Chester Castle

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A view of Chester from a balloon, with the Castle indicated. Here is the Castle Timeline.


A panorama of Harrison's. modification of the Outer Bailey of Chester Castle. The Agricola Tower can be seen behind the buildings on the right but the gate leading to it is now kept locked. The Military Museum is in the building to the left. The neo-classical design is remarkably similar to that of Downing College in Cambridge by the architect William Wilkins (which was only completed in 1951). Wilkins career in architecture began in 1804 with his Greek-revival designs for the newly established Downing College. Wilkins' commission came after earlier plans in a Palladian style by James Wyatt had been rejected as "insufficiently classical". Wilkins arranged the college buildings around a single large courtyard. Construction of Downing began in 1807 (Harrison's design is earlier) and proceeded slowly, coming to a halt (due to litigation over the founders bequest) in 1821 with Wilkins' scheme still incomplete. Whether Wilkins was influenced by Harrison is impossible to say.
  • "Neere unto the river standeth the Castle upon a rockie hill, built by the Earles, where the Courts Palatine and the Assises, as they call them, are kept twice a yeere." (William Camden)
A plan of the Castle before modern alterations taken from Windle. Surviving structures are the Flag Tower, the Half-Moon Tower (3) and the Agricola Tower (1) - here called "Caesar's Tower". Apart from the south and west walls of the Inner Bailey, all other structures have been replaced. (5) may be "Damory's Tower", (4) "Gonke's Tower" and (2) the "Square Tower". (6) "Garderobe Tower" was demolished sometime between 1788-1807.

The Castle Timeline is on another page.

Chester Castle is one of the few castles in England or Wales that has been in constant use since first erected. For almost 2,000 years - even before the castle was built, armies have used and fought over this location. At times it has housed a mint, a prison, courts and local government offices. The Roman fortress, Æthelflæd's (Alfred the Great's daughter) burh, the small earthwork and timber castle of the Normans, and the larger stone castle created by Ranulf de Blondeville and Henry III were successively built near to, if not directly upon one another.

The history of the city and that of the castle are entangled. Indeed, the name of the city of Chester means simply "castle" and was used almost interchangeably in mediaeval descriptions such as the following of Hadrian's Wall:

  • It had many towres or fortresses about a mile distant from another, which they call Castle steeds, and more with in little fensed townes tearmed in these daies Chesters, the plots or ground workes whereof are to be seene in some places foure square; also turrets standing betweene these, wherein souldiers being placed might discover the enimies and be ready to set upon them, wherein also the Areani might have their Stations, whom the foresaid Theodosius, after they were convicted of falshood, displaced and removed from their Stations.

Any castle, an particularly this castle is more than its stones, and the different layers of history can take some time to disentangle. If you visit, don't expect a grand ruin of a castle like Conwy. The surviving parts of Chester castle are impressive, but Chester Castle is more to do with social history than being a frozen ruin of a bygone age. Over the years:

  • the castle has seen revolts (several successful, several not) against various English rulers;
  • has been besieged (but never itself taken by siege), has been a prison of kings and princes or of those who revolted against them - a few of whom escaped;
  • has seen trials of the unquestionably guilty (and of the probably innocent);
  • has been amongst the best (or the worst) prisons in the country;
  • has been involved in the success and failure of many military campaigns.

Through almost all of history, someone has been trying to get inside or outside of the walls of the Castle at Chester - the Earl of Derby used a rope to get out (briefly), Reverend Baldwin used a hydrogen balloon.

Conflict and Fortification at Chester (Prehistoric to 1069)

The entrance to Eddisbury Hillfort.

During the times of the Romans, the wars of the Welsh and Northumbrians, the English and the Danes and indeed later during the Civil War, Chester has found itself at an often fought-for crossroads. Until shortly after the Norman Conquest, the fortifications in and around Chester were not at the site of the present castle, but there were still defensive works here. The fortuitous combination of a bend in the navigable River Dee around high ground and the lowest ford on that river meant that this was an ideal location for a Roman fortress-city, an Anglo-Saxon fortified "burg" and later a castle.

One interesting theory about the importance of Chester (and one possible reason why there was so much fighting here) is that it may mark the meeting point of several major European human genetic groups. One theory holds that after the last ice age the Celts migrated back up the Atlantic coast from their ice age "refuge" in Spain. These coastal people became the Cornish, the Irish and the Welsh. Other groups repopulated the British Isles through Norway and other parts of Scandinavia and a third group migrated across the land bridge that then connected Britain with Europe across what is now the channel. Where these people live today can be mapped using genetic studies. Chester turns out to be a possible "outpost" of the "English" genes. According to the Oppenheimer Theory these are much earlier movements of people than the supposed invasions of the red-haired "Vikings", the blonde "Angles" and "Saxons" or the brunet "Celts". However the conflicting theories about who moved where and when are still the subject of much debate! If this theory holds water, then Chester is placed at (or close to) the "triple point" where the worlds of the "Iberian/Celtic", "Scandinavian" and "Anglo-Saxon/Germanic" peoples collide and is one of the few points where the Anglo-Saxon group would have an "Atlantic" port. Chester's history is very much the history of that port and its decline through the silting of the River Dee.

An Iron Age Fortress?

The early coastline, showing swamps and hillforts

There is no definitive evidence for any kind of Iron Age fortification at Chester itself, but signs of Iron Age settlement (including post-holes) have been found in Chester and reported. It is likely that such a settlement would have included some kind of defensive structure. Hill top enclosures are known along the sandstone ridge at nearby Beeston, Bickerton and Kelsall. Earthworks have also been found at Heronbridge, a little south of Chester. The forts form two geographical groups of three, with Maiden Castle (Bickerton) on its own in the south of the county; Eddisbury hill fort is in the southern group with Kelsborrow Castle and Oakmere hill fort. Helsby Hillfort, Bradley and Woodhouses, form the Northern group.

Some early historical speculation is found in Samuel Lewis's 1848 Topographical Dictionary of England which includes the following information for Chester:

  • The origin of this ancient city has been ascribed to the Cornavii, a British tribe who, at the time of the Roman invasion, inhabited that part of the island which now includes the counties of Chester, Salop, Stafford, Warwick, and Worcester; and its British name Caer Leon Vawr, "city of Leon the Great," has been referred to Leon, son of Brût Darian Là, eighth king of Britain.

There may be some confusion here with Caerleon in south Wales. Caerleon is also a site of considerable archaeological importance, with a Roman legionary fortress (it was the headquarters for Legio II Augusta from about 75 to 300 AD) and an Iron Age hill fort. The name Caerleon is derived from the Welsh for "fortress of the legion" (compare with the Anglo-Saxon name for Chester - Legercyestre). "Brût Darian Là" (Welsh: Bryttys darian las) appears to be a reference to Brutus Greenshield one of the legendary kings mentioned by the notoriously inaccurate Geoffrey of Monmouth's 1136 pseudohistorical (i.e. mostly "made up") Historia Regum Britanniae ("the History of the Kings of Britain"). The "Leon" in question may be Liel after whom Carlisle (another Roman fort) may or may not be named.

Raphael Holinshead (writing in the 1570's) tells a similar story, including mention of a specific governor of Britain, P. Ostorius Scapula (who was governor of Britain from AD47-52):

  • Carleil builded. Chester repaired. Leill the sonne of Brute Greeneshield, began to reigne in the yeare of the world 3021, the same time that Asa was reigning in Iuda, and Ambri in Israell. He built the citie now called Carleil, which then after his owne name was called Caerleil, that is, Leill his citie, or the citie of Leill. He repaired also (as Henrie Bradshaw saith) the citie of Caerleon now called Chester, which (as in the same Bradshaw appeareth) was built before Brutus entrie into this land by a giant named Leon Gauer. But what authoritie he had to auouch this, it may be doubted, for Ranulfe Higden in his woorke intituled "Polychronicon," saith in plaine wordes, that it is vnknowen who was the first founder of Chester, but that it tooke the name of the soiourning there of some Romaine legions, by whome also it is not vnlike that it might be first built by P. Ostorius Scapula, who as we find, after he had subdued Caratacus king of the Ordouices that inhabited the countries now called Lancashire, Cheshire, and Salopshire, built in those parts, and among the Silures, certeine places of defense, for the better harbrough of his men of warre, and kéeping downe of such Britaines as were still readie to moue rebellion.

Ptolemy's 2nd century Geographia has a passing mention (text) of the two cities of the Cornovii as:

  • .From these toward the east are the Cornavi, among whom are the towns: Deva, Legio XX Victrix 17°30 56°45 and Viroconium 16°45 55°45

"Deva Victrix" is Chester (see Roman Chester), and "Viroconium" is Wroxeter. The later had become the capital of the Cornovii under Roman rule.

While the evidence is scant, at times confusing and some of the sources are known to be rather suspect, it may well be that there was some form of fortification at Chester in the Iron Age, but nothing is known of any particular part which it might have played in history.

The Roman Fort - Romani Ite Domum

Roman Chester - overlaid on a map of the city prior to the building of the Inner Ring Road. The location of the Saxon walls is shown by a dashed line, which extends westward from the northern wall and south from the eastern wall to meet the river near the modern sites of the boatyard and the river bandstand on The Groves respectively.

Raphael Holinshead (writing in the 1570's) gets the story a a little confused and has the Romans responsible for the undercrofts on The Rows:

  • There be some led by coniecture grounded vpon good aduised considerations, that suppose this Ostorius Scapula began to build the citie of Chester after the ouerthrow of Caratacus: for in those parties he fortified sundrie holds, and placed a number of old souldiers either there in that selfe place, or in some other néere therevnto by waie of a colonie. And for somuch (saie they) as we read of none other of anie name thereabouts, it is to be thought that he planted the same in Chester, where his successors did afterwards vse to harbour their legions for the winter season, and in time of rest from iournies which they haue to make against their common enimies. In déed it is a common opinion among the people there vnto this daie, that the Romans built those vaults or tauerns (which in that citie are vnder the ground) with some part of the castell. And verelie as Ranulfe Higden saith, a man that shall view and well consider those buildings, maie thinke the same to be the woorke of Romans rather than of anie other people. That the Romane legions did make their abode there, no man séene in antiquities can doubt thereof, for the ancient name Caer leon ardour deuy, that is, The citie of legions vpon the water of Dée, proueth it sufficientlie enough.

Sometime around AD74, the then governor of Roman Britain, Sextus Julius Frontinus constructed an "auxiliary fort" at Deva Victrix (Chester). The placement of this fort (at the lowest ford of the River Dee) appears to have been a strategic move by Frontinus with the intent of both blocking the route of any routed British trying to escape to the north, and to guard against help arriving from the Brigantes and other northern tribes. Frontinus was a noted engineer as well as being a governor, and author of De aquis urbis Romae, a history and description of the water supply of Rome. It is not known whether he was involved in providing Chester's water supply from the springs at Boughton to the Roman fort, but is is known that at this time lead (such as is used for plumbing) was traded with the Deceangli of north Wales. The lead was probably mined at Pentre.

  • In June 1885 (at the Roodee) a lead 'pig' was found inscribed IMP•VESP•AVGV•T•IMP•III: the word DECEANGI appears on the side (this has been dated: AD74).
  • In 1838 (1¼ miles east of Chester's Eastgate) another 'pig' was found with the inscription; IMP•VESP•V•T•IMP•III•COS, and again, on the side; DECEANGI (again dated: AD74).


Frontius was succeeded as governor (in AD78) by Gnaeus Julius Agricola a Roman general responsible for much of the Roman conquest of Britain. His biography, the well known "De vita et moribus Iulii Agricolae" (The Life and Character of Julius Agricola), was the first published work of his son-in-law, the historian Tacitus (and says nothing at all about Chester). By AD79, the fort had developed into the extensive base of Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis. There is another naval link here as the Second Legion were initially raised by Vespasian from the marines (Classis Ravennatis)of the Adriatic fleet. There is no real agreement on the size of the roman fleet which might have been associated with Chester - however it may have been the embarkation point for an attempted invasion of Ireland. There is also no real agreement about what is often called the "massive Roman harbour" and pictured to be the size of the modern Roodee.

Further lead piping can be seen in the Grosvenor Museum which bears the name of Gnaeus Julius Agricola in the following form:

  • (Imperator Vespasian nine times and Imperator Titus seven times consul. For Gnaeus Julius Agricola, pro-praetorian legate of the emperor)

Reconstructions of Roman Chester have no specific fortification on the site of the present castle, and the city walls were only extended in mediaeval times to enclose the current castle site. During the Roman period, the Castle site was close to an extra-mural official inn or "mancio" forming part of the "Cursus Publicus" (the first pub in Chester?) - although this could also have been the site of a mansion. Quite why the "Agricola Tower" at the Castle is named after the governor is something of a mystery, and over the years it has also been referred to as "Julius Caesar's Tower".

The Romans stayed in Chester until about 369, when Legio XX Valeria Victrix was withdrawn as part of the general collapse of Roman Britain and in the face of increasing "barbarian" attacks. There is no evidence that during the Roman occupation the fortifications of Roman Chester were ever put to the test.

The Grosvenor Museum contains a skeleton recovered from the bottom of a Roman well near the site of the Castle. Whoever it was, they had broken their leg earlier in life and it had been badly set, so they would have walked with a limp. It appears that the well was near the site of a fire which happened at around the time that the body ended up in the well.

King Alfred and "Chester Castle"

A fanciful depiction of Edgar the Pacific as cox on the River Dee - Chester did not have a Castle and City Walls (including the Watertower - built in 1323) like this in 973 when this boat-trip took place.

Around 893, in the time of Alfred, the Danes crossed to England. After a complex campaign the Danes made a forced march across England to occupy the ruined Roman fortress of Chester, arriving late in the year. The Wirral had strong Viking connections after 902 and there may already have been some link ten years earlier.

The Chronicle of John Brompton, seems to be the first work to mistakenly have the castle in existence prior to the Norman Earls of Chester. This error was copied by many later authors. The Victorian work "Picturesque England" describes the fortifications at Chester of Alfred's time of being a round sandstone castle:

  • The Danes, the following and more terrible invaders, who had been allowed by Alfred the Great to settle in Northumberland, next assailed Chester, and seized the fortress, which was circular and of red stone...
Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred

This may simply be an assumption on the part of the author that the present works are older than they actually are (his source is unknown). However a more interesting possibility is that the "fortress" was in fact the Roman Amphitheatre. If this was even partially intact at the time, it could have provided an excellent defensive position.

King Alfred did not attempt a winter blockade, but besieged the Danes for two days, while he drove away all the cattle; burned the corn thereabouts and slaughtered every Dane that dared venture outside the encampment. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells the story as:

  • Þa hie on Eastseaxe comon to hiora geweorce. 7 to hiora scipum. þa gegaderade sio laf eft of Eastenglum, 7 of Norðhymbrum micelne here onforan winter 7 befæston hira wif, 7 hira scipu, 7 hira feoh on Eastenglum, 7 foron anstreces dæges 7 nihtes, þæt hie gedydon on anre westre ceastre on Wirhealum, seo is Legaceaster gehaten; Þa ne mehte seo fird hie na hindan offaran, ær hie wæron inne on þæm geweorce; Besæton þeah þæt geweorc utan sume twegen dagas, 7 genamon ceapes eall þæt þær buton wæs, 7 þa men ofslogon þe hie foran forridan mehton butan geweorce, 7 þæt corn eall forbærndon, 7 mid hira horsum fretton on ælcre efenehðe. 7 þæt wæs ymb twelf monað þæs þe hie ær hider ofer sæ comon. (As soon as they came into Essex to their fortress, and to their ships, then gathered the remnant again in East-Anglia and from the Northumbrians a great force before winter, and having committed their wives and their ships and their booty to the East-Angles, they marched on the stretch by day and night, till they arrived at a western city in Wirral that is called Chester. There the army could not overtake them ere they arrived within the ramparts: they besieged the ramparts though, without, some two days, took all the cattle that was thereabout, slew the men whom they could overtake outside the ramparts, and all the corn they either burned or consumed with their horses every evening. That was about a twelvemonth since they first came hither over sea.)

Early in 894 (or 895), want of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex (after a few raids on Wales). It is not clear what the inhabitants of Chester (if there were any at the time) thought of this wanton destruction.


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The Roman city was refortified around 907 by the Mercians. The event is recorded in the Chronicle (although versions vary) and a cryptic note from 907 that "Chester was restored" suggests more fighting in that year :

  • A.D. 907. This year died Alfred, who was governor of Bath. The same year was concluded the peace at Hitchingford, as King Edward decreed, both with the Danes of East-Anglia, and those of Northumberland; and Chester was rebuilt.
Mercian defence strategy. The green areas are occupied by the Hiberno-Norse, while the blue are aoocupied 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.

Raphael Holinshead (writing in the 1570's) also mentions the same, adding that this was when the walls were extended by Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred and sister to the King:

  • Not without good reason did king Edward permit vnto his sister Elfleda the gouernment of Mercia, during hir life time: for by hir wise and politike order vsed in all hir dooings, he was greatlie furthered & assisted; but speciallie in reparing and building of townes & castels, wherein she shewed hir noble magnificence, in so much that during hir government, which continued about eight yéeres, it is recorded by writers, that she did build and repare these Tamwoorth was by hir repared, Eadsburie and Warwike towns, whose names here insue: Tamwoorth beside Lichfield, Stafford, Warwike, Shrewsburie, Watersburie or Weddesburie, Elilsburie or rather Eadsburie, in the forrest of De la mere besides Chester, Brimsburie bridge vpon Seuerne, Rouncorne at the mouth of the riuer Mercia with other. Moreouer, by hir helpe the citie of Chester, which by Danes had beene greatlie defaced, was newlie repared, fortified with walls and turrets, and greatlie inlarged. So that the castell which stood without the walls before that time, was now brought within compasse of the new wall.
"Tower" style coin from the time of Edward the Elder, believed to have been minted in Chester after it was re-fortified.

Holinshead's view also raises the question as to whether there was a "Castle" at Chester prior to the construction of the Norman motte at around the time of Hugh of Avranches, i.e. after 1070. In the original Roman plan the City Walls followed their current route around the north and east of the city from St Martins Way to Pepper Street. However the western boundary of the walls followed St Martins Say south to around Whitefriars and then turned east to close the circuit close to the Amphitheatre. Holinshead is correct in that the site of Chester Castle was not enclosed within the walls. The extension of the walls was from the north-west corner fort towards the later site of the Watertower and from the south-east corner fort towards the River Dee. Potential evidence that the walls were complete by the time of Edward the Elder (899-924) exists in the form of a coin type apparently minted at Chester early in his reign, the reverse of which has been interpreted as either a building, in the form of a church tower or the gateway to a burh or as a reliquary box containing the remains of an otherwise unknown saint.

Holinshead may be just plain wrong about the actual Castle itself being brought "within compasse of the new wall" - on the grounds that it was not actually built at the time. However it is just possible that the "castle" referred to (and possibly the place the Vikings used as a stronghold) was the re-used ruin of one of the substantial Roman buildings outside of the line of the Roman walls - for example the "Mansio" (marked "13" on the map above) or one of the other "circular" buildings around a square courtyard.

Henry of Huntingdon, (sometimes not a reliable source) wrote of Æthelflæd:

  • "Some have thought and said that if she had not been suddenly snatched away by death, she would have surpassed the most valiant of men."

This has led to the speculation that if Æthelflæd had not died in June 918 (probably aged 40-50), but had outlived her brother Edward the Elder (who died at Farndon, near Chester, in 924) then she might soon have become "Queen of All England" at Eamont Bridge as the unification of England could have taken place, not under King Æthelstan in 927, but under Æthelflæd.

Sources & links

The Chester Castle Site (Middle Ages)

Gherbod the Fleming in Chester Town Hall, was possibly the Norman who started work on Chester Castle

During the 10th century Chester became well established as a major Mercian port and appears to have been the only sizable port in the region. From the 990s the family of Leofwine of Mercia settled in Chester and helped to ensure the city's survival as a major provincial centre. Leofwine was an "Ealdorman". Towards the end of the tenth century, the term ealdorman gradually disappeared as it gave way to eorl, probably under the influence of the Danish term jarl, which evolved into modern English earl. The analogous term is sometimes count, from the French comte, derived from the Latin comes. The ealdormen can be thought of as the early English earls, for their ealdormanries (singular ealdormanry, same meaning as earldom) eventually became the great earldoms of Anglo-Danish and Anglo-Norman England. By 1066 Chester was a prosperous town with a population of between 2,500 and 3,000, producing annual taxes of £45 (this was pounds of silver in 1066 money: see Saxon Pound) and 120 pine marten pelts, together with an additional income from the mint - see Dark Ages. Chester was assessed as including the townships of Handbridge, Newton by Chester, 'Lee' (Overleigh and Netherleigh), and 'Redcliff'. Already, Chester had its own laws and customs, administered by the "hundredal court", over which presided 12 doomsmen (iudices civitatis) drawn from the men of king, earl, and bishop, and liable to fines payable to the king and earl for failure to carry out their duties. The "doomsmen" have been regarded as evidence of Scandinavian influence on Chester's institutions and have been compared to the 'lawmen' (lagemen or iudices) of some boroughs in the Danelaw.

