Dark Ages

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

Stone cross fragments from the Dark Ages on display at St Johns. Probably memorials dating from the 10th century, these were recovered from St. John's churchyard and among the rubble of the collapsed tower in the late 19th century. The crosses, and others from Wirral and North Wales, were probably made at a workshop based on St. John's, using stone from the nearby quarry (now the bowling green down the hill). Many other "treasures" were produced during this supposedly primitive period.

Nowadays, the period of English history from the collapse of Roman rule in the 4th Century to the re-emergence of society at the time of the Norman Conquest is known to academics as the "early mediaeval period" (sometimes the "early middle ages"), but it used to be called "The Dark Ages" - a far better popular title. The "dark" refers to a paucity of written records. Late 5th and 6th century Britain, for instance, at the height of the Anglo-Saxon invasions, might well be numbered among "the darkest of the Dark Ages," with the equivalent of a near-total "news blackout" in terms of historical records, compared with either the Roman era before or the centuries that followed. Despite the murk, it is clear that Chester played a part in events.

The concept of a "Dark Age" originated in the 1330s with the Italian scholar Francesco Petrarca, who regarded the post-Roman centuries as "dark" compared to the "light" of classical antiquity. Petrarch wrote that history had two periods: the classic period of Greeks and Romans, followed by a time of darkness in which he saw himself living. In around 1343, in the conclusion of his epic "Africa", he wrote:

  • "My fate is to live among varied and confusing storms. But for you perhaps, if as I hope and wish you will live long after me, there will follow a better age. This sleep of forgetfulness will not last forever. When the darkness has been dispersed, our descendants can come again in the former pure radiance."

The phrase "Dark Age" itself derives from the Latin saeculum obscurum, originally applied by Caesar Baronius in 1602 to a tumultuous period in the 10th and 11th centuries. It was in Volume X of his Annales Ecclesiastici that Baronius coined the term "dark age" for the period between the end of the Carolingian Empire in 888 and the first stirrings of Gregorian Reform under Pope Clement II in 1046:

  • "The new age (saeculum) which was beginning, for its harshness and barrenness of good could well be called iron, for its baseness and abounding evil leaden, and moreover for its lack of writers (inopia scriptorum) dark (obscurum)".

The concept came to characterize the entire Middle Ages as a time of intellectual darkness between the fall of Rome and the Renaissance; this became especially popular during the 18th-century Age of Enlightenment. As the accomplishments of the era came to be better understood in the 19th and 20th centuries, scholars began restricting the "Dark Ages" appellation to the Early Middle Ages (c. 5th–10th century), and now scholars even reject its usage in that period. The majority of modern scholars avoid the term altogether due to its negative connotations, finding it misleading and inaccurate. Petrarch's pejorative meaning remains in use, typically in popular culture which often mischaracterises the Middle Ages as a time of only violence, poverty, pestilence and backwardness.

Dark Ages and the rest of history

British history can conveniently be divided into several broad chunks. The Dark Ages form the largest single block. The divisions between these blocks tend to mark major changes but are in some ways arbitary and are largely based on who was "in charge". The Roman period starts with the first permanent landing in 55BC, although there had been earlier visits by the Romans and undoubtedly some trade influenced the culture in Britain. The end of the Roman period sees a drop-off in historical records but the empire had been going downhill for some time before the "end" (in Britain) in around 400. The Dark Ages saw the rise and fall of several quite different power blocks with the end of them being generally taken as the arrival of the Normans. The Medieval period encompasses the rule of the Normans, Plantagents, and the alternating rule of the houses of York and Lancaster, generally being taken to end with the death of Richard III. The Tudors followed, then the Stuarts (interupted by the Cromwells). As with geological periods, the most recent times are chopped more finely into the Georgian and Victorian periods, and "modern times".

The Town Hall sculptures represent some history of Chester. In the figure, the "Dark Ages" are labled as the "Saxon and Viking" period.

Chester's Town Hall is decorated with a series of sculptures which represent some of the history of Chester. Of these only one is taken from the Dark Ages and it is the one that is likely to be the least familiar to anyone with a knowledge of local history: the depiction of Ecgbert seated on a throne accepting tribute, with the title "KING EGBERT UNITING THE KINGDOMS MERCIA". Ecgbert's times are placed more or less in the middle of the Dark Ages, he was born in the early 770's and died in 839. His life included exile, a spectacular return as king and the establishment of a Wessex-based dynasty which was to include his better known grandson, Alfred (the Great). His reign corresponds roughly with the first arrival of the Vikings and an important stage in the transition of the main power from Mercia in the midlands to Wessex in the south. As with much of the history of the Dark Ages, the records of his times are not without bias and the re-telling of events is often coloured with a political purpose, in many cases to glorify Wessex. Later retellings also show bias, with some of the Norman writers portraying the Dark Ages as a time of ignorance, oppression and endless conflict between sub-kings. To a large extent the history of the Dark Ages also focuses on the south of England although much was happening elsewhere.

Local variations

This guide to the Dark Ages, especially those in Britain, concentrates on events which involved Chester.

LIDAR shows the remains of a rectangular Roman camp at Stamford Heath in the Gowy valley just outside of Chester, and "ridge and furrow" remnants in the adjacent field. Close inspection of the LIDAR imagery shows that the ridge and furrow are crossed by a broad trackway (or possibly a buried water-main). To the right the marks are interupted by a "marl-pit", but follow the same line on either side, showing they are of an earlier date.

As with the other history pages on this site the intention is to describe this period of history in terms of the familiar, not to make Chester any more important than it actually was. Moreover, the cause of some peculiarities of Chester's evolution through the Dark Ages was it's proximity to Wales, which developed differently to other parts of "Anglo-Saxon" Britain during the period, especially as regards religion and language.

World history elsewhere did not suffer the same Dark Ages, the Eastern Roman Empire, or Byzantine Empire, continued to survive, though in the 7th century the Rashidun Caliphate and the Umayyad Caliphate conquered swathes of formerly Roman territory.

In Europe, there were also differences as compared with Britain, in part due to the survival of christianity and the application of Salic inheritance laws. Locally, in the valley of the River Dee the border between "Wales" and later "England" perhaps returned to that which had once existed between pre-Roman tribes, in particular the Cornovii who lived principally in the modern English counties of Cheshire, Shropshire, north Staffordshire, and the Deceangli, and Ordovices to the West.

The name of "Chester" itself is a survival from the Romans. The English place-name Chester, and the suffixes -chester, -caster and -cester (old -ceaster), are commonly indications that the place is the site of a Roman "castrum", meaning a military camp or fort (cf. Welsh caer), but it can also apply to the site of a pre-historic fort. Bede, wring about 730, refers to:

  • "city of Legions, which by the English called Legacaestir, but by the Britons more rightly Carlegion"
LIDAR shows the remains of earthworks, trackways and plough-marks at Heronbridge.

Local variations included the survival of some religious communities, which often later became monasteries, notably in Wales. These kept some light of scholarship burning and the surviving writers from the Dark Ages are generally associated with monastic institutions. They include Gildas, Bede and Nennius. One such monastery is generally believed to have existed at Bangor-on-Dee at an important crossing of the River Dee, although there is little or no surviving archaeological evidence on the site. Both in Cheshire and in nearby North Wales many Roman sites and routes were subject to monastic use.

