St Giles Cemetery
Few passers-by appreciate the grim history of what was once the village of Spital St Giles or Spital Boughton. Over the years, this small patch of land has been visited by each of death, war and pestilence (for famine, see below).
The Cemetery at the Crossroads
St Giles Cemetery is found at Boughton, just where the road towards Tarvin splits into two around a John Douglas half-timbered building (which was originally the Post Office). Douglas also designed the nearby St Paul's Church. This ancient crossroads has been said to be the meeting place of two Roman roads, the Tarvin Road (A51) and the Whitchurch Road (A41). Tarvin road is definitely Roman, but there is some doubt about the Whitchurch (Mediolanum) Road - although cropmarks from Huntington, through Saighton towards Hatton probably show the line of a minor Roman road branching off the Dee valley route. Sandy Lane provides access to the south and possibly some branch of Hoole Lane or Church/Whealstone/Newton Lane also ended hereabouts. So it is a cemetery by a 'crossroads' of sorts, often said to be a place of ill-omen.
The cemetery is the grass mound surrounded by a wall and is obviously very full. There are only a few gravestones. At the western end of the cemetery is a drinking fountain (one wonders where the water comes from! - although the springs hereabouts have supplied Chester with water since Roman times) erected by a Ms Humble of Christleton in 1872. Alternate sides of hexagon fountain have drinking spouts and inscribed panels:
- "PRESENTED TO THE CITY OF CHESTER BY MISS HUMBLE OF VICARS CROSS IN MEMORY OF THE LATE ED. HUMBLE AND THE... WHO RESIDED HERE : AND THEY BROUGHT TO HIM ALSO INFANTS THAT HE WOULD TOUCH THEM BUT WHEN THE DISCIPLES SAW IT THEY REBUKED THEM, BUT JESUS CALLED THEM UNTO HIM AND SAID SUFFER LITTLE CHILDREN... WHOSOEVER DRINKETH OF THIS WATER SHALL THIRST BUT WHOSOEVER DRINKETH OF THE WATER THAT GIVETH LIFE SHALL NEVER... BUT THE WATER THAT I SHALL GIVE HIM... LIFE".
Above the fountains, which have semicircular basins of polished granite, is inscribed "BE PITIFUL BE COURTEOUS : LOVE AS BRETHREN : BE YE OF ONE MIND".
Like most Roman settlements, Roman Chester had a large legionary bath complex for the soldiers to wash and to use for leisure time (the remains of which are in Bridge Street). It has been estimated that the baths used between 500,000 and 750,000 litres of water a day, which was supplied from the springs in Boughton. Water was piped in large lead pipes underground from a branch off the main aqueduct near the Eastgate, downhill to the baths on Bridge Street. The water was then held in large tanks with concrete foundations, and then fed through the complex. Waste water would have been fed downhill using gravity to the river.
The inscription on a stone slab marking the cemetery reads:
- "Here stood the Leper hospital and chapel of St Giles founded early in the 12th Century and endowed by successive Norman earls of Chester they remained in constant use until 1643 when defensive measures during the siege of Chester necessitated the demolition of buildings outside the city walls. The cemetery remained to mark the site and in time the little village of Spital clustered round it. In 1644 the royalist defenders suffered great loss of life in a gallant sortie in Boughton and many of the fallen were buried here. It was also used for victims of the plagues which ravaged the city in the 16th and 17th centuries. Being extra-parochial the site was granted to the corporation by Charles II in 1685 as a burial ground and through a period in the charge of St John's parish it remains in their hands. When the protestant martyr George Marsh was burnt at the stake on Gallows Hill close by his ashes were collected by his friends and buried here.The last burial took place in 1854."