William the Bastard and Hugh the Fat

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The Court of Hugh of Avranches at Chester. The building shown was not built until well after Hugh died.

Chester played some part in the events following Hastings:

  • Immediatlie after he [William] had thus got the victorie in a pight field (as before ye haue heard) he first returned to Hastings, and after set forward towards London, wasted the countries of Sussex, Kent, Hamshire, Southerie, Middlesex, and Herefordshire, burning the townes, and sleaing the people, till he came to Beorcham. In the meane time, immediatlie after the discomfiture in Sussex, the two earles of Northumberland and Mercia, Edwin and Marchar, who had withdrawne themselues from the battell togither with their people, came to London, and with all speed sent their sister quéene Aldgitha vnto the citie of Chester, and herewith sought to persuade the Londoners to aduance one of them to the kingdome: as Wil. Mal. writeth. (Holinshed)

Chester was one of the last places subdued after the Norman Conquest. During the "Harrying of the North" (1069-1070), the death toll is believed to have been 150,000, with substantial social, cultural, and economic damage. Due to the ruthless and violent "scorched earth" policy which the Normans employed, much of the land was laid waste and depopulated. In parts of the north, the damage was such that the survivors had to resort to cannibalism. Inevitably, plague followed. All told, about a fifth of the population of England may have died during the Norman Conquest.

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In 1069 the men of Chester in alliance with "Eadric the Wild" and the Welsh rose against the Conqueror and laid siege to Shrewsbury. William quelled the revolt and ordered a castle to be built at Chester in 1069-1070. A large "motte and bailey" castle was constructed overlooking the lowest fording point of the River Dee. In order to make space for this, or perhaps as part of the "harrying", half the Saxon city was leveled. The ramparts and tower at this time would have been wooden. Very roughly, the motte or "inner ward" occupied the present site of the older buildings on the hill that can still be seen, while the bailey or "outer ward" occupied the site of the present car-park between the pillared entrance and include the site of the more modern buildings. The central keep of the castle is believed to have been located on the site of the surviving "Flag Tower", shown in the map below.

The Flag Tower - believed to be the site of the original "keep".

As can be seen from the satellite image the motte at Chester is unusual in that it is oval rather than round. The presence of the mound comprising the motte has been confirmed by excavation conducted by Peter Hough in 1982, and in 1995 archaeologists discovered some re-deposited Roman remains which appear to have been up-cast from the Castle ditch during the construction of the motte. However, very little documentation survives from this time, with the exception of the minorities of Hugh de Kevelioc (1153-81) and Ranulf de Blondeville (1181-1232) when the Castle came into the hands of the king. During these minorities a sum of £102. 7s. 6d was spent on the Castle, and a further £20 on the castle bridge. The location of this bridge may have then been in front of the building known as the Agricola Tower, thought to be of late 12th century construction, as the original gateway to the Inner Bailey.

A description of this type of castle is given in the life of St John, Bishop of Terouanne:

  • "The rich and the noble of that region being much given to feuds and bloodshed, fortify themselves ... and by these strongholds subdue their equals and oppress their inferiors. They heap up a mound as high as they are able, and dig round it as broad a ditch as they can ... Round the summit of the mound they construct a palisade of timber to act as a wall. Inside the palisade they erect a house, or rather a citadel, which looks down on the whole neighbourhood".

This is the first real evidence of actual fortification exactly on the present site of Chester Castle.

At first, Chester was held by Gherbod the Fleming but when he returned to "more civilised" Normandy the castle and surrounding districts were given (1071) by the King to Hugh of Avranches. A footnote in Gerald of Wales tells it thus:

  • The first earl of Chester after the Norman conquest, was Gherbod, a Fleming, who, having obtained leave from king William to go into Flanders for the purpose of arranging some family concerns, was taken and detained a prisoner by his enemies; upon which the conqueror bestowed the earldom of Chester on Hugh de Abrincis or of Avranches, "to hold as freely by the sword, as the king himself did England by the crown."

Hugh of Avranches had contributed to William's invasion of England (providing 60 ships). He did not fight at Senlac Hill (called Hastings by some), but was trusted to stay behind and govern Normandy. Hugh was born around 1047, and so would have been in his early-20's when he gained Chester.

By 1075 and the subjugation of the Revolt of the Earls, the Conquest was completed. Before his death in 1101, Hugh went on to make 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"). A further castle was build at Frodsham although nothing of this now remains - Frodsham Hill was the location of an Iron Age promontory fort, the outline of which can still be seen.

As later events were to show, The Earls of Chester may have had a solid castle, but they tended to lead tumultuous lives.

The Nineteen Year Winter

The White Ship sinks. In fact it was quite a bit larger and 300 passengers and crew drowned

The line of the d'Avranches as Earls of Chester failed when Hugh of Avranches's son Richard of Avranches, with his illegitimate half-brother Ottuel, joined the young prince William (heir to Henry I) aboard the doomed White Ship in 1120. The ship foundered, drowning all but one, and Richard of Avranches died aged 26, leaving no issue. The disaster was the "Titanic" of its day - a much praised vessel at the forefront of technology, on its maiden voyage, wrecked against a foreseeable natural hazard in the reckless pursuit of speed suggested by an influential passenger, while sailing in the moonless dark.

William of Malmesbury wrote, in his Chronicle of the kings of England:

  • "Here also perished with William, Richard, another of the King's [Henry I] sons, whom a woman of no rank had borne him, before his accession, a brave youth, and dear to his father from his obedience; Richard d'Avranches, second Earl of Chester, and his brother Otheur; Geoffrey Ridel; Walter of Everci; Geoffrey, archdeacon of Hereford; [Matilda] the Countess of Perche, the king's daughter; the Countess of Chester; the king's niece Lucia-Mahaut of Blois; and many others..."
Ranulph De Gernon - on the Town Hall staircase

The earldom then passed through his father Richard of Avranches's sister Maud to Richard of Avranches's first cousin Ranulf de Meschines, in 1121. However, following the death of Henry I, the loss of the White Ship was a cause of the conflicting claims to the throne during the period of the Anarchy (1135–1154) during which:

  • "æuric rice man his castles makede and agænes him heolden; and fylden þe land ful of castles. Hi suencten suyðe þe uurecce men of þe land mid castelweorces; þa þe castles uuaren maked, þa fylden hi mid deoules and yuele men. Þa namen hi þa men þe hi wendan ðat ani god hefden, bathe be nihtes and be dæies, carlmen and wimmen, and diden heom in prisun and pined heom efter gold and syluer untellendlice pining; for ne uuaeren naeure nan martyrs swa pined alse hi waeron." ("Every chieftain made castles and held them against the king; and they filled the land full of castles. They viciously oppressed the poor men of the land with castle-building work; when the castles were made, then they filled the land with devils and evil men. Then they seized those who had any goods, both by night and day, working men and women, and threw them into prison and tortured them for gold and silver with uncountable tortures, for never was there a martyr so tortured as these men were.")

Ellis Peters set the Brother Cadfael stories (published 1977–1994) against the background of the Anarchy. During this time of trouble, known also as The Nineteen Year Winter, it was declared in the Chronicle that:

  • "In the days of this King there was nothing but strife, evil, and robbery, for quickly the great men who were traitors rose against him. When the traitors saw that Stephen was a good-humoured, kindly, and easy-going man who inflicted no punishment, then they committed all manner of horrible crimes . . . And so it lasted for nineteen years while Stephen was King, till the land was all undone and darkened with such deeds, and men said openly that Christ and his angels slept".

The then Earl of Chester, supposed serial turncoat Ranulph De Gernon, played a major part in the fighting - both against the new king ( Stephen) and for him (he is said by some to have changed sides seven times). Henry I had not helped to ensure a simple succession as he still holds the record for the largest number of acknowledged illegitimate children born to any English king (around 20 or 25).

As the Chronicle puts it:

  • After this waxed a very great war betwixt the king and Randolph, Earl of Chester; not because he did not give him all that he could ask him, as he did to all others; but ever the more he gave them, the worse they were to him.

Despite all this turmoil, no record exists of any fighting at Chester, and so the initial wooden Motte-and-Bailey was not put to the test.

Rebuilding in Stone

Chester Castle as it was, around 1725, before modification

Hugh de Kevelioc, earl of Chester from 1153-1181, joined the baronial Revolt of 1173-1174 against Henry II, and lost the castle when captured and imprisoned. However, he had his estates restored in 1177. In 1159-60, £102 7s 5d was spent on work at the Castle and this may have included the construction of the Flag Tower on the site of the original Norman keep. The earliest deposits encountered by Archaology demonstrate that the medieval masonry defences in the western range of the Inner Bailey were built on top of the pre-existing Norman motte, evidenced by a layer of redeposited clay. An area of paving outside the eastern entrance to the Flag Tower lay directly above this clay and was thought to confirm the medieval origins of the Flag Tower’s entrance, associated with this was a single posthole. Sand and clay deposits were also found to overlie the redeposited clay and these produced pottery of 14thC date.

Hugh's son, Ranulf de Blondeville, otherwise known as Ranulph IV de Meschines (1172-1232) made an alliance with Llywelyn the Great (effectively Prince of Wales), whose daughter Elen ferch Llywelyn (the Elder) married de Blondeville's nephew and heir, John Canmore, in about 1222.

At around this time, the Agricola Tower was added to the castle. This is named after the Roman governor of the same name, but why is unclear. It was initially the inner gatehouse of the castle, but one end of the gate passage was later blocked up. John Henry Parker describes the castle of this period as follows:

  • The Castle has been almost entirely rebuilt. The only remains of antiquity are a portion of the Norman walls of the substructure next the river, much patched, and the square tower called Julian's Tower. This was the gatehouse, built at the end of the twelfth century, during the period of the transition of styles. One side of it is built upon the Roman wall of the city, and one corner stands upon a Roman arch,—the vaulted passage through the tower remaining perfect, but walled up at both ends. Over it is a chapel, with a vault of transition Norman work, almost Early English, probably of about 1190 to 1200. The situation of the altar, with its piscina, credence, and locker, are plainly to be seen, though mutilated. There was a drawbridge from the outer entrance to the ancient wooden bridge which crossed the river at this spot, and there are remains of the causeway leading to it on the opposite side of the river.
The Agricola Tower (originally the inner gatehouse)

The Tower is described at length in Samuel Lewis's 1848 Topographical Dictionary of England:

  • Of the ancient castle, built by the Conqueror, there remains only a large square tower, called "Julius Agricola's Tower," now used as a magazine for gunpowder. Though of modern appearance, having been newly fronted, it is undoubtedly of great antiquity, and interesting as the probable place of confinement of the Earl of Derby, and the place in which Richard II., and Margaret, Countess of Richmond, were imprisoned. In the second chamber James II. heard mass, on his tour through this part of the kingdom, a short time previously to the Revolution. This apartment, when opened after many years of disuse as a chapel, exhibited, from the richness of its decorations, a splendid appearance, the walls being completely covered with paintings in fresco, as vivid and beautiful as when executed; and the roof, from the fine effect produced by the ribs of the groined arches, springing elegantly from slender pillars with capitals in a chaste and curious style, was equally striking.

The Norman wooden tower at the summit of the motte was also replaced in the 13th century with a square stone tower, now known as the Flag Tower. Later castles had round towers so that there were no corners to attack with siege engines. Indeed, the later towers at Chester were round. The wooden palisade that ran around the summit of the motte was also later replaced with stone. When this was done, the wall was built flush with the flag tower (unlike in later castles where towers projected to allow fire along the walls). The lower level of the Flag Tower remains but is not visible from outside the castle, although it is possible to see where the stonework links up.

The Norman motte and the Half-Moon Tower (the shuttered windows are Georgian))

Ranulf de Blondeville (1172-1232) built, or improved, several other castles beside Chester. Much of his knowledge in this area may have come from the rapid improvements in castle design that occurred at the time of the crusades. Among Ranulf's other castles was Beeston, the "castle on the rock".

In 1191, Ranulf appointed William as the Mounter keeper of "my garden and my orchard at Chester", and William was also granted a "resting tree" and "residue of my apples after the shaking down of the trees of my garden".

The only surviving element of the castle attributable to the work of Ranulf de Blondeville is the Agricola Tower, which was probably intended to function as the gatehouse to the Bailey. The first floor seems to have been designed as a chapel from the outset, the capitals and vaulting of which are closely related to those in a chapel in the east transept of Chester abbey (now the Cathedral), and may even be by the same mason. Much of the remaining work that Ranulf may have been responsible for in the Inner Bailey may be conjectured from the early eighteenth century plans prepared by Lavaux and others. Historically it is known that on his return from the crusades in 1220, Ranulf embarked upon several castle building programmes at sites including Beeston and Bolingboke. Each of these castles were furnished with twin drum towered gatehouses and ‘D’ shaped mural towers, like the Half -Moon tower at Chester. In the case of Beeston castle it was sited on a crag, with a shear drop to its rear, very much like the site at Chester. Furthermore, the arrangement of the mural towers and gatehouse buildings at Beeston can be seen to have been influenced by the layout at Chester, on the north-eastern side of the Inner Bailey defensive circuit. It could be argued that Ranulf’s castles of the 1220’s were inspired by his experiences in Europe and the Holy Land, and involved state of the art castle building technology. There is little evidence to suggest that his defensive improvements of the Inner Bailey at Chester were ever substantially altered until mid 18thC. century and the time of Harrison, other than occasional periods of repair.

Ranulf de Blondeville - Town Hall staircase

Henry III (King from 1216 to 1272) added (or completed) the part-round and projecting "Half-moon Tower" after the death of John Canmore without issue in 1237. He spent £1,717 on Chester Castle, a huge sum at the time. The defensive circuit of the Outer Bailey was almost certainly established by Henry III after 1237, but this would appear to have been an earth and timber rampart, probably hastily constructed to house troops and the royal entourage during successive campaigns in North Wales.

Some evidence relating to the walls of the castle of Chester was found in the Public Record-Office, London. The document proves that the date of the present walls cannot be earlier than the time of Henry III (1 October 1207 – 16 November 1272). While the document is not dated, it belongs to that reign; and from the handwriting, is probably about A.D. 1260.

Public Record-Qffice, London, Royal Letters, No. 437:

  • "Henricus Dei gratia Rex Angliœ Dominus Hibermœ Dux Normanmse Aqnitaniœ et Comea Andegaviœ dilecto et fideli suo J. de Grey .Instil.hirió suo Cestrke. Mandamus vobis quod ballium circa castrnm nostrum Cestrise quod clausum lull palo, amoto palofflo, claudi faciatis calce et petra et similiter ballium circa castrum nostrum de Dissaid ubi necesse fuerit reparan faciatis. Et custum quod ad hoc posueritis per visum et testimonium legalium hominum computabitur vobis ad Scaccarium. Teste," [torn off]. ("Henry, etc .. To his beloved and faithful J. de Grey, his Justice of Chester. We command you that you cause to be removed the wooden fence of the bailey around our Castle of Chester, and that you cause the said bailey to be enclosed with a stone wall. And that in like manner you re-edify the bailey around our Castle of Dissaid, wherever it may be necessary. And the sums that you shall expend on the same being certified by the view and testimony of lawful men, shall be allowed to you at our exchequer." )
Napier House and the Agricola Tower seen from Edgar's Field across the River Dee

An important base for royal operations against the Welsh, the castle was visited by Henry III in 1241 before he overran north Wales, and again in 1245. The castle was used as a gaol as early as 1241, when Welsh hostages were confined there. In 1241 Henry III's first visit occasioned the construction of an 'oriel' before the doorway of the king's chapel, and in 1245 the king's apartments were repaired, the paintings in the queen's chamber were renewed, and a bridge was made from the castle into the orchard to enable the king and queen to take exercise. A series of major works in the later 1240s and early 1250s, marked the beginning of the removal of the principal apartments to the outer bailey. Between 1246 and 1248 a chamber over a cellar was erected at the considerable cost of nearly £220 and the wooden palisade of the outer bailey was replaced by a stone wall; in 1249 the hall in the outer bailey was demolished and a new one, which was to cost over £350, was begun. The high quality wall paintings in the Agricola Tower can possibly be attributed to Henry III’s improvements, especially considering his reputation as a patron of wall-painting at other royal residences, such as Winchester Castle in 1233 and Clarendon Palace in 1249 - but in both only fragments remain. From documentation pertaining to Henry III’s wall paintings and other imagery it is apparent that St. Edward was one of his favourite subjects, but that representations of the Virgin were the most commonly ordered subjects of all. This tallies well with the paintings at Chester Castle, making them the major surviving painting of Henry III’s almost obsessive patronage of this art. Moreover, a fragment on the east wall shows the head and shoulders of a figure wearing a straw hat and this might be St John, disguised as a beggar, an element in the story of St Edward and the Ring. This in turn might suggest that this wall cycle was devoted to St Edward, a saint for whom Henry III felt particular empathy.

Henry's son, the new Lord of Chester Castle (from 1254) and later Edward I, was an even more profligate castle-builder. According to some sources, a daring escape from Chester Castle was made in 1246 by Owain Goch ap Gruffydd, brother of Prince Llewelyn, who had been held hostage by King Henry - "Gwr ysydd yn nhwr yn hir westai" ("a man who is in the tower, long a guest") - although some claim he was imprisoned at Dolbadarn. Other sources have Henry III releasing Owain to cause trouble amongst his brothers. According to some sources Owain rejoined Llewelyn's forces and in 1257 they "ravaged the country to the very gates of the city" (others have him refusing to return to Wales). In response, King Henry and Prince Edward organised a further expedition into Wales, mustering men and equipment in the city. Envoys from Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffudd visited the king at Chester, and the royal wardrobe and its staff were again brought to the castle. After a fortnight's stay, Henry and Edward set out on what was to be Henry III's last invasion of Wales. They returned to Chester less than a month later after a brief campaign leading to a difficult peace.

Detail from "A prospect of Chester and the River Dee from the South West" by John Glover (c1829). The boats are a special type of shallow draft boats called Mersey flats.

The years 1264-5 brought the Second Barons' War to Chester, provoked ostensibly by Henry III's demands for extra finances, but which marked a more general dissatisfaction with Henry's methods of government on the part of the English barons, discontent which was exacerbated by widespread famine.

Samuel Lewis states:

  • "Chester was captured by the Earl of Derby, in the year 1264, and held for the crown till the battle of Evesham, in which the barons were defeated with the loss of their leader, and an end put to the contest."

In fact while the City was captured the Castle was not. In 1265, during the Second Barons' War, the royalist supporters of Henry III, James of Audley and Urien of St. Pierre, besieged Luke de Taney, Simon de Montfort's justice of Chester, in Chester Castle for ten weeks. Taney surrendered upon news of de Montfort's defeat at Evesham, and Prince Edward himself occupied Chester, from where he sent out instructions described as his "first recorded act of state" as a "responsible adviser of the Crown", while not getting on with the Abbot and consuming his wine. The whole business is recorded in the Chester Chronicle as follows:

  • "Dominus autem Eadwardus apud Herford die Jovis in Septimana Pentecostes de custodia Domini Simonis de monteforti evasit. Quo audito Jacobus de Audethlegio et Sancto Petro, Sabbato sequenti castrum de Beuston nomine domini Edwardi ceperuntetdie Sancte Trinitatis Cestriam venientes de consilio civium, Lucam de Taney cum suis complicibus infra castrum Cestrie obsederunt per decem Septimanas continuas nec tamen illud obtinuerunt propter optimam inclusorum defencionem. Jacobus de Audethlegio factus est Justiciarius. Dominus vero Eadwardus interim associatis sibi Gilberto de Clare et aliis commarchionibus suis Simonem de Monte forti Henricum filium ejus Hugonem Disspenser, Petrum de Monte forti, Radulfum Basset et eorum complices sæpius [d]ebellavit et tandem eos apud Evsham ij. non. Maii in bello campestri prostravit: Winfridum de Bon, Henricum de Hasting, Guydonem de Monte forti in ipso bello captos apud castrum de D.(?) Beuston secum ducendo captivos. Audiens autem Lucas de Taney dominum Edwardum apud Beston venisse ij vigilias Asumpcionis castrum Cestrie reddidit eidem se suosque gratie sue subjiciendo. Quos idem Edwardus ad tempus incarceravit. Et postea paulatim et successive liberavit. Cumque dominus Edwardus multum irasceretur erga Simonem Abbatem Cestrie ingressum monasterii diucius precludens eidem, et multas intentans ei minas eoquod de licencia Domini Simonis de Monte forti et ipso inconsulto promotus esset tandem in primo ejusdem Abbatis adventu apud Beuston vigilia Asumpcionis contra spem multorum, dominus Edwardus divina inspiratione compunctus, ipsum Abbatem clementer admisit et de consilio domini Jacobi de Audithlegio tunc Justiciario Cestrie exitus monasterii adeo plene jussit eidem restitui, quod pro duobus doliis vini Abbatis tempore iracundiæ in familia ipsius domini Edwardi expensis: Alia duo dolia de Castro Cestrie extrahi et eidem reddi fecit Abbati." - But the lord Edward [the king's son] escaped from the custody of Simon de Montfort at Hereford on the Thursday [May 28] in Whit Week. When this was known James de Audley and Urian de Saint Pierre on the following Saturday seized the castle of Beeston in the name of the lord Edward, and coming to Chester on Trinity Sunday, they besieged Lucas de Taney and his accomplices in the castle of Chester for ten consecutive weeks, but did not succeed in taking it, on account of the excellent defence made by the besieged. James de Audley was made justiciary of Chester. In the meantime the lord Edward, Gilbert de Clare and others his fellow marchers being joined with him, made frequent attacks upon Simon de Montfort, Henry his son, Hugo Despencer, Peter de Montfort, Ralph Basset, and their accomplices, and at length completely overthrew them on the battlefield of Evesham on May 6. Humphrey de Bohun, Henry de Hastings, and Guy de Montfort, who were captured in this battle, Edward took with him as prisoners to Beeston castle. When Lucas de Taney heard that the lord Edward had come to Beeston, he surrendered the castle of Chester on the day before the eve of the Assumption [August 13], submitting himself and his companions to Edward's grace. For the time the same Edward imprisoned them, and afterwards gradually and successively liberated them. 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.
Detail from "The South-West Prospect of the City of Chester" (1728) by the Buck Brothers. The Half-moon Tower is inaccurately shown as square.

