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From a distance, the cathedral has been described as "looking like an upturned gas-cooker", due to the square central tower and a set of turrets that bring to mind Battersea Power Station. However, on closer inspection, the building is impressive, especially internally. All the major styles of English medieval architecture, from Norman to Perpendicular are represented in the present building and there are many features of interest. Built between 1093 and 1537, Chester’s particular fame is its medieval choir stalls dating from 1380, with detailed and often comic figurative carving. It retains substantial monastic buildings including a large refectory which is still in use as a cafe. The plan and map below will give a basic understanding of the layout. It is a cruciform design with an enlarged south transept, a central tower and the bases of two incomplete towers at the west end. To the northwest is a cloister and to the southeast a modern, detatched belfy, perhaps just a little copied in the design of Tesco's store in the distance.

From the outside the cathedral is largely a product of Victorian imagination about what an ancient religious building should look like, but internally it is one of the best-preserved medieval monastic buildings in the country. The development of the building over the years is a curious barometer of the state of society. At times there were spurts of construction or restroration, usually when local society was stable, at other times there was neglect and decay, with mooney being diverted into other purposes, such as wars, canals and railways.

Eastgate Street in 2015 with the High Cross on the far left and Eastgate to the right. The Cathedral is visible up St Werburgh Street.

Even if you are not religious, Cathedrals have many things that can lift us out of the present: "events do not write - but people do", and they carve, build, spin windows in stained glass and illustrate wonderful books. People have been coming here, for a "special" purpose for perhaps thousands of years. They brought their tales, left their mark and passed on. The curious thing about Chester is that it has "two Cathedrals", one outside the city walls and one within. The older Cathedral is St Johns which contains another remarkable survival of Norman architecture within a Victorian shell and is well-worth a visit (it is next to the Amphitheatre). Put together, the stories of St Johns and the Cathedral form an at times confusing story that stretches from the departure of the Romans to the Reformation. There are many gaps in the history of these two cathedrals, and quite a few puzzles which remain unanswered.

There is a vast literature on the history of the abbey and the cathedral and for detail it is useful to turn to the work of Burne (see links below) and the further references cited therein. This is meant as a more general history.

Before the Abbey

Roman Chester - overlaid on a map of the city prior to the building of the Inner Ring Road. There is a gap in the buildings around Abbey Square - perhaps by elimination one could place any "temple" here.

It is convenient to divide the history of the Cathedral into three phases: up to the establishment of the Norman abbey in 1092, development of the abbey itself and the refoundation as a Cathedral in 1541. There are few if any surviving physical relics of the first phase although there are several important historical references to the church in Chester and its impact on the early development of the city. The structure which we see today is at its core the abbey, and there are strong suggestions that it was never completed, especially as regards the towers of the west front. The Cathedral at times suffered years of neglect and was extensively renovated by the Victorians.

The first phase of the history of the Cathedral has beginnings which are poorly understood and has large gaps.

Roman Temple?

According to legend, a "prehistoric Druid temple" existed on this site, which was succeeded by a Roman temple dedicated to Apollo, and then, when Christianity became the state religion of Rome in the fourth century AD, the pagan temple may have become a Christian basilica on the site of the present cathedral. The story of the "Temple of Apollo" is told by "The history of Cheshire" (containing King's Vale-royal entire, Volume 2 By Daniel King, William Smith, William Webb, Sir Peter Leycester, Samuel Lee, Thomas Pennant, Francis Grose) as dating from prior to 1653. The story of the Gloverstone, which may be the earliest "religious relic" in Chester is perhaps older still.

In Greek and Roman mythology, Apollo (in Greek, Ἀπόλλων—Apóllōn or Ἀπέλλων—Apellōn), is the ideal of the kouros (a beardless youth), and has been variously recognized as a god of light and the sun; truth and prophecy; archery; medicine and healing; music, poetry, and the arts. Apollo is the son of Zeus and Leto, and has a twin sister, the chaste huntress Artemis. Apollo became associated with dominion over colonists, and as the patron defender of herds and flocks. As the leader of the Muses (Apollon Musagetes) and director of their choir, Apollo functioned as the patron god of music and poetry. Hermes created the lyre for him, and the instrument became a common attribute of Apollo. Given all these attributes it would have been easy to locate a Christian church on the site of his temple.

An alternative origin to Apollo is Mithras who's religious practice was centered on the mithraeum (Latin, from Greek mithraion), either an adapted natural cave or cavern or an artificial building imitating a cavern. Mithraea were dark and windowless, even if they were not actually in a subterranean space or in a natural cave. The site of a mithraeum may also be identified by its separate entrance or vestibule, its "cave", called the spelaeum or spelunca, with raised benches along the side walls for the ritual meal, and its sanctuary at the far end, often in a recess, before which the pedestal-like altar stood. Despite all this gloom, Mithras, like Apollo, was a solar deity. Mithras was a popular god with the later Roman legions and a Mithraic carving was apparently found at Chester. Mithras is frequently associated with bull-fighting and cattle markets and there was a major cattle market associated with Bovium, near Chester, from an early date. Chester's bullring was only destroyed in 1591 before which it was the Town Crier's duty to announce the fight and proclaim: "Oyez, Oyez, If any man stands within 20 yards of the Bullring, let him take what comes".

In the winter of 1921-2, during the construction of the War Memorial between the south porch and the entrance to the south transept, extensive remains of a Roman building were unearthed. Walls four feet in thickness with fine ashlar faces on both sides had been built upon the solid bedrock, and in places were built on top of flat paving stones which may have been the remains of an even earlier building. The practice of building churches on the sites on earlier places of "pagan" worship was actually promoted by the church. One of the epistles of Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitus (dated to 601 AD) asking him to help Augustine with the conversion of the Anglo Saxons contains the following instruction (note the comment about the slaughter of oxen):

  • "Tell Augustine that he should be no means destroy the temples of the gods but rather the idols within those temples. Let him, after he has purified them with holy water, place altars and relics of the saints in them. For, if those temples are well built, they should be converted from the worship of demons to the service of the true God. Thus, seeing that their places of worship are not destroyed, the people will banish error from their hearts and come to places familiar and dear to them in acknowledgement and worship of the true God. Further, since it has been their custom to slaughter oxen in sacrifice, they should receive some solemnity in exchange. Let them therefore, on the day of the dedication of their churches, or on the feast of the martyrs whose relics are preserved in them, build themselves huts around their one-time temples and celebrate the occasion with religious feasting. They will sacrifice and eat the animals not any more as an offering to the devil, but for the glory of God to whom, as the giver of all things, they will give thanks for having been satiated. Thus, if they are not deprived of all exterior joys, they will more easily taste the interior ones. For surely it is impossible to efface all at once everything from their strong minds, just as, when one wishes to reach the top of a mountain, he must climb by stages and step by step, not by leaps and bounds."

Another find from Chester is a Roman copper alloy brooch with coloured enamel and a geometric pattern of triangles said to represent the sun’s rays - a version of the imported sunburst pattern introduced to Britain from Gaul and taken up by British metalworkers. This pattern was popular on items such as dress fasteners and brooches in the first and second centuries AD and it has been suggested that Mithraism, with its cult of the unconquerable sun, was largely responsible for the pattern’s popularity with the legions. In the item found in Chester, a small loop, now broken, suggests that the brooch was one of a pair, connected by a fine bronze chain. Such wearing of brooches in pairs seems to be a particularly British characteristic, so it is possible that this find indicates adoption of Mithraism by the Romano-British. Given the tendency for religious sites to be re-used there is a slim chance that the vast, and clearly early Norman, undercroft of the cathedral could have previously been the site of a temple of Mithras.

A possible Mithraeum has been discovered at Caernarfon, a Roman settlement well connected with Chester. The Mithraeum lies outside of the fortress site being 137 meters to the north-east. Finds were few, but four small altars were found, one inscribed, and some interesting ritual iron-work. A housing estate now covers the site. Further details can be found at CIMRM 2374 - Mithraeum. Caernarvon, Britain.

Three further mithraea have been identified, at Housesteads, Carrawburgh and Rudchester on Hadrian's wall which is well connected to the legion at Chester (Legio XX). Others have been found in Poetovio (today Ptuj) in Pannonia Valeria, from which the legion in Chester originated. There is a an old paper on Mithraea in Chester in vol 24(2) of the Archaeological Society Journal - the author was W. J. Williams an enthusiastic amateur archaeologist who discovered the Amphitheatre at Chester. Some of his conclusions on Mithras might be "debatable" today. He places a possible Mithraeum at Edgar's Field, but his arguments seem very speculative. For example, he suggests that Princess Street is labled on the Braun and Hogenberg map as "Persian's cave", however, careful inspection of the map reveals, in fact, that the wording is "Parson's Lane". Several Roman altars have been found dotted around Chester and there has been speculation that there was also a Roman temple in Whitefriars, although this is unlikely.

There are alternative views: it is possible that there was a large quarry just south of the Cathedral and that the remains of this were mistaken for the remains of a Mithraeum.

The Church

After the withdrawal of the Roman legions from the province of Britannia in c.410, the natives of the island of Great Britain were left to defend themselves against the attacks of the Saxons, yet before the withdrawal Britannia had been converted to Christianity and had even produced its own heretic in Pelagius (who argued a lot with the other Saint Augustine). Britain sent three bishops to the Council of Arles in 314, and a Gaulish bishop went to the island in 396 to help settle disciplinary matters. After the legions left, pagan tribes settled the southern parts of the island, but Western Britain, beyond the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, remained Christian. This native British Church developed in semi-isolation from Rome under the influence of missionaries from Ireland. This British church was centred on monasteries instead of bishoprics. Other distinguishing characteristics which eventually developed were its calculation of the date of Easter and the style of the tonsure haircut that clerics wore. Evidence for the survival of Christianity in Britain during this time includes the occurrence of "eccles", derived from the Latin for church, in place names, as in Eccleston and possibly names such as Christleton.

Several figures from the early history of the Church are associated with Chester or places close by, indicating that it must have been a religious center of some importance. The traditional belief kept in the abbey was that Æthelflæd of Mercia, introduced the cult of St Oswald at Chester when the church (St. Peter and St Paul) on the site of the cathedral (and having the same name as Augustine's Abbey at Canterbury) was refounded by Æthelfiæd in 907 and re-dedicated to St. Werburgh (whose relics were in Chester around 874) and St. Oswald. Later, the Normans would establish an abbey there, and later still the abbey would become a cathedral.

On a general note of caution, the early history of the church of canons and its connection with St. Werburgh is largely a matter of 'legend and guesswork'. The legend is preserved in the writings of two monks of Chester: Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, of the mid 14th century and Henry Bradshaw's life of St. Werburgh, of the early 16th. According to that tradition the body of St. Werburgh, daughter of Wulfhere, king of Mercia (657-74), was carried to Chester in 874 from its resting place at Hanbury in Staffordshire by nuns fleeing from the Danes; the shrine was received into the mother church of Chester, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul and founded "soon after Lucius and afore Kynge Arthure" (both "fictional" characters). The details of the story are suspect. The saint's remains, which were at Chester before the end of the 10th century, may have been acquired with Hanbury and its church, which belonged to St. Werburgh of Chester in 1066 but had been lost to Henry de Ferrers by 1086. There are further doubtful legends concerning the foundation at Chester of a church of secular canons dedicated to St. Werburgh: according to Henry Bradshaw, that Æthelflæd, sister of Edward the Elder, enlarged the original church for secular canons in honour of St. Werburgh and transferred the original dedication to a new parish church in the centre of the city (St Peter), but Bradshaw also mentions that a tablet in St Johns church ascribed the foundation of the house of canons to Æthelflaed's nephew, Edmund I. King Athelstan has also been credited with the foundation, since Higden states that there were secular canons serving St. Werburgh at Chester from the time of Athelstan until the arrival of the Normans. Of the three rival founders Æthelflaed, who, with her husband Ethelred, restored the city in 907, is the most likely, although there is no definite evidence of the existence of a church of canons dedicated to St. Werburgh at Chester before 958. In that year Edgar the Pacific, king of the Mercians, granted to the familia of St. Werburgh seventeen hides of land in Hoseley (Flints.), Cheveley, Huntington, Upton, Aston, and Barrow. Barrow and Upton were lost before 1066. Apart from the statement by Florence of Worcester (who died 1118) that Leofric, earl of Mercia, enriched the house with valuable ornaments in the year of his death (1057) nothing further is known of it before the Norman Conquest.

The annals of the Norman Abbey were written (probably from the 13th Century) much later than many of the early events they record. There is very little about any possible college of cannons prior to 1066, with the few earlier references being taken from intermediate histories: e.g. those of Gerald of Wales who lived c.1146–c.1223, and William of Malmesbury (c. 1095–c. 1143) did not issue his chronicle until after 1125.

Taking all those cautionary notes on board, we can now look at some of the possible developments of the early church around Chester. We start with the departure of the Romans, around the year 400.

St German

The first "local" character relevant to the history of the cathedral who can be identified by name is St German of Auxerre. He is mainly known from Constantius of Lyon's "Life of Germanus", but is mentioned in other sources. He is not associated directly with Chester.

Germanus of Auxerre (Welsh: Garmon Sant) (c. 378 – c. 448) was a bishop of Auxerre in Late Antique Gaul. He best remembered for his journey to combat Pelagianism in Britain in or around 429 AD. Germanus led the native Britons to a victory against Pictish and Saxon raiders, at "a mountainous site near a river", of which Maes Garmon, near Mold, in North Wales is the traditional location.

St German of Auxerre - came to Britain in 429 and according to tradition defeated the Saxons and Picts at "Maes Garmon" near Mold in the (supposed) "Battle of the Hallelujahs". The site, now marked by an obelisk, lies at the western end of the easiest valley route (and classic ambush point) through the Clwydian hills. The Life of St Garmon describes the events as follows:

  • Meanwhile the enemy had learned of the practices and appearance of the camp. They promised themselves an easy victory over practically disarmed troops and pressed on in haste. But their approach was discovered by scouts and, when the Easter solemnities had been celebrated, the army--the greater part of it fresh from the font--began to take up their weapons and prepare for battle and Germanus announced that he would be their general (dux proelii, "leader for this battle"). He chose some light-armed troops and made a tour of the outworks. In the direction from which the enemy were expected he saw a valley enclosed by steep mountains. Here he stationed an army on a new model, under his own command.

Other Christian missionaries of the period include Patrick who (at least according to legend) landed in the Wirral. A Chester legend (recorded by Phillip Jones) holds that a certain "Gormundus", a "Roman Cap’tayne", had built fortifications at Heronbridge, a former Roman site just upriver from Chester and defeated the “Saxons” in a major battle (see: Mold Cope). It has been suggested that "Gormundus" is a corruption of "Garmonus", and it is noteworthy that St German had been a soldier (some say a lawyer) before he became a man of the cloth, however the legend seems to be a confusion between St German's battle at Maes Garmon and the later Battle of Chester (616).

The text on the Maes Garmon obelisk reads as follows:

  • "In the year 420 the Saxons and Picts having joined their forces made war upon the Britons and engaged them on this plain which bears to this day the name of Maes Garmon. As the British leaders Germanus and Lupus were about to commence the battle Christ himself fought in the camp. Thrice the British army exclaim Alleluia. The hostile troops are confounded with dismay and the Britons triumph over their enemy without bloodshed. Thus it was faith and not force that obtained the victory. In memory of the Victoria Alleluiatica Nehemiah Griffith has erected this monument AD 1736."

Nehemiah Griffith was born in Llanfyllin and was both the son of a prominent mercer there and a member of a leading nonconformist family. In 1700-02 he inherited both his father's property and that of his uncle Thomas Edwards, whose estate at Rhual, Mold became Griffith's home thereafter. While continuing to hold to dissenting religious views, he became a leading local figure who developed antiquarian interests. A well nearby called Ffynnon Gwaed or the "Well of Blood" seems also to have derived its name from this battle, so it might not have been quite so bloodless. See: Mold Cope for more on the rather odd legends surrounding the supposed battle site at Mold and the remarkable archaeological find there. There is evidence that Christian communities survived the Roman departure in north Wales and there may be some truth in the fact that Germanus was active in the region. The very esiatence of Gildas, a Welsh monastic writer from a century after Germanus, shows that the church was still flourishing at that time, although by the time of Gildas much of what was later to become England had been settled by pagan Anglo-Saxons.

While some have percieved Germanus visit as a last Roman attempt to lend military assistance to the British, it is perhaps better seen as a visit intended to correct some irregularities in the British church of the time, particularly the influence of the Pelagian "heresy". This implies that the surviviing church in Britain was in some kind of regular contact with that of continental Europe. For centuries afterward, “Pelagianism” was defined by its opponent Augustine of Hippo (not to be confused with Augustine of Canterbury), and exact definitions remain elusive. Although Pelagianism had considerable support in the contemporary Christian world, especially among the Roman elite and monks, it was attacked by Augustine of Hippo and his supporters, who had opposing views on grace, predestination and free will.

The extent to which there is any historical truth in the local legend of Germanus remains unclear.


Contact between Britain and Europe was maintained during the post-Roman period and there was inter-marriage between the local ruling families on both sides of the Channel. Reasons for these marriages included the maintenance of military and trade alliances between the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms and those of Europe. By 595 the Kingdom of Kent was ruled by Æthelberht, who married a Christian princess named Bertha before 588, and perhaps earlier than 560. Bertha was the daughter of Charibert I, one of the Merovingian kings of the Franks. As one of the conditions of her marriage, she brought a bishop named Liudhard with her to Kent. Liudhard is not mentioned by Bede in any detail, but his historical existence is attested to by a "coin" find and other evidence. It was against this background that Pope Gregory I decided to send a mission, often called the Gregorian mission, to convert the Anglo-Saxons to Christianity in 595. The leader of this mission was Augustine, later "of Canterbury". Most of the information available on the Gregorian mission comes from the medieval writer Bede, especially his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, or Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Bede was a reasonably competent historian but does show some bias, particularly in favour of Augustine and against the Celtic church.

Augustine (first third of the 6th century – probably 26 May 604) was a Benedictine monk who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 597. He is considered the "Apostle to the English" and a founder of the English Church. Pope Gregory ("the Great") chose him in 595 to lead a mission, usually known as the Gregorian mission, to Britain to Christianize King Æthelberht and his Kingdom of Kent from Anglo-Saxon paganism. Kent was probably chosen because Æthelberht had married a Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert I the King of Paris (as shown in this fanciful illustation). There was already a thriving Christian church in Britain at the time. The death of hundreds of British clerics to the pagan Northumbrian king Æthelfrith around 616 at the Battle of Chester (at Heronbridge) was taken by Bede as fulfillment of a prophecy allegedly made by Augustine that the British church would receive war and death from the Saxons they refused to proselytise.

An important synod of St Augustine with the British bishops at "Urbs Legionis" (which some believe to have been Chester) was listed in the Annales Cambriae for the year 601 (other sources suggest Aust in Gloucestershire or Cressage in Shropshire). "Urbs Legionis" could also be a mistranslation of Caerleon.

Augustine was a Benedictine monk who arrived in Britain 597 and became the first Archbishop of Canterbury (also in 597). While he is considered the "Apostle to the English" and a founder of the English Church it should not be forgotten that the Celtic church was already flourishing, possibly as a survival of Christianity from Roman times, or possibly as a result to earlier waves of missionaries. St Patrick was Romano-British and had been active in the first half of the 5th century. By 600, in Kent, the Saxon king Æthelberht of Kent was in the process of converting to Christianity and obviously both the Celtic and the Roman Church saw the opportunities that this would bring. Augustine, tried to reach an agreement with the Celtic bishops who would not cooperate with the new arrival from Rome, and refused to give up their existing traditions regarding baptism and the dating of Easter. That Chester was possibly selected as the location of a synod suggests that some local infra-structure had survived from Romano-British times. A Celtic monastery had been established at Bangor-on-Dee in about AD 560 by Saint Dunod and was an important religious centre in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. According to some accounts, St Dunod was still alive at the time of the Synod and apparently chaired the meeting (although this may not have been the case).

Anglo Saxon settlement 550-800

The so-called "Synod of Chester" has been the subject of much historical debate. It is entirely unclear whether this was an actual event at Chester or a legend created later. Legend relates that a local hermit was consulted by the celtic priests as to whether they should join or oppose Augustine. The hermit devised a simple test: the locals would arrive after Augustine and if Augustine rose to greet them then then he was sufficiently humble. Augustine remained seated when they arrived and that was sufficient excuse for them. Perhaps they were looking hard for such an excuse. There are obvious reasons why the legend of a Synod of Chester should come into existence. First, the church in Chester has always claimed great antiquity, amd there were plenty of reasons to suppose that there was a very large monastic community at Bangor on Dee. Second, Bede links the synod directly to the Battle of Chester. Some have suggested that the "Synod of Chester" was not the actual meeting between the Celtic bishops and Augustine, but a pre-meeting to discuss their approach. The only certain bishoprics at the time were St. Asaph's, Meneva, Bangor, and Llandaff, so the meeting would have included not only the majority of the leaders of the British church but also close successors to Saints David, Asaph, Deiniol, and Teilo.

Augustine died in 604. Shortly thereafter in 616 the Battle of Chester was fought (possibly at Heronbridge) between Æthelfrith of Northumbria (a Pagan) against Kings Selyf Sarffgadau of Powys (leading the army of Din Eirth) and Cadwal Crysban of Rhôs (with a smaller force from eastern Gwynedd) - and possibly also Iago ap Beli. A large number of Saint Dunod's monks were slaughtered - said to be in keeping with Augustine's dire prophecy that:

  • if they would not accept peace with their brethren, they should have war with their enemies.

..which sounds a lot like "Whoever is not with me is against me". See Dark Ages for more detail. Bede links the meeting of Celtic bishops and Augustine to the Battle of Chester, but is making an anti-Celtic argument in his writing.

So what was the church in Chester like at this time? It appears that there was at some point a collegiate church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, but exactly when it was established is uncertain. Records relating to settlement in Chester from this time are sparse. We have the suggestion of the synod in 601, and we know that St Johns Church was possibly established in 689 by king Æthelred, (St Werbergh's uncle) but there is no record of any other church activity in Chester until the time of Æthelflæd, some two hundred years later. If there was a religious community within the walls it was presumably independent of any of the organised religious houses, or given the separate establishment of St Johns - conspicuously outside of the city - may have been associated with the celtic church. The possible early religious activity at Chester is discussed in more detail under "Amphitheatre".

The precise reasons for Gregory's dispatch of a mission to Britain remain unclear. It may be that he wished to restore christianity to the last unconverted part of the former Roman empire. It is also possible that the Franks wished to increase their influence by making themselves overlords of the Kentish rulers. There is some further discussion of this under Saxon.

Oswald of Northumbria

A pagan reaction set in following Æthelbert's death in 616; bishop Mellitus was expelled from London never to return, and Justus was expelled from Rochester, although he eventually managed to return after spending some time with Mellitus in Gaul. Æthelberht was succeeded in Kent by his son Eadbald. Bede states that after Æthelberht's death Eadbald refused to be baptised and married his stepmother, an act forbidden by the teachings of the Roman Church. The spread of Christianity in the north of Britain gained ground when Edwin of Northumbria married Æthelburg, a daughter of Æthelbert, and agreed to allow her to continue to worship as a Christian.

The years 600-685 saw a series of battles between the Welsh, Northumbrians and Mercians. The Northumbrians initially did well, under both Æthelfrith (Chester: 616) and Edwin, but then the Welsh and Mercians counter-atacked under Cadwallon ap Cadfan and Penda (Cefn Digoll: c630, Hatfield Chase: 633). Oswald later restored Northumbria's fortunes (Heavenfield: 634), but was himself defeated by the Mercians under Penda (Maserfield: 641-42)). Oswalds brother Oswiu got revenge on Penda (Winwaed: 655) but the Mercians were back on form under their temporary king Æthelred (Trent: 679). Having been defeated, the Northumbrian Ecgfrith turned hiss attention northwards and was destroyed with his army at the Battle of Nechtansmere c685. The Mercians came out on top.

The Anglo-Saxons had their own polytheistic religion based around concepts which are somewhat familiar today as "Norse Mythology". Legend has it that the Mercian Anglo-Saxons had been led across the North Sea to Britain by one Icel who gave his name to the Iclings (or Iclingas), the ruling dynasty of Mercia. His father, Eomer was the model for the king of the same name in Tolkein. Penda, who died around 655 was said to be a descendant of Icel, with a lineage purportedly extending back to Woden. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives his descent as follows:

  • Penda was Pybba's offspring, Pybba was Cryda's offspring, Cryda Cynewald's offspring, Cynewald Cnebba's offspring, Cnebba Icel's offspring, Icel Eomer's offspring, Eomer Angeltheow's offspring, Angeltheow Offa's offspring, Offa Wermund's offspring, Wermund Wihtlaeg's offspring, Wihtlaeg Woden's offspring.

Penda's military successes were due in part to his alliance with Cadwallon ap Cadfan who (according to the often dubious Geoffrey of Monmouth) returned spectacularly from exile (either in Brittany or Ireland) and become caught up in a Mercian siege of Caer-Uisc (Exeter). Cadwallon defeated the Mercians, forcing Penda into a mutual anti-Northumbrian alliance, sealed by Cadwallon's marriage to Penda's sister (or half-sister), Alcfrith of Mercia. They regained Gwynedd at the Battle of Cefn Digoll (Long Mountain near Welshpool c.630) and hounded the Northumbrians northward. They wreaked revenge on the Northern Angles for the defeat at the Battle of Chester, burning York, sacking Yeavering (Ad Gefrin) and butchering so many Northumbrians that the Northern Angles thought they were all to be exterminated. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it:

  • "Cadwallon and Penda went and did for the whole land of Northumbria".

