This is part of a series of articles on the history of Chester through time:
Definitions of the extent of the "Medieval Period" vary. According to some definitions the medieval period lasted approximately from the 5th to the late 15th centuries, similarly to the Post-classical period of global history. It began with the fall of the Western Roman Empire and transitioned into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery. In this article the period is taken as starting with the Norman Conquest (1066) and ending with the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485). This corresponds roughly to the High Middle Ages, ending around 1250, which is also the time of the Norman Earls of Chester, and the Late Middle Ages. The particular history on this page is seen from the point of view which is based upon events in Chester. The purpose is not to make Chester any more important than it was, but to present historical events from a Chester-centric perspective and indicate how Chester interacted with these historical events. The account is somewhat abbreviated for simplicity and further detail on particulars can be found on the pages linked to and the sources and references listed therein.
- 1 The Middle Ages
- 1.1 The High Middle Ages
- 1.1.1 Gallery of the Earls of Chester
- 1.1.2 Gherbod the Fleming
- 1.1.3 Hugh of Avranches
- 1.1.4 Richard of Avranches
- 1.1.5 Ranulf de Meschines
- 1.1.6 Ranulph De Gernon
- 1.1.7 Hugh de Kevelioc
- 1.1.8 Ranulf de Blondeville
- 1.1.9 John Canmore
- 1.2 Late Middle Ages
- 1.3 In Summary: Medieval Chester
- 1.4 Exploring Medieval Chester
- 1.5 Sources and Links
- 1.1 The High Middle Ages
The Middle Ages
The later Dark Ages had seen a Carolingian Renaissance which stimulated scientific and philosophical activity in Northern Europe. The Vikings settled in the British Isles, France and elsewhere, and Norse Christian "kingdoms" started developing in their Scandinavian homelands, and, notably, in Normandy where a hybrid of the Viking and Carolingian/Frankish heritage emerged. Chester emerged from the Dark Ages as a place of some importance. Exactly how it did this is a matter of some conjecture, and events at Chester in 900 are discussed in another article. In brief the Vikings raided it, Æthelflæd restored it, Edward the Elder died at Farndon. The Battle of Brunanburh was most likely fought nearby. Edgar the Pacific used it as an important naval base and for his ceremonial boat trip from Edgar's Field. The family of Leofric and his son Ælfgar had an important power-base here.
By 1066 Chester was a prosperous town with a population of perhaps 2,500-3,000. Rendering a farm of £45 and three timber of marten pelts (i.e. 120 skins), together with an additional payment from the moneyers operating the mint, it was assessed as a half hundred including the adjacent townships of Handbridge, Newton by Chester, 'Lee' (Overleigh and Netherleigh), and 'Redcliff', expressly said to be 'outside the city' but taxed with it. The city had its own laws and customs, administered by its hundredal court, over which presided 12 judges or doomsmen (iudices civitatis) drawn from the men of king, earl, and bishop, and liable to fines payable to the king and earl for failure to attend. The judges have been regarded as evidence of Scandinavian influence on the city's institutions and equated with the 'lawmen' (lagemen or iudices) of certain boroughs in the Danelaw. There is, however, no indication that they enjoyed the same status as the lawmen, who had extensive properties and judicial privileges. Indeed the laws of Chester, which were recorded in Domesday Book in exceptional detail, suggest that, as in other western towns dominated by a great local magnate, the status of its citizens was comparatively low. They were obliged to pay 10s. on taking up land in the city, and were also liable to heavy fines for failure to pay gavel or rent and for other misdemeanours.
Harold Godwinson traditionally has an association with Chester through the probable myth that he was the initial hermit who inhabited the Hermitage. Another important link to Chester is that the lands which became associated with the Earldom of Chester were to a significant extent - about 30% - those which had previously belonged to Harold. The historical reality is, if anything, more interesting. By the time of the reign of Edward the Confessor a huge rivalty had developed between Harold's family and that of Ælfgar. To some extent this reflected the older rivaltry between Wessex and Mercia. The wars in Wales during the middle years of Edward the Confessor can almost be seen as a "proxy war" between the Godwins and the House of Leofric which Edwin and Harold seem to have largely resolved. In the process Harold married Edith (or Ealdgyth), daughter of Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia, and widow of the Welsh prince Gruffydd ap Llywelyn. Edith had one son, named Harold, probably born posthumously. Another of Harold's sons, Ulf, may have been a twin of the younger Harold, though most historians consider him a son of Edyth Swannesha. Both these sons survived into adulthood and probably lived out their lives in exile. After her husband's death, Ealdgyth fled for refuge to her brothers, Edwin, Earl of Mercia and Morcar of Northumbria, but both men made their peace with King William initially before rebelling. Traditionally she is said to have given birth to Harold's postumous son, another Harold, in Chester.
Chester was one of the last English towns to fall to the Normans. By the spring of 1070, having secured the submission of Waltheof and Gospatric in Northumbria, and driven Edgar Ætheling and his remaining supporters back to Scotland, William the Conqueror returned to Mercia. At times William's own troops were close to revolt as when William set out across the Pennines, in "rain and hail", to deal with "the Welsh and the men of Chester". For more on this see: Devastation of Cheshire. The extent to which Cheshire was "devastated" has been the subject of specific debate. To a large part the story of the devastation arises from the writings of Edward Augustus Freeman who was appointed Regius Professor of Modern History at Oxford, in 1884. Rather like Charles Kingsley, who had held a similar position at Cambridge after 1860, Freeman subscribed to an "Anglo-Saxonist" view of history, with the English being an essentially germanic people who had suffered incidental inconvenience at the hands of the French, but had overcome the odds to (in his view rightfully) rule the world. It was this perspective which coloured much of the then view of the characters involved in the events leading up to and surrounding the Norman Conquest, making Earl Godwin (who had been involved in the blinding and death of at least one heir) a defender of democracy, and creating the fiction that the "witan" was some form of parliament akin to the Victorian one, and that the Victorian parliament was above any corruption.
William based himself at Chester and crushed all remaining resistance in the area before returning to the south which had been raided by a Danish fleet. He left behind a castle, which consisted of an earth mound ("motte") with a small, probably wooden, fort at the summit. This was subsequently improved. The new Chester Castle enhanced Chester's role as a military and administrative centre, and it quickly became the base for expeditions against both the Welsh and, in the 12th century, the Irish.
The Norman dynasty ruled England from the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066, until 1154. They were followed by the House of Plantagenet (House of Anjou, or Angevin dynasty) originally a noble family from France, which had ruled Anjou and ruled England from 1154 to 1485. During this period the Earls of Chester wielded considerable political power, and at time opposed the crown, but afterwards their line died out the Earldom was held by the heir to the throne. The Victorian stained glass windows above the staircase in Chester Town Hall depict Gherbod the Fleming, who was (according to some accounts) given the Earldom of Chester by William the Conqueror, and the seven Norman Earls of Chester; Hugh of Avranches (c.1077-1101); Richard of Avranches (1101-20); Ranulf de Meschines (1120-28); Ranulph De Gernon (1128-53); Hugh de Kevelioc (1153-81); Ranulf de Blondeville (1181-1232); and John Canmore (1232-37). Some of the Earls had an enormous impact on British politics, but we know comparatively little about their activities at Chester, or other events in the city.
The primary local source for the early medieval is the "Annals of Chester" which covers the period from AD 1 until AD 1297, i.e. from well before it was actually compiled until a fairly short time after the last of the Norman Earls. An e-book version can be found here.
From the perspective of Chester the period from the Norman Conquest to the defeat of Richard III can be divided into several phases. First, there is the period of the Norman Earls of Chester, which corresponds roughly with the High Middle Ages. Then, the era of the three Edwards, followed by the time of Richard II and the conflict between the Houses of Lancaster and York, which correspond with the Late Middle Ages.
The High Middle Ages
The Normans developed as descendents of Norse Viking settlers (after whom Normandy was named) and the native Franks and Gallo-Romans of West Francia. They were were historically famed for their martial spirit and eventually for their Catholic piety, becoming exponents of the Catholic orthodoxy of the Romance community. The 11th century Benedictine monk and historian, Goffredo Malaterra, characterised the Normans thus:
- "Specially marked by cunning, despising their own inheritance in the hope of winning a greater, eager after both gain and dominion, given to imitation of all kinds, holding a certain mean between lavishness and greediness, that is, perhaps uniting, as they certainly did, these two seemingly opposite qualities. Their chief men were specially lavish through their desire of good report. They were, moreover, a race skillful in flattery, given to the study of eloquence, so that the very boys were orators, a race altogether unbridled unless held firmly down by the yoke of justice. They were enduring of toil, hunger, and cold whenever fortune laid it on them, given to hunting and hawking, delighting in the pleasure of horses, and of all the weapons and garb of war."
The spread of Norman culture had effects which are still perhaps underestimated. A major variant of the Romanesque style of architecture originated in Normandy and became widespread in northwestern Europe, particularly in England, which contributed considerable development and where the largest number of examples survive, including some to be seen at Chester. The Normans promoted the use of cavalry as a military force, and the use of the castle as strongholds. Under the Norman feudal system the monarch effectively owned all land and created baronies. If the estate-in-land held by barony contained a significant castle as its "caput baroniae" and if it was especially large – consisting of more than about 20 knight's fees (each loosely equivalent to a manor) – then it was termed an "honour". The typical honour had properties scattered over several shires, intermingled with the properties of others. This was a specific policy of the Norman kings, to avoid establishing any one area under the control of a single lord. This type of barony is different from the type of feudal barony which existed within a county palatine. A county palatine was an independent franchise so its baronies were considered the highest rank of feudal tenure in the county and not the kingdom. Cheshire was a county palatine and therefore not formally part of England - there are frequent references in the chronicle literature to leaving Cheshire and "going back into England".
Gallery of the Earls of Chester
The images below are taken from the stained glass in the Town Hall at Chester. The glass is not based on any real depiction of the earls, although the heraldry on their shields appears correct. The glass is by Ralph Bolton Edmondson of Manchester who may have used the stained glass at Stoneleigh Abbey as a basis.
Some details of the roles played by the various earls are given below. More on each of them can be discovered by following the links to their individual pages (the names under each image).
- "The first earl of Chester after the Norman conquest, was Gherbod, a Fleming, who, having obtained leave from king William to go into Flanders for the purpose of arranging some family concerns, was taken and detained a prisoner by his enemies; upon which the conqueror bestowed the earldom of Chester on Hugh de Abrincis or of Avranches, "to hold as freely by the sword, as the king himself did England by the crown."
By 1071, the value of recoverable taxes had reduced to £30 and Chester was described as 'greatly wasted'. Of 487 houses standing in 1066, 205 had been lost and were perhaps not rebuilt before 1086. One can again question whether this is a consequence of "devastation" or simply the large numbers of agricultural workers who had been killed in the recent conflicts, such as the slaughter of Edwin and Morcar's levies at the Battle of Fulford. Just because a manor was classed as "waste" (unexploited or unprofitable) after the Norman Conquest does not mean that it became "waste" as a direct consequence of that conquest - it could equally well be that the defence against the Norse invasion prior to the Battle of Stamford Bridge had taken a massive toll on the farmers of Cheshire. Edwin and Morcar did not take part in the Battle of Hastings where Harold would have been glad of any additional support, and this could have been due to the heavy losses which they had suffered in the campaign against Haldrada.
The eventual increase in the taxation of the city under Earl Hugh of Avranches to £70 and a mark of gold (about its pre-conquest level) may (according to some historians) indicate more burdensome exactions rather than returning prosperity, although the resources were clearly available in Chester to build a castle and start work on a new cathedral at St Johns. It is unlikely that when Peter de Leia moved his See to Chester in 1075 that he would have done so if the region was a ravaged wasteland. It is also worth remembering that desolating land which one intends to settle with one's own supporters as a "reward" hardly makes sense. The office of the Sheriff of Chester seems to have existed since around 1070, far longer than the office of mayor, and is the first mention of such a role in any English borough. The duties of the sheriff included policing and the collection of tolls and taxes. The sheriff probably also presided over the courts.
It appears that Gherbod dissapeared from the scene about 1071 and it is worth looking at what else was happening at the time. William and his wife Matilda had at least nine children, with the youngest Robert being born between 1051 and 1054. In 1063, his father made him the Count of Maine in view of his engagement to Margaret the heiress, and Robert may have had independent rule in Maine despite his youth. Norman control of Maine secured the southern border of Normandy against Anjou and is one factor which enabled William to launch his successful invasion of England in 1066. Maine remained under Norman control until 1069 when the town of Le Mans revolted and reverted to Hugh V of Maine, who appears to have been something of a "puppet" ruler. Orderic Vitalis said of Hugh V:
- "he was, indeed, an imbecile, a coward, and an idler, and totally unfit to hold the reins of government in so high a station".
Meanwhile, in England, William faced problems with a revolt by Edwin and Morcar followed by Edgar the Ætheling rising in revolt and joining forces with the Danes. In the initial stages of the Norman Conquest many of the surviving Anglo-Saxon ruling class had simply submitted to the Normans and therefore retained much of their freedom. Although Edgar fled to Scotland and Sweyn II promised to leave England after being paid off, Sweyn returned in spring 1070, raiding along the Humber and East Anglia toward the Isle of Ely, where he joined up with Hereward the Wake, a local thegn. Hereward's forces attacked Peterborough Abbey, which they captured and looted. William was able to secure the second departure of Sweyn and his fleet in 1070, allowing him to return to the continent to deal with his troubles in Maine. Yet another concern was the death of Count Baldwin VI of Flanders in July 1070, which led to a succession crisis as his widow, Richilde, was ruling for their two young sons, Arnulf and Baldwin. Her rule, however, was contested by Robert, Baldwin's brother. Richilde proposed marriage to William fitzOsbern, who was in Normandy, and fitzOsbern accepted. But after he was killed in February 1071 at the Battle of Cassel, Robert became count. He was opposed to King William's power on the continent, thus the Battle of Cassel upset the balance of power in northern France in addition to costing William at least one important supporter. Cassel also seems to have been where Gherbod was captured, although accounts differ.
William's position was precarious, but it had been so before and while many a lesser man might have been overstretched that was not the case with William. His creation of a Palatinate at Chester gave him a powerful ally and removed the possibility of a further revolt there as well as providing a strong defence against invasion from Wales. The palatine status of Cheshire would persist for centuries. It gave the Earl almost king-like power, and, save for treason, placed it outside of the jurisdiction of the English courts and taxation systems. It had its own independent baronies, and "parliament", and save for the fact that the earl was a vassal of the king, was in many ways a semi-independent state. The earldom of Chester was both powerful and lucrative. It was also independent of William's family, so if his sons turned-out to be less than competent rulers, or William died before they were mature, there would be a large and hopefully stable ally to bolster his realm.
William the Conqueror has few statues in Britain but there is one of him on the lodge of Grosvenor Park. This building was the first known use by John Douglas of his iconic "black and white" style and the statue, like the building, dates from the Victorian period. Gherbod's only memorial at Chester is some stained glass in the Town Hall which is again Victorian and many histories of Chester do not mention him at all.
Hugh of Avranches was given a Palatine county with the power to make and break any law save treason partly in return for his father bankrolling Duke William's Invasion in 1066, Hugh built castles and made a poor job of invading Wales. He managed to arrange the marriage of his son into the monarchs family, but this was to end in tragedy. The Grosvenors claimed to be descended from him. There are several versions of this story. The one the Grosvenors themselves first put forward (in 1389) is that their ancestor was Gilbert (Gros) Venour, who they claimed was a cousin of Hugh. There is very little evidence that Gilbert actually existed. The Welsh called him Hugh Flaidd (Hugh the Wolf or Hugh Lupus) and according to many histories a wolf's head appears on his arms. In an engraving of the coat of arms the artist has given the head of the wolf a wide grin, which might be mistaken for that of a cat - this has been suggested as the origin of the Cheshire Cat.
It is not certain that he would have actually possessed a shield with a wolf's head painted on it: heraldic designs only came into general use among European nobility in the 12th century, and many of the earlier supposed arms were later "attributed" to their bearers. The earliest "coats of arms" in England date from about 1140 and so are placed well after Hugh and his son. This did not prevent Ormerod from presenting an illustration in his History of Cheshire which depicts Hugh's supposed court. The illustration entitled "Hugh Lupus, Earle of Chester, sitting in his parliament with the barons and abbots of that Countie Palatine" appeared in the 1718 edition of William Dugdale's "Monasticon Anglicanum". There are several things wrong with the illustration. Hugh, who died in 1109, is depicted with his "local" clergy (all of whom are dressed as bishops) which include (according to their coats of arms) the Bishop of Chester (with the arms of the diocese founded in 1541), the Abbot of Vale Royal (founded c.1270), the Prior of Norton (founded 1133) and the Abbot of Combermere (founded in the 1130's). His Barons also have coats of arms which were not in use at the time. In addition, the architecrure of the hall is from a period well over a century later with Gothic vaulting and large, glazed windows.
As regards Hugh, Hemingway quotes the following:
- He was, "saith Ordericus, not only liberal, but profuse; he did not carry a family with him, but an army. He kept no account of receipts or disbursements. He was perpetually wasting his estates; and was much fonder of falconers and huntsmen, than of cultivators of land, and holy men, and by his gluttony he grew so excessively fat, that he could hardly crawl about.
Hugh is generally referred to as the first Norman earl of Chester and is depicted in several stained glass windows, all of which are Victorian or later and his form appears in some statuary and other decoration around the city, such as in the "hisrorical" relief carvings at the Town Hall. The choice of Hugh rather than Gherbod for these is based on his longer tenure, more impactful effect and probably also that the Grosvenors claimed descent from either him or some companion/relative of his.
