St Mary on the Hill

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This structure is on the Millennium festival trail.

The church appears to have been commissioned around 1350 to serve the needs of the garrison and staff at Chester Castle, although there may have been an earlier Norman church on the site as there are references to it being granted to the abbey by Ranulph De Gernon, Earl of Chester 1128-53 (Harl MSS 1965.23). The list of known Vicar or Rectors starts in 1314.

Chester abbey retained the advowson (the right to choose the incumbent) throughout the Middle Ages. In 1354 the abbey was licensed to appropriate the living (the income from tithes), but the move seems to have been opposed by the bishop (at this time, Roger Northburgh, at Lichfield) and incumbents continued to be styled rector. In 1396 the licence of 1354 was renewed and briefly implemented, the rectory of St. Mary's being united with that of St Olave's and served by a vicar and perpetual chaplain. The appropriation of the living by the Abbey was quashed in 1402.

Before the Reformation St. Mary's was a moderately wealthy church and possessed notable images of St. Stephen and the Virgin, together with an abundance of vestments, ornaments, and sacred vessels. At the Reformation the value of the copes and other paraphenalia fetched £10, 18s and 6d: more than that obtained from any other church in Chester, not excepting the Cathedral. It was also the starting point for the most important event in the annual round of civic ceremonial, the Corpus Christi procession (see Chester Mystery Plays). This involved the civic dignatories and other members of the city guilds (freemen) in a strict order of precidence as well as representatives of the church.

The part of the parish of St Mary inside the walls was one of the largest intramural parts of a parish in c.1500, but outside there were also extensive detached parts. These comprising in the south Handbridge and the townships of Claverton and Marlston cum Lache, and in the north Upton by Chester and Little Mollington. Within the walls the parish included the separate township of Gloverstone. In 1599 the parishioners successfully claimed that Moston township and half of Chorlton were in their parish and not Backford. Eventually, like many ancient parishes, the size was cut down. Marlston cum Lache was included within the new parish of Lache cum Saltney in 1855, and Upton became a separate parish in 1882. In 1887 St. Mary's acquired Earl's Eye and lost the intramural areas north of the river, which were assigned to St Michael's with St Olave's, and St Bridget's with St Martin's. Little Mollington and Moston were transferred to other parishes in the early 20th century. The township of Claverton vanished.

A painting of Napier House, the Agricola Tower, the Prison and St Mary on the Hill from Louise Rayner.

It ceased to be a working church in 1972 and is now an education and exhibition venue but apparently formally remains consecrated despite some sources describing it as "decommissioned". Conferences and concerts are held there on a frequent basis.

The south east chapel dates from around 1443 and was owned by the Earl of Shrewsbury, while the nave arcades, and clerestory date from around 1500. After the dissolution the church was seized from the dean and chapter by Sir Richard Cotton, who sold it to the Brereton family. Thence the patronage passed through the Wilbrahams and Hills to the Westminster (Grosvenor} family. It was badly damaged in the Civil War, suffering a major collapse in 1661 and having a subsequent rebuild in 1693. During the Jacobite uprising of 1745 the upper portion of the tower was removed, most likely to prevent it being used as a possible sniper position should Chester Castle be attacked. James Harrison remodeled much of the church in 1861-62, and it was further altered by John Pollard Seddon in 1890-92. During this later renovation the north porch was rebuilt in memory of Randle Holme III. The Reverend William Henry Massie a long-term incumbent who died in 1856, was a founder member of the Chester Archaeological Society. During his time at the church he restored and cleaned-up what had become a somewhat decrepit and dusty building.

The spectacular internal roof is supposed to have come originally from Basingwerk Abbey, (Flint) after its dissolution in 1535, for in the churchwardens’ accounts under the date 1536, it is noted that:

  • "the quere was boght at basewerk and sette uppe with all costs and charges belongynge to the same."

The roof at St Mary’s Church, Cilcain is said to come from the same source. The Abbey, in its Church and other buildings, would have several roofs or ceilings suitable for removal to other Churches, so that the two statements are not necessarily contradictory. The Chester roof was not specially constructed for its present position, and was evidently once used for a longer building, as is shown by the fact that the principal beams at the east and the west are elaborately carved on the inner surface adjacent the chancel and tower arches, where they are hardly visible, if visible at all. The camber-beam roof is of 40 panels per bay with some 120 bosses, gilt and painted 1970s. The aisles have rebuilt camber-beam roofs.

St Mary on the hill's tower and porch in 1641 as drawn by Randle Holme.

