Tudor Chester

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This is part of a series of articles on the history of Chester through time:

In English history the Tudor period begins with the death of Richard III (22 August 1485), which itself is taken as the end of the Medieval period. The Tudor period ends with the death of Elizabeth, 24 March 1603. The period boundary at the end of the Middle Ages is somewhat arbitary and also somewhat politicised. The Medieval period was seen by some historians as a relatively primitive time which came before the Renaissance and was associated with backwardness, superstition, ignorance and brutality. However the Medieval period is littered with what might be considered false starts of the Renaissance. The boundary has been contentious from the time itself as Henry VII hired chroniclers to portray his reign as a "modern age" with its dawn in 1485 at the Battle of Bosworth Field. By portraying Richard as a hunch-backed tyrant who usurped the throne by killing his nephews, the Tudor historians attached a sense of myth to the battle: it became an epic clash between good and evil with a satisfying moral outcome.

Henry Tudor, as Henry VII with "Mona Lisa" smile - "Treason doth never prosper, what's the reason? For if it prosper, none dare call it Treason." He re-wrote history to create the "Tudor Myth" that Richard III was a homocidal hunchback.

There are however a few useful markers, which, although scattered over a period of time, can be seen as indicative of significant change at or around the dawn of the Tudor period:

  • Introduction of gunpowder: Richard III took cannon to the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485 but died in what was an "old-fashioned" cavalry charge with the objective of personally defeating Henry Tudor. Gunpowder was by no means new, having been known since Roger Bacon (1267), and taking-off rapidly after about 1320. The end of the 15th Century saw innovations such as the trigger for firearms and the placement of cannons on ships. Henry VII's ships, the Regent and Sovereign, were among the first to carry enough cannons to deliver a "ship killing" blow at a distance.
  • Improvements in navigation and discovery of the Americas (or re-discovery): in 1470, the Florentine astronomer Paolo dal Pozzo Toscanelli suggested to King Afonso V of Portugal that sailing west across the Atlantic would be a quicker way to reach the Spice Islands, Cathay, and Cipangu than the then only hypothetical route around Africa (only discovered in 1488), but Afonso rejected his proposal. The Columbus brothers eventually got funding for a westward voyage (having been turned down by Henry VII). This start of an age of world-wide exploration was accompanied by improvements in map-making and navigation.
Vincent Price as Richard III entertains himself with Sandra Knight as "Mistress Shore".
  • Growth of printing: nine days after the Battle of Bosworth, William Caxton published "Thomas Malory's" story about chivalry and death by betrayal — [Le Morte d'Arthur] — seemingly as a response to the circumstances of Richard III's death. Only two copies of this original printing are known to exist, in the collections of the Morgan Library & Museum in New York and the John Rylands Library in Manchester. Caxton had introduced the printing press to England around 1476 and its introduction did much to fix the English language on a standard dialect. Printing also had the consequence that idea's could spread with rapidity.
  • The Reformation: this is normally associated with Henry VIII, but has much earlier roots. The priesthood of all believers downplayed the need for saints or priests to serve as mediators, and mandatory clerical celibacy was ended. The spread of Gutenberg's printing press provided the means for the rapid dissemination of religious materials in the vernacular. Pope Sixtus IV (1471–1484) established the practice of selling indulgences to be applied to the dead, thereby establishing a new stream of revenue with agents across Europe and infuriating reformers. In England, John Wycliffe questioned the privileged status of the clergy which had bolstered their powerful role in England and the luxury and pomp of local parishes and their ceremonies. Wycliffe was posthumously condemned as a heretic and his corpse exhumed and burned in 1428.

The Tudor period is important to the history of Chester if only because the city displays an apparent facade of "black and white" Tudor architecture. Of course, almost all of this is Victorian (or later) fantasy and the "real" Tudor Chester is not quite so easy to see. One of the most iconic Tudor buildings in Chester is "Stanley Palace", but even a quarter of that is an almost perfect extension from 1935. Almost all of the few surviving Stuart buildings have been modified to add what were thought to be common "Tudor" features.

Cheshire and Chester in the Tudor period cannot be considered without reference to the earlier periods and the continuing existence of the Palatinate: the remnant of an adminstrative system that reached back in time through the previous royal earls, the Norman Earls of Chester and the Anglo-Saxon House of Leofric. The people of the Palatinate believed their county to be an entire political system of itself with its own parliament, council, courts and administration. The "Magna Carta" for example, did not apply to Chester or Cheshire and the knights of Ranulf de Blondeville who lived outside of Cheshire were known as "Knights from England". This perception may not have refelected the complete truth, but at the dawn of the Tudor period Cheshire seems to have had strong idea's about local identity and a special status.

At the start of the Tudor period, as a result of its special status, Cheshire occupied a unique position in England: but it was in the sixteenth century, that Cheshire lost some but not all of this independence. In 1500, Prince Arthur kept court at Chester Castle as Earl of Chester; the palatinate had its own judicial machinery; it was financially distinct and had its own exchequer (also based at Chester Castle); it had no justices of the peace, no visits from the assizes; it sent no representatives to the parliament at Westminster; and men spoke of crossing from Cheshire "into England". The absence of any dominant noble family (such as the Norman earls) had resulted in the emergence of a powerful local gentry. The canons of the college of St Johns jealously preserved its title of cathedral and the bishops of Coventry and Lichfield continued to own a palace in Chester, retaining the additional title of "Bishop of Chester" which was used interchangeably until the formation of the Chester diocese in the sixteenth century.

The Tudor dynasty - complicated by the early death of Arthur Tudor and the lack of children in the generations that followed.

One theme which runs through the Tudor period and even its appreciation by later historians is that of myth. As well as the propaganda created around Richard III there are several other cases were either the views of people at the time, or those of later historians were coloured by a mixture of myth and prophecy. As discussed below the "special status" of Cheshire was in part a myth although it did contain elements of truth. Several of the petitions to the crown arising in the city at the time contain claims which are perhaps more than a little over-egged.

By the reign of Elizabeth only the Palatine Courts were left. Cheshire accounted to the Crown, had justices of the peace, was part of the assize system and elected M.P.s like any other county. The change had not been unheralded; ever since the Crown annexed the earldom in 1237, the integration of the palatinate with the nation had been under way. But it was the sixteenth century which saw the decisive conclusion, after which the men of the county, or at least the elite, accepted that they were part of the English political nation.

A theme which runs through any study of the Tudor period is the extent to which events set up the circumstances which would lead to the calamities of the following Stuart period. This has been the subject of much debate among historians. Some have argued that a Puritan gentry became capitalists who challenged an outdated royal authority, others claim that the "problem" was the particular incompetence of the Stuart kings.

Chester in 1485

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. In Tudor times, the reality is that Chester was a significant port of the Irish trade and much iof its prosperity, particularly towards the end of the period came from overseas trade, if only over a somewhat limited geographical range.

Stanley Palace in 2014. The house has been extensively modified over the years with the north wing (the rightmost bay) having only been built in 1935. Stanley Palace was built in 1591 on the site of the former Black (Dominican) Friary as the town house for Sir Peter Warburton, a local lawyer and Member of Parliament. Despite what is said on some websites none of the Stanleys involved in the fall of Ricahrd III or the Shakespeare controversy ever lived there.

As will be seen, the suggestion that the port was "wholly destroyed" and the complete "ruination" of the port was probably to some extent an exaggeration but this led many later historians to paint a drab picture of its fortunes. In reality, the people of Chester did not seem to have had any difficulty in paying their taxes during the 14th and 15th centuries. However, the decay of the port was something that geographers frequently commented on. William Smith wrote:

  • ".. now scarce small boates are able to come. The Sandes have so Choaked the Channell"

The Stanleys

One of the most celebrated aristocratic families in late medieval and early modern Cheshire, were the Stanleys of Lathom and Knowsley and their connections. Although they held little land in the county they at times held important offices, which were subject to royal whim. Sir John Stanley’s successful service to the crown starting with Richard II meant he left his origins as a younger son of the Stanley of Storeton family in Cheshire and became established as an important gentleman in Lancashire. The stone-built castle known as Lathom House, built by the Stanley family in 1496, had eighteen towers, and was surrounded by a wall six foot thick and a moat eight yards wide, its drawbridge defended by a gateway tower. As well as building their castles, the Stanleys would fabricate Norman origins although they do appear to originate from Anglo-Saxon Staffordshire.

Stanley Palace 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 Stanleys did however have close links with Chester as well a considerable skill at steering a course through rapidly shifting politics. The 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 he mobilized a large force from Cheshire to help the Lancastrian cause, but arrived late for the Battle of St Albans (22nd May). In 1459 he turned up late for the Battle of Blore Heath. 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 Stanleys 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.

The Stanley's, with a big nod to their Manx associations, offer the crown to Henry Tudor on Bosworth Field. Everyone was jumping on the myth-making pageant-wagon at the time and the actual events would be distorted as part of the "Tudor Myth", swapping around just which Stanley did what.

According to the Crowland Chronicle, Lord Stanley excused himself on the grounds of illness, claiming that he was suffering from the "sweating sickness" (see: Pandemic), although by now Richard had firm evidence of the Stanleys’ complicity. After an unsuccessful bid to escape from court, Lord Strange (George Stanley) had confessed that he and his uncle, Sir William Stanley, had conspired with Henry Tudor. Richard proclaimed him as a traitor, and let it be known that Strange’s life was hostage for his father's loyalty in the coming conflict. William Stanley dismissed the threat with the words "I have other sons". Indeed, Richard allegedly issued orders for Strange’s execution on the battlefield at Bosworth Field, although in the event these were never carried out. The failure of Lord Stanley, to come to the aid of King Richard III at Bosworth contributed to King Richard's defeat. Lord Stanley, who was by then married to the future Henry VII's mother, Margaret Beaufort, is given a major role in Shakespeare's "Richard III". George Stanley's son was to survive as Thomas Stanley, 2nd Earl of Derby.

After Bosworth

In 1485 the citizens' sympathies seem to have been with the Tudors. Their mayor from 1484 to 1486, Sir John Savage (d. 1495), had close links with the Stanleys, and his son, also Sir John (d. 1492), led the left wing of Henry Tudor's forces at the Battle of Bosworth Field and was afterwards well rewarded (see this site for more information). The serjeant of the Bridgegate, Sir William Troutbeck, also fought for Henry at that battle. Richard III was abandoned by Lord Thomas Stanley, 1st Earl of Derby, Sir William Stanley, and Henry Percy, 4th Earl of Northumberland. Just why key potential supporters turned against Richard to support Henry Tudor has been the subject of considerable debate.

Tradition holds that Richard III's final words were "treason ,treason, treason, treason, treason". Shakespeare messes-around with facts concerning the Battle of Bosworth in significant ways, he ignores the role of Thomas’s brother, William Stanley, who intervenes, according to the chronicles, with "three thousand tall men" to win the battle for Henry Tudor at the last minute. In fact, apart from a mention of him by Shakespeare in Act IV Scene 5, he ignores William Stanley altogether. In real history William Stanley was later executed: ten years after Bosworth he became involved in another plot (support of the pretender Perkin Warbeck), this time against the man whom he had helped to the crown. Warned in time, Henry had William Stanley seized, tried and beheaded. In the chronicles Richard is shown winning even the hand-to-hand struggle with Henry, until Stanley’s forces turn the tide. On stage, Richard is shown losing the battle before he meets Henry.