Hugh had some misadventures in Wales with the half-Viking Gruffydd ap Cynan - who, despite having been imprisoned for some years at Chester Castle - outlived Hugh (who died in 1101) and lasted until 1137. Initially the Normans had assisted Gruffydd recover north Wales from Trahaearn ap Caradog (although the Normans seem to have supported both sides). Gruffydd eventually recovered north Wales but was captured in 1081 when he was enticed to a meeting with Hugh and the Earl of Shrewsbury (probably Roger) at Rug, near Corwen. According to his biographer this was by the treachery of one of his own men, Meirion Goch. Gruffydd was imprisoned at Chester Castle for many years (some say ten, others 12, others 16). Just how he managed to escape from confinement at Chester is not known, although there is a legend that he was freed by a single Welshman who was visiting the market in Chester. Much of the conquest of North Wales was actually done by Robert of Rhuddlan whom Hugh has appointed as his commander of troops by 1072.
In his effort to consolidate control over Gwynedd, Earl Hugh of Chester forced the election of Hervé the Breton upon the Bangor diocese in 1092, with Hervé's consecration as Bishop of Bangor performed by Thomas of Bayeux, then Archbishop of York. Also in 1092, at Hugh of Avranches's third invitation Anselm of Bec came from France to England to found the Benedictine Abbey at Chester. Alselm had spent some time in Avranches in 1060 before entering the abbey of Bec as a novice - and it is possible that he met Hugh then.
The new abbey was not the only Norman church-building being progressed in Chester at the time. In 1075 Peter de Leia, bishop of Lichfield (consecrated in 1067) had removed his episcopal see to St Johns Church at Chester and planned a huge new church. One theory as to why this was done is that the bishop saw some scope for extending his bishopric into North Wales, which was then being conquered by Hugh. Another reason is given by Henry de Knyghton - a council was held in London, under the presidency of archbishop Lanfranc, at which it was deemed expedient to transfer the sees of the Bishops from villages and small towns to more significant towns. William of Malmesbury gives the same explanation. Thus, while Hugh was largely independent from the the state, the church had planted a new bishop at his doorstep and he may have promoted the local cult of Werburgh (by bringing in the Benedictines) as a reaction to this.
Hugh lost Anglesey and much of the rest of Gwynedd in the Welsh revolt of 1094, led by Gruffydd ap Cynan, who had somehow escaped from captivity at Chester. By late 1095 the uprising had spread to many parts of Wales. This induced the then king William II of England (William Rufus) to intervene, invading northern Wales in 1095. However his army was unable to bring the Welsh to battle and returned to Chester without having achieved very much. In 1098, the next Norman attempt to conquer north Wales suffered a severe setback. Florence of Worcester records that, in 1098, Hugh of Chester and Hugh de Montgommery Earl of Shrewsbury led troops into Anglesey and their furious 'victory celebrations' which followed were exceptionally violent, with rape and carnage committed by the Norman army left unchecked. The earl of Shrewsbury had an elderly priest named Cenned mutilated (by castrating him and blinding him in one eye), and "made the church of Llandyfrydog a kennel for his dogs". Gruffydd ap Cynan had retreated to Anglesey, but then was forced to flee to Ireland when a fleet he had hired from the Danish settlement in Ireland changed sides. Then, a Norwegian fleet under the command of King Magnus III of Norway, also known as "Magnus Barefoot", attacked the Norman forces near the eastern end of the Menai Straits. Hugh of Shrewsbury was killed by an arrow in the eye which the Welsh considered divine vengance for his mutilation of the priest. The Normans were thus obliged to evacuate Anglesey, and the following year (1099) Gruffydd ap Cynan returned from Ireland to take possession again. Hugh apparently made an agreement with Gruffydd and did not again try to recover these lands.
Robert, William Rufus and Henry
William the Conqueror was probably right to be concerned about his sons. In 1077, the twenty-something Robert instigated his first insurrection against his father as the result of a prank played by his younger brothers William Rufus and Henry, who had dumped a full chamber-pot over his head. Robert was enraged and, urged on by his companions, started a brawl with his brothers that was only interrupted by the intercession of their father. Feeling that his dignity was wounded, Robert was further angered when King William failed to punish his brothers. The next day Robert and his followers attempted to seize the castle of Rouen. The siege failed, but, when King William ordered their arrest, Robert and his companions took refuge with Hugh of Chateauneuf-en-Thymerais. They were forced to flee again when King William attacked their base at Rémalard. Robert fled to Flanders to the court of his uncle Robert I, Count of Flanders, before plundering the county of the Vexin and causing such mayhem that his father King William allied himself with King Philip I of France to stop his rebellious son. What had started as a prank had gone explosively out of control, but was probably a symptom of underlying sibling rivalries.
In 1087, William died of wounds suffered from a riding accident during a siege of Mantes - he had been thrown against the pommel of his saddle such that "his intestines burst" and died a lingering death while reportedly wanted to disinherit his eldest son, but was persuaded to divide the Norman dominions between his two eldest sons. To Robert he granted the Duchy of Normandy and to William Rufus he granted the Kingdom of England. The youngest son Henry was given money to buy land. Of the two elder sons Robert was considered to be much the weaker and was generally preferred by the nobles who held lands on both sides of the English Channel since they could more easily circumvent his authority. Robert was also useless when it came to money. He quickly exhausted his inherited wealth and at one point he was so poor that he had to remain in bed due to a lack of clothes. William Rufus was the more capable. Henry was almost completely sidelined.
The peace did not last: the barons in England joined with Robert to displace William Rufus in the Rebellion of 1088. It was not a success, in part because Robert never showed up to support the English rebels. Robert's son Richard seems to have spent much of his life at the royal court of his uncle William Rufus. This Richard was killed in a hunting "accident" in the New Forest in 1100 as was his uncle, King William Rufus, the same year. Following William's "accidental" death William's third son (who was in the same area when the accident happened) seized the conveniently close royal treasure, arranged a speedy coronation and became Henry I. In 1101 Robert led an invasion to oust his younger brother Henry. He landed at Portsmouth with his army, but the lack of popular support among the English (Anselm, the archbishop of Canterbury, was decidedly against him and the Charter of Liberties issued at Henry's coronation was well liked) as well as Robert's own mishandling of the invasion tactics enabled Henry to resist the invasion. Robert was forced by diplomacy to renounce his claim to the English throne in the Treaty of Alton. In 1105, however, Robert's continual stirring of discord with his brother in England as well as civil disorder in Normandy itself prompted Henry to invade Normandy. In 1106, Henry defeated Robert's army decisively at the Battle of Tinchebray and claimed Normandy as a possession of the English crown, a situation that endured for almost a century. Captured after the battle, Robert was imprisoned in Devizes Castle in Wiltshire for twenty years before being moved to Cardiff. In 1134, Robert died in Cardiff Castle in his early eighties.
Hugh and Henry
Focussing on the role of Chester, Earl Hugh of Chester remained loyal to William Rufus during the rebellion of 1088. The rebels were led by William the Conqueror's half-brothers Odo of Bayeux and Robert, Count of Mortain, with Odo the stronger of the two and the leader. The two are shown sitting with William in the Bayeux Tapestry.
Among King William's initial supporters were all the bishops of England, a few major magnates including Alan Rufus (in the east of England north of London up to Yorkshire), William de Warenne, 1st Earl of Surrey (from Sussex to Yorkshire) and Hugh of Avranches and lesser tenants-in-chief such as Robert Fitzhamon and Walter D'Aincourt. However, the rebels' ranks were made up many of the most powerful barons in England: of the ten largest baronial landholders in the Domesday Book, six were counted amongst the rebels. In a stroke of luck for Rufus, the troops Robert was sending from Normandy were driven back by bad weather on the seas. Meanwhile, the king, together with some of his allies took Rochester Castle in Kent, and with Robert's failure to arrive, the rebels were forced to surrender and the rebellion was over.
Hugh also appeared to side with Wiliam Rufus in 1091 when William and Robert plotted to deprive their younger brother Henry of his lands. Henry had appealed to Hugh for help, but weighing up the relative strengths of the forces involved, publicly sided with Rufus and declared his castles for the king. However Hugh also had some advice for young Henry and suggested that he take up a defensive position at Mont Saint-Michel. Henry was soon besieged on the island fortress and hung-on while his brothers quarrelled. He finally reached a surrender deal which saved his life but drove him into impverished exile. At times during the next years Henry drops out of the records completely although he was probably assisted by Earl Hugh. He resurfaces in Domfront and soon became one of William Rufus' most capable commanders. In 1094 Hugh assisted William in the defence of Normandy against the French king, showing yet another involvement with Henry. As recorded in the AS Chronicle:
- There was the King of France through cunning turned aside; and so afterwards all the army dispersed. In the midst of these things the King William sent after his brother Henry, who was in the castle at Damfront; but because he could not go through Normandy with security, he sent ships after him, and Hugh, Earl of Chester.
The circumstances of the death of William Rufus are suspicious, especially given the death of Robert's son Richard in similar circumstances just a few months before. Historians are still somewhat divided on whether "hunting accidents" are the expected results of a dangerous sport (and probably alcohol) or a convenient way of disposing of someone. William of Malmesbury gave a version of what happened:
- "The day before the king died he dreamt that he went to hell and the Devil said to him "I can't wait for tomorrow because we can finally meet in person!". He suddenly awoke. He commanded a light to be brought, and forbade his attendants to leave him. The next day he went into the forest... He was attended by a few persons... Walter Thurold remained with him, while the others, were on the chase. The sun was now declining, when the king, drawing his bow and letting fly an arrow, slightly wounded a stag which passed before him... The stag was still running... The king, followed it a long time with his eyes, holding up his hand to keep off the power of the sun's rays. At this instant Walter decided to kill another stag. Oh, gracious God! the arrow pierced the king's breast."
With Robert away on crusade, and both Robert's son Richard and William Rufus dead by a "hunting accident" (both by the same means in the same forest) the later Henry I turned up in Winchester just in time to claim the royal treasury. Walter Thurold (or Tirel) fled to France. It was left to a local charcoal-burner named Purkis to take the king's body to Winchester Cathedral on his cart. William Rufus was buried in the crossing under the spire, which promptly collapsed on his grave. In November 1100 King Henry married Matilda, the daughter of Edgar the Ætheling’s sister by the former King Malcolm of Scotland. It was one way of cementing his claim to his deceased brother's throne: she was the great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside and henceforth descended from Alfred the Great. The chroniclers soon went to work on the dead William Rufus: Orderic Vitalis stated:
- "He never had a lawful wife, but gave himself up insatiably to obscene fornications and repeated adulteries. Stained with sins, he set a culpable example of shameful debauchery to his subjects."
By this time Earl Hugh of Chester was approaching the end of his life and was probably quite ill. His son and heir was a minor and so did not have to choose sides in the contest between Robert and Henry. His support of Henry I had placed the Conqueror's youngest and probably most capable son on the throne. He had established the Dee Mills, started on Chester Castle and founded an Abbey which would eventually become the Cathedral. Hugh's attempts to conquer North Wales were not a success, largely due to a combination of geography and his durable opponent the half-Viking Gruffydd ap Cynan, who would leave a largely independent North Wales which would persist through the High Middle Ages.
Only a little is known of the state of the countryside around Chester at the time of the Norman Conquest. The population of England at the time was mostly rural and agriculture was generally the most important industry. Towns such as Chester had developed as market and ecclesiastical centers, and as in the case of Chester, some had been influenced by Alfred the Great's adoption of the "burh" system, which provided fortified towns to which the local population could flee in times of trouble, such as during Viking raids. Compared to the Roman period, agriculture in the Middle Ages was more focused on self-sufficiency. Thus, while many villages had a church and a market the predominant occupation was farming, whereas in the larger towns there was a profusion of trades and the surplus needed to support, for example, physicians and lawyers and in Chester's case a mint.
The extension of cultivated land is a noted fearure of the Medieval Period, especially the early part: before 1300. The population of England, around 1.5 million or more in 1086, is estimated to have grown to somewhere between 3.7 million and 5–7 million by 1500, although the 14th-century estimates derive from sources after the first plague epidemics, and the estimates for pre-plague population depends on assumed plague mortality, the proportion of children and the rate of omissions in returns of taxable population. By the 14th century, the frontiers of settled cultivation had ceased to expand. Much of Cheshire was still covered in forest and scrub, or was swampy or prone to flooding. Expansion of arable land was a time-consuming process and would not yield a benefit for some years. Trees had to be felled or uprooted, gorse etc needed to be cleared and reeds dug out even after land was drained. A good deal of effort would be needed before a plough could be brought to work on a newly won patch. The new patch was called an "assart" and in some cases a tennant had to pay a "fine" to the Earl or his Baron in advance of even starting. In a survey of some English counties from 1279 almost 50% of the farmers owned insufficient land to support a family. Some were completely landless, or possessed only a small garden adjacent to their house. These poor farmers were often employed by richer farmers, or practiced a trade in addition to farming.
Chester's hinterland does not appear to have been able to support the population of the city and grain was imported from some distance. William of Malmesbury, writing around 1125, described Chester's hinterland as barren and uproductive of cereals, especially corn, but noted that the inhabitants enjoyed bread made from barley and wheat which were imported from Ireland. He also noted that the region was rich in beasts and fish and that the richer inhabitants lived on meat. Of course, we do not know Malmesbury's source for his information and he may have made assumptions based on the fact that he knew Chester to be a port and the site of a market and the county to have several hunting forests. What is clear is that agriculture in Cheshire was insuffiecnt to support a city the size of Chester, especially given its role as a military and garrison town. The enconomy therefore developed significant elements of craft manufacture and trade. To some extent this must have resulted in a polarisation between the county and the city with land-owners on one side and merchants on the other, something which would come to become more apparent in County/City relations as time went on. Wine imports were a significant part of the economy. In 1238 it formed the basis of the rent which the burgesses paid the new royal earl for one of the Dee Mills. As well as the regular markets there were also fairs, when non-residenrs were allowed to trade.
Born in 1094, he was seven when he inherited his father's vast estates (1101). In 1120, aged 26 he was drowned on the wreck of the White Ship.
Richard was as good as familly to Henry I. He was brought up at his court almost as an adopted son or nephew. The young Richard's Earldom comprised the most powerful block of land in private hands in England, with estates in thirty counties besides his core holdings in Cheshire. At the age of twenty, in 1114, Richard was on military campaign and was styled the Earl of Chester. Together with King Alexander of Scotland, he led an Anglo-Norman army into Gwynedd as part of a three-pronged campaign organised by Henry I of England against Gwynedd, and Gruffudd ap Cynan. Gruffudd, rather than risk battle (and now approaching 60), satisfied the King with an oath of homage and a suitable fine. The campaign soon fizzled out, and Richard returned to Chester. Orderic Vitalis described him as "a young man of great valor and notable kindness". Henry of Huntingdon wrote how Richard had been
- "brought up in the greatest of splendour in the full expectation of being his father's distinguished heir [while] still a beardless youth"
King Henry I had at least a dozen children, but only two were with his wife Matilda of Scotland, a daughter also named Matilda and a son named William Adelin (born 1103). The rest of his children were born to his mistresses, although Henry treated his illegitimate sons and daughters very well and gave them important positions in his government. William, as his only legitimate son, stood to inherit his kingdom. With the recent agreement between Henry and the French king, and the marriage of William with the eldest daughter of Count Fulk V of Anjou a year earlier, it now seemed that his son would face no obstacles in inheriting the Anglo-Norman empire. Thus Henry's hopes for his succession rested upon William, who was, according to Henry of Huntingdon, "a prince so pampered" that he seemed "destined to be food for the fire."
William died in the White Ship tragedy of 25 November 1120. The teen-age William and his companions had been crossing the English Channel from Barfleur in the Blanche-Nef, the swiftest and most modern ship in the royal fleet. William and his party had remained drinking on the shore until after dark, confident that in a fast ship and on the still sea the delay would have no real effect. Consequently, it was the middle of the night when the drunken helmsman rammed the ship into a rock in the bay. It was the Titanic of the Medieval period - a much praised vessel at the forefront of technology and on its maiden voyage (after a refit). It was wrecked against a foreseeable natural hazard in the reckless pursuit of speed suggested by an influential passenger, while sailing in the moonless dark. The passengers constituted the cream of high society, thrown into the chilly waters with insufficient lifeboats.
The crew and passengers could not lever the ship off the rock, or prevent the ship from filling with water. William and several of his friends managed to launch a life-dinghy. At the last minute, William dashed back to rescue his illegitimate half-sister, Matilda FitzRoy, Countess of Perche. When they and several others threw themselves into the small dinghy, William of Malmesbury would write:
- "overcharged by the multitude that leapt into her, capsized and sank and buried all indiscriminately in the deep."
Henry of Huntingdon, speaking of the disaster, wrote that William,
- "instead of wearing embroidered robes…floated naked in the waves, and instead of ascending a lofty throne…found his grave in the bellies of fishes at the bottom of the sea."
Richard’s death presented the Welsh with an opportunity to abolish the Norman’s entrance into northern Wales and secure it for themselves, and in 1121 the Welsh marched on Chester and took advantage of the earl’s death. The Symeonis Dunelmensis Opera et Collectarea reads:
- "The sons of the Welsh king heard about the drowning of Richard Earl of Chester and set fire to two castles, killing many. Some places of the county were heavily plundered".
The attack was led by Maredudd ap Bleddyn with three of Cadwgan ap Bleddyn’s sons. Although rebellions by the Welsh were not uncommon, they were usually dealt with swiftly by the respective earls but as Richard’s death was the catalyst, Henry may have felt the need to make an example of this rebellion. Henry led a substantial army into north Wales in June 1121, and although the king’s army was attacked by a group of archers with Henry himself being hit, Henry arranged a meeting with Maredudd. The negotiations ended with Henry leaving Wales with gifts and hostages paid by the Welsh prince. When Henry I died in 1135 the Welsh saw that there was a succession crisis looming and revolted again.