Penda's impact on history was his part in the challenge to the power of Northumbria. He defeated the Northumbrian king Edwin at the Battle of Hatfield Chase in 633. After Edwin's death, Northumbria briefly fell apart into its two constituent kingdoms. Edwin was succeeded by Osric, son of Edwin's paternal uncle Ælfric, in Deira, and by Eanfrith, son of Æthelfrith and Edwin's sister Acha, in Bernicia. Both sucessors reverted to paganism, and both were killed by Cadwallon (Eanfrith's reign was short, as he was killed by Cadwallon whilst trying to negotiate peace - according to Bede, Osric was killed by Cadwallon whilst trying to besiege him). However, within a year Oswald of Northumbria killed Cadwallon (at the Battle of Heavenfield c634), reunited the kingdoms, and subsequently re-established Northumbrian hegemony over the south of England. Then, in 641, Penda (possibly assisted by Cynddylan of Powys) slew (and dismembered) Oswald at the Battle of Maserfield (641 or 642, the site of the battle is traditionally identified with Oswestry - but Oswald still had some travelling to do). Despite his reign ending in a disastrous defeat at the Battle of Winwaed in 655 (by the Northumbrians under Oswald's brother Oswiu), Penda had firmly established Mercia on the road to becoming the main power in England.

Oswald was given a strongly positive assessment by the historian Bede, writing a little less than a century after Oswald's death, who regarded Oswald as a saintly king; it is also Bede who is the main source for present-day historical knowledge of Oswald. Although Edwin had previously converted to Christianity in 627, it was Oswald who did the most to spread the religion in Northumbria. Shortly after becoming king, he asked the Irish of Dál Riata to send a bishop to facilitate the conversion of his people, and they eventually sent Aidan for this purpose; initially, the Irish sent an "austere" bishop who was unsuccessful in his mission, and Aidan, who proposed a gentler approach, was subsequently sent instead. Oswald gave the island of Lindisfarne to Aidan as his episcopal see, and Aidan is said by Bede to have achieved great success in spreading the Christian faith; Bede mentions that Oswald acted as Aidan's interpreter when the latter was preaching, since Aidan did not know English well and Oswald had learned Irish during exile in Ireland.

Initially Penda's son Peada became king under Oswiu of Northumberlands's overlordship, but was murdered a year later (656). According to Bede this was from "the treachery, it is said, of his own wife .. during the very time of celebrating Easter", or as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle puts it:

  • "Peada ruled no length of time, because he was betrayed by his own queen at Eastertide"

His brother Wulfhere came to the throne when Mercian nobles organized a revolt against Northumbrian rule in 658, and drove out Oswiu's Northumbrian governors. Wulfhere was the first Christian king of all of Mercia, though it is not known when or how he was converted, it has been suggested that he adopted Christianity as part of a settlement with Oswiu. Mercian relations with the Northumbrians improved in part through various dynastic marriages: Wulfhere's sister Cyneburh married Alhfrith, a son of Oswiu, and brothers Æthelred and Peada married daughters of Oswiu, which in Peada's case was apparently not a wise choice. Still, one needed to enjoy life while one had it, two devastating Pandemic's happened during this period: one in 664 (possibly Yellow Fever) and the other in 682.

Once again, the history of the church in Chester at the time is little more than speculation. Much of the military and political history of the times is derived from monastic chronicles, which tend to add a religious slant to events. For more on this period see: Saxon.


The saint most closely associated with Chester cathedral is Werburgh, although in life she seems to have had little, if any, connection with the city and only "arrived" in Chester long after her death.

Werbergh - Princess of Mercia, later saint, from stained glass at the Cathedral. This window was destroyed by a burgular in 2018.

Werbergh (Werburga) Patroness of Chester, Abbess of Weedon, Trentham, Hanbury, Minster in Sheppy, and Ely, was born in Staffordshire early in the seventh century. She is often portrayed with a goose that she is said to have returned to life after it had not only died but been cooked and eaten (one wonders quite how she managed to obtain all the parts of the corpse). Her mother was Eormenhild, daughter of Ercombert, King of Kent, and his wife Sexburga. Her father was Wulfhere, son of the lifelong pagan Penda and eventually to be king of Mercia. There are no contemporary records of Werbergh's activities - the earliest account of her life was written by Goscelin, a Flemish monk, in the 1089's.

A very dubious legend says that Wulfhere wished to marry his daughter, Werburgh, to Werbode, (a "perverse heathen" according to Chamber's Book of Days). However, Werburga's brothers, Wulfad and Rufinus, objected to the union. Unable to defeat their opposition, Werbode poisoned the King's mind against his sons and obtained his authority to have them arrested for treason. Wulfhere too hastily accepted the fabricated evidence and the guiltless young men were condemned to death. On discovery of the plot, Werburgh decided to become a nun and "Werbode was poisoned by an evil spirit, and died raving mad". This story is unlikely to be true, as the only recorded sons of Wulfhere were Coenred (who was young at the time) and possibly a Berhtwald (who would have been even younger). Even if it is true in part Werbergh might not have been involved. The Peterborugh diocesan history relates a similar tale but does not mention Werbergh:

  • At Peada's death his next brother, Wulfere, succeeded to the throne. Wulfere professed himself a Christian, and he had married Ermenild, daughter of Egbert, the Christian king of Kent. But his character and conduct little harmonised with his profession, or with the wishes of his queen. He had two sons, Wulfade and Rufine, whom he had not even brought to Holy Baptism. Wulfade, so says the legend, was one day hunting, when the stag of which he was in pursuit took refuge in a cell of St. Chad, an incident which led to the conversion of the young prince, and afterwards of his brother Rufine. Their father, enraged at the youths for their profession of Christianity, slew them both with his own hand in their private oratory, a retreat in which they were betrayed by his steward, Werbode. The story relates that Werbode was strangled by the devil before the palace.
Family of Wulfhere showing his daughter Werburgh

Hemingway, in his "Panorama of the City of Chester", tells an even more unlikely tale (for which their seems to be no historical basis at all):

  • "The abbey which gave birth to this see, is of such antiquity as to have been a nunnery more than eleven hundred years ago, founded by Walpherus King of the Mercians for his daughter St Werburgh; who the good wives of the present day will wonder to hear took the veil after living three years with her husband Cedredus in a state of vestal purity!!! Whether this chaste lady's immaculacy was more ascribable to her constiutional coldness or spiritual heat historians have not been kind enough to inform us; nor even have they vouchsafed to say, what sort of a man her husband was!!"

The traditional tale is that despite her beauty and attractions as a royal princess, she rejected all suitors and entered the Abbey of Ely, founded by her great aunt Æðelþryð (who was then abbess and later became St Æðelþryð). Werburgh's grandmother (later St Sexburga) succeeded Æðelþryð as abbess, and Werbergh's own mother (later St Eormenhild) was to enter the convent after Wulfhere's death in 675, and eventually become abbess. Great-aunts of Werburgh include St Æthelburg of Faremoutier and St Saethryth among other saints. Aunts included saintly sisters St Cyneburh and St Cyneswith. There was purportedly even an infant grandson of Penda named Rumwold who lived a saintly three-day life of fervent preaching. Not to be outdone by the Mercians, Oswald of Northumbria who had died at the Battle of Maserfield (believed to be just north of Oswestry) became a saint as well - Oswald and Werbergh would finally be reunited in a very strange manner.

So many "princess" saints raises the suspicion that the rival Celtic and Roman Churches were attempting to curry favour with the ruling classes. Indeed, at this time King Oswiu of Northumbria (Werbergh's uncle's father in law)) had the problem that he (Celtic) and his queen - St Eanflæd (Roman) - celebrated Easter weeks apart. Finally, at the Synod of Whitby in 664, King Oswiu of Northumbria ruled that his kingdom would calculate Easter and observe the monastic tonsure according to the customs of Rome, rather than the customs practised by the Celtic Church. Prior to 1234, local bishops could canonise whoever they wanted (whether they were dead or not) and is not beyond reason that the profusion of saints can in part be explained by attempts by the Church to gain influence with the local rulers by offering them the ideal gift for their mother, sister, aunt or granny - sainthood.

Coenred (or Cenred, Coinred, Kenred) the son of Wulfhere (and hence the brother of Werbergh), was probably too young to succeed to the throne when Wulfhere died in 675, and so his uncle Æthelred ruled until around 704, when he abdicated (and became a monk). Æthelred has been descibed as overly pious but he did decisively defeat the Northumbrians at the Battle of the Trent in 679. During his reign Æthelred invited Werburgh to return home, assume control of all the Mercian convents and "bring them to a higher level of discipline". Werburgh spent the rest of her life reforming these Mercian establishments and founding new religious houses including those at Trentham, Hanbury and Weedon.

Stained glass window from St Johns showing the founding of the Church in 689. The "king" in the image is presumably Æthelred who was standing-in as ruler for Werburgh's under-age brother Coenred. One of the bishops may be intended to be Wilfrid. The woman on the right may be intended as Osthryth (died 697), queen of the Mercians, wife of King Æthelred and daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his second wife Eanflæd. She was murdered by the nobles of Mercia.

In 689, at least according to Legend, Æthelred (Werbergh's uncle) founded St Johns Church at Chester.

  • dclxxxix Anno Domini d.c. octogesimo ix Rex Merciorum Ethelredus, avunculus beate Werburge, ope Wilfrici episcopi Cestriensis, ut reffert Giraldus, fundavit ecclesiam collegiatam in suburbio civitatis Cestrie in honorem Sancti Johannis Baptiste. (689 In the year of our lord six hundred and eighty-nine Ethelred, king of the Mercians, the uncle of S. Werburg, with the assistance of Wilfric, bishop of Chester, as Giraldus [Cambrensis] relates, founded a collegiate church in the suburbs of Chester in honour of S. John the Baptist.)

Giraldus (Gerald of Wales) lived around 1146–1223, so this is not actually a record from 689. Giraldus is also well-know for believing anything that the locals tell him and writing it down. The very fact that Æthelred was a Mercian also confuses matters, as the later Chroniclers from Wessex would be quite systematic in playing down the achievements of the Mercians.

Werbergh died at Trentham, 3 February, 699 or 700. She had apparently decided on Hanbury as her final resting place but happened to be at Trentham when she died. The nuns at Trentham refused to give up the body and even instituted security arrangements to prevent its removal. Despite this an expedition from Hanbury succeeded in "miraculously" recovering her remains.

Very little is known of events at Chester during the 8th Century. Mercia became a dominant kingdom and expanded it's boundaries from the Trent Valley to cover the midlands. The Mercian ruler Offa (died 796) built his dyke along a border with Wales. Hemingway writes: "The origin of St Bridget's church is buried in obscurity but it may probably be dated from the reign of King Offa who died ad 797 [sic] about which time we read That 'divers parish churches were erected in Chester'"

The Vikings

Werburgh was to remain at Hanbury for the better part of two centuries. Even towards the end of that time very little is known about what was happening in Chester. It may even have been a part of Wales, as there are strong suggestions that the Welsh were attacked there by Ecgbert, the ruler of Wessex, in around 830. Ecgbert was one of the first kings to be troubled by the Viking raiders, who would become a serious problem thereafter.

The story of Werburgh's arrival in Chester is preserved in the writings of two monks of Chester: Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, of the mid 14th century and Henry Bradshaw's life of St. Werburgh, of the late 15th. According to tradition the body of St. Werburgh, was carried to Chester in 874 from its resting place at Hanbury in Staffordshire by nuns fleeing from the Danes. The Danes would dismember the once great state of Mercia, which was already weakened by internal feuds. They would also raid deep into Wessex where Alfred "the Great" would eventually counter them after returning from a position of almost complete defeat. Tradition therefore establishes the cult of Werburgh as being in place at Chester after 874.

Bradshaw (died 1513), is not always accurate about Werbergh, as in the following passage:

  • In the Abbey of Chester she is shrined richly, Prioress and ladye of that holy place, the chief protectress of the said Monastery, long before the Conquest, by divine grace protectress of the City, she is and ever was called special primate, and principal president..

Werbergh was never prioress of the abbey and Bradshaw may be confusing her supposed relation with St Johns - but she was never prioress there either. Bradshaw explains that St Werbergh's relics have had their uses:

  • From an ignorant infatuation ofthe supposed virtues of this royal virgin her relics were held in the most super stitions reverence and were frequently resorted to in time of war or other trouble as to a divine mediator and comforter One instance shall suffice of her miraculous interposition which was during a seige by the Welsh Prince Griffith or Griflin when her bones were again unearthed and exhibited to the marauders who were instantly struck blind and thus the city was preserved.

Again, Bradshaw's facts do not tally with other legends which have Werburgh's remains being uncorrupted when removed from Hanbury but crumbling to dust when they arrived in Chester. In Bradshaw's version the shrine was damaged by a stone thrown by one of the attackers, and as a result the Welsh king and his host were smitten with blindness and retreated. The episode is placed by Bradshaw in the reign of King Edward the Elder, but it seems more likely, however, that Bradshaw confused his Edwards and that the incident should properly be ascribed to the reign of Edward the Confessor. We know little of Edward the Elder’s relations with the Welsh, and when he is in conflict with them the men of Chester were their allies. A "Griffin" does appear in contemporary sources for the Confessor’s reign and is to be identified with Gruffudd ap Cynan, the 11th-century king of Gwynedd who was active against the English in the mid 1050s, and is known to have gone blind in much later life.

What remained of Mercia was now a roughly triangular kingdom with corners at Chester, Gloucester and London. The Vikings ruled to the North, the Welsh to the West and the Anglo-Saxons of Wessex to the South. At times Chester appears to have been under Welsh control, but had reverted to being Mercian territory which may at times have extended as far into Wales as Comwy. The Mercian incursions into Wales were possibly the reason why Chester was percieved as being a safe haven for Werburgh's remains.

Summarising the events so far, there is clear evidence that some christian institutions survived in post-Roman North Wales, including the monastery at Bangor-on-Dee. Place name evidence from Eccleston and Christleton suggest that there may have been a religious community at Chester, and although the Battle of Chester is a historical fact, the evidence linking it to the "Synod of Chester" is unreliable. Werburgh's translation to Chester in c874 is also based on somewhat shaky evidence.

A Confusing Period

The years around 900 are a particularly confusing period in the history of Chester. For more on this see "Chester in 900", but the bare facts are as follows. Chester appears to have been as "safe" place for Werburgh's remains to be moved to in the year 875 - but some sources do not mention the event. Some texts then state that Chester was "deserted" by 894, when it was aparently occupied by Vikings but shortly afterwards renewed and/or restored, with the city beiing well established by c907. At around the same time Plegmund was apparently living as a "hermit" near Chester. The characters involved are explored in more detail elsewhere on this site, but a brief look at them serves to provide some background and illustrate the confusion around the period when the cult of Werburgh became established at Chester. As always, the military and political history is somewhat addled not only by the efforts of later religious writers but also also by political propoganda seeking to enhance the role of Wessex.


Tradition holds that Alfred the Great's archbishop Plegmund lived at Plemstall, just outside of Chester, before being summoned to the Alfred's court when the king sought to improve learning.

Plegmund's window in the south side of the cloister at Chester Cathedral. It was dedicated in memory of Bellamira Frances Payne, spinster who lived at 4, Abbey Green Chester (died 26th July 1925) and her sister Letitia Albinia Payne, spinster of the same address (died 8th July 1925). Bellamira Payne was a noted botanist. This Stained Glass is one of the small number of windows in the cloister by Trena Cox.

in 900 Edward the Elder was consecrated at Kingston-upon-Thames by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Plegmund (890-c.924) of St Plegmund's Well fame): "Edwardus rex Anglorum est consecratus in regem a Pleemundo Dornobernensi archiepiscopo apud Kingestune". Edward has another connection with the area around Chester, he died at Farndon. Edward illustrates well how much intercourse there was between Britain and Europe by looking at the marriages of his daughters:

  • Eadgifu (902 – after 955), who married Charles the Simplet he King of Western Francia from 898 until 922 and the King of Lotharingia from 911 until 919–23.
  • Ælfgifu who married "a prince near the Alps", sometimes identified with Conrad of Burgundy or Boleslaus II of Bohemia or Boleslaus I, Duke of Bohemia.

Plegmund was granted his pallium by Pope Formosus, but the legend of his origins living as a hermit at Plemstall in Cheshire ("Plemstall" means "holy place of Plegmund") may only the date from some 300 years after his death, when, Gervaise of Canterbury (born 1141) wrote of:

  • "Plegmund, a most religious man and nobly learned in sacred literature, had for many years led an eremitic life on an island in Cheshire, called Plegmundeshamm by the locals."

Plegmund's reputation for learning strongly suggests that he was a member of a major monastic community with a substantial library. Where exactly this was located remains the subject of conjecture, although Chester is the most likely location.


Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred and snatcher of relics

Æthelflæd (alternative spelling Aethelfled, Æthelfleda, Ethelfleda) (872/879 – 918) was the eldest daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex and his wife Ealhswith. She had four or five younger siblings, including Edward the Elder and Ælfthryth. She was 15 when she married Aethelred later the ealdorman or earl of Mercia, in about 886, and had one daughter, Ælfwynn. The marriage was probably arranged to cement relations between Mercia and Wessex against the Danes. While travelling to Mercia for her wedding her party was attacked by the Danes in an attempt to kill her and so sabotage the alliance between Wessex and Mercia. Though half her company perished in the first attack, Ethelfleda used an old trench as a fortress, and defeated the Danes. Malmesbury relates, that after the birth of her first child she was:

  • " so much astonished at the pain, that ever after, she refrained the embraces of her husband for almost forty years, protesting often, that it was not fit for a king's daughter to be given to a pleasure that brought so much pain along with it; and thereupon grew an heroic virago, like the ancient Amazons, as if she had changed her sex, as well as her mind."

On her husband's death in 911 after the Battle of Tettenhall, she was elevated to the status of "Lady of the Mercians". This title was not a nominal position; she was a formidable military leader and tactician. Æthelflæd ruled for approximately eight years. According to Henry Bradshaw, Æthelflæd, enlarged the original church in honour of St. Werburgh and transferred the original dedication to Peter and Paul to a new parish church in the centre of the city, but Bradshaw also mentions that a tablet in St John's church ascribed the foundation of the house of canons to Æthelflaed's nephew, Edmund. King Athelstan has also been credited with the foundation, since Higden states that there were secular canons serving St. Werburgh at Chester from the time of Athelstan until the arrival of the Normans. Of the three rival founders Æthelflæd, who, with her husband Ethelred, restored the city in 907, is the most likely, although there is no definite evidence of the existence of a church of canons dedicated to St. Werburgh at Chester before 958. In that year Edgar, king of the Mercians, granted to the familia of St. Werburgh 17 hides of land in Hoseley (Flints.), Cheveley, Huntington, Upton, Aston, and Barrow.

Æthelflæd of Mercia is believed to have been a follower of the cult of St Oswald (the same Oswald who had ruled Northumbria and waged war on Mercia). The extent of her involvement and that of her husband in the precise details of establishing the cults of Werburgh and Oswald at Chester is clouded by several factors. First, there are few surviving records from the time. Second, there was a tendency for the early chroniclers of Wessex to play down her achievements in favour of those of her brother Edward the Elder. Third, there is perhaps a more recent tendency to assume that she was the driving force behnd much that could have been the work of her husband Ethelred

In his day Oswald was undoubtedly held in great repute, so much so, that he was favourably compared with even Caesar and Alexander:

  • "They say, that Alcibiades conquered himself, Alexander the world, and Cassar the enemy. But Oswald conquered at once himself, the world, and the enemy."

In 909 Oswald's remains (they were now at Bardney Abbey) were captured by a Mercian expedition and (mostly) taken (by Æthelflæd) away for reburial at Gloucester. Oswald's head was interred in Durham Cathedral where it is generally believed to remain, although there are at least four other claimed heads of Oswald in continental Europe. One of his arms is said to have ended up in Peterborough Abbey later in the Middle Ages - where the monks built a watchtower to stop it being moved again. A late tradition holds that the cult of St Oswald was introduced at Chester when the minster was refounded by Æthelfiæd and re-dedicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald in 907, but again this might be much clouded by myth and legend.

It is odd to think that Werbergh, whose grandfather Penda slew Oswald in 641 at Oswestry, should come together again with Oswald in this strange way. The foundations of St Oswald's church form part of the Cathedral but nothing is known of the detailed fabric of the Anglo-Saxon minster, except that it was beautified by Earl Leofric of Mercia (d. 1057) and his wife Godiva.

St John vs Peter and Paul

Mercian defence strategy at the time of Æthelflæd. The green areas are occupied by the Hiberno-Norse, while the blue (which includes Northumbria) are occupied by the Danes. The line of fortifications from Chester to Manchester is intended to prevent a flank/rear attack on Tamworth, the Mercian political center. The approximate boundaries of England for 917, 920 and 927 are shown.

Little is known about the early relationship between two major churches at Chester. St Johns Church supposedly dates from Æthelred, king of Mercia (674–704) in 689 - but it is a puzzle why that church was not built within the city walls, which would have been a far more secure place. It has been suggested that the city already had a church - later to become St Werburgh's. As suggested above, St John's, associated with the celtic-church hating "Wulfrice" (Wilfid), may have been established as a Roman counterpart to an established Celtic church. The outspoken Wilfrid famously sought to - "root out the poisonous weeds planted by the Scots" (the Scots were believed to have lived in Ireland at that time), and way back at the synod of Chester in 600, the sympathies of the city's religious community seem to have been with Iona rather than Rome.

Stranger still, is the fact that in 875, St Werbergh's shrine (the smaller one containing her mortal remains not the later stone one) was moved to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul within the city walls of Chester and not to St Johns, which may have been built for her by her uncle, and employer, Æthelred. Perhaps that was just a question of safety, or was there some rivalry involved? Curiously, St Augustine had founded another abbey of St Peter and St Paul at Canterbury - could this be an attempt by the Peter/Paul church to gain some legitimacy?

The first abbey in Chester - the Abbey of St John the Baptist - was (according to some accounts) founded in 906 by a later Ethelred, Earl of Mercia (he was married to Æthelflæd). These were troubled and remain confusing times. According to some accounts Chester was a deserted city when the Vikings overwintered there in 892/3, yet it had been a Welsh city when attacked by Ecgbert in 829/30 and been seen as a safe place to move the relics of Werburgh to in c876 (see Chester in 900).

Mercian independence was not to last as in 907 Edward the Elder "regained Chester" (ref) after a battle. Again, why establish the Abbey outside the city?

Perhaps a solution can be found with Æthelflæd of Mercia, who is said, as noted above, to have been a follower of the cult of St Oswald (the same Oswald who had ruled Northumbria and waged war on Mercia). Tradition holds that the cult of St. Oswald was introduced at Chester when the church (St. Peter and St Paul) on the site of the cathedral (and having the same name as Augustine's Abbey at Canterbury) was refounded by Æthelfiæd and re-dedicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald in 907. Æthelfiæd clearly selected two "Northern English" saints to replace Peter and Paul. Both were associated with lands lost to the "Danes": Oswald from Northumbria (conquered by the "Danes" c.867) and Werbergh from Mercia (conquered by the "Danes" c.874). Moreover, she selected two saint's who came from royal houses that had been engaged in bitter warfare - perhaps a hint that she meant the Anglo-Saxons to forget their differences in the face of a common foe.

There are more "Celtic" connections. Shortly after becoming king, Oswald asked the Irish of Dál Riata to send a bishop to convert his people, and (after a false start) they sent Aidan to whom Oswald gave the island of Lindisfarne as his episcopal see (Bede mentions that Oswald acted as Aidan's interpreter when the latter was preaching, since Aidan did not know English well and Oswald had learned Irish during his exile). The Mercians also had celtic connections, having had St Chad as their first bishop, another Celtic Christian. A modern (1961) stained glass window at the west end of the nave depicts northern saints Werburgh, Oswald, Aidan and Chad as well as Wilfrid, and Queen Æthelfiæd.

Taking all this evidence together it appears that Æthelfiæd may have been supporting a unified Celtic community rather than a Roman one and this may lend some weight to the theory that St Werbergh's and St John's may well have differed in the extent of their allegiance to Rome.

A fanciful depiction of Edgar as cox on the Dee - Chester did not have a castle and walls with round towers, and the St Werburgh's probably did not have its tower as shown

The later "relic" of the church of St Oswald, as the later Norman abbey expanded was that the altar of St Oswald ended up in what is now the south transept of the Cathedral and the parishioners of St Oswald (which was a large parish) effectively had no church of their own. In the late 1130's the Norman abbot of Chester would obtain control of Hilbre Island at the mouth of the River Dee and make the islands a part of the parish of St Oswald, despite the islands being 20 miles from Chester. For a while the parishioners of St Oswald were evicted to a separate chapel in Northgate Street but by 1539, by which time dissolution of the monastery would have perhaps been obvious, they were back using the south transept, and the separate chapel had been rented out to the city as the commonhall.