Seacome (writing in 1828) describes it as follows:

  • "Anciently called Ecclesia Sanctae Maria de Castello and Ecclesia Sanctre Maria super Montem but now St Mary's on the Hill stands at the upper end of Castle street at the extreme verge of the liberties of the city being only separated from the county by the Castle ditch which forms the boundary of the churchyard. Although the precise date of the foundation of this church cannot now be ascertained, yet it is not improbable that it was one of those founded early in the 12th century by Lucy sister of Edwin Earl of Mercia and widow of Randle de Meschines Earl of Chester a lady remarkable as a benefactress to the "holy church" even in that church erecting and endowing age. At all events St Mary's was gifted to the Abbey of St Werburgh by Randle Gernons Earl of Chester son of the above named lady in one of those fits of compunction which usually followed the acts of violence into which his turbulence and ambition frequently led him. Shortly after the dissolution the Dean and Chapter of St Werburgh obtained a grant from the Crown of the Rectory of St Mary's which was surrendered by Dean Cliffs in 1550 to Sir R Cotton in the manner described in a former part of this work, by whose agent it was sold for £100 to John Brereton Esq of Wettenhall, by whose heirs it was again sold to the Wilbrahams of Dorfold, from whom it passed by marriage to the Hills of Hough in Wybunbury, from whom it was purchased by Earl Grosvenor the present patron "

It is somewhat odd that Seacone refers to Ecclesia Sanctae Maria de Castello as this is also the name used for the chapel of "St Mary de Castro" in the Agricola Tower at Chester Castle which may date back to the time of Henry III in the mid 13th century. Seacome, like many early "guidebook" writers does not always cite his sources, but seems like Ormerod on Ranulf I to have taken his information from Sir Peter Leycester who engaged in a long and complex dispute over the descent of the Earls and especially whether the Mainwarings were descended from them via Amicia. As far as can be seen Leycester does not mention the founding of St Mary at all. The fact that St Mary needs an addition to its name also arises from the fact that the Whitefriars of Chester also had a church dedicated to St Mary, and this latter church, before it was taken down in 1580, had a prominent steeple that was used as a navigational marker by mariners.

Who was Lucy?

Lucy is indeed remarkable but was not the sister of Edwin the Earl of Mercia. Ranulf de Meschines married (before 1099 when Ranulph De Gernon was born) the very wealthy woman referred to as "Countess Lucy", (1074-1138), and she is now believed to have been the grand-daughter maternally of William Malet, lord of Graville and a companion of William I. Ranulph became the largest landholder in Lindsey (Lincolnshire) through his marriage to Lucy.

Lucy has been the subject of much historical debate, including whether she was one person or several. Legend has it that Malet of Eye's mother was English, and that he was the uncle of King Harold II of England's wife Ealdgyth (the claim being that he had a sister Aelgifu who married Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia, who was the father of Ealdgyth). Legend also claims that William Malet buried Harold after the battle. A charter of Crowland Abbey, now thought to be spurious, described Thorold of Bucknall, perhaps the same as her probable father Thorold of Lincoln, as a brother of Godgifu (better known as Lady Godiva), wife of Leofric, Earl of Mercia (died 1057). Other sources including a genealogia fundatoris of Coventry Abbey, claim Lucy is the daughter of Earl Aelfgar (therefore indeed sister of Aldgyth, Edwin and Morcar and grand-daughter of Godiva) but he died in 1059, some fifteen years before "Lucy" was born.

The Protestation Returns are the closest record we have to a census from 1641/42. By order of the House of Commons, all adult men were asked to swear an oath of allegiance to the Protestant religion in 1642. Their names were duly inscribed in a list in each parish, and the list sent back to Parliament. The one for St Mary survives. The signature of Randle Holme heads the list and is followed by the names of the other parish residents. Some of these appear to have incorporated "merchant marks" in their attestation.

In "William Rufus" by Frank Barlow (1983) it states (p 172):

  • "One of the most useful ways in which William helped his favourites, was in providing them with rich or important wives. He gave Lucy of Bolingbroke, a great heiress, perhaps the daughter of Thorold, a post-Conquest sheriff of Lincoln, first to a steward, Ivo Taillebois, whose parentage is unknown, then to Roger FitzGerold, brother to Robert and son of Gerold 'Miles Cristi', a seneschal, lord of Roumare (near Rouen) and castellan of Neufmarché, and finally to Ranulf le Meschin (i.e. the young) of Bricquessart, vicomte of Bayeux. He thus created families, one of which was to become earls of Lincoln, the other to inherit the earldom of Chester."

Actual literary confirmation of the identity of "Lucy" is difficult to come by and may be much muddled by monastic forgeries. The also appears to have been a desire on the part of some writers to make her "Countess of Chester" in her own right, as the remaining heir after the death of her supposed brothers Edwin and Morcar. However, this really does not fit the dates. Here is a brief summary of the evidence and there is more in the links below:

  • Ingulph's Chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland now simply called the Croyland Chronicle records that William I King of England arranged the marriage of "Ivo Taillebois" and "Lucia sister of Edwin and Morcar". The first section of the chronicle is now known to be a later forgery from the 14th century. Some sources have Ivo dying in 1094, while others have Lucy re-married to her second husband by that date. Other's provide the date her first marriage as "around 1088" when she would have been around 14 and Ivo about 50.
  • Peter of Blois' supposed Continuation of the Chronicle of the Abbey of Croyland records the death of Ivo (1094 in Kendal) and his burial at the priory of Spalding, and the remarriage of his widow "hardly had one month elapsed after his death" with "Roger Fitz-Gerold, Baron of Kendal, the son [of] Gerald de Romar". It is possible that Peter's association with the continuation ia also spurious. Roger appears to be dead by July 1098.
  • "R filius Geroldi" donated property to St Mary´s, York by charter dated to 1094/98, witnessed by "L. sua uxor et suus frater Wido…" ("L his wife.."). This would have been Roger the son of Gerold. WILLIAM DE ROUMARE, Seigneur of Roumare (near Rouen), son of Roger FITZGEROLD, by Lucy, "the Countess," was born circa 1096. "L" is presumably Lucy and this is how the charter is dated. Curiously, the York abbey was originally a church dedicated in 1055 to the same St Olave (c. 995 – 29 July 1030) as the church of that name in Chester.
  • She is named as wife of Ranulf by Orderic Vitalis, who also names her first husband, but does not give her origin. Orderic is considered a generally reliable source.
  • A manuscript recording the foundation of the Spalding monastery records that “Yvo Talboys” married "Thoroldo…hærede Lucia" who, after the death of Ivo, married (in turn) "Rogerum filium Geroldi" and "comitem Cestriæ Ranulphum".
  • Ranulf was awarded the Lordship of Carlisle by Henry I who became king in 1100. “Ranulfus Meschines” donated property to Wetherall Priory, Cumberland (which he founded in 1106), by undated charter, witnessesed by "uxore mea Lucia, Willielmo fratre meo…" (my wife Lucy and brother William...). The mother-house of the priory was the same St Mary's Abbey in York to which Lucy's former husband had given land.
  • According to a charter of Henry Duke of Normandy (later Henry II King of England) issued in favour of her son Ranulph De Gernon, Earl of Chester and dated 1153, Countess Lucy was the niece of Robert Malet of Eye and of Alan of Lincoln, as well as kinswoman of Thorold "the Sheriff".

Keats-Rohan arrives at the conclusion that Lucy was the great-great-granddaughter of the Lady Godiva who rode naked through Coventry to protest the overtaxation of the people by her husband, the Earl Leofric of Mercia (d. 1057). Lucy's grandfather, William Malet, "Sire de Graville", was from Graville Sainte Honorine, located between Le Havre and Harfleur on the coast of the Province of Normandy (now the Department of Seine-Maritime), France. It is believed that William's parents were the Norman Robert Malet and a daughter of Leofric, the English Earl of Mercia, and his wife, Godiva.

If it were true that Lucy was descended from the Saxon earls of Chester, Ranulph's marriage to Lucy would ensure that his son, Ranulph De Gernon, was descended from Mercian earls. His son's subsequent marriage to a descendent of Henry I (Maud of Gloucester, daughter of Robert FitzRoi, 1st Earl of Gloucester) would mean that the next generation, Hugh de Kevelioc could claim ancestry from both English and Norman nobility, even royalty. There are a number of local Chester legends and "folk-tales" which appear to have at their root-cause attempts to give people a more prestigious pedigree than they actually had and cast doubt on the validity of royal succession.

There is no real evidence that Lucy founded the church of St Mary although she was a noted patron of other establishments. Lucy, as widowed countess, founded the convent of Stixwould in 1135, becoming, in the words of one historian:

  • "one of the few aristocratic women of the late eleventh and twelfth centuries to achieve the role of independent lay founder" (from Johns, Noblewomen, Aristocracy and Power, p. 60).

Her religious patronage centred on Spalding Priory, a small Benedictine house for which her own family was the primary patron. This house (a monastic cell of Crowland) was founded, or re-founded, in 1085 by Lucy and her first husband Ivo Taillebois. Later, she was responsible for many endowments, for instance in the 1120s she and her third husband Earl Ranulf granted the priory the churches of Minting, Belchford and Scamblesby, all in Lincolnshire. She was of independent mind and probably the driving force behind these grants. In 1135, Lucy, now widowed for the last time, granted the priory her own manor of Spalding for the permanent use of the monks of Spalding. The 1130 pipe roll informs us that Lucy had paid King Henry I 500 marks after Ranulf's death for the right not to have to remarry. The records also indicate that Lucy went to great effort to ensure that, after her own death, her sons would honour and uphold her gifts. She was buried at Spalding Priory.

Thus, Seacome's statement that it was Lucy who founded St Mary on the Hill seems to be speculation based on the fact that it belonged to Ranulph de Gernon, her son, and that Lucy founded establishments elsewhere. Like many of the ancient parishes of Chester the origins of St Mary remain partly obscure.

"A south-east prospect of the city of Chester" by Edward Wright. This shows St Mary with its original tower intact. However the date of 1690 must be wrong as the engraving shows the Exchange building which was constructed from 1695 to 1698.

Other Descriptions

A later writer notes:

"Canting" Stained Glass fragment from St Mary on the Hill with a "briar" and a "tun" for Brereton. Surviving fragments of pre-Civil War Stained Glass are presrved by incorporation in the tracery of some of the windows.
  • St. Mary’s church, or St. Mary's-on-the-Hill, as it is more commonly called, stands on an eminence near the Castle; on the consecration of the new church of St. Mary-without-the-Walls, in 1887, the boundaries of the parish were altered, and the old church was included in the parish of St. Bridget with St. Martin, and in 1891, by a faculty decreed in the Consistory Court, it was constituted the parish church of these united parishes: the church is an ancient edifice of red sandstone in the Perpendicular style, consisting of chancel with north and south chapels, clerestoried nave of three bays, aisles and a tower with pinnacles containing 8 bells, restored and refitted, and augmented by the addition of 2 bells from the church of St. Bridget: the aisles are separated from the nave by low Tudor arches: in the north chapel are two altar tombs, one of which, commemorating Thomas Gamull, recorder of Chester in 1613, and Alice his wife, has recumbent effigies of both, and at the feet of the lady is a kneeling figure of their infant son, afterwards the loyal Sir Francis Gamull kt. (1664); there are also figures of three infant daughters holding skulls in their hands, and on the sides of the tomb are two shields of arms: the other altar tomb, to Philip Oldfield esq. of Bradwall, ob. 1616, bears a half-recumbent effigy in marble, with two daughters kneeling at the head, in the costume of the period; figures of his four sons, each bearing a shield of arms, support the upper slab, and on. the side of the tomb is a painted skeleton in a similar attitude to the effigy above: in the north aisle is a mural monument of considerable interest, ornamented with heraldic devices, to four members of the Holme family, local antiquaries and heralds of repute; the third, Randle, was the author of the heraldic work, “The Academy of Armory,” published 1688; of the numerous other mural monuments and tablets, some have been removed here from the church of St. Bridget: the stained east window in the north chapel was erected in 1860, by public subscription, to the 23rd Regiment (Royal Welsh Fusiliers), especially with reference to its share in the campaign of 1854—5; there are also seven other memorial windows: the church has been restored at different times, and in 1891 a sum of £4,300 was expended, of which one half was given by the Duke of Westminster, and the remainder contributed by public subscription, the work being carried out under the superintendence of Mr. J. P. Seddon, architect, of Westminster, and including the recasing of the north side, a new wood floor, the rebuilding of part of one arcade and the clerestory; the removal of the galleries, the restoration of the Troutbeck or Shrewsbury chapel, at the east end of the south aisle, and the construction of vestries at the west end of the same aisle: the porch was built at the cost of the Freemasons of the Provinces as a memorial to Randle Holme, at a cost of £225; the organ has also been rebuilt at a cost of £300: there are 561 sittings. The registers and plate belonging to the old church were transferred in 1887 to the new church of St. Mary’s-with-out-the-Walls, which became the parish church of the old parish of St. Mary-on-the-Hill. The registers of St. Bridget’s date from the year 1649, and those of St. Martin’s from 1680. The living, styled St. Bridget and St. Martin’s, is a consolidated rectory, average tithe rent-charge £21, net yearly value £216, with 34 acres of glebe, in the gift of the Bishop of Chester, and held since 1886 by the Ven. Edward Barber M.A. of Magdalen College, Oxford, archdeacon and canon residentiary of Chester. The charities of the united parishes amount to about £50 yearly, and in accordance with a new scheme, sanctioned in 1889, are applied to the relief of the deserving poor of both parishes.

Hemingway adds a little more information that Richard Hurleston had also obtained a share in the church estates from George Cotton. The Hurlestons were a family of Picton and later Newton whose coat of arms would eventually lead to the naming of "The Ermine" in Hoole. It appears that the Hurleston's soon gave up their interest in St Mary and concentrated on St Peter at Plemstall.

One notable Rector was Henry Man (died 19 October 1556) who served as the Bishop of Sodor and Man in the 16th century. Until the English Reformation he was a Carthusian monk who had been appointed the Prior of Witham, Somerset (1534–35) and then the Prior of Sheen, Surrey (1535–39). Following the dissolution of the monasteries, he was briefly a chaplain to King Henry VIII. He was appointed the Dean of Chester in 1541, also holding the rectories of St Mary on the Hill, Chester and Fyningley, Nottinghamshire. Many other Rectors were either pluralists or absentee with the church frequently being served by a curate.

Fittings and Monuments

The fittings, including a font and pulpit from St. Bridget's and reused early 17th-century altar rails, were removed after the church's closure in 1972. However there is still much to see. The church contains monuments to Philip Oldfield (d. 1616), a reclining effigy enclosed by a railing; and Thomas Gamull (d. 1613) and his wife Alice Bavand, a tomb-chest with effigies. Philip Oldfield was Chief Sergeant at Law for the County Palatine and distinguished as a genealogist and antiquary. The arms on his tomb are those of Oldfield, Wettenhall, Somerford, Mainwaring of Croxton and Leftwich. Thomas Gamul(l) was MP for Chester and the father of Sir Francis Gamull who appears on the tomb as a seated schoolboy with books. Many such monuments elsewhere were destroyed during the Civil War but those at St Mary were apparently the subject of an agreement with the Parliamentary forces to prevent damage to them. Presumably this was obtained by money changing hands.

St Mary's is definitely sometimes worth a visit, and it is occasionally rather odd what goes on considering it is a church.

During the Civil War, Francis Gamull was very active in the defence of Chester. In June 1643 he established a town guard (Sir Francis Gamull’s Regiment of Chester Volunteer Foot), of which he was colonel, and enlisted all able-bodied men between 16 and 60. After the governor, Sir Nicholas Byron, was captured in March 1644, King Charles proposed Francis Gamull in his place, but Gamull was rejected because he was unpopular with the citizens and opposed by other royalist leaders. Gamull hosted Charles I in Chester during the king's brief stay at the time of the Battle of Rowton Moor. After the siege was ended by the surrender of the city Francis Gamull and other Royalists were dismissed from the town's administration in October 1646, and he was fined £940. A few sources state that Francis Gamull died at the age of 48 after an abortive uprising for the future Charles II. His son-in-law stated that he was executed at Exeter. The Parish Register of St. Mary-on-the-Hill in Chester, as transcribed by Earwaker, states that he was buried here "in his own vault" on 27 November 1654.