The White ship disaster was a catalyst for many devastating events which would shape the twelfth century and beyond. The succession crisis led directly to the period of history known as "The Anarchy". As William of Malmesbury wrote:
- "no ship that ever sailed brought England such disaster, none was so well known the wide world over"
It is possible that King Henry I saw Richard Earl of Chester as a role model for his son, but we know little of the relationship between the two. On the eve of the wreck Richard was 26 and Prince William was 17. Henry's court was initially too scared to report William's death to the King. When he was finally told, he collapsed with grief. Henry's alliance with Anjou – which had been based on his son William marrying Fulk's daughter Matilda – began to disintegrate, the first step on a road which was to lead to ruin and chaos. Whether Richard could have changed things by intervention on the eve of the White Ship's fateful voyage is simply a metter for conjecture.
With the Earldom of Chester vacant and no sons of Richard, king Henry needed to replace the earl but there was an obvious successor, Ranulf de Meschines (1070−1129) the son of the sister of Hugh of Avranche, and was by this time aged 51. Ranulf had served the English king as a kind of semi-independent governor in the border counties of Cumberland and Westmorland, though he lacked the formal status of being called such. One historian has suggested that Ranulf's father Ranulf de Briquessart was one of the early close companions of Prince Henry, the future Henry I and that a young Ranulf de Meschines may have helped negotiate Henry's freedom in 1089.
Merely four days before the White Ship disaster, Ranulf and cousin Richard had witnessed a charter together at Cerisy. One writer has suggested that Ranulf arranged the wreck of the White Ship to further his own prospects by bringing about the death of Richard of Avranches. It is a good plot but unlikely to be true. Ranulf was not simply given the earldom, but had to surrender the bulk of the lands of his wife, Lucy and his own lands at Carlisle. Ranulph was then of some assistance to Henry, who was facing rebellion in Normandy, rhis rime by supporters of William Clito, another son of Robert Curthose. The notable conflict of this insurrection was the Battle of Bourgthéroulde (1124), which was little more than a large skirmish but resulted in the capture of several important rebels and appears to have put an end to further rebellions in Normandy.
De Meschines was keen on hunting. He created Alan Sylvester chief forester of the forest of Wirral and granted to him the manors of Hooton, Storeton and Puddington to hold, upon condition that he performed the duties of forester and in addition that he blew or caused to be blown a horn at the Gloverstone in Chester on the morning of every fair day. The succession of the forester's was complex, but eventually gave rise to the Stanley's who would play an important role at the end of the Medieval period. The fairs in Chester were important as the city was already dependent on trade. Around 1125 Wiliam of Malmesbury noted the trade between Ireland and Chester and commented that it was the "toil of merchants" which supplied the corn which could not be grown locally. The industries which supported this commerce were brewing, milling and fishing as well as tanning, leather working and potting. Chester was also noted for the export of salt and possibly cheese.
Ranulf de Meschines died in 1129, just short of his 60th birthday. Gruffudd ap Cynan was old and probably going blind, but would live on until 1137 when he would die in bed aged 81-82.
Ranuulph has a somewhat amusing memorial in Chester. His coat of arms is one of those on the Suspension Bridge but has been mixed-up with that of his son Ranulph de Gernons. The coat of arms features a lion which is quite distinct from the earlier wolf, which makes sense given that Hugh of Avranche's line terminated with the drowning of his son.
Ranulph was born in 1099 and became Earl of Chester in 1128 in his late twenties. He lived until 1153 and managed to fill his time with a good deal of fighting. Henry of Huntingdon describes him as follows:
- "A man of reckless audacity, ready for a plot, not to be depended on in carrying it out, prepared to rush into war, careless of danger, with designs beyond his powers, aiming at impossibilities."
What appears certain is that he was both brave and bold - he apparently took Lincoln Castle with a handful of troops by a clever ruse.
Henry I died, aged about 73, on 1 December 1135 of food poisoning from eating "a surfeit of lampreys" (of which he was excessively fond) at Saint-Denis-en-Lyons (now Lyons-la-Forêt) in Normandy. He had been advised by his doctor not to eat lamprey as he had reacted bacdly to it before and the fish was difficult to prepare due to some parts of it being toxic. He ordered a large platefull, was soon ill, and then died. His remains (after the extraction of the brains and intestines) were sewn into the hide of a bull to preserve them on the journey, and then taken back to England. A later writer recorded:
- "the man, indeed, who had been hired, at great expense, to extract the brain, became infected, as it is said, from the intolerable stench and died."
Ranulph was earl of Chester during the period known as "The Anarchy", a civil war in England and Normandy between 1135 and 1153, which resulted in a widespread breakdown in law and order. Henry I's attempts to install his daughter, the Empress Matilda, as his successor were unsuccessful and on Henry's death in 1135, his nephew Stephen of Blois seized the throne with the help of Stephen's brother, Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester. An unfavourable thumbnail sketch of Stephen is given by Walter Map (who wrote during the reign of Matilda's son Henry II):
- "A man of a certain age, remarkably hard-working but otherwise a nonentity [idiota] or perhaps rather inclined to evil."
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (Peterborough Chronicle, second continuation) provides a more favourable picture of Stephen, but depicts a turbulent reign:-
- "In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil, and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him. When the traitors saw that Stephen was a good-humoured, kindly, and easy-going man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes . . . And so it lasted for nineteen years while Stephen was King, till the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds, and men said openly that Christ and his angels slept".
Ranulph De Gernon (see his own page for the details) played a major part in the civil war. His fortunes varied and he changed sides on several occassions - just how many being the subject of quite some debate among historians. The local legend which links The Anarchy to Chester is concerned with Godstall Lane. Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, was Empress because, as a child, she had been married to the Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (1080's-1125). On Emperor Henry V's death, Matilda, now aged 23, was recalled to Normandy by her father Henry I, who arranged for her to marry (1128) Geoffrey of Anjou (1113-1151) to form an alliance to protect his southern borders. Matilda was around 26 and Geoffrey was about 15. Their marriage was a stormy but happy one with frequent long separations; they had three sons, including the future Henry II. Following the loss of his son in the wreck of the White Ship, Henry I had no further legitimate children and nominated Matilda as his heir, making his court swear an oath of loyalty to her and her successors, but the decision was not popular in the Anglo-Norman court and The Anarchcy was essentially the conflict between Matilda and Stephen. The local legend is that Henry V, the Holy Roman Emperor, had not actually died but was living as a hermit in Chester. This would, of course, make Henry II illegitimate. Just when the legend arose is not clear but it may have been part of an attempt to undermine the Angevin successsion. Curiously, another supposed hermit from the Hermitage at Chester had the legendary story of being Harold a one-eyed survivor of Hastings.
The 1140's saw the translation by Robert of Chester of several historically important books from Arabic to Latin, such as:
- The Book of the Composition of Alchemy (Liber de compositione alchemiae): translated in 1144, this was the first book on alchemy to become available in Europe;
- The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing (Liber algebrae et almucabola): Al-Khwārizmī's book about algebra, translated in 1145;
In the 1140s Robert worked in Spain, where the division of the country between Muslim and Christian rulers resulted in opportunities for interchange between the different cultures. However, by the end of the decade he had returned to England.
Before he became Henry II the future king was already fighting in England. He landed in 1147, aged fourteen and acompanied by a few mercenaries. He struck into Wiltshire and caused a good deal of panic, but was unable either to pay his troops or afford to return to Normandy. Neither of his parents would pay as they disapproved of his expedition. Somehow he managed to convince king Stephen to pay his expenses. Henry was back in 1149, now aged 16 and planned to form an alliance with David I of Scoland and Earl Ranulf of Chester. Ranulf and Henry planned an attack on York, but Stephen took his army Northwards and Henry decided to flee. His retreat was covered by Ranulph who attacked Lincoln as a diversion. Ranulf would be of assistance to Henry again in 1552/3 when Henry, not yet 20, secretly married 32-year old Eleanor of Aquitaine who had just had her marriage to Louis VII annuled. Unsurprisingly, war broke out at once, but Henry now controlled more of France than the French King. Having forced the French to terms Henry crossed to England, braving winter storms and supported by mercenaries paid with borrowed money. He was supported by Ranulf and after more fighting a truce was brokered, with Stephen accepting Henry as his successor. The only complication had been Eustace, Stephen's son, but he conveniently fell ill and died during negotiations.
In 1153 Henry — by then Stephen's accepted heir — granted Staffordshire to Ranulf. That year, whilst Ranulf was a guest at the house of William Peverel the Younger, his host attempted to kill him with poisoned wine. Three of his men who had drunk the wine died, while Ranulf suffered agonizing pain. A few months later Henry became king (Stephen died of a stomach disorder) and exiled Peverel from England as punishment. Ranulf was awarded the Honour of Peverel but never took possession. Ranulf succumbed to the poison on 16 December 1153 - but which poison? The most common poisonous herbs in the Middle Ages were belladonna, hemlock, monkshood/wolfsbane, and foxglove. He was fifty-five years old and could have lived for quite a few more years had he not been poisoned.
Henry II was an energetic and sometimes ruthless ruler (1154 – 1189), driven by a desire to restore the lands and privileges of his grandfather Henry I. During the early years of his reign the younger Henry restored the royal administration in England, re-established hegemony over Wales and gained full control over his lands in Anjou, Maine and Touraine. Henry and Eleanor had eight children—three daughters and five sons. Three of his sons would be king, though Henry the Young King was named his father's co-ruler rather than a stand-alone king. As the sons grew up, tensions over the future inheritance of the empire began to emerge, encouraged by Louis VII and his son King Philip II. In 1173 Henry's heir apparent, "Young Henry", rebelled in protest; he was joined by his brothers Richard (later king) and Geoffrey and by their mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. France, Scotland, Brittany, Flanders, and Boulogne allied themselves with the rebels. The Great Revolt was only defeated by Henry's vigorous military action and talented local commanders, many of them "new men" appointed for their loyalty and administrative skills.
The "Great Revolt" had several causes. Many in Europe thought that Henry was responsible for the murder of Thomas Becket in 1170, but Henry's sons were also desparate for power and wealth and his relationship with his wife had disintegrated, probaby by his affair with Rosamund Clifford.
Hugh of Kevelioc (born 1147), was also known as Hugh le Meschin. A later tradition states that he was born at Cyfeiliog in Wales, a cantref around the River Mawddach which at the time of his birth would have been controlled by Owain ap Gruffydd or Madog ap Maredudd and changed hands in that year. At around this time Madog made an alliance with Ranulf de Gernon, and in 1157 when King Henry II of England invaded Gwynedd he was supported by Madog. There is therefore a connection with Wales, and it is possible that Ranulph's wife, Maud of Gloucester was there for safe-keeping in 1147, given that he husband, Earl Ranulf was seized by King Stephen at court in Northampton on 29 August 1146.
He succeeded to the titles of Vicomte d'Avranches and Earl of Chester on 16 December 1153 (aged 6) just prior to the end of the reign of Stephen. Chester Castle was temporarily in royal hands during the minority of Earl Hugh (1153–62) and this was probably because of troubles with Wales. In 1157, Henry II received the homage of Malcolm IV, king of Scots, in Chester before invading north Wales. The "Chester Annals" record that in 1164 "justice was done on the Welsh hostages", probably meaning they were executed. In 1165 Henry II used Shrewsbury as his base but after the campaign visited Chester to meet the ships which he had ordered to harry Gwynedd. Shortly afterwards Chester appears to have been involved in a further attack, for in 1170 (or 1169) Hugh II was reported in the Chester Annals to have built a mound at Boughton out of the heads of Welshmen killed at the 'bridge of Baldert', possibly Balderton (in Dodleston), south of Chester and probably also recording "Boughton" in error for "Broughton".
Hugh does have a connection with Boughton in that he is believed to have founded the hospital for lepers there. Another foundation of Henry II.’s reign was the leper-hospital of St Mary Magdalen at Sponne, outside the walls of Coventry. It was founded by:
- ".. an Earl of Chester, who, having a certain leprous knight in his household, gave in pure alms for the health of his soul and the souls of his ancestors his chapel at Sponne with the site thereof, and half a carucate of land for the maintenance of such lepers as should happen to be in the town of Coventry. There was one priest to celebrate, and with him were wont to be also certain brethren or sisters together with the lepers, praying to God for the good estate of all their benefactors."
The earl in question is believed to have been Hugh de Kevelioc, and the knight who came down with leprosy, was the one that he has sent on crusade in his stead.
Hugh joined the revolt against King Henry II in 1173, was captured and deprived of his Earldom, but was then restored in January 1177. His restoration may have been due to his close royal connections. In 1169 Hugh married Bertrade de Montfort of Evreux, daughter of Simon III de Montfort: she was the cousin of King Henry II, who gave her away in marriage. Hugh's mother had been Maud of Gloucester, daughter of Robert, 1st Earl of Gloucester (otherwise known as Robert de Caen), the illegitimate son of Henry I of England and thus half-brother to Henry II's mother Matilda. The familial relations of Hugh are further complicated by the controversey over Amicia which took part years later in the 1670's.
Hugh de Kevelioc died in 1181 in his late 30's, leaving a young heir (Ranulf de Blondeville) aged 9. The cause of his relatively early death is not recorded.
Ranulf de Blondeville, 4th Earl of Chester otherwise known as Ranulph IV de Meschines (1172-1232) was said to have been small in physical stature. He succeeded to the title of Vicomte d'Avranches [Normandy] and the earldom of Chester (like his father before him) as a minor in 1181 (aged 9) and attained his majority (at 16) in 1187. He has been described as “almost the last relic of the great feudal aristocracy of the conquest”. During his minority his inheritance was administered first by Gilbert Pipard and later by Bertram de Verdon. Henry II had a similar problem with his sons to those of William I. Around the year 1210 the "Agricola Tower" was built at Chester Castle. It was originally the gateway of the inner bailey and can still be seen today as one of the very few surviving parts of the Norman Castle.
Throughout his long life Ranulf was loyal to his four monarchs. Under instructions from Henry II he married (in 1189) Constance of Brittany, widow of Henry II's son Geoffrey. Somewhat strangely, Ranulf became father to the heir to the English throne when (in 1191) Richard I declared Ranulf's stepson Arthur of Brittany as successor instead of Richard I's brother John. Richard's elder brother Geoffrey had fathered Arthur before his own death (at a joust), although the child was not born until eight months and five days later. This "Widow's Son" was a thorn in the side for John.
Ranulf would oppose John's attempted coup (of 1193), but also imprisoned his then estranged wife in 1196. His stepson Arthur was to die in mysterious circumstances after king Richard I died (in 1199) and John grasped the throne. The otherwise childless Ranulf's true feelings towards the stepson Arthur are difficult to fathom. John (already nicknamed as "Lackland") lost the Duchy of Normandy and most of his other French lands to King Philip II of France, resulting in the collapse of the Angevin Empire. His reign ended in the First Barons' War.
Lucian the Monk provided a description of Chester in about the year 1200. 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. 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.
Towards the end of his life Ranulf was powerful enough to defy the Henry III's collection of taxes and begin (in 1225) the construction of Beeston Castle, unfinished at the time of his death (in 1232). Beeston can be seen as a political statement of his own authority, and it is said to be placed to stand against England rather than Wales. After Ranulf's death the earldom passed to John Canmore - earl for five years (died 1237). Thereafter the earldom was effectively taken by the crown. It is possible that Henry's acquisition of the earldom was a measure intended to prevent anyone else ever getting into as strong a position as Ranulf.
Like the other Earls of Chester, de Blondeville's coat of arms appears on the Suspension Bridge at Chester. Arms had become increasing popular during the latter half of the 12th Century and some of the heraldic rules were becoming fixed. It is possible that some of the earlier arms of the Earls were attributed later, when all things "Arthurian" had become fashionable. In the aftermath of the Scrope v Grosvenor case of 1385-90, the Grosvenors ceased using the contested "Azure a Bend Or" arms and switched to "Azure a Garb Or", claiming it was the ancient arms of the Earls of Chester (in the terminology of blazons, a "garb" is a wheatsheaf). As noted above the Grosvenors had claimed to be descended from the Earls or possibly a relative of the earls, as would several other families in Cheshire. There is little to suggest however that the wheatsheaves were actually in use by the later earls: some heraldic seals survive but these typically show a figure on horseback armed with a sword. The formal designation of the Arms of Chester dates from 1580.
John of Scotland or John de Scotia (c. 1207 – 6 June 1237), sometimes known as "the Scot", was an Anglo-Scottish magnate, the son of David of Scotland, Earl of Huntingdon by his wife Maud of Chester (1171-1233), herself the daughter of Hugh de Kevelioc (Earl of Chester). David of Scotland (c. 1144 – 17 June 1219) was the youngest surviving son of Henry of Scotland, so his paternal grandfather was David I of Scotland.
John married Elen ferch Llywelyn, daughter of Llywelyn the Great, in about 1222. The records of Llywelyn's family are confusing, and it is not certain which of his children were illegitimate, but Elen appears to have been his legitimate daughter by Joan, "Lady of Wales", herself the illegitimate daughter of King John of England.