In Chester itself, elements of the Roman street-plan survived and several churches that were established during the Dark Ages were built on or next to the sites of Roman buildings, these include St Peter (Roman heatdquarters building), St Michael and St Bridget (south gate), Holy Trinity (west gate) and possibly St Martin (Roman corner tower). Roman roads, which themselve possibly followed earlier routes, continued in use and gave rise to place names referencing variants of "street", such as "Trafford" (from "street ford").

One major visible relic of the Dark Ages in Chester is the extension of the City Walls from the original Roman limits to the present course which is part Roman and part Anglo-Saxon. Other relics are less obvious: there are the remains of some banks and ditches at Heronbridge, but the majority of the other relics are the sites of buildings, particularly some of the churches. No tangible Dark Age architecture survives in situ within the city itself, apart from some cross-fragments at St Johns, but the relics are there in the form of place-names, local legends and even the structure of the institutions of the city. Also telling is what is absent, particularly any obvious monument to Æthelflæd, the "Lady of the Mercians". Æthelflæd's absence from the historical record is a clear indicator of how the scribes of Wesses were selective in reporting historic events.

There is one relic of the physical relic of the Dark Ages which survives across much of Cheshire. Many references quote the year 800 for the return to systematic agriculture in the form of the "open field", or strip, system. A feudal manor would have several fields, each subdivided into 1-acre (4,000 m2) strips of land. An acre measured one "furlong" of 220 yards by one "chain" of 22 yards (that is, about 200 m by 20 m). A furlong (from "furrow long") was considered to be the distance an ox could plough before taking a rest; the strip shape of the acre field also reflected the difficulty in turning early heavy ploughs. Horses were not used for ploughing before the development of the horse-collar towards the end of the period. In the idealized form of the system, each family got thirty such strips of land. The "three-field" system of crop rotation is believed to have first developed in the 9th century from an earlier "two field" system: wheat or rye was planted in one field, the second field had a nitrogen-fixing crop, and the third was fallow. The ridge and furrow "plough marks" left by the strip system are particularly evident in Cheshire, and have the local name of "butt and rean". While butt and rean has advantages in poorly drained clay area's such as the Cheshire plain, the prevalence of these plough-marks in Cheshire may also indicate some local difference in the development of agriculture.

Some "key" dates

Despite it's name, rather a lot is known about the events in Dark Ages Chester. Many of these events are related to events elsewhere and putting them in context requires some explanation, so this is a rather long article. Rather than give a full chronology (and repeat much of the "timeline"), here are some snapshots of events in the "Dark Ages" between the collapse of Rome and the coming of the Normans, with links to more information elsewhere on this site, including more detailed chronologies for specific periods. A brief chrononology is given at the foot of the page.

The Dark Ages

After the Roman legions left, Jutes, Angles and Saxons "invaded" from the East during the early Dark Ages, while the Picts, Scots and Irish "invaded" from the west and north. Once the "Anglo-Saxons" were settled, a second wave of invasion of Scandinavians (Vikings and Danes) followed. Finally the Normans invaded.

...if it was dark, it was the darkness of the womb. — Lynn White

The winter of Rome, the Mercian spring and the summer of Wessex set the stage for the fall of Anglo-Saxon England. These are the Dark Ages and the literature of that period is rather like a wiki, with unreliable sources, dubious motives and sometimes obvious fabrication. What follows is only a brief sketch of this period. It is biased towards the history of Chester and events involving people associated with Chester. This is not an attempt to make Chester seem more important than it may actually have been but is intended to show how Chester fits into the course of history. Wandering the links will lead to a variety of other sources.

related pages

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Three parts

The main sequence of the history as applied to Chester, in three rough chunks, seems to run as follows:

  • WINTER OF ROME: Following the decline of Rome in the west, Chester at first (in 400~600) seems to have survived as an ecclesiastic centre of the Romano-British. This was not to do with the present cathedral - St Werbergh died in 597 although her relics were only taken to Chester in late 9th Century or early 10th Century. Very little is known about Chester during this period, however at the end of the period, around 616 there was both a major synod (involving Augustine of Canterbury) and a major battle at Chester. Prior to the battle Chester was effectively in Wales, but thereafter it was not. This period also included much Anglo-Saxon invasion/settlement of Britain
  • MERCIAN SPRING: There follows a confused period (600~800) with the growth of Mercia (Old English: Mierce, "border people") - one of the kingdoms of the Anglo-Saxon heptarchy, centred on the valley of the River Trent and its tributaries in the midlands. By the time of the death of Offa in 796, Mercia was the dominant power in Britain. At the end of this period Danish raids began and the Mercians, instead of looking to the west and war with the Britons/Welsh, found themselves facing a new threat from the east.
  • SUMMER OF WESSEX: In the period 800-1000 the power of Wessex grew and reached far north. However during this period there was also significant Danish and other Scandinavian influence on Chester. Mercia had brief independence but in 973 King Edgar was declared king of all England, at Chester. After 980 in the reign of Ethelred the Unready the Danes renewed their raids on England, attacking Chester and Southampton. Three of the four Anglo-Saxon coin hoards found in Chester, those from Castle Esplanade, Pemberton's Parlour, and Eastgate Street are from the troubled end of the first millennium.

For a few years Scandinavian kings sat on the English throne, before Wessex re-asserted itself. Edward the Confessor (c. 1003/1004 – 4 January 1066), son of Ethelred the Unready, was the penultimate Anglo-Saxon King of England and the last of the House of Wessex, ruling from 1042 until his death in the year 1066. Half-Danish Harold II usurped the throne in the face of possible attacks from Normandy and Scandinavia and Wessex and Mercia joined forces for the "last stand" of the Anglo-Saxons in Britain. For many years historians believed that the "invasions" of the Anglo-Saxons and the "Danes" involved a large scale displacement of the population of Britain with the indigenous population being either wiped-out pushed into Wales and the South West. This followed a supposedly long established trend of peoples from Europe "invading" Britain, slaughtering the inhabitants and then in turn being invaded. Many modern historians believe that this was not the case, but that, rather like the Roman and later Norman conquest it was more a change or rulership and culture rather then wholesale immigration and extermination. Saxon artefacts in Britain do not mean that Saxons replaced the population any more than the presence of Volkswagens, BMWs and Mercedes indicates that the country has been invaded by a horde of car-driving Germans.

Recent genetic studies on the y-chromosomes of men in Abergele have revealed that there is a substantial percentage of "North African" DNA in Abergele. Genetic marker e3b was found to average at 38.97% in male y-chromosomes in Abergele. Genetic marker e3b is found at its highest concentrations in North Africa at 75% but at much lower percentages in Northern Europe at less than 5%. The reason for the high levels of e3b in Abergele is most likely due to the heavy Roman presence in Abergele as most of the Romans that came to Britain did not come from Italy rather from other parts of the empire such as North Africa, the Middle East and eastern Europe. Above average levels of genetic marker e3b have been found in other towns in Britain that were known to have had a heavy Roman presence.

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Prelude: on the Saxon Shore

To understand the Dark Ages it is useful to start with the decline and end of the Roman presence in Britain. Although the actual ending was relatively swift, the Roman Empire had been in overall decline for some years. Britain appears to have one particular center for disaffection, possibly because it was on the fringe of the empire and separated by what was later to become the English Channel. One possible consequence of this geographical divide was that troops, if needed, could not be brought to Britain quickly and so a number of legions were permanently based there. If there was a revolt of the troops in Britain, then local power could be seized without an opportunity for the "central" Roman government to quickly intervene.