While de Montfort had held Chester Castle (see Earls of Chester), he had reached an arrangement with Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, something that Edward would neither forget nor forgive.

Sources & links

The "Hammer Of The Scots"

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Edward I (ruler from 1272 to 1307) is remembered as the conqueror of Wales and the "Hammer of the Scots" (he had this inscribed on his tombstone - "Edwardus Primus Scottorum Malleus hic est, 1308. Pactum Serva" - Here lies Edward 1st, hammer of the Scots. Keep the faith.). He also introduced to England the repugnant practice of forcing Jews to wear yellow patches on their outer garments - before their expulsion in 1290 (the idea was later copied by the Nazis). When the newly crowned Edward called Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, then Prince of Wales, to Chester Castle in 1275 to pay homage, Llywelyn refused to attend ("fearing for his safety") and Edward had the excuse he needed for the Welsh war. The event is reported as follows in the "Chester Chronicle":

  • "Edwardus Rex Anglie in generali parlemento suo post coronacionem suam fecit multa statuta, decimas (fn. 1) regni obtinuit. Idem Rex apud Cestriam venit ut tractaret cum principe Wallie Lewelino et cito pro contemptu dicti principis recessit." - Edward, king of England, in his general parliament after his coronation, made many statutes and obtained [as a subsidy a grant of] a tenth [of the goods] of the kingdom. Also the king came to Chester, that he might treat with the prince of Wales, Llewelin, and soon returned on account of the contempt with which that prince [treated his invitation].
Edward I - "Hammer of the Scots" and castle builder.

With the outbreak of Edward's first Welsh war in 1277, Chester Castle was made one of the three military commands from which Llywelyn's principality was attacked. Royal forces operating from the city under the command of William de Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, quickly brought northern Powys to submission. As in previous campaigns, workmen, soldiers, timber, ammunition, victuals and boats were assembled in the city. The royal wardrobe was also brought there in five carts. With the castle thus established as the chief base for operations in north-eastern Wales, Edward himself arrived July 1277 to lead a large force of infantry on the culminating campaign. He returned to the castle in September 1277 when it was clear that Llywelyn would be forced to surrender. As the Chronicle puts it:

  • "Eadwardus Rex Anglie intravit Walliam cum comitibus et baronibus totius Anglie et obsedit eam undique tam per mare quam per terram unde capta fuit Angleseya tandem circa festum Sancti Martini in hieme Lewelinus princeps necessitate compulsus habito magnatorum consilio et beneficio absolutionis optento venit apud Rothelanum et ibi [se] subposuit omnino voluntati et misericordie domini regis." - Edward, king of England, entered Wales with the earls and barons of the whole of England, and besieged it on every side, as well by sea as by land, so that Anglesea was captured. At length about the feast of S. Martin [November 11] in winter, Llewelin, prince [of Wales], compelled by necessity, having taken counsel of the magnates and obtained the benefits of absolution, came to Rhuddlan, and there he submitted himself completely to the will and mercy of our lord the king.

After Llywelyn's defeat an unsteady compromise was reached, but strained relations did not last. After Llywelyn had been lured into a trap and put to death on 11 December 1282, his brother Dafydd became ruler of Wales.

On 22 June 1283, Dafydd ap Gruffydd was captured. Dafydd, seriously wounded, was brought to Edward's camp at Rhuddlan and taken from there to Chester (presumably to the castle) and then on to Shrewsbury. On 30 September 1283, Dafydd was condemned to death, the first person known to have been tried and executed for what would be described as "high treason" against the king. The execution featured dragging through the streets, hanging, drawing and quartering, apparently at the express order and design of the vengeful Edward.

Under Edward I the royal accommodation was further improved and enlarged. Repairs were undertaken in 1275, and in 1276 the 'king's houses' in the outer bailey were renovated for the earl of Warwick and given a new chapel. In 1283 Edward I's visit necessitated further repairs to the hall and royal apartments, and to towers and domestic buildings in both wards. New domestic buildings were begun in 1284, and between then and 1291 over £1,400 was spent. The major works, started under the supervision of a Master William of Perton, included repairs to the king's houses, new chambers for the king and queen, and a stable, all probably in the outer bailey north and east of the great hall. Records exist of the purchase of "boards to make the alter of the chapel", and "glazing of the queen’s chapel". After the death of Master William the work was continued by Reginald de Grey, Justiciary of Chester, but the initial work was not of particularly high quality as by 1298-9 remedial works were needed to prevent the new buildings from falling down.

The future Edward II, was born in 1284, the fourth son of Edward I of England by his first wife Eleanor of Castile, and was the first English prince to hold the title of the Prince of Wales. He was also made Earl of Chester.

The outer gateway tower built c.1290 and taken down five hundred years later in 1790 - " now much ruined.". The building on the left is the Shire Hall.

A new gateway tower to the outer bailey flanked by two half-round towers was added to Chester Castle c.1290, at a cost of over £318, between Edward's second and third Welsh wars. This eventually comprised twin drum towers, a vaulted passageway with two portcullises, and extensive accommodation, including a prison, in the "Goghestower at the Great gateway of the Outer Bailey". The master of works was William of Marlow, presumably the mason engaged at the castle in 1284–91. Around 1296, the new prison at Chester Castle was the prison of Andrew Moray who had been captured at the Battle of Dunbar. Moray managed to escape the following year - it is not known how, or by what means, he made his escape: and headed north where he led a rising against Edward I’s rule in the north while William Wallace struck in Lanark and the south. Moray was badly wounded at the battle of Stirling Bridge - possibly struck by an arrow. His seal is found on two letters dated 11 October and 7 November so it is thought that Moray survived the battle but later died of his wounds. Several of the Scottish prisoners held at Chester had also been taken at the Battle of Dunbar, from which John Comyn, Earl of Buchan, and the earls of Atholl, Ross and Menteith, together with 130 knights and esquires were sent into captivity in England. Either then or a little earlier, a new inner gatehouse was built west of the Agricola Tower, which was blocked and given a new staircase, presumably in preparation for the conversion of its chapel into a treasury in 1301. By 1294 the castle comprised an inner bailey with hall, chapel, and apartments, and an outer bailey with great hall, exchequer, and further apartments for the king and queen, including separate chapels.

Samuel Lewis notes:

  • "On the subjugation of Wales, in 1300, by Edward I., several of the Welsh chieftains did homage to his son, Edward of Carnarvon, then an infant, in Chester Castle."

Though the castle's military importance declined after 1300, in the early 14th century it was relatively well maintained. In Edward I's later years it seems to have been well supplied with arms and provisions, and was the base of a craftsman engaged in making weaponry (attilliator). Edward last visited the castle in 1301. In 1302, there was a fire in the Agricola Tower and the lower floor was remodelled entirely, with one of the doorways being bricked up. Meanwhile, Edward ensured that the heirs of the Welsh princes would trouble him no more:

  • "As the King wills that Owain son of Dafydd ap Gruffudd, who is in the Constable’s custody in the castle, should be kept more securely than he has been previously, he orders the Constable to cause a strong house within the castle to be repaired as soon as possible, and to make a wooden cage bound with iron in that house in which Owain might be enclosed at night" - (Order from King Edward I to the Constable of Bristol Castle).

Sources and Links

Edward II

Edward II - Red hot poker or red herring?

Edward's own son did not exactly prosper. The Earl of Chester became king (Edward II) in 1308. Edward II also repaired the castle and provided it with stores and armour, though elsewhere his castles suffered from neglect. There was still a resident staff of 12 in 1313. The king ordered the castle to be put into a state of defence in 1317, and after his fall in 1327 custody was granted to Thomas of Warwick and orders were issued for its provisioning and repair. In 1329 a new attilliator was appointed. By then, however, the castle seems to have served primarily as an administrative centre. The castle's principal officials resided in the inner ward, where in 1328 the justice of Chester's deputy had his hall, chamber, and a new kitchen, and where "Damory's Tower" contained the former chamber of the justice himself. The name probably comes from Richard Damory who was Chief Justice of Chester and by April 1318 had been appointed Edward III's guardian, by Edward II. Richard's younger brother was Roger Damory, a "favourite" of Edward II until displaced in the Kings affections by Hugh Despenser. As Damory's Tower was in the Inner Bailey, and clearly associated with the Judge's Lodgings, it is possible that it is the "octagonal" tower (similar to those from Edward I's castle at Caernafon) shown in the c1810 painting by Turner. In 1322 Chester castle was granted to Edward II's favourite (and lover), Hugh Despenser the younger (see: Earls of Chester for further notes).

The constable also then had his lodgings in the inner ward. The main administrative buildings, the shire hall and exchequer, were for long in the outer bailey, but in 1310 the shire hall was removed to a new position just outside the main gate. A new exchequer was built within the castle in 1355, but in 1401 it too was moved outside to a building adjoining the shire hall.

As noted above, Edward II was deposed in 1327. He died (supposedly horribly) later the same year. He never passed the Earldom of Chester on to his heir. A rumour that Edward II had been murdered (at Berkeley Castle) by means of a red hot iron was elaborated in a later history by Sir Thomas More (written 1512-19, published after 1535):

  • "On the night of 11 October (1327 AD) while lying in on a bed [the king] was suddenly seized and, while a great mattress... weighed him down, a plumber's iron, heated intensely hot, was introduced through a tube into his secret parts so that it burned the inner portions beyond the intestines."
The ghastly execution of Hugh Despenser

Holinshed states that the shrieks of the King were heard, through the thick stone walls, all over the town of Berkeley, but compared to what happened to Edward II's favourite and possible gay lover Hugh Despenser, this was quite mild. Despencer was judged a traitor and a thief, and sentenced to public execution by hanging, as a thief, and drawing and quartering, as a traitor. Additionally, he was sentenced to be disembowelled for having procured discord between the King and Queen, and to be beheaded, for returning to England after having been banished. Treason had also been the grounds for Gaveston's execution; the belief was that these men had misled the King rather than the King himself being guilty of folly. Immediately after the trial (24 November 1326), Despenser was dragged behind four horses to his place of execution, where a great fire was lit. He was stripped naked, and Biblical verses denouncing arrogance and evil were carved into his skin. He was then hanged from a gallows 50 ft (15 m) high, but cut down before he could choke to death. In Jean Froissart's account of the execution, Despenser was then tied to a ladder, and, in full view of the crowd, had his genitals sliced off and burned (in his still-conscious sight) then his entrails slowly pulled out, and, finally, his heart cut out and thrown into the fire. Professor Clare Sponsler says that Froissart is the only source to describe castration, where all other contemporary accounts have Despenser quartered, hanged, and beheaded. Just before he died, it is recorded that he let out a "ghastly inhuman howl", much to the delight and merriment of the spectators. Finally, his corpse was beheaded, his body cut into four pieces, and his head mounted on the gates of London. Roger Mortimer and Isabella feasted with their chief supporters, as they watched the execution.

It used to be thought by some that the beautiful frescos in the chapel of St Mary de Castro (upper part of the Agricola Tower) were painted by artists brought back from Europe by Edward II, but others have suggested Henry III, which now seems more likely (see above). While the English Heritage website says they were discovered in the 1980s, Lewis (see above) apparently mentions them as being visible in 1848. Mysterious stuff, history.

Writing in 1836, Hemingway describes the Agricola Tower as follows (noting the figures on the walls):

  • ..its entrance is through a large Gothic door, probably of later workmanship. The lower room has a vaulted roof, strengthened with ordinary square couples. The upper had been a chapel, as appears by the holy water pot, and some figures, almost obsolete, painted on the walls. Its dimensions are nineteen feet four inches by sixteen feet six; the height also sixteen feet six. The roof is vaulted; but the couples, which are rounded, slender, and elegant, run down the walls, and rest on the connected capitals of five short, but beautiful round pillars, in the same style with those in the chapter-house of the cathedral, probably the work of the same architect.

The most complete and best-preserved fragment is the Visitation in the southern quadrant of the eastern bay. It shows Elizabeth holding her right hand under the Virgin’s chin, and is contained within a trefoil frame. Other narrative scenes have been positively identified, including the Adoration of the Magi, and it is considered likely that the vault was decorated with a series of images devoted to the Infancy of Christ. The fragmentary condition of the paintings makes it difficult to identify positively most of the remaining scenes, but it has been suggested that the Miracles of the Virgin is one of the themes, since some of the figures could be identified as the priest Theophilus and the repentant thief Ebbo, possibly shown being saved from death on the gallows by the intercession of the Virgin.

The Flag Tower in 2000 was seriously in need of some repair.

Frank Simpson also mentions the paintings as partly visible in 1928 and describes the interior of the chapel as follows:

  • "The interior walls of the chapel have a coating of plaster about a quarter of an inch thick, some of which may still be seen on the walls. They were formerly ornamented with very fine frescoes. On either side of the light above the altar was a representation of Moses receiving the Tablets of the Commandments on the Mount, while the Devil, in nondescript form, is making an energetic attempt to seize them. This fresco was distinctly seen in 1810, when a sketch was made of it by John Musgrove, a well-known local artist, but, like the others, it is now entirely obliterated owing to damage to the plaster and numerous coats of lime and yellow wash. On the west side of the south (pointed) window, on the upper portion of the wall were the remains of a fresco, displaying a very beautiful face, looking east, with a mustache and short pointed beard, the head surmounted with what appeared to be a mitre. The right hand was closed, with the first finger pointing forward and the arm outstretched, below were traces of a flowing robe. During March and April (1928) numerous remains of these paintings were brought to light, the best being on the wall just below the groining of the first bay, east end of the right side. This represents a young man and woman embracing. The the left of the doorway near the groining is a hand grasping a sword and on the west wall is a goblet or chalice similar in shape to a champagne glass. The altar recess is filled with faint vestiges of paintings, but on the other side of the window above the recess, little is to be seen of the painting sketched by Musgrove in 1810. This is accounted for by the fact that little of the plaster is left on the wall, but there are other remnants of a frieze, just below the groining which surrounds the chapel. On the south side of the center of the groining appeared the head and shoulders of a horse. It is now clear, that all the walls and groining in the chapel were originally covered with frescoes, but owing to damp, neglect and damage caused by putting up shelves for storage purposes, much of the plaster has been broken off. The most striking feature of the relics of the paintings in this chapel is the beauty of the drawing and colouring of the faces, which appear to have been numberless. The paintings are now hardly visible, but when damped with a wet brush they stand out with all their beauty and richness of colouring."

Due to a leaking roof the frescos have suffered somewhat in recent years with the efflorescence of salts. However once the roof is fixed it is believed that these salts can be removed and the remaining frescoes restored. In the Buon ("true") method fresco pigment (insoluble, fine-ground, coloured particles) is mixed with room temperature water and is used on a thin layer of wet, fresh plaster, called the intonaco (after the Italian word for plaster). Because of the chemical makeup of the plaster, a binder is not required, as the pigment mixed solely with the water will sink into the intonaco, which itself becomes the medium holding the pigment. The pigment is absorbed by the wet plaster; after a number of hours, the plaster dries in reaction to air.

The following priests were chaplains or ‘Custodes Capelle’ at the chapel in the castle:

  • Petre Trafforde (c.1360).
  • John de Wylaston (c.1400).
  • John de Thornton (during the reign of Henry V).
  • John Trafford (c.1491).

In 1648 the well known Congregationalist Minister Samuel Eaton was the Chaplain. The heavy, copper-plated door on the chapel dates from the early nineteenth century, when the chapel was used as a gunpowder store.

Edward III

In 1328 The justice of Chester’s deputy had a hall, chamber and new kitchen constructed in the inner bailey. In 1329 A new attilliator (weapons maker) was appointed. However, after 1329 the fabric suffered long periods of neglect, punctuated by occasional, often inadequate, refurbishments. In 1337, a survey by the Justiciary and four members of the prince’s council reported that 20 perches (100 yards) of wall, seemingly that of the entire Outer Bailey, were being rebuilt ("but was not yet half-finished") and repairs were undertaken on the constable’s hall and other buildings of the inner ward as well as the bridges leading to the two gatehouses. By 1347 the "Gonkes Tower", "Chapel Tower", and "Damory's Tower", the "Great Chapel", the "Great chamber at the east end of the hall", the "Earl's smaller chamber and its chapel", and the great hall itself were all in disrepair.

During the reign of Edward III (1327-77) a Roger de Ridelegh attempted to escape from the prison by removing some of the stones. John Sumerill (the deputy constable of the castle) was indicted for striking a prisoner, John le Parker, and for putting him in the stocks with irons, from which punishment le Parker later died. The punishment of loading a prisoner with weights or "pressing" a prisoner to death was also introduced at this time.

Sources and LInks

Bollingbroke and Richard II

The gateway tower where Richard II was (possibly) imprisoned - although he might well have been locked-up in a tower of the inner gateway.
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Richard II (ruled 1377-1399)was another mild-mannered king who favoured genteel interests like fine food, insisted spoons be used at his court and is said to have invented the handkerchief. Like Edward II, he had a militaristic father but was a much weaker character himself. In the last years of Richard II's reign the castle again became a favoured royal base. In 1396 the office of master mason, which had lapsed in 1374, was reintroduced, and in 1397 the office of keeper of the king's artillery in Cheshire and Flintshire first appeared. Thomas le Wodeward, deputy constable of the castle, took delivery of the following new supplies in 1397: 11 iron collars and 2 gross of iron chain; 2 pairs of iron belts with shackles; 2 pairs of iron handcuffs with 4 iron shackles; 7 pairs of iron feet fetters with 3 shackles; 1 hasp for the stocks.

Also in 1397, Richard II created the title "Prince of Cheshire", which he awarded to himself. His personal bodyguard was made up of Cheshire bowmen who were described as being intolerably arrogant, insolent ruffians who lived on far too intimate terms with king. This bodyguard was divided into watches commanded by: Ranulf of Davenport, John of Legh, Richard of Cholmondeley, Adam of Bostock, Thomas of Beeston, and Thomas Halford. In 1399 Richard II had a heated bathroom constructed in Chester Castle (costing £70). It was paneled with Norwegian timber. His apartments were redecorated with cushions and fine silk hangings, but he would not enjoy it for long.

Richard II - deposed, imprisoned in Chester (with tales of a huge hidden treasure possibly hidden at Beeston. Here as painted by Thomas Hughes.

In 1399 Richard II granted 3000 gold marks to the people of Chester (widows and dependents of soldiers killed during the battle) who had suffered as a result of the battle of Radcot Bridge (1387). This was distributed by Robert de Legh (Sheriff of Chester) at the Exchequer court in the Castle. Later in 1399, his cousin, Henry Bollingbroke, later Henry IV but then just Duke of Lancaster, landed in Britain after exile and took Chester without a fight. The Duke stayed at Chester Castle for 12 days, amusing himself by drinking the king's wine, wasting fields and pillaging houses. and presumably enjoying the use of Richard II's "Norwegian Wood" bathroom. While there ("this thief, this traitor, Bolingbroke, who all this while hath revell'd in the night"), he also found time to secure the arrest, incarceration in the Gowestower (outer gatehouse tower) and execution of Sir Peirs Legh of Lyme, one of Richard's leading retainers in Cheshire and the brother of the Sheriff - Legh's head was placed on the Eastgate.

Henry then marched against Richard at Fflint Castle to which Richard had been lured from the safety of Conwy Castle. Richard surrendered, but not before trying to escape dressed as a monk. Shortly before his capture, Richard II hid his Royal Treasure of 100,000 marks in gold coin and 100,000 marks in other precious objects (about £200 million in today's money) in the Chester area. Some say at Beeston Castle, some say elsewhere - but the hoard has never been found.