John became Earl of Huntingdon in 1219 on the death of his father, and later Earl of Chester in 1232 due to his connection to the previous earl, Ranulf de Blondeville, who was his mother's brother. The granting of the earldom of Chester to one of earl David Ceann mhor's sons was probably an attempt to reduce conflict on the Northern Marches of England. There was some conflict over the succession to the Earldom but this was in the courts rather than on the battlefield. In proceedings headed, "Placita coram Domini Rege apud Westm: a die Paschæ in XV. dies." [22nd April, 1235.] it is recorded that:
- John, Earl of Chester and Huntingdon, was summoned to answer the complaint of Hugh de Albini, William, Earl of Ferrars, and Agnes his wife, and Hawise de Quency, Countess of Lincoln, that he had deforced them of their reasonable share of the inheritance of Ralph, formerly Earl of Chester, and of which Ralph had died seised in the county of Chester, taking into account the shares they as well as John had received in other parts of the same inheritance; and they say that the said Earl holds the capital messuage in Chester, and Hugh de Albini has Coventry, with other lands; William de Ferrars and Agnes his wife have Certeslegh (Chartley), with other lands; and Hawise de Quency has Bullingbrock, with other lands. And the Earl of Chester appeared by his attorney, and pleaded he ought not to answer to this plaint and summons, which referred to lands in Cheshire, because the King's writ did not run in Cheshire; and he asked that the King should maintain his liberties such as he and his ancestors had held, and that the said complainants should appear in the county of Chester, where he would do them full justice. The Earl of Ferrars and the other plaintiffs who are heirs and coparceners of the said inheritance pray the judgment of the King. The suit is respited to the morrow of St. John the Baptist, to be heard before the King.
In 1237 the earl's income from the city was £200; from mills in Chester, including the Dee Mills £100; from the vill of Middlewich £67 and from Northwich £50. The total revenue was £975 pounds. All of these sums fluctuated, with the annual value of the mills and fishery rising to £200 by 1300 and then falling back to £166 befpre rising to £225 in 1377. Overall, the income of the Earl in 1302-3 rose to £1,900. Increasing fines squeezed out more money so that by 1354 it almost reached £4,000.
Earl John died in 1237. The shadow of yet more treachery is suggested in Glover's "history and gazetteer of the county of Derby":
- In eight years after the death of earl Ranulph, expired his nephew, John the Scot, the last earl of Chester, without issue, poisoned by Helena his wife, the daughter of Llewellyn, prince of Wales. These unhappy espousals had been brought about by the policy of earl Ranulph, who by means of them secured certain present privileges, and expected that the regalities of that old British principality would one day be enjoyed by his sister's descendants. On the demise of earl John the Scot, the prerogatives of the palatinate were assumed by the crown, on the plea " tie tarn prteclara dotninatio inter colot Jiceminarum dividí contingeret." — " Lest it should happen that so illustrious a dominion should fall under the divided sway of the distaffs of women."
One curious fact about John's death is found in the "calender of patent rolls". While John is generally accepted to have died on June 6th/7th 1237 (dates vary), the patent rolls record that Henry III was sending his condolences on June 6th 1237. Henry seems to be remarkably well-informed. The poison story turns up again in the "Notitia cestriensis: or Historical notices of the diocese of Chester" which contains the footnote:
- John Scot (so called because a Scot by birth) was the last Earl of Chester and Huntingdon, and died June 7th, 1237, without issue male, having married Helen, daughter of Lewellin, Prince of Wales, by whom he was poisoned, according to the testimony of several ancient chroniclers.
And poison can be found again, perhaps here it originated, in Matthew Paris (who is not always to be believed):
- About this time, too, John Scott, earl of Chester, closed his life about Whitsuntide, having been poisoned by the agency of his wife, the daughter of Llewellyn. The life of the bishop of Lincoln, too, was also attempted by the same means, and he was with difficulty recalled from the gates of death. In the same year, in the week before Whitsuntide, there fell storms of hail which exceeded the size of apples, killing the sheep ; and they were followed by continued rain.
So what is to be made of the supposed poisoning in 1237? Elen ferch Llywelyn seems to have had no reason to murder her husband, After his death she was forced by King Henry III (her mother's half-brother) to marry Sir Robert de Quincy, the son of Saer de Quincy. There is also some suggestion that Earl John was involved in some sort of rebellion in 1233:
- Henry III soon after the suppression of an insurrection headed by John Earl of Chester and Richard Earl of Pembroke principal Lords Marchers resolved upon the conquest of Wales with his own proper forces The Earl of Chester dying soon after without male issue the King resumed by composition made with the Earl's four sisters and heirs the county palatine of Chester granted by the Norman Conqueror to the first Earl his kinsman and with it the greater part of the county of Flint which the Earls of Chester as Lords Marchers had won from the Welsh - "The History & Antiquities of the Town of Ludlow, and Its Ancient Castle; With Lives of the Presidents, and Descriptive and Historical Accounts of Gentlemen's Seats, Villages, &c" By Thomas Wright.
Further complications arise out of the fact that three of John's sisters were the ancestors of Balliol, Bruce and John Hastings - all claimants to the Scottish throne on upon the death of Margaret, Maid of Norway, which caused the extinction of the legitimate line of "William the Lion" (John the Scot's uncle). Edward I intervened to adjudicate on the succession and is sure to have been biased towards whichever result would best suit his own ambitions. It is entirely possible that some of the circumstances surrounding Earl John's death may have been falsified or suppressed.
The earliest survivng structure at the Cathedral is best seen in the wall of the north transept. Here, there is a Norman "Romanesque" semi-circular arch with a triforium above. Combining features of ancient Roman and Byzantine buildings and other local traditions, Romanesque architecture is known by its massive quality, thick walls, round arches, sturdy pillars, barrel vaults, large towers and decorative arcading. Each building has clearly defined forms, frequently of very regular, symmetrical plan; the overall appearance is one of simplicity when compared with the Gothic buildings that were to follow. The triforium would have originally been just below the roof of the early building as the clerestory (clear-storey) was only added later. The enormous quantity of churches built in the Romanesque period was succeeded by the still busier period of Gothic architecture, which partly or entirely rebuilt most Romanesque churches in prosperous areas like England and Portugal. The lower part of the north wall of the nave is also from the Norman building, but can only be viewed from the cloister because the interior has been decorated with mosaic. Some of the stonework in that wall may be re-used from the original Saxon church.
The size of the original church buildings are not known, but it is believed that the ground plan was less than that of the present building. Archaeological work in the Victorian period confirms that the south transept was originally similiar in size to the north transept, and that the eastern end of the cathedral was terminated with rounded chapels as were common in Romanesque/Norman designs. It is a common misconception that cathedrals "took many hundreds of years to build", better understood with the caveats that often earlier structure would be removed and replaced with a more "modern" and often enlarged construction.
Gothic architecture was an evolution of the Romanesque style which is characterised by the pointed or ogival arch. There has been a good deal of debate over the origins of Gothic architecture. Some claim that it was of arabic origin, and put its importation down to returning crusaders, while others claim it to be an independent invention. The pointed arch appears to have first appeared in Indian architecture and Islamic architecture as a way of making more decorative windows and doorways, but in the 12th century it began to be used in France and England as an important structural element, at first used in doorways. The Gothic style first appeared in France at the Abbey of Saint Denis, Paris, with the rebuilding of the ambulatory and west facade of the abbey church by the Abbot Suger (1135–40). To achieve his aims, his masons drew on the several new features which evolved or had been introduced to Romanesque architecture, the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions and the flying buttresses which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows. The first Gothic cathedral in France (Saint Denis was an abbey), was Sens Cathedral, begun between 1135 and 1140 and consecrated in 1164.
At Chester, the Early English Gothic chapter house, built between 1230 and 1265, is rectangular and opens off a vestibule leading from the north transept. The vestibule has a roof supported by slim columns which employed the then newly adopted ribbed vaulting, this enabled the avoidance of the incredibly heavy construction used in the undercroft. In the cae of the ribbed vault thin stone panels fill the space between the ribs. This greatly reduced the weight and thus the outward thrust of the vault. The ribs transmit the load downward and outward to specific points, usually rows of columns or piers. This feature allowed the architects of Gothic buildings to make higher and thinner walls and much larger windows. An alternative to barrel vaults in the naves of churches, rib vaults in 12th century early Gothic architecture began to be used in vaults made with pointed arches, already known in the Romanesque style. In these vaults, as in groin vaults, the weight was directed it to the corners, where piers, columns, or walls could support it. The consequence of this possible increase in height meant that a further level could be added above the triforium as the clerestory.
The Norman earls dominated the government of the city far more than had their English predecessors, and the movement back towards any representative form of Government was slow. Some of the privileges granted were linked with trade. In the earliest surviving city charter Henry II confirmed the burgesses' right to buy and sell in Dublin under the same terms as their ancestors in the time of Henry I. Later charters of King John, both as lord of Ireland and as king, and of Walter de Lacy, lord of Meath, enlarged those rights, which related mainly to the trade in corn. Further grants covered the citizens' commercial activities nearer home. A lost charter of Earl Hugh II, probably dating from his last years (1177-81), confirmed a grant of Ranulph II (1129-53) that the burgesses of Chester were to enjoy their customary liberties in fairs and markets throughout Cheshire. In the early 13th century Ranulph III conceded a monopoly of trade within the city except during the two fairs. Factors that influenced the development of a "corporation" may have included that some of the later earls, such as Ranulph de Blondeville were appointed as minors and the emergence of a "Guild Merchant".
Unlike the sheriffs and serjeants, the mayors originated as representatives of the citizens themselves. As elsewhere the mayoralty was never the subject of a formal grant. The earliest known holder of the office, William the clerk, was first named as mayor c. 1240, though he had been a senior civic figure, attesting documents, since the 1220s. In the 1230s the dominant figures were still the city sheriffs but by 1300 the mayor was established as the senior civic official. A further change at around this time was the division of the Sheriff role into two. The Courts were also developing, but there were still Doomsmen. Curiously, the role of Doomsman seem to have have been linked to certain properties, the occupiers of which were obliged to take up this role. A related role would persist long after the end of Medieval period, where particular buildings in all of the quarters of the city were associated with an "Execution Rent" which required them to assist in various judicial processes including the execution of felons. This seems to have been a legal arrangement unique to Chester.
The role of the mayor eventually emerged as that of the chief negotiator on behalf of the citizens, especially when it came to rights and privileges of the towns-people. This stronly suggests that the mayorality arose out of the head-role in some civic organisation, probably the guild merchant. Chester would eventually develop a very strong link between the guilds or companies of various trades and the assembly which governed the city. Chester's urban élite formed a tightly knit group. Difficult though it is to be sure whether family names were being passed on from father to son, there are clear indications that the principal civic offices were very largely the preserve of a few prominent families: the same surnames or patronymics occurred again and again among the mayors, sheriffs, and doomsmen.
Late Middle Ages
Around 1300, centuries of relarive prosperity and growth in Europe came to a halt. A series of famines and Pandemics, including the Great Famine of 1315–1317 and the Black Death, reduced the population to around half of what it had been before the calamities. Along with depopulation came social unrest and endemic warfare. France and England experienced serious peasant uprisings, such as the Jacquerie and the Peasants' Revolt, as well as over a century of intermittent conflict, the Hundred Years' War. To add to the many problems of the period, the unity of the Catholic Church was temporarily shattered by the Western Schism lasting from 1378 to 1417. This coincided with the end of the "Medieval Warm Period" which lasted from c. 950 to c. 1250. The Medieval Warm Period was followed by a cooler period in the North Atlantic and elsewhere, which is termed the "Little Ice Age".
A convenient local boundary between the High Medieval and the Late Medieval is the aquisition of the Earldom of Chester by the crown. Some histories suggest that the Earldom reverted to the Crown in 1237 on the death of John the Scot (aged 30). However, the reversion was not as simple as most histories describe. William de Forz (Latinised as de Fortibus, sometimes spelt Deforce), 4th Earl of Albemarle, (died 1260) claimed that, as a Palatinate, it could not be divided, and his wife should get it as the oldest coheir. William got the title, but the court decided that the lands should be divided. However, he and his wife (Christina (d. 1246), daughter and co-heiress of Alan, Lord of Galloway) quitclaimed the earldom to Henry III in 1241 in exchange for modest lands elsewhere. So the last Earl of Chester may be described as William de Forz, and he held the title for four years, only a little less than John the Scot. William de Forz played a conspicuous part in the reign of Henry III of England, notably in the "Mad Parliament" of 1258. William's father died in 1241 on a ship on the Mediterranean, was described as "a feudal adventurer of the worst type" and was excommunicated end 1215 and also 1221!
Henry III was anxious to be seen as the legitimate successor of the Norman earls, and especially of Ranulf de Blondeville. As early as 1232 he granted £3 a year from the manor of Newcastle-under-Lyme (Staffs.) to support a chaplain at Chester abbey to pray for Earl Ranulph's soul, and in 1238 he ordered the arrears to be paid. Royal confirmations of Ranulph's three charters to the citizens, guaranteeing their liberties, free customs, and guild merchant, were issued in 1237 and 1239. Henry also took over the earls' charitable responsibilities within the city. In 1239, for example, he provided for three beds for the poor and infirm in St. John's hospital without the Northgate, as Ranulf de Blondeville had done. Henry III himself visited Chester in 1241. He was on his way to and from Rhuddlan to recieve the submission of the Welsh Ruler Dafydd ap Llywelin. While he was in Chester work was restarted on Chester Castle: the king ordered that William of the chamber was to have his wages for keeping the king's buildings and garden at Chester castle, in the same manner as his ancestors under the Norman earls.
The Earldom was formally annexed to the Crown in 1246 when the rest of the honour of Chester (the land) was bought from the rest of Ranulph's sisters by Henry III. King Henry III passed the Lordship of Chester, but apparently not the title of Earl, to his son the Lord Edward in 1254 having previously kept it in his own hands. Edward would have an enormous effect on Chester, but first he would have to fight for it.
Despite attempts by the Normans to invade North Wales it had survived as the semi-independent state of Gwynedd which was, in effect, a Roman Empire successor state that had never been successfully invaded by the Anglo-Saxons although the lineage of its rulers had changed. Since the half-Viking Gruffudd ap Cynan (c. 1055–1137) the policy of the House of Aberffraw was to recover Gwynedd's primacy without blatantly antagonizing the English crown. Gruffudd had been born in times of Edward the Confessor and been alive at the times of the coronations of Harold, two Williams, Henry I and Stephen. His son Owain Gwynedd ruled from 1137 to 1170, a period which saw the English throne pass to Henry II. The next generation engaged in in-fighting, but out of the power struggle in Gwynedd eventually arose one of the greatest of Welsh leaders, Llywelyn the Great (Welsh: Llywelyn Fawr), who was sole ruler of Gwynedd by 1200 and by his death in 1240 was effectively ruler of much of Wales. Meanwhile England had seen the successions of Richard I, John and Henry III.
Llywelyn made his "capital" and headquarters at Abergwyngregyn on the north coast, overlooking the Menai Strait. However, Llywelyn's power was based on his personality rather than any firm institutional underpinning and the squabbles of his family would lead to an eventual English conquest in the years following his death. Six generations of English monarchs had come and gone since Llywelyn's great grandfather had been alive.
Meanwhile, in England, The future Edward I was beginning to become involved with the conflicts which would lead to the Second Barons' War. This arose out of a general dissatisfaction with Henry III's methods of government on the part of the English barons, discontent which was exacerbated by widespread famine. The famine may have been caused by the eruption of Samalas, on Lombok (Indonesia) in 1257, possibly at around the date when Henry III was passibng through Chester to quell trouble in Wales.. The Flagellant movement, which is first recorded in Italy in 1260, may have originated in the social distress caused by the effects of the eruption, though warfare and other causes probably played a more important role than natural events. Mathew Paris noted both anomalous weather and Pandemic:
- "Swollen and rotting in groups of five or six, the dead lay abandoned in pigsties, on dunghills, and in the muddy streets."
Simon de Montfort became leader of those who wanted to reassert the Magna Carta and force the king to surrender more power to the baronial council. In 1258, initiating the move toward reform, seven leading barons forced Henry to agree to the Provisions of Oxford, which effectively abolished the absolutist Anglo-Norman monarchy, giving power to a council of twenty-four barons to deal with the business of government and providing for a great council in the form of a parliament every three years, to monitor their performance. The situation eventually deteriorated into civil war between 1264–1267 during which Edward was captured and then escaped. In 1264 de Montfort actually took control of Edward's holdings at Chester. The Annals of Chester record it as follows:
- After the feast of All Saints [November 1], Henry, king of England, and Edward, his eldest son, granted to Simon de Montfort, earl of Leicester, and his heirs, Chester, with the whole county and the castle, Newcastle-under-Lyme, and the Peak castle [in Derbyshire] with all their honours and appurtenances, to be held in perpetuity for other lands in different parts of England, which the aforesaid earl Simon gave in exchange to the aforesaid Edward.
Matthew of Westminster put it as follows:
- There was but little mention made for a year of the deliverance of Edward, the king's eldest son, until he himself, as the price of his release, gave his palatine county of Chester to the aforesaid earl of Leicester, and thus he purchased his liberation from the imprisonment and custody of the knights, his enemies.