Dunstan and Edgar

In 973 Edgar the Pacific, (c. Aug 7, 943 – July 8, 975) was crowned at Chester as the first king of all England. The religious rites used in his coronation (use of anointing etc.) were devised by Dunstan (Archbishop of Canterbury 959-988), who was perhaps torn between the Celtic and Roman Church, and have been in use ever since. King Edgar is said to have prayed in the minster (monasterium) of St Johns after being rowed along the River Dee. There is no mention of the church which was to become the present cathedral in most versions of that tale with the exception of Henry Bradshaw (in his "Life of St Werburgh") who also has Edgar visit the shrine of St Werburgh - considered unlikely by many and an invention by Bradshaw.

The "coronation" was somewhat peculiar as Edgar had actually been a king since 955 and the king of most of England since 959. As well as having a coronation ceremony in Chester he also had one in Bath. The Chester ceremony seems to have been a largely political event, attended by the sub-kings who rowed him along the River Dee in what could be seen as a symbolic act of homage. The outing on the Dee is traditionally believed to have started at Edgar's Field although some have suggested he may have started from Farndon. Edgar apparently maintained a very large fleet of ships with which to deter the Vikings, and brought this fleet with him to Chester. Edgar is also believed to have maintained a mint at Chester, where he struck coins for his own use as well as for others.

This column on the north wall of the nave may be reused stone from the original church which preceeded the abbey.

St Dunstan functions as the patron saint of goldsmiths and silversmiths, as he worked as a blacksmith, painter, and jeweller. His Feast Day is May 19, which is why the date year on English hallmarks runs from May 19 to May 18, not the calendar year.

Again summarising events so far, by the time of Edgar the Pacific Chester was a place of some importance, and was clearly the base of a significant religious community. It was also a significant naval base.

The Abbey

Edgar the Pacific's relatively successful reign was followed by a resurgence of Viking raids which started about the year 980. The world-view of the people at the time was sometimes fatalist, with many believing that the world would end around the year 1000. The Viking raids ended in a wholesale invasion, and Cnut (often anglicised as "Canute") became the ruler of England. Two powerful families which emerged in this period were those of Godwin in Wessex and Leofric in Mercia - see: Ælfgar for more details on this. Antiquarians have long suspected that parts of the cathedral date from late Anglo-Saxon times. In his "History of Chester", Hemingway notes that:

  • "It's general style may be termed Norman-Gothic, though some specimens of the early Saxon are to be found in its minor beauties. In the magna Britannia, the Lysons, in noticing the small circular arches in the exterior of the north wall of the nave, conjecture that they are as ancient as the time of Leofric, the Mercian earl, who repeaired and beutified the church in the eleventh century; they are decidedly of Saxon architecture."

It is not known exactly when Leofric became the Earl of Chester. Leofric was obviously a man of considerable talent and statesmanship as no man could survive forty years as Earl without these qualities. Probably made Earl (a rank and title new to the English, replacing and enhancing the Anglo-Saxon "ealdorman") in 1017 by the Dane Cnut, Leofric thrived and survived through Cnut's reign. The next king was Harold Harefoot (1035-1040), in whose selection as successor Leofric was instrumental. Hardacnut, Cnut's other son, reigned next (1040-1042), and then came Edward the Confessor's rule (1042-1066) during which Leofric died (in 1057). The collegiate church, as it was then, was restored before his death in 1057 by Leofric, and his wife Lady Godiva. A collegiate church is a college of canons; a non-monastic or "secular" community of clergy, organised as a self-governing corporate body, which may be presided over by a dean or provost. The Chester Chronicle entry for 1057 records:

  • Leofricus Comes Cestriæ reparavit Ecclesiam Collegiatam S. Johĩs Baptistæ ac Ecclesiam S. Werburgæ infra civitatem situatam, ac privilegiis decoravit tempore S. Edwardi Regis et Confessoris, prout refert Willielmus Malmsburiensis de gestis Anglorum Lib. 2 (Leofric, earl of Chester, in the time of S. Edward, king and confessor, repaired, and conferred privileges on the collegiate church of S. John the Baptist, and the church of S. Werburg situate within the city [of Chester] as William of Malmesbury relates in his Chronicle, De Gestis Anglorum, Book 2).
Leofric in Victorian Stained Glass at the Cathedral - the type of axe he is carrying is completely wrong as the one shown is designed to pierce plate armour.

One of course needs to remember that this entry was not actually written in 1057, as William of Malmesbury (c. 1095–c. 1143) did not issue his chronicle until after 1125.

Leofric's grand-daughter, Ealdgyth married firstly the Welsh prince Gruffyd (also known as "King Of The Britons" - killed 1063), and secondly 1066 Harold Godwinson (Harold II) - Harold complicates matters by having a mistress also called Ealdgyth. Harold's January 1064 marriage seemed like a shrewd political move. Aldgyth was the widow of his enemy and the daughter of the ruling house of Mercia. One of Ealdgyths brothers, Edwin was Earl of Mercia while another, Morcar, would also rise to prominence. Unfortunately, the Normans invaded: two armies clashed at the Battle of Hastings, near the present town of Battle on October 14. 1066 - and Harold died.

Or did he...

Earl Hugh in the Town Hall at Chester. Hugh invited Anselm to Chester to "found" the Abbey.

Identified as a centre of disaffection and potential further revolt, Chester was dealt with severely. In 1071 Edwin, Earl of Mercia again sought to rebel but Edwin was soon betrayed to the Normans by his own retinue and killed (Morcar joined the insurgents in the Isle of Ely - Bishop Aethelwine of Durham and Hereward the Wake, and remained with them until the surrender of the island later that year. Morcar, it is said, surrendered himself on the assurance that the king would pardon him and receive him as a loyal friend. William, however, committed him to the custody of Roger de Beaumont, who kept him closely imprisoned in Normandy). By 1071, the value of recoverable taxes had reduced from £45 to £30 (of silver) and Chester was described as 'greatly wasted'. Of 487 houses standing in 1066, 205 had been lost and were perhaps not rebuilt before 1086. The increase in the taxation of the city under Earl Hugh to £70 and a mark of gold (about its pre-conquest level) may indicate more burdensome exactions rather than returning prosperity.

William I created the "Honor of Chester" from the landed estates of dozens of pre-Conquest owners. Firstly, there were the lands of Earl Edwin of Mercia, the minster church of St Werburgh and all the lesser theigns and freemen that formed a neat package defined by the county boundary. This concentration of ownership within a single county was unique in Domesday's time and the only other lords which came close were Roger of Montgomery (Shropshire) and Williams half-brother Robert of Mortain (Cornwall), but even these two had to co-exist with other French lords within their county.

Earl Hugh

A direct consequence of the Norman invasion of 1066 was the near total elimination of the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy, and the loss of English control over the institutions of state such as the Church. By the time of the Domesday Book (1086), only two English landowners of any note had survived. By 1096 no church See or Bishopric was held by any native Englishman - all were held by Normans. However, the history of the Norman abbey is much better documented than that of its shadowy Saxon predecessor.

When the Domesday Book was compiled the canonns of St Werburgh are said to have held, as well as "hides" of land in several "hundreds" of Chehire, thirteen houses within the city itself which were held free of tax. One of these houses was for the warden and the rest for the canons. These thirteen would be the few clerics (pauculi clerici) who, according to Miliam of Malmesbury were ejected by Earl Hugh in c.1092.

In 1092, at Hugh of Avranches's third invitation Anselm of Bec came from France to England to found the Benedictine Abbey at Chester. Alselm had spent some time in Avranches in 1060 before entering the abbey of Bec as a novice - and it is possible that he met Hugh then. The Chester Annales record the foundation thus:

  • In hoc anno venit dompnus Anselmus abbas Ecclesiæ Beccensis Angliam qui sepius ante venerat in Angliam, veniens itaque tunc Angliam Anselmus a multis acclamatus archiepiscopus, quitanti honoris onus humiliter fugiens, rogatu nobilis principis, comitis Hugonis Cestriam venit, ibique abbatiam in honorem Sanctæ Werburgæ fundavit, et monachis ibidem congregatis Ricardum monachum Beccensem primum abbatem instituit. Quo facto, in eodem anno in reditu suo a Cestria, archiepiscopus Cantuariensis factus est. (1093 In this year the lord Anselm, abbot of the church of Bec, came to England, who before this had frequently been in England. On his coming to England this last time, Anselm was acclaimed by many as archbishop, but, humbly desiring to escape the burden of so great an honour, on the invitation of the noble prince, earl Hugh, he came to Chester, and there founded the abbey in honour of S. Werburg, and, having assembled the monks together, he appointed Richard, a monk of Bec, the first abbot. Having done this, in the same year, upon his return from Chester, he was made archbishop of Canterbury.)
William II would not let Anselm return to Bec.

In reality the situation was rather more complex. When about to return to Bec, Anselm was refused permission by the then king (William Rufus) but the following year, when the king fell ill (and believed himself dying) Anselm was nominated to the then vacant see of Canterbury (after Lanfranc's death in 1089, the king delayed appointing a new archbishop for many years, appropriating ecclesiastical revenues in the interim). The reluctant Anselm was finally consecrated as Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093 (this was a disaster for William as the two did not get on). In exchange for retaining office, Anselm demanded certain conditions -- that King William return the possessions of the see, accept Anselm's spiritual counsel and acknowledge Urban II as pope, in opposition to Antipope Clement III. He only obtained partial consent to the first of these demands, and the last involved him in serious difficulty with the king. The Church's rule stated that metroplitans could not be consecrated without receiving the pallium from the hands of the pope. Anselm, accordingly, insisted that he must proceed to Rome to receive the pall, but King William would not permit it; he had not acknowledged Urban II as pope and maintained his right to prevent a pope's acknowledgment by an English subject without his permission. A council of churchmen and nobles was held to settle the matter, and advised Anselm to submit to the king, but he remained firm and the matter was postponed. During this time, William sent secret messengers to Rome. They acknowledged Urban II and prevailed on him to send a legate to the king bearing the archiepiscopal pall. Anselm and King William were partially reconciled, and the matter of the pall was finally decided. It was not given by the king but laid on the altar at Canterbury, where Anselm received it.

Henry I - also had a row with Anselm

Over a year later, Anselm encountered further trouble with King William - wishing to visit the pope he obtained the king's permission to leave with great difficulty and, in October 1097, set out for Rome. William immediately seized the revenues of the see and retained them until his death. Anselm was received with honour by Urban II but the pope did not wish to become deeply involved in Anselm's dispute with the king. When he attempted to return to England, King William would not permit him entry. However William was killed in 1100 and his successor, Henry I, invited Anselm to return to England under certain conditions: Anselm was to receive from him, in person, investiture in his office of archbishop. The papal rule, however, stated that all homage and lay investiture were strictly prohibited. Henry refused to relinquish the privilege possessed by his predecessors, and proposed that the matter be laid before the pope. Two embassies were sent to Paschal II regarding the legitimacy of Henry's investiture, but he reaffirmed the papal rule on both occasions. King Henry remained firm. In 1103, Paschal II again ruled in favor of papal rule, and passed a sentence of excommunication against all who had infringed it, except King Henry. Forbidden to return to England unless on the king's terms, Anselm withdrew to Lyons and awaited further action from Pope Paschal. In 1105, Paschal did act, excommunicating King Henry. Henry was seriously alarmed. He arranged a meeting with Paschal, and a reconciliation was established. In 1106, Anselm was permitted to cross to England with authority from the pope to remove the sentence of excommunication from the "illegally"-invested churchmen. By 1107, the long dispute regarding investiture was finally settled with a compromise in the Concordat of London, whereby Henry relinquished his right to invest his bishops and abbots but reserved the custom of requiring them to do homage for the landed properties tied to the episcopate. The remaining two years of Anselm's life were spent in the duties of his archbishopric. Anselm died on 21 April 1109.

The Benedictines (also known as the "black monks") were founded by Saint Benedict of Nursia, a 6th-century monk who laid the foundations of Benedictine monasticism through the formulation of his "Rule of Saint Benedict". It was from the monastery of St. Andrew in Rome that Augustine, the prior, and his forty companions set forth in 595 on their mission for the evangelization of England, to establish their first monastery at Canterbury in 597. By the ninth century, the Benedictine had become the standard form of monastic life throughout the whole of Western Europe, excepting Scotland, Wales, and Ireland, where the Celtic observance would still prevail for another century or two.

Rivalry with Lichfield?

Earl Hugh - at the Cathedral.

The new abbey was not the only Norman church-building being progressed in Chester at the time. In 1075 Peter de Leia, bishop of Lichfield (consecrated in 1067) had removed his episcopal see to St Johns Church at Chester and planned a huge new church. One theory as to why this was done is that the bishop saw some scope for extending his bishopric into North Wales, which was then being conquered by Hugh. Another reason is given by Henry de Knyghton - a council was held in London, under the presidency of archbishop Lanfranc, at which it was deemed expedient to transfer the sees of the Bishops from villages and small towns to more significant towns. William of Malmesbury gives the same explanation. Notably, Peter de Leia didn't choose to locate himself at St Werbergh's. Peter de Leia is a somewhat confusing figure as he has the same name as a bishop of St Davids fron 1176-1198. It was the Welsh de Leia who was appointed by Henry II despite attempts to have Gerald of Wales made bishop at St David's.

The earlier De Leia died and was buried in Chester in 1085, and his successor Robert de Limesey translated his see from Chester to Coventry in 1102, although he seems to have been planning this since 1095 - notably just after Anselm visited Chester. Coventry was a wealthy abbey, richer than Chester, and by making Coventry the cathedral, Robert increased the revenue of his see by a large amount. When the monastery which later became Coventry Cathederal was founded, Leofric (Saxon "Earl of Chester") gave the northern half of his estates in Coventry to the monks to support them. This was known as the "Prior's-half", and the other was called the "Earl's-half" which would later pass to the Norman Earls of Chester, and explains the early division of Coventry into two parts (until the Royal "Charter of Incorporation" was granted in 1345).

Thus, the present day Cathedral was not the first cathedtral in Chester. Just when St Johns first became a cathedral has been the subject of some debate. Ralph de Diceto (c. 1120 – c. 1202) makes a statement to the effect that Chester was an episcopal see before ether Lichfield or Coventry. Diceto devides church history into three phases with the see in the time of the Britons at Chester; in the Saxon era at Lichfield and after the Danish and Norman invasion at Coventry:

  • "In ea quidem diocesi plures ab antiquo sedes habitae sunt episcopales: temporibus Britonum, apud Cestriane: temporibus antiquorum Saxonum apud Lytchesfeldian - temporibus Danorum et Normannorum apud Coventreiam."

If it was truly the case that Chester was "the" seat of the church in England in pre-Saxon times, then it makes some sense that the famous meeting with the English Bishops and Augustine took place in Chester. An alternative explanation is that Dicero misreads Bede and gives Chester far more importance than it actually had.

"Romanesque" stonework in the north transept - the oldest surviving part of the cathedral. The columns in the gallery above the arch are re-used Roman stonework.

Robert was one of the bishops, along with Gerard, Archbishop of York and Herbert de Losinga bishop of Norwich, who returned from Rome (in 1102) to inform Henry I that Pope Paschal II had confirmed Henry could personally invest bishops, provided they were good men. This was during the Investiture Crisis (see above), and Paschal later denied what had been said and excommunicated all three bishops. Presumably Anselm, at this time Archbishop of Canterbury but effectively in exile (from 1097-1100 and 1103-1106), was happy with this as 'his' abbey at Chester might well get the benefit of additional bequests from the local Earls.

Was there a rivalry between the Earls of Chester and the Bishops of Lichfield/Chester/Coventry? It's possible that Hugh of Avranches repeated requests to Anselm of Bec (which must have started prior to 1092) were intended as a direct response to the presence in Chester of the Norman Bishop de Leia. Hugh, having obtained the assistance of perhaps the most pretigious prelate of the Norman world, then proceeded with a plan for rebuilding on a monumental scale, reinforced its rights and privileges, and almost doubling its estates.

Before his death in 1101, Hugh had made a huge fortune from his position as the Earl of Chester and also became so fat that he could hardly walk (he was known in later life as "Hugh the Fat" - presumably only out of earshot). Orderic Vitalis states that Hugh was "a slave to gluttony, he staggered under a mountain of fat" and was "given over to carnal lusts and had a numerous progeny of sons and daughters by his concubines". The Welsh called him Hugh Flaidd (Hugh the Wolf or Hugh Lupus) and a wolf's head appears on his arms. In an 1086 engraving of the coat of arms the artist has gave the head of the wolf a wide grin, which might be mistaken for that of a cat - this has been suggested as the origin of the Cheshire Cat. As regards Hugh, Hemingway quotes the following:

  • He was, "saith Ordericus, not only liberal, but profuse; he did not carry a family with him, but an army. He kept no account of receipts or disbursements. He was perpetually wasting his estates; and was much fonder of falconers and huntsmen, than of cultivators of land, and holy men , and by his gluttony he grew so excessively fat, that he could hardly crawl about.
The east end of the Cathedral and later additions.

The earliest survivng structure at the cathedral is best seen in the wall of the north transept. Here, there is a Norman "Romanesque" semi-circular arch with a triforium above. The pillars used in the construction of the triforium are believed to be re-used Roman stonework. The triforium is interesting because it is partly a "blind" arcade forming a "Lombard Band". Combining features of ancient Roman and Byzantine buildings and other local traditions, Romanesque architecture is known by its massive quality, thick walls, round arches, sturdy pillars, barrel vaults, large towers and decorative arcading. Each building has clearly defined forms, frequently of very regular, symmetrical plan; the overall appearance is one of simplicity when compared with the Gothic buildings that were to follow. The triforium would have originally been just below the roof of the early building as the clerestory (clear-storey) was only added later. The enormous quantity of churches built in the Romanesque period was succeeded by the still busier period of Gothic architecture, which partly or entirely rebuilt most Romanesque churches in prosperous areas like England and Portugal. The lower part of the north wall of the nave is also from the Norman building, but can only be viewed from the cloister because the interior has been decorated with mosaic. Some of the stonework in that wall may be re-used from the original Saxon church.

The size of the original church buildings are not known, but it is believed that the ground plan was less than that of the present building. Archaeological work in the Victorian period confirms that the south transept was originally similiar in size to the north transept, and that the eastern end of the cathedral was terminated with rounded chapels as were common in Romanesque/Norman designs. It is a common misconception that cathedrals "took many hundreds of years to build", better understood with the caveats that often earlier structure would be removed and replaced with a more "modern" and often enlarged construction.


From an early period the monks of St. Werburgh's claimed that Earl Hugh I had granted them the right to hold a fair on the three days around the feast of St. Werburg's translation on 21 June. Robert of Torigny's De Immutatione Ordinis Monachorum records that "Hugo vicecomitis Abrincatensis postea…comes Cestrensis" also founded "abbatiam Sancti Severi in Constantinensi episcopatu" - Saint-Sever in Normandy. Although it has been suggested that Hugh became a monk at St Werburg in Chester, four days before he died (1101), the Chester Annales simply records his death:

The medieval architecture of Chester by John Henry Parker (1858) contains a detailed description from 1858 (click link for free e-book).
  • Defuncto Hugone comite cestrensi principe nobili. Ricardus puer vij annorum comitatum suscepit. (1101 The noble prince Hugh, earl of Chester, being dead, Richard, a boy of seven years of age, inherited the earldom.)

There is a "slight" problem with the 1093 charter of Abbey, which like many such documents goes to great lengths to ensure that the grant is perpetual and cannot be reversed later. The charter ends:

  • " Et ut hc omnia essent rata et stabilia in perpetuum, ego Come Hugo et mei Barones confirmavim us (&c.), ita quod singuli nostrum propria manu, in testimonium posteris signum in modum Cruc is facerunt:" (And as these things were fixed and unchanging forever, I and my barons comes Hugo has confirmed us .. so that each of our own hand, in testimony for posterity by the sign of the cross)

..and is signed by the earl himself; Richard of Avranches (his son); Hervey, bishop of Bangor ; Ranulf de Meschines (1074-1129: Richard's nephew, who eventually inherited the earldom); Roger Bigod; Alan de Perci; William Constabular (William FitzNeil - Baron of Halton); Ranulph Dapifer; William Malbanc (Baron of Nantwich}; Robert FitzHugh (Baron of Malpas); Hugh FitzNorman; Hamo de Masci (Baron of Dunham-Massey); and Bigod de Loges. The little problem is that the charter cannot date from 1093 and be signed by Richard (1094-1120: who was only seven years old in 1101). Richard cannot have signed a charter before he was born. This problem is solved if the charter is dated later than 1093 and merely confirms the earlier grant - but then the problem arises that Robert FitzHugh may have been dead by then (he also died in 1120 on the White Ship). However it should be remembered that medieval monks were known to fake charters at times.

Richard of Avranches - Town Hall staircase.

Earl Hugh was initially buried in the cemetery of the Abbey ; but his nephew Ranulf de Meschines removed the body to the chapter-house, as appears from the charter in which Ranulf granted Upton to the Abbey:

  • "Notum sit vobis pariter me concessisse quando feci transferri corpus Hugonis comitis avunculi mei a cimiterio in capitulum," ("Be it known to you that in like wise I granted, when I had the body of Count Hugo, my uncle, removed from the graveyard to the newly built chapter-house.")

For some years the chapter-house housed part of the cathedral library. In the vestibule was a copy of Ranulf Higdon's Polychronicon. His world map shows England at the edge of the world, and features Bangor but not Chester. The Polychronicon is a little more difficult to see nowadays.

The First Abbots

Richard of Bec, abbot from 1093-1116 presided over the abbey during an unprecidented explosion of church-building in England. In the 1070's six major church builtings were begun (Canterbury, Lincoln, St Albans, Rochester, Winchester and Hereford), and the 1080's saw four more started (Ely, Worcester. Chichester and Gloucester). Chester was begun in the 1090's as were London, Durham and Norwich - making an average of one every other year. William the Conqueror and his Norman host were keen to stamp their authority across their newly conquered kingdom, ecclesiasticals were similarly keen to stamp their mark on the landscape and impress on the locals the superiority of Norman French culture and sophistication. This led to huge logistical problems given the skilled labour that was available.

Richard of Bec, the first abbot died in 1117 (he was buried in the east angle of the then south cloister), but his tenure had not been without difficulty. The founder's son, Richard of Avranches, gave little to the abbey during his short tenure of the earldom; apart from the grant of a mill at Bache, his gifts were restricted to the city and its suburbs. There was a tradition in the abbey that he quarrelled with the abbot over the manor at Saighton and that he 'intended to alter and change the foundation of the said abbey to another religion' but was only prevented by his providential death in the White Ship; there may be some substance to the story as the abbacy was left vacant during the last years of Earl Richard's life (1117-1121), with the government of the church having been perhaps intermediately confided to Robert the prior, who died in 1120. The monks would have no doubt been quick to point out that Earl Richard's early death was possibly a case of divine retribution for his lack of generousity towards the church.

Hugh de Kevelioc's death in 1181 brought on a crisis for the abbey.

William, the second abbot was elected 1121, died 1140. He was followed by Ralph, (elected 1141, died 1157), Robert I, son of Nigel, (elected 1157, died 1175) and Robert II, (elected 1175, died 1184). It is claimed (in Hicklin's History: see the link below) that Robert II obtained a bull from Pope Clement III, confirming the possessions of the abbey, and granting various privileges, but this presents difficulties as Clement III only became Pope in late 1187, some years after the death of Robert II (the previous Clement died in 1080, was another Clement III and sometimes considered an "Antipope"). It is likely almost anything written on the abbey (including this text) will contain such small "errors" as this and some care is needed to determine whether they are accidents of transcription/translation or perhaps have more interesting motivations such as the fabrication of dubious claims to rights.

As noted above, the earliest surviving structure is the north transept, datable on stylistic grounds to the 1090s. The interior, plain and unenriched by sculpture, includes an eastern arch leading into a chapel, originally apsed, and an arcaded triforium opening on a passageway in the wall above. To the west, the wall was plain except for three blocked openings at triforium level which probably originally served another passage. Traces of a similar opening at the east end of the north wall indicate that the passageway was originally continuous round the transept. A blocked doorway in the monks' night stair in the north-east corner of the transept perhaps opened on to a wooden gallery. All the arches are plain and unmoulded and the capitals simple cushions. Some of these capitals, and possibly some of the columns, could well be re-used Roman masonry.

Rebuilding: late 12th and early 13th century

Around 1150 the scholar Robert of Chester returned to England from Segovia in Spain. While translating Al-Khwārizmī's book about algebra (as Liber algebrae et almucabala), Robert made an error that lives on today. Arabic script consists of consonants with vowels punctuated underneath and often omitted. The trigonometric ratio known as the "sine" originated in India and the Sanskrit word for "half the chord" is "jya-ardha" ("jya" means "a bow-string" in Sanskrit), abbreviated to "jiva". This was adopted by the Arabs as "jiba", written "jb". When Robert translated the word, not understanding the Hindu origin, he supplied Arabic vowels yielding the word for bay or inlet ("jaib"). In Latin, a bay or inlet is "sinus". English usage converted the Latin word sinus to "sine". Hence the origin of the trigonometric function named sine.

There was further building in the late 12th and early 13th century. Earl of Chester (1181-1232) Ranulf de Blondeville took lands and revenues pertaining to the fabric into his protection, and ordered his officials to ensure payment to the directors of the work.

Henry II - siezed the abbey and passed it to someone who despised monks.