The "Saxon Shore" (click to enlarge)

The Roman Empire included large territorial holdings around the Mediterranean Sea in Europe, Northern Africa, and Western Asia. From the accession of Caesar Augustus to the military anarchy of the third century, it was a principate with Italy as metropole of the provinces and the city of Rome as sole capital (27 BC – 286 AD). Starting in the 2nd century, various indicators of Roman civilization began to decline, including urbanization, seaborne commerce, and population. Archaeologists have identified only 40 percent as many Mediterranean shipwrecks from the 3rd century as from the first, indicating a fall-off of trade rather than an improvement in seamanship. Estimates of the population of the Roman Empire during the period from 150 to 400 suggest a fall from 65 million to 50 million, a decline of more than 20 percent. Some scholars have connected this de-population to a so-called Dark Ages Cold Period (300–700), a period of climate change when a decrease in global temperatures impaired agricultural yields. On the other hand, a decline in agricultural yields could have been caused by other factors, such a collapse in societal organisation and central political control. Some have argued that the entire Imperial era was one of steady decay of institutions founded in earlier Republican times.

Early in the 3rd century Germanic peoples migrated south from Scandinavia and reached the Black Sea, creating formidable confederations which opposed the local Sarmatians. In Dacia (present-day Romania) and on the steppes north of the Black Sea the Goths, a Germanic people, established at least two kingdoms: Therving and Greuthung. Several reasons for these migrations have been proposed, one being climate change. Other migrations may have been caused by the movement of the Huns westwards through Asia.

Constantius I (Marcus Flavius Valerius Constantius Herculius Augustus: 31 March c. 250 – 25 July 306) was Roman Emperor from 293 to 306, and is commonly known as Constantius Chlorus. As Caesar, he defeated the usurper Allectus in Britain and campaigned extensively along the Rhine frontier, defeating the Alamanni and Franks. Upon becoming Augustus in 305, Constantius launched a successful punitive campaign against the Picts beyond the Antonine Wall.

During the latter half of the 3rd century, the Roman Empire faced a crisis. Internally weakened by civil wars, the violent succession of brief emperors, and secession in the provinces, it faced a new wave of attacks by "barbarian" tribes. Most of Britain had been a Roman province (Britannia) since the mid-1st century, protected from raids in the north by the Hadrianic and Antonine Walls, and at sea by the Classis Britannica patrolling the Channel.

As frontiers came under increasing external pressure, a "fortification" program was undertaken throughout the Empire to protect cities and other strategically important locations. At this time the forts of the Saxon Shore were built. As early as the 230s, under Severus Alexander, units were being withdrawn from the north and garrisoned at locations in the south. New forts were constructed at Brancaster, Caister-on-Sea and Reculver. Dover was already fortified since the early 2nd century. Between the 270s and 290s, the full chain of forts was completed. They would buy the Romano-British another 100 years.

Or so goes one theory. Other historians have proposed that the "forts" of the Saxon Shore were not so much military strongholds but parts of a trading system and that the "forts" were more akin to secure warehousing for exports. Chester was far from the Saxon Shore although repairs were made to the fortress wall c.301-306. The programme included at least the repair of the defences and perhaps even completion of the curtain wall. While it is easy to conclude that defences would be repaired because of threatened war, it is also possible that they were repaired because this was a time when the money to do so became available. Indeed, the third and fourth centuries appear to have been a period of relative peace and prosperity in Chester and many of the barrack blocks appear to have been completely rebuilt, frequently on new foundations sometimes themselves set amid earlier debris. Most notably the headquarters and other major buildings around it, perhaps including the commander's house (praetorium), were systematically rebuilt. At this time the later Emperor Constantine was in Britain campaigning with his father Constantius Chlorus who died on 25 July 306, at York, leading to Constantine being proclaimed emperor. He was later known as "Constantine the Great". After his promotion to emperor, Constantine remained in Britain for a while, and secured his control in the northwestern dioceses. He completed the reconstruction of military bases begun under his father's rule, and ordered the repair of the region's roadways. It is not known whether either the older or younger Constantine ever visited Chester, but given their importance in the north of Britannia it is probable that they did - evidence being provided by Roman milestones found in North Wales.

The Constantines

The age of Constantine (27 February c. 272 – 22 May 337) marked a distinct epoch in the history of the Roman Empire. He built a new imperial residence at Byzantium and renamed the city Constantinople (now Istanbul) after himself (the laudatory epithet of "New Rome" emerged in his time, and was never an official title). It subsequently became the capital of the Empire for more than a thousand years, the later Eastern Roman Empire being referred to as the Byzantine Empire by modern historians. His more immediate political legacy was that he replaced Diocletian's Tetrarchy with the de facto principle of dynastic succession, by leaving the empire to his sons and other members of the Constantinian dynasty. His reputation flourished during the lifetime of his children and for centuries after his reign. The medieval church held him up as a paragon of virtue, while secular rulers invoked him as a prototype, a point of reference and the symbol of imperial legitimacy and identity.

The story of the Constantines and Chester can be taken to start with the rebellions of various usurpers. By 261 troops in Britannia had joined the revolt of Postumus as part of his Gallic Empire. In 274 the Gallic Empire was re-absorbed into the main Roman Empire. However, in 287 the admiral of the Roman Channel fleet, Carausius, declared himself Emperor of Britain and Northern Gaul and started minting his own coinage. Carausius was assassinated by his treasurer, Allectus, in 293 who quickly started work on his palace in London to solidify his claim to authority. At around this time work was done on the "Saxon Shore" forts, providing another reason for the existance of this defensive line - that it was not only a defence against barbarians, but also a shield against Roman forces from the continent who might seek to reassert Romes control over Britain. Later chroniclers in the Dark Ages, such as Gildas, Bede and Nennius would include the acts of many of these usurpers in their histories of Britain, although they would frequently get their precise relationships wrong and sometimes make them British kings.

Constantine Chlorus

Constantius Chlorus' activities in Britain were reported with all his usual inaccuracy by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136). According to Geoffrey, Constantius Chlorus is sent to Britain by the Senate after Asclepiodotus, here a British king, is overthrown by Coel of Colchester. Coel submits to Constantius Chlorus and agrees to pay tribute to Rome, but dies only eight days later. Constantius Chlorus marries Coel's daughter Helena and becomes king of Britain. He and Helena have a son, Constantine, who succeeds to the throne of Britain when his father dies eleven years later.

In reality, Constantius had divorced Helena before he went to Britain and Julius Asclepiodotus was a Roman praetorian prefect who assisted the western Caesar Constantius Chlorus in re-establishing Imperial rule in Britain following a revolt by Carausius (a Roman Naval commander in Britain) and later Allectus, his finance minister and eventual assassin. Monmouth is probably confusing Helena with Saint Elen (see: Elen of the Hosts) a semi mythical figure in Welsh traditional literature.