The reaction against his government was baronial rather than popular; and the Welsh Marcher Lords particularly resented Montfort's alliance with Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales. Many other barons who had initially supported him now started to feel that Montfort's reforms were going too far, and his many enemies turned his triumph into disaster. In May 1265 Edward I escaped captivity and raised an army which defeated de Montfort at the Battle of Evesham. de Montfort was cut down in the battle and his body was mutilated (his head, hands, feet and testicles were cut off - but not perhaps in that order). Following this victory further savage retribution was exacted on the rebels and authority was restored to Henry III. The Chester Annals tell the local part of the story:
- "But the lord Edward escaped from the custody of Simon de Montfort at Hereford on the Thursday in Whit Week. When this was known James de Audley and Urian de Saint Pierre on the following Saturday seized the castle of Beeston in the name of the lord Edward, and coming to Chester on Trinity Sunday, they besieged Lucas de Taney and his accomplices in the castle of Chester for ten consecutive weeks, but did not succeed in taking it, on account of the excellent defence made by the besieged. James de Audley was made justiciary of Chester. In the meantime the lord Edward, Gilbert de Clare and others his fellow marchers being joined with him, made frequent attacks upon Simon de Montfort, Henry his son, Hugo Despencer, Peter de Montfort, Ralph Basset, and their accomplices, and at length completely overthrew them on the battlefield of Evesham on May 6. Humphrey de Bohun, Henry de Hastings, and Guy de Montfort, who were captured in this battle, Edward took with him as prisoners to Beeston castle. When Lucas de Taney heard that the lord Edward had come to Beeston, he surrendered the castle of Chester on the day before the eve of the Assumption, submitting himself and his companions to Edward's grace."
Edward was involved in the foundation of an Abbey at Vale Royal. The Victorians here got their history completely muddled, with some historians believing that Edward made an oath to found the abbey when returning from Crusade in 1274. However it appears that he became involved much earlier than this possibly rewarding monks who had assisted him during his escape in the Baron's War. His interest in financing the Abbey declined somewhat once he started his conquest of Wales.
Although Chester had few parish churches for a town of its size, it was home to several religious communities which played a correspondingly large role in town life. Their precincts were extensive, and their inmates formed sizeable and occasionally troublesome groups within the population.The Dominicans (Blackfriars) were established in Chester by 1237 or 1238 when the appearance of the Greyfriars (Franciscans) alarmed their patron, Alexander Stavensby, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. So vehement was his reaction to the prospect of the two orders competing for alms that he has been thought responsible for establishing the Dominicans in Chester, although there is no definite evidence and it is equally possible that they came there under the patronage of Ranulph III, earl of Chester. The Whitefriars (Carmelites) were established in Chester by 1277 when they were given alms for food by Edward I, it was some years before they acquired a permanent home. By the later 15th century the friars were frequently involved in disorder in the town. The Carmelites were especially unruly. In 1454, for example, three of their brethren were charged with wandering armed through the city to the terror of the populace, and in 1462 another was bound over for feuding with a monk of St. Werburgh's. Most scandalously of all, throughout the 1490s the entire community, including the prior, appears to have taken part in a succession of brawls and internal disputes. The other friaries were not immune from such problems. In 1454 the prior of the Dominicans and several of his brethren attacked a servant of Abbot Richard Oldham, who as bishop of Man had held ordinations in their church in 1452. The feud with Oldham evidently continued, and members of the community, including another prior, were bound over to keep the peace in 1459, 1462, and 1463. In 1464 one of the friars was accused of murdering a baker outside the friary gate, and the prior of abetting him. In the 1490s the prior was involved in an affray against the prior of the Carmelites, and in 1510 or 1511 one of his successors was accused of assault. Even the Greyfriars had their share of trouble: their prior was attacked in 1427, and one friar was accused of assaulting another and a second man in 1502 or 1503.
The religious community which enjoyed closest relations with the citizens was the collegiate church of St Johns. Staffed by a dean and seven canons whose liturgical duties were generally performed by ill-paid vicars choral, from the 13th century it was the citizens' favoured church for burial and chantries. From the late 13th century the most significant relic in Chester was the Holy Rood at St Johns, a silver-gilt crucifix supposedly containing wood from the True Cross. Its origins are uncertain. Perhaps it was brought from the East by Earl Ranulf de Blondeville, who was on Crusade in 1219-20 - or perhaps it is associated with the legend of a cross from Harwarden which floated up the River Dee. The relic's fame extended well beyond the city. In the 14th century the oath "by the rood of Chester" was evidently commonplace, being mentioned in both William Langland's great poem the Vision of Piers the Ploughman and the less famous Richard the Redeless.
By the early 13th century the city had received its full, if comparatively modest, complement of nine parish churches. Besides St. John's and the monks' parish of St Oswald, they comprised the churches of St Mary on the Hill, Holy Trinity, St Peter, St Michael, St Martin, St Bridget, and St Olave. The early history of many of these is poorly understood. By the 1250s there was also a chapel dedicated to St. Chad in the Crofts, though it is uncertain whether it was ever parochial. The mother churches' monopoly over burial rights appears to have persisted until relatively late, and there were evidently no graveyards at the other churches until the 14th century. The first seems to have been at St. Mary's, the only church apart from St. Oswald's to have a large parish outside the city liberties. The evolution of the parishes and the final shape of their boundaries have been plausibly explained as the successive subdivision of territories attached to the two oldest foundations, St. Oswald's and St. John's, as new churches were established from the 10th century onwards.
Chester had relatively few religious guilds and their impact upon city life was correspondingly limited. In the early 14th century the guild of St. Mary comprised some 48 members of the civic élite, but its purpose is unknown and it was probably short-lived. Thereafter the city never had more than three confraternities. The earliest and most important was that of St. Anne, probably founded in 1361, when its members successfully petitioned the Black Prince for a licence to hold lands and rents in Chester to maintain a chantry and two chaplains in St Johns church.
The use of Chester as a base for the Conquest of Wales by Edward I and as a winter garrison did much to support the economy of the city during the difficult period of the Late Middle Ages. The earliest "Architect" that we know of from Chester is "Richard the Engineer", who lived in Bridge Street in the 13th and early 14th centuries. Richard the Engineer first appears as the superintendent of works on the outer bailey of Chester Castle in 1265. He is therefore unlikely to have been born after 1240. His first mention in the royal records is in 1277 when he was put in charge of 1850 men (including 970 diggers, 330 carpenters, 320 woodmen, 200 masons, 12 smiths and 10 charcoal burners) at Flint to begin work on Flint castle. Richard then vanishes from the royal records for a while. One possible reason for this could have been the great fire of Chester of 15th May 1278. It has been suggested that this fire led to the opportunity to rebuild Chester with The Rows. Richard reappears on 16th March 1281, when he joins Master James of St George at Flint and is now paid 10d a day, but may have been called back to Chester quickly as the Old Dee Bridge was swept away that year. In 1282 he is back in Wales again supporting a military expedition by first repairing Hope (Caergwrle) Castle, and then building a bridge of boats to cross the Menai Strait. In 1283 he is associated with early work on Caernarfon's castle and walls. 1284 has him procuring tools for Conwy. In 1287 he is at Carmarthen building a siege engine. This was used successfully but as Rhys ap Maredudd moved to another castle (Newcastle Emlyn) Richard's engine was hauled there by 60 oxen and used successfully again. Another revolt in 1287 under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn brought Richard back to military matters, preparing another bridge of boats for crossing the Menai Strait at Beaumaris. In 1303 Richard undertook a series of repairs at Chester Castle following a fire and the same year in January he was consulted over the possibility of building pontoon bridges during Edward I's war with Scotland. These were constructed in Norfolk, and sailed up to Stirling on 24th May. The abbot of Chester pledged substantial sums to Richard in 1310 and 1312–13 for work at the Cathedral. Richard was elected Mayor of Chester in 1305. He also (before 1309) built a house at Belgrave, after beginning to acquire land in Eccleston in 1284. Little of the house remains other than the moat.
Llywelyn's son, Dafydd, followed him as ruler of Gwynedd, but Henry III of England would not allow him to inherit his father's position elsewhere in Wales. By Welsh law, Dafydd's older half-brother Gruffydd also had a claim to be Llywelyn's successor. War broke out in 1241 and then again in 1245 when Henry III returned to Chester with an army to relieve Dyserth castle and build a new castle at Deganwy. Troops were mustered at Chester and the city benefitted from being a major source of provisions, equipment and weapons. The Royal "Wardrobe", which was the term used for the King's financial organisation, was moved ro Chester and large sums of money which were recieved from Ireland and elsewhere. These were stored at both the Castle and the Abbey.
The issue was still in the balance when Dafydd died suddenly in early 1246 at Abergwyngregyn without leaving an heir. Gruffydd had been killed trying to escape from the Tower of London in 1244, but did have heirs. The next ruler of Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, son of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn Fawr and grandson of Llywelyn the Great, he would be the last sovereign prince of Wales before its conquest by Edward I of England. Trouble on the border continued with Welsh forces penetrating almost to Chester in 1257. As noted above, King Henry and his son Edward again brought troops and the Wardrobe to Chester and conducted negotiations with the Welsh. This was followed by a short campaign into Wales. Henry and Edward then had to return to England to deal with the growing crisis with his barons.
Yet another possible contender for the Welsh throne was Owain Goch ap Gruffydd, oldest brother to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd and Dafydd ap Gruffudd. Henry III did try to use him in a political gambit when he freed him in the hope that he would start a revolt, but Owain chose to remain in Chester. Some semblance of peace had been restored in 1267 by the Treaty of Montgomery by which Llywelyn ap Gruffudd was acknowledged as Prince of Wales by Henry III. Following this, agreed annual payments, in part for recognition of Llywelyn as prince, were handed over at the Abbey in Chester. However before long Llywelyn would drift into arrears. Edward seems to have been in the city on several occasions to supervise the collection of dues and possibly to raise money through loans. He appears to have been successful in borrowing money from the mayor and the citizens. The prince was apparently already planning for a future war with Wales as he had crops planted in expectation of this and had repairs made at the Castle.
Henry III died in 1272 and was succeeded by his far more capable son, Edward I. Edward soon installed his mason Richard the Engineer at the Dee Mills with arrangements that grain could be ground free of tolls in the event of war. Edward arrived in Chester in 1275, but Llewelyn refused Edward's demand to come to Chester to do homage to him, and in 1276 Edward declared war. In July 1277, Edward launched a punitive expedition into North Wales with his own army of 15,500—of whom 9,000 were Welshmen from the south. From Chester the army marched into Gwynedd, camping first at Flint and then Rhuddlan and Deganwy, most likely causing significant damage to the areas it advanced through. Llywelyn was forced to seek terms. By the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277, Llywelyn was left only with the western part of Gwynedd, though he was allowed to retain the title of Prince of Wales. Edward also placed a large financial burden on Llywelyn, requiring annual payments of reparations to be made at Chester. Edward's new castles in Wales were placed under the juridiction of an officer of the Palatinate, the Justice of Chester.
War broke out again in 1282, as a result of a rebellion by Llywelyn's brother Dafydd ap Gruffydd, who was discontented with the reward he had received from Edward in 1277. Edward himself arrived in the midst of the 1282 activity, and took command of the cavalry already mustered there. With him came the royal court and chancery, and during 1282 and 1283 chancery enrolments were made at Chester. Edward moved on into north Wales after staying in the city for over three weeks and leaving orders for 1,000 woodcutters to be assembled there and sent on to Rhuddlan to help clear pathways for his men. The city remained a major centre for provisioning the army; late in 1282, for example, the justice of Chester and the sheriffs of some 15 counties were ordered to ensure that it was continuously supplied with victuals and other merchandise. The English launched a three-pronged attack, with Edward leading his army into North Wales along much the same route as in 1277. The conquest of Gwynedd was completed with the capture in June 1283 of Dafydd, who had succeeded his brother as prince the previous December. Dafydd was taken to Shrewsbury and executed as a traitor the following autumn. From 1277, and particularly after 1283, Edward embarked on a policy of English colonisation and settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan. In 1280 an exchange was established in the city for precious metals, and £1000 sent to Chester for the purpose.
Edward returned to Chester after his victory in summer 1283. He was there again in 1284, en route to north Wales, but made no further visits until after the launch of his third campaign against the Welsh in 1294. In response to the rebellion of that year Edward established three commands, the northernmost at Chester under Reginald de Grey and John de Warenne, earl of Surrey. By the end of the year, when the king himself arrived in Chester, 16,000 infantrymen had been mustered. Edward proceeded swiftly to Conwy, arranging for supplies to be sent from Chester, in particular large quantities of wood to make crossbows and hurdles. As before, the city formed an administrative base, and in 1295, while the king was at Conwy, the chancellor, John Langton, stayed in Chester. With the restoration of peace the city was the scene of the recruitment of 100 masons to work on Caernarfon castle.
Edward's decisive victory over the rebels in 1294-5 ended resistance to his rule in Wales, and he seems to have paid only one further visit to Chester, in 1301. The Welsh campaigns, however, left their impact on the city. By 1295, for example, the portmote had evolved the custom that in time of war it did not meet except to hear pleas of novel disseisin, darrein presentment, and dower. The city, moreover, retained its role as a supply centre, albeit on a much reduced scale, when Edward turned his attentions to Scotland. In 1300, for example, Henry de Lacy, earl of Lincoln, sent envoys to Chester to obtain provisions for his mission to Scotland on the king's behalf, and in 1306 ten ships were gathered in the port to carry corn to the North.
In 1300, perhaps in recognition of the city's special role in his Welsh campaigns, Edward granted Chester a new charter, for the most part a confirmation of developments which had occurred informally over the previous century. By that means the king recognized the existence of the mayoralty (never the subject of a formal grant), officially recorded for the first time that the farm was in the hands of the citizens, and fixed that farm at £100, the figure customarily paid throughout his reign. There was, however, one important innovation: the exceptional, indeed at that time unique grant to the mayor and sheriffs of the right to hold the pleas of the Crown. The implications of the concession were considerable, and the charter may be regarded as a landmark in the city's history. Its issue was preceded by Chester's addition a few weeks earlier to the select group of towns with exchanges, that established in 1280 presumably having lapsed after the conquest of Wales.
The result of Edward's conquest of Wales included the creation of a new "Principality of North Wales" (Anglesey, Camarvon and Merioneth - the original Gwynedd) and a series of "Marcher" lordships in the east (Denbigh, Mongomery, Radnor, Brecknock) and south (Monmouth, Glamorgan, Carmarthen, Pembroke). Flintshire and Cardigan were part of the King's personal fief (thus, not part of the kingdom of England) and in 1301, they were bestowed on Edward's son, Edward of Caernarfon (the future Edward II), with the title "Prince of Wales" and thereafter the lands and title became the customary endowment of the heir to the throne.
Edward I died in July 1307, en route to conquer Scotland, and his son became Edward II. By the time of Edward's death the pattern of local government in Chester had changed considerably from the original "Norman" model in which the Earl and his officers had overall control. Much power had now shifted from the sheriffs to the mayor, who had taken over the presidency of most of the court machinery. By the mid 14th century the roles of the main civic officers would be largely defined. The dominance of the mayor, already well established, was enhanced by the grant of the escheatorship in 1354, and by his increasing control over market offences, presented at inquests held in the courts over which he presided. The activities of the sheriffs, by then elected annually, were gradually restricted to the collection of local dues, policing, and the administration of summary justice for minor offences. In the 14th Century the unitary Guild Merchant would decay into a number of separate companies.
Edward I conferred the title and the lands of the Earldom of Chester on his son, Edward, the first English Prince of Wales in 1301. By that time the Earldom of Chester consisted of two counties: Cheshire and bordering Flintshire. This led to the peculiar result that Flintshire ended up in two separate parts. Edward was the fourteenth child of Edward I and Eleanor of Castile. The inscription on a sculpture at the Town Hall at Chester reads "Edward Prince of Wales Receiving Homage: First Royal Earl Of Chester AD 1254". This presents something of a problem: King Henry III passed the Lordship of Chester, but not the title of Earl, to his son the Lord Edward in 1254, and as King Edward I he in turn conferred the title and the lands of the Earldom on son, Edward (later Edward II) - who was only born in 1284, and who was made the first English Prince of Wales in 1301 (he would first visit Chester in 1309). In 1254 the Prince of Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffydd. He has been Prince of Wales since 1246 and would be so until 1282. David Powel, a 16th-century clergyman, suggested that the baby was offered to the Welsh as a prince "that was borne in Wales and could speake never a word of English", but there is no evidence to support this account, and Edward II was made Prince of Wales in 1301 when he would have been about 16 years old and presumably had learned to speak English.
Edward II had few of the qualities that made a successful medieval king. He suffered a major defeat at the Battle of Bannockburn despite a massive numerical advantage. He was also unlucky with the weather which was already cooling but possibly changed suddenly as a consequence of the eruption of Mount Tarawera. In the spring of 1315, unusually heavy rain began in much of Europe. Throughout the spring and the summer, it continued to rain, and the temperature remained cool. Under such conditions, grain could not ripen, leading to widespread crop failures. Grain was brought indoors in urns and pots to keep dry. The straw and hay for the animals could not be cured, so there was no fodder for the livestock. In England, lowlands in Yorkshire and Nottingham were flooded, while stew ponds on the River Foss in Yorkshire were washed away. The price of food began to rise; prices in England doubled between spring and midsummer. Salt, the only way to cure and preserve meat, was difficult to obtain because brine could not be effectively evaporated in wet weather; its price increased from 30 to 40 shillings. Edward II stopped at St Albans on 10 August 1315 and had difficulty finding bread for himself and his entourage; it was a rare occasion in which the king of England was unable to eat. The requisitioning of provisions for the royal court during the famine years only added to tensions. The height of the famine was in 1317, as the wet weather continued. Finally, in that summer, the weather returned to its normal patterns. By then, however, people were so weakened by diseases such as pneumonia, bronchitis, and tuberculosis, and so much of the seed stock had been eaten, that it was not until 1325 that the food supply returned to relatively normal levels and the population began to slowly increase again. The consequences of the famine included blame being placed on the church, an increase in crime, a decay of chivalry, and an end to rapid population growth.