According to Stowe's Annals, following the capture of the King, Bollinbrooke

  • " with a high sharp voice, badde bring forth the king's horses; and then two little naggs, not worth forty francs, were brought forth."

The king was set on the one, and the earl of Salisbury on the other, and thus the duke brought the king from Flint to Chester, where he was delivered to the duke of Gloucester's son, who led him straight to the castle (still wearing the monk's habit in which he had attempted to escape) and "lodged" them in Chester Castle for a few days (possibly in a tower over the outer or inner gateway, possibly in the Agricola Tower), while Henry received a deputation from the City of London renouncing their fealty to the prisoner. Imprisoned with Richard were some of his loyal supporters such as Janico d’Artois and James Darteys, who refused to lay aside Richard's badge of the white hart. Afterwards, Richard was escorted to Westminster, where he was persuaded to abdicate. Bollingbroke usurped Richard and became Henry IV.

Rebellions continued throughout the first ten years of Henry IV's reign, including the revolt of Owain Glyndŵr, who declared himself Prince of Wales in 1400, and the rebellion of Henry Percy, 1st Earl of Northumberland. Early in 1400, there was a revolt in Cheshire, linked with the Epiphany Rising. Those involved included prominent members of Richard's Cheshire retinue and a large group of townsmen from Chester, 28 of whom, dressed in the "white hart" livery of the deposed monarch, marched to the Eastgate on January 10th 1400, removed Peir's Legh's head from the Eastgate, and unsuccessfully besieged the castle, then held by the Chamberlain of Chester, the Sheriff of Cheshire, and the Constable, William Venables of Kinderton. The rebellion temporarily enhanced the castle's military importance: early in 1400 it was garrisoned by 8 men-at-arms and 35 archers, and even in 1404 it was still protected by 8 archers. It also contained considerable stores of weapons and supplies.

The deposed King Richard died in prison at Pontefract Castle later in the year (by 17 February 1400), possibly having been starved to death on Henry's orders.

Courts of another kind

The map on the left is "modern" but shows the old Castle. Ranulf Higden's sketch of the castle is on the right - note how several of the towers appear in a ruinous state.

By 1400, two Courts were operating in Chester. One was the Court of the city sheriffs which heard petty criminal proceedings, and was named the Pentice after the two-storey building, at St Peter's, in whose upper floor (or penthouse) the court was housed. The other was the Portmoot presided over by the mayor and bailiffs, sometimes with the sheriffs present too. The Portmoot dealt with civil actions, including disputes over real estate, and with offences against the community (breaches of the assizes of ale and bread came up before the Pentice).

In 1401 the Exchequer was moved outside of the Castle to a building erected at one end of the new Shire Hall (built 1310-11), just beyond the outer gatehouse. Several of the castle towers are first mentioned during the fifteenth century period but are assumed to have existed prior to this, they include: "Bolde Tower" referred to in 1428-9; "Brownes Tower" (located in the Inner Bailey) referred to in 1444-5; and "Maysham’s Tower" (located in the Outer Bailey, to the southeast of the 1310 shire hall) referred to in 1441 and 1447-8.

By today's standards the punishments handed out by the courts were quite barbaric - in 1435:

  • "Thomas Broune of Irby complained to the Justice of Chester that John Strete of Nantwich stole a horse of his, worth 12s. Strete was arrested, but refused to plead; he could speak but of his malice he would not. The jury convicted him and the sentence was pronounced: let him be sent back to prison in the King's Castle of Chester and there be kept under strict custody, lying naked upon the floor; let iron above what he can carry be placed upon his body; as long as he lives let him have a morsel of bread one day and the next a drink of water from the nearest prison gate, until he shall die there in the said prison." (Chester Plea Rolls)

This punishment of "ad dietam", which consisted of the daily diet on alternate days of three morsels of the worst bread and three draughts of standing water nearest to the prison door, dated back to the time of Edward I when "John, son of Warin le Grovenour", was charged with slaying Richard de Pulford in Budworth with a longbow, refused to plead and was condemned to prison at Chester and the punishment of "ad dietam" (John survived the first application of this punishment and later obtained acquittal on a technicality).

The antagonism between the houses of Lancaster and York following the usurpation of Richard was to continue. The Wars of the Roses were mostly fought between 1455 and 1485. After the Battle of Blore Heath in 1459, two of the Yorkist leaders, the Earl of Salisbury's sons, Thomas and John Neville, were imprisoned in Chester Castle. Margaret, Countess of Richmond, was also imprisoned here for a time.

The Lancastrians replaced senior officials, including the constable, but left undisturbed such lesser men as the keeper of the artillery and the master carpenter. Henry VI spent an average of £25 a year on the maintenance of the castle, under the control of the master mason and master carpenter. The castle became primarily an administrative centre and a place of storage for the palatinate records, and its military and strategic role again declined. Even so, the "Great Charter" granted to the mayor and citizens of Chester in 1506, by Henry VII, maintained its independence of the city.

Ranulf Higden's sketch of the castle shows it as it was around the mid 14th Century. The towers in the inner bailey are (clockwise from left to right) the flag tower, the half moon tower, the tower on the later site of the Frobisher's Workshop, the inner gate, the "Agricola" tower and some towers that have since been demolished. The wall of the Inner Bailey facing the river shows the Sally Port or postern gate which still exists to this day. A small projecting tower (since removed) above the postern protected it by allowing various things to be dropped to those trying to enter. In the Outer Bailey the drum-towered gateway is at the 12 O'clock position and going clockwise one finds a chapel, the Shire Hall and the Exchequer. The bridge can be seen linking the Outer and Inner Bailey.

The Castle Site: Early Modern

Chester Castle by Joseph Mallord William Turner (c1810). This shows the south end of the Inner Bailey and a part of the Judge's Lodging, with the Skinner's Houses below. The octagonal tower may be "Damory's Tower".

By the middle of the 15th Century, the cannon had appeared as a significant weapon. In 1453, at the Battle of Castillon the Valois used cannon to defeat the Lancastrians and effectively end the Hundred Years' War. Following this time, castles were in decline as military structures but they continued to perform important social roles, where security was important: often being used as prisons, mints and for the storage of gunpowder. Chester Castle became a base of the county justices introduced in 1536, and in the later 16th century remained the seat of the principal palatine officials, including the vice-chamberlain; it also provided supplies and lodging for soldiers before they embarked for Ireland, especially during the revolt of 1579–81.

In 1441 three priests associated with Elanor Cobham, Roger Bolingbroke, Eleanor's secretary; John Hunne, her chaplain; and Thomas Southwell were executed for conspiring to kill the then king (Henry V) by witchcraft (or "on charges of treasonable necromancy"). Eleanor was tried on the same charges and admitted five of the twenty-eight counts. Eleanor was sentenced her to do public penance in London, divorced from Humphrey (brother of King Henry V) and imprisoned for life, at first in Chester Castle and later at Kenilworth and also at Peel on the Isle of Man.

In the "Vale Royal", written during the reign of Elizabeth, the castle is described as follows:

  • "Upon the south side of the city, near unto the said water of Dee, and upon a high bank or rock of stone, is mounted a strong and stately aud round in form; the base-court likewise enclosed with a circular wall, which to this day retaineth one testimony of the Romans magnificence, having therein a fair and ancient square tower; which, by testimony of all writers I have hitherto met withal, beareth the name of Julius Caesar's Tower. ..a fair draw-well of water in the middest of the court, divers sweet and dainty orchards and gardens, besides much of the ancient buildings, for want of care, fallen to ruin and decay."

Sources & links

The Shire Hall and Prison

The Shire Hall (larger building) and Exchequer (smaller)

In 1506 Chester's independence from the shire was reaffirmed when it was declared a county of itself. The GREAT CHARTER of Henry VII (1506) proceeds:

  • "know Ye that we, for the great affection which we have and bear to our City of Chester, the Citizens and Commonalty of the same City, and in consideration of the good behaviour and great expenses of the inhabitants of the same City, as also of the voluntary service many ways rendered by them against our adversaries and rebels, willing the better estate of the same City, and especially to provide for the convenience and quiet of the said Citizens, their heirs and successors, of our especial grace and certain knowledge, and mere motion, have given and granted, and do give and grant, and by these presents have confirmed for us and our heirs to the aforesaid Citizens and commonalty, their heirs and successors for ever, that the said City, and all the ground within the said City, with the suburbs and hamlets within the precinct and compass of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of the said City of Chester and the aforesaid suburbs and hamlets, (wholly excepting our castle within the walls of the said City), be exempted and separated, as well by land as by water, from our shire of Chester; and that the said City, and the suburbs and hamlets of the same, and all the ground within the precinct and compass of them, (except as before excepted), be henceforth a County by and in itself distinct and separate from our County of Chester, and that from henceforth it shall be called and named the 'County of the City of Chester.'"

This led to the odd situation that the Castle, which belonged to the County of Cheshire, was entirely surrounded by the County of Chester. As it was the administrative center of the county the castle would eventually contain the County Courts and the county jail, and later the county council offices. In front of Chester Castle's outer gatehouse, there was an irregular open area known by the 13th century as Gloueriston (Gloverstone). Like the castle itself, this lay outside of the city liberties, being a part of the Hundred of Broxton.

Henry VII appointed a master mason in 1495, and spent around £25 a year on maintenance, higher than average for such buildings but still inadequate. In 1511 repairs costing over £272 were made to the great hall, the gatehouses, and the shire hall outside the gate. The Half Moon Tower in the inner ward may also have been built then. By the 1530s, however, the great hall was in ruins, and between 1577 and 1582 it was almost completely rebuilt at a cost of £650 to house the shire court, the Castle having become the base for the County justices 1536. At this time the "parliament chamber", immediately south of the great hall, was reconditioned to accommodate the exchequer court. The Saxon Great Hall in the outer bailey stood roughly where the court buildings now stand. However, the Saxon hall was not demolished - in 1581, the city magistrates bought it "for six Cheshire cheeses", and moved it to the Market Square where it served as a granary, before being taken over by the city's butchers, to become the "flesh shambles". Shrubsole, writing in the annals of the Chester Archeoligical Society & Historic Society describes the transaction as follows:

  • "The citizens obtained from the Queen a grant of the Old Shire Hall it belonged to the county here the forces of the Earls of Chester, or the Sovereign in later times would have summoned to meet and find accommodation for their horse and foot soldiers it was used as a supplement to the resources of the castle. Finding themselves short of a market building the city authorities cast longing eyes at the old building which they considered no longer required for its original purpose. The Mayor opened a correspondence with Lord Burleigh on the subject as to a free grant of the same building as it was for the use of the citizens. The Treasury were not in the mood for to give but would sell for £40 . The Mayor in forwarding the money, with thanks to the Lord Treasurer, said that although the Corporation could not gratify his Lordship as they ought, yet they presumed to send half a dozen cheeses . It was erected in Northgate Street, opposite the Abbey Gate , and mainly used as a shambles by the butchers."

In 1589 John Taylor, Gaoler of the Castle was executed. In 1601 a woman named Candy was pressed to death at the Castle.

Even though in 1613 500 marks was spent on the Castle, a survey undertaken in 1624 for the county justices, on whom the cost of maintenance increasingly devolved, found much of the castle in a bad state. The shire hall was very ruinous, the bridge into the castle so dangerous as to be unusable, and the castle chapel "much more ruinous than heretofore". Other dilapidated buildings included the judges' and constable's lodgings, the protonotary's office, and the gatehouse prison. The royal earl's representatives paid for repairs in 1627–8, including a new bridge. In 1626, the Lord Lieutenant of Cheshire was ordered to establish a magazine in Chester Castle at the county's expense. The post of the Lord Lieutenant was at this time held by the Earl of Derby. This same Earl of Derby was later tried at Chester and executed (1651) in Churchgate, Bolton. While in Chester Castle, Derby nearly escaped by means of a long rope thrown up to him from outside the walls; he fastened the rope securely, slid down it, and reached the banks of the River Dee, where a boat waited for him. Unfortunately, Derby's escape was discovered; he was seized (by Captain Hector Schofield) and brought back to the castle. Derby is connected via his wife to the Steeleye Span song They Called Her Babylon.

James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby was imprisoned and tried at Chester Castle. He almost escaped, but was recaptured and was executed at Bolton. He is said to haunt Stanley Palace.

In 1636 the castle was condemned as "old and ruinous". Despite this, during the Civil War siege of Chester, it was the royalist headquarters, with a garrison commanded from 1642 by a military governor. The hall was the site of the surrender of the city in 1646 after the siege during the Civil War. The Castle had escaped physical damage and surrendered with all its arms, ordnance, and ammunition intact, to become the headquarters of a parliamentary garrison under a new military governor. During the Interregnum it remained a supply base for parliamentary troops in Ireland, and the location of monthly courts held by the county sheriff in the shire hall.

In 1651, the castle was described, by Daniel King, as follows:

  • "At the first coming in is the Gate-house, which is a prison for the whole County, having divers rooms and lodgings. And hard within the Gate is a house, which was sometime the Exchequer but now the Custom House. Not far from thence in the Base Court is a deep well, and thereby stables, and other Houses of Office. On the left-hand is a chappell and hard by adjoyning thereunto, the goodly fair and large Shire-Hall newly repaired where all matters of Law touching the County Palatine are heard, and judicially determined. And at the end thereof the brave New Exchequer for the said County Palatine. All these are in the Base Court. Then there is a drawbridge into the Inner Ward, wherein are divers goodly Lodgings for the Justices, when they come, and herein the Constable himself dwelleth. The Thieves and Fellons are arraigned in the said Shire-Hall and, being condemned, are by the Constable of the Castle or his Deputy, delivered to the Sheriffs of the City, a certain distance without the Castle-Gate, at a stone called The Glover's Stone from which place the said Sheriffs convey them to the place of execution, called Boughton."

Some say that the "Glover's Stone" (see Gloverstone) can still be seen in Water Tower Gardens - others have it buried beneath the Military Museum. A modern development, "Gloverstone Court", can be found nearby.

John (or Thomas) Benbow, was a Captain (or Colonel), during the Civil War captured at the battle of Worcester, 1651, court martialled at Chester Castle and shot at Shrewsbury.

During the Civil War, the Royalist Sir Timothy Fetherstonhaugh liberally contributed money to the royal cause, raised troops at his own expense, and served in the field. At the Battle of Wigan Lane, Lancashire, 26 August 1651, he was taken prisoner, and imprisoned at Chester Castle (from where he wrote a farewell letter to his wife). After trial by court-martial at Chester for "corresponding with Charles Stuart or his Party" he was beheaded outside the Abbey Gate, 22 October 1651, despite his plea that he had quarter for life given him. Prior to his execution, on the 13th October 1651, Fetherstonhaugh is said to have had a last dinner with James Stanley, 7th Earl of Derby, who had been tried at Chester for his part in the Bolton Massacre and recently failed in his escape attempt. The following day, Stanley was taken to Bolton where his execution took place outside the "Man and Scythe" Inn (owned at the time by the Earl of Derby's family). Outside that inn there is a cross on the site that bears a plaque which relates the stories of Bolton through the ages. However, within the pub itself, there is a chair that the Earl of Derby supposedly sat in before being taken outside to be beheaded, the inscription of which reads "15th October 1651 In this chair James 7th Earl of Derby sat at the Man and Scythe Inn, Churchgate, Bolton immediately prior to his execution".

The third Royalist sentenced along with Stanley and Fetherstonhaugh was a colonel (or captain) Benbow. He was later shot at Shrewsbury in the garden under the Castle Mount. There is some confusion as to whether this was John or Thomas Benbow, and whether he was a colonel or a captain, or whether John and Thomas were uncle and nephew or brothers. However, what seems probably certain is that the next generation of the Benbows produced Admiral John Benbow (1651 – 1702), who most likely gave his name to the "Admiral Benbow" pub in the novel Treasure Island by R.L. Stevenson

Hemingway writes of further Civil War prisoners at the Castle:

  • "During the months of June and July, 1655, many the principal gentry of this county among whom were Sir Peter Leycester of Tabley, Peter Venables baron of Kinderton, Sir Richard Grosvenor, Mr Shakerley, Mr Warren of Poynton and Mr Massey of Pudington were sent prisoners to the castle of Chester under suspicion of being disaffected to Cromwell's government. In the month of November in this year the parliament passed a resolution that the castle of Chester should be rendered untenable and the city wall rased between the Eastgate and Newgate. This order was partially carried into effect."

In 1659 the Castle was put into a state of defence during the rising of Sir George Booth, and shots were exchanged with the royalists who had entered the city. Booth mustered five hundred supporters at Warrington in Lancashire and advanced to a rendezvous with Cheshire insurgents at Rowton Heath near Chester. The following day, sympathisers opened the city gates and Booth's rebels occupied Chester. The commander of the Chester garrison Captain Croxton withdrew into Chester Castle with his men and refused to surrender. Lacking artillery, the rebels could do nothing to threaten them. Booth issued a series of proclamations claiming that the insurgents had taken arms to defend the freedom of Parliament. No explicit reference was made to King Charles. Leaving forces to blockade Chester Castle, Booth set off for Manchester with around 4,000 men, intending to make his way to York which, it was supposed, would also surrender to him. The revolt eventually failed when Booth was defeated near Northwich. Hemingway describes events as follows:

  • "About the middle of July 1659 several attempts were made to seize the principal strong holds in England for Charles the Second 'of which enterprizes' says Clarendon 'only one succeeded, which was that undertaken by Sir George Booth: all the rest failed. The Lord Willoughby of Parham and Sir Horatio Townsend, and most of their friends, were apprehended before the day, and made prisoners, most of them upon general suspicion as men able to do hurt. Only Sir George Booth being a person of the best quality, and fortune of that county, of those who had never been of the king's party, came into Chester, with such persons as he thought fit to take with him the night before; so that though the tempestuousness of the night and the next morning had the same effect as in other places, to break or disorder the rendezvous that was appointed within four or five miles of that city, yet Sir George being himself there with a good troop of horse he brought with him and finding others though not in the number he looked for, he retired with those he had into Chester, where his party was strong enough, and Sir Thomas Middleton having kept his rendezvous, came thither to him, and brought strength enough to keep those parts at their devotion, and to suppress all those who had inclination to oppose them'."
The Flag Tower - and the white building which housed the mint. This image shows how delapidated the Castle had become by the early 2000's

As a punishment for this rebellion against their power the parliament passed a vote on the 17th of September 1659 to dissolve the corporation of the city of Chester and that it should be no longer a county of itself. However the soon-to-come demolition of the authority of the parliament by whom this order was issued rendered the resolution of very immaterial consequence.

The Cromwellian governor, Robert Venables, was removed in 1660. During repairs undertaken on the shire court buildings, in 1660 a garden was created in the Inner Bailey "for the judges to walk in at the Assize". Details of its formal layout as a knot garden can be seen on Lavaux’s plan of 1741. Early in 1661 much of the outer gatehouse fell down. Thereafter there seems to have been no garrison until 1662, when Sir Theophilus Gilbey was granted a warrant to enlist, arm, and keep under array c. 60 foot soldiers. The castle, whose strategic importance on the route to north Wales and Ireland continued to be recognized, was then felt to be in need of defence against sedition aroused by dispossessed nonconformist ministers. Late in 1662 Sir Evan Lloyd was appointed governor and shortly afterwards Gilbey asked for provisions, weaponry, and soldiers; a garrison was then thought necessary to safeguard against the great numbers of Presbyterians in and around Cheshire. After the 1660s, however, royal interest seems to have waned, though Chester remained one of the army's principal strongholds, under the command of a governor and much visited by dignitaries travelling to and from Ireland. Repairs to the Castle were minimal - master mason and county surveyor John Shaw was paid only with reluctance and he was provided with less than £600 - only a fraction of the £5000 funding he requested for repairs.

In 1680 the governor, Sir Geoffrey Shakerley, was ordered to disband the foot company garrisoning the castle, and by 1681 there remained only three gunners. At the time of the duke of Monmouth's visit in 1682 its undefended state caused the government alarm. New commissions to act as governor were issued to Shakerley and then to his son Peter, and a new garrison was installed. The castle retained its large garrison in James II's reign with men quartered in public houses and private dwellings; a Roman Catholic chaplain was appointed, and in 1687 the king worshiped there: the same year the castle received a new armoury in the west range of the inner ward - to house a "considerable magazine of arms, powder, ammunition, and other habiliments of war", and an armourer's workshop, the Frobisher's Shop, behind the Half Moon Tower. Just before the fall of James, the Castle housed eight companies of soldiers from Ireland, together with arms and ammunition, maintained by the newly appointed 'furbisher' and supplied to troops traveling through Chester. Peter Shakerley was replaced as governor in 1689 by Sir John Morgan, Bt (nephew of Sir Henry Morgan the buccaneer). Alarmed about the security of the numerous Irish prisoners because of Roman Catholic infiltration of the soldiery, he requested two new companies of 100 men, and by 1690 was involved in transporting troops to Ireland to repress Jacobites there. Under his successor, however, the castle seems to have been less heavily manned, and in 1694 a company of c. 90 invalids was drawn from Chelsea hospital to form the garrison. Further work was carried out on the armoury and barracks in 1691 which included 62 yards of brick walling, and re-roofing of the Flag Tower and Half-moon Tower, but the County Buildings, however, remained ruinous, the roof of the exchequer court and much of the protonotary's office having collapsed. They were repaired in 1685 and 1690, when £420 paid to the master masons Thomas and Peter Whitley. This proved to be the Crown's final expenditure upon the County Buildings.