Pestilence - St Giles Hospital
A leper hospital dedicated to St. Giles (patron saint of the lame) was located nearby. It is sometimes confused with Boughton chapel which belonged to the convent of St. Werburgh's and stood in the fork of the Tarvin and Christleton Roads. The hospital is said to have been founded by Ranulf de Blondeville, earl of Chester but the hospital possibly existed before 1181 as 20 shillings. a year was paid to the 'infirm' of Chester during the minority of Ranulph and that sum was paid in the 14th century to the lepers of Boughton as "ancient alms". Ranulph gave an annual rent charge of 10s. to St. Werburgh's from which the monks were to feed 100 paupers once a year and to give 20d. a year to the lepers of Boughton to commemorate his father Hugh de Kevelioc.
The inmates of the hospital enjoyed extensive privileges, which included a toll on all food bought for sale in Chester and a fishing boat on the Dee. The hospital also came to possess land and rents in and near Chester - some came to the hospital with new inmates: land in Eastgate Street was given by the relatives of Yseult, who, 'smitten by the scourge of a visitation from on high', had been admitted to the hospital. When Henry III annexed the earldom of Chester after 1237 he proved a generous patron of the hospital. Between 1237 and 1240 he gave £5 yearly and in 1238-9 and 1240 additional grants of 10 marks towards its maintenance. The relations of the hospital with the citizens of Chester and the monks of St. Werburgh's were not always happy. Around 1300 the masters were involved in legal disputes concerning detention of rents, tolls or alms, the Dee fishery, and usury. The privilege of collecting the tolls was still being claimed in 1499 and exercised in 1537 when the city authorities pointed out that, whereas the privilege had originally been granted to relieve the sick, the inmates of the hospital were able-bodied; it was ordered that admissions should be confined to the sick of the city of Chester on penalty of loss of the market tolls. Also in 1537 the inmates were forbidden to wash food or clothes in the newly built conduit at Boughton (which transported water from the Boughton springs to the town and abbey) and were ordered to prevent their animals damaging the conduit and to see that the pipes were properly covered.
By the time of Joeseph Hemingway, writing in the 1830's there appears to have been some sort of "asylum" hereabouts for single women who had become pregnant. Hemmingway shows that while some prejudices had been recognised by the 1830's others had not:
- "On this spot, George March, an early reformer, suffered martyrdom, an unfortunate victim of the diabolical bigotry of the infamous Queen Mary, for conscientious scruples. Opposite the Spittal is that humane institution, the Penitentiary for unfortunate females."
The hospital of St. Giles did not survive the Civil War. During the seige of Chester the defending Royalist forces destroyed almost everything outside of the City Walls which could give shelter to the besieging Parliamentary forces. In July 1643 the Chester garrison set fire to the hospital barns and demolished "the old chapel of Spital Boughton with the stone barn next to it". The displaced inmates complained to the then mayor that while they were helping to defend the besieged city, the soldiers destroyed their houses and plundered their possessions.
War - The Civil War
As noted on the inscription, a sortie of the Royalists took place here. Boughton turnpike was captured by Michael Jones in 1645 as part of the larger engagement that culminated at Rowton Heath - note that the inscription refers to 1644. The Royalists counter-attacked, but is perhaps better described as a suicidal charge. The dead added to the crowding in St Giles cemetery. Pestilence, in the form of a fatal fever, caught up with Jones at the Siege of Waterford in December 1649.
On an even more macabre note, local legend has it that one of the earls of Chester (Hugh de Kevelioc) cobbled the road here with the "sculls of defeated Welshmen". The Chester Annals for the year 1169 record:
- "Hic natus Ranulphus III. filius Hugonis comes Cestrie. In hoc etiam anno interfecit Hugo comes Cestrie magnam multitudinem Walensium juxta pontem de Baldert de quorum capitibus factum unum de aggeribus apud Hospitalem infirmorum extra Cestriam" (This year Randle III., son of Hugh, earl of Chester, was born. In this year also Hugh, earl of Chester, slew a great multitude of Welshmen, near the bridge of Baldert, of whose heads one of the mounds at the hospital for the sick outside Chester is formed.)
Famine - Antique Shops
The area used to have many junk and antique shops and, while there are fewer today, it is still worth visiting. It seems that 'famine' has also now arrived in Spital St Giles, as these are slowly closing. One of the best, now sadly gone, was a rambling shambles with an upstairs room filled with Grandfather Clocks - all running and very spooky.
