de Blondeville was by now almost completely estranged from his wife Constance, and in 1195, together with King Richard, hatched a secret plot to weaken the power of Constance. An unstable Britanny was once again threatening the balance of power with France and Richard was less than happy that Constance had declared Arthur Duke of Brittany without his apparent consent. The plot was probably put together in March 1195 when Ranulf and Richard met at Ranulf's castle of St-James-de-Beuvron to sign a charter relating to St Marie de Maontmorel. Also present were Roger of Chester (Ranulf's half-brother), Roger de Lacy (Constable of Chester), Baldwin Wake and William de Verdun. The plan was to capture Constance and Arthur after luring them to discussions regarding Arthur's right to the English crown. Ranulph captured and imprisoned his wife in 1196, but Arthur escaped, an act that sparked a rebellion in Constance's native Brittany:

  • "Arthur, who was now nine years Old, was in 1196 introduced by his mother to the assembly of the states of Brittany, and associated with her in the duchy. His uncle at the same time claimed the charge of him as his heir, and invited Constance to a conference at Pontorson. On her way, it is much to be feared with his connivance, she was seized by a body of troops under her husband, the Earl of Chester, and carried a prisoner to the castle of St.James de Beuvron."

In 1197 Ranulf and Richard led an army into eastern Brittany to subdue the revolt, so during much of the time that Lucian appears to be writing of the Earl was absent from Chester.

From this start what is often described as a "guidebook" actually appears to be a series of sermons and meditations triggered by thoughts about geography and expressed through a often distorted description of that geography. Important matters such as the recent, and much disputed, election of Abbot Geoffry, revolts and wars on the continental lands of the Earl (and in Ireland), and the ruinous state of the Abbey are omitted from any mention, or only mentioned briefly. While not going into detail about strife within the Church, Lucian certainly has a sub-text that secular canons (such as those of St Johns) and monks (such as those of the Abbey) should exist in harmony - adding a third member to his list in terms of the bishops and the papacy. Lucian is writing directly after a period of schism within his own monastery, possibly triggered by the minority of Earl Ranulf and the activities of the King's agents. By 1195, the star of Hugh de Nonant (who had sided with John against Richard I and wanted to replace monks with secular canons) had fallen and Lucian clearly wishes for harmony. It is likely that his opening, with the un-named canon of St Johns having the attribution of making the key statement about "threefoldness" is intended to show the benefits of co-operation. While not painting Chester as a utopia, Lucian does picture the city at what may have well been the zenith of its independence from the crown. This independence was not to last - after the death of John Canmore the Earldom, which had grown politically too close to Scotland and Wales reverted to the crown.

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