St Martin

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The Lavaux Map shows the location of St Martin.

The church existed by the late 12th century, when St. Martin was described by Lucian the Monk as one of the 'guardians' of Chester Seacome (writing in 1828) describes it as follows:

  • "Formerly called St Martin's of the Ash stands at the west end of White Friars and Cuppings Lane. It appears to have been an ancient foundation for it is mentioned in a deed in the year 1250 wherein Bernard de Trannuille releases to Philip le Clerk a rent of 12d arising from premises situate "near the church of St Martin in Chester". The old church mentioned in this deed having fallen into decay was rebuilt in 1721 as we learn from an inscription on the front of the steeple. It is a remarkably small but very neat structure pointed with stone at the angles and finishings. The interior is handsomely fitted up and is capable of accommodating about 250 sitters. The open ground in front of this church bears the name of "Martin's Ash" derived in all liklihood from the circumstance of an ash tree having formerly stood on the spot."

Seacome may not be aware of the connection between St Martin and the mountain ash tree (Sorbus aucuparia): to keep animals healthy it was customary to cut a branch from a mountain ash on St Martin's day. In English folklore, twigs of S. aucuparia were believed to ward off evil spirits and witches. The plant was called "the witch" in England and dowsing rods to find ores were made out of its wood. Twigs of S. aucuparia the so-called "St Martin's Rod" were used to drive cattle to the pasture for the first time in spring to ensure their health and fertility. The wooden shafts of forks and other farm implements were constructed from S. aucuparia, to protect farm animals and production from witches' spells. In weather lore, a year with plentiful rowan fruit would have a good grain harvest but be followed by a severe winter.

Hemingway tells us that the inscription mentioned by Seacome read: "This church being ruinated, was new erected from the foundation, in the year 1721 - Charles Bingley, William Terry, C.W." and writes of it:

  • "St Martin's is a rectory in the gift of the Bishop. In 1774 it was augmented by lands purchased with £400 of which £200 came by Queen Anne's bounty. In 1809 the yearly value of the living arising from augmentation tithes rent charge and surplice fees was returned by the Bishop to the governor's of Queen Anne's bounty as amounting to £76/18s. The foundation, says Mr Ormerod, was certainly anterior to 1250 as appears from a deed of the evidences of the Earl of Shrewsbury whereby Bernard Lord Trunmalle releases to Philip the Clerk son of Galfridus Munitor 12d rent issuing from premises near church of St Martin, in Chester, Allan le Zouche being then justice of Chester. William Clark instituted to this rectory July 7, 1637 on the presentation of the Bishop of Chester. This is the first institution extant in the episcopal registers."

There is a possible reference to a relic in the story "Wallingford Castle" which was printed in the Metropolitan Magazine (see volume III, January June 1837 page 410) where the suggestion is made that the relic was carried by Harold at the battle of Senlac Hill:

The Church of St Martin before demolition.
  • "By the spear of St Michael my lady empress said the Earl of Chester looking fearfully round as the old man suddenly disappeared that piece of the true cross is a relic of marvellous power St Mary twas well ye had it around your neck when ye rode that black steed and journeyed thither for see ye not that the sight of that holy reliquary alone hath forced that old sorcerer to flee away O marvellous is the efficacy of the holy cross ... I will send to the abbey at Chester for the finger of St Martin that may secure me in some measure but saints know I would right gladly pay two score pounds of pure silver for a sliver of the true cross."

Famous holy fingers were quite common - Santa Croce in Gerusalemme in Piazza di Santa Croce (Rome) has the finger of "Doubting Thomas", and St Patrick's finger (and most of his arm) was once held by the Chester monks who were at Downpatrick (in 1177). The Earl of Chester mentioned in the story would be the serial turn-coat Ranulph De Gernon (1128-1153). As Lucian the Monk mentions St Martin (c. 1195-1200) it is possible that there was indeed a supposed relic in Chester and given the dates plenty of room for confusion as to just when. While the "Wallingford" story only dates from Victorian times it appears the author is familiar with local Chester legends. Just which St Martin the Church was associated with isn't clear although Martin of Tours seems most likely. Martin also turns up in local legends as meeting with Elen of the Hosts (at least according to Geoffrey of Monmouth). Martin’s reputation as a thaumaturge or miracle worker and exorcist was so established during his lifetime that despite having died a natural death in 397, he was declared a saint, a status until then, uniquely reserved for martyrs. His relics were thought to have immense power in the middle-ages. November 11th, or Martinmas Day, was originally the Roman Vinalia, or Feast of Bacchus, amongst the Romans. When, therefore, the Christian Church merged Bacchus into St. Martin, those who were employed in the vineyards came to look upon the saint as their patron; while drunkards or alcoholics were recommended to invoke him. The folk-lore consequences are depicted in the "The Wine of Saint Martin's Day" by Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

On 27 April 1842 the district was united with that of Chester: St Bridget to form the combined district of "St. Bridget with St. Martin", which in January 1973 itself became part of a unified district for the city of Chester. St. Martin's closed in 1963 and was demolished to make way for the Inner Ring Road around 1969 - a nearby part of which is known as "St Martin's Way".

The church of St. Martin, which was situated near the south-west corner of the legionary fortress, was by the 17th century a small, two-celled building with a bellcote. In the early 17th century there was a structure over the porch similar to the rectory houses of other Chester churches. It had fallen into ruin by c. 1720, and in 1721 was replaced with a small, aisleless building of brick with stone dressings, with a tower but no chancel. Repaired c. 1820 and again in 1869, it was enlarged in 1882 and demolished to make way for the inner ringroad after its sale to the city council in 1964. Its pre-Reformation font was transferred to St. Bridget's in 1861 and to St Mary on the Hill in 1892.