Death - Gallows Hill
Nearby (about 75m towards Chester), at what is now Barrel Well Hill and was once Gallows Hill, stands the obelisk to George Marsh, an outspoken puritan preacher, from Bolton, who was burned at the stake (24 April 1555) on the north side of the road, after being questioned by the Bishop of Chester. The gallows which once stood here is shown in both the Lavaux Map (1745) and earlier maps of Chester going back to that of Braun and Hogenberg (1581).
- "The two end houses adjoining the gate stand on the site of an old edifice, called the prison-house. On pulling down the latter, about five years ago, a narrow cell was discovered on the first floor, from which all light was excluded, in which, it is said, that martyr to popish cruelty, George Marsh, was immured, previous to his execution at Boughton."
To be fair to Bishop George Choates (Coates), he did give Marsh plenty of opportunity to recant, but evidently Marsh was quite an obstinate fellow - a Bolton legend has it that a mark on the stone floor of Smithills Hall is a "footprint" left by Marsh stamping his foot - so off to the pyre he went. The Green Room at Smithills where Marsh was questioned is considered to be the most haunted room in Smithills and the footprint is alleged to "run with blood" on the anniversary of Marsh’s death! A woodcut of Marsh's execution shows how the thoughtful inhabitants of Chester (the city can be seen in the background) had arranged a barrel of pitch/tar above his head so as to hasten his end (which didn't work too well). Despite being offered a last-minute opportunity to recant (by the fellow on the horse), a stubborn Marsh is uttering the words "not upon that condition" while the faggots are being lit. A resuce attempt by Sherrif Cowper failed. The rest of the execution was something of a trial for Marsh, as there was a shortage of wood and the rather exposed fire kept blowing away from him or burning down as more wood was sought.
Bishop Choates did not long survive Marsh. After Marsh's execution, Choates preached a sermon denouncing Marsh as a heretic. He was subsequently stricken with a fatal venereal disease, seen as divine retribution. It is recorded in Foxes Book of Martyrs that:
- "within short time after the just judgment of God appeared upon the said Bishop, who through his wicked and adulterous behaviour was (most shamefully it is to be spoken) burned with a harlot and died thereof"
Marsh wasn't the only person slain here. John Plessington was hung, drawn and quartered (or drawn, hung and quartered) in 1679. He was canonised on 25 October 1970 by Pope Paul VI as pne for the "40 martyrs". In 1970, the Vatican selected 40 martyrs, men and women, lay and religious, to represent the full group of perhaps 300 known to have died for their faith and allegiance to the Church between 1535 and 1679. They each have their own day of memorial, but are remembered as a group on 25 October. The "press" of the time ascribe various forms of divine retribution on those who were the witnesses against him:
- "Pleasington appears to have been an inoffensive person, and to have lived on kindly terms with most of those with whom he came in contact, until the dreadful storm of the Popish Plot broke over the country, in 1678. When this '* hellish and damnable conspiracy, as the hysterical House of Commons called it, was proclaimed, which existed solely in the disordered and malignant imaginations of Titus Oates and his creatures, the feeling in the country ran so high that no priest's life was safe. There can be little doubt that the secret chamber in the chimney stack at Puddington, to which reference has just been made, was frequently in use at this time. Pleasington, about this period, incurred the anger of some neighbours by opposing a marriage between one of his flock and a Protestant gentleman, with the result that information was laid against him as a Romish priest. He was seized at Puddington in the following spring, carried to Chester, tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death. He was kept in Chester Castle for nine weeks, and on the 19th July, 1679, drawn on a hurdle to the place of execution outside the city, and after a pathetic speech met his end with courage. Of the three witnesses who gave evidence against him, one was crushed to death by an accident a few days before the execution ; another, we are told, died in a pigsty ; while the third lingered away in a state of misery and anguish." (TRANSACTIONS OF THE HISTORIC SOCIETY OF LANCASHIRE AND CHESHIRE VOL. LIII)
The mid-17th Century bore witness to the infamous “European Witch Craze“, a period of frenzied witchcraft accusations, prosecutions and executions, which are thought to have claimed the lives of up to one hundred thousand men, women and children across the continent. At least three "witches" were hung at Boughton (a fourth is said to have fled to Wrexham). Those hanged (15th October 1656) were:
- Ellen Beach who "did exercise and practice the Invocation and conjuration of evil and wicked spirits, and consulted and covenanted with, entertayned, imployed, ffed and rewarded certayn evill and wicked spirits",
- Anne Osboston having "on the 20th November exercised certayn artes and Incantations on Barbara Pott, late wife of John Pott, of Ranowe, from the effects whereof she died on the 20th of January then next following", and, lastly,
- Anne Thornton who did "wickedly, divillishly and feloniously devise, excercise and practiuce certaiyne divellish and wicked acts".