"Britannia Prima" was one of the provinces of Roman Britain in existence by c. 312 AD. It was probably created as part of the administrative reforms of the Roman Emperor Diocletian after the defeat of the usurper Allectus by Constantius Chlorus in 296 AD. In the 3rd century, the Romans created Britannia Superior to separate the southern Britain from the militarized northern Britain. A century later, this region was further divided into four distinct provinces, namely Britannia Prima (Wales and the West Country), Britannia Secunda, Flavia Caesariensis, and Maxima Caesariensis. The capital of Britannia Prima was Corinium (modern Cirencester). Britannia Prima had two legions, the Second Augusta now at Caerleon and the Twentieth still at Chester.

Constantius II (Flavius Julius Constantius Augustus; 7 August 317 – 3 November 361) was Roman Emperor from 337 to 361. In 340, Constantius' brothers clashed over the western provinces of the empire. The resulting conflict left Constantine II dead and Constans as ruler of the west until he was overthrown and assassinated in 350 by the usurper Magnentius. Unwilling to accept Magnentius as co-ruler, Constantius defeated him at the battles of Mursa Major and Mons Seleucus. Magnentius committed suicide after the latter, leaving Constantius as sole ruler of the empire.

In it's last years, the vast Roman trade network had broken down. Widespread civil unrest made it unsafe for merchants to travel as they once had. Large landowners, no longer able to export their crops over long distances, began producing food for subsistence and local barter. Rather than import manufactured goods, they began to manufacture many goods locally, thus beginning the self-sufficient "Villa System" that would become commonplace in later centuries, reaching its final form in Manorialism. Former city dwellers and small farmers, were forced to give up basic rights in order to receive protection from land holders. A half-free class of citizens known as "coloni" became tied to the land and, in later Imperial law, their positions were made hereditary. This provided an early model for serfdom, which would form the basis of medieval feudal society.

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Constantius II and Magnentius

Constantius II was the second of the three sons of Constantine the Great and his second wife Fausta (she was later executed by suffocation in an over-heated bath and the emperor ordered the damnatio memoriae of his wife with the result that no contemporary source records details of her fate). Constantius was born in Sirmium (then in Panonia, now Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia) and named Caesar by his father. He married three times, first to a Daughter of Julius Constantius, then to Eusebia, and last to Faustina, who gave birth to a posthumous daughter called Constantia, who later married Emperor Gratian. Ancient sources indicate that he was his father's most favoured son, despite his being completely paranoid about plots (unsurprising given the fate of his mother).

When Constantine the Great died in 337, Constantius II led the massacre of his relatives descended from the second marriage of his grandfather Constantius Chlorus and Theodora, leaving himself, his older brother Constantine II, his younger brother Constans and two cousins (Gallus and his half-brother Julian) as the only surviving males related to Constantine. The three brothers (with their confusingly similar names) divided the Roman Empire among them, according to their father's will. Constantine II received Britannia, Gaul and Hispania; Constans ruled Italia, Africa, and Illyricum; and Constantius II ruled the East. This all changed when Constantine II died in 340, trying to overthrow Constans in Italy, and Constans became sole ruler in the Western half of the empire. The division changed once more in 350 when Constans was killed in battle by forces loyal to the Britto-Frankish usurper Flavius Magnus Magnentius. Magnentius, though of German stock, was born at Samarobriva of a British father and a Frankish mother.

Magnentius (Flavius Magnus Magnentius Augustus 303 – August 11, 353) was a usurper of the Roman Empire from 350 to 353. He attracted the loyalty of the provinces in Britannia, Gaul, and Hispania, in part because he proved to be far more tolerant towards both Christians and Pagans than the paranoid Constantius II.

Following the revolt of Magnentius, Paulus "Catena" was dispatched to Roman Britain in 353 by the paranoid Constantius II to exact savage reprisals against supporters of Magnentius in the army garrisons of Britain. Paulus was also probably a paranoid psychopath. Once he arrived, he widened his remit and began arresting other figures, often on apparently trumped-up charges and without evidence. So harsh were his measures that he earned the nickname Catena meaning 'The Chain'. Historian Ammianus Marcellinus gives the following comments:

  • Paulus had been promoted from being a steward of the emperor's table to a receivership in the provinces. Paulus, as I have already mentioned, had been nicknamed The Chain, because in weaving knots of calumnies he was invincible, scattering around foul poisons and destroying people by various means, as some skilful wrestlers are wont in their contests to catch hold of their antagonists by the heel.

Others have suggested that the name arose from his habit of dragging people through the streets in chains. Paulus' methods were so extreme and the injustices he committed so great, that the vicarius of Britain, Flavius Martinus, tried to persuade Paulus to release the innocent prisoners he had taken using the threat of his own resignation as leverage. Paulus refused and turned on Martinus, falsely accusing him and other senior officers in Britain of treason. In desperation, Martinus attacked Paulus with a sword. However, the attack failed and the vicarius committed suicide. Marcellinus gives the following additional comments:

  • Paulus, a native of Spain, a kind of viper, whose countenance concealed his character, but who was extremely clever in scenting out hidden means of danger for others. When he had been sent to Britain to fetch some officers who had dared to conspire with Magnentius, since they could make no resistance he autocratically exceeded his instructions and, like a flood, suddenly overwhelmed the fortunes of many, making his way amid manifold slaughter and destruction, imprisoning freeborn men and even degrading some with handcuffs; as a matter of fact, he patched together many accusations with utter disregard of the truth, and to him was due an impious crime, which fixed an eternal stain upon the time of Constantius. Martinus, who was governing those provinces as substitute for the prefects, deeply deplored the woes suffered by innocent men; and after often begging that those who were free from any reproach should be spared, when he failed in his appeal he threatened to retire, in the hope that, at least through fear of this, that malevolent man-hunter might finally cease to expose to open danger men naturally given to peace. Paulus thought that this would interfere with his profession, and being a formidable artist in devising complications, for which reason he was nicknamed "The Chain," since the substitute continued to defend those whom he was appointed to govern, Paulus involved even him in the common peril, threatening to bring him also in chains to the emperor's court, along with the tribunes and many others. Thereupon Martinus, alarmed at this threat, and thinking swift death imminent, drew his sword and attacked that same Paulus. But since the weakness of his hand prevented him from dealing a fatal blow, he plunged the sword which he had already drawn into his own side. And by that most ignominious death there passed from life a most just ruler, who had dared to lighten the unhappy lot of many. After perpetrating these atrocious crimes, Paulus, stained with blood, returned to the emperor's camp, bringing with him many men almost covered with chains and in a state of pitiful filth and wretchedness. On their arrival, the racks were made ready and the executioner prepared his hooks and other instruments of torture.

Paulus was condemned to death by Constantius successor, Julian the Apostate (the son of Julius Constantius, half brother of Emperor Constantine I, and his second wife, Basilina), in late 361, or early 362. He was subsequently burned alive. Looking back on these events from modern times we see a level of enmity and violence that is often expressed between groups with religious or ethnic differences, and it has been suggested that by this time the religion of Britain was developing significant differences from mainstream Roman Christianity that would soon become "Pelagianism".

The suggestion has been made that the Amphitheatre at Chester was refurbished to facillitate the execution of rebellious elements of the legions in Britain, which in the case of Chester would have included Legio XX.

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The "Great Conspiracy"

After 360, Northern Britain was attacked by the Picts, from Scotland and the Scoti and Attacotti from Ireland, possibly with the aid of some Saxon mercenaries. The raids culminated in what the historian Ammianus Marcellinus described as a "barbarica conspiratio" that capitalised on depleted military forces following losses by the Britto-Frankish usurper Flavius Magnus Magnentius in 351 at the Battle of Mursa Major and the subsequent purges of the army in Britain. Ammianus was living in Antioch at the time, so his account of events is far from complete.