The actual involvement of the Stanleys with the Battle of Bosworth is therefore somewhat confused. A part of this confusion arises because Shakespeare (writing in later Tudor times) wishes to portray Richard III as a villain, for dramatic effect and also in line with the "Tudor Myth". Shakespeare was also close to later Stanley descendants (see: Shakespeare and Chester) and this is was possibly another reason why he chose to play-up the role of Thomas Stanley.

The year following Bosworth Henry VII reduced the annual farm (tax) on Chester to £20 in perpetuity. The king visited Chester with his queen and his mother in 1493 or 1495. As well as the connection with the Stanleys, Chester was the effective seat of the Earl of Chester, which since the time of Edward III (c1254) had been the traditional role of the king's eldest son. This would, among other things, give the heir useful experience in rulership. In 1498 or 1499 Prince Arthur attended a performance of an Assumption Day play and presented a silver badge to the Smiths, Cutlers, and Plumbers' company. The citizens of Chester, not missing another opportunity to complain about the state of the River Dee now claimed that the city was even more ruined. Writing that:

  • "And afterwards the channel of the same port became and is at present obstructed as much by the vehement influx of sand and silting up of gravel that merchants with their ships were by no means able to reach the aforesaid city for the space of twelve miles for two hundred years now last passed, but betake themselves to other ports and places in the same country where they may more easily unload their merchandise and re-load. And the walls of the same city have fallen in decay and ruin. Besides, the aforesaid city, which of old had been wont to be inhabited fully by merchants and others rich artificers, is so thorougly ruined and prostrated to the ground that nearly one fourth part of the same city at present is destroyed and desolate."

Note that the period over which navigation had been hampered has now rapidly increased from 60 to 200 years. Some later historians were to take this petition (and the earlier one) literally, forgetting that the citizens of Chester had every reason to indulge in over-statement.

After the Treaty of Medina del Campo opened up trade with the Iberian peninsula in 1489, Spanish iron, and wine from Portugal, Spain, and Gascony became the basis for a dramatic expansion in Chester's overseas trade, which allowed other Mediterranean commodities to reach the city, and provided new markets for hides and cloth. Chester's trade with Spain focused on the Basque region and involved iron. Besides iron, small quantities of angora, silk and velvet, liquorice, train oil, woad, and Cordovan skins were sometimes carried. Trade with Portugal and Andalusia through the northern Spanish ports brought cork, dyestuffs, figs and raisins, litmus, pepper and herbs, oil, sugar, wax, and sweet wines to Chester from c. 1509.

It is certainly true that many of the these cargos were discharged down-river from Chester and transferred to lighters and barges for transport upstream to the city, but it is worth considering that the difficulties of navigation might have as much to do with the increased size and draft of ships rather than the state of the river. By the Late Middle Ages the cog, and cog-like square-rigged vessels equipped with a rudder at the stern, were widely used along the coasts of Europe, from the Mediterranean, to the Baltic. Cog's would be replaced by the often two-masted Caravel and the three- or four-masted Carrack, which was the pre-decessor of the Galleon, each of these being progressively larger and better suited to long-distance trade. Nevertheless, the myth that Chester was once a great port ruined by its river would continue.

City Administration

Arthur Tudor - Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester and Duke of Cornwall. His birth cemented the union between the House of Tudor and the House of York. Arthur was viewed by contemporaries as the great hope of the newly established House of Tudor. His name links him with the historic King Arthur, yet another feature of the "Tudor Myth".

Henry Tudor was happy to promote the myths of king Arthur. When he marched through Wales on his way to the Battle of Bosworth he made much of his Welsh ancestry and flew historically significant banners, including the red dragon (which may hark back as far as the Romans). At the time of his birth, a prophecy was supposedly made and linked to older prophecies that foretold the coming of a king who would unite Britain under his banner and bring order to chaos. Henry capitalized on people’s superstitions to build his growing legend. He was the exile who crossed the narrow sea; the heir to a once great House, who had come with a ragtag team of soldiers, fledglings, and mercenaries, to fight a greater army led by a monstrous tyrant. It made perfect sense for him to name his son Arthur, despite it turning out that this was to be perhaps the most ill-starred name for an heir to the English throne.

By the dawn of the Tudor period the administration of the city was in the hands of an Assembly which consisted of the mayor and sheriffs, the aldermen (or "Twenty-Four") and the councilmen (or "Forty-Eight"). Closely linked to the Assembly was the fratenity of St George, which was based at St Peter and was a religious "club" which organised the performance of masses for the dead and was funded by bequests from various Mayoral and Aldermanic families. At the time St George was a newly fashionable saint, having been selected as the personal patron of Henry Tudor. The next level down were the various trade guilds who were headed by aldermen and stewards but did not play a large part in the actual civic administration. The guilds derived their income from entry fees and annual subscriptions and there was a solid correspondence between being a guild member and a freeman of the city. Freedom was obtained by inheritance or could be purchased for a hefty fee, which kept trade and manufacture in the city in the hands of insiders and those with the means to buy their way in. Power lay above all with the mayor and aldermen, the latter generally former mayors and sheriffs holding office for life. Such men continued to be drawn mainly from the leading merchant families, often interrelated and typically including mercers, drapers, goldsmiths, glovers, ironmongers, and dyers. Mayors might also include members of the local gentry.

Prince Arthur

Thomas Cowper was Page of Honour to Prince Arthur (19/20 September 1486 – 2 April 1502), Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester and Duke of Cornwall. As the eldest son and heir apparent of Henry VII of England, Arthur was viewed by contemporaries as the great hope of the newly established House of Tudor. His mother, Elizabeth of York, was the daughter of Edward IV, and his birth cemented the union between the House of Tudor and the House of York. Henry VII had risen to the throne of England with his victory over Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Henry's claim to the throne of England lacked almost all validity by heredity; his possession of the crown was primarily by right of conquest, and he faced a host of claimants still alive with arguably better legal claims. By contrast, their Most Catholic Majesties Ferdinand and Isabella were secure upon what was soon to be the united throne of Spain. They were looking for help against their hereditary enemy, France. Henry had a new son, the Spanish rulers a very young daughter; a marriage and alliance would help each. Henry would gain the acceptance of his position by a major foreign power, and the Spanish would obtain military help against France. Plans for Arthur's marriage began before his third birthday; he was installed as Prince of Wales two years later. At the age of eleven, he was formally betrothed to Catherine of Aragon. When Prince Arthur visted Chester from August 1498 until late Septeember it was only reasonable that he was accompanied by Thomas Cowper (and presumably others) to organise his movable household.

The "New British Traveller" (1819) described the Cowper family as follows:

  • The Cowpers of Chester descended from Thomas a younger son of the Cowpers of Strode in Sussex who was one of the gentlemen of the bed chamber in August 1498. Before the end of the year he married lsabella daughter and heiress of Richard Goodman Esq then Mayor of Chester. Their descendants have ever since continued in Chester and have repeatedly represented the City in Parliament served in all the offices of the Corporation &c The last male heir of this family died in July 1788 and on the death of his widow the house and estate descended to a branch of the Cholmondeleys who are related to the Cowpers by marriage.

There is some exaggeration here, as many other families appear far more often in the lists of Chester MP's and offices of the Corporation, while the Cowpers (with a few exceptions) play a relatively minor part. Thomas would however, as noted stay in Chester and marry a local girl. The mood in Chester at the time appears to have been upbeat. The Midsummer Watch Parade was first held during the mayoralty of Richard Goodman (in 1498) - organised by the City Guilds. There is an obvious difficulty in reconciling the dates of the visit of Prince Arthur to Chester (4 August 1498 - 19 Sept 1498) with the midsummer festivities during Goodman's mayorality, but it does indicate the nexus of significant events in which the origins of the watch parade is nested: the completion of a part of the Pentice, good progress on building the Abbey, an up-swing of trade with Spain, and of course the visit of the Prince.

The arrival of Thomas Cowper in Chester (1498) coincided with the final decline of feudalism. This was partly since the military shifted from armies consisting of the nobility and their serfs to professional fighters thus reducing the nobility's claim on power, but also because the Black Death had reduced the nobility's hold over the lower classes by increasing the cost of labour. Under the Normans land held from the king by knight service brought with it the obligation of the tenant to serve his lord for forty days in the field. Apart from the church, the king owned all the land, although the situation as regards the Earls of Chester was a little more complicated until Henry III took the Earldom back into royal hands. The decline of feudalism in the Earldom of Chester is reflected in the fact that Arthur Tudor came closest of all among the Earls of Chester of his time to reaching his majority - there were effectively no adult Earls between the accession of Henry V (1413) and Henry Stuart's elevation to the Earldom in 1610 (Henry then promptly died of typhoid in 1612). Arthur's brother Henry VIII was created Earl of Chester in 1504, but was never invested and Henry VIII's son (Edward VI) was declared Earl in 1537, but again does not seem to have been invested. Notably, there was only a titular Earl of Chester for only 21 of the 81 years from 1480 until the Restoration in 1560. Clearly, given the history and the absence of an effective earl there was considerable scope for Chester and the other lands of the earldom to develop an independent administration with a local focus.

The Cowper family turns up time and again in the history of Chester and are mentioned several times below.

Town Hall sculpture - 1506 - Chester gets its "Great Charter". The Charter set out in some detail how democratic elections shoul;d be held in Chester, but the Assembly quickly reverted to excluding the bulk of the Freemen from any vote. The Town Hall sculptures do have many real historical associations but overall should be viewed with an element of "myth making" in mind.

The Great Charter

In 1506 Henry VII granted the "Great Charter" to Chester (see: Charters for further detail). This made the City of Chester (apart from Chester Castle) a county separate from the rest of Cheshire. The Mayor and Sheriffs were invested with authority to hold a Court in the Common Hall of the City for the trial of offences and claims of all kinds (except for treason) arising within the City, its suburbs, and hamlets, and Port-mote and Crown-mote courts were to be held before the Mayor. The forfeited goods of felons were to be the property of the citizens, who were also freed from the payment of all customs except those on wine and iron. The management and regulation of the Dee fisheries was vested in the Mayor and Sheriffs, as well as the control of the city markets. The twenty-four Aldermen were automatically justices of the peace by virtue of their office. As might be expected, putting the legal process into the hands of a largely self-electing body representing the mercantile community was a recipie for the development of vested interest. In practice, from a very early period after 1506, the Assembly itself elected men to fill any vacancies. There was a brief period of semi-democracy from 1693 to 1698, when the city returned to the old, "closed" system. It was not until 1761 that the freemen got to vote again, and the popular vote (for men) had to wait until 1835. The myth that the local administration is corrupt, inept and self-serving is commonplace, perhaps especially so in Chester where it may even have roots in the protective practices of the Tudor period.