Edward surrounded himself with favourites (the best known being a Gascon, Piers Gaveston - who was awarded Chester Castle in 1322), and the barons, feeling excluded from power, rebelled. Between 1323 and 1325, the Water Tower and spur wall from Bonewaldesthorne's Tower on the north-west corner of the City Walls were built at a cost of £100 to protect the harbour. The architect was John (de) Helpston who had also designed castles for King Edward II in North Wales. At the time it was known as the New Tower. The Braun and Hogenberg map (1581) clearly shows that at the time the Tower actually stood in the River Dee (at high tide), but the river now flows some distance away. Just who the tower was intended to defend against is not entirely clear. The Despenser War (1321–22) was a baronial revolt against Edward II of England led by the Marcher Lords Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun. The rebellion was fuelled by opposition to Hugh Despenser the Younger, the royal favourite. After the rebels' summer campaign of 1321, Edward was able to take advantage of a temporary peace to rally more support and a successful winter campaign in southern Wales, culminating in royal victory at the Battle of Boroughbridge near York in March 1322. Edward's response to victory was his increasingly harsh rule until his fall from power in 1326.
Throughout his reign, different baronial groups struggled to gain power and control the King. In 1326 came Gaveston's downfall and execution. In August of that same year, Isabella of France (Edward's wife) and Roger Mortimer (his wife's lover) invaded England with mercenary soldiers and deposed Edward. There was unrest in Chester following Edward II's deposition - in July the former mayor, Richard le Bruyn was imprisoned at the Castle accused of supporting the Earl of Mar, an "enemy and a rebel". In August the Justice was ordered to arrest the large number of outlaws who had gathered in the vicinity of the city. Isabella of France and Roger Mortimer imprisoned eighteen children in Chester Castle as hostages for the good behaviour of the townspeople [Close Rolls 1327-1330, pp. 169, 187-188].
Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, written in c. 1342 in Chester shows that Higden was one of the very first chroniclers who believed in the red-hot poker murder of Edward II (1327), which John Trevisa translated into English as:
- "a hoote broche putte thro the secret place posteriale."
The earliest chronicles state that Edward II died of a grief-induced illness. Those written after 1330 state that he was murdered, strangled or suffocated. Between 1332 and 1337 the chroniclers start to state that the murderers were Thomas Gurney and John Maltravers (even though John Maltravers had never been accused officially of the crime but was tried for a different one in 1330). Around 1340 chronicles start to repeat the story of a piece of metal being inserted through his anus; at first this is described as a copper rod, then an iron one, and finally an iron poker. The only contemporary account of Edward's death was the work of Adam of Murimuth who simply says that the king was suffocated by Sir Thomas Gourney and John Mautravers and dates the deed to the 22nd September. There is a further Chester connection with Edward II via the Dunheved brothers, Thomas Dunheved (a friar and possibly Edward's confessor) and Stephen Dunheved who made several attempts to free Edward. After an unsuccessful attempt to release Edward from Kenilworth in March 1327, the plotters vanished for a few weeks, before showed up in Chester in early June. On 8 June 1327, Richard Damory, Justice of Chester (elder brother of Edward II's former "favourite" Roger Damory) was ordered by royal mandate to arrest and imprison Stephen and Thomas Dunheved, along with William Beaumard and John Sabant, and:
- "other malefactors who have assembled within the city of Chester and parts adjacent and perpetrated homicide and other crimes, and to enquire by jury of those parts who were their accomplices, and to keep them in prison till further orders."
It was probably the presence of the Dunheved brothers in Chester that caused Isabella of France to require the taking of eighteen children as "boy hostages" in Chester Castle, in 1327.
- de lor venir aforceement devers le chastel de Berkel', d'avoir ravi le pere nostre seignor le roi hors de nostre garde et le dit chastel robbe felenousement encountre la pees ("They came with an armed force towards the castle of Berkeley, seized the father of our lord the King from our guard and feloniously plundered the said castle, against the peace")
- suggesting that Edward had been rescued as part of a plot possibly hatched in Chester. As the historical record stands, the rescue never happened and Edward died or or about the 21st September 1327 at Berkeley Castle.
However, there is the mysterious "Fieschi Letter" (written to Edward III in circa 1337 by a Genoese priest at Avignon, Manuele Fieschi) has been suggested as evidence that Edward did, in fact, escape. He then supposedly crossed to the Low Countries and travelled to Italy, visiting and being sheltered by the Pope (John XXII) in Avignon on his way through France, to live out the rest of his life in monastic hermitages near Milan. In the Italian town of Cecima, (75 km from Milan), in the abbey of Sant'Alberto di Butrio, in the small closter, a sign over an empty tomb reads:
- "here is the tomb where was buried Edward II King of England, who married Isabelle of France and whose successor was Edward III, son of him".
So it is possible that the Chester-based plot to rescue Edward was a success. There was certainly some sympathy for Edward at Chester following his deposition and years later support for Richard II (Edward's grandson) in Chester.
Edward III (13 November 1312 – 21 June 1377), also known as Edward of Windsor before his accession, was King of England and Lord of Ireland from January 1327 until his death in 1377. He is noted for his military success and for restoring royal authority after the disastrous and unorthodox reign of his father, Edward II. Edward II was so desparate to mprove his popularity that he created his son Edward Earl of Chester in 1312, at just twelve days old.
He transformed the Kingdom of England into one of the most formidable military powers in Europe. His fifty-year reign was the second-longest in medieval English history, and saw vital developments in legislation and government, in particular the evolution of the English Parliament, as well as the ravages of the Black Death Pandemic. He outlived his eldest son, Edward the Black Prince. Edward was crowned at age fourteen after his father was deposed by his mother, Isabella of France, and her lover Roger Mortimer. At age seventeen he led a successful coup d'état against Mortimer, the de facto ruler of the country, and began his personal reign. After a successful campaign in Scotland he declared himself rightful heir to the French throne in 1337. This started what became known as the Hundred Years' War.
The Polychronicon is a famous medieval book written by Chester monk Ranulf Higden. Higden (c. 1280 - c. 1363), was an English chronicler and a Benedictine of the monastery of St. Werburgh in Chester, wherein he lived, it is said, for sixty-four years, and died at "a good old age", probably around 1363. He is believed to have been born in the West of England, took the monastic vow, at Chester in 1299, and seems to have travelled over the north of England. The Christ Church (Oxford) manuscript of the Polychronicon states that Higdon wrote it down to the year 1342; the manuscript at Christ's College, Cambridge, states that Higden wrote it to the year 1344. The book includes a brief desciption of Chester:
- "The cyte of legyons that is Chestre in the marches of Englonde towarde Wales betwegne two armes of the see that bee named Dee and Mersey Thys cyte in tyme of Britons was hede and chyefe cyte of all Venedocia that is North Wales This cyte in brytyshe speche bete Carthleon Chestre in Englyshe and Cyte of Legyons also For there laye a wyn ter the legyons that Julius Cezar sent for to wyne Monde And after Claudius Cezar sent legyons out of the cyte for to wynn the islands that be called Orcades Thys cyte hath plente of lyveland of corn of fleshe and specyally of samon Thys cyte receyveth grate marchandyse and sendeth out also Northubres destroyed this cyte sometyne but Elfreda lady of Mercia bylded it agayn and made it mouch more In thys cyte ben ways under erth with vowtes and stone worke wonderfully iwrought three chamberd werkes grete stones igrave with old mennes names there in Thys is that cyte that Ethelfreda king of Northumberlonde destroyed and sloughe there fast by nygh two thousonde monkes of the myn ster of Bangor Thys is the cyte that Kyng Edgar cam to some tyme with seven kyngs that were subject to hym"
- There be waies heere under the ground vaulted marvelously with stone worke, chambers having arched roofes over had, huge stones engraven with the names of ancient men. Heere also are sometimes digged up peeces of money coined by Julius Caesar and other famous persons, and stamped with their inscriptions
This appears to be the first reference to mysterious Tunnels under Chester, the existence of which has entered into local myth and legend.
In 1348, the Pandemic known as the Black Death struck England with full force, killing a third or more of the country's population. The first-known case in England was a seaman who arrived at Weymouth, Dorset, from Gascony in June 1348. By autumn, the plague had reached London, and by summer 1349 it covered the entire country. The term "Black Death" — which refers to the first and most serious outbreak of the times was not used by contemporaries, who preferred such names as the "Great Pestilence" or the "Great Mortality". It is generally agreed today that the disease in question was caused by Yersinia pestis bacteria. These are carried by fleas, which can be transferred to humans through contact with rats. Flea bites carry the disease into the lymphatic system, through which it makes its way to the lymph nodes. Here the bacteria multiply and form swellings called buboes, from which the term bubonic plague is derived. After three or four days the bacteria enter the bloodstream, and infect organs such as the spleen and the lungs. The patient will then normally die after a few days. A different strain of the same disease is pneumonic plague, where the bacteria become airborne and enter directly into the patient's lungs. This strain is far more virulent, as it spreads directly from person to person. Both these types of infection probably both played a significant part in the Black Death. A third strain was more rare: septicaemic plague, where the flea bite carries the bacteria directly into the blood stream, and death occurs very rapidly. There seem to have been very few victims of the Black Death at higher levels of society. The only member of the royal family who can be said with any certainty to have died from the Black Death was in France at the time of her infection. Edward III's daughter Joan was residing in Bordeaux on her way to marry Pedro of Castile in the summer of 1348. When the plague broke out in her household she was moved to a small village nearby, but she could not avoid infection, and died there on 2 September.
In the long term, the decrease in population caused a shortage of labour, with subsequent rise in wages, resisted by the landowners, which caused deep resentment among the lower classes. The Peasants' Revolt of 1381 was largely a result of this resentment, and even though the rebellion was suppressed, in the long term serfdom was ended in England. The appearance of the plague also co-incides with changes to the craft guild structure in Chester, which could also be due to the massive mortallity. At the time there was a gradual inintergration of the unitary guild merchant. Signs of conflict were apparent by 1351, when the Black Prince responded to claims by the citizens that "substantial men of the commonalty" were combining related crafts such as tailoring and drapery, or shoemaking and tanning. In 1361 the city's tanners paid the Black Prince to establish a monopoly in the production of leather, but despite attempts to prevent the shoemakers from encroaching on their craft, by 1370 the ruling had been reversed. Nevertheless there was a slow movement towards the establishment of the separate craft guilds which would eventually stage the Chester Mystery Plays.
- "...with all speed their part of the bridge of Dee... in the same manner and style as the remainder of the bridge which has been newly made."
Work had been started on this as early as 1346 but was stopped due to the plague. In 1351 the Dee Bridge was "in such plight that no one [could] pass over it". The builder of the 1351 bridge is believed to have been a certain Henry de Snelleston, mason and surveyor to Edward the Black Prince. In 1387 it was again described as "ruined" in pleas from financial relief to Richard II. Letters Patent granted to the citizens on 25 July 1387 state:
- “Know ye that of our special grace and at the supplication of our lieges, the Commonalty of our town of Chester, and for consideration that as many have been drowned in the water of the Dee since the bridge has been destroyed and broken. And also, because the same town for that reason is very greatly impoverished as we are informed, we have granted to the fabric and repair of the aforesaid bridge all the profits of the Passage of the said water at Chester and the Murage which used to be granted there for the walls, to be received until that bridge is rightly and reasonably completed”.
While Edward III's early reign had been energetic and successful, his later years were marked by inertia, military failure and political strife. In 1353 some disturbances seem to have broken out in Cheshire, for the Black Prince as Earl of Chester marched with Henry of Grosmont, now Duke of Lancaster to the neighbourhood of Chester to protect the justices, who were holding an assize there. The men of the earldom offered to pay him a heavy fine to bring the assize to an end, but when they thought they had arranged matters the justices opened an inquisition of trailbaston, took a large sum of money from them, and seized many houses and much land into the prince's, their earl's, hands. This was a major hit to the economy as the plague had just swept through Cheshire killing a third of the population. On his return from Chester the prince is said to have passed by the Abbey of Dieulacres in Staffordshire, to have seen a fine church which his great-grandfather, Edward I, had built there, and to have granted five hundred marks, a tenth of the sum he had taken from his earldom, towards its completion; the abbey was almost certainly not Dieulacres but Vale Royal. Work, which had been halted by the Black Death resumed and continued, with various setbacks, until about 1380. During a great storm on 19 October 1359, much of the nave (including the new lead roof installed by the previous abbot) was blown down and destroyed. The arcades of the unfinished nave were reduced to rubble. The destruction ranged "from the wall at the west end to the bell-tower before the gates of the choir", and the timber scaffolding collapsed "like trees uprooted by the wind".
Richard of Bordeaux (6 January 1367 – c. 14 February 1400) was the younger son of Edward, Prince of Wales, and Joan, Countess of Kent. Edward, eldest son of Edward III and heir apparent to the throne of England, had distinguished himself as a military commander in the early phases of the Hundred Years' War, particularly in the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. After further military adventures, however, he contracted dysentery in Spain in 1370. He never fully recovered and had to return to England the next year. The Prince of Wales finally succumbed to his long illness in June 1376. On 21 June the next year, Richard's grandfather King Edward III, who was for some years frail and decrepit, died after a 50-year reign. This resulted in the 10-year-old Richard II succeeding to the throne. He was crowned on 16 July 1377 at Westminster Abbey.
Richard II and his Royal Treasure
Boy king Richard II assumed full control of the government on 3 May 1389. Previously, in 1388, as a result of the political and military actions of the magnates known as the Lords Appellant, some of Richard's closest friends and advisors were executed or sent into exile. By installing Robert de Vere as Justice of Chester (see: Courts), he began the work of creating a loyal military power base in Cheshire. De Vere's relationship with King Richard was very close and rumored by chronicler Thomas Walsingham to be homosexual, although Walsingham was clearly biased against Richard. The Lord's Appellant had their revenge on the king's favourites in the "Merciless Parliament" (1388). The nominal governor of Ireland, de Vere, and Richard's Lord Chancellor, Michael de la Pole, Earl of Suffolk, who had fled abroad, were sentenced to death in their absence. Alexander Neville, Archbishop of York, had all his worldly goods confiscated. The Lord Chief Justice, Sir Robert Tresilian, was executed, as were Sir Nicholas Brembre, Lord Mayor of London, John Beauchamp of Holt (who by 1384 he had been made Receiver of the Chamber and Keeper of the King's Jewels), Sir James Berners, and Sir John Salisbury. Sir Simon Burley was found guilty of exercising undue influence over the king and was sentenced to death. Derby and Nottingham, together with the Duke of York, tried to win a reprieve for him, but he was executed on 5 May. The purge continued deep into the administration, dozens of retainers, clerks, chaplains, and secretaries to Richard were summarily condemned and executed. De Vere's fall was celebrated locally by his enemy Richard FitzAlan, 4th Earl of Arundel, who from his base at Holt Castle caused a copy of the appeal against the royal favourite to be nailed to the door of St Peter's church, something which Richard may of heard of and which he was unlikely to forget. Later he would sieze Holt and make it into the home of his Royal Treasure.
In 1397, Richard II created the title "Prince of Cheshire", which he awarded to himself. On 13 July 1397, he ordered the sheriff of the county of Chester to collect 2,000 archers for royal service. These troops were used to overawe the parliament which met in September - sometimes known as the "Revenge Partiament". Arundel had been arrested on the 12th July 1397 and was executed on 21 September. In 1399 Richard would depart for Ireland in a campaign which would end with his ursurpation by the later Henry IV. Events in Chester at the time included a riot at the Corpus Christi procession (possibly after Richard had taken his men to Ireland) - a record of 1399 describes a terrible brawl which broke out between the members of the guilds of the Weavers, Shearmen, Challoners (blanket-makers) and the Walkers (fullers) against their apprentices, outside of the guild church of St Peter:
- " ..and many other master weavers came with force and arms, with pole-axes, staves, daggers, and other diverse armaments, by a premeditated plan on Thursday, the feast of Corpus Christi, in the twenty-second year of the reign of King Richard the second, opposite the church of Blessed Peter of Chester. Also, those gathered together insulted William de Wybunbure, junior, Thomas del Dame, and very many others, their servants, called journeymen, in a great affray of the whole population of the city, against the peace of the lord king"
The dispute may have been associated with the tensions within the former Guild Merchant, which had by now split into several companies, often with conflicting interests. Each of these groups sought to monopolise their own section of trade, although there were overlaps were disputes our boundaries occurred - such as the conflict between the tanners and others in the leather trades. The gradual dissolution of the earlier medieval framework of government was accompanied by the emergence of new civic structures, a process which seems to have crystallized in the 1390s, when the city was the object of Richard II's especial favour. Of the new institutions, the most significant was the aldermanate or Twenty-Four, in place by the early 1390s.
John of Gaunt died on the 3rd February 1399. On 18th March Richard II cancelled the legal documents allowing the exiled Henry Bolingbroke to inherit his father's lands. In June 1399, Louis I, Duke of Orléans, gained control of the court of his brother the insane Charles VI ("the Mad") of France. A policy of rapprochement with the English crown did not suit Louis's political ambitions, and for this reason he found it opportune to allow Henry Bolingbroke, the exiled and now dispossessed Lord Appellant, to leave for England.
Richard attempted to return from Ireland. It seems entirely logical that his goal was to reach Cheshire, where he had two important links. Firstly, he had recruited his personal troops there and secondly a considerable part of his wealth was at his treasure house in Holt. Henry beat Richard to Chester. The Duke of Lancaster made his way to Chester by somewhat sporadic forced marches and took it without a fight on the 9th August. The Duke stayed at Chester Castle for 12 days, amusing himself by drinking the king's wine, wasting fields and pillaging houses. and presumably enjoying the use of Richard II's "Norwegian Wood" heated bathroom. While there ("this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke, who all this while hath revell'd in the night"), he also found time to secure the arrest, incarceration in the Gowestower (outer gatehouse tower) and execution of Sir Peirs Legh of Lyme, one of Richard's leading retainers in Cheshire and the brother of the Sheriff - Legh's head was placed on the Eastgate.