Edmond Halley and the Mint

The Flag Tower - and the white building which housed the mint. The mint staff were listed as "a warden, a master, an assayer, a king’s clerk, a surveyor of the meltings, a porter, a master’s assistant, and a comptroller’s clerk".
The location of the mint shown on the signage from Chester Castle.

A new building at the back of to the Half-moon Tower was used as the Chester Mint for the Great Recoinage of 1696-98. The installation of the mint involved the construction of mint ovens and chimneys and other alterations to the Frobisher's Shop

At this time, most silver coins in circulation had been reduced in size ("debased") by "clipping" - the offence (at times punishable by death) of paring the edge of each coin and collecting the silver for sale. Coin clipping is why many coins later had the rim marked with stripes (milling or reeding), text (engraving) or other ornamentation that would indicate any clipped coin. By 1695, hammered coin had been debased to a mere 50% of its original weight and it was decided that all the coins in circulation would be recalled and reminted to a standardised form, overseen by eminent and respectable men (to reassure the public who were concerned about the effect recoinage would have on their wealth). Sir Isaac Newton presided at the Royal Mint in London and Edmond Halley (of Halley's Comet fame) in Chester.

The map of the castle from this time refers to the "Frobisher's House". Frobisher is an English surname derived from fourbisseor, meaning to burnish. As such it was an occupational surname applied to an armourer who put the finishing touches to his work, by 'furbishing' armour - i.e. by rubbing it with chains until it was bright. The word "refurbish" is derived from this. After the days of armour the "furbisher" was still an armourer, but may have provided weapons of the "lock, stock and barrel" variety. The rolls of the Freemen of the city of Chester, referring to the processions which accompanied the medieval mystery plays state that "The smiths, forbers and pewterers will march together...."

Edmond Halley - English astronomer, geophysicist, mathematician, meteorologist, and physicist who is best known for computing the orbit of the eponymous Halley's Comet. He was the second Astronomer Royal in Britain, succeeding John Flamsteed, and was in charge of the mint in Chester.

The recoinage was something of a disaster. On 4 May 1696, hammered silver coin was officially "demonetised" but by the end of June, only 12% of the new coin had been returned to circulation. Public confidence in bank "notes" collapsed and a general currency crisis followed. There was a widespread resort to barter and the government found it almost impossible to borrow or to pay the army. Financially exhausted, William III (aka William of Orange or King Billy) was forced to end his part in the War of the Grand Alliance.

Another old map, showing the armoury next to the Flag Tower and the "Jayl".

Edmond Halley (not "Edmund") was a contemporary of Wren, Pepys, Hooke, Handel, Purcell and Dryden. He was a schoolboy in London while the Great Fire raged, and was an active participant in the Enlightenment, an age of profound developments in all the arts and sciences. As a younger contemporary of Isaac Newton, he had a crucial part in the Newtonian revolution in the natural sciences. It was Halley who posed the question that led Newton to write the Principia (published in 1687), and who edited, paid for and reviewed it. In 1705, applying historical astronomy methods, Halley published Synopsis Astronomia Cometicae, which stated his belief that the comet sightings of 1456, 1531, 1607, and 1682 related to the same comet and predicted it would return in 1758. When it did, it became generally known as Halley's Comet.

Chester has a further astronomy connection in that it was brifely the home of the astronomer William Molyneux. Due to fighting in Ireland during 1689-1690, William was in Chester when his work on optics was written. It has the impressive title: "Dioptrica Nova, A treatise of dioptricks in two parts, wherein the various effects and appearances of spherick glasses, both convex and concave, single and combined, in telescopes and microscopes, together with their usefulness in many concerns of humane life, are explained". William's son Samuel was born in Chester and William's wife, Lucy Domvile, may have died in Chester.

Since the early 1990s, English Heritage has commissioned several phases of work to conserve and consolidate the original fabric. One of the latest of these was Phase VI, wholly commissioned and financed by English Heritage’s in-house conservation funds. The project encompassed the Half Moon Tower and the Frobisher’s Workshop.

Jacobite Prisoners

James II of England (VII of Scotland) had become King of England, King of Scots, and King of Ireland on 6 February 1685. According to Lewis (cit ultra) he once (in 1687) heard mass in the chapel of the Agricola Tower. James was the last Roman Catholic monarch to reign over the Kingdom of Scotland, Kingdom of England, and Kingdom of Ireland, being deposed in the Glorious Revolution (1688). Samuel Lewis notes:

The Buck Brothers engraving of the Castle (1747)
  • "In 1688, the Roman Catholic lords, Molyneux and Aston, raised a force, and made themselves masters of Chester, for James II - but his abdication rendered further efforts useless."

James II was replaced not by his Roman Catholic son, James Francis Edward (the 'Old Pretender'), but by his Protestant daughter and son-in-law, Mary II and William III, who became joint rulers in 1689. The belief that James (not William or Mary) was the legitimate ruler became known as Jacobitism (from Jacobus or Iacobus, Latin for James). In 1715 and 1745, there were Jacobite risings in the country.

A water-coloured print by Moses Griffith (1747-1819) showing the Shire Hall and gateway of the Inner Bailey. The flag is on the Square Tower rather than the Flag Tower.

Captives of both the 1715 and the 1745 Jacobite risings were held in Chester. In 1715, after the government's victory at Preston, c. 500 Jacobite prisoners were brought to the castle. Because of a quarrel between the governor and Chester corporation they were held there until 1717 in crowded conditions, and disease spread from them to the soldiers. Hemingway, in his History of Chester, mentions the following:

  • Of the fifteen: "This winter Lord Charles Murray (son to the Duke of Athol) with several gentlemen, and a great number of private men, who had been taken (November 13th) in the rebellion at Preston, were brought prisoners to Chester Castle. The weather was very severe, and the snow lay a yard deep in the roads. Many of the above mentioned prisoners died in the castle by the severity of the season; many were carried off by a very malignant fever; and most of the survivors were transported to the plantations in America. As the castle was quite filled with these prisoners, the Lent Assizes were held in Northwich."
  • Of the forty-five: "Fearing the rebel army from Scotland, Chester and its Castle was again fortified. One veteran regiment, and three new ones were raised. However the rebels did not approach the city only passing through a part of the county on their way to Staffordshire. However, after the surrender of Carlisle, a number of the rebels were brought prisoners in sixteen carts and held at the castle - which they completely filled."

In 1745, with the rebellion of the Young Pretender, the lord lieutenant, George, earl of Cholmondeley, was keen to put Chester in an improved state of defence. Cholmondeley repaired the castle's decayed fortifications and added raised batteries in the inner and outer wards and a platform with a parapet south-east of the great hall. The battery overlooking the river was intended for 12 cannon but only four pieces were mounted. The surveyor Alexander de Lavaux was engaged to draw up a plan to strengthen the fortifications to resist assault by cannon. His scheme, consisted of four bastions joined by outworks flanking the ancient defences, but was never carried out. A survey of the castle in 1745 reported that the armoury contained "a small number of field pieces and royals in good order and with sufficient ammunition".

Alexander de Lavaux's plan to strengthen the fortifications to resist assault by cannon, which was never put into effect.

In the later 18thC. the Castle's military significance declined again. In the reign of George I military stores and ordnance, dating perhaps from the Civil War, were removed to the Tower of London. By 1728, though still commanded by a governor with two companies of invalid soldiers, the castle was described as 'destitute of arms almost for common defence'. The two companies of invalids remained until 1801, when they were disbanded, but the castle was still notionally a garrison until 1843, commanded by a high-ranking governor and lieutenant-governor. The rebuilding of the early 19th century included barracks for 120 men and an armoury capable of storing 30,000 stand of arms.

Thomas Harrison and Later

Samuel Lewis writes:

  • "Under William III Chester was chosen one of the six cities for the residence of an assay-master, and allowed to issue silver coinage. In the rebellion of 1745, it was fortified against the Pretender, the last military event of importance recorded of a place celebrated as the rendezvous of troops from the earliest times."

A report compiled in 1745 on the condition of Chester castle suggested that the defences were in a poor state of repair. Only 2 of the 18 pieces of artillery were thought to be fit for use, and the walls were not thought to be strong enough to support cannon fire. The report noted that "a few shot would lay the place open". To this end two new batteries were added to the castle, the first was in the Inner Bailey: sometime between 1745 and 1776, the southern wall of the Inner Bailey, adjacent to the sally port steps, was removed to make way for a four-gun platform that gave a broad field of fire across the river. At the same time, the upper parts of the Flag and Half-moon Towers were removed so that ordnance mounted on their roofs would have a solid firing platform. The second battery was in the Outer Bailey on the eastern side of the outer gatehouse.

1786 date-stone on the battery wall

Francis Grose's The Antiquities of England and Wales (published 1772) has the following entry for Chester castle:

  • This Castle, it is said, was either built or greatly repaired by Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, nephew to William the Conqueror; .. ..Chester Castle is built of a soft reddish stone, which does not well endure the weather, and is at present much out of repair, several large pieces of the walls having lately fallen down into the ditch. Indeed its trifling consequence as a fortress would hardly justify the expense of a thorough repair. It is, however, commanded by a governor and lieutenant governor, and is commonly garrisoned by two companies of invalids.

By this time the development of artillery had rendered the simple stone castle obsolete as regards a defensive position. There were plans to build massive earthworks around the castle as a defence against artillery, but these came to nothing. However, like many other many castles, Chester found a continuing role as a place for the storage of arms, a courthouse, a garrison point and as a prison. A datestone at the centre of the south-south-western rear curtain wall wall gives a date of 1786 for the refacing of the outer wall.

"Plan by J. Harrison, engraved by W. Warner and published by Cadell & Davies May 1st, 1809".

Demolition Without War

Chester Castle, as it was in 1745, overlaid on a modern satellite photograph. Harrison's rebuild occupied a considerably greater area than the medieval castle, with the Barracks (now the Military Museum) extending some 220 feet and the Propylaea some 80 feet beyond the Medieval curtain wall.

In the late 18thC and early 19thC, the castle was largely demolished to make way for County Hall, Courts, and barracks for the garrison.

The Old Gaol

At around this time, there were also many demands for reform of the prison system and the deplorable conditions in Britain's gaols. Howard’s interest began following his appointment in 1773 as high sheriff of Bedford and for the remainder of his life he travelled widely in this country and in Europe visiting prisons and recording the treatment of their occupants. In 1777 he published "The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, with Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons". Chester Gaol was particularly bad, and compared by John Howard (after whom the Howard League for Penal Reform is named) to the Black Hole of Calcutta:

  • "Under the Pope's Kitchen is a dark Room or Passage twenty four feet by ten: to it you descend twenty one steps from the Yard On one side of it are six Cells (Stalls) each about seven feet and a half by three and a half with a barrack bedstead and a small aperture over the door. In each of these are locked up at night sometimes three or four Felons. No window not a breath of fresh air: only an aperture with a grate in the ceiling of the Passage into the Pope's Kitchen above. They pitch these Dungeons three or four times a year when I was in one of them I ordered the door to be shut and my situation brought to mind what I had heard of the Black Hole at Calcutta"

Hemingway (writing in 1836) states that the earlier prison was described as follows:

  • Their day confinement is in a little yard, surmounted on all sides by lofty buildings impervious to the air, excepting from above, and even unvisited by the purifying rays of the sun. Their nocturnal apartments are in cells, seven feet and a half by three and a half, ranged on one side by a subterraneous dungeon, in each of which are often lodged three or four persons. The whole is rendered more horrible by being pitched over three or four times in the year. The scanty air of their straight prison-yard is to travel through three passages to arrive at them through the window of an adjoining room, through a grate in the floor of the said room, into the dungeon ; and finally, from the dungeon through a little grate above the door of each of their kennels.
An engraving from Hanshall showing the Outer Gate and the adjacent battery. The engraving is c1820 by J. Stuart.

Howard's work was to be influential in the drafting of new legislation concerning prisons, notably the Penitentiary Act, 1779, and the Gaol Bill, 1784-88. These Acts stipulated that there should be separate accommodation for male and female prisoners and that the different classes of inmate should likewise be separated. Cells should be clean and airy, there should be facilities for warm and cold bathing and a chapel should be built for the use of the prisoners.

In Chester, a factor which would have made the prison even more unpleasant was the existence of "Pyroligneous Acid" factory between the jail and the River Dee. Pyroligneous Acid is a malodorous and volatile concoction of, among a few hundred components, acetic acid (vinegar), acetone (nail varnish remover) and methanol (a component of methylated spirits) which is used in the preservation of leather and other skins. It is made by heating wood, in kilns, and condensing the "smoke".

The Last Welsh Invasion

Cooke writes of what appears to have been the last Welsh "invasion" of Chester which took place in 1732:

  • "a large body of colliers, and other countrymen, were brought from the neighbourhood of Wrexham, by the direction and under the influence of Mr. W. W. Wynne. The citizens hearing of their approach, retired into the castle, and there armed themselves with old swords, helmets, and breast-pieces; and, thus formidably accoutered, sallied forth to meet their foes. A bloody encounter ensued in Bridge Street; and the Welshmen, after several of them were dangerously wounded, were soon routed and put to flight".

This fracas was part of the general disturbances around the 1732 Majoral and Assembly election. To protect their position the Grosvenors needed to retain the support of the mayor, whose prerogative it was to call the Assemblies at which honorary freemen could be created. The Whigs first tried to win over the mayor of 1731-2, Trafford Massie, by offering clerical preferment for his son. Shortly before the election in 1732 the Whig candidate for mayor left £100 in gold with Massie in return for a written promise to call no further Assemblies. Meanwhile sporadic disorders culminated in the clash in Bridge Street in early October (1732) between a Whig mob (allegedly reinforced with disguised soldiers, revenue officers, and Liverpool sailors) and Tory supporters who included the Welsh colliers. The latter came off worse, and the Whigs, suspecting that Tory aldermen were admitting more freemen after dark, broke into and wrecked the Pentice. The mayor called for dragoons from Warrington to help restore order and appointed c. 270 special constables. The violence shocked the faction leaders into a truce, but when polling was adjourned the Whigs, supposing that their man had won, pursued the mayor and justices into the coffee house under the Exchange and carried off the mayoral sword and mace. In fact the Tories had won by c. 1,100 votes to c. 850, perhaps in part through intimidation.

Lunardi, Thomas Baldwin and the Balloon

An image from Baldwin's book on balloon flight showing Chester, in which he claims to have reached an altitude of four miles.

In 1785 a remarkable balloon flight started at Chester Castle. The first manned (hot air) balloon ascent took place in Paris on October 15, 1783 in a tethered balloon. While always associated with the Montgolfier brothers, they did not actually make the first ascent themselves but allowed an enthusiastic friend, the school-teacher Pilâtre de Rozier to take the risk. De Rozier and François Laurent d'Arlandes (a French marquis) made their first untethered flight in a Montgolfier hot air balloon on 21 November 1783. The unfortunate Rozier soon became (in 1785) one of the first victims of an "air-crash", but a "balloon craze" struck Europe.

The first manned balloon flight in England was performed by the somewhat flamboyant Vincent Lunardi. On 15 September 1784, Lunardi took to the skies with his dog and cat, and a caged pigeon, in a hydrogen balloon fitted with oars, with which he intended to control his course. One oar fell to the ground as the balloon rose, but this did not prevent him from occasionally working the one remaining oar and in fact believing that it was due to his labors that he was able to descend the first time (at what is still called "Balloon Corner" in Welham Green) to release his cat from the basket, for "the poor animal had been sensibly affected by the cold." Hydrogen balloon flights were expensive to undertake, as vast quantities of the gas had to be generated by the reaction of vitriol (sulphuric acid) with metal filings, so flights became something of a circus to raise the funds needed. Meanwhile in Chester, Thomas Baldwin (1742-1804, or "Baldwyn"), a clergyman from Hoole Hall (English Heritage has Hoole Hall being built for the Rev. John Baldwin c1760, and the property passed to Thomas when John died 1793)), tried, in 1783 after resigning from his position as a Haslingden curate, to fund the construction of a balloon by subscription, but was unable to raise enough money. A display of Thomas' exploits, which included his design for a "grand naval air balloon" from 1784, is still found at Hoole Hall.

Lunardi In Chester

In September 1785, when Lunardi brought his "Flying Circus" to Chester, he allowed Thomas Baldwin to hire his balloon and make a solo ascent so that he could sketch some aerial views. Lunardi's visit to Chester was advertised as the occasion for his ascent in a hydrogen balloon from the town's castle. However, Lunardi suffering "a burn to the hand from an acid used to make the hydrogen, and his servants were left to make the ascent, in order to appease the angry crowd". Baldwin's prayers had been answered.

The European Magazine gives another version of events:

The inner bailey of Chester Castle, from above. The City Walls can be seen crossing an arch at the bottom of the image. The square "Flag Tower" is visible (it does not protrude above the walls). The tall square building is the Agricola Tower and the large building is Napier House.
  • "Lunardi met with a very unfortunate accident which prevented him from ascending at Chester this week according to promise - the circumstance was this: - When the balloon was nearly inflated and the car brought to be attached to it, Lunardi through his eagerness to pursue so favourite a science by some accident burnt his arm and hand with the vitriol in a most terrible manner; in short to such a degree as to render his ascension impossible; however Lunardi told his servant to get in which he did and ascended without the least degree of fear to the satisfaction of the multitude He went nine miles and came to Chester about nine o'clock with the balloon."

Looking in the records of the Chester Chronicle we find no mention of the "servant" but are told (26th August 1785) that:

  • "Lunardi appologised for the accident which delayed the ascent of his balloon to so late an hour"
As reported in the "New Annual Register".

The paper goes on to report that Lunardi had finally taken-off the Monday before and flown to Hatton Heath, six miles distant.

Baldwin's Flight

On Friday, 2nd September the Chester Chronicle reported:

  • "Mr Lunardi presents his respectful complements to the public with thanks for the favours that he has already received and begs leave to inform them that he has resigned his place in his balloon to T.B. esq a Gentleman of Chester"

However his flight came about, Baldwin then wrote a highly detailed and lengthy account of the voyage, with the impressive title: Airopaidia: Containing the Narrative of a Balloon Excursion from Chester, the Eighth of September, 1785, taken from Minutes made during the Voyage: Hints on the Improvement of Balloons, and Mode of Inflation by Steam: Means to Prevent their Descent over Water: Occasional Enquiries into the State of the Atmosphere, etc. The Whole Serving as an Introduction to Aerial Navigation: with a Copious Index. Baldwin wrote:

  • "On Thursday the 8th of September 1785, at 9 in the Morning was first fired one of the Cannons (a six-pounder) from the Castle-yard to inform the City and Neighbourhood that the necessary Preparations were making to inflate the Balloon."

He started with the release of a smaller balloon of his own as a sounding device, making it quite clear that he had almost beaten the French to it with his own earlier work:

  • "At 10 o'Clock the process began with the inflation of an airistatic Globe eighteen feet in Circumference of Silk Tiffany made the latter End of the Year 1783 and decorated with Painting, Mottoes and Devices: in the Performance of which little Work, Mr Baldwin was the Sole Projector, Architect, Workman and Chymyst .. It was intended to serve as a sort of Pioneer, to delineate the Track of the Great Balloon. It fell at some Miles Distant, tis said unfortunately on a Hedge and was presently torn to Pieces by the Eagerness and Avarice of the Pursuers who expected and undeservedly obtained the Reward promised in the letter appended to it."
As reported in the "American Magazine of Useful and Entertaining Knowledge", Volume 1, Issue 6. In this it is claimed he reached an estimated altitude of seven miles.

Baldwin initially feared he would be blown out to sea:

  • "Just after his first ascent being in a well watered and maritime part of the country he observed a remarkable and regular tendency of the balloon towards the sea but shortly after rising into another current of air he escaped the danger the upper current he says was visible to him at the time of his ascent by a lofty sound stratum of clouds flying in a safe direction. The perspective appearance of things to him was very remarkable. The lowest bed of vapour that first appeared as cloud was pure white in detached fleeces increasing as they rose they presently coalesced and formed as he expresses it a sea of cotton tufting here and there by the action of the air in the undisturbed part of the clouds so that the whole became an extended white floor of cloud the upper surface being smooth and even. Above this white floor he observed at great and unequal distances a vast assemblage of thunder clouds each parcel consisting of whole acres in the densest form he compares their form and appearance to the smoke of pieces of ordnance which had consolidated as it were into masses of snow and penetrated through the upper surface or white floor of common clouds there remaining visible and at rest Some clouds had motions in slow and various directions forming an appearance truly stupendous and majestic." (Annals of Some Remarkable Aërial and Alpine Voyages)

The book included everything from an inventory of the items taken (including the weight of each item) to a florid description of his sensations as he flew:

  • ..what Scenes of Grandeur and Beauty! A Tear of pure Delight flashed in his Eye! of pure and exquisite Delight and Rapture: to look down on the unexpected Change already wrought in the Works of Art and Nature, contracted to a span by the NEW PERSPECTIVE, diminished almost beyond the bounds of credibility.
Thomas Baldwin's aerial view of Chester which can be seen, together with the River Dee in the corner of this engraving based on his sketch. This is believed to be the first ever actual view of the earth from above.