Just why Henry VII should grant such a perculiar charter in 1506 is not at all clear. In 1502 his first son, Arthur, had died, leaving the ten year old future Henry VIII (born 1491) as the heir. Young Henry became the new Earl of Chester in February 1503, at the same time as he became Prince of Wales. Henry VII gave the boy few responsibilities even after the death of his brother Arthur. Young Henry was strictly supervised and did not appear in public and is said to have ascended the throne (in 1509, at the age of 17) "untrained in the exacting art of kingship". Henry appears to take taken little direct interest in affairs in Cheshire although those surrounding him did and this was to have consequences for the evolution of society in the region.

Not only was the Assembly keen to carve out a special role for itself but the same was also true of the church in Chester. Violence had flared between the abbey and the Assembly following the grant of the Great Charter over the issue of whether Abbot Birchenshawe could hold courts during the annual fair, and the Abbot considered that he was privileged such as to make the abbey exempt from all episcopal inspection (by Coventry and Lichfield). He also believed that he was further entitled to wear the full vestments of a bishop. The dispute over vestments was even referred to the Pope, who invoked the assistance of Thomas Wolsey (both cardinal and Lord Chancellor). Wolsey managed to remove Birchenshawe from the abbacy in 1524, but he was back after Wolsey's fall in 1529.

Henry Gee

The "reforming" mayor Henry Gee was a proto-Puritan in outlook and was mayor twice: 1533-4 and 1539-40. A brief look at his career illustrates how the administration of Chester developed in the years following the "Great Charter". Gee is believed to have been from Manchester, having been born around 1475. On Henry’s brass monument in Holy Trinity in Chester there is a plaque that commemorates him:

  • "Here under lyeth the body of Henry Gee twoo tymes mayer of this cetye of Chester whyche decessyd the vith day of September an. Dui. MV XLV on who is soulle Jhu hve mercy."

By profession Gee was a draper. He was sheriff of Chester in 1527-28 with Thomas Hall, under Thomas Smythe, then Mayor. Gee had been churchwarden at Holy Trinity in 1532 and had even then illustrated his pechant for record-keeping by making lists of church property.

Gee's Puritanism was of a fairly early type. Originally, "Puritan" was a pejorative term characterizing certain Protestant groups as extremist. Thomas Fuller, in his Church History, only dates the first use of the word to 1564. Archbishop Matthew Parker (6 August 1504 – 17 May 1575) used it and "precisian" with a sense similar to the modern "stickler". Although Gee's will includes some language which has a Puritan cast it is posssible that his characterisation as a Puritan comes more from his personal approach rather than any recieved teaching. It would only be a generation later that Chester, in particular St Peter would become associated with iconoclastic Puritanism.

Henry Gee's merchant mark. The sigil is a variant on the "sign of four", which is also the origin of the name of the famous Sherlock Holmes story (although it does not use the actual symbol). The sign is said to derive from the Greek letters Chi and Rho, the first two letters in the word "Christ", although the symbol may actually be much older.

Gee's reforms of the administration of Chester actually met with little success. He attempted to act against unlawful gaming, drink, and excessive celebrations on Christmas Day. He banned pigs running loose in the streets and set prices for ale. He introduced regulations concerning women’s proper dress and parties accompanying childbirth and churching. His regulations for the dress of women included that single women were forbidden to wear a cap and all women were forbidden to wear "any hatt of blacke or other Coloure" except when riding, or if they were ill.

He proposed to list and licence legitimate beggars by ward, and required "persones beyng hole & myghtie in body & able to laboure" to present themselves at the High Cross for work each day. He required all children aged six to attend school:

  • "For asmocheas ... Idlenes is the rote of all vice ... euery chylde or chyldryn being of the age of vj yeres or aboue vpon euery wourkeday shalbe set to the schoule to learne ther belefe & other deuocions prayers & learning or els to sum other good and uertuus laboure craft or occupacyon."

He even forbade women aged between 14 and 40 to serve ale, invoking the need to preserve the city’s good reputation in order to attract visitors and claiming that women in bars led to:

  • "prouocacions of wantonrys braules frays & other inconueyents" (provocation of wantonry, brawls, affrays and other inconvenience)

Gee's pronouncements are often seen as amusing. In 1533 Gee, ordered that:

  • "No manner person or persons go abroade in this citie mumming in any place within the said citie, their fayses being coveryd or disgysed (because) many dysordered persons have used themselves rayther all the day after idellie in vyse and wantoness then given themselves to holy contemplation and prayre the same sacryt holye and prynsepaul feast."

It has been suggested that Gee's apparent dislike of mummers was parodied by Terry Pratchet where one of his fictional rulers has a particular dislike of mime-artists.

Braun and Hogenberg's map of Chester (1581) shows a cross standing on the Roodee and a rather oversized horse.

Some of Gee's changes can be seen as an effort to help the poor following the Dissolution. While the abbey was not known for its charity, the nuns of Chester had done considerable charitable work and/or aided the poor with hand-outs. Fear of social unrest resulting from this loss of charity may have been the impetus for the mayoral ordinance for the regulation of the distribution of alms which bears no precise date but must have been drawn up in his second term.

One of the changes he tried to make was to prevent mayoral nomination of aldermen. Gee also reformed the way the elections were carried out, so that the elections had to be carried out at the assembly meetings. Similarly he tried to get rid of incompetent or unqualified people in civic roles. From this it can be inferred that by Gee's time a lot of the appointees to the Assemby and its officers were made by a closed club rather than any wider democratic process.

The first Assembly minute book was begun on the initiative of the list-obsessed Gee during his second mayoralty, 1539-40. It seems to have been intended as a reference book, for the first folios contain copies of earlier records, for example a list of mayors and sheriffs from 1326; a description of the city boundaries and streets; a list of officers’ fees; and a list of Corporation property. Assembly orders dating from c.1453 are also copied in and it is not until c.1570 that decisions taken at Assembly meetings begin to be recorded on a systematic basis.

Gee's lasting contribution to Chester was the establishment of horse racing on the Roodee. This (and a foot race) replaced a local variant of "mob football" (see: Chamber's Book of days) which nowadays might be called "no-rules football". It has been described as follows:

  • "upon Goteddsday (Shrove Tuesday) at the Crosse upon the Rood Dee, before the Mayor of the Cittie did offer unto the company of Drapers an homage, a ball of leather, called a footeball, of the value of 3s 4d, which was played for by the Shoemakers and Saddlers to bring it to the house of the Mayor or either of the Sherriffs. Much harm was done, some having their bodies bruised and crushed, some their armes, heads, legges"

Gee, who was himself a draper, decided that this violent pastime should be replaced by a horse-race, with a silver bell as a prize. Victors were later, in 1610 and afterwards, awarded the "Chester Bells", a set of decorative bells for their horse's bridle, and from 1744 the "Grosvenor Gold Cup", a small drinking tumbler made from solid gold (later silver). The story that the terms "gee-gee" and "gee-up!" as applied to horses is derived from Gee's name is a myth - it was in use long before he was born.

Henry Gee has therefore become something of a mythical figure partly because he introduced Assembly records which cast him in a very clear light to future historians, partly because many of his "reforms" seem amusing or radical and partly because he can be painted as a socially progressive prototype Puritan who springs into action at the very time that the monasteries are being dissolved. Overall, his reputation and historical importance may be largely a product of his association with the establishment of horse-racing in Chester. He died of the "Sweating Sickness" (see: Pandemic).

Cheshire and England

As noted above, the Palatine administration of Cheshire had inherited quite remarkable rights of self government, or at least believed that it had. Before 1237 (when Henry III took the earldom as a royal holding) the Earldom of Chester enjoyed an unusual degree of financial independence of the crown. Even thereafter, when the king was earl, there were legal arguments that the king did not hold the lands within the county as king, but as earl. Previously, the effective heads of the legal system in Cheshire, save for the crime of treason, were the Earls of Chester rather than the King. Its accounts, drawn up by the Chamberlain, were audited by the royal Exchequer and enrolled on the pipe rolls only during vacancies of the earldom. After the transfer of the earldom into royal hands its financial institutions were further strengthened. The Cheshire accounts were again audited at Westminster when the king was earl, but in the years 1254-1272, when the Lord Edward (later Edward I) held Cheshire, the county's finances were administered and audited at the Exchequer of Chester. However it would be a step too far to consider Cheshire as a thing apart. Richard II had muddied the waters even further by raising Chester to a principality, with himself as prince. The details of the admistrative relationship between the county and the crown are discussed further in the links and are only touched upon briefly herein to provide background for some events in the Tudor period, and to illustrate yet another element of the "myth" of the Palatinate.


It would be in the Tudor period that Cheshire would come into direct conflict with central government over taxation. This was not the first such conflict. In 1450, Abbot John Saughall had headed the list of prominent men who petitioned Henry VI against the imposition in Cheshire of the tax voted by the Leicester parliament of 1450. They had stated uncompromisingly that (or so they believed):

Henry VI (6 December 1421 – 21 May 1471) - appeared to agree that Chester/Cheshire was effectively an independent state, then went insane and was deposed for a while. According to the historian Robin Storey, "If Henry's insanity was a tragedy, his recovery was a national disaster"
  • "... the said county is and hath been a county palatine as well before the conquest of England as since distinct & separate from your crown of England within which recte: county ye & all your noble progenitors since it came into your hands & all earls of the same before that time have had your high courts parliaments to hold at your wills, your chancery exchequer, your justice to hold pleas as well of the crown as common pleas & by authority of such parliaments to make or admit laws within the same such as be thought expedient & behoveful for the will of you and of the inheritors & inhabitants of the same county & the enheritors of the said county be not chargeable nor liable nor have been bound charged nor hurt of their land, goods nor possessions within the same county nor the inhabitants of the same county of their bodies before this time by authority of any parliament held in other places than within the same county by any act but such as that by their own common assent assembled by authority within the same county have agreed unto."

There seems to be no basis for the assertion that Chester/Cheshire had somehow been a separate "state" before the Norman Conquest. Remarkably, they were successful: Henry VI accepted the petition in 1451. Of course, Henry had a few other things to worry about, the Hundred Year's War was going badly and rebellions were breaking out in England. Henry was also about to have a major mental breakdown which would leave him insane. That same year, following an attempt to carry out in Cheshire a resumption of royal grants, nearly a hundred gentlemen denied that the county palatine was subject to such acts of the English Parliament. They asserted that:

  • "All the tenants, and lieges, in the said county have not been among the members of any parliament and up to this time have been undisturbed and not bound by virtue of any Act in any parliament held outside the said county; unless they were specially required by any earl of the same county to pass any such Act within the said county, and assembled in Chester Castle in a certain accustomed house there, or in any other place in the said county assigned by the said earl, and there gave agreement for those same people to any such Act."
Said to be a portrait of Sir Piers Dutton (c1480–1545) from the National Gallery (NT 1316181), mayor of Chester (1512-1514). However the clothing seems wrong. If this is Piers Dutton then it is the earliest known portrait of a mayor of Chester pre-dating that of William Aldersey from the Grosvenor Museum (dated 1615, purchased 2012). It is possible this is a later John Dutton.