In the winter of 367, as part of the "Great Conspiracy" the Roman garrison on Hadrian's Wall rebelled, and allowed Picts from Caledonia to enter Britannia. Simultaneously co-ordinated and pre-arranged waves of, Attacotti, Scotti from Hibernia, and Saxons from Germania, landed on the island's mid-western and south-eastern borders, respectively. These groups managed to overwhelm the entire western and northern areas of Britannia. The cities were sacked and some civilian Romano-British murdered, raped, or enslaved. Marcellinus records that Nectaridus, the "Count of the Saxon Shore" was killed, and that the "Dux Britanniarum", Fullofaudes was either besieged or captured. St Jerome describes the Attacotti as follows (this is often thought to contain mistranslations):

  • Quid loquor de ceteris nationibus, cum ipse adolescentulus in Gallia viderim Atticotos, gentem Brittanicam humanis vesci carnibus et cum per silvas porcorum greges et armentorum pecudumque reperiant, pastorum nates et feminarum papillas solere abscindere et has solas ciborum delicias arbitrari? (Why should I speak of other nations when I, a youth, in Gaul beheld the Attacotti, a British tribe, eat human flesh, and when they find herds of swine, cattle, and sheep in the woods, they are accustomed to cut off the buttocks of the shepherds, and the breasts of the shepherdesses, and to consider them as the only delicacies of food.)
This skeleton, now in the Grosvenor Museum appears to date from around the time of the "Great Conspiracy". It was found in the bottom of a well on or near the site of the Roman "Mansio", near Chester Castle.

It is possible that the skeletal remains of a boy found in the base of a well at the Mancio near Chester Castle and the signs of a fire from the same time are the result of the "barbarica conspiratio". Certainly no-one seems to have made any attempt to fish the body out of the well at the time. The skeleton of the boy is now in the Grosvenor Museum, and it is easy to see that sometime earlier in life he had broken his leg badly and probably walked with a pronounced limp. However, associating a fire with civil strife is a weak connection, bakers shops, blacksmiths and even hotels have been known to burn down for many other reasons.


In the spring of 368, a relief force commanded by the ederly Flavius Theodosius arrived in Britannia from Gaul. He brought with him four units of comitatenses, (Batavii (Dutch), Heruli (Germans), Jovii and Victores) as well as his son, the later Emperor Theodosius I (379-395). Order was restored, but only after Valentius and his co-conspirators for yet another revolt were handed over to the new "Dux Britanniarum" Dulcitus for execution (see Ammianus; Book 28 Chapter III). Theodosius – unlike Paulus Catena – made it clear that he did not want to indulge in a wholesale purge:

  • de coniuratibus quaestionibus agitari prohibuit, ne formidine sparsa per multos reuiuscerent prouinciarum turbines (he forbade public investigation of the conspirators, to prevent fear spreading through many places and reviving the storms of the provinces)

It appears that a coastal defence network was constructed along the coast of North Wales, with a small fort at Caer Gybi (Holyhead) on Angelsey and a series of forts (Caer) and signal towers along the Welsh coast at Hen Waliau (Caernafon), Bangor, Braich yr Dinas, Caerhun, Deganwy, Varis (St Asaph) and Pentre. Collingwood describes the new fortification at Caernafon as follows:

  • "At Carnarvon, the lower fort, 150 yards west of the earlier fort, has its east wall complete, about 230 feet long; of the north and south walls about 120 and 180 feet remain. The walls are 5½ feet thick and up to 12 feet high; bastions were once visible. There are bonding-courses of flat stones and regular rows of put-log holes. The area was something over an acre, and the fort was probably a small Saxon Shore castellum (Segontium, 95)." (Collingwood, p.54)

Much more detail on the Romans in North Wales can be found on the Kanovium Project site. The defences of the "Irish Shore" may not have been as impressive as those of the Saxon Shore, but they would have given some comfort to the Romano -British of Gwynedd (especially the shepherds) and Chester. In the longer term, they may well have helped to preserve Romano-British culture in Gwynedd while the rest of the Roman province of Britannia fell apart. A curious left-over of the Romans in North Wales is that there is a substantial percentage of Balkan DNA in Abergele. Membership in Y chromosome haplogroup E1b1b1a2 (E-V13) was found to average at 38.97%. This genetic marker is found at its highest concentrations in the Balkans (at up to approximately 40% in areas) but at much lower percentages in Northern Europe at less than 5%. The reason for the high levels of E1b1b in Abergele is most likely due to the heavy Roman legionary presence. Possibly, the "Valeria" part of the name of Legio XX (based at Chester), is a reference to the area the Romans called Pannonia Valeria on the river Danube in east-central Europe (there are other possible origins for the title "Valeria Victrix"). Perhaps this Balkan connection explains why both the Albanian and Welsh words for "red" are borrowed from Latin coccum - "scarlet".

These genetic and linguistic markers and other evidence are now thought to point to a rather different version of the end of Roman Britain than that previously made popular. Four-hundred years of Roman "occupation" did not end with an indigenous population unchanged by the experience.

400-600: The Immediate Post-Roman Period & The Coming Of The Saxons

The decline of Roman control over Britain was a drawn-out affair which created a twilight period in which Roman civilisation gradually dwindled and died away. Many theories have been put forward for the fourth century decline seen throughout the Western Roman Empire. These often reflect the prejudices of the times and have included:

  • Food Additives: In the form of lead poisoning of the middle classes by plumbing or the use of Sugar of Lead (an early "artificial sweetener").
  • Complacency: Edward Gibbon famously placed the blame on a loss of civic virtue among the Roman citizens - they entrusted defense to foreign troops who eventually turned on them. Gibbon also considered that Christianity had contributed to this as people became less interested in the worldly here-and-now and more willing to wait for the rewards of heaven.
  • Social Security: It has been proposed that immigration by Swedish Goths (and others "asylum seekers"), economic migrants etc meant that there were too many people wanting a slice of the tax income.
  • Ecological Collapse: Another theory suggests that waves of invading Huns and other Eastern European "immigration" were caused by (it is proposed) by ecological collapse in Asia.
  • Food Miles: Another school holds that the instability caused by usurpers throughout the Western Empire meant that the agricultural economy collapsed. As most of the economy was based upon agriculture (and high on "food miles") this was a severe economic blow once transport (for example of grain from Africa) became disrupted by Gaiseric's Vandals at Carthage.
  • Iran/Iraq: It has been suggested that the high cost of war in what is now Iraq/Iran against the Sassanid Persian empire (226–651) led to increased taxation and economic decline.
  • Insane Leadership: Completely paranoid characters like Constantius (who believed that everyone was out to get him and once had a "rival" executed for owning a purple tablecloth) cannot be good for government.
  • Pandemic: The Plague of Justinian may have thwarted attempts to recover the empire.

Overpopulation was not a cause, from 1AD to the year 1000, the population of the earth increased from 100 million to 110 million (today it stands at just short of 7000 million).