Robert II died 31st August 1184 leaving the abbacy vacant. This came at an unfortunate time: Hugh de Kevelioc had died in 1181 and his son Ranulf de Blondeville (born 1170) was a ward of Henry II until 1187. At this time Baldwin of Forde was the rising star in the church and Henry II had already had a few clashes with the church, as well as with his sons. Henry took the oportunity to seize the abbey and pass it on to Hugh de Nonant. The vacancy was ended by the appointment in 1186 of Robert of Hastings, a monk of Christ Church, Canterbury and a partisan of Archbishop Baldwin. William of Newburgh noted that Baldwin (a Cistercian) has sought to replace monks with secular canons at the great cathedrals - de Nonant had acted in a similar way. Hastings' appointment was not popular with the monks of Chester; the general confirmation of possessions and privileges supposedly obtained from Clement III contained a provision for the orderly election of abbots and in 1194, after protracted litigation, Robert of Hastings' rival, Geoffrey, obtained the abbacy with the help of the now adult Earl Ranulf and at the price of a pension of 20 marks a year for Hastings. The death of Archbishop Baldwin at Acre in November 1190 probably helped Geoffrey's case as it deprived Robert of his protector.

It is recorded that in 1180 nearly the whole of Chester was burnt on a Sunday in Mid-Lent, which may account for the fact that Geoffrey, the seventh Abbot (a.d. 1194), complained that the church was in ruins, and that there was no money with which to rebuild it, but he succeeded in getting sufficient funds together to build the choir. Geoffrey, in language doubtless exaggerated, describes the state of the choir as

  • "intolerably threatened with ruin, and threatening with danger of death those who assisted at the divine offices."

It was probably in Abbot Geoffrey's time that Lucian, a monk of St. Werburgh's (see: Lucian the Monk for more detail), wrote his description of Chester, "De Laude Cestrie", which contains, in addition to much praise of the virtue and learning of the monks, an account of the hospitality provided both to fellow religious and to travellers:

  • The seats about their table are worn by reason of the many meals given to strangers, such is their innate liberality. Here travellers to and from Ireland find rest, companionship and shelter while waiting for wind and tide.

Lucian may have a sub-text in view of a general feeling amongst the monks that since Hugh de Nonant and Archbishop Baldwin there was a general tendency to replace monks at cathedrals with secular canons.

Ranulf de Blondeville (1181-1232) - restored the security of the abbey and brought a period of some stability to Chester.

There does seem to have been a strong connection with Ireland at the time - unsurprising given that the English were busy conquering it and Chester was a major port in the campaign. In 1183 a colony of monks was sent to Ireland. John de Courcy gave ten carucates of land to the abbey in order that it should supply a prior and monks to replace the secular canons whom he had expelled from the church of St. Patrick in Downpatrick, Patrick's burial place. (this abbey was destroyed by an earthquake in 1245). This bit of the history of the Cathedral at Chester and its connection with what is now Down Cathedral might have been the subject of some monastic distortion over the years.

Pastoral letters appealing for funds are extant from Peter de la Roche bishop of Winchester dated in 1205 and from William bishop of Coventry shortly after which describe the state of the church as deplorable with the choir open to the weather and without doors. Cathedral historians clam that "the inroads of the Welsh had deprived the monks of a valuable rectory and two manors, and the inundations of the sea had been equally fatal in Wirral and Ince". Abbot Geoffry died May 7, 1208, and was buried in the chapter-house, on the left hand of the entrance, near the door.

Hugh Grylle

When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Hubert Walter, died on 13 July 1205, King John (24 December 1166 – 19 October 1216) became involved in a dispute with Pope Innocent III that would lead to the King's excommunication. Pope Innocent was one of the most powerful and influential of the medieval popes. He exerted a wide influence over the Christian states of Europe, claiming supremacy over all of Europe's kings.

These spirited appeals of the bishops appear to have been very successful for it is evident that a large accession of funds was received about this time. Geoffry's successor, Abbot Hugh Grylle (elected 1208, died 1226), was afterwards remembered as a builder, and there is evidence that much work was done in his time. To a large part this may have been due to the stability of the region under the rulership of Earl Ranulph de Blondeville. Hugh's name occurs as a witness to the marriage covenant of John Canmore, the next Earl of Chester, with Helen, daughter of Llewelyn, Prince of Wales; and many grants to the monastery were made in his time. In particular, he may have been responsible for the Early English clerestory arcade, traces of which remain in the north-west corner of the nave (4), and for the early 13th-century changes to the east chapel of the north transept (12), which was given a square end and a ribbed vault. More extensive, though now lost, was the work done at the east end: numerous architectural fragments retrieved from the site attest to the scale of the undertaking, which probably involved wholesale rebuilding, including square-ended choir (6) aisles replacing the previous rounded ones.

The slim columns in the vestibule of the Chapter House, were a marked improvement on the earlier Romanesque vaults.

Hugh was followed by William Marmion, (elected 1226, died 1228), Walter of Pinchbeck, (elected 1228, died 1240), Roger Frend, (elected 1240, died 1249) and Thomas of Capenhurst, (elected 1249, died 1265). It was during this time that a new factor entered into the religious life of Chester as friars started to arrive in relatively significant numbers. Friars are different from monks in that they are called to live the evangelical counsels (vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience) in service to society, rather than through cloistered asceticism and devotion. The Benedictine nunnery of St Mary, Chester, founded between 1150 and 1185 by Earl Ranuif II, enjoyed the support of prosperous local families whose daughters had entered the house. Chester then attracted significant numbers of friars who supported themselves by requests for alms along the main streets and at the city gates. Chester was the largest town in the North West, though small by national standards. It enjoyed a period of considerable prosperity in the 12th and 13th centuries, and its population—probably about 1,500 in 1086—grew rapidly, perhaps doubling in the period 1150 to 1350. The city benefited from the military activity during the Welsh wars of Edward I and for a time its administrative and strategic significance gave it a strong economic base.

Religious communities in Chester. The Roman walls are shown in red, the Anglo-Saxon extension in purple

The communities of friars and their precincts that eventually developed were extensive, and their inmates formed sizeable and occasionally troublesome groups within the population. The Dominicans (Blackfriars) were established in Chester by 1237 or 1238 when the appearance of the Greyfriars (Franciscans) alarmed their patron, Alexander Stavensby, bishop of Coventry and Lichfield. So vehement was his reaction to the prospect of the two orders competing for alms that he has been thought responsible for establishing the Dominicans in Chester, although there is no definite evidence and it is equally possible that they came there under the patronage of Ranulph III, earl of Chester. The Whitefriars (Carmelites) were established in Chester by 1277 when they were given alms for food by Edward I, it was some years before they acquired a permanent home.

The arrival of the friars had a significant effect on the urban geography of Chester. The Anglo-Saxons had extended the City Walls to enlarge the area from that of Roman Chester. There was available land between the Roman legionary walls and the River Dee and this became the home of several religious communities.

In the earlier 13th century there were setbacks during the period of baronial rebellion when the disgruntled heirs of benefactors and others took advantage of the lack of strong central authority to challenge and attack the privileges and property of the house. Fortunes revived, however, under the long and vigorous rule of Abbot Simon Whitchurch (1265-91) and his successor, Thomas Birchills (1291-1323). The abbey's hold on its property and its relations with the heirs of benefactors and other religious houses were again disturbed by the unsettled political conditions after 1258. Sir Roger de Mold, justice of Chester, attempted to deprive the house of its right of presentation to Neston church which had been given by his ancestors; in 1258 he forced a one-sided settlement on the abbey by which it lost Broughton, near Hawarden and on account of which, according to the abbey's chronicler, de Mold (de Montalt) met with a succession of misfortunes:

  • Roger de Montalt, then justiciary of Chester, having violently attacked [and laid claim to the possessions of] the lord Thomas the abbot and the convent of S. Werburg at Chester, extorted from them the manor of Bretton in consideration of his confirmation of the manors of Lawton and Goosetree, and the advowsons of the churches of Neston, Bruera, and Coddington. And the eldest son of the said Roger died within fifteen days. Many other notable misfortunes befell the said Roger not long afterwards. Roger himself died in poverty within two years, the common people being ignorant of the place of his burial.

Gothic architecture was an evolution of the Romanesque style which is characterised by the pointed or ogival arch. There has been a good deal of debate over the origins of Gothic architecture. Some claim that it was of arabic origin, and put its importation down to returning crusaders, while others claim it to be an independent invention. The pointed arch appears to have first appeared in Indian architecture and Islamic architecture as a way of making more decorative windows and doorways, but in the 12th century it began to be used in France and England as an important structural element, at first used in doorways. The Gothic style first appeared in France at the Abbey of Saint Denis, Paris, with the rebuilding of the ambulatory and west facade of the abbey church by the Abbot Suger (1135–40). To achieve his aims, his masons drew on the several new features which evolved or had been introduced to Romanesque architecture, the pointed arch, the ribbed vault, the ambulatory with radiating chapels, the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions and the flying buttresses which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows. The first Gothic cathedral in France (Saint Denis was an abbey), was Sens Cathedral, begun between 1135 and 1140 and consecrated in 1164.

At Chester, the Early English Gothic chapter house, built between 1230 and 1265, is rectangular and opens off a vestibule leading from the north transept but also connected to the cloister. The community of monks would meet in the chapter house with the abbot to "hold chapter"; that is:

  • "for the reading of the 'Martyrology' and the 'Necrology', for the correction of faults, the assigning of the tasks for the day, and for the exhortation of the superior, and again for the evening Collation or reading before Complin"

Many of the early Abbots and most of the Norman Earls of Chester were buried in the floor of the Chapter House. Not only did the monks meet here daily, but it was also the place where important guests were received and where monks took their vows. The house takes its name from the fact that a chapter of the rule was read aloud each day. The monks were not permitted to talk about anything discussed in the chapter house outside of it and there were strict rules about how discussions within in were to take place. For example, the monks were to speak clearly so that everyone could hear them. When one monk was speaking, everyone else was to be silent. Only the abbot could interrupt when someone was speaking.

The vestibule has a roof supported by slim columns which employed the then newly adopted ribbed vaulting, this enabled the avoidance of the incredibly heavy construction used in the undercroft. In the cae of the ribbed vault thin stone panels fill the space between the ribs. This greatly reduced the weight and thus the outward thrust of the vault. The ribs transmit the load downward and outward to specific points, usually rows of columns or piers. This feature allowed the architects of Gothic buildings to make higher and thinner walls and much larger windows. An alternative to barrel vaults in the naves of churches, rib vaults in 12th century early Gothic architecture began to be used in vaults made with pointed arches, already known in the Romanesque style. In these vaults, as in groin vaults, the weight was directed it to the corners, where piers, columns, or walls could support it. The consequence of this possible increase in height meant that a further level could be added above the triforium as the clerestory.

Rebuilding: late 13th century

The Cathedral in 2010.

The plan on the right (by Jooperscoopers) is of the cathedral in 2010. North is at the top (an updated map with dated structures can be found on Wikipedia). The parts of the cathedral are identified as follows:

   1 - West Door
   2 - Southwest Tower and Consistory Court
   3 - Northwest Tower and Baptistry
   4 - Nave
   5 - Crossing
   6 - Choir
   7 - Lady Chapel
   8 - Southwest Porch
   9 - South Aisle
   10- South Transept
   11- South Door
   12- South Choir Aisle/St Erasmus chapel
   13- North Aisle
   14- North Transept
   15- North Choir Aisle
   16- St Werburgh's Chapel
   17- Vestry
   18- Vestibule
   19- Chapter House
   20- Slype
   21- Monk's Parlour and Song School
   22- Refectory
   23- Shop
   24- Undercroft
   25- Abbot's Passage
   26- Cloister
   27- Fountain
   28- Reception
   29- Memorial Garden

In the mid 13th century the abbey embarked on an ambitious reconstruction. It began with the Lady chapel (7), a building of three bays with lancet windows and a lierne with ridge rib and tiercerons, perhaps inserted in the 1280s. Between 1250 and 1280 the work was extended to include the reconstruction of the entire eastern limb of the church, a process which lasted until c. 1340 and involved at least six master masons. The rebuilt choir (6) was of six bays, with aisles ending in polygonal apses and a Chartres-like elevation comprising richly moulded arcade, trefoil-arched triforium, and tall clerestory.

The various forms of window tracery at Chester as recorded in 1858 by John Henry Parker.

The architecture of this period is known as the Decorated Gothic, or simply "Decorated". Traditionally, this period is broken into two periods: the "Geometric" style (1250-90) and the "Curvilinear" style (1290-1350). Decorated architecture is characterized by its window tracery: the overall shape of buildings did not change radically, rather the Decorated period was one of evolution, rather than revolution. Elaborate windows are subdivided by closely-spaced parallel mullions (vertical bars of stone), usually up to the level at which the arched top of the window begins. The mullions then branch out and cross, intersecting to fill the top part of the window with a mesh of elaborate patterns called tracery, typically including trefoils and quatrefoils. More complex patterns of stone vaulting also meant that walls needed to carry less of the building's weight and thrust, therefore window openings in walls were free to fulfill more decorative functions. The windows of Chester cathedral show a progression of the tracery from the Decorated style through to the Perpendicular. Parker writes of it:

  • "Owing to the slow progress of the work, and the frequent changes of style during that long period, we have in the different parts of the church wat we may take as a type of each of the principal varieties of Gothic window tracery; so much so, that if we did not know that the same types may be readily found in numerous other places, we might supposse that the whole had been developed here in Chester."

The first phase consisted of the arch into the Lady chapel (7), the polygonal apse chapels, the eastern responds of the choir (6) arcade, and part of the first arch on the north side. The aisle apses were three-sided and rib-vaulted and were destroyed in the late 15th or early 16th century, when the aisles were extended eastwards. That on the south, reconstructed by Scott in the 19th century, retains a piscina with geometrical tracery. Of that on the north there survive the remains of a window recess much more elaborate than its neighbours in the Lady chapel, another piscina with geometrical tracery, and a doorway to an exterior spiral staircase. The work is characterized by complex mouldings of arch, capital, and base similar to those produced at Lichfield cathedral probably in the 1260s, and very closely related to part of the south chancel aisle of St. Mary's, Stafford, which may well have been by the same mason. Windows were the "artist's palette" of the Perpendicular builders; because of advances in the use of the pointed arch and supporting elements such as the flying buttress, window openings could be extremely large, and builders took advantage of their opportunity to create huge expanses of glass separated by thin, curving stone tracery in ever more elaborate patterns.

All this was done against a background of troubled times. In April 1265 at the height of the civil wars. The justice of Chester, Luke de Tanai, delayed the admission of the new abbot for three weeks while he wasted the abbey's goods; in May Simon de Montfort ordered the restitution of everything taken during the vacancy and himself invested the abbot with the temporalities of the house. This assumption of authority infuriated the Lord Edward (later Edward I) who denied Abbot Simon (elected 1265, died 1291) access to the abbey until August when he relented and handed over the goods and revenues of the house. The Chester chronicle has a long rant about this, and seems especially concerned about the wine:

  • The lord Edward however was much enraged with Simon, abbot of Chester, for a long time refusing him access to the monastery, and holding out many threats to him, because he had been promoted by the licence of the lord Simon de Montfort, and without Edward having been consulted. At length, on the arrival of the same abbot at Beeston, on the vigil of the Assumption [August 14], the lord Edward contrary to the hope of many, but moved by divine inspiration, graciously admitted the said abbot, and by the advice of the lord James de Audley, then justiciary of Chester, commanded the revenues of the monastery to be so fully restored to him, that for two casks of wine consumed in the household of the said lord Edward, during the time of his anger against the abbot, he caused two other casks to be taken from the castle at Chester, and restored to the said abbot. From which it is clear that the lord of Cheshire ought to have no revenues at all of the abbey of S. Werburg during the term of its vacancy, because the said abbey is founded upon no barony, but all that pertains to it has been given in absolute and perpetual frankalmoign.

A second phase, dating probably from the 1270s, saw the completion of the first and second piers on the north side of the choir (6) and the wall of the north choir aisle. At much the same time, a fully fledged Decorated style appeared in the first two bays on the other side of the choir. The master responsible for that, and perhaps other designers, carried the work as far as the first two bays of the triforium on the north side and part of the first bay of the triforium on the south, and also built the first two bays of the wall of the south choir aisle. Then, it seems, work stopped, possibly due to the king's building works in Wales and at Vale Royal abbey, both initiated in 1277. The king borrowed 100 men from Abbot Simon in that year for the building of Flint castle, and drew further on the community's resources in 1282, but, even so, as late as 1285 orders were issued to support the monks 'in the great work of building the church'. The new monks at Vale Royal were evidently not that popular with the locals:

  • It is not to be wondered at that the abbots and the whole monastery should, almost from the first, be regarded with confirmed dislike as harsh and oppressive masters. This dislike took more than once a very pronounced form. Walter de Hereford, the second abbot, is memorable for defeating a knight and his armed retainers who attempted to force a passage through the precincts of the abbey. He afterwards showed courage in appearing in the court of Chester, after some popular disturbances excited against his convent by the Justice of Chester, and pleading his cause successfully in person after his attendants had fled. So hated was his successor, John de Hoo, by the inhabitants of the neighbourhood, that he sought a licence to resign. The fourth abbot, Richard de Evesham (when a brother of the monastery), had his horse shot under him with arrows as he was collecting tithes.

The reason that Edward I seems to favour Vale Royal so much is largely based on legends - one being that that monks of the order to which Vale Royal belonged had assisted him in escaping from capture during the civil wars in the reign of his father, and another that he promised to build an abbey when faced with the prospect of being shipwrecked. Edward's support for Vale Royal was somewhat fickle and he soon shifted his attention to building catles in Wales. This campaign of Welsh castle building had several consequences for Chester which was the operational base for Edward during his conquest of Wales in 1277. 1282 and 1294. On the one hand it brought money to the city, on the other it disrupted the continued presence of skilled workers. However it also brought new building techniques - possibly including the segmented arches which can be seen very clearly at the Abbey Gateway.

The Abbot's Well

The sinuous curve of plot boundaries to the west of Brook Street ponits to the existence of a watercourse of some kind..

In 1278 the monks obtained their water via a culvert from a spring in "Newton Fields". There is no sign of such a spring today, but evidence of a past watercourse comes from early OS Maps which show a sinuous curving of plot boundaries between St Anne's Street and Brook Street. The whole area how lies beneath tower-block developments, but the spring (if it existed) which fed this watercourse would have been somewhere just north of the present day Gorse Stacks roundabout.

According to Hemingway, it was during Simons Whitchurch's abbacy that:

  • A cistern twenty feet square was made at Christleton and another formed within the cloisters and a communication established by pipes which a patent from Edward I enabled the monks to carry through all intervening lands permitting even the city walls to be taken down for the purpose It is observable that a forester of Delamere Randle de Merton whose estate was trespassed on in consequence of this order ventured on cutting off the pipes which the abbots had laid for which he was ordered to make reparation by a royal mandate (13 Edward I)
Chester's Water Supply over the years.

The site of the well at Christleton was long known as "The abbot's well" and lies some short distance from what is now the the Abbot's Well Hotel.

On a visit to Chester in 1283 Edward I swore to preserve the liberties of St. Werburgh but that did not prevent his taking the revenues into his own hands for three months on the death of Abbot Simon in 1291 and demanding a pension of £5 for a royal clerk.

Rebuilding: 14th century

The 14th century was occupied by the long reign of Edward III (25 January 1327 – 21 June 1377) and that of Richard II (22 June 1377 – 29 September 1399). In the midst of this period came the Pandemic generally knowns as the Black Death which peaked in Europe from 1347-51. The Black Death was the beginning of the "second plague pandemic". The plague created religious, social and economic upheavals, with profound effects on the course of European history. The pandemic was preceeded by the Great Famine of 1315–1317 which was possibly caused by a volcanic eruption, marked the end of the "Medieval Warm Period" and probably contributed to the series of upheavals of the 14th century. In the abbey the period was marked by much feuding between the monks and the abbots.

To preserve visual unity the early 14th-century master retained the arch mouldings of the north choir arcade and the hollow chamfers of the south, though amended the somewhat odd design of the north triforium, leaving a slighly mismatched arcade at one end. His principal innovation was to use the sunk chamfer, not only in the jambs of the clerestory windows but also in the piers of the arcade. The sunk chamfer first appeared at Caernarfon castle, and its employment at Chester could be evidence of the hand of Richard the Engineer, who had worked in Wales with Master James of St. George to whom the abbot Birchills pledged substantial sums in 1310 and 1312–13. The house was visited on behalf of the bishop in 1315 and 1323. The results of this audit were not good. Birchills was rebuked for:

  • having too many personal servants, holding too many feasts, eating meat on fish days with a few favourite monks in his own apartments, using the convent's money to buy legal books, and, showing favouritism and laxity in controlling his servants.

Also, the prior was forbidden to hunt and in 1323 it was ordered that: no monk was to leave the abbey except with special permission and a fellow monk of good reputation as a companion. Three monks who had been accused of incontinence and violence were confined to the abbey - for reasons that can only be speculated about, one of them was forbidden to talk to any woman except in the presence of a senior member of the convent. Within the monastery no "fashionable clothes" were to be worn, there was to be no drinking after compline, silence was required in the refectory and any left-overs were to be distributed to the poor and not used to feed the greyhounds and other hunting dogs which the monks kept. This might seem like a surprising list of lapses but similar behavior is mentioned in the "Canterbury Tales", where in the Prologue one reads:

  • "There was a monk, a leader of the fashions: Inspecting farms and hunting were his passions. This monk was therefore a good man to horse: Greyhounds he had, as swift as birds, to course. Hunting a hare or riding at a fence, Was all his fun, he spared for no expense. I saw his sleeves were garnished at the hand, With fine grey fur, the finest in the land, And when his hood was fastened at the chin, He had a wrought-gold cunningly fashioned pin; Into a lover’s knot it seemed to pass..."

The "Tales" were written down by Chaucer 1387-1400, some years after Birchills, so could even have been based on his particular case. The locals seem to have been as bad as the monks though - in 1321 it was considered unsafe for the monks to leave the abbey:

  • ..on another occasion in the same year the Oldyntons murdered John Boddeworth, a monk of the abbey, and afterwards played at football with his head.
A stonemasons mark at the Cathedral - they are everywhere if you start looking. The traditional marks were made with at most eight strikes. "Banker" marks were made on stones before they were sent to be used by the walling masons - the "Bank" being the wooden bench on which stone was prepared by. Assembly marks were used to ensure the correct installation of important pieces of stonework. Quarry marks were used to identify the source of a stone or to indicate that stone should be sent to a particular mason after he had inspected it at the quarry. The masons marks stand out from the background noise of graffiti becuase of their accurate repetition - the same mark will be found in several places, often in close proximity.

It is believed that the nave of six bays and the south transept were designed by Nicholas de Derneford. Construction of this section of the cathedral got underway in around 1323. De Derneford is one of the earliest known students at Cambridge (founded 1209) and seems to have been a specialist in military architecture and fortification, was master-mason at Beaumaris Castle (from 1316), and Master of the Works at Caernarfon, Conway, Criccieth, and Harlech Castles in Wales from 1323. In 1327 he was also put in charge of the castles at Aberystwyth, Cardigan, and Carmarthen, effectively becoming the chief "architect" for the entire ring of castles in North Wales. In addition, he may have designed the choir at St Augustine's Church, Bristol (now the Cathedral), built 1298–1340, which shows him as an architect of great originality. He did have trouble at times getting paid: SC 8/106/5278 in the national archives is a petition where he states that his wages are some years in arrears.

William Bebington, was elected Abbot in 1324 and was dead, possibly of pestilence, by 1352. By the 1330s the choir, including the clerestory, had been finished. The crossing and the last two bays of the south choir aisle seem also to have been under construction at that time; they bear a close resemblance to work at St. Mary's, Stafford, Audley (Staffs.), and Shifnal (Salop.), probably supervised by the same master mason between 1327 and 1337. A petition from around this time describes that the monks intended to continue with the nave and the bell tower which was ruined and dangerous and complained that with losses caused by the Welsh wars and by flooding, resources were insufficient to maintain hospitality and pay for the building work. The vaults of the roof were to remain unfinished. The high vault was never built, while those over the aisles were added later, probably in the 15th century, and do not conform to the original scheme: except in the earliest bay of the north aisle the ribs of the springers have a more complex profile than those of the vaults. The vaults over the north side are simpler and probably earlier than those on the south: they have a ridge rib and an additional transverse rib in the middle of each bay, whereas in the south aisle vault the transverse ribs are replaced by two tiercerons, except in the most easterly bays.

Additional revenues secured by the abbey's appropriation of the rectory of Chipping Campden in 1340 perhaps encouraged a further expansion of building operations. Then, if not earlier, the monastic choir was closed by a stone pulpitum, remains of which survive as screen walls in the choir aisles. Further modifications seem to have been made to the choir itself, including the elaborate sedilia with four canopied seats (much restored by Scott), and the gabled aumbries opposite. At the same time that the Abbey was producing it's famous choir stalls, Ranulph Higden (c. 1280 - c. 1363) was hard at work at work on his famous Polychronicon, said to be "St. Werburgh's greatest contribution to medieval learning". Higden's book was a "best-seller" of the times and in 1352 he was summoned to Westminster with his chronicles to advise Edward III and his council.