Beyond the control of the crown, despite the King (or his son) being Earl of Chester, early Tudor Cheshire was a lawless gangland in which warring local magnates battled for power. There was apparently an enduring faction struggle in Tudor Cheshire between the various Brereton clans and the Dutton family. In 1538, Bishop Roland Lee (as Lord President of the Marches) complained to Thomas Cromwell that the Brereton-Dutton feud "was destroying all order in the county". The protagonists were then Sir William Brereton of Brereton, the deputy-chamberlain, and Sir Piers Dutton of Halton, but thirty years earlier Dutton had been quarrelling with Sir Randolph Brereton, a quarrel which had ranged behind the chamberlain the Savage family, Sir William Pole, Richard and William Bone and the abbot of St Werburgh's. One reason for the involvement of the church in these disputes was that the feuding resulted in the diversion of cash and assets from what was to become the Cathedral and Vale Royal in the form of pensions and bribes.

As the courtier William Brereton stood in the way of Cromwell's plan to gain control of the Palatinate, he would have to go, and Cromwell soon found a pretext to have him executed. In May 1536, Brereton, the queen's brother George Boleyn, 2nd Viscount Rochford, Sir Henry Norris, Sir Francis Weston and a musician, Mark Smeaton, were tried and executed for treason and adultery with Anne Boleyn, the king's second wife. Brereton (and probably the others) were most likely innocent of the charges. The plot against Boleyn may have been started either by Cromwell or the king, but it was all to easy to include Brereton among the accused and dispose of him.


As part of a county palatine with a "parliament" of its own until the early-sixteenth century, Chester was not enfranchised (sent no MPs) until the Chester and Cheshire (Constituencies) Act 1542 (34 & 35 Hen VIII. c. 13). In 1283 Chester had received a special summons to send two Members to the Parliament at Shrewsbury which passed sentence on David of Wales, but received no further summons until enfranchised.

In 1543 Chester was made a double-member constituency. It may have sent a representative (possibly Sir Lawrence Smith) to parliament in 1545, when an Act for the maintenance of highways leading to Chester (37 Hen. VIII, c.37) was passed, but the name of the MP(s) is not certain. Its first recorded M.P.s were returned in 1547: recorder Richard Sneyd and wealthy local merchant William Aldersley. It seems likely that until the later 17th century the electorate comprised all adult males. In practice, the franchise was exercised by the corporation, which selected or at least approved the candidates. The writs for the elections were delivered by the chamberlain of the county palatine’s lieutenant to the sheriffs who acted as returning officers. The elections held in county court were attended by about 60 electors, whose names were listed on the election indentures. The description of the electors as the mayor, aldermen and citizens, and the total involved on each occasion, leave little doubt that the franchise was limited to the governing body.

The city resisted attempts by outsiders to nominate candidates or stand themselves. Instead, leading townsmen were usually elected: between 1547 and 1659 only two of 32 M.P.s were neither aldermen nor fee'd lawyers. The recorder was almost invariably chosen, with the result that some, notably Richard Sneyd and William Gerard, acquired extensive parliamentary experience. Otherwise, repeated election was infrequent. During the later 16th century the city's M.P.s helped secure provisions favourable to Chester in legislation concerning recognizances, the removal of weirs in the Dee (which did not happen), poor relief, and the regulation of taverns. In 1554 they were asked to complain about the incorporation of the Merchants' company, and during the later 1580s to secure a grant for the New Haven.

Sometimes local quarrels influenced the choice of M.P.s. During Mary's reign one of the seats alternated between Thomas Massey and William Aldersey, possibly because of the controversy over the Merchants' company. Similarly, the choice of William Glazier in 1571 and 1572 may have been an attempt to compromise in the dispute with the palatinate exchequer.

The Exchequer

In the Middle Ages the ordinary receipts of Chester included the profits of the demesne lands; fines and amercements; fees of the seal; forest dues; and customs. The reorganisation of government finances and the creation of the new revenue courts in the 1530s stripped away some of these sources. By 1547 the Court of Augmentations had assumed full responsibility for the financial administration of crown lands, and those functions passed to the Exchequer in 1554. In 1559 customs revenues were also lost. The Exchequer of Chester retained only resources such as judicial receipts and fees of the seal, and its importance as a financial institution declined rapidly.

The Exchequer of Chester also had local responsibility for collecting national taxes. Until 1540 Cheshire had no parliamentary representation and did not have to pay aids and subsidies; after 1540 these were levied in the palatinate as elsewhere in the kingdom. The consent of the county community was required for raising the mize, a local extraordinary tax. On several occasions the county's charter of liberties was confirmed by the crown in return for the tax, which came to be viewed as the cornerstone of palatine independence. However, it was also disliked for its uneven distribution, being levied on the basis of assessments fixed in or before the fourteenth century. In the last years of the Palatinate, the Exchequer lost to the English Chancery its competence over the issue of many important categories of letters, such as those concerning the officials of the Court of Great Sessions. The number of documents enrolled fell considerably, and their subjects were restricted largely to records of appointment and the admission of attorneys at the Exchequer of Chester. A few deeds and pleas were also included.

The Exchequer maintained its position as a court of equity well into the eighteenth century and remained popular for the settlement of claims for small debts. Its business fell off dramatically thereafter, and in 1816 its few remaining officials were either infirm or ignorant of its procedures.

There is a little to see of the remains of the Exchequer of Chester and it dates from much later. Robert Foulkes of Llechryd, Denbighshire, was "deputy baron of the court of exchequer of Chester", and also held Boughton Hall. He was born about 1712, was admitted a freeman of Chester as esquire in 1733, and died in 1787. Robert's son was the "scholar and divine" Peter Foulkes (1676–1747), who was baptised at St Mary on the Hill and later studied at Oxford. When the family came into a bequest via Peter Foulkes in the 1700's some of the money appears to have been spent on the Exchequer's residence (i.e. the family home) at 25 Castle Street, and an inscription around a circular window set in the cornice high on the front reads: DOMINUS ILLUMINATIO (almost the opening words of Psalm 27) ANNO DOMINI 1707. "Dominus Illuminatio Mea" (the correct quote) is also the current motto of Oxford University.

The Barons

Six baronies survived into the Tudor period, and they continued to exert a powerful influence, derived from their historical status, out of all proportion to their wealth. Their power was mainly expressed through the baronial courts, each of which had jurisdiction over several manors and townships. As late as 1597 a murderer was hanged on the authority of Thomas Venables, baron of Kinderton, although it is not clear whether he believed that his power in this case derived from the court baron of his manor or his baron’s court.

In other parts of England Cheshire was considered an undeveloped, backward and ill-governed backwater, although Chester was the largest town in the region. By 1520 it was among the sixteeen largest English towns with an economy similar in size to that of Lincoln or Hereford. Local government may have been corrupt but it does not, in fact, seem to have beeen ineffective, just not as closely under central control as those "in the south" might have wished.


Henry VII died of tuberculosis at Richmond Palace on 21 April 1509 and was buried in the chapel he commissioned in Westminster Abbey next to his wife, Elizabeth. He was succeeded by his second son, Henry VIII (reigned 1509–47).

The Reformation (alternatively named the Protestant Reformation or the European Reformation) was a movement within Western Christianity in the sixteenth-century Europe that posed a religious and political challenge to the Roman Catholic Church and papal authority in particular. As noted above, the Reformation had roots in England dating back to the times of Richard II and John Wycliffe (c. 1320s – 31 December 1384). Protests against Rome began in earnest when Martin Luther, an Augustinian monk and professor at the university of Wittenberg, called in 1517 for a reopening of the debate on the sale of indulgences. The quick spread of discontent occurred to a large degree because of the printing press and the resulting swift movement of both ideas and documents. The separation of the Church of England from Rome under Henry VIII, beginning in 1529 and completed in 1537 brought England alongside this broad Reformation movement.

The roof at St Mary on the Hill is relic of the Reformation having been obtained from the dissolved Basingwerk abbey.

The roots of Henry's dispute with the Pope illustrate yet another aspect of the Tudor tendency towards myth making. Henry first argues that his brother had never consummated his marriage to Catherine of Aragon and obtained a dispensation from the Pope on this basis. Later, having begun his pursuit of Anne Boleyn, he claimed that the dispensation was obtained under false pretences and his marriage was therefore null and void. A story exists that even the blood-stained bedsheets from Arthur and Catherine's wedding night turned up as evidence, but this may well be a myth. The new Pope refused to accept the argument and Wolsey got the blame (he died while awaiting trial). Historians are divided on whether the English Reformation was triggered by the argument over marriage or by Henry's lavish spending and a desire to aquire the immense monastic wealth. Across much of continental Europe, the seizure of monastic property was associated with mass discontent among the common people and the lower level of clergy and civil society against powerful and wealthy ecclesiastical institutions, so the wind was already blowing hard in the direction of the dissolution even before Henry had his spat with the Pope.

Tangible evidence of the Reformation in Chester includes the conversion of the abbey to the Cathedral, but there are also some interesting details which are peculiarly local. The demolition of many monastic buildings led to re-use of materials by the "official" church. The outstanding roof to be seen inside St Mary on the Hill 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.

Henry VIII

Henry VIII had few direct dealings with Chester. In 1522 the city was called upon to supply forces to defend the Scottish borders, and the mayor mustered a force of sixty soldiers to serve with Thomas Howard, earl of Surrey. In 1544 two Cowpers (Robert and Thomas) accompanied Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, with an English army, to capture Leith and Edinburgh from the Kingdom of Scotland. Both Cowpers died shortly after their return from Scotland, although there is nothing to say whether this was due to campaign privations or injury. The attack on Scotland was remarkable because it opened with a naval attack and the burning of Edinburgh. The pay books and the muster-lists from the campaign survive. A book of 'conduct money' notes where the captains came from, e.g., Hugh Chomley from Cholmondeley, Cheshire with 100 men, paid for travelling 130 miles to Edinburgh and back. Other "Cheshire names" in the lists include William Brereton. Robert and Thomas were among the seven Cheshire men made esquires and granted silver spurs by Seymour at Leith, May 11th, 1344.

These plaster mouldings at Leche House are part of the "proof" that Catherine of Aragon was in some way associated with the house. Quite a few of the stories associated with the building appear to be later myths created by an antinque-seller who had a business there.

However there are some intersting "relics" of Catherine of Aragon at Leche House in Northgate Street. Simpson records the following about some decorations in the "bower" at the rear of the house:

  • On the north side is a shield which, it is said, bore the arms of Catherine of Aragon, but nothing is to be seen on it at the present time. Above this is a smaller shield bearing a bull’s head with horns; on either side are flying horses, some scroll work, roses, and pomegranates. It is evident, therefore, that this decoration has reference to this Spanish princess, for she had for her badges the rose, a sheaf of arrows, and the pomegranate, the latter of which she introduced into this country.".
  • "On the opposite side of the room the Tudor rose is very projninent, as also is a small shield containing a bull’s head, similar to that on the north side. This decoration evidently refers to King Henry VIII., who, it will be remembered, took for his first wife Catherine of Arragon, the young widow of his brother, Prince Arthur";
  • ..."the Prince of Wales feathers, with P on the dexter, and C on the sinister side, the whole enclosed by the garter, with coronet above; and on either side a flaur-de-lys. The letters P and C appear to allude to Catherine...";

Leche House seems to have been extensively rebuilt and redecorated in the period 1603-25 and just why it should have these references to Catherine of Aragon (who died in 1536) remains something of a mystery (see: Leche House for some speculations).