His mother Alice also presents an interesting story. She was initially married to one of Chester's Merchant Adventurers (and brother of the Bishop Lloyd of Bishop Lloyd's House) David Lloyd upon whose death she quickly married Thomas Gamull (of Gamul House fame). On his death she just as quickly married Edward Whitby. Whitby died on 18 Apr. 1639 and was interred seven days later in the Gamull’s vault in St. Mary’s: so Alice has two husbands beside her in the tomb. Also in the vault is Christian Gamull formerly Grosvenor, who was the wife of Francis Gamull and was buried 11 June, 1640. We can also assume that the three children shown carrying skulls died young and are also interred here.

Other monuments include C17 wall monuments to Randle Holme II and family, Randle Holme III and IV; a Gothic Revival tablet by James Harrison to William Currie, d.1834; and a monument to Ralph Worsley, Sergeant of the Crown and Warden of the Lions, Lionesses and Leopards in the Tower of London, d.1573. The Latin inscription of the lionkeeper's memorial can be translated as:

  • "Beneath this spot is buried the body of RALPH WORSLEY, Esquire, who was the third son of William Worsley of Worsley Meyne, in the county of Lancaster, Esquire, and was formerly in the service as Page of the Wardrobe, and one of the Stewards of the Chamber of the most mighty Prince, Henry the Eighth, lately by God's grace, King of England, France and Ireland: to whom the same King on account of the good and faithful service spent about his own Royal person, had out of his Royal bounty given, for the term of his natural life, the offices of Sergeant of the Crown, of Warden of the lions, lionesses and leopards within the Tower of London, of porter of the Great Wardrobe, of Controller in the counties of Chester and Flint, of Clerk of the Crown of Lancaster and of Escheator in the County Palatine of Lancaster, while rewards from other sources were added to these. Pre-eminent mental gifts were bestowed upon him by Heaven, with which he was remarkably endowed, as for example, rare piety towards God, widely-ranging beneficence towards the poor, and wonderful charity towards all men. Having lived more than eighty years, he died on the 27th day of December, in the year of our Lord, 1573,leavmg issue, Alice, wife of Thomas Powell, Esquire (who has defrayed the cost hereof), Katherine, married to Thomas Tuchet, Esquire and Avice, married to Thomas Vawdrey, gentleman, his children by his wife Joan, daughter of John Pike, Esquire "By no worldly treasure can heaven he won""


The southern aisle of the church once contained the Troutbeck family chapel. The family seems to have originated from Westmoreland, their ancient coat of arms being three interlaced (fretted) trout. Later a wreath of trout encircled their crest. In 1412 Prince Henry commissioned William Troutbeck as Chamberlain of Chester, an office which he held until his death. By purchase, William became Lord of Dunham-on-the-Hill. Stoney Dunham, as it was called, had been held up to this time by the Earls of Arundel. In 1415 Thomas Fitzalan, 5th Earl of Arundel died as a result of illness contracted in the Agincourt (1415) campaign, and William Troutbeck came to own a third of Dunham. It is said that he too fought at Agincourt. By 1444, the whole manor of Dunham was vested in the Troutbecks. William was succeeded by his son Sir John Troutbeck, also Chamberlain of Chester (until 1431) and Sheriff of Cheshire in 1447. Putting together an entirely consistent history is made a little difficult as many sources conflict as to dates.

"Canting" arms of the Troutbecks: three silver trout on a blue field.

It is almost certain that the tomb which once stood in the middle of the Troutbeck chapel was erected to the memory of William Troutbeck, Esq., who died in 1436, and Joan his wife, who built the chapel and endowed the chantry in 1433, whilst the other which stood on the south side commemorated his grandson, Sr William Troutbeck, Knt., who died in 1459 at the Battle of Blore Heath, and Dame Margaret (Stanley) his wife (1433-1481: the daughter of Thomas Stanley).

Blore Heath was a battle in the English Wars of the Roses that was fought on 23 September 1459. It was supposed to be an ambush with the Lancastrians hiding behind a "great hedge" but plans went astray because they still had their banners up. The Yorkist's eventually won. Margaret's brother Thomas was the Thomas Stanley present at the Battle of Bosworth together with another brother, Sir William Stanley. In effect, the two brothers played similar roles to those they had played at the Battle of Blore Heath over a quarter of a century earlier. Lord Thomas Stanley took no direct part in the action but stood unmoving between the two armies and it was Sir William's decisive intervention that gave Henry the victory over Richard III. Shakespeare changes the historical facts so that it is the older Thomas who leads the rescue of Henry Tudor. After the despatch of Richard, who had gone into battle crowned, Polydore Vergil records that the fallen coronet was retrieved and placed by Lord Thomas Stanley on his stepson's head before his cheering troops, thereby emphasising the critical role the Stanleys had played in bringing Henry Tudor to the throne. Sir William was later convicted of treason and executed for his support of the pretender Perkin Warbeck.