The scientifically-minded Baldwin carried out experiments whilst in the air, including sampling foods to see if they tasted the same (they did - "Contrary to what travelers have reported from the Peak of Teneriffe") and carrying feathers "loose in the pocket and thrown out when entwined in Clouds or at any other Time to see the rise or fall of the balloon". Other necessary equipment of the well-prepared Baldwin included: two red lead pencils ("pointed both ends"), a pointed knife, a bottle of brandy and water ("for experiments"), a cork-screw, confectionaries such as bread, biscuits and fruit, 2 needles with large eyes ("raw silk already threaded and knotted"), a map on a board ("also to serve as a table"), Dutch twine, 3 flags, a yard of thin ribbon, a magnet and iron filings in a pewter dish and cover, eight bladders ("half blown and different colours for decoration"), a speaking trumpet and "a live pidgeon, not forgetting Pepper. Salt, Ginger to try the Effects of Tastes which have been said to become insipid on the Peak of Teneriffe".

Baldwin's estimates of altitude appear flawed. He says in one account that he estimated that he reached a height of seven miles. At that altitude, probably anywhere above about five miles, he would have soon passed-out for lack of oxygen. Rozier and the chemist Joseph Proust had reached above two miles in 1784, but until 1803, and the ascent of the stage magician Étienne-Gaspard Robert, no-one had reached Baldwin's claimed altitude of above four miles.

Henry Coxwell and James Glaisher reached almost seven miles in a coal-gas balloon in 1862, but Glaisher lost consciousness during the ascent due to the low air pressure and cold temperature of −11 °C (12 °F). Captain Hawthorne C. Gray (United States Army Air Corps) surpassed this record only in 1927, in a helium balloon, and died during his descent when his oxygen supply ran out. Based on the images he sketched, and the evidence of his barometer, it seems likely that Baldwin probably reached an altitude of 1-2 miles.

The account of the voyage itself is interspersed with and followed by discourses upon hints and improvements such as the best time of day for voyages, how to land in windy weather, and how best to conduct experiments while aloft. His first near-landing (at Kingley) was dramatic, and he later flew on to return once and for all to terra firma at Rixton:

  • "..approaching a third Hedge the Aironaut cut away the Barometer-Frame; threw out the basket with the Bottle and Tunning Dish; the Spreaking Trumpet; the Woolen GLove; the half Mile of Twine in the Reel with the result that the Car cleared the Hedge."

Thomas Baldwin’s Airopaidia contains the first British representations of a "real" aerial view, and the city of Chester can be seen in the lower left corner of one image ("A Balloon-Prospect from above the Clouds, or Chromatic View of the Country between Chester, Warrington and Rixton-Moss in Lancashire: shewing the whole Extent of the aerial Voyage; with the meandering Track of the Balloon throu’ the Air") and in the center of another ("A Circular View from the Balloon at its greatest Elevation. The Spectator is supposed to be in the Car of the Balloon, suspended above the Center of the View: looking down on the Amphitheatre or white Floor of Clouds and seeing the City of Chester, as it appeared throu’ the Opening: which discovers the Landscape below, limited, by surrounding Vapour, to something less than two Miles in Diameter. The Breadth of the blue Margin defines the apparent Height of the Spectator in the Balloon (viz. 4 Miles) above the Floor of Clouds, as he hangs in the Center, and looks horizontally round into the azure sky."). Despite the well-documented fact that it was Baldwin of Chester who made the ascent, in John McGahey's preparatory sketches for his balloon view of Chester (1855), he for some reason attributes the flight to Lunardi.

Another Flight

Joseph Hemingway records a second flight:

  • 1785: The 1st of September Captain G. French, a gentleman still resident in Chester, ascended in Lunardi's balloon from the Castle Yard, four p.m. and descended at six at Macclesfield, 40 miles. On the 7th, Mr Baldwin ascended from the same place at one p.m. and descended beyond Warrington.

"Mechanics' Magazine and Journal of Science, Arts, and Manufactures, Volume 6" gives an alternate date:

  • "Mr Baldwin on the 8th of September ascended with Mr Lunardi's Balloon from Chester at 40 minutes past one and after ascending to the height of nearly four miles he descended at 53 minutes after three".

"Walkers Hibernian Magazine" gives a slightly different version of events with variant dates:

  • "September 1: Lieutenant French of the Cheshire Militia ascended at Chester in Mr Lunardi's balloon and alighted at Macclesfield forty miles distant in two hours."
  • "September 15: Thomas Baldwyn Esq of Chester ascended from that city in Mr Lunardi's balloon and in two hours and an half alighted at Rixton Moss in Lancashire, 25 miles from Chester."

Little more is recorded about the flight of Lieutenant George French of the Cheshire Militia (or Captain French in the alternative), other than the bare fact that it took place, and that French had some problems getting into the air. French rose three yards and then touched down again, so he dumped all his ballast, along with his provisions, hat and coat before taking off on his flight. It is not clear whether French took the flight "for a lark" or whether this was an attempt to assess the possible military applications of aviation. By co-incidence the 2nd Royal Cheshire Milita barracks was in Macclesfield, where French landed.

The next flight from Chester took place on 7th June 1824. The notable balloonist Windham Sadler ascended in a balloon from Chester Castle. It was to be one of his last flights - on 29 Sept Sadler made his thirty-first ascent (at Bolton) but "the wind dashed his car against a lofty chimney, and he was hurled to the ground, sustaining injuries of which he died at eight on the following morning"

Baldwin and Steamboats

As well as inventing a new form of musical notation, Baldwin (after he moved to Prescot, Lancashire) funded the then unknown engineer John Smith, who appears to have built a very early steamboat in 1797. According to the Billing's Liverpool Advertiser, dated the 26th June 1797, his "vessel heavily laden with copper slag, passed along the Sankey Canal ... by the application of steam only ... it appears, that the vessel after a course of ten miles, returned the same evening to St Helen's whence it had set out". This boat was powered by a Newcomen engine working a paddle crankshaft through a beam and connecting rod.

Sources & links

The New Gaol

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

In 1785, it was decided to hold a competition to rebuild Chester Gaol. The prize was 50 guineas and the winning design was submitted by Thomas Harrison, then relatively unknown. The new gaol was commissioned by the Justices of the Peace for the County of Cheshire; the building committee, formed in September 1786, included Sir Henry Mainwaring Bt, George Leycester, John Leigh of Oughtrington, and John Legh of Adlington.

The leading architect to specialise in prison design at the time was William Blackburn (1750-1790), who was responsible for eighteen prisons, including Oxford, Liverpool and Gloucester. The latter, which owed much to the ideas of its Governor, Sir George Paul, appears to have been influential on Harrison, since, in 1784, Blackburn was paid to review the early plans for Chester, and in 1793 copies of a pamphlet published by Paul "containing many useful hints as to the care and regulation of gaols.." were requested from Gloucester. "The Builder" (vol. 21, p. 204) records a visitor to Chester, a M. Dupin, as commenting:

  • "The Sessions House and Panoptic prison of Chester are united in the same building which is assuredly the handsomest of its kind that is to be seen in Europe. The interior arrangements are well contrived and bespeak much regard for humanity. The architecture is equally simple and majestic."

The new prison was praised as one of the best-constructed prisons in the country. It had such endearing features as a raised exercise yard with a delightful view of distant Beeston Castle. The two courtyards at the right and left of the building were originally exercise yards for the male and female debtors respectively. The semi-octagonal felons jail originally radiated from below the central bay with the Governor's house in the right hand wing. The jail was thus the first in England to have been built on the overview principle advocated by John Howard in his State of the Prisons of 1780 and later by Jeremy Bentham in his publication "Panopticon" of 1791. However, it was a project that was to take 37 years, was plagued by financial problems, needed two separate Acts of Parliament and was slowed down by poor workmanship (much of the work being undertaken by a badly housed and often-undernourished population of convicts). While Harrison submitted the winning plans, and fleshed them out in 1792/3 he did little else until 1794 when it was discovered that William Bell, the superintendent of works since 1788, had wasted stone and embezzled funds and materials. Bell was dismissed, and Harrison, who seems to have been responsible for his exposure, replaced him as surveyor. Examination of the work supervised by Bell revealed that the pillars in the prison chapel would not support the planned superstructure and there were additional delays while the foundations were relaid. A new contractor, William Cole the elder, was only appointed in 1797. The main block seems to have been completed shortly after, for in 1800 the finishing touches were put to the portico and prison chapel.

Hemingway provides a detailed description of Harrison’s design:

  • "The gaol is from the nature of the ground built on two levels. The upper line of the building on the east side consists of the turnkey’s room, the large and airy yard of the male debtors; on the west side the female debtors’ rooms and court yard with the prison hospital adjoining. .. In the centre is the Gaoler’s house, projecting from the line of the upper level, so as to completely command a view of every part of the prison. The chapel of the prison is between the upper and lower level under the Gaoler’s House and in the same semi-circular form: .. On the lower level, and immediately under the extreme line of the extreme line of the upper, are the cells for solitary confinement and condemned criminals; also the very complete cold and warm baths."

The listed building citation for the gaol describes it as follows:

  • The felon's prison at Chester was half polygonal in plan, with five ranges around a central chapel and governor's house. The wings were raised on arcades and were single-sided with external galleries. Flanking the governor's house were two wings containing work cells. On the other side of the governor's house was the County Hall and between the two were further prison buildings ranged around two courtyards. Rooms for male debtors surrounded the debtor's yard and rooms for female debtors and an infirmary flanked the women's yard. In 1819 the gaol was capable of holding 100 prisoners. A new building was added to the site in 1832. It was designed by William Cole junior and contained 52 sleeping cells, male and female infirmaries and the matron's apartments. It lay north-east of the felons' prison, was H-shaped in plan and had between three and five stories because of the fall of the land. Further alterations and additions were made or proposed in the mid and late nineteenth century. Other changes were made in the 1850s. A new building, designed by Robert Griffiths (County Surveyor of Staffordshire, noted mostly for asylum architecture), was erected between 1867 and 1870. In 1881 Chester prison was divided to allow joint military and civilian use. It was discontinued in 1893 and sold to Chester County Council for £4,680.
The "Gaoler's House" - actually the Guardroom.

On 10th April 1805 the following was issued by order of the visiting magistrates:

  • We the publicans permitted to serve the prisoners within the Castle of Chester with “ale” etc do hereby publicly declare, that from the date hereof. We will exonerate every prisoner, on his discharge, from all debts whatever we may have permitted him to contract with us, either for ale, porter or wine. Witness our hands: Signed - Rob Oldham, Rob Goff

Harrison's gaol is gone. The 1878 Guardroom and cells in the upper bailey still exist (although they are sometimes referred to as the "Gaoler's House"). They house a small exhibition explaining the history of the castle and the cells could be viewed through an iron gate.

The sallyport steps inside the castle walls.

Rumours and Legends

There are a couple of tales about the castle gaol which cannot be backed up by evidence but seem persistent:

  • Tunnels: There are stories about a maze of passages beneath the Csatle, with some people claiming to have visited them in the 1960's. These may be a variant on the common Tunnels myths in Chester, or could be a confusion with those beneath Western Command. One particular story relates to a tunnel from the gaol to the River Dee: said to be used when sending prisoners for transportation. There was a way down to the river from the kitchens and this may have been the source of this story, or it could be based on a mis-conception as to the purpose of the sally-port.

Several people have stated that as children they heard (second-hand) that there was a gallows at the Castle, or even a full-scale "hanging-shed" with trapdoor and all the other fittings. There are in fact records of execution at the Castle in Victorian times. Early Execution at Chester was conducted at Boughton and, after 1801, condemned men (and women) were sent to Northgate Gaol for execution, and later, to the City Gaol. In 1868 public execution was abolished in the UK. In 1866, the County Gaol moved to Knutsford and further executions occurred there until 1912. However there were still some executions at the Castle with notable cases being recorded in 1857, 1877, 1881 and 1883. Although the executions were "private" from that of James Bannister in 1877 large gcrowds still gathered to listen for the sound of the bolt being withdrawn and the trap opening and watch for the hoisting of a black flag when the deed was done.

Sources & links

Other Buildings

The demolition of the Inner Bailey in the early nineteenth century, followed that of the Outer Bailey from 1785. By 1799 the new shire hall was complete: a "magnificent hall of justice", it comprised a large semi-circular, semi-domed court room ringed with an Ionic colonnade. The Assize court has a massive and impressive portico.

In 1804 The inner gatehouse, Square Tower and part of the curtain wall of the inner bailey were demolished and a new armoury block (Harrison's "B Block") was erected in their place. This took place despite the strong objection of the Board of Ordnance itself to the "levelling of so ancient and venerable a structure". 1806-10 Another block housing the barracks, provost cells and exchequer court was erected on the north side of the outer ward. This block (Harrison's "A Block") now houses the Military Museum. In the same period a ditch faced with a stone wall was constructed round the castle yard. In 1810, an extra mural magazine was constructed adjacent to the upper bailey wall. The extra mural magazine was taken down in 1830 and thereafter the chapel of the Agricola Tower was used as the magazine. The period 1831-6 saw the demolition of the officers’ barracks and judges’ lodgings in the south east range of the Inner Bailey, to make way for a new armoury and Napier House. Harrison’s "B block" (now Colville House) converted into accommodation for officers and judges.

Thomas Harrison's entrance to the Castle. The portico of the Assize Court is visible through the entrance and Harrison's "A" and "B" blocks can be seen to either side. The top of the Agricola Tower can just be seen on the right. The 1881 engraving is by Woolnoth, (after Marris, published 1819).

Seacome writing in 1828 describes a visit to the castle and the curious collection of items in the hands of the storekeeper:

The Norman motte and the Half-Moon Tower (the shuttered windows are Georgian))
  • "On the west side is the residence of Capt Henderson the store keeper with offices and work rooms for his armourers and workmen His drawing room commands a most delightful prospect to the westward. It is a tolerably spacious apartment of an oblong shape formed by cutting away a portion of the walls of the circular tower in which it is situate and the space within which was originally only l3 feet in diameter. In this tower the unfortunate Richard II was imprisoned. Among many curiosities in the possession of Capt Henderson are the massive iron hammer the crow bar and bloody knife with which Williams perpetrated the atrocious murder of the families of Marr and Williamson in Radclife highway in the year 1811: a sharp instrument pointed at both ends and an old bayonet - part of the weapons of destruction prepared by Thistlewood and the Cato street Gang in 1820 and the identical handgrenade which they intended to throw among the assembled ministers at Lord Harrowby's Cabinet dinner; an original painting by Tim Bobbin of the young Pretender; and a piece of amber beautifully transparent in which a great number of distinct species of insects in fine preservation are enclosed and among the rest a very large moth."

This is a somewhat confusing passage as the inner gatehouse, Square Tower and part of the curtain wall of the inner bailey were demolished and a new armoury block was erected in their place in 1804. Seacome may in fact be referring to the "Half-Moon" tower, which does appear to contain a substantial oblong room (leaving the walls very thin) and would have a view to the west.

The supposed Ratcliff Highway murderer, with implements, on his way to be buried face down with a stake through his heart.

Some of the "exhibits" of which he speaks would have been sensational at the time. The Cato Street Conspiracy was an attempt to murder all the British cabinet ministers and Prime Minister Lord Liverpool in 1820. The name comes from the meeting place near Edgware Road in London. The police had an informer and the plotters fell into a police trap (the "dinner" was a fiction) and 13 were arrested, while one policeman was killed. Five conspirators were executed and beheaded. The Ratcliff Highway murders (sometimes Ratcliffe Highway murders) were two vicious attacks on two separate families that resulted in seven fatalities. The two attacks occurred within twelve days in December 1811, in homes half a mile apart near Wapping in London. The thriving cheap newspapers, or "penny press", spread the news round the country, as the gruesome details of the violence leaked out over the days after the two incidents. This became one of the first national shock stories to circulate in Britain. Speculation on who killed the innocent families, and why, kept the story alive right through to the burial of the eventually accused man. How the implements supposedly used for the murder came to be at Chester castle wiithin a few years is unknown. "Tim Bobbin" (18 December 1708 – 14 July 1786) was a Manchester caricaturist (in the Hogarthian Style), satirical poet and the pseudonym of John Collier. The "Young Pretender" was in the region of Manchester in 1745 during the Jacobite revolt of that year.

It would apper that the large windows in the Half-Moon tower were cut through the walls in Georgian times, as they are of a Georgian style. They are now closed with rather ugly metal shutters and the interior of the tower is delapidated. In Hemingway (1836) an illustration of the Grosvenor Bridge appears to show the windows as already present.

The Georgian entrance to the castle, which is more properly a propylaeum (pillared entrance) was also designed by Thomas Harrison and constructed 1811-13. It bears some similarity to the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, which had been built just a few years earlier, between 1788 and 1791, but on a much larger and grander scale. The originsl propylaeum was the monumental gateway to the Acropolis in Athens, built under the general direction of the Athenian leader Pericles: while Phidias was given the responsibility for planning the rebuilding of the Acropolis as a whole (at the conclusion of the Persian Wars) - according to Plutarch, the Propylaea was designed by the architect Mnesicles.

Hemingway described the buildings as follows in his "Panorama of the City of Chester" (1836).

  • The shire hall is a magnificent structure, not surpassed in the United Kingdom. The white free stone, of which the whole of the castle is built, is chiefly from the Manley quarry. The portico, composed of heavy masses of stone, is supported by twelve immense pillars, each of them 22 feet high, and three feet one inch and a half in diameter, of one block. The hall is in diameter 80 feet, in height 44, 50 feet wide, and of a semi-circular form ; twelve Ionic columns, each of one stone, support the roof, which is beautifully ornamented in stucco. The bar is in the centre of the court, and there is a passage from the gaol, by which the prisoners are brought to be tried, without causing any disturbance in the court. The whole has a good effect, and is admirably calculated to give due solemnity to a tribunal of justice.

J. Mordaunt Crook says of the building in his book "The Greek Revival" that it combines:

  • "direct antique inspiration - the Temple of Philip at Delos and the so-called Temple of Augustus at Athens - with the primal simplicity of the Sublime and the variety of light and shade associated with the Picturesque".

As noted above, Harrisons pupil, William Cole the younger, also worked at the castle, and was responsible for the design of the military hospital, a plain brick building erected in 1826 in Castle Street and shown on some early maps.

"Chester" engraved by Walker after J. M. C. Turner (published 1796).

Harrison's last major commission, at the age of 82, was the design of the nearby Grosvenor Bridge over the River Dee. He did not live to see this completed. The Grosvenor Bridge was opened on 17 October 1832 (three years after the death of Thomas Harrison), by Princess Victoria of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld (later Queen Victoria), and a 21-gun salute fired from the Castle Square. A small stone model of the bridge can be seen in the castle moat to the south of the motte. There is a strong visual and stylistic link between Harrison’s Castle complex and the nearby Grosvenor Bridge by the same architect. The two create an impressive “gateway” to the Chester’s town centre when approached from the west.

Sources & links

Pots and Plinths

Thomas Harrison's entrance to the Castle in 2014, propped up after some of the stonework collapsed. It was repaired.

There is a great deal of confusion in the historical record over this particular issue. The portico comprises a dozen Doric columns are each a monolith 22 feet in height. When the first of the dozen Doric columns ("each a monolith 22 feet in height") was raised, the record tells that a lead casket (containing a Wedgewood urn) was ceremonially placed in the plinth - the urn contained coins of the day. An engraved brass plate was fastened over the cavity before the column was hauled into position. As the court's foundations are situated over the moat of the medieval castle, considerable structural cracking occurred (the same can be seen on the main gate of the castle today) and in early 1920s, when repairs were undertaken, the urn was found and under another column, a small brass snuffbox which had belonged to Admiral Lord Nelson (1758 – 1805). When the columns were re-erected in 1922, the urn was replaced with coins minted in 1921-22 added. Nelson's snuffbox was added to the collection of Cheshire Regimental relics at the Military Museum.