Werburgh's shrine at the Cathedral. Removed in the Reformation, reused as a tomb, then a bishops throne and eventually restored.

Henry's "land grab" from the church was a bonanza for the local gentry, who had been feuding with the monastic land-owners for years. There was a frenzy of wholesale destruction, such as at Vale Royal as monastic properties were converted into country estates. Other than at the Cathedral, little is left to see of the monastic buildings in the city itself, which were located in Blackfriars, Greyfriars and Whitefriars although the street-names live on. An archway from the nuns' convent survives in Grosvenor Park. The three houses of friars in Chester surrendered to Richard Ingworth, suffragan bishop of Dover, on the same day, 15 August 1538. The majority of their assets were delivered to the mayor and certain aldermen of Chester, suggesting close collaboration of the civic authorities in the surrender. The last abbey in the county to be suppressed was St Werburgh’s in Chester on 20 January 1540, one of the last in England to be dissolved. The abbey precincts were adopted for use as the cathedral when the new diocese was formed in 1541. The dedication was changed from St Werburgh to Christ and the Blessed Virgin, although if asked, many Cestrians will still refer to the Cathedral as "St Werburghs". The shrine of St Werburgh was removed but otherwise it is likely that the interior of the abbey church continued largely unchanged. The monks of St Werburgh’s were all either pensioned or joined the chapter of the new Cathedral within a year of the foundation. Curiously, Werburgh's shrine would resurface in the Stuart period and play a small part in the run-up to Civil War (see: Bruen).

The popular reaction to the Dissolution included the revolt known as the Pilgrimage of Grace, an uprising that began in Yorkshire in October 1536, before spreading to other parts of Northern England including Cumberland, Northumberland, and north Lancashire. Cheshire did not join the revolt which failed and led to the execution of its leaders. The reasons why Cheshire did not join the revolt possibly lie in the fact that the abbey at Chester was not particularly popular and that in the county the local gentry were more concerned with their own squabbles as well as the prospect of gain from the Dissolution. A later "commission for pacification" heard that:

  • ".. ij (two) men Rule all Chesshyre which be sumthyng at varyance & can not Agree amongs theym selff that is to wete Sir William Brereton and Sir perys Dutton".

In fact, "revolt" in Cheshire had almost broken out in 1535 when Dutton undertook his first attempt to have the abbot of Norton removed. As might be expected, the matter also involved the Breretons. There are documents from the time reporting events in some detail, but as might be expected from the Tudor period, later historians have disputed whether events were reported accurately or fabricated. At Vale Royal the local population seems to have supported the dissolution, perhaps because the abbey's tennants had long-running disputes with their landlord.

Edward VI

Edward VI (12 October 1537 – 6 July 1553) was the King of England and Ireland from 28 January 1547 until his death in 1553. He was crowned on 20 February at the age of nine. During his reign, the realm was governed by a regency council because he never reached maturity. The transformation of the Church of England into a recognisably Protestant body also occurred under Edward, who took great interest in religious matters. Although his father, Henry VIII, had severed the link between the Church and Rome, Henry VIII had never permitted the renunciation of Catholic doctrine or ceremony. It was during Edward's reign that Protestantism was established for the first time in England with reforms that included the abolition of clerical celibacy and the Mass, and the imposition of compulsory services in English. It was also during his reign that the movement against religious icons and the disposal of church vestments and plate gained momentum.

Edwards government needed money for its war with the Scots. The plan of this "rough wooing" being to enforce the arrangement of a marriage between the young Edward VI and Mary, Queen of Scots. To fund this attention turned to the chantries, which in Chester were represented by the fraternity of St Anne (at St Johns) and that of St George (at St Peter). These had built up considerable wealth from bequests for saying masses for souls of the dead in Purgatory. The Fraternity of St Anne owned much property in Chester but was dissolved in 1547 and their building in Grosvenor Park was purchased by Sir Hugh Cholmondeley (one of the commissioners who disbanded the fraternity) and converted into his town house (destroyed in the Civil War). A more extensive list of their property includes:

The ruins at the eastern end of St Johns show both the early Norman round arches and the post-crusader pointed arches. The dereliction of parts of the church is in part due to impoverishment by the dissolution of the Fraternity of St Anne during the Reformation.
  • "Possessions of the Fraternity of Saint Anne in the City of Chester." (First Account.) "Rents and farms in the City " Saynt Anne's House with houses, gardens, ftc., demised 12 Feb. 1 Edw. iv. for the term of 100 years. Foregate Strete. Cowlane. Seynt Johns Lane. Estgate Strete. Castell Lane. Iremonger Rowe. Northgate Strete. Parsons Lane. Watergate Streete." The messuages and tenements here mentioned are entered as leased to divers persons for terms of years, at various dates from the reign of Edw. iv." - "Rentes and farms in divers towns called Felde Renttes " Newton. Hole near Chester. Annes Heye near Seynt Annes Crosse"

St Johns had already suffered from the Reformation in 1539 by the removal of its most prestigious relic the "Holy Rood" (yet another supposed fragment of the "True Cross" from which it derived much of its pilgrim income). It is possible that the myth of Harold retiring to the Hermitage next to St Johns gained a boost in response to the "Rood of Chester" being removed. The fame of the Rood had spread far and wide: in the 14th century the oath "by the Rood of Chester!" was evidently commonplace, being mentioned in William Langland's great poem the "Vision of Piers the Ploughman" (see part V line 5.460):

  • " And yet wole I yelde ayein. [y]if I so muche have, Al that I wikkedly wan sithen I wit hadde; And though my liflode lakke, leten I nelle That ech man shal have his er I hennes wende; And with the residue and the remenaunt, bi the Rode of Chestre, I shal seken truthe erst er I se Rome!"

It also turns up in the less famous "Richard the Redeless" ("For reson is no repreff, be the rode of Chester." - i.e "for reason is no reprieve, by the Rood of Chester!"). It is mentioned in Foxe's "Book of Martyrs":

  • "What should I speak of Darvel Gartheren, of the rood of Chester, of Thomas Becket, of our lady of Walsingham with an infinite multitude more of the like affinity all which stocks and blocks of cursed idolatry Cromwell stirred up by the providence of God removed them out of the people's way ...."

Curiously, all four of the instances cited by Foxe have links to Chester:

  • The reference to "Darvel Gartheren" is to Llandderfel another church on the River Dee which has a stag-based foundation legend (like several churches on the River Dee) and was associated with a wooden relic;
  • The rood of Chester is self explanatory;
  • The girdle of Thomas Becket was a relic in possession of the nuns of Chester (apparently he had several as others also claimed it). Nothing is known of the nuns' relic beyond the fact of its existence in 1536 and Becket had many other relics to which Foxe might be referring;

The creation of the bishopric of Chester in 1541 provided a fresh threat to St. John's. The archdeacon's court, hitherto held in the collegiate church, was removed in that year to the Cathedral. Although the dean's claim to be exempt from the authority of the new bishop was recognized in 1542, the privilege was soon lost. Thereafter, the college seems to have feared the worst, and disposed of property in a series of very long leases. Finally, in 1547 or 1548 the college, with its staff of dean, seven canons (five with livings elsewhere), and four vicars, was dissolved.

The effect of impoverishment on St Johns can be seen to this day: by about 1550, the church was reduced in size. The transepts were entirely destroyed when the size of the church was reduced to adapt it for parochial use only. Those parts of the church which were no longer in use had the lead removed from their roofs and "given" to the king, while all of the bells save one were removed. The rebuilt central steeple lasted until 1572, when the steeple again collapsed. Ormerod writes:

This "Tudor" house in Park Street was actually built as recently as 1881 (by Edwards), but connected with Edward VI (died 1553) as the quotation is from one of his coins. The myth that the coin was Roman has become common and features in several documentaries about Chester.
  • "..in 1572 a great portion of the of the whole steeple from top to bottom fell upon the west end of the church and broke down a great part of it".

In 1572 it seems that there was also a partial collapse of the north-west tower and in 1574 there was a greater collapse of this tower which destroyed the western bays of the nave. This was repaired around 1581. Hemingway writes:

  • "1581 - The parishioners of St John's having obtained the said church of the queen began to build some part of it again and cut off all the chapels above the choir."

The reformation was not the end of St Johns woes. The repaired western tower would be weakened during the Civil War and collapsed on Good Friday (15th April), 1881 leaving ruins at both ends of the church. According to legend St Johns was the resting place of Harold Godwinson: who survived the Battle of Hastings to eventually retire to the Hermitage. Harold is said to still haunt the locale - he seems an appropriate residential ghost for a church which has survived so much.

Another "Tudor myth" of a sort can be seen in Park Street in Chester. On the front of one building are the words "The Fear of the Lord is a Fountain of Life". This is often said to be taken from a "Roman Coin" found when the house was being built (in 1881) - it is also found in Proverbs [14:27] (so unlikely to be on a Roman coin). However, almost the same words: "TIMOR . DOMINE . FONS . VITAE" were struck onto a (now incredibly rare) issue of silver shillings of Edward VI in 1549, as well as on the gold half-sovereign of the same year (and some groats amd other coins). Thomas Seymour was a plotter like his brother Edward, and, like his brother was beheaded. The crime he was finally charged with was stealing "pocket money" for Edward VI (and telling the young King his brother Edward was witholding pocket money) - a cunning plan!. Perhaps it is no co-incidence that in the month before Thomas was executed the coins associated with the house in Park Street were first struck and issued.

In his "devise for the succession", Edward passed over his sisters' claims to the throne in favour of the unfortunate Lady Jane Grey - monarch of England from 10 July until 19 July 1553, and executed the following year at the age of 16. The complications of succession in Tudor times changed the legally recognised heirs to the thone on several occasions. At one time the next in line to Elizabeth was Margaret Stanley, Countess of Derby, and mother to Ferdinando Stanley (who may eventually have been poisoned). As Lord Strange, Ferdinando may have employed William Shakespeare and this has led to the speculation that Ferdinando's brother William Stanley was the true author of Shakespeare's works (see: Shakespeare and Chester).

Bloody Mary

George Marsh is executed by badly bungled burning at Boughton.

Mary I (18 February 1516 – 17 November 1558), also known as Mary Tudor, and as "Bloody Mary" by her Protestant opponents, was Queen of England and Ireland from July 1553 until her death in 1558. She is best known for her vigorous attempt to reverse the English Reformation, which had begun during the reign of her father, Henry VIII. Her attempt to restore to the church the property confiscated in the previous two reigns was largely thwarted by parliament, but during her five-year reign, Mary had over 280 religious dissenters burned at the stake in the Marian persecutions. Mayor William Aldersey’s history of Chester related how:

  • "that good prince Edward dyed the fyfte or sixte of Julie 1553 and then Quene Marie succeaded, who altered religion, and many godlie busshopps and prechers suffered for the testimony of the truthe".