Whatever the cause, "barbarian" tribes continued to make deeper incursions into Gaul, Hispania, and Italy, and then began to settle. The rot had set in, and with it came rebellion, lost territory, and subsequent losses in vitally-needed manpower and resources. The empire shrank and (despite numerous appeals for help) support was withdrawn from far-flung outposts like Chester. A weak Britain was invaded by several groups of Anglo-Saxon's. Legend has it that they were first invited as mercenary troops. There is no narrative history of Britain for the period 400-600 - the only datable references to Britain in contemporary documents are two visits of St. Germanus of Auxerre in 429 (Prosper, Chronicon) and c.445 (Constantius, Life of St. Germanus 5.25), and a chronicle entry for the year 441 stating that at least a portion of the island had "passed into the power of the Saxons" (Gallic Chronicle of 452). The next securely datable events in British history begin with St. Augustine's arrival in 597.

The departure of the Romans

A "Roman" in Chester - Chester still has full-time Roman soldiers employed - they can be hired as mercenaries for weddings, Bar Mitzvahs, etc.

There is no detailed historical record of the Roman legions packing up, blowing out the lights, marching out of Chester and leaving the local populace to their own devices. Indeed, after over three-hundred years of "occupation" the Romans were probably pretty well integrated with the indigenous population. Coin finds on the Wirral seem to suggest that retired Roman soldiers lived in the area. If they did they may well have taken local wives. They probably even spoke the local language. The most likely scenario was that regular troops were withdrawn to support civil wars in mainland Europe, leaving local irregular troops, or mercenaries, to defend the Roman towns as best they could. There were frequent appeals to Rome for help, few of which were answered. There are some few historical hints of the survival of Roman culture in the area around Chester.

Strikingly, many of the revolts against the continental empire started in Britain after army pay - represented by finds of Roman coins - ceased to arrive. Coins minted between 378 and 388 are very rare, indicating a likely combination of economic decline, diminishing numbers of troops, problems with the payment of soldiers and officials or with unstable conditions during the usurpation of Magnus Maximus (383–87). Coinage circulation increased during the 390s, although it never attained the levels of earlier decades and after Magnus Maximus there was no longer a Roman mint in Britain. Copper coins are very rare after 402, although minted silver and gold coins from hoards indicate they were still present in the province even in only small numbers and even if they were not being spent. By 407 there were no new Roman coins going into circulation.

Magnus Maximus

Magnus Maximus (Flavius Clemens Magnus Maximus Augustus, Welsh: Macsen Wledig) (ca. 335 – August 28, 388), was Western Roman Emperor from 383 to 388. In 383 as commander of Britain, he usurped the throne against emperor Gratian; and through negotiation with emperor Theodosius I the following year he was made emperor in Britannia and Gaul.

A significant turning point in the disintegration of Roman Britain was the revolt of Magnus Maximus (a Spaniard) in A.D. 383. After living in Britain as military commander for twelve years, Magnus was declared Emperor by his troops and began his campaigns to dethrone Gratian as Emperor in the West. Geoffrey of Monmouth gets this wonderfully mixed up and makes Gratian "King of the Britons" (Geoffrey also has Constantine the Great as a British king as well - see his legendary king list). Magnus took a large part of the Roman garrison in Britain with him to the Continent, and defeated Gratian. Geoffrey of Monmouth gives a slightly inacurate account of Maxiumus and mentions how he withdrew troops from Britain:

  • The seventh emperor was Maximianus. He withdrew from Britain with all its military force, slew Gratianus the king of the Romans, and obtained the sovereignty of all Europe. Unwilling to send back his warlike companions to their wives, families, and possessions in Britain, he conferred upon them numerous districts from the lake on the summit of Mons lovis, to the city called Cant Guic, and to the western Tumulus, that is Cruc Occident. These are the Armoric Britons, and they remain there to the present day. In consequence of their absence, Britain being overcome by foreign nations, the lawful heirs were cast out, till God interposed with his assistance.

Geoffrey of Monmouth needs to be read in context. His "Armoic Britons" can be seen as the ancestors of the Normans, and he is writing for a Welsh audience to demonstrate how the Normans are merely the returning rightful rulers who have come to "liberate" the Welsh from the Anglo-Saxons.

Maximus set up his capital at Trier and ruled well over Britain, Gaul & Spain for four years. He was baptised a Christian, and was recognised as Emperor in the west by Thedosius I (the same one who had accompanied his father to Britain in 369) who was occupied with his own troubles elsewhere. Eventually however, Maximus was forced to make a move against Gratian's younger brother, Valentinian II, the Southern Emperor, who threatened his rule from Rome. He invaded Italy, took Milan and for a whole year besieged Rome. Unfortunately though, Valentinian escaped to return, backed up by the Roman Emperor of the East, Theodsoius. Maximus' forces were twice defeated at Illyricum, before he was finally killed, with his son, at Aquileia, on 28 August 388. Theodosius re-installed Valentinian in the West. However, Valentinian soon found himself struggling to break free from the control of general Arbogast. In 392, Valentinian was discovered hanged in his room under unknown circumstances.

In the view of many historians the death of Maximus marked the end of direct imperial presence in Northern Gaul and Britannia.

Gildas (author of "The Ruin Of Britain") puts it so:

  • ..new races of tyrants sprang up, in terrific numbers, and the island, still bearing its Roman name, but casting off her institutes and laws, sent forth among the Gauls that bitter scion of her own planting Maximus, with a great number of followers, and the ensigns of royalty, which he bore without decency and without lawful right, but in a tyrannical manner, and amid the disturbances of the seditious soldiery. He, by cunning arts rather than by valour, attaching to his rule, by perjury and falsehood, all the neighbouring towns and provinces, against the Roman state, extended one of his wings to Spain, the other to Italy, fixed the seat of his unholy government at Treves, and so furiously pushed his rebellion against his lawful emperors that he drove one of them out of Rome, and caused the other to terminate his most holy life.
Eliseg's Pillar in North Wales. The pillar itself dates to the 9th century, the mound is significantly older, dating from 2000 BC.

A possible daughter of Magnus Maximus, Sevira, is mentioned on the on the Pillar of Eliseg, an early medieval inscribed stone which stands near Valle Crucis Abbey in North Wales (and possibly a re-use of a Roman column from Chester) which claims her marriage to Vortigern (another supposed King of the Britons). Magnus features in the Mabinogion tale "The Dream of Macsen Wledig", which places much of his activity in North Wales, especially at Segontium (on the outskirts of Caernarfon). Welsh genealogies give Maximus/Macsen Wledig a prominent role in the dynasties of many of Welsh kingdoms and it has been argued that this role may be a result of genuine land grants and delegation of authority by Roman authorities to "local" leaders such as Vortigern and Padarn Beisrudd on troop withdrawal.

According to tradition, Magnus married Elen Luyddog - "Elen of the Hosts", who is associated with the building of many Roman Roads in Wales. She may turn up in connection with the Chester Mystery Plays: where a "church" is mentioned, it is Santa Maria in Ara Coeli which is known for housing relics belonging to Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine and possibly confused with "Elen of the Hosts".

Magnus is remembered in the Welsh patriotic song Yma o Hyd. According to medieval Welsh sources, Magnus brought his British troops to Gaul to enforce his claims. He settled them in Armorica, (Britanny) and this Romano-British colony expanded when Britain itself was invaded by the Anglo-Saxons, forcing the native Celts to the west and overseas and establishing the dominance of the Brythonic (British Celtic) Breton language in Armorica. Curiously, one of Magnus's coins bears an image which is possibly a helmeted "Britannia" bearing a spear and seated upon a lion. It would be an image which would be re-used in the centuries to come.