Richard arrived at Conwy to find himself hemmed in. Henry then marched against Richard at Fflint Castle to which Richard had been lured from the safety of Conwy Castle. Richard surrendered, but not (according to tradition) before trying to escape dressed as a monk. According to Stowe's Annals, following the capture of the King, Bollinbrooke:
- " with a high sharp voice, badde bring forth the king's horses; and then two little naggs, not worth forty francs, were brought forth."
The king was set on the one, and the earl of Salisbury on the other, and thus the duke brought the king from Flint to Chester, where he was delivered to the duke of Gloucester's son, who led him straight to the castle (still wearing the monk's habit in which he had attempted to escape) and "lodged" them in Chester Castle for a few days (possibly in a tower over the outer or inner gateway, possibly in the Agricola Tower). Though his Welsh supporters almost managed to resuce him on the way to London, Richard was forced to abdicate at Westminster. He probably died soon after possibly having been starved to death on Henry's orders, or possibly having starved himself. His body was put on display to prove that he was dead and had not died violently. Rumours of his still being alive persisted but never gained much credence.
The Wars of the Roses
In 1403, Sir Henry Percy ('Hotspur'), lately justice of Chester, stayed in the city and raised the standard of revolt there, where former kings men and veterans of the Cheshire Guard, the household guard of the the deceased & dethroned ‘Good King Richard’, King Richard II, still resided by the hundreds.. Percy formed an alliance with the Welsh rebel, Owain Glyndŵr. Before they could join forces, Hotspur was defeated and killed at the Battle of Shrewsbury as he raised his visor to get some air (he was wearing full plate) and was hit in the mouth with an arrow. Legislation of 1403, vigorously supported by the mayor of Chester, denied any arms to the Welsh - except a knife to eat with. It is from this time that the Shoot the Welsh story comes from In the weeks following the Battle of Shrewsbury the insecurity of both the new dynasty and some of the city authorities (i.e. those who had been on the King's side at the battle) was demonstrated in the instructions issued by Prince Henry in response to further defections in north Wales. On September 4, 1403, he wrote to the Mayor, Sheriffs and Aldermen of the City of Chester, who were required to impose a curfew upon all Welshmen visiting Chester, and to ensure that they left their arms at the city gates and did not gather in groups of more than three; all Welsh residents were expelled and any who stayed overnight were threatened with execution. Apparently, the actual wording was that: "all manner of Welsh persons or Welsh sympathies should be expelled from the city; that no Welshman should enter the city before sunrise or tarry in it after sunset, under pain of decapitation.". A local story is that it is still legal to "shoot the Welsh" (it isn't!).
Cooke (writing between 1802 and 1829) sums up the history of the medieval earls (following from the death of Ranulph) as follows:
- At the demise of this earl, which happened in the year 1232, John, surnamed Scott, mounted the chair of state; he married Helen, daughter of Llewelyn ap Iorwerth, prince of North Wales, from which alliance no issue arising, at his death, (which is said to have been prematurely effected by poison) an extinction happened in the line of succession, and Henry the Third annexed the earldom to the crown, in the year 1237. From his hands it was transferred, by gift, to his son Edward, afterwards king Edward the First. The chance of war next gave it to Simon de Montford, who took both Henry and his son prisoners at the battle of Lewes, in the year 1264; their liberations were purchased by the resignation of the earldom of Montford, whose brow was adorned with this laurel of conquest but a very short period, as he resigned his honours with his life, at the battle of Evesham, not twelve months after. It next devolved to Edward of Caernarvon, son of Eduard the First, who enjoyed it 19 years, when his son, Edward of Windsor, succeeded. A period of 11 years had barely elapsed, when Edward the Black Prince, took the reins of government, From him it devolved to his son, Richard of Bordeaux. who, in the 21st year of his reign, erected Chester into a principality; an honour which was canceled in the first year of Henry the Fourth. His son, afterwards the great Henry the Fifth, (who was the scourge of France) next succeeded; and after him Henry the Sixth, whose life was cruelly violated and taken, after the battle of Tewkesbury. In the year 1471, Edward the Fifth, (eldest-son of Edward the Fourth), was created earl of Chester; but he with his brother Richard (duke of York) fell by that ambitious monster, Richard the Third; whose only offspring, Edward, was next created earl in the year 1483; the subsequent year, however, putting a period to his life.
Towards the end of the Medieval period it is clear that Chester lacked a powerful earl. From the downfall of Richard II the fortunes if the city and its involvement in national politics faded and the focus of many historians shifts away from it during the span of Tudor Chester to return in the time of Stuart Chester. A consequence of the lack of a powerful earl was the increasing power of the civic elite of the city and the growing separation of the city from the county. This would eventually lead to the separation of the two in Tudor Chester with the charter of 1506, when the city was given its own independent county status within the Palatinate (see Charters). Throughout the later 14th and earlier 15th century the main civic offices were dominated by a relatively small group of families, mostly merchants, such as the Blunds, Bellyetters, Hopes, Hattons, Ewloes, and Whitmores. Mayors generally held office repeatedly. John Blund, for example, was mayor for eight terms in the 1350s and John Armourer for seven between 1385 and 1395.
The first evidence for religious plays in Chester is of a performance on Corpus Christi day 1422, which usually falls in June, but can be anywhere from 23rd May to 24th June, depending on the date of easter. The Corpus Christi feast was established by 1317 as a response to the then new eucharistic doctrine of transubstantiation. The first known celebration of the feast in England being at Ipswich in 1325. At Corpus Christi representatives of the Chester guilds walked in procession, from St Mary on the Hill to St Johns behind a consecrated "host" holding torches in a ritual known as a "light".
Tradition ascribes the origin of the Mystery Plays to 1325 (or 1327), but a date of about 1375 has also been suggested. Chambers also gives a date of 1208 but notes that date may be too early. Some early writers expressed the view that they were written by Ranulf Higden (c.1280 - c.1363), author of the Polychronicon, as stated in the Prologue to the plays. Whatever their actual date, it is clear that as early as 1533 they were regarded as old beyond living memory. Chambers eventually fixed on a date of 1328 which was accepted for many years, and from which it appeared that the Chester plays were the earliest surviving mystery plays. Later reserach showed that Chambers date was based on myths and mis-statements from a proclamation from around 1531/2 and the likely date for the current text of the plays dates from around 1532 with earlier versions of some or all of the plays being performed as far back as some time before the 1422 date mentioned above. This would make their origins definitely Medieval, although the language of the plays is early Tudor.
The plays were originally performed over two days. The event proved so popular that still later, around 1521, it was stretched to cover the three days of Whitsuntide, Whit Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday. The guild accounts of expenditure give us a fairly detailed picture of the sequence of events leading up to the performance of the Whitsun Plays. Though the mayor and council were the final arbiters of whether to produce the plays, the companies apparently could petition for a performance by submitting a 'bill' to the mayor. When the decision was favourable, the companies began to ready their materials and to practise their parts.
The Stanley family enter the stage of history as keepers of the royal hunting forest on the Wirral, hence the three buck's heads seen of the Stanley coats-of-arms seen around Chester. John Stanley had been a retainer of Richard II who then managed be maintain his fortunes under the Lancastians. Unlike many of the Cheshire gentry, he took the side of the king in the rebellion of the Percys. He was wounded in the throat at the Battle of Shrewsbury, but survived to be rewarded with the tenure of the Isle of Man in 1405. Curiously, John Stanley has been proposed as one of the possible authors of "Gawain and the Green Knight", which emerged at the end of Richard's reign and appears to have some connections with Chester (see: Cheshire Dialect).
Later Stanleys were just as deft at politics. Chester was notionally on the Lancastrian side in the "Wars of the Roses" and in 1450 Sir Thomas Stanley (then Justice of Chester) was called upon to supply troops to support the Lancastrians. In 1455 Queen Margret may have visited Chester to gather support for the Royalist cause. It appears that Thomas Stanley, Constable & Justice of Chester, mobilized a large force from Cheshire to help the Lancastrian cause (but arrived too late for the Battle of St Albans to be of help). Richard, Duke of York became Earl of Chester in 1460 despite the fact that Edward of Westminster was still alive: "Also it was ordeyned by the sayde parlement, that the sayde Rychard duk of York shold be called Prince of Wales, duke of Cornewayle, and erle of Chestre; and [he] was made also by the sayde parlement protectoure of Englond.". Shortly thereafter Richard was killed at the Battle of Wakefield.
Chester Castle had a few notable Medieval prisoners of which the best known is undoubtedly Richard II, followed in prominece (at least to the English) by Gruffydd ap Cynan, who appears to have had the longest incarceration. Others included Eleanor Cobham (c1400-1452), and Andrew de Moray (d.1297), hero to the Scots of the Battle of Stirling Bridge. During the Wars of the Roses, Yorkist John Neville (1431-1471), 1st Marquess of Montagu was captured and imprisoned at the castle by Lancastrians following the Battle of Blore Heath, in 1459.
Eleanor Chobham was tried and convicted in 1441 for practising witchcraft against king Henry VI in an attempt to retain power for her husband, Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester. Evidently she consulted an astrologer who predicted the death of the king from illness in July or August 1441, at which point her husband would have become king. When rumours of the prediction reached the king's guardians, they also consulted astrologers who could find no such future illness in their astrological predictions, a comfort for the king, who had been troubled by the rumours. Eleanor and her astrologers were arrested on charges of "treaonable necromancy", which probably explains why the king's astrologers made no equivalent prediction. Eleanor and her fellow conspirators were found guilty. Astrologer Southwell died in the Tower of London, astrologer Roger Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered, and a woman named Margery Jourdemayne was burnt at the stake. In 1442, Eleanor was imprisoned at Chester Castle, but her stay was brief as in 1443 she was moved to Kenilworth Castle. In July 1446 Eleanor was moved to the Isle of Man, and finally in March 1449 to Beaumaris Castle in Anglesey, where she died on 7 July 1452.
John Neville, who had been captured at Tarporley, was released in July 1460 and became part of the Yorkist government. He died in fighting at Barnet in 1471.
Andrew Moray is notable (like Gruffydd) for escaping from Chester Castle, sometime in the winter of 1296/7. It is not known how this was accomplished. He had been captured at the Battle of Dunbar which effectively ended Edward I's Anglo-Scottish War of 1296 with an English victory. Although it is impossible to know how imprisonment affected him, it quickly became clear that it was a determined man that returned to Scotland and he plunged the province of Moray into rebellion. Together with William Wallace he hacked the vanguard of the English forces to pieces at Stirling Bridge. There is contradictory evidence about his death, some reporting him a casualty at Stirling Bridge, some that he died of injuries thereafter. Moray appears in the 1995 film Braveheart as the character Mornay; reprising his role as co-commander at the Battle of Stirling. The film is noted for its lack of historical accuracy: in this fictional version Moray survives and betrays Wallace, only to be killed by him. In truth, he never betrayed Wallace and their achievements were made together. It is possible that if Moray had lived the Scots would have fared better when the English returned in 1298.
In 1484 the citizens of Chester were moaning about the state of the River Dee and claimed that Chester had no merchant ship of its own and that the port was "ruined". They wrote:
- "And that now the condition is such that for the space of sixty years now last past the great flow of water at the said port by which our said merchants had a passage to and fro up to and from the said city, with their ships and merchandise, is taken away owing to the wreck of sea-sands daily falling and increasing in the channel there so that the said port is wholly destroyed and cannot be recovered, insomuch that no merchant ship belongs and has not for a long time belonged to our said city, but these ships in default of the aforesaid port are wholly destroyed and wasted to the great detriment, desolation and impoverishment of the said citizens of our city.".
Richard III, who possibly visited Chester in that year, obligingly cut the annual tax on Chester from £50 to £30. There have been many reasons proposed for the decline of the port of Chester: the water has never been sufficient to scour out an adequate navigation channel through the deep glacial silt. Man has also probably contributed to the silting up of the Dee. At one time the Dee Mills, owned by the earls of Chester, operated 11 waterwheels and also constructed a weir across the river at Chester, which reduced the tidal limit and the scour of the river. It is also possible that upland deforestation in Wales altered drainage patterns and also contributed to the silting. Other factors have been proposed, such as long-term changes in sea-level. Whatever the reason the River Dee did have significant navigational problems and as vessels became larger so that voyages could become longer and cargos increased, the port of Chester would decline despite various efforts to revive it.
Although relations with the crown cooled and (not least from the election of a Welsh mayor) there seems to have been much sympathy with Wales in Chester. Prior to his return, the Stanleys had been communicating with the exiled Henry Tudor for some time and Tudor's strategy of landing in Wales and heading east into central England depended on the acquiescence of Sir William Stanley, as Chamberlain of Chester and north Wales, and by extension on that of Lord Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby himself. On hearing of the invasion, Richard III ordered the two Stanley's to raise the men of the region in readiness to oppose the invader. However, once it was clear that Tudor was marching unopposed through Wales, Richard ordered Lord Stanley to join him without delay. According to the Crowland Chronicle, Lord Stanley then excused himself on the grounds of illness, the 'sweating sickness'. The Stanley's did turn up for the Battle of Bosworth Field (1485), but stood by waiting to see who was likely to win before pitching in - which was unfortunate for Richard III. The Stanley's are remembered in Chester by Stanley Palace which actually has little to do with the Stanleys who would decide the fate of Richard III. It was only built in 1591 and did not becopme the property of a branch of the Stanley's until some years after that, around 1621.
The arrival of the cannon significantly reduced the impact of cavalry and the effectiveness of castles, and, the discovery of the New World ushered in the end of the Medieval Period. Despite some of the efforts of the early Tudors any English hope of recovering land in France was over. Spain had been recovered by the christians and would soon grow to become a major maritime power.
In Summary: Medieval Chester
The map om the right shows Chester in 1500. The presence of the Amphitheatre was not known at th time. The course of the River Dee flows closer to the walls and the Watertower (built between 1323 and 1325) still stands in the river, which washes close to the Watergate. The land towards the western city walls has become a religious enclave and there is another enclave enclosing the Abbey, with almost a third of the space with the walls being occupied by religious communities. There are Dee Mills at both ends of the weir, with those on the city side being mostly for corn and those on the Handbridge side being used for fulling of wool. Many of the streets have the same names as they do today, although others, while still following their present courses have different names. The city administration is based either at the Commonhall in Commonhall Street or the Pentice attached to St Peter. By this time the High Cross would have existed from time immemorial. There are still some open spaces within the City Walls, occupied by gardens and crofts, although there is some development outside of them. Most of the buildings shown on the map have either been rebuilt or have been been demolished. The major exceptions are the Abbey (now the Cathedral) and St Johns where at least internally much medieval structure survives, the Old Dee Bridge and some parts of Chester Castle, St Peter and St Oswald.
Many histories perhaps overlook the role of the Palatinate of Chester in the Middle Ages. It was already an important place at the time of the Norman Conquest with Earl Edwin playing a key part in the defence against the Scandinavian threat through his alliance with Harold. Hugh of Avranches appears to have a key supporter of Henry I, although his son, Richard of Avranches, may have missed an opportunity to prevent the death of Henry's son which led to anarchy. The role of Ranulph De Gernon in the civil war between Stephen and Matilda influenced its outcome and his support may have been decisive in the succession of Henry II. The role of Hugh de Kevelioc isn't perhaps yet fully apparent. Ranulf de Blondeville was a magnate of immense influence. There is possibly more to be discovered of the circumstances of the death of John Canmore. The Earldom passed to Edward I who used its resources for his conquest of Wales, then to his son who may or may not have been rescued by a conspiracy based in Chester. The resources of the earldom helped to fund the Black Prince in his military endeavours and then his son in turn, Richard II, raised it to a Principality and used it as an important power base at which he eventually suffered defeat. The city played less of a role in the conflict between York and Lancaster, save for the involvement of the Stanley's who brought about the downfall of Richard III. Under the Tudors the independence of the Palatine would decline but some of its freedoms would persist as late as 1830. It was apart from England, first as a Palatinate and then as the personal fief of the king, although it never achieved the status of an independent city state. It's medieval Chester Mystery Plays are remarkable and what is now the Cathedral produced some notable writers.
However, Medieval Chester housed no industry of national importance and, as a west-facing port, was unable to participate in Continental trade to any significant extent. The city's economy was broadly based but its activities were small in scale and none, with the possible exception of Tanning dominated. Although Chester did not share the spectacular success enjoyed by towns more closely associated with the wool and cloth trades, it was spared the consequences of the dramatic slumps in those industries. Even so, for much of the period the city was far from prosperous, and occasionally, as in the 1450s, in considerable decay. The period was marked by much feuding between city factions. Chester's ships were small and the port was unfavorably located for trading with England's main markets overseas (except Ireland). Silting of the River Dee continued, and the increasingly bigger ships could not make it upriver to Chester and so the port continued it's long decline. In 1484 the citizens claimed that Chester had no merchant ship of its own and that the port was "wholly destroyed" because no merchant ship had been able to approach within 12 miles for 60 years. Only two years later (1486) the citizens claimed that the city was "thoroughly ruined .. nearly one quarter destroyed because access for shipping had been impossible for 200 years".
The end of the Middle Ages co-incides with several major social and economic events which were to have far-reaching consequences. The Americas were discovered and the use of gunpowder became wide-spread, changing the nature of war. Ships increased in size, draft and range. Vastly different cultures came into direct contact, enabling the rapid growth of empires and contributing to the re-emergence of significant slave economies. Movable type enabled the rapid production of books, pamphlets and other printed works which were eventually to contribute to the undermining of the power of the church and the Reformation. Chester had become important around the year 900 and had remained so, possibly reaching its peak under Edward I and maintaining some importance until the downfall of Richard II. Thereafter it's military and commercial importance on anything but a local scale began a long decline.