In 1898, Michael Goble, a local historian, began investigating and researching the story of the Boughton witches. He is reputed to have claimed that during the course of his research he was visited by the spirits of three demented women, who threatened to bring forth the devil should the historian not pledge to abandon his investigation immediately. Undaunted, Michael Goble continued to pursue his project, but never saw it finished. He died in 1902, - whilst visiting Gallows Hill.
Drowning and Hanging
Gallows Hill, as its name suggests, was the Tyburn of Chester and the exact location may well be the small park near the house "Edgeley". A wealth of gory detail can be found in Roy Wilding's book 'Death in Chester'. The following tale about the gallows is found in Joseph Hemingway's History of the City of Chester - written in 1831:
- "About the centre of this elegant group of buildings, thirty years ago, stood that memento mori to the passing traveller, vulgarly called the gallows, where many of our unfortunate fellow creatures have forfeited their lives to the violated laws of their country. A short time prior to this period, this terrific engine of death had its station exactly on the opposite side of the road, which, on account of its elevated situation, received the appellation of Gallows Hill, which, hy a precipitate descent, and without an inclosure, went down to the Dee. There is an incident connected with this place of execution worthy of recording. In May, 1801, as three malefactors, convicted of burglary at the spring assizes, were conveying to execution in a cart, one of them, named Clare, when opposite the gallows, and just when the vehicle was turning, gave a sudden spring, and threw himself upon the top of the precipice descending to the river, and jumped, rolled, and tumbled along till he was precipitated into it. The weight of his irons sunk him to the bottom, and before he could be brought up, life was entirely extinct. Although the unfortunate fellow thus evaded the letter of his sentence, in escaping being hanged by the neck till he was dead, yet the finisher of the law was unwilling to forego his official duty, and the dead body of the criminal was tied up after his breath had departed. The most afflictive part of the tragedy was, that the two poor men who were in a like condemnation, were kept in a state of awful suspense until the dead carcase of the drowned man was tied up beside them."
The Museum of Policing in Cheshire records that on May 9th 1801 "Thompson, Morgan and Clare" were indeed executed for burglary. However "Infamous Cheshire" records that while Thompson and Morgan were unpopular forgers who had "cheated and ruined the lives of a number of local people", John Clare had some sympathy because he had committed a relatively minor crime. At his trial, John Clare had shouted that "he would never hang" - technically he did hang, although he drowned first.
"Thompson, Morgan and Clare" was the last public execution at Gallows Hill. After 1801, condemned men (and women) were sent to Northgate Gaol for execution, and later, to the City Gaol. In 1868 public execution was abolished in the UK. In 1866, the County Gaol moved to Knutsford and further executions occurred there until 1912. When Knutsford was commandeered by the military in 1914, condemned criminals were sent to Walton (Liverpool) or Strangeways (Manchester) for execution. The death penalty was finally, effectively abolished on 9th November 1964.
- British History Online;
- Drinking Fountain Listed Building Status;
- Spital Boughton's Litany of Death and Martyrdom on A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester;
- Chestertourist's History of Boughton;
- Around Chester;
- Public Executions In Chester From 16th Century as listed by the Museum of Policing in Cheshire;