Bebington was followed by Richard Sainsbury, (or Seynesbury, elected before 1352, resigned 1362). Sainsbury's rule as abbot was turbulent and he had inherited an expensive program of building work. He also came into office at the same time that the Black Death arrived. Abbot Sainsbury continued, but was unable to complete, the rebuilding of the nave and the asymmetrical enlargement of the south transept. In 1354 Sainsbury obtained letters of protection from impressment into the service of the Black Prince for twelve of the carpenters, masons, and other workmen who were then continuously working on the church. Sainsbury frequently clashed with the officials of the Black Prince (then earl of Chester) who were prepared to allow only such claims to privileges as could be substantiated by charters. There was, for example, a protracted quarrel on the question of the abbey's liability to contribute to the repair of the Old Dee Bridge with the prince repeatedly questioning its claim to be free of all secular demands. It is possible that some of the more "dubious" charters actually date from this period. On several occasions the abbot or his officials were accused of attempting to settle disputes with their tenants or the prince's forest officials by violence. In 1361 Thomas Newport, later abbot, apparently persuaded two of the monks to attack Abbot Sainsbury in his own chamber, giving the Black Prince and his council the opportunity to interfere in the internal affairs of the abbey. Thomas de la Mare, abbot of St. Albans and president of the Provincial Chapter, visited Chester and he forced Abbot Sainsbury, (whom he found guilty of dilapidation, encouragement of vice, and mockery of the Rule), to resign. The Black Prince then imprisoned Sainsbury at Denbigh castle and it appears that he was under arrest of some kind for the next two years ending up in Conwy castle by 1364.

Sainsbury was supposed to be returned to the abbey as an ordinary monk, but soon left on continental wanderings and continued to dispute his resignation until 1374 or later.

One of the Master Masons at the cathedral and his "bank" (the bench). The masons at Chester still try to use traditional methods where possible, although modern scaffolding has replaced the precarious medieval woodwork that was used in earlier times. They do however have their own "Mason's Mark" which is usually applied to a part of the stonework that is not visible. The traditional tools were the scappling axe, chisels, square, plumb-line, rule and compasses, as well as the round wooden hammers.

Thomas Newport (elected 1363, died 1386) complained of the urgent need for repairs and obtained a licence to employ six masons, a quarryman, and four stone-workers. Newport seems to have been unpopular as a landlord as Abbot Sainsbury and in the summer of 1381 his tenants in Wirral rose in arms and assembled at Lea-by-Backford where they were seized and taken to Chester Castle. Thomas Newport is recorded to have bribed several of the jury appointed to try a case between William de Chevelifa and himself for having "ravished Margaret Heton at Over on Monday after All Saints Day".

The abbot of St Werburghs was the wealthiest churchman in the archdeaconry. In the clerical poll tax of 1379 he was assessed to pay £4 - the rate for peers of the realm. Each of his 26 monks paid 3s 4d a higher sum than that paid by many beneficed clergy. It appears that the monks bought little from Chester by way of food and that the abbey manors and farms produced sufficient for their needs. There was, it seems, a special "Treasure House" at the abbey which was often used by the king as a place to store money or valuables as an alternative to Chester Castle. In 1369 the armour of the Duke of Clarence, who had just died, was to be stored in the house "with strong locks". The whereabouts of this treasure-house and its possible survival were a subject of some speculation amongst Victorian antiquarians. There is specific mention of the treasure house in the records between the Reformation and the Civil War (i.e. between 1572-1623) these include new locks being fitted and coal bought for the fire, which implies a substantial space that would be difficult to hide. One of the Victorian restorers, George Gilbert Scott, believed firmly in the continued existence of a secret treasure house, perhaps with a blocked-up doorway, but despite searches never found it.

There is no other record of building in the rest of the 14th century, although the oak woodwork of the choir was carved in the 1380's. This period included the brief abbacy of William Merston (elected 1386, died 1387). It is generally considered that this hiatus in the building program was brought about by the a combination of the Black Death (first appearing in Chester in 1349: see Pandemic) and generally unstable political conditions culminating in the Wars of the Roses a series of dynastic civil wars fought in England between supporters of the Houses of Lancaster and York (1453–1487). The latter part of the 14th century was marked by civil strife involving Richard II (see: Royal Treasure) who established a power-base in Cheshire as part of his long conflict with his barons. By this time ill-feeling against monks and the church in general had become one of the causes of the Lollard movement, often seen as a fore-runner of protestantism.

The masons who built the cathedral were members of one of the more prestigios guilds - it partnered with the Goldsmiths in the performance of the "Slaughter of the Innocents" in the Chester Mystery Plays. The hidden pun being that Herod built much of the second tample. A large number of "Mason's marks" can be found dotted around the cathedral. These would not have been as conspicuous in medieval times when the church stonework would have been painted (or whitewashed when the Puritans gained influence). By the 18th century, marks were only placed on the joint-beds and non-visible faces of blocks used for churches and houses, although stonework on bridges continued to be face-marked. Revival of medieval traditions in the 19th century brought marks back to prominence, co-inciding with antiquarian interests in discovering the meaning of medieval masons’ marks. Marks are still is use today, although they are usually hidden on joint faces, and are made by masons who wish to continue a tradition that is as old as building in stone.

"Completion" - 15th/16th century

Henry Sutton, (elected 1387, died 1413) apparently wasted the possessions of the abbey, removed many of its goods, and refused to return to Chester. He survived the metropolitan visitation of 1400 but his governance of the monastery continued to cause concern and finally provoked the intervention of the General Chapter of English Benedictines. Opposition to the abbot within the monastery was led by two monks (Yardley and Skipton) who were conveniently accused of apostasy and various other crimes both inside and outside the abbey, including plotting the death of their abbot, but who "luckily" obtained a royal pardon in 1412 with the help of the General Chapter.

Thomas Yardley, the same leader of the opposition to Sutton, was elected in 1413, and remained abbot until his death in 1434. John Saughall (elected 1435, died 1455) presided over further factional strife and in 1437 the abbey was again taken into royal custody, "by reason of it having been wasted by misrule", and committed to the administration of the bishop of Bath and Wells and the earl of Stafford. It is recorded in Hiatt that in 1425 Saughall, was excommunicated for contumacy "with respect to a charge brought against him before a Chapter of Black Monks in 1422 for the reformation of abuses". Richard Oldham, (elected 1455, died 1485) was imprisoned in Chester Castle in 1461 for an unspecified offence, and was required to enter into a bond for £1,000 to keep the peace towards the mayor. In 1480 Oldham and twelve others, of whom at least half can be identified as monks, were bound over to keep the peace with a large body of tradesmen. In the same period a group of women were indicted for being 'whores to several monks' or as Hemingway quotes (with his usual tendency towards mention of scandal):

  • "21 Edw IV - divers wymen were indicted who were the paramours of the monks of Chester".

With Oldham's death in 1484 came the end of a period during which the abbots have been described as "a disgrace to their calling". This period essentially co-incided with the period between the Great Famine of 1315-17 the accession of Henry Tudor in 1485. The next abbot, Simon Ripley would bring a measure of order and discipline that the abbey had not seen for 150 years.

Henry Bradshaw (c. 1450 - 1513) was received into the abbey as a boy and after studying with other novices of his order at Gloucester College, Oxford, he returned to Chester. He wrote a Latin treatise "De antiquitate et magnificentia Urbis Cestricie"("The ancient and magnificent city of Chester"), which is unfortunately lost, and a life St Weburgh (often called "The Holy Lyfe and History of Saynt Werburge") in English seven-lined rhyming stanzas. The "English Chronicon and a Life of St.Werburgh", was finished, according to a dedicatory passage at the end of the manuscript, in 1513, the year Bradshaw died. It contains passages on the founding of the city of Chester, a chronicle of the kings of Mercia, and also a life of St. Werburgh. Bradshaw describes her as the daughter of King Wulfere of Mercia. St. Ermenilde and St. Sexburge, abbesses at Ely, are Werburgh’s mother and grandmother. Bradshaw narrates the founding of Chester by a legendary giant named Leon Gaur, he tells of the Norse invasions of 875, and he relates the great fire of 1180 that threatened Chester until it was miraculously quenched when St.Werburgh’s shrine was carried into the streets. Little of Bradshaw’s work is original. Among others, he cites Bede, William of Malmesbury, Gerald of Wales, and Ranulph Higden as sources; but his most important source was a Latin text called the True or Third Passionary, an anonymous life of the saint that Bradshaw apparently found in St. Werburgh’s library. Bradshaw’s poem was printed in 1521. It has since been both praised and derided by critics. Some have seen in the poem a refreshing kind of naïve or folk genius. Others have decried Bradshaw’s apparent lack of any sense of meter. In any case Bradshaw wrote not for a courtly but for an unsophisticated audience, and none of his critics has questioned the sincere piety evident in his work.

The date of the nave arcades (11) is uncertain. A local tradition, originating in the 17th century, attributes the south arcade to the 14th century and the north to Abbot Simon Ripley (1485–1493), mainly on the strength of the monogram formed from his initials on the western respond and the single "R" on the capital of the third column from the west. Abbot Ripley revived the abbey's claim to timber from Delamere Forest for building. The two arcades, both of which appear to have been built anew from the foundations, are, however, almost indistinguishable in character and it has been suggested, that the two arcades date from successive building campaigns in the 15th century by a mason copying the design of the south transept (8). The desighner was probably William Rediche (active 1461–90s). Remarkably, for an English medieval mason, he maintained the original form, changing only the details despite the two sides being separated by 150 years during the delay caused by the plague and the civil wars which followed. Abbot Simon Ripley is described as: "a prelate of great ability, and a man of energy, a man of taste, a man of piety, and a thorough man of business", and decorated the gatehouse of his palace at Saighton with his emblem, the black dog, and it is probably true that the name of the Black Dog public house (Saighton) comes from the same origin. Not unsuprisingly the origins of the "Black Dog of Saighton" have been forgotten and it has passed into local folklore as a spectral hound. The story of the "Black Dog" is told in more detail under that of the unfortunate Charles Moston, and contains a clear example of how folklore can be formed, with a "spectral hound" created by a folk-music band becoming the basis for a supposedly ancient legend.

Unlike many other cathedrals the roof at Chester is wooden (and slighly crooked). This probably ensured its survival during years of neglect whereas a stone roof may well have collapsed.

John Birkenshaw

Abbot John Birkenshaw (elected 1493), was an even more ambitious builder than Simon Ripley. He probably built the nave (4) clerestory and the roof of the north transept (12) and certainly the west front of the church, probably before 1500. He also extended the north and south choir (6) aisles to overlap the Lady Chapel (7) and built the lower stage of the south-western tower (2) and the adjoining porch (10). The rebuilding of the cloisters (16) was begun by him and continued by Abbot Highfield (elected 1524, died 1527) and Abbot Marshall ("elected" 1527, displaced c.1529 - see below). Ignoring the overlay of Victorian ornament Birkenshaw and his masons are responsible for much of what survives today.

Birkenshaw's abbacy was somewhat tumultuous. He was abbot for over thirty years starting in 1493, lost his position for about five years and then regained it from around 1530 until his second resignation in 1538. The circumstances of the resignations of abbot Birkenshaw in 1524 and 1538 must be seen against the background of the coming Dissolution, but there appears to be a significant element of local politics and a complex series of local family feuds. Birkenshaw had been in office at the abbey less than a year when he encountered his first problem: a fight broke out at the High Altar between John Puleston Esq. of Wrexham and a Patrick Felneys, almost resulting in the death of the latter. The result was that both the abbey and the adjoining church of St Oswald were interdicted, suspending services for a few months. Whether the fight was due to some long-standing dispute or not is unknown, but it may indicate the volatile local politics of the time. A part of this volatility was due to the effective absence of any adult Earl of Chester and the survival of many of the institutions of the Palatinate. In many respects Tudor Chester, Cheshire and Flint, with its own Exchequer and Courts had still not been integrated into the rest of the English state. Local politics was dominated by a few local families including the Leghs, Stanleys, Duttons, and various bramches of the Breretons. Many of these Cheshire families would gain influence at the royal court which to some extent was still trying to reach some form of stability in the aftermath of the Wars of the Roses. In the middle of all this was the relatively young Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales and Earl of Chester. Arthur has visited Chester as a young child, but returned in 1498/9, accompanied by his "Gentleman of the Bed Chhamber" Thomas Cowper. The Cowpers would go on to play a part in the later history of Chester, but at the time of the Princes' visit there would undoubtedly have been various attempts to gain influence and favour.

One of the entertainments which was apparently put on for a twelve year old Prince Arthur in 1498 was the "Assumption of Mary" mystery play, which was "played before the prince at the abbey gates". This does not feature in the surviving cannon of the Chester Mystery Plays, but is known elsewhere being particularly famous at Elche in Spain - Arthur was already engaged to Catherine of Aragon, although they would not physically meet until 1501. The Spanish version of the play features "mechanical" effects but it is not known whether any attempt to reproduce these was made in Chester. In the York version of the play one "prop" used is a girdle belonging to Mary. No other surviving Mystery Play features a girdle, but Chester has mention of girdles as holy relics - those of Werburgh and Thomas Becket. Both of these fit in well with the "Girdle of Thomas" in the Mystery Play. The girdle as a relic also had a specific association with Prince Arthur as his mother, Elizabeth of York, queen of Henry VII, bought one of these from a friar to help her pregnancy. R. V. H. Burne in his "Monks of Chester" suggests that even the overall design of the Abbey West Front and the choice of the Assumption as a play are related. There is one other link to Prince Arthur to be seen on the West Front but it is very subtle. Above the Tudor arch of the main door are two coats of arms, which appear identical yet are different in one important sense. Along the upper edge of one shield is a heraldic "label" which indicates that the arms of the elder son. Thus, one set of arms is for Prince Arthur and the other for his younger brother Henry.

Birkenshaw and Wolsey

The Abbot's character also contributed to a disputacious atmosphere. Abbot Birkenshaw's exercise of his right to use the mitre, ring and pontifical staff was challenged by Bishop Geoffrey Blythe of Coventry and Lichfield (from 1503-1530). This right had been granted to Abbot Bebbington by Clement VI in 1344 together with an exemption from episcopal control. The exemption had been removed in the time of Abbot Seynesbury but then restored by Boniface IX to Abbot Sutton in 1392. The issue was: had the right to use a mitre, ring and staff been restored? In the course of a subsequent hearing Birkenshaw refused to produce certain documents, and was excommunicated. He later secured public absolution by a local priest "in contempt and derision of the apostolic see". Therefore in 1516 Pope Leo X (Giovanni de' Medici) attempted to invoke the help of Cardinal Thomas Wolsey in dealing with the abbot but Wolsey was not prepared to intervene until 1524.

In 1524 Birkenshaw was forced to resign his office ostensibly for infringement of the Statute of Praemunire. He had obtained letters from Pope Leo X (who had died in 1521) confirming the excemption from control by Canterbury and Lichfield, and suddenly Wolsey was stirred to action, using an extreme penalty (dismissal) on a pretext based on something aparently already decided. There was, of course, more to it: a wrangle involving George Legh of Adlington, and the manor and parsonage of Prestbury. The manor had been verbally leased to Thomas Legh for £200 up-front plus an annual rent of £100. After a deposit was paid Birkenshaw went back on the deal and leased the property to John Stanley. Wolsey was to throw Stanley into prison until he assigned the property to Legh. The complication here is that Legh was said to be the husband of Wolsey's former mistress, Joan Larke. Joan had previously lived with Wolsey at Bridewell Palace and bore him two illegitimate children. As Wolsey continued to rise swiftly and prominently through Church and government ranks, eventually becoming Bishop of Lincoln, Archbishop of York, a Cardinal Prince of the Church of Rome, and Lord Chancellor of England, Joan, despite her beauty, became a source of embarrassment to him. In 1519, he arranged Joan's marriage to the aforementioned George Legh, squire of Adlington Hall, Cheshire, shortly after he had inherited the Adlington estate from his father Thomas Legh by his wife, Catherine, daughter of Sir John Savage. Wolsey also provided her dowry. It is impossible not to conclude that Wolsey's motivation in dismissing Birkenshaw was based upon his family connections with the Leghs.

Highfield and Marshall

In 1524 Birkenshaw was replaced briefly by Thomas Highfield, who died in 1527, and then by Thomas Marshall, who was said to have paid Wolsey 1,000 marks for the abbacy of Chester. Whether this is true or a slur made up by Wolsey's enemies is uncertain.

Thomas Marshall, alias John Beche, was educated at Oxford University (probably Gloucester Hall now Worcester College) where he took his degree of Doctor of Divinity in 1515. He then, at least according to some, became prior of Wallingford (Berks.). Soon thereafter being "elected" the twenty-sixth Abbot of St. Werburgh's, Chester (1527-29). Wolsey had obtained a papal bull in 1524 for the dissolution of Wallingford and other small monasteries, to obtain funds for founding his college at Oxford. Pensions would have to be paid to the members of any disssolved monastic house, especially the priors and abbots, and so it is posssible that Wolsey simply arranged for the installation of Marshall at Chester to save some funds. Unfortunately, the records are not entirely clear on the details and some historians have concluded that Marshall was never prior at Wallingford.

From about 1515 to 1529, Wolsey controlled the English state, and then fell spectacularly from grace. On 9 October 1530, Wolsey was indicted for Praemunire, which essentially meant that Wolsey supported papal connivance against his monarch. A week later, he surrendered the great seal and his chancellorship; on 22 October, he confessed his guilt. Wolsey was permitted to remain Archbishop of York. He travelled to Yorkshire for the first time in his career, but at Cawood in North Yorkshire, he was accused of treason and ordered to London by Henry Percy, 6th Earl of Northumberland. In great distress, he set out for the capital with his personal chaplain, Edmund Bonner. He fell ill on the journey, and died at Leicester on 29 November 1530, around the age of 57. After the fall of Wolsey, Thomas Marshall was removed from the abbacy at Chester. For his eventual fate see below.

At times, there appears to have been plenty of money in circulation in mid Tudor Chester. In the 1530's the importance of Chester as a port reached its peak for the 16th century, with more than 4000 tons of Spanish iron and almost 3000 tons of wine, particularly from France. There was also a flourishing trade with Ireland. However, this boom was not to last.

Birkenshaw Returns

With Wolsey and Marshall gone, Birkenshaw was restored to his office. Like Abbot John Butler of Vale Royal, Birkenshaw may have owed his restoration to office to the influence at court of William Brereton of Malpas (c. 1487 – 17 May 1536). Brereton was the son of a Cheshire landowner, was a Groom of the Privy Chamber to Henry VIII. Brereton, who held the annual audit of his estates in the abbey in 1531, received an annual pension of £20 from Birkenshaw from 1531 and obtained from him the advowson of Astbury. A letter to Brereton from a disgruntled servant of the abbot reveals that the convent was split in the early 1530s into opposing factions struggling to gain influence over Abbot Birkenshaw and control of the office of prior. Brereton had his 'friends and lovers' in the monastery but they were opposed by those who were in alliance with his enemies in the shire - other families and members of his own. Brereton was informed that one of the monks, Thomas Clarke, was "a man singularly well taken with the masters of the monastery and all your friends in these parts". During the declining years of Abbot Birkenhsaw the involvement of the abbey with the gentry families of Cheshire, which had been marked from the mid 15th century, became even closer and the factions in the monastery reflected the feuds in the county.

In Tudor Chester reliance on a powerful patron at the king's court was a potentially unstable position. 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. Obviously, any support he was giving to Birkenshaw evaporated when Brereton was arrested and executed. When the "aged and impotent" Birkenshaw was forced to resign by Dr. Thomas Legh in 1538 another Brereton, Sir William Brereton of Brereton, advocated, with the support of the mayor and citizens of Chester, that Clarke should succeed as abbot. Thomas Clarke became the last abbot of Chester and Abbot Birkenshaw was allowed a pension of £100 and the cost of the upkeep of a chaplain, three servants, and five horses, provided he took over the responsibility for debts incurred during his abbacy.

The abbey buildings at the time of the dissolution (from Parker).

The Derwalls

Key to Parker's plan opposite (click to enlarge).

The architect Seth Derwall was responsible for the construction of the South transept to a Perpendicular Gothic design. Building of this section started around 1493. He and his brother George Derwall made several other important changes to the structure of the buildings in the period c.1495-1530. They pulled the various elements of the building together into a more cohesive whole, and made changes that made the cathedral a more practical space. Work of the late 15th or early 16th century included the eastern extension of the choir (6) aisles to embrace the two westernmost bays of the Lady chapel (7). Only the northern chapel survives, but the southern one was identical. In the nave (4), the roof and clerestory were apparently going up in 1501. The ornate stellar vault is of wood, not stone as in many other cathedrals. It is rooded with a stellar vault similar to that of the Lady Chapel at Ely and the choir of York Minster, both of which date from the 1370's. This roof was probably erected when dissolution was already on the horizon, and the lack of a heavy stone roof may have allowed the cathedral to survive collapse during it's later years of neglect and decay. The south-west tower (2), on which work had begun in 1508, remained unfinished, though some makeshift arrangement, perhaps a wooden belfry, permitted the hanging of three bells. One inscribed with the name of Abbot Birkenshaw was sold in 1551 and taken by sea to Conwy where it is in St Mary's. The bell is inscribed:

  • "Ave fidelis anima Werburga Sanctissima felix In choro Virginum + Ora pro nobis dominum Johannes Byrchynshaw Abbas Cestr(i)e"

There is a peculiar local legend connected with the very stones out of which the Cathedral at Chester is built. On a small manor, near Chester, the monks of St Werburgh are said to have quarried from the rocks there the stone necessary for the work. The steward of the estate had a daughter, Alice,

  • "slight of figure and possessed of a pleasing face, just the girl who could tempt a man to sin, and who had just enough of the old Adam in her to lead her to wrong-doing."

The lay brethren of the monastery had an overseer,

  • "a cleric of handsome person, whose dark visage showed his foreign descent. Her fall was brought about by him, and he slew his victim and buried her remains in a hole bordering the margin of a stream adjacent, near which grew a beech tree. In course of time this tree had to be cut down to make way for the foundation of a new house, and it was then that the remains of a human body — probably those of the murdered girl — were uncovered. For a long period visions of a cowled priest and a woman, so the story runs, had been seen standing under the tree."

Whether this is based on real events or is a commomplace legend (it is found elsewhere) later adopted locally, is unknown.

The Cathedral

A major turing point in the history of the Cathedral, and indeed with society in general, came with the Reformation. This was a major movement within Western Christianity in 16th-century Europe that posed a religious and political challenge to the Catholic Church and in particular to papal authority, arising from what was perceived to be errors, abuses, and discrepancies by the Catholic Church. The Reformation was the start of Protestantism and the split of Protestantism from the Roman Catholic Church. Although the Reformation is usually considered to have started with the publication of the Ninety-five Theses by Martin Luther in 1517, there was no schism between the Catholic Church and the nascent Luther until the 1521 Edict of Worms. The edict condemned Luther and officially banned citizens of the Holy Roman Empire from defending or propagating his ideas.

Religious schism was not the only reason that matters were approaching a tipping point. The 16th century is regarded by historians as the century in which the rise of Western civilization and the Age of the Islamic Gunpowder Empires occurred. During the 16th century, Spain and Portugal explored the Indian Ocean and opened worldwide oceanic trade routes, and Vasco da Gama was given permission by the Indian Sultans to settle in the wealthy Bengal Sultanate. Large parts of the New World became Spanish and Portuguese colonies, and while the Portuguese became the masters of Asia's and Africa's Indian Ocean trade, the Spanish opened trade across the Pacific Ocean, linking the Americas with India. This era of colonialism established mercantilism as the leading school of economic thought, where the economic system was viewed as a zero-sum game in which any gain by one party required a loss by another. The mercantilist doctrine encouraged the many intra-European wars of the period and arguably fueled European expansion and imperialism throughout the world. Copernicus proposed the heliocentric universe, which was met with strong resistance, and Tycho Brahe refuted the theory of celestial spheres through observational measurement of the 1572 appearance of supernova SN 157). These events directly challenged the long-held notion of an immutable universe supported by Ptolemy and Aristotle, although the "new astronomy" also arose out of the need for better navigation due to the development of long-range trade. in 1489 Henry VII had turned down Bartholomew Columbus' request to fund his brother: within a lifetime the world had changed beyong recognition.


Michael Sittow, Mary Magdalene, probably using Catherine as model.

In order to strengthen his otherwise dubious claim to the throne, Henry VII had set a team personal genealogists at work to trace his heritage to Cadwaladr and the ancient British kings. The search "identified" Winchester in Hampshire as Camelot, and it was there that the first Tudor Prince of Wales, Arthur, also Earl of Chester, was born in 1486. He was named after the legendary King Arthur and his christening took place at Winchester Cathedral. Henry VII, was also eager to strengthen his kingdom through an alliance with newly-united Spain, seeking the support of the Catholic Monarchs, Isabella of Castile and Ferdinand of Aragon, against French interests and possible aggression.

In 1489, when Arthur was two years old, as part of the Treaty of Medina del Campo, a marriage was arranged with the Spanish princess, Catherine of Aragon (in Spain, Catalina de Aragón). On 14 November 1501, they were married at St. Paul's Cathedral and at the end of the day came the "Bedding Ceremony", in which most of the court put the young couple, both aged 15, to bed. What happened in the marriage bed that night became a matter of considerable debate. Catherine's dueña (Doña Elvira) stated that the marriage was never consummated. Arthur's friends claimed that the following day, he had proudly called for some water, saying that he had "been in Spain" and that being a husband was "thirsty work."