Exploring Medieval Chester
As elsewhere much of the surviving medieval architecture in Chester is either religious or military, with the notable exception of the somewhat altered Old Dee Bridge.
The best preserved relics of the period are found as parts of Chester Castle, the Cathedral and St Johns. The Rows are medieval in origin but much altered, although some medieval undercrofts survive. Initially the gallery level was most probably open, with the overhanging upper floors only being built out over the gallery in the later Tudor and Jacobean periods. Living quarters were on the gallery level. In the Middle Ages, this would have been a hall, open to the roof and heated by a central hearth with smoke rising to a vent in the roof.
Some details of the Medieval architecture can be found in Park's book, linked to below and downloadable for free. Chester's City Walls date in part from Roman Chester and in part from the time of Æthelflæd, although they have been much repaired over the centuries. The walls were being maintained in the medieval period. Menders of the walls were called muringers. The monies required for the upkeep of the walls was mainly by a series of "murages" granted by the Earls of Chester or the monarch. These were duties levied on certain types of merchandise (such as Irish linen, which was imported into Chester in large quantities) passing through the city gates. One example was granted on 5th March, 1407 in the reign of Henry IV:
- Letters Patent by Henry, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester, granting the expenditure of the Murage to be received for the next five years to be spent one half on the walls and one half on the completion of the tower on the Dee Bridge which was begun in the time of Richard II.
The grant of such support is also recorded in the Domesday book:
- Ad murum civitatis et pontem reaedificandum de unam quamque hida comitatus unum hominem venire praepositus edicebat: Cujus homo non veniebat dominius ejus xl. Solidis emendabat regi et comitem. (For the repair of the city wall and bridge, the reeve used to call out one man from each hide in the County. The lord of any man who did not come paid a fine of 40s to the king and earl.) - Omerod's transcription of Domesday.
The Kaleyards Gate was cut through the walls c. 1275 for the monks of St Werburgh's Abbey (now the Cathedral) to have direct access to their vegetable garden (the "kale-yard"), by permission of Edward I.
A tour of Medieval Chester
The map below identifies the medieval sites of interest in Chester. A good place to start is the interior of St Johns (St.JB) on the map, which is a surprising Norman survival given the later re-modelling of the shell of the building. St Johns is located next to the Roman Amphitheatre. Apart from these brief notes, further information is available by following the links in the text.
It is entirely unclear when St Johns became the original Cathedral at Chester and when it ceased to be a Cathedral. It was certainly the seat of a bishop from 1075 to 1102, but there is some suggestion that it was an episcopal see before this, and for years afterwards there are references to the "Bishop of Chester". The Church is quite well provided with explanatory signage, but the massive Norman pillars declare it to be a Medieval structure. St Johns contains a reasonably well preserved Medieval painting on one of the Norman columns. The ruins outside St Johns show the transition from round to pointed arches.
From St Johns enter Grosvenor Park and keep to the left-land path. This will eventually lead to Grosvenor Park Lodge (GPL) which is Victorian work and bears carved and painted wooden images of William the Conqueror and the Norman Earls of Chester. Heading south one reaches a statue followed by a rotunda, the path at the southern end of the park then leads to some examples pf medieval stone-work (JW) moved from elsewhere in the city. The firsst of which is the old shipgate, believed to date from the 13th century.
Just outside the parks is the Hermitage (AC) to which are attached legends of the survival of king Harold well into Norman times. The nearby Suspension Bridge (SB) carries the arms of the Norman Earls of Chester, although two are mixed-up and it is not entirely certain that the early earls would have had "coats of arms". Then a walk along the River Dee in part below the City Walls leads to the Old Dee Bridge (ODB) where the Normans built the weir to power the Dee Mills. Further still, Chester Castle is based upon a Norman motte. The Castle is rarely open to the public but the Medieval Agricola Tower (AT) - which has been much restored - can be seen from several vantage points. The Roodee is nearby and from the city walls the stump of what may have been a stone cross can be seen (RC). This may have been associated with the Benedictine convent of St Mary, as a boundary marker, but very little is known about its history. The Roodee takes its name from "Island of the Cross", but there are several possible explanations for that.
Excavations in 2007 revaled many artefacts from the medieval nunnery include a beautiful 14th century gold ring, ornate floor tiles and a decorated grave slab as well as 200 burials in the form of complete skeletons. The grave slab is on display as marked on the map (NG). The Grosvenor Museum contains little of Medieval interest on permanent display but sometimes includes artifacts from the period in temporary exhibits.
The Falcon, Number 6 Lower Bridge Street is the surviving half of a still more spectacular 13th Century town house which originally extended further down Lower Bridge Street. The timbers from the former east span of the roof, now reused in the cellar ceiling, date from c1180. The building was altered in the later Middle Ages, the 16thC, in 1626 and in the 19th and 20thC. The building is constructed in two storeys with a timber frame with plaster panels, including some wattle and daub, on a sandstone plinth. The front to Lower Bridge Street has an undercroft of coursed red sandstone, mostly now rendered; the storey above containing the now enclosed Row, has close studding with a wide eleven-light leaded windows having moulded oak beam and ovolo mullions and transoms. A flight of nine renewed steps to south from pavement to former Row give access to the bar. The section of the building facing Lower Bridge Street was once a section of Row, which extended further down the Street, but this was enclosed in 1643 (during the Civil War) following a successful petition to the assembly by Sir Richard Grosvenor. It was the first such enclosure of The Rows.
48-52 Bridge Street was a large medieval town house whose hall was in Nos 48 & 50 Bridge Street. Together, these formed the largest known Rows building. The earliest fabric is the "three old arches" facade (marked "1274AD"), which date stylistically to the thirteenth century. During the early or mid fourteenth century numbers 48-50 appear to have been combined with the property to the south to allow the construction of a major mansion with a hall that was parallel with the rows. This hall (12.4 by 8.88 meters) is the largest surviving on the Rows. The hall at row level (now a shop) is impressive, extends to row +1 level and has an east wall which contains four mediaeval doorways. A 1970's restoration of the east wall has not disguised the location of the screeen partition. The hall also contains a 16th century open fireplace with a 19th century cast iron range.
St Peter (St,P) at the High Cross is also much altered but contains some surviving Medieval wall painting. Soon after the Norman Conquest the church was given to Robert of Rhuddlan, who in 1086 unsuccessfully claimed that it stood on thegnland dependent on an extramural manor and was exempt from borough dues. Hemingway records:
- At the period of the conquest it bore its present name as appears from the following curious entry in Domesday of which a translation is also subjoined: "Terra in qua est templum sancti Petri quam Robertus de Rodeland clamabat at Teinland (sicut diracion comitatus) nunquam pertinuit ad manerium extra civitatem, sed ad burgum pertinet, et semper fuit in consuetu dine regis et comitis sicut aliorum burgensium" (the ground on which is the church of St Peter which Robert de Rodeland claims as Thaneland (as the court of the earl proves) never belonged to the manor without the city but it belongs to the borough and also was always subject to the payment of customary rent to the king and earl as (the land) of other burgesses).
Hemingway misses-out on the curious fact that this is one of the very few times that Domesday refers to a church as "Templum", implying that this should enjoy some higher status. By 1081 Robert of Rhuddlan had granted the church to the Norman abbey of Saint-Evroul (Orne), a gift confirmed in the 1120s by Ranulf de Meschines and King Henry I. Later in the 12th century the Normandy abbey transferred St Peter to St. Werburgh's, whose position was consolidated when Simon fitz Osbern of Pulford and South Ormsby (Lincs.) and the rector, Alexander, also surrendered their interests.
The High Cross is part medieval and part reconstruction. 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 1591 Crier. This was to warn people at the Bull Baiting which took place there:
- "Oyez, Oyez, Oyez. If any man stands within twenty yards of the bull ring let him take what comes"
The role of Crier was known to exist earlier as he took part in the "riding of the banns" announcing the forthcoming Chester Mystery Plays.
The Rows have been much altered since their medieval origins. Some medieval timbers and other structure remains but most of the earlier remains date to Tudor Chester and much of what looks "Medieval" is Victorian or later. There are however some surviving Medieval undercrofts and two of these can be seen on the next part of the tour which continues down Watergate Street. Parts of the undercroft at Leche House date to the 14th Century. Just along Watergate Street Number 11 has what is undoubtedly the best publicly accessible stone undercroft in Chester, with four bays of quadripartite vaulting divided by an arcade of three octagonal piers. It is well worth a visit and is presently a bar - "The Watergates Bar". At the front, the undercroft show encroachment onto the street of some 2.5m. While the central row of three octagonal pillars are said to show 15thC. mouldings, the projecting "bell" indicates a date of 1250-1290, indicating that tne vault was rebuilt at some time in the 15thC, but using original materials.
Watergate Street eventually leads to the Watergate. One the way, one passes Stanley Palace which has the appearance of a medieval building but was actually built in 1591 on or near the site of the friary of the Blackfriars and so dates from Tudor Chester. The house is sometimes asociated with the same Stanley family who took part in the Battle of Bosworth and the downfall of Richard III, but they are a different branch of the same family. A littlle further along is the Watergate. Early maps show that the river came close to the Watergate, as shown on the map of Braun and Hogenberg from 1581. The river now flows some distance to the west. The gradual silting of the River Dee was a major factor in the decline of Chester after the Medieval period, the end of which also began to see an increase in the size of ships.
A walk along the walls from the Watergate leads to the the Watertower, located at the north-western corner of the walls and dating from between 1323 and 1325. The Water Tower and spur wall from Bonewaldesthorne's Tower were built at a cost of £100 to protect the harbour. The architect was John (de) Helpston who had also designed castles for King Edward II in North Wales. At the time it was known as the New Tower. The Braun and Hogenberg map (1581) clearly shows that at the time the Tower actually stood in the River Dee (at high tide), but the river now flows some distance away. The large rock near the tower may be the Gloverstone, moved from its original position in what is now Castle Street.
Just who the tower was intended to defend against is not entirely clear, although it is possible to speculate given the events of the time around when it was constructed. The Despenser War (1321–22) was a baronial revolt against Edward II of England led by the Marcher Lords Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun. The rebellion was fuelled by opposition to Hugh Despenser the Younger, the royal favourite. After the rebels' summer campaign of 1321, Edward was able to take advantage of a temporary peace to rally more support and a successful winter campaign in southern Wales, culminating in royal victory at the Battle of Boroughbridge near York in March 1322. Edward's response to victory was his increasingly harsh rule until his fall from power in 1326. Edward II had granted Chester Castle to Hugh Dispenser in 1322 and it may not be co-incidence that work to defend the harbour, and hence the castle, started the following year, especially as Dispenser had spent some time as a pirate: "a sea monster, lying in wait for merchants as they crossed the sea". If the Watertower was built to protect Dispenser it did not help him, after the abdication of Edward II he was sentenced to death, with Isabella (Edward's wife), Mortimer and their followers presiding over his protracted execution, which involved (according to Jean Froissart) being dragged naked through the streets, having biblical verses written on his skin, being hung until almost dead, then castrated and having his genitals burned while he watched, then having his entrails slowly drawn out and finally his heart cut out. Despenser's body then was beheaded and cut into four pieces to be displayed above the gates of Newcastle, York, Dover and Bristol.
From the Watertower the tour continues along the city walls towards the Northgate, but a diversion down the steps allows a closer inspection of the Watertower and its arch. St John's Hospital (St) at the Northgate was founded in Medieval times but the original buildings did not survive the Civil War, and what is to be seen today dates from Georgian Chester. The walk continues on to the Phoenix Tower (PT), where on a clear day Beeston Castle is visible in the distance. From here it is possible to continue along the walls to the Kaleyard Gate (KG) and from there up Abbey Street to Abbey Square and the Abbey gateway. At the gateway look up to see the Medieval corbels.
The Town Hall, across the square and next to the tourist information office, has some medieval history depicted in the bas-reliefs decorating the porch and the interior of the building. The Medieval scenes include "Hugh Lupus Created Earl of Chester", "A group of minstrels marching to the aid of Ranulf de Blondeville", "Black Prince granting charter to citizens", "Charter Granted To Mayor And Corporation By Ranulph The Third In AD 1181", and "Edward Prince of Wales Receiving Homage: First Royal Earl Of Chester AD 1254". The relief carvings contain several historical errors, the biggest being those in the last mentioned. The stained glass on the staircase and depicting the earls is referenced in the text above.
The Cathedral has an "audio tour" for which headsets can be hired at the desk just inside the entrance. Thre are also specialist tours including one which includes a stiff climb through the belfry to the very top of the tower and which has spectacular views on a clear day. To see the medieval features start in the North Transept, where the massive round-arched Norman (Romanesque) architecture is best seen. The North Transept is a remnant of the early structure of the abbey church. The triforium (a gallery) above the arch was once just below the roof, with the clerestory ("clear storey" - with the windows) having been added later. Head through the Norman doorway to the west into the cloister and proceed round it clockwise. The wall opposite the windows is again Norman but may re-use some Anglo-Saxon columns from the pre-abbey buildings. From the west side of the cloister it is possible to access the undercroft which shows the massive early design of Norman vaulting and now contains the cathedral bookshop, but was originally a store for supplies. Continuing around the cloister clockwise one passes the entry to the refectory which has a pulpit built into the wall and a reproduction hammer-beam roof - it is now used as the catheral cafe. Return to the cloister and continue clockwise. The stained glass in the cloister is mostly Victorian. Many of the arches in the cloister are pointed, which is a characteristic of "Gothic" architecture. The vestibule of the Chapter House has a stunning example of Gothic columns. These are much more slender than the columns which supported the undercroft roof, and were the latest building technology in their time (1230-1265). From here, exit via the passage into the main church (passing the Norman arch again} and head east to the Lady Chapel. Here is the shrine of Werburgh and, in the ceiling, a bmuch-restored boss illustrating the death of Thomas Becket. This part of the building dates from 1265-90, and the vault of this chapel is the only part of the roof which is actually stone. From the Lady Chapel it is possible to look down the length of the Cathderal roof and note that in some places it is slightly out of line. The choir was built between 1283 and 1315, although the vaulting in the roof is Victorian restoration. The much enlarged South Transept was once a mirror-image of the North Transept, but was enlarged after 1323. The gothic style has continued to evolve into the "decoratared" style, with windows getting larger and having more complex stonework. Work on the nave was begun about 1323, but there was a hiatus due to plague and social unrest, and possibly a degree of mismanagement by the abbots. Despite this the choir stalls date from about 1380. They have high, spiky, closely set canopies, with crocketed arches and spirelets. Work on the structure restarted about 1485, and although this was in the Tudor period the medieval style was used to maintain cohesion.
The ouside of the Cathedral retains roughly its medieval shape, but most of the decoration was added during Victorian "restoration". Early drawings of the Cathedral from before these changes show an absence of much of the ornamenation which was added after about 1850 to what was until then a largely unchanged Medieval building. As the roof of the Cathedral is mostly wooden it did not require any "flying buttress" structures and pinnacles to provide vertical-load support.
Chester's architecture contains many other references to its medieval history, both in the form of "coats of arms" and some figures of the Norman earls. None of these date from the medieval period.
Sources and Links
- Harold's family: before and after the Norman Invasion;
- Earls of Chester: William I created the "Honor of Chester" from the landed estates of dozens of pre-Conquest owners. This concentration of ownership within a single county was unique in Domesday's time and the only other lords which came close were Roger of Montgomery (Shropshire) and Williams half-brother Robert of Mortain (Cornwall);
- Suspension Bridge: The 1923 bridge is adorned with the arms of the Earls, one slight problem being that there is a disagreement between the arms allocated on the bridge and those given elsewhere with two coats being interchanged and one wrong as well;
- Chester Castle: one of the few castles in England or Wales that has been in constant use since first erected;
- Cheshire Castles: Norman castles were built on dry ground which generally lay on the English side of the border partly defined by the River Dee;
- Beeston Castle: de Blondevilles fortress - built more against England than Wales
- Old Dee Bridge: the present bridge dates from 1357;
- Dee Mills: built by the Normans;
- Courts: one peculiar characteristic of Chester was its largely independent courts system;
- St Johns: contains the best and most coherent Norman architecture in Chester;
- Cathedral: also has some Norman work;
- Royal Treasure: Richard II kept much of his wealth near Chester;
- Lucian the Monk: described Medieval Chester;
- Polychronicon: a Medieval history of everything, written in Chester;
- Chester Mystery Plays: A Medieval relic, banned in Tudor times, but then reenacted;
- Pandemic: Plague in Chester, Medieval and otherwise;
- Flintshire: how the borders of "English" control varied over time;
There is a comparative shortage of images of people involved with Medieval Chester. Further information of each of those depicted below can be found by following the links beneath each image:
Harold see: Hermitage (c1022-1066(?))
Gherbod the Fleming (c1035-1101(?))
Hugh of Avranches (c1047-1101)
Richard of Avranches (c1094-1120)
Ranulf de Meschines (c1074-1129)
Ranulph De Gernon (c1100-1153)
Hugh de Kevelioc (c1147-1181)
Ranulf de Blondeville (c1172-1232)
John Canmore (c1207-1237)
Edward I (17/18 June 1239 – 7 July 1307)
Edward II] (1284-1327(?))
Richard II] (1367-c1400)
William Stanley] (1435-c1495)
Henry VII] (1457-1509)
- General History Index;
- Medieval Chester;
- The Black Death in England and Wales, as exhibited in Manorial Documents: see appendix IV for Cheshire and Flint;
- The Death of a Traitor: are these the bones of Hugh Despenser the Younger?
- Guide to Medieval Chester;