Unfortunately, both of these monumental tombs of the Troutbecks were destroyed when the chapel collapsed in 1661 and are only known through a description from Randle Holme. In 1578, one of the Randle Holmes recorded the notices and shields of arms in the stained glass windows in St Mary's in Chester, which included in the Troutbeck's chapel:

  • "Pray for the souls of William Troutbeck, Esquire, of Chester, and Joan his wife, who built this chapel in the year of our Lord 1424."

This should be 1434 as already stated. The text of the contract for the construction of the chapel is given in Ormerod and has the correct date as well as the name of the builder, Thomas Bates.

The children of William and Margaret included Adam Troutbeck (c1455-1511). A further Margaret Troutbeck was the daughter of Adam Troutbeck and his second wife Joan Molyneux. In 1510 Margaret Troutbeck, now the first wife of Sir John Talbot, was heiress to her uncle (another Sir William Troutbeck), by which she inherited the manors of Brunstath, Elton, Hoole, Oxton, Raby, etc., in Cheshire. George Ormerod, in ‘The History of the County Palatine and City of Chester’, described the land of Hoole township as being a component part of the manor of Dunham, descending from the Fitzalans (Earls of Arundel), through the Troutbecks, then to the Talbots, ancestors of the Earls of Shrewsbury over time, however the trace of the route from Arundel to Shrewsbury is not straightforward.

The Boteler tomb in Warrington Church. The female figure may be Margaret Stanley in which case she had at least two tombs.

But where was Margaret Stanley buried?

Sir William Troutbeck was not quite thirty by the time of his death at Blore Heath. On the 23rd January, 1459, secundum computationem ecclesia anglicana, as the Lichfield register has it, which means the year 1460, a dispensation was granted for a marriage between dus Juhes Boteler miles and dna Margareta nuper uxor dni Willielmi Troutbeck in tertio et tertio gradu, and the marriage thus licensed was afterwards solemnized about 12th April, 1460. Sir John Boteler, Lady Margaret’s second husband, died on the 26th Feb. 1463, and after his death she married Henry Lord Grey of Codnor. The Boteler Chapel in the church of St Elphin at Warrington contained a tomb which bears the effigy of Sir John and a woman. This could be Sir John's third wife Margaret Stanley / Troutbeck / Boteler / Grey or Sir John's first wife Margaret Gerard. It is unlikely to be his second wife as they were divorced. The tomb has since been moved (twice) but is still in the church. Randle Holme described it thus:

  • "it was a fair tomb of Boteler, with his wife lying as [on] the tomb of Troutbeck in St. Mary’s in Chester, with shields all about, but all the coats be worn off." (Harl. MSS. 2129, art, 269, fol 184.)

The tomb's figures can possibly be dated by the style of armour. The immense elbow plates or "gardes de bras" which being more ornamental than useful, remained in vogue only for a very short period; the tuilles or plates of steel terminating below in a conical point, depending from the skirts of the body armour and covering an apron of chain mail. The gauntlets, too, are furnished with distinct fingers and jointed. All these points are peculiar to the early part of the reign of Edward IV whose first term as king was from 4 March 1461 to 3 October 1470. Margaret died in 1481.

William Beamont (author of "Annals of the Lords of Warrington") in a paper from volume 1 (old series) of the Journal of the Chester Archaeological Journal (p 217-233), published in 1857, tells of the legend that accompanies the tomb in Warrington and relates to Bewsey Old Hall:

St Mary on the hill in 2017.
  • "Sir John Boteler, Knight, was slain in bed by the Lord Stanley’s procurement, Sir Piers Legh, and William Savage joining with him in that action corrupting his servants. His porter set a light in a window to give knowledge upon the water that was about his house at Bewsey, where your way to.. ..comes, when the watch that watched about his house at Bewsey were gone away to their own homes, and then they came over the moat in leather boats and so to his chamber, where one of his servants, called Holeroft, was slain, being his chamberlain, the other brother betrayed his master. They promised him a great reward, and he going with them away they hanged him at a tree in Bewsey Park. After this Sir John’s lady pursued those that slew her husband, and indicted twenty men for that suit; but being married to the Lord Grey he made her suit void, for which cause she parted from her husband the Lord Grey and came into Lancashire, and said, if my lord will not help me that I may have the will of my enemies, yet my body shall be buried with him; and she caused a tomb of alabaster to be made, where she lieth upon the right hand of her husband Sir John Boteler." (Cheshire Now relates a similar story, other variants can be found in the links below.)

Beamont evidently believed that Margaret was commemorated on both tombs and buried in the one at Warrington. However, the tomb was moved in 1859 and a single skull and bones were found, together with a sword. Which might indicate a single male occupant. The bones are said to have been lost. After Margaret died Grey married again but left the country and died in Spain in 1496. To make matters even more complicated while Ormerod (Cheshire, vol. 2, p. 42) identifies Margaret as a daughter of Thomas Lord Stanley, who married 1stly Sir William Troutbeck, knight (d. 2 Edward IV), 2ndly Sir John Butler of Bewsey (d. 1453) and 3rdly, 2 October 1465, Lord Grey, of Codnor, other sources diagree. The Complete Peerage has Grey marrying a Margaret who was a daughter of Ralph Moton, but the Visitation of Leicestershire (Harl. Soc., vol. ii, p. 58) has Moton only having two daughters neither of which is a Margaret. Beamont seems to have carried out more research by 1872 when his "annals" were published as he goes into more detail (p66ff). In this sequel to the Chester paper he believes "she found a grave elsewhere". One source places her grave in St. Laurence Pountney, City of London, which was destroyed in the 1666 fire of London.