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Flavius Stilicho (c. 359 – Ravenna, 22 August 408) was a high-ranking general (magister militum) in the Roman army who became, for a time, the most powerful man in the Western Roman Empire. He fought a war in Britain, most likely in 398.

Flavius Stilicho (ca. 359 – August 22, 408) was a high-ranking general (magister militum), Patrician and Consul of the Western Roman Empire, notably of semi-barbarian birth having been born in Germany the son of a Vandal father and a Roman mother. After the death of Theodosius (395), and the succession of his son Honorius, the situation in Britain was even more precarious. Claudian's Eutropium (1, 392-3), written early in 399, suggests that in 398, while Stilicho was busy suppressing a revolt in Africa, Britain had recently resisted attacks by Saxons, Scots and Picts:

  • domito quod Saxone Tethys Mitior aut fracto secura Britannia Picto. (the Saxon conquered, the Ocean calmed, the Pict broken, and Britain secure.)

Claudian's de consulatu Stilichonis, (2, 250-5), written in January 400 is possible evidence for an expedition to Britain mounted by Stilicho in 396-8. The following is put into the mouth of Britannia, dressed in the skin of some Caledonian beast, her cheeks tattooed, her sea-blue mantle sweeping over her footsteps like the surge of ocean:

  • "Inde Caledonio velata Britannia monstro, ferro picta genas, cuius vestigia verrit caerulus Oceanique aestum mentitur amictus: me quoque vicinis pereuntem gentibus inquit munivit Stilicho, totam cum Scottus Hivernen movit et infesto spumavit remige Tethys illius effectum curis, ne tela timerem Scottica, ne Pictum tremerem, ne litore toto prospicerem dubiis venturum Saxona ventis." (When I too was about to succumb to the attack of neighbouring peoples - for the Scots had raised all Ireland against me, and the sea foamed under hostile oars - you, Stilicho, fortified me. This was to such effect that I no longer fear the weapons of the Scots, nor tremble at the Pict, nor along my shore do I look for the approaching Saxon on each uncertain wind.)

Frere (1987) believed this was evidence of naval activity against the Irish, Picts, and Saxons, as Gildas mentions in is sixth century writings. If this is the case then it may well have taken place offshore of the line of forts and signalling towers along the northern Welsh coast.

The "XXth" legion, Valeria Victrix, based at Chester, appears to have been recalled to the continent by Stilicho about 402. Claudian's poem, De Bello Getico, indicates that the troops in question had done service against the Picts and Scots, as had the XXth under Hadrian and Pius:

  • "Venit et extremis legio praetenta Britannis; Quae Scoto dat frena truci, ferroque notatas; Pertegit exsangues Picto moriente figuras." This legion, which curbs the savage Scot and studies the designs marked with iron on the face of the dying Pict.

The mention of the invasions of the Scots, the implication of coastal defence and the possible link with the XXth legion, may indicate that Stilchio was active in the Chester/N.Wales area. However, even considering the paucity of records, this is the most tenuous of links.

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Constantine III

The homelands of the Jutes, Angles and Saxons were in what is now Denmark.

The provinces of Britain were now isolated, lacking support from the Empire, and the setting up and pulling down a series of emperors as the soldiers supported the revolts of:

  • Marcus (406 - 407), a soldier in Roman Britain who was proclaimed emperor by the army there some time in 406. All that is known of his rule is that he did not please the army, and was soon killed by them;
  • Gratianus (407), acclaimed as emperor by the army in Britain in early 407. His army wanted to cross to Gaul and stop the barbarians who were attacking the empire but Gratian ordered them to remain (he should have known better). Unhappy with this, the troops killed him - and finally
  • Constantine "III" (who actually listened to the troops);
Flavius Claudius Constantinus, known in English as Constantine III (died 411 by 18 September) was a Roman general who declared himself Western Roman Emperor in Britannia in 407 and established himself in Gaul. Recognised by the Emperor Honorius in 409, collapsing support and military setbacks saw him abdicate in 411. He was captured and executed shortly afterwards.

It is noteworthy that the Roman troops in Britain considered that they had a chance of defeating the continental roman troops (at that time being governed from Ravenna). This does not support the older theory that Stilcho had completly drained Britain of troops in 401. In mainland Europe things were far worse - on 31 December in 405 or 406 several tribes of Germanic invaders, including the Vandals, the Burgundians, the Alans and the Sueves, crossed the frozen Rhine river perhaps near Mainz, and overran the Roman defensive works in a successful invasion of the Western Roman Empire. This crossing initiated a wave of destruction of Roman cities and military revolt in Britania and Gaul. This was a mortal blow to the empire, from which it never recovered.

Constantine III was a British common soldier and invaded Gaul in 407, eventually occupying Arles, but in the process probably drained Britain of the last of it's Roman legions.

According to Geoffrey of Monmouth (who should seldom be believed), Constantine repelled the Huns and Picts (who had invaded Britain) and soon after his coronation, he fathered three sons: Constans, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and Uther Pendragon. According to the psuedo-history, Constantine dedicated Constans to the church then sent his other two sons away to Brittany to have them raised by the Bretons, himself reigned for ten years, but was stabbed by a traitorous Pict. The legend continues with Constans being brought out of the monastery and crowned by Vortigern. Later, Vortegern has him assassinated and succeeds him as king.

In reality, upset that Constantine could no longer effectively defend them, the Roman inhabitants of Britain and Armorica rebelled and expelled his officials in 409. The year 410 saw emperor Honorius seemingly reply to a British plea for assistance against local barbarian incursions. Preoccupied with the Visigoths (who were in the process of sacking Rome) and lacking any real capabilities to assist the distant province, Honorius, in his famous rescript, supposedly told the Britons to defend themselves as best they could. Notably he is said to have written to the civitas rather than any remaining troops - which has been taken to indicate that the departure of the British usurper Constantine had drained the very last of the Roman troops (Legio II Augusta) from Britain. However things are not as clear as the tradional story might suggest - the first reference to the rescript is only from the 6th century and it may not relate to Britain at all.

Meanwhile, by 410, Constantine was beseiged at Arles and finally surrendered. He was beheaded in either August or September 411 while on his way to Rome. Constans was the elder of the two sons of Constantine and for a short time controlled Gaul, Spain and, notionally, Britain (where he was probably born, but most unlikely to have been a monk). In 411 his father's apparently British general Gerontius (Geraint) invaded Gaul where he besieged and captured Constans at Vienne and had him executed. His own troops then turned on him resulting in his death.

In Britain the economy imploded. With the expulsion of Constantine's administration there was no effective large scale government to collect taxes and oversee imperial expenditure. There may have been a shortage of actual coinage forcing a barter economy which was only effective on a local level. By the middle of the fifth century much of Britain was more disorganised and culturally impoverished than before the Romans ever arrived - when coinage was imported from nothern France. These were copies of the gold stater coin of Philip II, king of the ancient Greek kingdom of Macedonia. The Roman’s arrival in 43 A.D. brought Roman coinage to Britain which took over from the Celtic staters but when they left England the widespread use of money ended. The arrival of the Anglo-Saxons didn’t change things at first but gradually, from around the year 600, coins began to re-appear. The Viking colonisation of the north-east of England introduced coins minted in York and some of the later coiners at Chester appear to have been of "Viking" origin.