On 2 April 1502 Arthur died. Some say that he died of the "sweating sickness", others say that he was, already weak and sickly, worn out by the sexual demands of his amorous Spanish bride. His younger brother, who never expected to become king, was suddenly in the line for the throne and was to become Henry VIII with the death of his father in 1509. Prior to his death, Henry VII renewed his efforts to seal a marital alliance between England and Spain, by offering young Henry in marriage to Prince Arthur's widow. In order for the new Prince of Wales to marry his brother's widow, a dispensation from the Pope was required. Catherine swore that her marriage to Prince Arthur had not been consummated and the impatience of Catherine's mother, Queen Isabella, induced Pope Julius II to grant dispensation in the form of a Papal bull. 14 months after her young husband's death, Catherine found herself betrothed to his even younger brother, Henry. Only 17 years old, Henry married Catherine on 11 June 1509, and on 24 June 1509, the two were crowned at Westminster Abbey. Thus Henry VIII's argument with Rome started over the question whether, Arthur, the Earl of Chester, had consummated his marriage or not.

Henry eventually became impatient with Catherine's "inability" to produce a male heir. All of Catherine's children died in infancy except Mary, and Henry wanted a son to avoid rival claims to the crown. In 1525, Henry became enamoured with Anne Boleyn and wished to annul his marriage to Catherine. In 1527 Henry appealed to Pope Clement VII to sue for annulment, on the grounds were that the bull of Pope Julius II was obtained by false pretences, because Catherine's brief marriage to the sickly Arthur had, in fact, been consummated. Clement refused, in part because he feared the wrath of Catherine's nephew, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, whose troops had sacked Rome and briefly taken the Pope prisoner earlier that year. The breaking of the power of Rome in England proceeded little by little and things went rapidly downhill. Wolsey died in 1530.

In 1532, Thomas Cromwell, brought before Parliament a number of acts including the Supplication against the Ordinaries and the Submission of the Clergy, which recognised Royal Supremacy over the church. Thomas More resigned as Chancellor, leaving Cromwell as Henry's chief minister. Pope Clement excommunicated Henry VIII in 1533, declaring the marriage with Anne Boleyn null and void. The papal nuncio was withdrawn from England and diplomatic relations with Rome were broken off. Dragging up a long-standing issue, the Ecclesiastical Appointments Act 1534 required the clergy to elect bishops nominated by the Sovereign. The Act of Supremacy 1534 declared that the King was "the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England" and the Treasons Act 1534 made it high treason, punishable by death, to refuse to acknowledge the King as such. In response to the excommunication, the Peter's Pence Act was passed stating that England had "no superior under God, but only your Grace" and that Henry's "imperial crown" had been diminished by "the unreasonable and uncharitable usurpations and exactions" of the Pope.

In reality, a difference over religion was only a part of the reason for Henry VIII's dispute with the church of Rome. Henry inherited a vast fortune and a prosperous economy from his father Henry VII, who had been frugal and careful with money (some would say a miser). This fortune was estimated to be £1,250,000 (£375 million by today's standards). By comparison, however, the reign of Henry was a near-disaster in financial terms. He further augmented his royal treasury through the seizure of church lands, and sale of much of these lands to the gentry. Much of his wealth was spent by Henry on maintaining his court and household, including many of the building works he undertook on royal palaces. Henry's dynastic ambitions in Europe also exhausted the surplus he had inherited from his father by the mid-1520s. Henry also needed a son to (in his view) secure the Tudor Dynasty and avert the risk of civil war over disputed succession.

Between 1536 and 1541, the English, Welsh and Irish monasteries were dissolved and their property confiscated. In 1540, Henry sanctioned the destruction of shrines to saints. In 1541 St Werburgh's abbey became a cathedral of the Church of England by order of Henry VIII. At the same time, the dedication was changed frpm "Werburgh and Oswald" to "Christ and the Blessed Virgin" - however many still refer to it as "St Werbergh's". In symbolic terms this isn't that much of a change as Oswald is often portrayed as being "crucified" (the Welsh name for Oswestry is "Croesoswallt") and Werbergh a virgin saint.

It has been calculated that there were about 28 monks in the abbey at the time of its dissolution and of these eleven, including the prior of the cell on Hilbre Island, were awarded pensions. The last abbot of St Werburgh’s Abbey, Thomas Clarke, became the first dean of the new cathedral at the head of a secular chapter with six prebendaries (four of whom were former monks). It was the second of the six former monasteries to be so re-founded by Henry VIII; Westminster Abbey had been made a cathedral some eight months earlier (17 December 1540), and Gloucester, Peterborough, Bristol, and Oxford were shortly to follow. In addition to the dean and prebendaries, the cathedral was served by 6 minor canons, a deacon and sub-deacon, 6 lay clerks or conducts, 8 choristers and a master, 2 teachers of grammar, 24 grammar scholars, 6 bedesmen, 2 under-sextons, a butler, 2 porters, a cook, and an under-cook. The cathedral's endowment consisted of 9 Cheshire manors which had belonged to St. Werburgh's abbey, and of most of the abbey's other possessions in Chester and Cheshire.

In many respects Chester was remarkably fortunate in maintaining some continuity. Many of the former medieval monastic buildings elsewhere which survive today are little more than ruins, in some cases robbed-out for stone, or converted in whole or part into country houses. In Chester, there is very little left, save for street names, of the homes of the Grey, White and Black friars. The once imposing monastery at nearby Vale Royal was soon demolished by its purchaser and used to provide the materials for a house which would become the focus of a rich estate. At Chester, the establishment of a "new" Diocese of Chester effectively saved the abbey buildings for posterity.

Marshall's Fate

Thomas Marshall went on to become Abbot of St. John the Baptist's, Colchester on 10 June 1530. For some reason he was also known as John Beche. On 30 March 1534, Abbot Beche took his seat in the House of Lords. In that year, the Act of Supremacy was passed by which Henry VIII made himself Head of the Church in England, and on 7 July he, the Prior, and the community of 14, signed their agreement to the Act. The Abbot was a strong opponent of the Kings new policy, and a friend and admirer of Thomas More and John Fisher. Following the execution of three Carthusian priors, Fisher and More during 1535, his expressions of reverence for them was reported to the authorities. In November 1538 Sir John Seyncler was sent to ask "Blessed John" to surrender Colchester Abbey, but he refused to hand over the keys and replied:

  • "The King shall never have my house but against my will and against my heart for I know by my learning that he cannot take it by right and law, wherefore in my conscience I cannot be content."

He was then committed to the Tower of London on a charge of treason. He wavered and signed a document which said he accepted the king's supremacy over the Church, but, despite being discharged, he then retracted his earlier statement was rearrested and taken back to Colchester. He was convicted and condemned to be hanged, drawn and quartered. This was done on 1st December 1539 in Colchester. Pope Leo XIII decreed the beatification of Abbot John Beche on 13 May 1895 along with other members of a group of clergy and laypersons who were executed on charges of treason and related offences.

Deans and Bishops

The letters patent of 1541 reconstituting the abbey a cathedral provided for an establishment headed by a dean and six prebendaries. Draft statutes were issued on 4 June 1544, apart from those of Norwich (which were exceptional) the first to be issued to any cathedral of the new foundation.

Thomas Clarke, last abbot of St. Werburgh's, became the first dean of Chester and died about a month after his appointment. He was succeeded by Henry Man who became bishop of Sodor and Man in 1546. Almost certainly there was little disturbance of the interior fittings at the dissolution. Thus when shortly before his death Thomas Clarke made his will on 13 September 1541 he ordered that his body was to be interred before the high altar within the choir. The only major structure inside the building at all likely to have been destroyed at that time is the shrine of St Werburgh. There is little evidence of interest in the saint herself in the 1530s. How long this relatively undisturbed semi-monastic regime persisted at Chester is not very clear. Changes, however, were clearly introduced as early as 1548, when the dean and chapter sold a cross and two silver censers, devoting the money to "the reparation of their houses".

Other deans promoted to bishoprics during the first century of the cathedral's existence were John Piers (d. 1594), William Barlow (d. 1613), and Henry Parry (d. 1616). The remaining 7 deans appointed between 1547 and 1644 died in office. Only two, John Nutter (d. 1602) and Thomas Mallory (d. 1644), survived longer than a decade; Mallory held the deanery for some 37 years, a length of tenure never exceeded.

In 1541, Henry VIII, had combined the archdeaconry of Chester, from the Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, and that of Richmond, from York, to form the new see. At first the diocese was annexed to the Province of Canterbury, but by another Act of Parliament it was soon transferred to that of York. The first bishop was the Provincial of the Carmelites, John Bird, a doctor of divinity who had attracted the king's attention by his sermons preached against the pope's supremacy. Having already been rewarded by appointment as Bishop of Bangor, he was now translated to Chester. On the accession of Mary he was deprived of his bishopric for being a married man, and died as Vicar of Dunmow in 1556. Despite the origins of the diocese, it was recognized by the Holy See for the space of Queen Mary's reign and George Cotes, Master of Balliol and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and lecturer in theology, was appointed bishop in 1554. At what is now Barrel Well Hill and was once Gallows Hill, stands the obelisk to George Marsh, an outspoken puritan preacher, from Bolton, who was burned at the stake in 1555 on the north side of the road, after being questioned by Coates. In his "History of the City of Chester" (1831) Joseph Hemingway states that Marsh was imprisoned beside the abbey gateway:

  • The two end houses adjoining the gate stand on the site of an old edifice, called the prison-house. On pulling down the latter, about five years ago, a narrow cell was discovered on the first floor, from which all light was excluded, in which, it is said, that martyr to popish cruelty, George Marsh, was immured, previous to his execution at Boughton.
George Marsh is executed by burning at Boughton. The spot is now marked by a granite obelisk which is inscribed: "George Marsh born Dean Co. Lancaster. To the memory of George Marsh martyr who was burned to death near this spot for the truth sake April 24th 1555".

To be fair to Bishop, he did give Marsh plenty of opportunity to recant, but evidently Marsh was quite an obstinate fellow - a Bolton legend has it that a mark on the stone floor of Smithills Hall is a "footprint" left by Marsh stamping his foot - so off to the pyre he went. After Marsh's execution, Coates preached a sermon denouncing Marsh as a heretic. Bishop Coates did not long survive Marsh. Later in 1555 Coates was stricken with a fatal venereal disease, seen as divine retribution. It is recorded in Foxe's book of martyrs (not the most unbiased work) that:

  • "And by reason that the fire was unskillfully made, and that the wind did drive the flame to and fro, he suffered great extremity in his death, which notwithstanding he abode very patiently. Upon this, many of the people said he was a martyr and died godly. Which thing caused the Bishop shortly after to make a sermon in the Cathedral Church, and therein affirmed that Marsh was an heretic, burnt like an heretic, and was a firebrand in hell! In recompense of this his good and charitable sermon, 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, as credible report hath been made. For even they which did speak best of him in this case, confessed that he had a hole or sore in the secret and privy parts of his belly. And when some of the Bishop's secret friends (whereof two were aldermen of Chester that had seen the dead body) were gathered together and minding to deface or discredit the rumour that then was upon him, declared the manner of his disease and wound. Whereat one Brassey being then Coroner (and no heretic!) said with an oath that then surely the Bishop was burnt. For he before that time had taken the view of a mariner which died upon the like disease, and in every case had evident sores and tokens as the Bishop had. More particularly might be said touching the last tragedy of this Bishop and his whorehunting. But shamefastness calleth back.".

Coates was succeeded by Cuthbert Scott, then Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University and Master of Christ's College. On the accession of Elizabeth I he was one of the four Catholic bishops chosen to defend Catholic doctrine at the Westminster Conference, and immediately after this he was sent to the Tower and was deprived in 1559. Being released on bail, he contrived to flee to the Continent. He died at Louvain, on 9 October 1564. Later bishops were undoubtedly good churchmen but few led such exciting lives.


Copper Plate engraving, published Joseph Smith 1709-28 for “Le Nouveau Théâtre de la Grande Bretagne....” This was a republished and expanded work of “Britannia Illustrata” (1709) by Johannes Kip & Leonard Knyff. Although not all are engraved by Kip, they are widely recognised as “Kip's Views”. This one was probably drawn in 1713. The pinnacles on the choir aisles were later removed.

A recurrent theme during the first three centuries of the cathedral's existence was its poverty. In the reign of Edward VI, and again in the 1570s, the dean and prebendaries were accused of embezzlement. The depletion of goods and property was aggravated by losses resulting from the reform of the currency in 1551, and plate and a bell had to be sold in order to pay stipends and to finance repairs to the fabric. Under Dean William Cliffe (1547-58) much of the cathedral's endowment was alienated to "fee-farmers" - this assured a guaranteed (lump sum) revenue, regardless of what income the farmer was able to extract. In 1553 most of the remaining lands were granted to Sir Richard Cotton. It was afterwards claimed that the grant to Cotton was made under duress; the dean and two prebendaries, summoned before the Privy Council to answer allegations that they had removed lead and iron from their church, were committed to the Fleet Prison in February 1553 but released shortly before the grant to Cotton. What remained of the endowment was leased out, usually for large up-front payments and low rents. William Downham bishop of Chester from 1561 to 1577 seems to have done little to help matters. He had further problems with the diocesan finances, being dependent on rents that could prove hard to collect.

The Walls, Chester, Charles Warren. The Phoenix Tower is in the foreground and the tower of St Johns can be seen in the distance.

The 1570's saw the demise of the Chester Mystery Plays. These were performed on wagons which were dragged around the city from the Abbey Gateway, and the players and organisers were members of the various city guilds. Although tradition suggests that the performances originated with the monks of the Abbey, very little is known about their actual origins. Some have suggested the plays may go back to 1210, while others place their orgins in 1325, or 1375. The likely date for the current text of the plays dates from around 1532 with earlier versions of some or all of the plays being performed as far back as some time before 1422. The performance schedule in the 1560s and 1570s was erratic - plays were performed only in 1561, 1567, 1568, 1572, and 1575. The 1575 perforance was to be the last for hundreds of years.

While the statutes of Chester cathedral contained strict rules for the residence of dean and prebendaries (absences were respectively limited to 100 and 80 days a year), absenteeism was particularly marked in the late 16th century. In 1559 there were said to be only two prebendaries in residence. In 1578 Dean Richard Longworth (d. 1579), chaplain to Queen Elizabeth I, was said to have attended only twice since his appointment six years earlier. Prebendary Hawford, master of Christ's College, had attended only once in the last ten years, and three other prebendaries had achieved little more. One schoolmaster could not remember seeing the dean or any prebendary administering communion during his own thirteen years at Chester. At Bishop Chadderton's visitation in 1583 the dean, Thomas Modesley (d. 1589), and three prebendaries were said to be non-resident. The Braun and Hogenberg map of Chester shows (somewhat roughly) what the cathedral looked like at this time although many of the monastic buildings are "missing".

Religious turmoil continued after the Reformation with the growth of an extreme form of protestantism in the form of the Puritans. The Puritans had a poor view of church ornamentation and elaborate ceremony, and expressed their religious fervour by wrecking shrines, toppling statues, whitewashing frescoes and smashing stained glass. One noted Chester puritan was John Bruen who rode about at night pulling down village and church crosses. Werburgh's shrine had already been broken up but played a part in a dispute over church decoration.

In 1645 the cathedral was almost the scene of a famous death. On the morning of the 24 September 1645 the Battle of Rowton Heath occurred as part of the Civil War on moor land near the village of Rowton, two miles to the south east of Chester. The engagement lasted all day starting at 9am and continued throughout the day in three stages as Royalists were pushed back towards the City and its walls. As the fighting reached the suburbs it was watched by King Charles I and Sir Francis Gamull from Chester's Phoenix Tower (now also called King Charles' Tower) on the City Walls. At some point the King withdrew to the cathedral tower, but even this was not safe - "skylined" sgsinst the westering sun, a captain standing next to him was shot in the head by musket fire from the victorious Parliamentarians who took residence in St Johns Church tower. Charles survived, only to be beheaded on Tuesday 30 January 1649. This was not his only connection with Chester cathedral Orlando Bridgeman, son of John Bridgeman, the Bishop of Chester, had refused to provide troops to the Royalist army, chasing off the recruiters with gunshots and later presided over the "Trial of the Regicides".

The cathedral's finances, already inadequate before the Civil War, deteriorated steadily during the late 17th and 18th centuries. by 1677 the chapter was forced to resort to borrowing. In that year £100 was borrowed for roof repairs; a loan of £150 was raised towards the cost of a new organ in 1685. By the mid 1690s it became necessary to borrow to discharge the cathedral's ordinary debts, including tenths, taxes, and salaries. Such loans continued to be necessary throughout the 18th century; meanwhile the excess of expenditure over income mounted steadily to reach nearly £1,300 by 1799-1800. The perennial financial difficulties of the cathedral resulted in repairs to the fabric being undertaken only when judged essential. In 1661 the chapter house was said to be so decayed as to be unfit for chapter meetings. Bishop Cartwright complained in 1687 that the cloisters were in disrepair, but he did not find the time to fix them: as after the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 he followed James II into exile and died in Dublin, of dysentery. Only the smallest repairs could be financed from ordinary income; otherwise new sources had to be found. In 1701 the dean and chapter obtained a royal brief for repairs to buildings, the estimated cost of which was £7,000. In 1723 public subscriptions were sought by the treasurer for repairs to the chapter house. His appeal raised £107 towards repairs that cost £118.

Charles Warren, this time from the southwest.London : Tilt & Bogue, 1842]. Engraved by Benjamin Winkles (1805-1856) from a sketch by Benjamin Baud (1806-1875), worked up for final publication by Charles Warren (fl.1833-1847). Originally produced for the part-work publication "Winkles's Architectural and Picturesque Illustrations of the Cathedral Churches of England and Wales" (London : 1835-1842.
The Cathedral west front in 1815. Note the bushes growing out of the stonework

The mysterious affair of the Black Dog

In 1724 the "remains of Hugh Lupus" were "discovered" in Chester Cathedral, wrapped in gilded leather, and deposited in a stone coffin marked with a "wolf's head", having a cross on the breast. Hemingway puts the discovery down to a "Mr Henchman, a school master". They were re-buried with the following terrible verse:

Altho my corpse it lies in grave
And that my flesh consumed be,
My picture here, now that you have
An Earl some time of this city

Doubts has been expressed from the time of the discovery of the remains that this was actually Hugh Lupus. While Pennant supported the theory that this was indeed the founding earl, the Lysons noted the initials "RS" and concluded that this was Richard Seynesbury, elected abbot in 1349, and buried in 1363. The problem with Lyson theeory is that the troublesome Seynesbury only resigned in 1363 and actually died in Lombardy, and was buried there, possibly as late as 1397.

Others have argued that this was the body of abbot Simon Ripley. The "Black Dog" was the emblem of Simon Ripley, abbot of St Werbugh (now Chester Cathedral) from 1485 until 1493. Abbot Simon has been described as: "a prelate of great ability, and a man of energy, a man of taste, a man of piety, and a thorough man of business", and decorated the gatehouse of his palace at Saighton with his emblem, the black dog. The gatehouse survives as the entrance porch to "Saighton Grange" (now renamed as "Abbey Gate College" - as no-one wants to send their child to a school whose name sounds like "Satan Grange"). The head of a dog is carved into the base of the oriel window. It is probably true that the name of the Black Dog public house comes from the same origin. Not unsuprisingly the origins of the "Black Dog of Saighton" have been forgotten and it has passed into local folklore as a spectral hound: helped, no-doubt by the 1971 folk-song (see: Charles Moston). The problem with the theory that this is Ripley's grave is that the antiquatian Dugdale states that Ripley died in Warwick and is buried there.

In 1725 Daniel Defoe visited Chester and wrote of the state of the cathedral:

  • "Tis built of a red, sandy, ill-looking stone, which takes much from the beauty of it, and which yielding to the weather, seems to crumble, and suffer by time, which much defaces the building"

One "social benefit" of the cathedral in the 18th Century appears to have been the "Kings School" which had been established in the Refectory at the Reformation. In 1754 a complaint was considered that the Headmaster had been overcharging his students, and the records of thime shed some light on how education was conducted:

  • "School hours were to be from 7 to 11 and 1 to 5, but in the winter months school was to begin at 8. The under-master was to read prayers at the beginning and end of each day and to teach the boys the rudiments of grammar and the contents of the following books:— Sententiae Pueriles, Gordericus, Castatio’s Latin Testament and Phaedrus’ Fables, and that once a year after their Breaking up at Christmas, the head form, having read such books, shall be removed under the care of the eadmaster. The following payments were authorised. For every King’s Scholar who came into the Headmaster’s class immediately on enter­ing the school 5/-, but nothing for those who came up from the Under Master’s class, “but from all under his care he shall take 2/6 Fire money and 2/6 Cock money and no more.” The Under Master was to have the same from each scholar entering his class"

"Cock Money" was originally to pay for fighting cocks, but the payments continued after the cock-fights ended. "Fire-money" was for heating.

By the 19th century the fabric of the building had become even more badly weathered. Charles Hiatt wrote:

  • "Decay may be, and often is, picturesque. At Chester, the surface rot of the very perishable red sandstone, of which the cathedral was built, was positively unsightly. The whole place previous to the restoration struck one as woe-begone and neglected ; it perpetually seemed to hover on the verge of collapse, and was yet without a trace of the romance of the average ruin. Restoration is a word of which all those who really care for ancient buildings have a wholesome dread. It is frequendy pleaded with a view to covering a multitude of sins of innovation : only too often it actually amounts to that mutilation which is the most fashionable and the worst form of architectural murder. To fill an ancient niche with a new statue, to continue a moulding of which the greater part has disappeared, to "renew " an ancient capital by means of a few sharp strokes of a chisel in the hands of a modern stonemason, are sins at once against common sense and good taste. "

While the cathedral of Georgian Chester was crumbling away and the Anglican church becoming ossified, chrch-building in Chester did not stop, but funds were being diverted to the various non-conformist groups.


One of the causes of damage to the cathedral were the burials which took place there. People wanted to be buried inside the church even though this was quite expensive for those who had to pay and the effect was to undermine much of the structure.

The Cathedral in 1815 prior to the restoration/extension of the south transept. In effect, this is a surviving medieval abbey in serious need of repair.

By 1815 parts of the cathedral were in a ruinous state. Pigot (1815) wrote:

  • "the Dormitory and the stone steps leading to it are in existence, though in a very ruinous state"

In 1831 Hemingway writes:

  • "Over the east cloister was a dormitory, which has either been destroyed, or suffered to fall into decay, much to the injury of the appearance of these venerable conventual buildings”

The poverty of the church was one reason for this decay, and for some years the accounts had been in deficit, with the Dean borrowing under the Chapterr Seal and building-up a growing debt. Eventually, the security offered by the Chapter was insufficient and the members had to personally guarantee loans, something which they soon became unwilling to continue. This was a little dishonest as the Chapter members actually had an income from the church properties. These were let at very low rents, but a premium was extracted when the rents were up for renewal - every seven years. However this premium was simply shared-out between the Dean and the Chapter.

Robert Hodgson/Thomas Harrison

Between 1818 and 1820 the architect Thomas Harrison made plans to restore the south transept (8), adding the corner turrets. He made but slight efforts to ascertain and reproduce any original ancient plan, but probably did no real harm. Unfortunately the Cathedral authorities decided that while Harrison had drawn up the plans, they would have another carry out the work. Harrison wrote a furious letter to the Dean (Robert Hodgson or his successor Peter Vaughan):

  • "..presumed the Dean... wished to have a man of some experience to advise with, and superintend, the necessary works of this decayed building..You cannot imagine that I, or any other person, would willingly lend his name as architect to the repairs required in this almost ruinous church... without having the superindendence of such repairs. Would the public be as ready to free me from the responsibility of any failure as the Chapter express themselves to be? I doubt it much"

The work was done without his further assistance to a low standard and "at the least possible expemse" and he was not even paid for his plans until after his death (in 1829).

Starting in 1836, a series of boundary changes saw the diocese eventually greatly diminished in size so that its extent was almost the same as that of the ceremonial county of Cheshire as it existed just prior to 1974. A sequence of five major boundary changes to the diocese began. In 1836, the deaneries of Boroughbridge, Catterick, and Richmond, and half of the deanery of Lonsdale were taken from Chester to form part of the newly created Diocese of Ripon which also had parts taken from the Diocese of York. In 1847, the deaneries of Amounderness, Blackburn, Leyland, and Manchester, together with another large part of the deanery of Lonsdale and roughly one third of the deanery of Kendal were taken to form the then new Diocese of Manchester. Additionally, part of the deanery of Warrington (Leigh) was also transferred to this new Diocese of Manchester. At the same time, the deanery of Bangor was transferred to the Diocese of St Asaph. This left the deaneries of Copeland, Furness, and the remaining parts of the deaneries of Kendal and Lonsdale detached from the main part of the diocese around Chester, provision was made to transfer these to the Diocese of Carlisle, but this required the assent of the then Bishop of Carlisle, or the appointment of a successor. In 1849, the part of the deanery of Chester that extended into Wales was transferred to the Diocese of St Asaph. The detached deaneries in the north of Lancashire and in the Lake District were eventually transferred to the Diocese of Carlisle in 1856, on the appointment of Henry Montagu Villiers to the See.

Frederick Anson/Richard Hussey

While annotated 1848 this view may be earlier but gives a good impression of the Cathedral prior to Victorian "restoration".