A version of the legend makes up the "Ballad of Sir John Butler" (Child 164/5). However there are serious problems with the dates: Sir Piers Legh was born in 1455, and was only eight years old at that time, and William Savage, nephew of Lord Thomas Stanley, was also a mere child. William was the son of Sir John Savage and Lord Thomas' sister Katherine. However Roger Dodsworth (1585–1654) records much the same story. His document in the Bodlean is Fol. 13. "church notes at Warrington, 1625, 'with traditions respecting sir John Butler of Bewsey', i.e. Bewsy in Warrington, co. Lancs." Thomas Percy and later commentaries on the Percy Portfolio vol III consider the legend to be almost entirely a fiction, save for the fact that it mentions known historical characters. Thomas Pennant mentions the legend in his "A tour from Downing to Alston Moor" (p19) but has the entire family wiped-out by "assassins".

The degree to which the Bewsey legend is true has been much debated and the legend may have worked itself into the supposed historical accounts to an extent which is difficult to disentangle and might mean we will never know where Margaret Stanley, whose tomb was once in St Mary on the Hill, is actually buried.

Earwaker's History

The church is the subject of a detailed history by J. P. Earwaker. Earwaker's book was published postumously in 1898 and edited by Rupert Hugh Morris, who included many of Earwaker's jottings as footnotes in putting togther the final text. Consequently, this book may well contain some errors, but generally it is a good source. There is a link to an "e-book" version in the sources below. Earwaker takes the view that both the monument here and that in Warrington depict Margaret Stanley but he does not recite the Bewsey legend.

Earwaker helps clear-up some popular misconceptions. For example, it is frequently written that the Castle ditch next to the graveyard of St Mary's was used to bury execution victims (see Execution at Chester). From Earwaker's book, some however appear to have been buried in the graveyard itself. The following entries appear in the parish records as transcribed by Earwaker:

This service road at Chester Castle is believed to mark the location of the Castle Ditch were witches were buried after hanging, but some may be in the churchyard. The church can be seen to the left.
  • 1631 - 'Thomas Laceby, a prisoner, pressed to death, buried in the churchyard on the north side of the steeple on the 23rd day of April. John Johnson, Joan Broome and Katherine Crosse, three persons that were executed, buried at the west end of the steeple in the churchyard the 25th day of April'.
  • 1656 - 'Three witches hanged at Michaelmas Assizes, buried in the corner by the Castle Ditch in the churchyard 8th of October'.

The three witches buried in 1656 (see: Witch Trials) were Ellen Beach, Anne Osboston and Anne Thornton. The same three witches also feature in guidebooks as:

  • "In the 17th century three ladies, Thornton, Beech and Osbertson, were found guilty of being witches by the Witchfinder General and burned in the Castle Ditch. They haunt St Mary's Churchyard during Halloween"

In reality Thornton, Beach and Osboston had nothing to do with the "Witchfinder General" (he had been dead for almost a decade) and were not "burned" in the Castle ditch, but hanged at Boughton. Whether they haunt the churchyard is an open question, although the Judge who sentenced them to death (John Bradshaw) died on Halloween so they may have some reason to celebrate. Although they may not be in good company as John Edwards, a previous hangman of Chester was buried in the north church yard on the 17th November 1643. As is often the case, what can be discovered of the actual history is more interesting than the garbled versions presented in some guidebooks.

Information on the stained glass and the bells can be found in the links below. Of note are about twenty pieces of ancient (early 16th Cent.) glass now gathered together in the tracery of the windows of the Troutbeck (south) chapel. In addition to what is in the Stained Glass Guide the damaged east window of the north chapel has two lights of a Crimean War memorial by George Hedgeland dating from around 1856. Apparently the middle three lights were blown out in WW2. This depicted the Israelites fighting against the Amalekites, with large figures of Aaron and Hur holding up the arms of Moses, a popular Victorian image as used in works such as "Victory, O Lord!" (1871). Underneath is this inscription, which partly survives and read:

  • "In memory of the officers and men of the 23 Reg. R.W. Fusiliers, who fell in the Crimea, from the Victory of Alma to the Storming of Sebastopol, Sep. 1854 to Sep. 1855."

The figure of Moses appears in another window and there is carrying his characteristic tablets from the biblical account.

The 23rd embarked on the steamer Trent in April 1854 and would take part in the Battles of the Alma, Inkerman and Balaclava, as well as the seige and storming of Sebastopol with total losses of 754 officers and men of which 530 were through disease, mainly dysentery and cholera. Another 200 died at the Battle of the Alma.