A catholic queen meant that many bishops were replaced. The new bishop of Chester was George Cotes, a Yorkshireman whose previous connection with the diocese was as a canon and prebendary of the cathedral since 1543. Chester's clearest link to Mary is through George Marsh, who was, following a trial before Coates, burned at the stake at Boughton the traditional site for Execution at Chester. The location is marked by an obelisk.

The Cowpers turn up again at the execution. 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 - the Vice Chamberlain of Chester, whose name is variously given as Sawrey or Cawdry), a stubborn Marsh is uttering the words "not upon that condition" while the faggots are being lit. A rescue attempt by Sheriff Cowper failed. What exactly happened, is unclear, but the attempt was thwarted and Cowper fled – from Chester over the River Dee bridge at Farndon, to Holt in Wales and "freedom". As a result, his family were supposedly ruined, losing their lands - and there Cowper hid until Bloody Queen Mary died (in 1558). The reign of Mary saw 289 men, women and children burnt at the stake and 112 died in prison. John Cowper, although previously deprived of his lands was mayor of Chester in 1561 (as Bloody Mary was dead by then, and Elizabeth was queen). Under Elizabeth John got some of his assets back, but not all of them.

As for Marsh, his execution was said to be somewhat bungled with the wind blowing the fire out (or partly away from him) and a hasty search being made for more wood. After his death his ashes were collected by his friends and buried in the nearby Saint Giles' Cemetery. Foxe provides the following details, but we cannot be sure how much of it is true:

  • "The fire being unskilfully made, and the wind driving it in eddies, he suffered great extremity, which notwithstanding he bore with Christian fortitude. When he had been a long time tormented in the fire without moving, having his flesh so broiled and puffed up, that they who stood before him could not see the chain wherewith he was fastened, and therefore supposed that he had been dead, suddenly he spread abroad his arms, saying. Father of heaven have mercy upon me! and so yielded his spirit into the hands of the Lord. Upon this, many of the people said he was a martyr and died gloriously patient. This caused the bishop shortly after to make a sermon in the cathedral church, and therein he affirmed, that the said Marsh was a heretic, burnt as such, and was a firebrand in hell."

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 (one of the many versions of) 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"
Legend of the Blue Posts Inn, Chester, 1558 by Martha Hodkinson (1864) - here is Elizabeth Mottershead doing her trick with the cards

The obelisk to George Marsh at Boughton was proposed by Nessie Brown of Richmond Bank, Boughton, in 1898. As recorded in the Courant of 15th June 1898 this replaced an earlier memorial stone. Once the news that Nessie was promoting the monument had spread a furore ensued. There was a considerable number of Catholics in the city and they staged a series of vehement protests as well as writing letters to the press as published on 27th April 1898 and 4th May 1898. Other letters took the opposite view - one of the 22nd June 1898 refers to the monument as:

  • "an ornament to the city, a wholesome reminder to our children, and a permanent protest against the unscriptural claims and intolerant assumptions of the Papacy."

Despite all the hostile feeling engendered, the erection of the memorial finally received the sanction of the City Council having once been almost refused. The story made news far and wide.

Not everything in Chester went against the Protestants: a further event in Chester led to an enduring legend from the end of Mary's reign. Hughes (and many others) tell the following story of Bridge Street:

  • "A little way down this Row was an ancient tavern called the Blue Posts supposed to be the identical house now occupied by Mr Brittain woollen draper. In this house a curious incident is stated to have occurred in 1558 which tradition has handed down to us in the following terms. It appears that Dr Henry Cole, Dean of St Paul's, was charged by Queen Mary with a commission to the council of Ireland which had for its object the persecution of the Irish protestants. The doctor stopped one night here on his way to Dublin and put up at the Blue Posts then kept by a Mrs Mottershead. In this house he was visited by the mayor to whom in the course of conversation he related his errand in confirmation of which he took from his cloak bag a leather box exclaiming in a tone of exultation: "Here is what will lash the heretics of Ireland!". This announcement was caught by the landlady who had a brother in Dublin and while the commissioner was escorting his worship down stairs, the good woman prompted by an affectionate regard for the safety of her brother opened the box took out the commission and placed in lieu thereof a pack of cards with the knave of clubs uppermost. This the doctor carefully packed up without suspecting the transformation nor was the deception discovered till his arrival in the presence of the lord deputy and privy council at the castle of Dublin. The surprise of the whole assembly on opening the supposed commission may be more easily imagined than described. The doctor in short was immediately sent back for a more satisfactory authority but before he could return to Ireland Queen Mary had breathed her last. It should be added that the ingenuity and affectionate zeal of the landlady were rewarded by Elizabeth with a pension of £40 a year."

There does seem to have been some special relevance assigned to the Jack of Clubs, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I there were reports of the Jack of Clubs being left hanging in desecrated churches.


William Aldersey’s history of Chester related how Queen Elizabeth came to the throne in 1558 and "restored the truthe of the gospell". A change of religion meant another change of bishop and the new incumbert was William Downham (c. 1511 — 1577). The new bishop was delayed from taking his seat for three years and then faced with two opposing camps - extremists on the reforming side like Christopher Goodman and his supporters, and die-hard Catholics. In the 19th century he was percieved as very rigid, although modern historians have chacterised him as:

  • "..a weak man, dominated by his sharp-tongued wife, and reluctant to offend the conservative gentry among whom he made his friends.."

The truth is probably somewhere between the two. Downham certainly appears not to have understood the local gentry and his commissions into their behaviour make it clear that he did not condone their domestic arrangements. Not a way to make friends. In a series of increasingly stringent orders and recognisances the commissioners attempted to force Sir Thomas Venables to "put away from his Cohabitacion and company Anne Broke his pretensed wief" and to take back his legal wife. Sir Rowland Stanley was accused of adultery and ordered to "bringe in the bodie" of his mistress and "not at any future tyme hereafter resort unto company wherin the said Sibell shall fortune to be". Sir John Holcroft was ordered "that he should put away Anne Moreton from his Cohabitacon" and Charles Mainwaring was ordered to "take and Receive into his Cohabitacon Elizabeth his weif".

Downham's main problem at Chester appears to have been the growing influence of the Puritans and their extreme protestant views. He attempted to discipline both sides of the religious divide and apparently filled-up Northgate jail - the chief jailor complained that "the said prison is pestered with manie prisoners". However it was not a large prison and these can hardly be considered mass arrests. Despite his efforts the queen wrote to him: "‘we find great lack in you being sorry to have our former expectation in this sort deceaved" although she appears to be referring to his lack of success in Lancashire, a far flung part of his huge diocese. It was Lancashire and Yorkshire that had hosted the problems from the "Pilgrimage of Grace" and it was again in Lancashire that there was religious turmoil during the Northern Rebellion of 1569.

One figure involved in Downhams tribulations appears to be Robert Dudley: the favourite of Elizabeth I from her accession until his death. He was a suitor for the Queen's hand for many years, but also a noted supporter and protector of Puritans including such extremists as Chester's Christopher Goodman. Robert Dudley's private life interfered with his court career and vice versa. When his first wife, Amy Robsart, conveniently fell down a flight of stairs and died in 1560, he was free to marry the Queen. However, the resulting scandal very much reduced his chances. Dudley's convoluted schemes to impress the queen may have included one or more performances of Queen Dido in which he or his associates appear to have been involved.

Perhaps a fair view of Downham is that he was a reasonable man who did his best to maintain the Elizabethan Religious Settlement under difficult but not impossible circumstances.

The Economy in Chester

Chester's population in 1563 of c. 4,700 (or c. 5,200 if mean household size was 5) put it in the second rank of provincial towns, half the size of York and a third that of Norwich. Within the North-West, however, it was the largest town for sixty miles around. The city probably reached that population after half a century of growth following the recession of the later Middle Ages. It evidently grew quickly between 1563 and 1586, reaching perhaps 6,130, an estimate projected from the single parish of St Michael's, which had 72 householders in 1563 and 94 in 1586. Such growth is consonant with Chester's known economic expansion over the same period. A population rise of 30.4 per cent in 23 years, or 1.32 per cent a year, far exceeded the likely natural growth, and must have been fuelled by immigration. The number of freemen increased from c. 400 in 1555 to c. 600 in 1573. The population of c. 6,130 in 1586, however, was the highest level reached in the 16th century. If St Johns and St. Michael's parishes were typical, numbers fell to c. 5,610 in 1597 and c. 5,220 in 1602. Poverty and vagrancy were intractable problems throughout the period. Beggars came from Wales, the Isle of Man, Ireland, and poorer parts of the NorthWest, drawn no doubt by the prospect of alms, pickings, or casual work in a city which was experiencing economic growth. In 1572 the corporation raised an assessment to pay for a house of correction, with equipment and raw materials for clothmaking, on which the able-bodied poor could be set to work. The house opened outside the Northgate in 1576, under the supervision of three aldermen and the management of two masters.

From the mid 16th century the Assembly was more closely involved in economic regulation, both through the guilds and directly. It confirmed that only freemen could trade in the city, and in 1557 fully recognized admission to the freedom by purchase or apprenticeship, allowing outsiders to purchase their freedom especially when they followed a useful occupation. Leather (including Tanning) was the most important manufacturing industry, employing perhaps more than 250 workers in the late 16th century. Shoemakers, glovers, tanners, saddlers, skinners, and curriers together formed more than a fifth of the freemen admitted between 1558 and 1625, with shoemakers first, glovers second, and tanners fourth among all occupations. The tanners, curriers, and wealthier glovers sold wholesale, whereas poorer glovers and the shoemakers and saddlers bought tanned leather and sold their products retail. Sources of skins and hides included Ireland as well as butchers and graziers in the neighbourhood, and some tanners had their own farms. One of the most successful leather manufacturers was Robert Brerewood, who died in 1601 with goods valued at almost £1,600: he worked as both a glover and a tanner, was (untypically) also a retailer, and also dealt in wool from sheepskins and timber purchased for the bark.

Throughout the 16th century Chester was the largest port in north-west England, despite the protestations about the state of the river. Although it carried only a small proportion of the country's trade, ranking 12th in a list of 18 provincial ports in 1594-5. It had few, if any, ships of over 100 tons, and was unfavourably located for trading with England's main markets overseas. Although well situated for trade with Ireland, its hinterland was not heavily populated or industrially developed, and competition from Liverpool gradually became more serious. The Irish trade was already the backbone of the city's commerce in 1550, and grew from a third of Chester's imports and three quarters of its exports by value in 1582-3 to two thirds of imports and nine tenths of exports a decade later. The balance of trade, initially in Ireland's favour, quickly reversed, and Chester's exports far outstripped its imports by value. Six Alderseys traded with the Continent between 1558 and 1603, and family members owned property in and near the city and held civic office. Their wealth became largely concentrated in the hands of the third William Aldersey (d. 1625), who left a personal estate worth over £2,300 and credits of £1,700. The Gamulls, not quite as wealthy, also held civic office and had interests in the Dee Mills and a salt-works.