The difficulty here is whether we are reading about the portico of the Assize Court or the Propylaeum. Windle (often an inaccurate source) quotes the Chester Chronicle of the period (1797) as follows:

George Cuitt engraving from 1827.
  • The column having been previously brought to its situation, and all the machinery prepared, several coins of his present Majesty, in a small urn of Wedgwood's ware, enclosed in another of lead, were deposited in a cavity of the plinth, over which was placed a brass plate with a suitable inscription. This being done, the machinery immediately began to work, the band playing "God save the King", and in about twenty minutes the column was raised ; upon which the Volunteers fired three excellent vollies, the field pieces firing likewise three rounds, and the cannon upon the battery; together with three cheers from the whole of the corps, workmen, etc. These columns are of excellent stone, of a good colour, and were brought from Manley, about eight miles from Chester, upon a carriage with six wheels built on purpose, drawn by sixteen horses, and when in the rough weighed from fifteen to sixteen tons each. They are three feet six inches in diameter, and with- out the capitals, measure twenty-two feet six inches long, being considerably larger than those in front of the New College at Edinburgh. There will be twelve of these columns in the portico in two rows, of the Doric order, without bases, and twelve more likewise, of one atone, something smaller, of the Ionic order, forming a colonnade round the semi-circular part of the inside of the hall.

Windle then adds that the portico seems to have taken "a long time to complete", and quotes an 1813 newspaper entry narrating the erection of a further column:

  • "On Thursday last one of the columns belonging to the superb entrance gate to Chester Castle yard was reared upon its plinth. The Denbigh Militia attended upon this occasion, and after the column was reared, fired three excellent vollies. Their Colonel, Sir W. W. Wynn, after depositing, in a small circular cavity cut in the plinth, several coins of the present reign, placed over them a brass plate bearing the following inscription: "Under this column, erected August 26th, 1813, in the presence of the Royal Denbighshire Militia, Sir Watkin W. Wynn, Colonel of the said regiment, placed this plate to record the signal victory gained over the French by Field-Marshal Lord Wellington, near Vittoria, in Spain, June the 21st, 1813, and 2nd of the Regency of H.R.H. Geo., Prince of Wales. Round this plate, upon the stone plinth, was cut the following memorial of the last triumph of the Marquis of Wellington: " Victory of the Pyrenees, gained by Lord Wellington, July 30th, 1813."
Plan showing the medieval towers and walls and the newer buildings.

Windle appears to be confusing the construction of the portico (1794-9) with that of the propylaeum (1811-13). Although Windle does not mention it, it would appear that the snuff box was buried under the portico and not under the propylaeum. At that time (1797), in a standard promotion according to his seniority and unrelated to the recent battle of Battle of Cape St Vincent on 14th Feb, Nelson had only just been promoted (20th Feb) to "Rear-Admiral of the Blue". Nelson spent the last months of 1797 recuperating (having lost his arm at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife on 22nd July) in London, during which he was awarded the Freedom of the City of London and an annual pension of £1,000 a year. Nelson used the money to buy Round Wood Farm near Ipswich, and intended to retire there with Fanny (he never lived there) having written "A left-handed Admiral will never again be considered as useful, therefore the sooner I get to a very humble cottage the better, and make room for a better man to serve the state". He was met with a hero's welcome: the British public had lionised Nelson after Cape St Vincent and his wound from Santa Cruz de Tenerife earned him great sympathy.

Ino and Bacchus (1837)

The statue of Ino and Bacchus - a monument to "drunken frenzy" - and a rather glam lady in a hurry.

On the first landing of the entrance hall of what was then the "County Hall Building" was found a statue of "Ino and Bacchus" by Richard James Wyatt. This was presented to the County Council by Councillor Charles Legh Shuldham Cornwall-Legh OBE DL in 1965. It was made in Rome in 1837 for the Councillor's Great-Uncle, George Cornwall-Legh MP of High-Legh Hall. The Wyatts included several of the major English architects across the 18th and 19th centuries. Said to be one of his finest extant works, a contemporary letter from Wyatt records that the ship carrying the sculpture from Rome to England was lost in a storm off Leghorn, but the sculpture was salvaged unharmed and was later delivered to his patron.

Strangely, the mythical Ino was also lost at sea. The (typically violent) Greek myth is that Bacchus (Dionysius) was the son of Zeus (Jupiter) and the mortal Semele and as an infant, entrusted to King Athaimas of Occhomenus and his wife Ino, sister of Semele, who was persuaded to rear the child in the women's quarters, disguised as a girl. The jealous Hera (Juno), sister and consort of Zeus, could not be deceived, and punished the royal pair with madness, so that Athamus killed their son Learches, mistaking him for a stag (or a ram in some versions). Ino's madness (or her attempt to escape the insane Athaimas) made her leap into the sea where she was transformed into a sea-goddess. Bacchus was then handed over to the nymphs of Nysa.

A plaster cast of the sculpture was exhibited at the "Great Exhibition". The catalogue lists it as follows:

  • In the corridor separating the British and foreign picture galleries, we find works of the older English sculptors. Nollekens is represented by his ' Venus' and the busts of Pitt and Cox; Chantrey by his statue of Dr. Dalton and bust of Benjamin West; and Flaxman by his 'Aurora and Cephalus' and 'Fury of Athamas.' Before passing into the picture gallery, look at the 'Girl bathing,' 'Ino and Bacchus,' and 'Nymph and Cupid ' of Wyatt.

Bacchus is associated with drunkenness and abandoned frenzy, and is therefore invariably represented with grapes and wine, as he was here in County Hall. It was sold in 1854 for 378 pounds. Despite their adventures the statue was in remarkably good condition, with only half a grape chipped off from one of the bunches.

The current whereabouts of the statue are unknown.

Sources & links

Napier House

Napier House at the Castle - before it was closed to the public in 2009 this was always a pleasant and peaceful spot to sit and read a book.

In 1817 a fire broke out in the west wing of the Gaol, causing considerable damage, and documents in the Public Record Office reflect the deep concern expressed by local residents about the risk of an explosion of the gunpowder store at the castle, culminating in July 1819 with a petition to the Home Secretary, Lord Sidmouth. Nothing was done at the time.

In the years immediately following the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815, there was concern on the part of Lord Liverpool’s government that the economic recession might result in serious civil unrest. In July 1819 troops opened fire on peaceful demonstrators in Manchester, an incident known as the "Peterloo Massacre". This prompted concern that mobs might attack military establishments throughout the country, and there is much correspondence in the latter half of 1819 concerning the security of Chester Castle. Plans were drawn-up in February 1820 to build a guard house in the centre of the Inner Bailey at a cost of £418, and further plans were drawn-up to build a new battery to protect the entrance to the Inner Bailey. This latter plan is annotated with a reference to Thomas Harrison, evidencing his continued involvement with works at the Castle. None of these plans came to anything.

Hemingway writes of the following somewhat tragic incident from 1829:

  • "On the 7th of March an accident occurred at the officers barracks adjoining the castle. On that day Lieut LW Halstead of the 87th Royal Irish Fusileers rejoined his regiment then stationed here after leave of absence for some months and in the afternoon dined with his brother officers at the mess. In the course of the evening he advanced to one of the windows through which he fell into the castle field beneath a height of about 16 yards only just escaping the iron spikes planted around the magazine. The accident is supposed to have occurred in consequence of his having mistaken the room for the one in which the officers messed when he was before in Chester, which was but for a short time, and to the windows of that room there was a terrace outside guarded in front by iron pallisading. The officers had changed their mess room during his absence; to the windows of that room no terrace was attached and being unacquainted with that circumstance it is supposed that when he went through the window he imagined himself perfectly safe. When taken up he was totally insensible and much bruized; the lower vertebrae of his back was dislocated and fractured, which paralyzed the lower extremities and brought on a mortification. He lingered until the following Saturday morning when he expired, and was interred with military honours in the cathedral, where a handsome monument is placed to his memory."

By 1830, the officers' barracks and judges' lodgings were considered too far gone to repair and were demolished. The 1841 Ordnance report shows the site being used for an Artillery Gun Shed and a soldiers’ ablution block, and in 1893 an officers’ stable was built there.

Napier house is a detached red sandstone building on the gun platform in the inner bailey. It was originally intended as a replacement armory but was later used as barracks and offices. According to the council records (Simpson, 1925, p. 76) it was built in 1832 to a design by a Captain Kitson of the Royal Engineers. However, the 1835 Ordinance Survey map shows a building of a different shape on the site - this may be the officers' barracks and judges' lodgings which previous were to be found in the south-east range of the inner ward. Kitson's work included the removal of a twelve gun battery on the south wall. The ground floor of Napier House was used as an armoury and the two upper floors as additional soldiers’ accommodation. It had originally been intended to construct this new armoury entirely in brick, but the "Dee Bridge Commissioners" requested (1832) that red stone be used to match the Castle and City Walls. The Army agreed to this change, subject to reimbursement of the additional £250 cost.

The ring around the well.

The easternmost end of Napier House sits on the site of the "octaconal tower" shown in Turner's painting which formed part of the Judges' Lodging and later the Lieutenant-Governor's house and the accommodation for his officers. As of 2014 Napier House has stood empty for many years, and is in the ownership of the Crown Estates. There have been various schemes to put it to some use but all of these have come to nothing. The most recent scheme is that of the Malmaison/Hotel du Vin group, who have shown interest in converting Colvin House and Napier House at Chester Castle into a 40-45-bed boutique hotel since about 2005. Plans were thrown into turmoil by the 2009 local government reorganisation - the Castle site is part of the County of Cheshire and so needed to be divided, which meant half the car park then belonged to Cheshire East Council while Cheshire West and Chester owned the other half.

At this time the old armoury, Harrison's southern "B" wing (now called Colville House), was converted into accommodation for officers and judges. The new armory was not named Napier House at that time. Just by the steps of the mediaeval hall and the Judge's lodgings was a well. This has long since been capped, but in order to prevent vehicles driving over it, and possibly collapsing the cap, a ring of concrete bollards have been placed around its hidden mouth. In the winter of 2007/2008 a second well was discovered in the courtyard of the Military Museum after a vehicle collapsed the cap on that well.

Close to Napier house, at the side of the level gun platform are a set of steps which lead down to a Postern or "Sally Port" in the southern wall. The original Sally Port, probably dating from around 1246, was defended by a machicolated bartizan carried on corbels. The Sally Port was rebuilt in 1786, when the original steep straight flight of steps were replaced with a winding passage through wall, c.3.88m north-west of former stairs. It is possible that the entrance arch from the Upper Bailey is medieval. The original Sally Port is shown on Levaux’s 1745 plan of the castle.

Sources & links

Chartist Riots 1839 and 1840

The Procession of Sir W. M. Stanley, High Sheriff for the County of Chester passing Chester Castle on his way to meet the judge of the Assize, by William Tasker (1845).

In 1839 the state of the country was unsettled and there was much talk of possible riots by the Chartists - and possibly even an attack on Chester Castle. One of the principle concerns of the Chartist was emancipation of potential voters as at this time the political franchise was restricted to only a part of the male population. There was also a considerable amount of election rigging, for which Chester was particularly noted.

The Northern Star and Leeds General Advertiser was a chartist newspaper published in Britain between 1837 and 1852, and best known for advancing the reform issues articulated by proprietor Feargus O'Connor. In October 1839 it published the anonymous poem "Chester Gaol", which appeared to call for an attack on the Castle. General Sir Charles Napier wrote to Chester as follows:

  • Major Bayly, August 10th.—I attach little credit to the threatened attack on Chester Castle, yet be prepared. You must urge the town magistrates to swear in special constables and arm the pensioners; the gentlemen of the city may arm themselves also. Be most careful of the castle and cautious how you weaken your garrison in case of danger. Colonel Wemyss has orders if armed insurgents move from Hyde towards Chester to have them pursued by as strong a body of cavalry as he can spare.

By April 1840 General Sir Charles James Napier was moved to Chester from Nottingham with a force of cavalty and troops to quell riots. He initially tried to rent Bache Hall:

  • "Chester — A fine old town. Saw a capital house if we can get it, Baitche Hall. I feel light at heart with the idea of quitting the baker's shop in Wheelersgate Street Notts, though Charles the First did lodge there — loaves lodge there now."

..but did not succeed as he could not guarantee to rent for three years.

The gun platform at the south of the Castle, as photographed in early 2014.

His Biography The Life and Opinions of General Sir Charles James Napier (written by his brother William Napier) is rather disparaging about Chester:

  • In a country-house near Chester the overworked general hoped to recover health, but was debarred of that relief by the indecision of the Horse Guards, which forced him into a filthy unventilated lodging within the walls of that ancient and insalubrious city. This was a great vexation, but as usual treated jocosely. " We arrived here yesterday. Our house is as old as Babylon and apparently rotten, but seems pleasant for a town : we are like mites in cheese."

By the summer of 1840, the threat posed by Chartism's first Charter petition and the anger that followed its rejection had receded. In the crackdown that followed Parliament's brusque dismissal of the petition, some of the movement's most able leaders had been imprisoned. In the final few months of 1840, the inspectors of prisons set about the production of a remarkable report for their political masters at the Home Office. Each of the Chartist prisoners was in turn interviewed by a prison inspector - 73 interviews in all - and information recorded about their personal circumstances and religious views, their offences, and their own experience of imprisonment. Several were held at Chester. A typical report reads as follows:

"Chester Castle and the Skinners' Yard" by John Varley (1814). Now in the Grosvenor Museum.
Prison in which undergoing sentence: County Gaol at Chester
Name and Age: George Thompson, aged 43
Married or single – number of children: Married – 3 children
Religious persuasion: formerly a member of the Methodist persuasion, but latterly has attached himself to the Independents.
Instruction: Reads and writes well – rather of a serious turn of mind, or apparently so.
Profession or Trade: Gunsmith, Birmingham
Condition in Life and means of Subsistence: Apparently doing considerable business which he still carries on.
Offence: Conspiracy
Sentence, and Date and Place of Conviction: Committed at Chester and the autumn assizes 1839 and sentenced to 18 months imprisonment; and find sureties himself in £500 and two in £100 each to keep the peace for 5 years.
Length of Imprisonment before Trial: One day
Expiration of Sentence: February 10th 1841
Ordinary Diet of the Prisoners' Class to which Prisoner belongs: 1lb of bread daily, 1 quart of gruel at breakfast one and a half pounds of potatoes at dinner, 1 quart of gruel for supper. Extra Diet, when allowed: Allowed to purchase
The gun platform at the south of the Castle, from a postcard. The white building is the Gaoler's House.
General treatment: Is allowed by direction of the Surgeon beer, wine and allowed to walk for exercise outside the yards to the same extent as Mr Stephens. Complains of the want of newspapers, wishes with others to be removed from Mr Stephens and Benbow with whom he is at variance – Has received no money in the shape of subscriptions.
Present and ordinary State of Health – if predisposed to Chronic Disease, effect of Imprisonment: Subject to chronic rheumatism, chiefly affecting the lower extremities, from which he suffered considerably during the last winter – the Surgeon does not ascribe it to his confinement, he is now better; and will pass the winter without risk, the Surgeon keeping his eye on him.
Conduct in Prison: No complaint
Chester Castle. Hemingway (1831) describes this as a "portion of the walls may be taken as the least pleasant, or rather as the most disagreeable in the whole circuit, not only because of the narrowness and darkness of walking path, but on account of the offensive stench arising from some pyroligneous acid works betwixt the river and the workshops of skinners; who from immemorial have carried on their trade on this spot." The factory was closed shortly afterwards and replaced by an extension of the jail.
Observations of the Inspector on the foregoing Case: Thompson – This individual was called upon in the first instance by McDowell whom he supplied with arms, and then established agencies for the sale of them at Ashton, Manchester, Stockport etc, the agents being all notorious Chartists – I do not believe it was anything more with him than a money making transaction, but one of a most mischievious character. He suffers from rheumatism, is of petulant temper and of ordinary ability. (Signed) W.J.Williams, Inspector of Prisons 30th October 1840

The Mr Stephens mentioned in the record is Rayner Stephens a noted Chartist leader who was tried and imprisoned at Chester, apparently under fairly comfortable conditions.

The Military Museum at the castle features an extensive display on Napier and explains how the urban myth about his signal "Peccave" (I have sinned) came about. This was not said by Napier at all, but was a suggestion made by a female latin student to a vicar, who wrote to the newspapers about it. The quote was used in "Punch" magazine and after that was falsely attributed to Napier.

Sources & links

The Combermere statue of 1865 and Tom Goulds grave

This equestrian statue of Viscount Combermere was unveiled in 1865. Born Stapleton Cotton, he was the second son of Sir Robert Salisbury Cotton, Baronet of Combermere Abbey, Cheshire. In 1808 he joined Wellington in Portugal, where he shortly rose to the position of commander of Wellington's cavalry. He succeeded to the baronetcy in 1809, but continued his military career. Following the Battle of Salamanca (22 July 1812) he received the personal thanks of Wellington who noted: "Cotton made a most gallant and successful charge against a body of the enemy's infantry which they overthrew and cut to pieces.". Cotton was injured at the end of the battle when he was accidentally shot by a Portuguese sentry. Cotton went on to fight at the Battles of the Pyrenees (1813), Orthez (1814) and Toulouse (1814). For these services he was raised to the peerage in 1814 as Baron Combermere in the county palatine of Chester. For his later success in India he was raised in the peerage as Viscount Combermere in 1827 before returning to England and retiring from active service in 1830. He was promoted to field marshal on 2 October 1855. Victorian historians noted his capture of the fortress of Bhurtpore in India (1826) as his greatest achievement. The purpose of the seige was to restore the rightful ruler following usurpation of the state of Bharatpore, when the ruler died in suspicious circumstances.

He was not present at Waterloo, the cavalry command, which he expected (and bitterly regretted not receiving) having been given to Lord Uxbridge on the insistence of the Prince Regent, later George IV. One of the last cannon shots fired on 18 June 1815 hit Uxbridge's right leg, necessitating its amputation above the knee. According to anecdote, he was close to the Duke of Wellington when his leg was hit, and exclaimed, "By God, sir, I've lost my leg!", to which Wellington replied "By God, sir, so you have!". Combermere was sent for to take over his command, and he remained in France until the reduction of the allied army of occupation. In 1817 he was appointed governor of Barbados and commander of the West Indian forces. Lord Combermere is mentioned in unverified stories of the Chase Vault as being a witness to its allegedly "moving coffins" while serving as Governor of Barbados.

The statue of Stapleton Cotton who did not take part in the battle of Waterloo. William Makepeace Thackeray rips into him as "Sir George Granby Tufto" in his "Book of snobs" and suggests that it will take but a few lines to descibe his actual military gains.

The sculptor was Baron Carlo Marochetti, who was born in Turin, but raised in Paris as a French citizen. Marochetti followed French king Louis-Philippe into exile in the UK after the fall of the July monarchy in 1848. He mostly lived in London until his death in 1867. His statue of Robert Stephenson (installed 1871) still stands in the forecourt of Euston Station. Work began in 1864 but, before the work could be completed, Combermere died in February 1865. It was the first major piece of open-air public sculpture to be erected in Cheshire. The statue of Cotton faces out of the City rather than into it as convention would normally provide for, this is because the Castle he stands outside was the base of a different military unit to his own.

The plinth of the statue is incribed:


Combermere, proved a particular success in the Spainish "Peninsular War", and was in overall command of the division that charged so brilliantly at Salamanca in 1812. "By God, Cotton", Wellington is recorded as saying, "I never saw anything so beautiful in my life; the day is yours". Wellington, however, had a firm view of Combermere's limitations; when asked why he had recommended his appointment to command a campaign in Burma, when he considered him a fool, Wellington barked: "So he is a fool, and a damned fool, but he can take Rangoon!"

In the early 1900's the condition of the statue was apparently quite poor as Osborne Aldis, who was also associated with the restoration of Plegmund's well tried to raise interest in some form of restoration.

In 2020 there was some debate as to whether the statue should be removed due to Combermere's supposed association with slavery. According to the Legacies of British Slave-Ownership at the University College London, Combermere was awarded a payment as a slave owner in the aftermath of the Slavery Abolition Act 1833 with the Slave Compensation Act 1837. The British Government took out a £15 million loan (worth £1.43 billion in 2020) with interest from Nathan Mayer Rothschild and Moses Montefiore which was subsequently paid off by the British taxpayers (ending in 2015). Combermere was associated with two different claims, he had inherited 420 slaves in Saint Kitts and Nevis from his aunt and received a £7,195 payment. Apparently, all of the money was spent on the estates in the West Indies.

About 70m north east of the equestrian statue is another monument to one of Wellington's soldiers, the grave of Thomas Gould, who is buried under the roundabout between Grosvenor Street and Grosvenor Road. This is the site of the graveyard of St Bridget (since demolished). The grave marker is shaped as a casket and inscribed:

The gravestone of Thomas Gould, who did take part in the battle of Waterloo.

Thomas Gould therefore shared with Field with Combermere at Busaco, Cuidad Rodrigo, the Pyrenees and Toulouse. According to the Chester Chronicle of Dec 1865, he slipped on the steps of the "Eagle" in Castle Street on Oct 30th, and three days later (Nov 2nd) died in Military House, which was then a hospital also in Castle Street.