Edward Bell, Luke O'Connor, Robert Shields, and William Sylvester all of the Royal Welch Fusiliers (it retained the archaic spelling) were awarded the VC for acts during the Crimean War, with O'Connor being the first ever recipient from the Army and later rising to the rank of Major-General. Contrary to popular belief the VC is not made from cannons captured at Sebastopol, but from a Chinese cannon captured during the Opium Wars. Two VC's are held at the nearby Military Museum and replicas are on show. The fusilieers were initially equipped with light-weight muskets or "fusils" used to protect the artillery, although the distinction later became obsolete.

According to the Churchwarden's accounts three of the bells are from 1657 and (differing from what is stated in "Dove's Guide") these are from the founder Geoffrey Scott of Wigan. He originally supplied four, of which three are in the present ring. His last surviving bell, from 1663, is in St Peter Plemstall and was cast two years before his death.

Traces of elaborate late medieval wall paintings, uncovered when centuries of whitewash were removed in 1843, survive at the east end of the south aisle and should not be missed. There are others at St Peter, in the Agricola Tower at Chester Castle and at St Johns. Windle describes the wall painting here as follows:

  • "Near this chapel and at the east end of the south aisle proper are the remains of an interesting fresco of which a coloured restoration hangs below in a frame. Under the figure of a king is a representation of the Crucifixion with our Lady and St. John. Then on the angle of the wall is a bishop, and beyond this on the pilaster of the window the Instruments of the Passion with the figure of Our Lord showing the wound in His side."

The eye of faith may need to be employed to see some of the detail, and while there is no cautionary notice, it is probably best not to use flash photography as this can eventually cause these images to fade. As will be realised these are remarkable survivals given that most of this chapel collapsed and they would have been exposed to the weather if not for the whitewash.

The tombstone of a butcher named Richard Monksfield is mounted on one wall and features a skull and crossed bones. This does not mean it is the grave of a pirate as pirates seem to have only adopted the "Jolly Roger" slightly later, after about 1710. Use of the term Jolly Roger in reference to pirate flags goes back to at least Charles Johnson's "A General History of the Pyrates", published in Britain in 1724. Most historians believe that the skull and cross-bones design originated in the Late Middle Ages as a symbol of death and especially as a memento mori on tombstones. There is a theory, perhaps apocryphal that if crusaders died in the middle-east the remains returned to their home would include only the skull and thigh-bones. Some basis for this may exist in the practice at the time that the dead should be buried in their own parish church. There are also suggestions that in medieval times the skull and thigh bones were somehow required for resurrection. In practice it would appear that if anything was transported back to Europe it was most probably the heart. There are other theories associated with the Masons and the Knight's Templars, but these appear to have arisen much later. It has even been suggested that they are plague victims and therefore best left undisturbed. However the use of the skull and crossed bones as a "toxic" or danger symbol only appears to have been used since the 1850's. Some see it as derived from the Chi-Rho monagram. Historians over the years have come to the conclusion that the graves symbols are just an old practice to symbolize man’s mortality. Some have written that this was commonplace amongst Puritans who considered the use of the cross idolatrous and used symbols such as a skull and bones and often an hourglass instead. Others consider that the practice only became common after the Restoration. Other symbols as used here include the spade crossed with a pick axe (gravediggers tools symbolising mortality). There are other "skull and cross-bone" graves in Cheshire and some of these have either the pirate (as at Grappenhall and Holt) or the plague myth associated with them.

St Mary’s “on the hill” is not only a beautiful building on the outside, its equally stunning and impressively spacious interior also offers an extraordinarily atmospheric creative environment, whether for large dynamic musical groups, or the smaller ensembles who enjoy the focus of its quieter corners. The marvellous acoustic is well-suited to musical and theatrical performances. There is a bar for most performances selling a limited range of alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks before the show and in the interval. Tea and coffee are often available.


Sources and Links

Just around the back - sundial at St Mary on the Hill. This comprises an octagonal stone baluster and a simple square base. The baluster has recessed panels in each of 3 stages; the second stage diminishes in a concave profile; the third stage has a deep recess in each panel, shaped like the chamber of a medieval stone coffin. Copper dial with damaged gnomon. Earwaker states that the sundial is engraved with the names of Samuel Price, Randle Sorton Churchwardens (these were actual wardens c.1740), and the date 1739 with the maker's name S. Davies. The Registers mention a sundial as being present in 1643.


The best source is Earwaker's A history of the church (a free e-book). There is also a less readable version with notes and inserts. For another list of monuments see Thomas Helsby's annotated Ormerod. For a full account and pedigree of the Troutbeck family, see J. Brownbill, 'The Troutbeck Family' (C.N.W.S., n.s. v.28 pt.II, pp.149-179). The pedigree in Ormerod (v.ii, p.42) is not reliable.

Related pages

  • St Mary's Hill: the gradient is over 36 degrees, making it the steepest residential street in England and very close to a world record.
  • Brerewood: a fascinating family associated with the church;
  • Randle Holme: a Chester antiquary family who used the same name for four generations, one of which was a churchwarden here;
  • Earwaker: the historian who documented the church;
  • Gloverstone: both the mysterious rock itself and the independent township within the city of Chester;
  • Clockmaker: many of whom were resident in the township of Gloverstone;
  • Stanley Palace: associated with the Stanley family;
  • Gamul House: where Charles I stayed on one of his visits to Chester;
  • Brown: for a discussion of some monuments in St Mary;






Stained Glass


Bewsey Legend