The Tudor period saw significant advances in map making. The Braun and Hogenberg map from 1581 was the first detailed map of the city of Chester. The Smith Map followed in 1588 and John Speed, who came from Farndon, would go on to produce a further map in 1610. Maps of the county include that of Christopher Saxton (c. 1540 – c. 1610) from 1577. Map making became increasingly common in the reign of Elizabeth I made possible by advances in surveying technology and printing from engraved copper plates. Saxton began his survey of England in 1574 and had completed in within four years (posssibly using some earlier work). The maps were produced in the Atlas of the Counties of England and Wales published in 1579, the first atlas of any country. It contained 35 maps, each bearing the arms of Elizabeth I and Thomas Seckford, Saxton's patron. The maps show hills and mountains but do not provide precise information as to their location or altitude. A variety of symbols show buildings and settlements.

Some attention is given to the relative sizes of rivers, but their courses are at times distorted. One notable example of a "river error" on Saxton's map is the watercourse flowing northward from Chester towards the Mersey. This follows the "Backford Gap", believed to be a glacial drainage channel, and appears to show a river joining both the River Dee and the Gowy more or less along the line of the present canal. The error would be repeated in many later maps: Robert Morden's map from William Camden's Britannia (1695) shows the Gowy rising near Peckforton, but then splitting near Huxley to flow over to Aldford and become Aldford Brook (which is quite wrong) and then splitting again at Thornton to flow both into the Dee and the Mersey (which is again quite wrong). There are other errors in these early maps: for example Hilbre Island is frequently shown as being much larger than it actually is.

Saxton's map of Chester from 1574-8.

The county’s borders changed little between the thirteenth and sixteenth centuries and historically it derived "cohesion and a distinct identity from the natural features which demarcated its ancient boundaries". To the north of the county the River Mersey formed the boundary with Lancashire and in addition to the barrier posed by the river, the river basin itself was wide and marshy from the estuary to the central Mersey valley where a series of "mosses" or peat bogs lay on both sides of the river. This belt of marsh and moss was a formidable obstacle and, indeed,it was extremely dangerous to attempt a crossing in this area. Towards the west the Mersey estuary was crossed by boat and there were a number of ferries, both legal and illegal, from points on the Wirral to the area of Liverpool. Birkenhead Priory and St Werburgh’s Abbey had enjoyed the rights to the only legal ferry crossings prior to the dissolution and subsequently these rights were fiercely contested and thus, presumably, lucrative. The lowest point at which the river could be crossed by road-bridge was at Warrington in Lancashire where the main north-south route in the west of England crossed the Mersey.

The highest parts of the county were found on the eastern borders where the Pennines separated Cheshire from Yorkshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire. Crossing the Pennines had never been easy, however, and to the east of Macclesfield the bleak moorland roads frequently suffered winter blockage by snow. Thus the Pennines presented almost as formidable a border as the Mersey, although the drovers’ roads and salt-ways across the hills via Macclesfield were in regular use.

To the west Cheshire was bounded by the estuaries of the Dee and the Mersey, forming the Wirral peninsula, and by the sea. To the south, however, the county boundary was less clearly defined. By 1500, therefore, the county of Cheshire had for centuries been bordered on three sides by obvious physical boundaries and this helped to foster the sense of local identity, bolstered in the south of the county by differences of language and nationality with their Welsh neighbour.

Dairy farming tended to predominate in the north of the county while in the south cattle were reared and some bought in for fattening to sell on as beef. The county was famous for the production of cheese: according to Camden, Cheshire cheeses were "of amost pleasing and delicate taste such as all England againe affourdeth not the like". However, although some cheese and butter was sold through local markets, very little was distributed to other areas of the country before about 1650.

Chester Mystery Plays

The Chester Mystery Plays provide an interesting insight into some of the social factors at work in Cheshire during the Tudor period. These were organised and performed by the trade and craft guilds of the city but cannot be viewed in the same light as a 1960's works pantomine, as they had a deep social and religious significance. The origin of the plays is somewhat obscure, but similar plays were performed in York and Coventry. The subject matter of the plays were "bible stories" a each play was traditionally assigned to one or more guilds. Somewhat curiously, the assignment appears to have links to the trade of the guilds who performed each one. The last performance of the plays was in 1575 and they were thereafter banned. The plays were revived in 1951.

The illustration from Chamber's Book of days of the Mystery Plays. It is not Chester but Coventry, but the arrangements were similar, with the performance being on wagons which were drawn around the city so that each, relatively short, play could be seen at several locations.

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.

Their first but least difficult task was to ride the Banns. The guilds participated in a yearly procession at Midsummer whenever the Whitsun Plays were not performed; consequently, they could anticipate the demand for costumes and horses for the character who rode with them and be ready to ride in procession by St George's Day, the time David Rogers claims was set aside for the Banns. If the route for the Banns was the same as that for the Midsummer Show, the companies assembled at the Bars outside Eastgate, where the crier read the Banns and called forth the guilds. The route then took them past the prisons at Northgate and at Chester Castle, where they contributed money to the prisoners (in one year the Smiths spent two pence). The liberties of the city extended beyond the walls, but by passing through the major streets and by coming to each of the gates, the guildsmen would thereby reconfirm the city's boundaries and freedoms. At then end of the day there would be a feast. On the day the Smiths spent 2d on the prisoners, they spent six shillings on their banquet, and five shillings on minstrels.

At first glance, the attitude to the plays in the later Banns indicates that they were already considered more of a tradition than a meaningful art form. In the Banns attention is drawn to the curious wagon staging, the archaic language which may not carry meaning for contemporary audiences, and the dramatic crudity of allowing God to be impersonated on stage by an actor with a gilded face. The plays are compared disadvantageously to the sophistication of the modern theatre, its actors and audiences (this was written in Elizabethan times). The spectators are asked to make allowances for the time in which the plays were written and the circumstances of their performance:

  • "By craftsmen and mean men these pageants are played, and to commons and country men accustomably before".

Yet these disclaimers should not be taken too seriously. The later Banns are an attempt to defend the plays publicly against criticisms of them as theologically unsound and dramatically blasphemous. To present them as something once revolutionary which has now lost its purpose is a clever way of urging their continuation as a worthwhile but harmless local custom.

The banning of the plays

Christopher Goodman (1520–1603) was not, as Wikipedia says, born in Chester, but he was educated at the Chester School before going off to Brasenose College, Oxford, as many from Chester did, graduating as B.A. 4 Feb. 1541, and M.A. 13 June 1544. In 1547 he became a senior student at Christ Church, Oxford (where his name appears as "Gudman" in the Buttery (Canteen) book), and was proctor in 1549. He proceeded B.D. in 1551, and is said to have become Lady Margaret's Professor of Divinity about 1548. The last part of Goodman's long life was spent in retirement at Chester, where he was rector of the parish of St Bridget.

Goodman who had been appointed to the living of Aldford and made archdeacon of Richmond in 1570, preached against the Chester Plays even though he had been deprived of his living in 1571 because of his extreme views. Goodman was also closely aquainted with John Knox (c. 1513 – 24 November 1572). The relationship between Knox and Goodman began when the two men became acquainted at long range during the reign of Edward VI, when they were both members of the radical party within the Church of England. Although they had known about each other, it is now clear that their first meeting took place in Chester at the start of Queen Mary Tudor's reign. In a 1567 letter Knox recalled the event vividly, reminding Goodman how they had walked on the city walls at Chester, and had then discussed whether to flee from the Roman Catholic regime which had been re-established within England. Knox had urged Goodman in strong terms not to remain 'within Satans bludy clawses' explaining 'god no doubt had preservyd youe for an other tyme to the great comfort of his Church'.

On 10 May 1572, the outspoken Christopher Goodman (who hated both Mary Tudor and Mary Queen of Scots) wrote a letter to the Earl of Huntingdon (Mary QoS's jailor) urging that he, as president of the Council of the North, suppress Chester’s annual mystery plays. Goodman also wrote to Edmund Grindal then Archbishop of York. Goodman was one of a minority of university-educated Protestant clergy in the region, had helped to translate the Geneva Bible during his exile. He was a determined reformer and increasingly successful in turning the local gentry against drama, minstrelsy, dancing, and animal sports. In his letter he hinted at Chester mayor John Hankey’s collusion with recusant factions. Goodman also quotes from the plays, but his quotes do not match up with the surviving texts - either the texts were changed to try and overcome the issues he raised, or Goodman is being at best economical with the truth. His position on the plays was not the only extreme view that Goodman held - he argued that:

  • "the government of women was against nature and God’s ordinances".

Goodman begins his 10 May 1572 letter to the earl of Huntingdon, the goal of which is the destruction of the Chester Cycle, with a brief historical sketch of the Chester mystery plays:

  • "certain plays were devised by a monk about 200 years past in the depth of ignorance, & by the Pope then authorized to be set forth, & by that authority placed in the city of Chester to the intent to retain that place in assured ignorance & superstition according to the Popish policy. against which plays all preachers & godly men since the time of the blessed light of the gospell have inveyed and impugned"

Despite the attempts to explain the plays away as what today might be considered a "tourist attraction" to bring trade into the city, Goodman stirred up opposition to the plays. Various theories have been put forward as to why he was successful: rampant misogeny, anti-catholicism, a general Puritan view against people having a good time or a general opposition from gonernment of anything that looked like prophecy. The plays were consequently banned by the Church of England under Elizabeth I. Attempts have been made to equate the persistence of the plays with the "backwardness" of Chester at the time of the Reformation, however, much of the myth of backwardness possibly stems from a misunderstanding of the highly prejudiced views of Goodman and the the other puritans who supported their eventual ban.

The texts of the plays were not lost as this was a period when antiquarian compilations were starting to be produced. A list of mayors, with annual historical notes, was drawn up in about 1594 by William Aldersey, a Chester merchant born in 1543 who was mayor of Chester in 1594 and 1614. A compilation of historical material was also made by Robert Rogers, who was archdeacon of Chester from about 1566 until his death in 1595. Both exist in several versions and that of Robert Rogers waslater amplified and amended by his son, David, who probably gave the material its chronological form. Since it was commonly the practice of antiquarians to copy from one another, it is now almost impossible to know the origins of much of the material used.

1603 - The End of the Tudor Period

"The Old House" in Whitefriars possibly contains some Tudor elements.

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.

The dominant economic policy during the Tudor period was Mercantilism designed to maximize the exports and minimize the imports for an economy. It promotes tariffs and subsidies on traded goods to achieve that goal. The policy aims to reduce a possible current account deficit or reach a current account surplus, and it includes measures aimed at accumulating monetary reserves by a positive balance of trade, especially of finished goods. Historically, such policies frequently led to war and motivated colonial expansion. An early statement on national balance of trade appeared in Discourse of the Common Weal of this Realm of England, 1549:

  • "We must always take heed that we buy no more from strangers than we sell them, for so should we impoverish ourselves and enrich them."