If Gould was with the 52nd at Waterloo then he was present at a key moment in history. The final action of the day saw Sir John Colborne wheel about the 52nd Light Infantry to outflank the never-defeated Old Guard of the French Imperial Guard as they advanced towards the British center to defeat Wellington's almost shattered and exhausted forces. As the French column passed his brigade, the 52nd charged, fired a devastating volley into the left flank of the Chasseurs and then attacked with the bayonet. William Hay, a Light Dragoon watching from the right, later recalled that "so well-directed a fire was poured in, that down the bank the Frenchmen fell and, I may say, the battle of Waterloo was gained". The whole of the French Guard was driven back down the hill and began a general retreat. An earthquake of panic passed through the French lines as the astounding news spread - "La Garde recule. Sauve qui peut!" ("The Guard retreats [recoils]. [let him] save [himself] who can!"). Seeing the 52nd begin an advance, Wellington reputedly ordered "Go on, Colborne, they won't stand!"; the battalion then advanced diagonally across the field. Wellington, seizing the moment, stood in Copenhagen's stirrups, and (as a ray of sunlight supposedly fell upon him) waved his hat in the air to signal a general advance - his army rushed forward from their battered lines and threw themselves upon the retreating French - retreat became rout, and Napoleon's last hopes of a return from exile were extinguished. Tom Gould, common soldier. was there, while Combermere wasn't.

A plan of the Castle from 1874.

Sources & links

The Fenian Plot of 1867

In 1867, Chester Castle was the focus of an audacious plot by Fenians (supporters of Republicanism in Ireland) that ended in farce. Their plan was that around 2,000 men would infiltrate Chester and, under American-Irish command (by officers with experience in the American Civil War), seize a cache of rifles belonging to the Chester Volunteers. These arms would be used to storm the castle, at that time garrisoned by only 60 regular soldiers of the 54th Regiment. The castle arsenal contained 10,000 rifles and 900,000 rounds of ammunition, which the Fenians hoped to obtain. Once armed, the plan was to commandeer a train, take the arms to Holyhead, seize a streamer, sail to Wexford and raise a revolt in Ireland. Unsubstantiated additional features of the plot (possibly just scaremongering) included sabotage of the waterworks, the burning of Chester and the sacking of its shops.

McCafferty was the last man ever to try and take Chester Castle

On 11 February 1867, the plot was to put into action led by the American ex-confederate soldier John McCafferty (variously: M'Afferty) (who had been a member of Morgan's Raiders).

  • He was born of Irish parents in the State of Ohio, in the year 1838, and at their knees he heard of the rights and wrongs of Ireland, learned to sympathise with the sufferings of that country, and to regard the achievement of its freedom as a task in which he was bound to bear a part. He grew up to be a man of adventurous and daring habits, better fitted for the camp than for the ordinary ways of peaceful life; and when the civil war broke out he soon found his place in one of those regiments of the Confederacy whose special duty lay in the accomplishment of the most hazardous enterprises. He belonged to the celebrated troop of Morgan's guerillas, whose dashing feats of valour so often filled the Federal forces with astonishment and alarm.

However the Chester raid did not go as planned. The previous night the plan had been betrayed by John Carr, alias Corydon (why is this clever? - Morgan of Morgans Raiders fought at the Battle of Corydon), a police informer who had infiltrated the leadership of the Fenians in Liverpool. The cache of rifles had been removed to the castle and the garrison quickly reinforced by another 70 regular soldiers from Manchester.

As noted in The Dynamiters: Irish Nationalism and Political Violence in the Wider World, 1867-1900:

  • "Despite this failure, General Cluseret was impressed and claimed the volunteers displayed a level of co-ordination that would have been 'unknown in France'."

Despite efforts to turn their men back, an estimated 1,300 Fenians reached Chester, in small parties from Manchester, Preston, Halifax, Leeds and elsewhere. Mostly, they discarded what few weapons they had and melted away. The next day, with nothing now happening, a further 500 household troops arrived by train from London in time for a tumultuous reception and breakfast at Chester hotels.

  • "The Attorney General, charging M'Cafferty with being the chief instrument, if not the originator of the contemplated seizure of Chester Castle, gave an outline of his movements, up to the date of his second arrest, based on the information of Corydon. The attack was to have been made on Chester on the 11th of February; but on Sunday information of the design was given by Corydon to the authorities, who were enabled, in consequence, to take the necesary precautions. "If that project," said the Attorney-General, had been carried out, it would be impossible to exaggerate the disastrous consequences to this country which might hare followed. "M'Cafferty went to Chester some days before the contemplated attack, and took apartments at the King's Head, in the name of Frederick Johnstone, and remained till Monday. On Sunday morning, the 10th, he was visited by two men, and later in the evening by seven more, "who had all the appearance of Yankees." The Government stated that between one thousand four hundred and one thousand five hundred strangers arrived in Chester, by train, from Crewe, and, other places, but the authorities there were not unprepared. M'Cafferty having ordered dinner for two o'clock, went out with Flood, and soon found that the matter was blown up. They then disappeared. Before leaving, M'Cafferty sent a messenger, one Austin Gibbons, to countermand the officers who were coming from Liverpool, by way of Birkenhead, and to say that the affair was blown upon. As might be expected, the officers found their way one after another to Ireland. On the 19th February, M'Cafferty and Flood landed at the port of Whitehaven, in England. They went to a hotel, where they stopped till the following day, when they sailed for Dublin in a coal brig, called the New Draper. They arrived in Dublin on the 23d day of February.
The Castle gates decorated with recruiting posters during WW1. These include the famous "Kitchener" poster, of which few were actually posted.

Those who escaped arrest included Michael Davitt who has been described as: an inspirer of Mahatma Gandhi, a social campaigner, labour leader, journalist, Home Rule constitutional politician and Member of Parliament (MP), who founded the Irish National Land League.. Only one arrest was made at the time, but some of the leaders were later apprehended. McAfferty, together with his friend and companion John Flood, were arrested on the 23rd of February, in the harbour of Dublin (following a chase across the river involving a ferry, a canal boat and a collier), after they had got into a small oyster boat from out of the collier "New Draper", which had just arrived from Whitehavenm under her master, Capt.Charles Smith. McCaffery was sentenced to death, but this was commuted to life imprisonment. He was released under amnesty in 1871 and returned to the US. What happened later in his life may be inferred from the newspapers of 1884 (although the report appears biased):

  • "PARIS, FEBRUARY 1884. Terror as a means to a religious, political or ideological goal has only one articulated justification, and it stays the same no matter what language expresses it. The Chester Castle mastermind, American Irish Captain John McCafferty, out of prison on amnesty, continues his campaign. His methods are now more ruthless. He is the untraceable "No. 1" who puts together the invincibles. Their hacking to death of T.H. Burke and Lord Frederick Cavendish in the Phoenix Park in May 1882 was intended to be the start of a program of political assassinations in Ireland and England. They would bleed the enemy like a butcher sticks a squealing pig. Cut short after the Invincibles' first mission leads to his operatives being caught, McCafferty coolly slides away, and leaves a bogus "No. 1" in his place. As far as the authorities are concerned, McCafferty no longer exists. Yet, in Paris, planning and raising funds, he gives an interview to The Irishman. "Terrorism," McCafferty declares, is the lawful weapon of the weak against the strong."

The New Draper (built 1791), still under Capt. Charles Smith, with a coal cargo, bound from Whitehaven for Douglas, Isle of Man, was lost on Thursday 8th January 1880 at Garwick, near Laxey, Isle of Man. She had been windbound near Kirkudbright, but had sailed on Thursday morning into a southern breeze. Approaching the island, the wind veered from SSE to S, her master tried to tack the brig, but she missed stays and was carried onto the rocks. The vessel split at midships, and two seamen were swept overboard. The remaining three took to the masts, but the mainmast went overboard, carrying with it Capt. Smith and another seaman. The only survivor, Thomas Burens, got into the foretop and stayed there from 8 o'clock on Thursday evening until 10 am the following morning, when he was rescued by a boat launched from Garwick beach.

Sources & Links

This lump of stone (in the Inner Bailey of the Castle) is all that remains of a statue of Britannia which, prior to 1914 was brought to the Castle from Birmingham, where it once adorned the main station. The statue bore the badge of the Norfolk Regiment, who were stationed here at that time. When the Norfolks left, the Cheshire Regiment used it to sharpen bayonets.


The military presence at Chester castle became more significant in the late 19th century. Under the Cardwell reforms of 1872-3 the castle barracks became the headquarters depot of the 22nd Cheshire Regiment and, though the garrison rarely exceeded 300, Chester was the training centre for new recruits to the regiment. In 1881 the militia and volunteers were re-formed into battalions attached to the Cheshires' regimental district at the castle, though some also had training depots elsewhere in the city. Chester was also the headquarters of Western Command. The other ranks formed a continually shifting element in the city's population, but many officers were based there for longer periods, and their custom in local shops, together with that of the officers' messes, was significant. Many seem to have stayed on in Chester after retirement.

1878 almost saw the last of Chester Castle, as the Times reported on the 14th August:

  • "A fire broke out at Chester Castle on Monday evening, beneath the new court, which has recently been erected at a cost of £10,000. As soon as the flames were observed the men stationed at the Castle turned out and manned their engine. A window in the carpenter's store-room, in which the fire was raging, was broken, and volumes of water were poured in. The scene was exciting, for on one side the county prisoners were incarcerated, and on the other, in immediate proximity to Caesar's Tower, separated only from the burning building by a guard's box, immense quantities of ammunition are stored. To prevent the fire from extending to this tower, therefore, was the chief object of the men, as an explosion would have inevitably been terribly destructive to life and property. In a short time the rmen mastered the flames though the fire continued to burn for some time afterwards. The Chester fire brigade was unable to be present in time to render assistance, in consequence of a failure of the telegraphic apparatus. The storage of so large a quantity of ammunition in the city will forthwith be the subject of discussion in the Town Council".

In 1877 the Government took over all the local prisons numbering 113 and closed 38 of them at once. The County (Chester) Gaol continued to be used for prisoners and Mr J B Manning remained in charge until 1884 when it was closed as a County Prison and the prisoners removed to H M Prison at Knutsford. A small part of the prison was used as a military prison under the charge of Mr J Martin. Military prisoners were afterwards moved to Stafford.

A gallery of Maps of the Castle

These images show the development of the Castle site through the ages.

The 20th Century

In 1884 the prison was closed to civil prisoners and in 1900-2 the prison buildings were demolished.

Victoria's Statue

The statue of Victoria in 2014 - with Easyjet aircraft overhead.

This statue was erected by public subscription in 1903. The cost of £1,360 was borne 2/3's by Cheshire and 1/3 by Chester. The majority of the subscriptions raised were allocated to a national monument to Queen Victoria, but some were kept for this local example. It was felt that there was a problem of how to honour the Queen on a county level, and it was decided that her monument had to stand in the county town. As the castle square is within the Chester city walls, but belongs to the county, not the city - this location solved the problem of how to appease both city and county dwellers. A model of the statue was approved in a meeting presided over by Earl Egerton and city dignitaries and, at this meeting, it was decided that the statue would cost £1350, excluding its foundations. The statue was unveiled by Earl Egerton of Tatton (Lord-Lieutenant of the County), Saturday 17th October, 1903, after failing to secure the presence of the Prince of Wales or another member of the royal family. The statue was designed by Frederick Pomeroy whose other works include the statue of justice atop the Central Criminal Court of England, commonly known as the Old Bailey. The stonework was designed by the county architect, Harry Beswick. The unveiling did not go entirely to plan:

The statue of Victoria faced the hideously ugly, mid 1960's Police HQ until that was demolished in 2006.
  • "A platform decorated in patriotic colours was erected in the castle square for the unveiling. Lord Egerton was dressed in his Lord-Lieutenant colours and was driven to the castle in an open carriage because the weather was good. He was received at the gates by the Guard of Honour, the First Cheshire and Caenarvonshire Artillery Volunteers, and the Second Earl of Chester's V.B. Cheshire Regiment. Many dignitaries and officers were present in uniform. The Mayor asked Earl Egerton to unveil the statue, but the wind blew the cover off before it was to be unveiled officially. This was the cause of great hilarity, but the Mayor had not seen the occurrence and kept requesting the Earl to unveil the statue."

For many years, when soldiers from the Cheshire Regiment "passed out", it was the tradition to add a bottle of beer and a packet of fish and chips to the statue. If the soldiers were caught, they would be court-marshaled, but it was the highlight of the passing-out day. The last military modification of the castle was made during the second world war, when the two rectangular slots were cut in the southern wall of the castle to defend Grosvenor Bridge.

Sources & links

Other Changes

The Gun Store and Officer Stables are 19thC. sandstone buildings and were, up till recently used by the council for storage. There is a small single storey later addition at the west end in brickwork. The Squash Court is a mid 20thC building. The Rifle Range is a prefabricated corregated iron structure and was located on the site in the 1920s.

The Regimental Museum was initially housed in the ground floor of Agricola’s Tower, opening in the early 1920s. It moved to its present location in “A Block” in 1968, opening to the public soon after. The chapel of St Mary de Castro was reconverted and became the private chapel of the Cheshire Regiment in 1922 - it was re-consecrated by the Bishop of Chester in 1925. During the Second World War huts for temporary accommodation of soldiers were erected in various places, and vegetable plots were laid out in the Castle ditch

The Cheshire Regiment had moved into buildings at the Castle in 1881 and remained there until 1940 when a depot was established at the Dale Barracks on the edge of Chester. In the 1950s the Cheshire Regiment Headquarters was moved back to the castle and remained there until the Cheshire Regiment was amalgamated in 2007, along with two other county regiments, into the Mercian Regiment.

The Officers Mess on the opposite side of the square to the Military Museum is named Colvin House after Hugh Colvin, a VC holder of the Cheshire Regiment. His VC is on display at the Military Museum. The building remained a Mess until 1st July 1997 when the army vacated it. This building was originally built as an armoury; it became the Officers Mess in about 1830. One of the most famous guests at the Mess was brevet lieutenant-colonel Bernard Law Montgomery, later to become Field Marshall, who stayed there in the 1920s.

County Hall, in 2012, the "Riverside Campus" (photo Chester University) - home to the little-known but very interesting Medical Museum.

The hideously ugly Police Headquarters, with ends designed by W. G. Mitchell, an overall design by County Architect, Edgar Taberner and built 1964-7 was demolished in 2006. This building was described by Nikolaus Pevsner in his 46-volume Buildings of England as:

  • "Extremely objectionably sited, an eight-storey block immediately by the propylaea of the castle and turning towards it a windowless wall with an agressive all-over concrete relief".

While the Royal Fine Art Commission criticised the design around the same time, Donald Isall, in his report of 1968, cited the building as

  • "an example of beneficial change within the city .. well related to Grosvenor Street and the Castle."

The (ex) Council Offices

Not quite what they meant.

The large Neo-Georgian County Hall, used to house the offices of Cheshire County Council, was built between 1938 and 1957, (work was delayed by WW2). The building was designed by the county architect, E. Mainwaring Parkes, and involved the demolition of the gaol and houses in Skinner's Lane. The castle precincts (bounded by Castle Drive to the south, Grosvenor Street to the west and Castle Street and St Mary's Hill to the east - and not including the castle itself) were historically an extra-parochial area and today remain a civil parish, although with no inhabitants. Curiously, the parish was part of the Chester Rural District, and did not form part of Chester County Borough. This meant that County Hall was actually in the administrative county of Cheshire, despite being in the middle of the city. However, the Local Government Act 1972 saw it become part of the City of Chester district, along with the rest of Chester Rural District. In 1891, it had a population of 249, which had declined to 8 by 1971. According to the 2001 census, it had no inhabitants at all.

County Hall started a criticism of local government buildings in Chester which continues to the present day with the debates over the proposed Glass Slug. Architectural historian and critic Nikolas Pevsner commented of County Hall that it was: "not an ornament to the riverside view". It has been described elsewhere as "a meagre affair unworthy of its historic site and riverside setting" (Boughton, Picturesque Chester, no. 118). Presumably, the same was said of the Roman Fort, the Saxon Shire Hall, the various castles and gaols.

In 2009, County Hall was vacated by the Council, and the University of Chester bought County Hall in Chester from the City Council for £10.3m. The Council relocated to the nearby, newly built HQ Building, which replaced the hideously unsightly Police HQ and was purchased for £18.8 million. By 2010 the former local authority’s offices had been transformed into libraries; IT and art therapy labs; faith spaces; a University and an NHS museum; multi-purpose spaces for students and their support departments; an exhibition area; clinical skills labs, art and design studio spaces, technology and science labs, which replicate hospital ward and school environments respectively. What was once the Council Chamber had been converted into a main lecture theatre with retractable seating for 200.

Chester Crown Court

The interior of the Crown Court at Chester Castle

In two weeks of April-May 1966, the infamous Moors Murders case was tried at Chester Assize Crown Court within the castle grounds. Both Brady and Hindley denied some of the murders and tried to blame an associate, Smith, for them. Police protection had to hold back crowds from getting at the police cars carrying Brady and Hindley from their remand cells. Local legend had them kept in cells at the Police Station located in the basement of the Town Hall - but this is simply untrue. Jeers rang out when these cars appeared. A glass screen was installed before the dock at the courtroom to prevent things being thrown at them. On 6 May 1966, Brady was found guilty of the murders of John Kilbride, Lesley Ann Downey, and Edward Evans and was sentenced to three concurrent terms of life imprisonment (as the death penalty had been abolished a year earlier). Hindley was found guilty of the murders of Downey and Evans and given two concurrent life sentences, plus seven years, for harbouring Brady knowing that he had murdered John Kilbride.

The "Courts of Assize", or "Assizes" were periodic criminal courts held around England and Wales until 1972, when together with the "Quarter Sessions" they were abolished by the Courts Act 1971 and replaced by a single permanent "Crown Court". The Assizes heard the most serious cases, which were committed to it by the Quarter Sessions (local county courts held four times per year), while the more minor offenses were dealt with summarily by Justices of the Peace in petty sessions (also known as Magistrates' Courts). In Chester, the Magistrates Court was for many years located in the Town Hall where the disused courtroom can still be visited today.

Sources & links


Cheshire West and Chester is a non-metropolitan county, non-metropolitan district and unitary authority with borough status in the ceremonial county of Cheshire. It was established on 1 April 2009 as part of the 2009 structural changes to local government in England, by virtue of an order under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. It superseded the boroughs of Ellesmere Port and Neston and Vale Royal and the City of Chester and its council assumed the functions and responsibilities of the former Cheshire County Council within its area. This change effectively reunited the City and the Castle.

In October 2009 the inner bailey of the Castle was closed to the public "due to drug taking and other antisocial behavior" supposedly taking place there. Access to the Castle used to be free of charge, but before 2017 visitors caould only get in by taking the "Secret Chester Tour" (£7.00). The 2000 "Chester Castle Conservation Plan" by Donald Insall Associates summed up the status of the Castle (which was then still open to casual visitors) as follows:

  • "The existence of Chester Castle is obscure to many local people and visitors. Its potential as a visitor attraction and as a resource for understanding the history of Chester is not being realised. Without a clear visitor plan, whether it is to remain low key or whether the site is to be presented as a major heritage attraction, the context for making decisions about vacant buildings is lacking. This also has implications for heritage tourism in Chester as a whole. Insufficient advantage is currently being taken of the potential linkages between the Castle and Chester’s other heritage museums and sites."

In 2014 subsidence affecting the massive sandstone Propylaeum required it to be propped with scaffolding. Some believe work on the castle is long overdue, and in 2009, historian Dr Gavin Stamp wrote in satirical magazine Private Eye that Chester Castle was a "supreme example of municipal neglect and philistinism".

Sources & links


The Agricola Tower and Castle Walls are now looked after by national charity English Heritage.

A panorama of the castle from the top of the Agricola Tower in 2018.

Thanks to volunteers the Castle re-opened to the public over the summer in 2017 and again the following year. The historic site will be open in 2018 from 10.30am to 4pm on Friday, Saturday and Sundays from July 20th to September 16th with free entry to the grounds and a small charge (£2) to visit the chapel in the Agricola tower and climb the stairs to the roof.


The south wall of the Castle, showing the postern-gate and Napier House above.

(To the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan's "I am the very model of a modern major-general" - but I shall let those more musical work on the verse!)

Here is the very model of a modern Major-General,
With Fenians and Napier and frescos allegorical,
Tom Gould lying in his grave, quotes the fights historical
From Vimera to Waterloo, in order categorical;


Frontius, Agricola, Queen Vic and her mother too,
William the Conqueror, Henry IV and huge Duke Hugh
Alfred, Edgar, Aedelfrith, Daffyd and Tom Harrison
Brady, Hindley, Halley and Aethelfled the Mercian;


Edward Hammer of the Scots, Monty, Byron, Henry III,
Edward (of hot poker fame), and a Strange Lord of Derby,
John Howard and Llewelyn, Charles Murray Duke of Athol,
And by the gate the model of a modern major general.

Related Pages

English Heritage Listings

Harrison's Castle

Older Castle


Sources and Links


Drone Footage

Chester Castle