Little more was done until Frederick Anson (1779-1867) was appointed as dean in 1839. He was said, in 1856, to have 'done more to beautify his cathedral than all his predecessors put together'. He had the choir (6) and lady chapel (7) restored in 1843-4 under the direction of the architect Richard Charles Hussey. The mid 18th-century galleries and the pews were removed from the choir (6), and the stalls were moved to the west so that they lay partly under the central tower (5). Anson won particular praise for reintroducing Stained Glass windows into the cathedral. At the time of his installation only a very few panes of the original coloured glass remained. Under his direction new windows were installed above the west entrance (1), in the nave (4), in the north and south choir aisles, and in the lady chapel (7). The designs were of Pugin, Wailes, the O'Connors, and Clayton and Bell. Before his death, Anson had the whole of the cathedral fabric surveyed, with a view to a comprehensive restoration scheme. As the sprawling dicese of Chester was being broken-up, the Cathedral itself, still largely a medieval abbey in structure, would be transformed in an equally dramatic manner.

"Cathedral: from the N.E, and part of City Wall" published in The Art Journal, 1873. Wood engraved antique print with recent hand colour.

John Howson/George Gilbert Scott

Anson's great scheme was carried out by his successor John Saul Howson between 1868 and 1876, with Gothic Revivalist Sir George Gilbert Scott as supervising architect. Though Scott was not at the outset in sympathy with the high church ecclesiological party, it was by an interview with Benjamin Webb, the secretary of the Cambridge Camden Society (a high-church organisation), as well as to the writings of Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, and to a meeting with the latter, brought about through Myers (Pugin's builder), that he owed his first insight into the principles of Gothic art. He strengthened his knowledge of these principles by careful study in the competition for the Martyr's Memorial at Oxford, for which he was selected as architect (1840). His first Gothic building of any size or artistic value was the church of St. Giles at Camberwell, during the progress of which his faith in Gothic architecture was assured. In 1847 the chapter of Ely gave him his first appointment as restoring architect to a cathedral. The enthusiasm of George Peacock, dean, of Ely, for the Gothic Amiens Cathedral led him to pay his first visit to the great French churches, which was followed up in later life by many continental journeys.

The Cathedral after "restoration" by George Gilbert Scott. The spires, flying buttresses and turrets are all a product of Scott's idea's on "Gothic" architecture.

Scott's work is better described as "rebuilding" than restoration. While Scott claimed archaeological evidence for his work, in 1872 the dean felt compelled to defend himself against the charge of "destroying the past, and erecting a new building". Scott added the flying buttresses, the parapets along the lines of the roof, the many pinnacles and the gargoyles - none of which appear to have been part of the original plans and which mostly derive from Victorian ideals. Most controversial was Scott's decision to shorten the south choir aisle and terminate it in an apse surmounted by a steep pentagonal roof. The interior of this termination has been made a memorial of Thomas Brassey, the railway contractor who built the Chester and Crewe Railway. On the north wall is a bust of Brassey while the mosaics were executed in Venice (Murano) by Salviati from designs by Clayton and Bell. Scott's proposal to erect a spire on the central tower (5) was rejected, but much of the external appearance of the church is the result of his work. Scott remodelled the tower, adding the familiar turrets and crenellations. At this time Dean Howson found the nave of the church 'if used at all . . . used only as a place for loitering'. His restoration created a great debate and led in part to formation of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings.

George Gilbert Scott's third son was the architect Giles Gilbert Scott (9 November 1880 – 8 February 1960) an English architect known for his work on the Cambridge University Library (described as looking like Barad-Dur from "The Lord of the Rings" by some and as "this magnificent erection" by Neville Chamberlain on opening it), Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, Battersea Power Station and designing the iconic red telephone box.

The Cathedral organ is in the crosssing under the tower.

John Darby/The Blomfields

Under John Lionel Darby (d. 1919), the work of restoration continued. Particularly important was that of the south transept (8), carried out under architect Sir A. W. Blomfield (6 March 1829 – 30 October 1899) and his father the bishop of Chester C. J. Blomfield (29 May 1786 - 5 August 1857). Before Darby's death two side chapels were added to it. A start was also made on the restoration of the conventual buildings, particularly the cloisters (16) and the east end of the refectory (17). Further restoration work was carried out by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott between 1891 and 1913, and by F. H. Crossley in 1939. Crossley was an expert on church archicture and designed the hammer-beam roof in the refectory which replaced an earlier roof that had been removed in about 1804.

The Cathedral cloisters a few years before restoration in the 1920's.

One of the most charming things about the Cathedral is the Stained Glass in the cloister. Most of this dates from the 1920's. In April 1920 Frank Selwyn Macaulay Bennett (1866–1947) was appointed Dean of Chester. He was installed on the 2nd June and only four days later he laid out his strategic plan for the Cathedral in the form of a sermon. An important part of his plan was the re-glazing of the cloister which was in a runinous state. The work was entrusted to two artists, Frederick Charles Eden (1864-1944), who was a pupil of William Butterfield and GF Bodley and Archibald Keightley Nicholson (1871-1937). Of the two, Nicholson was the better known and windows by him can be still seen in the cathedrals of Newcastle, Lincoln, Norwich, Southwell, Bradford, Worcester and Wells. Almost all the windows around the cloister at the Cathedral contain a dedication which suggests that the glazing was financed by donations with each donor being allowed to write the text. Many interesting details can be found in the cloister windows and at least one major blunder was avoided: the original cartoon of the E2 window exists in the Victoria and Albert Museum and shows that the designer (Frederick Charles Eden) had confused Thomas the Apostle with Thomas of Canterbury and originally placed a sword through the figure's head. There are other minor mistakes and clever additions: E6 has the zodiacal glyph for Aquarius and the figure of Sagittarius used for a saints day which falls in Capricorn. E7 is the single one designed by Gamon and commemorates Sidney Percival Gamon who was killed in a flying accident - it features both the RFC badge and a pig as a heraldic pun. E8 features St Patrick and lines from the Catholic mass - almost unique in an Anglican cathedral. Dean Bennet himself is represented by the rebus of a bee and a net. The N3 window dedicated to Robert Yerburgh, a Chester MP who died in 1916 also features HMS Chester which took part in the Battle of Jutland the same year, it also features St Ælfheah (with axe) who may have been killed by a group of Vikings including the later St Olave, who has his own church in Chester - where the stained glass also features an axe! A detailed guide to the cloister glass has been written and is in the links below.


The Organ

The first reference to the presence of an organ dates back to 1553. The instrument's builder is unknown. A 14-stop organ over two manuals is built John Walker and Mr. Watts for £65 and installed in 1626. The organ case of this second instrumentt is said to have been built by "Father" Bernard Smith. It was this instument which was reputed to have been played by George F. Handel when he stayed in Chester on his way to Dublin for the first performance of his “Messiah”: it is believed he carried out some final rehearsals to fine-tune some of the choruses at Chester Cathedral in 1742.

In 1844, an organ by Gray & Davison of London was installed in the cathedral. The original organ was moved (by Gray & Davidson) to St Paul's pro-Cathedral, Valetta, Malta, where parts of it, in particular the organ case, still survive.

The new organ was rebuilt and enlarged by Whiteley Bros of Chester in 1876, to include harmonic flutes and reeds by Cavaillé-Coll. It was later moved to its present position at the front of the north transept. In 1910 William Hill and Son of London extensively rebuilt and revoiced the organ, replacing the Cavaillé-Coll reeds with new pipes of their own. The choir division of the organ was enlarged and moved behind the choirstalls on the south side. The instrument was again overhauled by Rushworth and Dreaper of Liverpool in 1969, when a new mechanism and some new pipework made to a design by the organist, Roger Fisher, was installed. The organ case is by Sir Gilbert Scott.

The 1876 newspapers reported that the Cathedral made use of a steam engine provided by Lanceley's of Brook Street to blow their organ.

Medieval organs used a "wind-chest" which was kept full of air by bellows. Before the advent of mechanical systems these were powered by one or more men working very hard on cranks and levers. Later, hydraulic systems were introduced. In Victorian times steam-power was used and Chester may have been a very early example of this. The following was reported in the Chester papers:

  • "1876 'The Cathedral Organ [Chester].— The difficulties which were so ably met by the prompt assistance of voluntary and paid help at the time of the re-opening have now been entirely overcome by introducing steam power for the purpose of supplying the wind necessary for giving speech to the organ. In a short time it is hoped that the Messrs. Whitely will be able to complete the instrument, from which 23 stops, besides other mechanical appliances, are still wanting. In deference to the professional view which Sir Gilbert Scott strongly insisted on, the Dean consented to the engine-room being, sunk below the level of the floor of the Cathedral, and even below the level of the drainage in that part of the town. With the exception of tho inconvenience and risk which are likely to result from the position of the engine, there is everything to induce the belief that the beautiful machinery now adjusted by Mr. Henry Lanceley, of this town, will prove thoroughly efficient and satisfactory in every respect. For the sake of those who are specially interested in machinery we append some short description of the steam-engine and boiler manufactured and supplied by Mr. Lanceley : — The boiler is a Cornish one, 7ft. long, and 4ft. in diameter. It is fitted with two sets of water guages, steam guage, patent fusible plug, lever safety valve, patent dead weight safety valve, and one of Gresham's patent improved Giffard's injectors for supplying water. The engine is a horizontal one of very simple construction, and is noiseless in its action. Motion is communicated to the bellows, which are in a chamber in the Triforium of the North Transept, by means of a shaft running under the floor of the Chapter House. This shaft, which is set in motion by means of spur mortice gearing, also moves by means of mitre mortice wheels, an upright vertical shaft which rises to the floor of the bellows-room. On this floor works another horizontal shalft, and on the end of this shaft there is fixed a circular disc, from which, by help of mechanical contrivances, the bellows are set in motion. At present there is every reason to hope that the serious obstacles which have hindered the Messrs. Whitely from doing themselves justice will now be entirely removed, and that while we compliment Mr. Lanceley on his work we shall shortly be able to judge of the tone and construction of the instrument which is so great an ornament to the Cathedral in its unrivalled case." (Cheshire Observer - Saturday 23 December 1876)

The whole arrangement sounds a little experimental. Lanceley's were an engineering company based in Brook Street. The normally accepted date for the first use of steam to blow an organ is in the 1880's, so Chester may have been among the first to try this new applicarion of steam technology. It seems that the thought of placing the bellows next to the engine and piping the air in never occurred to the engineers who brought the power in using a whole series of shaft-drives.

The Belltower at the Cathedral is constructed from local materials: Welsh slate, local sandstone and the innovative lead-clad steel from the Chester Leadworks.

A new belltower

George Addleshaw became dean in 1963 and did much to publicize the architecture of the cathedral also launching an appeal fund for £300,000 for its restoration. His most controversial achievement was the erection in 1973–75 of a detached belfry designed by George Pace to the south-east of the cathedral, when it became obvious in the late 1960s that continued bell-ringing would endanger the central tower (5). In February 1969, nine of the ten bells in the central tower were removed to be recast by John Taylor & Co as a ring of twelve bells with a flat sixth. The new bells were cast in 1973 and work on the new bell-tower began in the same year. Two old bells dating from 1606 and 1626 were left in the tower (including the "curfew bell"). On 26 February 1975 the new bells were rung for the first time to celebrate the wedding of a member of the Grosvenor family. The official opening on 25 June 1975 was performed by the Duke of Gloucester. This was the first detached cathedral belltower was to be erected since the building of the campanile at Chichester Cathedral in the 15th century. A short history of the belltower can be found here.


In 2002 Chester cathedral revived an ancient monastic tradition by producing its own beer, when it launched Chester Pilgrim Ale, a strong (5 percent alcohol by volume, or ABV) bottled beer. The beer was named after a famous feature of the cathedral, the Chester Pilgrim, a carving on a 14th-century bench-end in the choir. There was a medieval brew house in the Abbey Square, now occupied by houses. The cathedral authorities did not follow monastic tradition by brewing the beer themselves, but gave the job to the J. W. Lees brewery in Manchester.

A New Song School

In September 2002, building work started on a new Song School, comprising purpose-built, self-contained accommodation for the choirs. It was built on the site of the original monks' dormitory, long fallen into disrepair and removed in the late 19th century. The song school was constructed of traditional materials, a red sandstone exterior and a slate roof. The total cost of the of the new Song School was around £2 million.

On a clear day the views from the top of the cathedral tower are spectacular. The "Cathedral at hight" tour takes visitors up the tower through the belfry, has some time to photograph the views and then comes back down through some of the galleries and roof-spaces, giving access to very interesting perspectives on the building. This is an ancient building: there are some steep staircases, one short "ladder" and some narrow gaps.

Exploring the Cathedral

The Cathedral has an "audio tour" for which headsets can be hired at the desk just inside the entrance. Thre are also specialist tours including one which includes a stiff climb through the belfry to the very top of the tower and which has spectacular views on a clear day. This is a short tour of the main architectural features, which should take no more than half an hour to an hour. It uses the numbers in the map given below. In keeping with tradition, the plan of the cathedral is cruciform with a central tower as was commonplace in English monastic churches. The layout is asymmetrical, having a small transept on the north side remaining from an earlier building, and an unusually large south transept. To the north are the monastic buildings of the former abbey, including the cloister and refectory.


This brief tour starts in the North Transept (9), where the massive round-arched Norman (Romanesque) architecture is best seen. The North Transept is a remnant of the early structure of the abbey church. The enormous tomb is so large that it features on some OS maps and was designed by Sir Arthur Blomfield (1829-1899). It is occupied (we presume) by the remains of Bishop John Pearson (1672-86), who was born in Great Snoring. The triforium (a gallery) above the arch was once just below the roof, with the clerestory ("clear storey" - with the windows) having been added later.

Head through the Norman doorway to the west into the cloister (4) and proceed round it clockwise. The wall on the immediate left opposite the windows is again Norman but may re-use some Anglo-Saxon columns from the pre-abbey buildings. From the west side of the cloister it is possible to access the undercroft (3) which shows the massive early design of Norman vaulting and now contains the cathedral bookshop, but was originally a store for supplies. The cloister at Chester is unusual in that it is located on the northern side of the site, whereas most cloisters are located to the sunnier south.

Map for the very simple and short tour of the cathedral.

Early Gothic

Continuing around the cloister clockwise one passes the entry to the refectory (1) which has a pulpit built into the wall and a hammer-beam roof - it is now used as the catheral cafe. Much of the graffiti comes from when it was a school. The spectacular "Creation Window" from 2001 is filled with clever visual references. Return to the cloister and continue clockwise. The stained glass in the cloister is mostly 1920's and a detailed guide is available. Many of the arches in the cloister are pointed, which is a characteristic of "Gothic" architecture.

The vestibule (6) of the Chapter House (7) has a stunning example of Gothic columns. These are much more slender than the columns which supported the undercroft roof, and were the latest building technology in their time (1230-1265). From here, exit via the passage into the main church (passing the Norman arch again} and head east (turn left) to the Lady Chapel (14). Here is the shrine of Werburgh and, in the ceiling, the boss illustrating the death of Thomas Becket. This part of the building dates from 1265-90, and the vault of this chapel is the only part of the roof which is actually stone. From the Lady Chapel it is possible to look down the length of the Cathderal roof and note that in some places it is slightly out of line.

Mid Gothic

The choir was built between 1283 and 1315, although the vaulting in the roof is Victorian restoration. The much enlarged South Transept (17) was once a mirror-image of the North Transept, but was enlarged after 1323. The gothic style has continued to evolve into the "decorated" style, with windows getting larger and having more complex stonework. Work on the nave was begun about 1323, but there was a hiatus due to plague and social unrest, and possibly a degree of mismanagement by the abbots. Despite this the choir stalls date from about 1380. They have high, spiky, closely set canopies, with crocketed arches and spirelets. Work on the structure restarted about 1485, and although this was in the Tudor period the medieval style was used to maintain cohesion.

Late Gothic (Tudor}

The crossing yields a view upwards into the tower. According to some records the early intention was to have a steeple, but it is not certain whether this was ever built. The earliest depictions of the abbey/cathedral show it with a tower. The very open proportions of the cathedral are possible because the most of the roof is wooden rather than stone-vaulted.

The west front (10) has a "Tudor" arch above the entrance doors and would, had the original plans been completed, have had a tower on either side. The coats of arms above the door are those of Prince Arthur and his younger brother, later to become Henry VIII. The doorway is surrounded by niches intended for decorative statuary, but these either were never installed or smashed-up during the Reformation. The stained glass is by W. T. Carter Shapland (1961) and features the northern saints Werburgh, Oswald, Aidan, Chad and Wilfrid, and Æthelflæd.

Victorian and Later

The Victorian "restoration" is best seen from the outside. The tower was remodelled adding turrets and crenellations which might better suit a castle. Chester suffered badly at the hands of the Parliamentary troops. As a consequence, its Stained Glass dates mainly from the 19th and 20th centuries and has representative examples the significant trends in stained glass design from the 1850s onwards. The cloisters were restored in the 20th century, and the stained glass windows, which are often memorials to individuals, contain the images of some 130 saints. Very little of the stained glass in the windows dates from the time that the windows themselves were originally constructed.

Points of Interest

Frank Selwyn Macaulay Bennett (d. 1947) became Dean in 1920 and while outlining his plans for the cathedral, stated that "besides the regular official services, there should be a considerable variety of use". A month after his installation, Chester became the first cathedral to open its doors to visitors without charge every day, including Sundays, an example followed by ten more cathedrals by 1925. Unfortunately, in 2004 the cathedral imposed a compulsory £4.00 admission charge. This did however include an "audio guide" with headphones that explain some of the history of the cathedral. Many have suggested that this charge is against the spirit of the church, and compared it to "a den of robbers", but there were exceptions for Chester residents. However the Cathedral has now gone back to the "free entry" policy. Some of the specialist tours on offer still require a small charge, but the guides are generally well informed.

Here are some points of interest that may or may not be in the audio tour:


This is located in the base of the northwest tower and is of Norman construction. It features a marble font, consisting of a bowl on a large baluster dating from 1697, yet carved with Christian symbols such as peacocks (representing the resurrection) and bearing the first and last Greek letters alpha and omega. According to one source, the font was given in 1885 by Earl Egerton. According to another, it was provided by William Moreton, Bishop of Kildare to replace the one "beat to pieces" during riots on the occasion of the Duke of Monmouth's visit to Chester in August 1683. It apparently came from a ruined church in Romagna and is believed to be a village well-head from early Roman times, afterwards taken by the Christians and carved with suitable symbols for a font. The work is of the Ravenna type of the sixth or seventh century.

A more subtle feature is a "Nine Men's Morris" board said to have been scratched into the plinth at the base of a column by a bored monk. Similar boards have been found carved into the cloister seats at Canterbury, Gloucester, Norwich, Salisbury and Westminster Abbey. In some European countries, the design of the board was given special significance as a symbol of protection from evil. To the ancient Celts, the Morris Square was apparently sacred: at the center lay the holy Mill or Cauldron, a symbol of regeneration; and emanating out from it, the four cardinal directions, the four elements and the four winds. The game was certainly known to the Romans

The original "Imp" at the cathedral.

Consistory Court

The only old ecclesiastical court in the country to have survived. The woodwork dates from the late 1500s and was placed here in 1636. The courts dealt with probate, slander, libel, non-attendance at church and clergy discipline. Probate jurisdiction and divorce jurisdiction were moved to the secular courts by the Court of Probate Act 1857 and the Matrimonial Causes Act 1857. Before the latter Act, divorce was governed by the ecclesiastical Court of Arches and the canon law of the Church of England. As such, it was not administered by the barristers who practised in the common law courts but by the "advocates" and "proctors" who practised civil law from Doctors' Commons, adding to the obscurity of the proceedings. Divorce allowing remarriage was de facto restricted to the very wealthy, as it demanded either a complex annulment process or a private bill, either at great cost. A bill to create a civil court to regulate divorce and to allow it to proceed by ordinary civil litigation had been proposed by Lord Aberdeen's coalition but had made no progress. The procedure had largely been designed by Lord Chief Justice Lord Campbell. When Lord Palmerston came to power in 1855, the bill was relaunched. The bill was introduced in the House of Lords and supported by Archbishop of Canterbury John Bird Sumner, previously Bishop of Chester.

Consistory Courts had also corrective jurisdiction over the crimes of clerks, but this was abrogated by the Church Discipline Act 1840. Today, the principal business of consistory courts is now the dispensing of faculties dealing with churchyards and church property, although they also hear the trial of clergy (below the rank of bishop) accused of immoral acts or misconduct (under the Clergy Discipline Act 1892). Some of the records are available online

Chester Imp

"Imp" on the Pied Bull at the corner of King Street. One of a set created by the sculptor Eoghan Bridge and dotted around Chester.

This is fairly hard to see, but is located in the nave windows west of the screen. The tale of his origin recounts that a monk was walking along the upper gallery and saw the Devil looking in the window. The monk was rather worried about this but the Abbot told him to put up a carving of the Devil in chains, so that he would know what would happen to him if he dared to return. A carving of an "Imp" can also be found at Lincoln although the legend there is slightly different. The use of the figure is extremely widespread across both England and Scotland. It is hard to imagine that each image was aware of the Lincoln example. It must therefore be speculated that the form is a widespread image predating its use at Lincoln, and simply an everyday deity in the same mode as the "Green Man". In the 18th century it was a fairly popular door-knocker design.

Newspapers suggested in 2015 that the imp was only discovered at that time, by use of a drone, which is complete nonsense. The imp is clearly visible from the nave and has been pointed out to visitors for centuries. In the 18th century the Chester Imp was a fairly popular door-knocker design. Many such knockers survive and they can still be bought today either as genuine antiques or as reproductions. The imp also featured on Victorian teaspoons and crumpet-toasting forks.

Chester Cathedral Library

Said to be ‘One of the best libraries of its kind in the North West’. This theological library housed in a magnificent 19th century building. It is open for research and public tours. The library of Chester Cathedral has a long history and may be the oldest library in the North West. The present library consists of three rooms, the largest being the Exhibition Library which houses nearly 3,000 volumes of pre-1800 date. The other two rooms contain the Jacobson Collection (some 1600 volumes) as well as works published from 1801 to date. The library puts on acclaimed exhibitions to commemorate significant anniversaries.

"Cobweb" Painting

A picture of the Virgin and Child, painted on a caterpillar silk. This painting is about 200 years old. A Tyrolean art form (known as "Spinnwebenbilder"), there are apparently less than 100 remaining Cobweb Paintings in the world, and this is the only original one in the UK. The image at Chester is painted on the net of the moth caterpillar Yponomeuta euonymella, probably made by Johan Burgman (d. 1825) from the Tyrol, Austria. It is a copy of a painting by Lucas Cranach I (1472–1553), in Innsbruck Cathedral (Church of St Jakob, "Dom zu St. Jakob"), Tyrol.

HMS Chester Memorial

Mounted on the wall of the southwest crossing pier, this records the names of those killed onboard HMS Chester. Chester was a "Birkenhead" class light cruiser originally planned for export to Greece but purchased, part built, by the British government in 1915. "Chester" was laid down at Cammell Laird in October 1914 as "Lambros Katsonis" but entered service with the Royal Navy in early May 1916. Three weeks later, on the 31st May 1916 she took part in the battle of Jutland and was badly damaged. Repaired, she returned to service, but saw no further significant action apart from the fleet sortie of August 1916. She entered the Nore Reserve in 1919, was paid off in 1920 and sold for scrap in 1921.

Demonic Footprint

Edward Thomas in a 1906 edition of the Cheshire Sheaf wrote:

"When I became a chorister in Chester Cathedral in the year 1828, I, as was the custom with all new boys, was shown by the older choristers a flagstone at the north east corner of the cloisters on which was a mark, said to be the Devil's footprint, and was told that if the flag was removed and replaced by a new one, on the following morning, the footprint would be there again".

Chester is not the only cathedral to have such a footprint. Munich cathedral (the Frauenkirche) also has a "Teufelstritt", with a legend going back to the architect of that cathedral Jörg von Halsbach.

Everest Window

The "Everest Window".

A stained glass window dedicated to climbers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine and their time on Everest (locally named Chomolungma or Qomolangma) can be found in the south transept. It contains the latin phrase "Ascensiones in corde suo disposuit" (in his heart he hath disposed to ascend by steps) from psalm 83. Thomas Mallory, an ancestor, was Dean of Chester in the 17th cent.

George Mallory was considered to be one of the most talented climbers of his generation. He grew up in the Cheshire village of Mobberley. There is also a stained glass window commemorating Mallory at St. Wilfrid's Mobberley (the same Wilfred who helped found St John's Church). "Sandy" Irvine grew up in Birkenhead. They never returned from their final attempt on the north side of Mount Everest on 8th June 1924. Whether or not they were the first to reach the summit of the world's tallest mountain, 29 years before Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay, remains unknown. The pair was last sighted only a few hundred metres from the summit, and it is unknown if the pair reached the summit before they perished. Mallory's body was found in 1999, but Irvine's body and portable camera has never been found.

Frderick Phillips Memorial

A memorial to Frederick Phillips III (great-grandson of Frederick Philipse), who died in Chester in 1785. His memorial reads:

  • "Sacred to the memory of Frederick Phillips Esquire late of the province of New York a gentleman in whom the various social, domestic, and religious virtues were eminently united. The uniform rectitude of his conduct commanded the esteem of other whilst the benevolence of his heart and gentleness of his manners secured their love. Firmly attached to his Sovereign and the British Constitution he opposed at the hazard of his life the rebellion in North America and for this faithfull discharge of his duty to his King and Country he was proscribed and his estate one of the largest in New York was confiscated by the usurped legislature of that province. When the British troops were withdrawn from New York in 1783 he quitted a province to which he had always been an ornament and benefactor leaving all of his property behind him which reverse of fortune he bore with calmness, fortitude and dignity which had distinguished him through every former stage of his life. He was born in New York the 12th day of September in the year 1720 and died in this place the 30th day of April in the year 1785 aged 65 years"

The Revolutionary War almost turned out quite differently for Phillips. In 1756 George Washington fell in love with Phillips' daughter Mary and proposed marriage to her. Mary, for reasons unknown, declined the offer of marriage, unknowingly also turning down the possibility of becoming the prototype First Lady of the USA.