In other words trade is seen as a zero-sum game in which any gain by one party required a loss by another, which would inevitably lead to armed conflict, and often, given the colonial aspect an expansion of the navy. Elizabeth provided the country with a long period of general if not total peace and generally increased prosperity due in large part to stealing from Spanish treasure ships (loaded with stolen Inca gold), raiding settlements with weak defenses, and selling African slaves. These same economic principles appear to have operated on a lesser scale. The vast land holdings seized from the monasteries under Henry VIII of England in the 1530s were sold mostly to local gentry, greatly expanding the wealth of that class of gentlemen. The gentry tripled to 15,000 from 5000 in the century after 1540. Just what factors were dominant in the gradual slide to Civil War in the following Stuart Period is still the subject of debate.

The Elizabethan age contrasts sharply with the previous and following reigns. It was a brief period of internal peace between the Wars of the Roses in the previous century, the English Reformation, and the religious battles between Protestants and Catholics prior to Elizabeth's reign, and then the later political/religious conflict of the English Civil War and the ongoing political battles between parliament and the monarchy that engulfed the remainder of the seventeenth century. The Protestant/Catholic divide was settled, for a time, by the Elizabethan Religious Settlement, and parliament was not yet strong enough to challenge royal absolutism, something which was to change significantly in the following Stuart Period.

Beneath the prosperous surface tensions were however growing and Chester at the end of the Tudor period was in some ways a very different place to what it had been a hundred years earlier under Henry VII. Feudalism was dead, but family feuds continued and there was no Earl of Chester to provide a unifying focus and close local oversight. Chester had representation at parliament from 1542, some of the MP's such as William Gerard and Peter Warburton were energetic and for their time relatively free from corruption. A new set of powerful families controlled Chester, but did not have the wide reaching political connections of the Stanleys. The economy in Chester had probably peaked leading to conflict over the limited profits to be made, especially between the city and the county. Elizabeth was childless and the options for succession were limited to James VI of Scotland, Elizabeth's cousin, son of Mary, Queen of Scots, and a great-great-grandson of Henry VII. James was an openly absolutist monarch and opposed to parliaments except when they were completely servile.

The arches from St Mary's Nunnery in Chester are now in Grosvenor Park and travelled around Chester before arriving there. The carving on the keystone is too worn to make out.

Conflict in Tudor Chester/Cheshire had been confined to some very limited fighting between families. There had been little or no indication that Cheshire would actually join in potential revolts such as the "Pilgimage of Grace" which had caused considerable unrest elsewhere in the North. It is possible to speculate as to whether the Tudor period had laid down the basis for the strife which would prove a calamity for Chester in the years which followed. The port had established strong links with Ireland and had become the route for the movement of troops back and forth. A Puritan, low church community was growing, but the established merchants were soon to consolidate their monopolistic privileges in the hands of a few that would be dependent on royal patronage. Divisions between the city and the county were also established and there was often no Earl to provide a central focus: representation in London was through the MP's rather than through aristocracy. Book-sellers and printers would soon be established enabling involvement in the pamphlet war that preceeded the Civil War.

The Tudor period has given us a host of colourful characters whose present public image is still coloured by myth. Henry Tudor was so successful in his blackening of Richard III that, especially with the assistance of Shakespeare, the homicidal hunchback became a stock character for the likes of Laurence Olivier, Vincent Price and other actors. Henry Tudor's manipulation of history is so well known that it was used as a plot device in "Blackadder". Tudor Chester has, perhaps appropriately, left its mark on the city in the form of numerous myths concerning the Stanleys (see: Stanley Palace and Shakespeare and Chester), the River Dee (see: Portpool), Catherine of Aragon (see: Leche House) and even the inscription on the house in Park Street. Each of these has a seed of truth in it, overlaid with a layer of myth. Similarly, much of the truth of Tudor Chester is obscured by the facades of "Mock Tudor" architecture, but a little scratching beneath the surface reveals much fascinating history of the real Tudor Chester.

Sources and Links

Exploring Tudor Chester


Explore Queen Elizabeth Tudor's Chester as it was in 1581 (without the plague, fear of robbery or having a building fall on you) "mouse-over" on the map below will reveal various locations. Clicking on a location will reveal more detail. The Braun and Hogenberg map of Chester is the first known detailed map of the city. It dates from 1581, in the middle of the reign of Elizabeth I. Chester's population in 1563 of c. 4,700-5,200, which put it in the second rank of provincial towns, half the size of York and a third that of Norwich. Within the North-West, however, it was the largest town for sixty miles around. Frances Drake had just sailed around the world and the Nederlands had declared independence from Spain. Much of the city within the City Walls is undeveloped, with building restricted to narrow frontages along the principal streets. Much of the street pattern is recognisible as similar to that of modern Chester. The principal streets (Eastgate Street, Northgate Street, Watergate Street and Bridge Street) follow the line of the major internal roads of Roman Chester, with the familiar "dog-leg" at the High Cross. The bounds of Roman Chester are marked-out by Trinity Street, Weaver Street, Cuppin Street, and Pepper Street, with the Roman walls along those sections robbed-out and the Anglo-Saxon walls extended down to the River Dee: west to the Watertower and south from Newgate. It is after the Reformation, so the "monastic" lands to the west of the city centre have been sold-off. Much of the area between the walls and Nicholas Street will remain as open fields until the 18th to 20th centuries.

The Portpool, Chester's Port. During the Tudor period the people of Chester claimed that the port had been ruined by silting of the riverThe WatertowerBonewaldesthorne's TowerGoblin TowerMorgan's MountNorthgatePhoenix TowerAbbey GatewayEastgateWolfgate and NewgateBarnaby's TowerBridgegateShipgateWatergateSt BridgetSt Johns. Lost its relics, much status and was impoverished at the reformation.St MartinSt Mary on the Hill got a new roof from Basingwerk abbeySt PeterSt ThomasSt OlaveSt MichaelHoly Trinity (Guildhall)Market SquarePepper StreetNorthgate StreetEastgate StreetWatergate StreetChester CastleOld Dee BridgeWhitefriarsGreyfriars HouseCross on the RoodeeStanley Palace. Associated with Stanleys who betrayed Richard III, but never their home.Chester Cathedral. Lost the shrine of Werburgh at the reformation.High Cross. Where Henry Gee told the poor to gather and look for work.
"Clickable" version of the 1581 Braun and Hogenberg map of Chester.

Tudor Architecture

While Chester is famous for its "Tudor" architecture, very little of it is original to the actual period 1485-1603 and most is Victorian "imitation", which seems a little ironic given the Tudor tendency towards myth-making. This does not stop reviewers on "Trip Advisor" writing screeds of utter rubbish about the "well-preserved Medieval (sic) buildings" and the "many Tudor houses". In fact, James Harrison (1814-66) and Thomas Penson (1818–64) pioneered the Vernacular Revival "Chester Look", which was taken up and reached its peak artistic expression under the prolific John Douglas (1830-1911) and his contemporary, Thomas Lockwood (1829-1900). Other architects of that and the following generation included H. W. Beswick, James Strong, W. M. Boden, and Thomas Edwards.

The erroneous plaque at the Tudor House. The date should read 1603. Elizabeth Tudor died on the 24th March of that year.

The "Chester Look" became fashionable in the city in the late Victorian and early Edwardian. Some architects (Douglas and Lockwood) kept to the theme of "English Vernacular" being a distinct style which was not simply an attempt to reproduce a Tudor look. Others appear to have simply "nailed on boards and planks", creating a "mock-Tudor" look. The taste for mock half-timbered buildings persisted in Chester well into the 1920s, even though they were going out of fashion in most other town centres. Not all Chester's buildings of that kind were of poor quality, notwithstanding the comments made in 1929 by the dean of Chester's son, Francis Bennett, who deplored the replacement of "decent, honest Georgian" by "wretched, ill-designed black and white". For example, the Manchester and District Bank (later Royal Bank of Scotland) at the corner of Foregate Street and Frodsham Street was built to a well detailed design of 1921 by Francis Jones.

"Tudor" has become a designation for "half-timbered" buildings, although the truth is there are cruck and frame houses with half timbering that predate 1485 by quite a bit and the style bleeds early into the Jacobean era. The low Tudor arch was a defining feature of this style rather than simply the use of half-timbering. There is a good example of a Tudor-revival arch in the Old Rectory at the head of St Mary's Hill. During this period, the arrival of the chimney stack and enclosed hearths resulted in the decline of the great hall based around an open hearth that was typical of earlier Medieval architecture. Instead, fireplaces could now be placed upstairs and it became possible to have a second story that ran the whole length of the house. Tudor chimney-pieces were made large and elaborate to draw attention to the owner's adoption of this new technology. The jetty appeared, as a way to show off the modernity of having a complete, full-length upper floor. Early chimneys were often elaborate to again indicate the wealth of the owner.

Tudor House: an old photograph.

The best-known actual "Tudor" building in Chester is the appropriately named Tudor House. "The Tudor House" is briefly mentioned by Hughes:

  • "We are now descending Lower Bridge Street which abounds on either side with those queer looking tenements not to be met with in such numbers and variety in any other city but Chester Here is one with the date 1603 evidently the residence in its earnest days of some Cestrian magnate long since returned to his dust."

Probably indeed dating from 1603 (which is the very last year of the "Tudor" period), extended to rear early-mid 17thC and altered in detail 18thC and later. The facade is a combination of Tudor and Georgian architecture with the lower half of the building being more Georgian in character and with the timber framed upper half being typically Tudor. The lower two storeys are brick to the front, but with an oak corner-post. The shopfront of painted brick has an oak door in Tudor-arched case with a 19thC two-pane shop window to each side with head-boards inscribed "TUDOR: HOUSE". Above the door is an erroneous date-plaque "1503". Even correcting what appears to be a transcription error of 1503 for 1603, the date raises an issue. While it has become normative to record the death of Queen Elizabeth as occurring in 1603, following English calendar reform in the 1750s, at the time England observed New Year's Day on 25 March, commonly known as Lady Day. Thus Elizabeth died on the last day of the year 1602 in the old calendar. As a consequence, it is possible to debate whether "Tudor House" is actually Tudor. However, the builders would have been trained in Tudor times and plans for the house were probably drawn up before the death of Elizabeth, so apart from a minor quibble this is (just) a Tudor building.

A jetty-beam at what would have been the top of the row level has strapwork-carved fascia on 4 brackets. The third storey has two 3-light mullioned and transomed leaded casements set proud of the wall-face. The fourth storey jetty is similar to that of the third storey. The alley on the south side has the name of, Hawarden Castle Entry and slopes up sharply. Inside, the cellar, in east part of south bay, is rock-cut with sump in middle, stone steps south west and earlier steps to a blocked entrance. The undercroft has a central wall, front to back, with openings. The Row + 1 level is notable for the plaster ceiling of the great chamber which is similar to that at Bishop Lloyd's House and may be from the same craftsmen. The Row was enclosed 1728 by Roger Ormes.

The other "original" Tudor structures in Chester include Stanley Palace, and parts of the present Abbey Gateway. Often missed as a partly Tudor building, Number 1 Whitefriars was originally constructed in 1588 and extended in 1658, part of the cellar of the building is said to incorporate stonework of the original Roman walls.

Related Pages


Online and Book Sources

Chester in Other Historical Periods