Greene Monument

Look carefully at these three figures and it becomes apparent that they have no hands. Thomas Greene is immortalized in stone with his first wife, Ellen Brascye, to his left and his second wife, Dorothie Davenport to the right. He was mayor of Chester in 1565 and died in 1602. Apparently the Puritans took offence at depictions of hands in prayer, especially if these were prayers for the dead and lopped them off. Chester Cathedral has other examples including a pew-end that someone took an axe to in an attempt to remove a head.

Henry Twells Clock

Henry Twells was born in Ashted, Birmingham on March 13th, 1823. Twells at­tend­ed Pe­ter­house Coll­ege, Cam­bridge, and be­came Cur­ate at Berk­ham­sted and Sub-Vic­ar at Strat­ford-on-Avon. In 1856, he be­came head­mas­ter of Go­dolph­in School, Ham­mer­smith, Lon­don. He be­came Vi­car of Walt­ham-on-the-Wolds, Lei­ces­ter­shire, in 1871, and Can­on of Peter­bor­ough in 1884. After re­tir­ing to Bourne­mouth, he helped at St Ste­phen’s, and built and part­ly en­dowed St Au­gus­tine’s Church. He wrote many poems and several hymns. The text of the poem under the clock at the cathedral reads:

  • "When as a child I laughed and wept, time crept. When as a youth I waxed more bold, time strolled. When I became a full-grown man, time RAN. When older still I daily grew, time FLEW. Soon I shall find, in passing on, time gone. O Christ! wilt Thou have saved me then? Amen."

For more on this and other clocks see: Clockmaker.

The Misericords

The Baltic oak choir stalls date from about 1380. One theory says that these provided an occasional seat for fatigued priests during the almost interminable services of the Roman monastic churches, the name obviously having reference to the compassionate intention. Another and very opposite meaning and holds that if a canon, while leaning on the unstable shelf, became weary and inattentive during the long prayers and chants, and happened to fall on to the desk in front of him, the seat would come down with a loud enough bang to call the attention of his fellow priests to his somnolent state. The carvings of these seat are uniquely detailed and include (among many others):

  • No 13: A wife with husband on his knees at her feet, with one hand holding him by the tippet of his hood, with the other chastising him with some domestic implement.
  • No. 30: A fox in the habit of a monk making an offering to a nun with two other nuns watching among the trees.

The misericords are analysed in detail in a paper given on the 7th November 1892 by T. C. Hughes.

Narwhal Tooth

This rare work of the seventeenth century, is a narwhal tusk, seven feet six inches in length, and believed to be carved by a Flemish hand. The narwhal, (Monodon monoceros) is an arctic species of whale, closely related to the beluga. It is easily identified by the long, spiral-patterned tooth protruding from the head of the male. Narwhals are freely hunted by Inuit hunters, but recent studies showing the population’s vulnerability to climate change has prompted a greater effort for conservation. Narwhal tusks are considered to be responsible for unicorn legends. Vikings returning from long trips would often bring spiraled horns as proof of the legendary and magical horse. Several surviving examples of these horns are carved in elaborate designs, and were believed to have healing properties. Close inspection (such as that of Olaus Magnus) proves that the unicorn horns are actually the tusks of the narwhal. Drinking from a cup carved from a tusk was said to negate any poison. A London doctor advertised a drink made from ground up narwhal tusk that could cure scurvy, ulcers, dropsy, gout, consumption, coughs, heart palpitations, fainting, rickets, and melancholy. Churches would put small chunks of narwhal tusk in the holy water to help speed along miracle cures for ailing churchgoers. In the 16th century, Queen Elizabeth l used a tusk as a scepter, which was said to be worth the cost of a castle at the time.

Political Corbels

Outside the cathedral, on the south transept, are a series of corbels which embody Victorian political humour. One shows William Gladstone, pen in mouth, uprooting a church - a reference to the the pamphlet "The Vatican Decrees in their Bearing on Civil Allegiance" which he published in 1874. Another shows Benjamin Disraeli, with a sword in his hand, defending the crown. Disraeli's first premiership was dominated by the heated debate over the established Church of Ireland and this is believed to be a reference to that.


Donated by the Freemasons, In keeping with this the carvings on the pulpit represent the building of King Solomon's Temple, the preaching of St John the Baptist in the Wilderness, and the showing of the Heavenly City of the Apocalypse to St John the Evangelist.


The gem of the refectory is the lector's pulpit, near the south-east corner of the room, which, with its charming staircase in the wall, is an unusually fine piece of pure Early English work. The tapestry on the west wall, depicting a scene from Acts, was woven at Mortlake in the 17th century from a cartoon by Raphael. The heraldic paintings on the north wall represent the arms of the Earls of Chester. The tracery in the large east window is by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, and the stained glass dates from the 1920's. The outline of the two original lancet windows can be seen on either side. The hammer-beam ceiling, designed by F.H. Crossley, was installed in 1939. The "Creation Window" of Rosalind Grimshaw (3 March 1945 - 11 November 2020) which is considered her masterpiece. In 1983, Ros Grimshaw, was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. She refused to allow her illness to prevent her from working, and in 2000 won the commission to design and make the ‘Creation’ stained glass window-considered to be the finest and most inspired work of her whole career. The creation story is referenced both vertically and horizontally with the lowest part of the panes, below the transom, generally having a technology reference - city lights and skyscrapers, the earth from space: including the space shuttle, a beaker symolising genetic engineering, a brain scan of a person with Parkinsons, a hand pump, and a human foetus. The foetus may well be partly a pun on 2001 (as a reference to the film of the same name), the year the work was completed.

The walls of the refectory feature quite a bit of graffiti, much of it scratched into the walls when the room was the home of the King's School from 1541-1869, although a school of some form is believed to have existed from a much earlier date. The school moved to purpose built premises next to the cathedral in 1869 (these are now a bank), and in 1960 moved to a site on the outskirts of Chester.

Supposed Tomb of Emperor Henry

The tradition that a German Emperor Henry (IV or V) was buried in the abbey church goes back, remarkably, to the late 12th century. In 1728 it was believed that his bones were housed in a lead coffin enclosed within a stone monument located beneath the 'pyramid' which rose from the south choir aisle. Later, however, he was said to rest in the north choir aisle, in an alabaster altar tomb adorned with trefoil- and quatrefoil-headed niches apparently dating from the 15th century. Holy Roman Emperor Henry V (8 November 1086 – 23 May 1125) is one candidate for the mysterious anchorite at the Hermitage.

From 1108 on Henry V made official proposals for a marriage with a princess of the English royal family, seeking to increase the authority of the Salian king and secure his throne. His engagement with the eight-year-old princess Matilda took place in Utrecht at Easter of 1110. The Anglo-Norman King Henry I of England paid the extraordinarily high sum of 10,000 or 15,000 pounds of silver as dowry. In return, his daughter's marriage to Henry V enormously increased his prestige. On July 25, 1110 Matilda was crowned Roman-German Queen in Mainz by the Archbishop of Cologne. The story that Henry survived as a hermit may have been created by Hugh de Kevelioc. During Hugh's time stories arose that hermits living in the Hermitage (Anchorite Cell) had claimed to be Harold II of England and the German Emperor Henry V. In both cases this is most unlikely, but, in both cases, such claims would cast doubt on Angevin legitimacy: Harold II for obvious reasons - if he had lived then the Norman claim would be weakened as the succession passed through William's granddaughter Matilda, Henry V because his survival would have bastardized the current English king, Henry II.

The "Becket Boss" at the Cathedral has been much restored.

Thomas a Becket

Henry VIII gave instructions that the cult of Thomas Becket should be dismantled wherever it was found. In November 1538 a Royal Proclamation effectively ‘unsainted’ Thomas:

The "Becket Boss" photographed in the 1930's, prior to restoration.
  • "Therefore his Grace strayghtly chargeth and commandeth that from henseforth the sayde Thomas Becket shall not be estemed, named, reputed, nor called a sayncte, but bysshop Becket; and that his ymages and pictures, through the hole realme, shall be putte downe, and avoyded out of all churches, chapelles, and other places; and that from henseforthe, the dayes used to be festivall in his name shall not be observed, nor the service, office, antiphoners, colletes, and prayers, in his name redde, but rased and put out of all the bokes."

The next year, the Pope published a document accusing Henry VIII of burning Becket's bones and putting the dead saint on trial. Consequently there are very few original ornaments containing any references to the troublesome bishop in the larger and more influential churches of this country. Yet in the Lady Chapel of Chester Cathedral, if visitors look up they will see a richly decorated boss showing Thomas being murdered for daring to defy his king. There is a similar boss in Exeter and some others in Norwich, but the one at Chester appears to be the earliest surviving one. The boss illustrates one of the myths associated with Becket, that he was slain at an altar in Canterbury Cathedral - in fact the altar at the place of his death was only put there afterwards. Later artists would transport the location of his death to the high altar of the cathedral. The boss has been much restored to gain its present form. Early photographs show the boss before restoration and the scene portrayed can hardly be made out. This was also a very poorly-lit part of the cathedral and these facts probably go some way to explain how it came to be missed. In fact, it was not until a cast was made of the boss during Victorian restoration work that the content of the boss was actually established.

The boss and some Victorian stained glass in the cloister is not the only relic of Thomas Becket associated with Chester. The initial moves of the Reformation in Chester took place in 1536 when the royal commissioners Richard Layton and Rowland Lee, bishop of Lichfield, recorded incontinency among the inmates of St. Werburgh's, the nunnery, and St. John's, and also noted the relics of St. Werburg and St. Thomas Becket. Becket's relic was his girdle, which was apparently held by the nuns of Chester. A chapel dedicated to St Thomas Becket stood by 1200 in the graveyard belonging to St. Werburgh's abbey outside the Northgate, in the fork of the later Parkgate and Liverpool roads. Serving also as the meeting place for the abbot's manor court of St. Thomas, it became a private house called Green Hall after the Dissolution, and is now the site of the "George and Dragon".

War Memorial

In 1919 Chester City Council formed the Chester War Memorial Committee to make recommendations for a memorial to those lost in the First World War. Some schemes for public and social improvement were suggested, but these were considered to be too expensive. William Beswick, the son of the county architect, was asked to prepare two designs, without a fee: one to stand outside the Town Hall, the other outside the King's School. Both were accepted by the committee. Another idea was to reconstruct the medieval High Cross. The King's School rejected the plan for the memorial on their site, and the other two plans were rejected by the City Council.

Giles Gilbert Scott was then asked to design a monument to stand in the grounds of the cathedral. His design included the figure of Saint Michael under a cross, all under a canopy, to stand in the cathedral grounds. This had an estimated cost of £4,000. It was approved by the committee, but as it was to stand on cathedral land, the cathedral had the last word, and the design was vetoed by the dean, possibly because of its height of nearly 12 metres (39 ft). The committee then asked Scott for a simpler design, based on the "cross on steps" model familiar in many English market crosses. This was produced, and would have cost £2,500, but it was rejected by the committee.

The committee then decided to hold a competition to design a memorial cross to stand in the cathedral enclosure, and to cost less than £2,000. In 1921, out of 23 entries, the design of Frederick Crossley (of Hoole) and Thomas Rayson was chosen, with that of William Beswick coming second. The total cost of the monument came to £1,540 (equivalent to £73,000 in 2021). The figures on the monument were sculpted by Alec Miller of Chipping Camden, and the contractors were W. Haswell and Sons of Chester. The monument was unveiled on 24 May 1922.

Water of Life

The bronze "Water of Life" statuary in the cloister, by Stephen Broadbent depicts the story of the woman of Samaria. The cloisters garden was set out in the 1920's, the statue stands on the site of a the cistern, supposedly connected to the Abbot's Well at Christleton. The statue was presented to the Cathedral by NWS Bank PLC in 1994 in association with the 900th anniversary of the Benedictine Abbey of St Werburgh on the site in 1092. Another well with a similar association, Jacobs Well, can be found in Grosvenor Park.

Werbergh's Shrine

Werburgh's shrine at the Cathedral while converted to the bishop's throne. The shrine which is extant in the Cathedral today bears the marks of its complex, troubled history and various phases of destruction, decay and restoration. During the reformation the relics of Werburgh were removed and the shrine was dismembered, with the remnants later forming the burial place for Bishop Downham and then, from 1635, part of the new episcopal throne. After a partial restoration in 1748 of the sections of the shrine incorporated into the thronr, all the remaining pieces were collected in 1888 by Arthur Blomfield and reassembled.

For the controversey about the shrine at the start of the Civil War see: Bruen. For more on the saint see: Werburgh.

The "hidden gem" at the Cathedral is the shrine of Werburgh. This is often overlooked by visitors but is a useful focal point in the history of the abbey and church. The original design of the shrine is unknown. The shrine, much restored, now (2020) stands in the Lady Chapel and possibly it is there that Werburgh's wanderings are at an end. The shrine, which is made of a similar red sandstone as the Cathedral has undergone at least two physical transformations in its long history. It was enlarged around 1340, apparently because of its popularity as a place of pilgrimage and reported miracles. The shrine was smashed in 1538 by Henrician reformers, perhaps in consequence of Bishop Lee's visitation of 1536. In the 1620s, when it was described as a 'fair stone in the middle of the church', it served as the burial place for Bishop Downham, and in 1635 the base and part of the upper section were adapted to make a throne for the bishop. The shrine was restored in 1888 by Arthur Blomfield. The restoration returned earlier pieces of the shrine which had been used for the podium and canopy of the bishop's throne (in the quire) and in the west end of the nave.

The lower part of the present shrine contains a series of six niches. In pre-Reformation times, prayers were spoken by pilgrims while the petitioner knelt at the shrine with their head in a recess. The cavity served both as amplifier and filter, thus giving the petitioner’s voice dramatic and emotional emphasis: only modest vocal effort is required to produce a strong voice. Acoustical experiments have demonstrated that the shape of each recess is such that – with their head in shrine recess - the petitioner’s own speech is greatly enhanced over the entire range of human hearing, and there is also some "mysterious sounding reverberant halo" imparted to petitioner’s voice. It has been suggested that this resonant acoustical effect of the recesses is intentional.

The upper part of the shrine is decorated with statues of the royal houses of Mercia, Kent and others associated with St Werbergh. The statues each carry a scroll which should bear their names although many of these cannot be read. The earliest of the figures that remain is that of Creoda - whose existence is now disputed by some, but has been said to have been the first king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia, ruling toward the end of the 6th century. He was almost certainly a pagan. Bede wrote that Penda, the second figure as listed below, tolerated the preaching of Christianity in Mercia itself, despite his own beliefs. The most recent ruler among the figures that survive is Burgred who became king of Mercia in 852. In 865, the "Great Heathen Army" arrived, and, ollowing its successful campaigns against East Anglia and Northumbria it advanced through Mercia, arriving in Nottingham in 867. Burgred then appealed to his step-brothers King Ethelred of Wessex and Alfred for assistance against them. However, the armies of Wessex and Mercia did no serious fighting as Burgred paid them off. In 874 the march of the Vikings from Lindsey to Repton drove Burgred from his kingdom after they sacked Tamworth, the Mercian capital. He died in Rome about 874.

It is difficult to say when the shrine was constructed. The legend as preserved in the writings of two monks of Chester: Ranulph Higden's Polychronicon, of the mid 14th century and Henry Bradshaw's life of St. Werburgh, of the early 16th. have the body of St. Werburgh, daughter of Wulfhere, king of Mercia (657-74), carried to Chester in 874 from its resting place at Hanbury in Staffordshire by nuns fleeing from the Danes; the shrine was received into the mother church of Chester, dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul and founded 'soon after Lucius and afore Kynge Arthure'. The saint's remains, which were at Chester before the end of the 10th century, may have been acquired with Hanbury and its church, which belonged to St. Werburgh of Chester in 1066 but had been lost to Henry de Ferrers by 1086. Of the possible founders Æthelflæd, who, with her husband Ethelred, "restored" the city in 907, is the most likely, although there is no definite evidence of the existence of a church of canons dedicated to St. Werburgh at Chester before 958: in that year Edgar the Pacific, granted to the familia of St. Werburgh seventeen hides of land in Hoseley (Flintshire). From stylistic considerations some have suggested that St. Werburgh's shrine were probably "completed" in the time of Abbot Thomas Birchills (1291-1323).

Several of the figures on the shrine are associated with Kent (there is a village in Kent named Hoo St Werburgh - so called from the dedication of the church). The "Kentish Royal Legend" is a diverse group of Medieval texts which describe a wide circle of members of the royal family of Kent from the 7th to 8th centuries AD (after which time Kent was directly ruled from Mercia for a while). Key elements include the descendents of Æthelberht of Kent over the next four generations; the establishment of various monasteries (most notably Minster-in-Thanet) and the lives of a number of Anglo-Saxon saints (including Werburgh) and the subsequent travels of their relics. Although it is described as a legend, and contains a number of implausible episodes, it is placed in a well attested historical context. What appesrs to be happening with the shrine is that the information in the "Kentish Royal Legend" is being combined with that of Mercian history and its list of rulers.

During the Middle Ages, the badge of a basket of geese was adopted as proof of having made a pilgrimage to the Shrine of St Werburgh. Perhaps as well as sticking their heads in the alcoves the pilgrims could also hear an exposition of the history of the Mercians. However that may have had to be sanitised - in the early years of Coenwulf's reign he had to deal with a revolt in Kent, which had been under Offa's control. Eadberht Præn returned from exile in Francia to claim the Kentish throne, and Coenwulf was forced to wait for papal support before he could intervene. When Pope Leo agreed to anathematize Eadberht, Coenwulf invaded and retook the kingdom; according to one version Eadberht was taken prisoner, was blinded, and had his hands cut off (but Roger of Wendover states that he was set free by Coenwulf at some point as an act of clemency).

The figures

The people on the shrine are coloured: blue for Mercian rulers, green for Kentish, women in yellow.

The figures, starting at the south-west corner and going clockwise, can somewhat tentatively be identified as follows:

  • 1 Rex Crieda - Creoda son of Cynewald, grandson of Cnebba, great-grandson of Icel; a fourth-generation descendant of the first Angles in England, sources record him as having been the first ruler (584 - 593) of the Kingdom of Mercia.
  • 2 Rex Penda - Penda - St Werbergh's grandfather and a pagan king of Mercia. He died in 655. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle gives his descent back to Woden as follows: "Penda was Pybba's offspring, Pybba was Cryda's offspring, Cryda Cynewald's offspring, Cynewald Cnebba's offspring, Cnebba Icel's offspring, Icel Eomer's offspring, Eomer Angeltheow's offspring, Angeltheow Offa's offspring, Offa Wermund's offspring, Wermund Wihtlaeg's offspring, Wihtlaeg Woden's offspring"
  • 3 Rex Wolpherus - Wulfhere - St. Werbergh's father. King of Mercia from the end of the 650s until 675. He was the first Christian king of all of Mercia, although nothing is known of his conversion.
  • 4 Rex Ceolredus - Ceolred of Mercia husband of the other St. Werburga (of Mercia) and King of Mercia. Ceolred had none of the Christian piety of his predecessors: his life was riotous and dissolute and he lost the respect and affection of his subjects. Said to have provided the original shrine for the bones of his cousin, St. Werburga of Chester. In AD 716, he was seized with madness and excruciating pains as he sat at a feast; he died shortly afterwards, blaspheming Christ and also the heathen gods. He may have been poisoned.
  • 5 ----------- (unidentified)
  • 6 Rex Offa - Offa of Offa's Dyke, king of Mercia from 757 until his death in July 796.
  • 7 Rex Egfertus - possibly Ecgfrith son of Offa who ruled for 141 days in the year 796.
  • 8 ----------- (unidentified)
  • 9 St. Kenelmus - Cynehelm an Anglo-Saxon saint, venerated throughout medieval England, and mentioned in the Canterbury Tales (the Nun's Priest's Tale. He was the son of Coenwulf (King of Mercia from December 796 to 821) and is believed to have died around 811.
  • 11 Rex Beorna - possibly Beornred briefly King of Mercia in 757, following the murder of Æthelbald. However, he was defeated by Offa and fled.
  • 12 Rex Colwlphus - is mentioned in one chronicle as being the successor of Cenelm. However this could also be Ceolwulf I of Mercia.
  • 13 ----------- (unidentified)
  • 15 ---------us (unidentified)
The upper part of the shrine of Werburgh. Many of the figures have lost their heads over the years, but some can be tentatively identified.
  • 16 Rex ------dus - possibly Æthelred I of Mercia - Werbergh's uncle. In 704, Æthelred abdicated to become a monk and abbot at Bardney, leaving the kingship to his nephew Coenred (like Coenred he carries a staff).
  • 18 ---------us - possibly Cœnred - brother of St. Werburgh. In 709 Coenred abdicated and went on pilgrimage to Rome, where he later died. The figure carries a staff, suggesting his journey and/or entry into a monastery.
  • 19 ----------- (unidentified)
  • 21 Merwaldus - Merewalh a sub-king of the Wreocensæte. The name Merewalh signifies "Famous Foreigner" or "Celebrated Welshman". He converted to Christianity in about 660, founding Leominster Priory. He is believed to be Werbergh's uncle.
  • 22 Rex Wiglaff - Wiglaf of Mercia: king of Mercia from 827 to 829 and again from 830 until his death.
  • 23 Rex Bertwulph - Beorhtwulf: King of the Mercians from 839 or 840 to 852.
  • 24 Rex Burghredus - Burgred king of Mercia (852 - 874). In 868 he appealed to Ethelred of Wessex and his brother, Alfred the Great, for assistance against the Danes. In 874 the Danes drove Burgred from his kingdom. Burgred retired to Rome and died there. He was buried, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, "in the church of Sancta Maria, in the school of the English nation" in Rome.
  • 25 ----------- (unidentified)


  • 26 St -------- - believed to be Æðelþryð. The common version of her name was St. Awdrey, which is the origin of the word tawdry. Her admirers bought modestly concealing lace goods at an annual fair held in her name in Ely. As years passed, this lacework came to be seen as old-fashioned or cheap and poor quality goods.
  • 27 ---------- (unidentified)
  • 28 ---------- (unidentified)
  • 29 Rex Ethelbertus - possibly Æthelberht of Kent (c. 560 – 24 February 616) king of Kent from about 580 or 590 until his death. Bede lists Aethelberht as the third king to hold imperium over other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. He was the first English king to convert to Christianity.
  • 30 St Mildreda - Mildrith - (floruit 694–716) daughter of King Merewalh and Ermenburga.

It has been suggested that the figures originally numbered 40.

The rulers

The rulers of Mercia in the correct order are given below with the statues numbered accordingly. There is a rough sequence but many of the figures are not in the "correct" order.

Mercian Rulers - the Kings of the Angles were descended from Icel, whose father "Eomer son of Angeltheow" was used by Tolkien in "Lord of the Rings" as the basis for Éomer, literally translating to "Horse-famous".
  • (2) Penda c.626-655 (killed in battle)
  • Eowa c.635-642 (killed in battle)
  • Peada c.653-656 (murdered)
  • (3) Wulfhere 658-675 (his cause of death, according to Henry of Huntingdon, was disease)
  • (18) Cœnred 704-709 (retired to monastery)
  • (4) Ceolred 709-716 (poisoned - or went mad)
  • (11) Beornred 757 (possibly burnt to death in 769 in Northumbria)
  • (6) Offa 757-796 (apparently died of old age, his tomb was then washed away by a flood)
  • (7) Ecgfrith July-December 796 (died "suddenly")
  • (12) Cœnwulf 796-821 (died at Basingwerk near Holywell)
  • Ludeca 826-827 (killed in battle)
  • (22) Wiglaf (1st reign) 827-829 (deposed)
  • (22) Wiglaf (2nd reign) 830-839
  • Wigmund c.839-c.840 (may have predeceased his father and never been anything more than a co-ruler with him)
  • Wigstan 840 (declined the kingship preferring religious life and monastic orders, then murdered)
  • (23) Beorhtwulf 840-852 ("put to flight" by Vikings and appears to have died soon after)
  • (24) Burgred 852-874 (fled to Rome, died there)

Sources and Links

Related Pages


The older books listed below may contain some innacuracies, and are included out of completeness and historical interest. The same should also be said for some of the historical papers which were given before the Chester "Historical Society" in its various incarnations. The most accurate written references appear to be the "British History" online documents linked to below and the papers written by Burne.


Burne's Works

General References

The monks and their writings

  • Anselm of Bec (born c.1033 - died 21 April, 1109);
  • Robert of Chester, around 1150; translated "Liber algebrae et almucabala" Al-Khwārizmī's book about algebra:(latin version with partial translation);
  • Lucian the Monk: his Of the Praise of Chester was written around 1195; (anyone have an on-line source for this?);
  • Ranulf Higden (c. 1280 - c. 1363) - the text of the Polychronicon with notes and translations;
  • Henry Bradshaw: (c. 1450 - 1513); The Life of Saint Werburge of Chester - translation and commentary

Other Links