Roman rule never returned to Britain after the deaths of Constantine III and his son. As the historian Procopius (c500-c560) later explained,

  • "Alaric died of disease, and the army of the Visigoths ... marched into Gaul, and Constantine, defeated in battle by Honorius, died with his sons. However the Romans never succeeded in recovering Britain, but it remained from that time on under tyrants." (Bellum Vandalicum 3.2.38)
  • "Three very populous nations inhabit the Island of Brittia, and one king is set over each of them. And the names of these nations are Angles, Frisians, and Britons who have the same name as the island. So great apparently is the multitude of these peoples that every year in large groups they migrate from there with their women and children and go to the Franks. And they [the Franks] are settling them in what seems to be the more desolate part of their land, and as a result of this they say they are gaining possession of the island. So that not long ago the king of the Franks actually sent some of his friends to the Emperor Justinian in Byzantium, and despatched with them the men of the Angles, claiming that this island [Britain], too, is ruled by him. Such then are the matters concerning the island called Brittia." (History of the Wars 8.20.6-10)

Gildas finally goes completely over the top at the desperate state of the British:

  • itemque mittuntur queruli legati, scissis, ut dicitur, uestibus, opertisque sablone capitibus, inpetrantes a romanis auxilia ac ueluti timidi pulli patrum fidissimis alis succumbentes, ne penitus misera patria deleretur nomenque romanorum, quod uerbis tantum apud eos auribus resultabat, uel exterarum gentium opprobrio obrosum uilesceret. (Again suppliant messengers are sent with rent clothes, as is said, and heads covered with dust. Crouching like timid fowls under the trusty wings of the parent birds, they ask help of the Romans, lest the country in its wretchedness be completely swept away, and the name of Romans, which to their ears was the echo of a mere word, should even grow vile as a thing gnawed at, in the reproach of alien nations.)

The Chester connection here is again a very weak one, simply that Vortigern may, possibly, have been a ruler in Powys or Gwynedd.

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St German and the "Groans of the British"

The Maes Garmon obelisk (photo Phil Williams) was erected in 1736 by Nehemiah Griffith of Rhual to commemorate victory of the Christian Celts led by Bishop Germanus over Picts and Saxons in 429 AD.

Help for the British came from an unlikely source. St German of Auxerre - came to britain in 429 and defeated the Saxons and Picts at a place known as "Maes Garmon" (which is traditionally located near Mold) in the "Battle of the Hallelujahs". The site, now marked by an obelisk, lies at the western end of the easiest valley route (and classic ambush point) through the Clwydian hills. The Life of St Garmon describes the events as follows:

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

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

The text on the Maes Garmon obelisk reads as follows:

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

A well nearby called Ffynnon Gwaed or the Bloody Well seems also to have derived its name from this battle, so it might not have been quite so bloodless. Yet another famous well the Goblins' Well also once lay nearby having since fallen victim to a road widening scheme. The name Goblins’ Well may links it to the nearby Goblins’ Hill, Bryn-yr-Ellyllon. This was the site of a burial cairn, dated to around 1900 to 1600 BC, close to the River Alun, which was opened in 1833. Its contents included the magnificent Mold Cope, this was badly damaged when found and much of the gold was shared out amongst the workmen finding it, although the British Museum acquired the greater proportion in 1836. The co-incidence of the battle location, the legend of the ghostly golden-clad warrior and the Mold Cope is fascinating.

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

The final appeal for help to the Roman commander in Europe took the form of the "Groans of the Britons". Dated to c. 446, the message is recorded by Gildas in his De Excidio Britanniae (the "Ruin of Britain"), and later by Bede. Gildas records it in his usual style:

  • igitur rursum miserae mittentes epistolas reliquiae ad agitium romanae potestatis uirum, hoc modo loquentes: ‘agitio ter consuli gemitus britannorum;’ et post pauca querentes: ‘repellunt barbari ad mare, repellit mare ad barbaros; inter haec duo genera funerum aut iugulamur aut mergimur;’ nec pro eis quicquam adiutorii habent. interea famis dira ac famosissima uagis ac nutantdibus haeret, quae multos eorum cruentis compulit praedonibus sine dilatione uictus dare manus, ut pauxillum ad refocillandam animam cibi caperent, alios uero nusquam: quin potius de ipsis montibus, speluncis ac saltibus, dumis consertis continue rebellabant. (Again, therefore, the wretched remnant, sending to Aetius, a powerful Roman citizen, address him as follow:—"To Aetius, now consul for the third time: the groans of the Britons." And again a little further, thus:— "The barbarians drive us to the sea; the sea throws us back on the barbarians: thus two modes of death await us, we are either slain or drowned." The Romans, however, could not assist them, and in the meantime the discomfited people, wandering in the woods, began to feel the effects of a severe famine, which compelled many of them without delay to yield themselves up to their cruel persecutors, to obtain subsistence: others of them, however, lying hid in mountains, caves and woods, continually sallied out from thence to renew the war.)

Flavius Aetius or simply Aëtius, (c. 396–454), dux et patricius, was a Roman general of the closing period of the Western Roman Empire. He was an able military commander and the most influential man of the Western Roman Empire for two decades (433-454). He managed the attacks of the barbarian peoples pressing on the Empire. He gathered a large and mostly barbarian army to win the Battle of the Catalaunian Plains, ending the invasion of Attila the Hun in 451. Given these other concerns no military aid was forthcoming from Flavius, although it may be that this was the cause of the second visit of St German of Auxerre who returned to Britain in c. AD 446-7.

Perhaps Flavius could have saved Britain, but on September 21, 454, when at court in Ravenna delivering a financial account, Flavius Aëtius was slain by the last Western (and barking mad) Emperor Valentinian III's own hand. Edward Gibbon credits Sidonius Apollinaris with the famous observation:

  • "I am ignorant, sir, of your motives or provocations; I only know that you have acted like a man who has cut off his right hand with his left."

The "Groans of the British" would now be forever unanswered. Drained of troops by civil wars elsewhere in a troubled empire ruled by madmen, the Romano-British were left to their own devices. Between 383 and 446, in less than a lifetime, Roman rule in Britain had collapsed. The precise timeline of the collapse is not known as it is put together from second- or third-hand fragments that were often copied by "historians" having a specific point to make, such as Gildas who sees corruption everywhere or Bede who is distinctly anti-British.

The Romano-British

Britain in the year 500, a possible date for the Battle of Mons Badonicus: Romano-British and Celts defeat an Anglo-Saxon army that may have been led by the bretwalda Aelle of Sussex or possibly Cerdic of Wessex - suggested dates range from 490 to 517). This battle may have influenced the legend of King Arthur.

Degrees of "Romanisation" in Post-Roman Britain would have varied through Britain with Roman culture having had the biggest impact in the southeast. However Chester would have had a significant local influence and this is reflected by an increased number of coin finds around the lower Dee and along the North Welsh coast as well as other remains. The Romans had improved the roads, and had a major impact in language and religion. The 5th and 6th centuries in Britain are generally marked by a sharp discontinuity in town life, perhaps always a somewhat artificial Roman imposition on the landscape, dependent on imperial military requirements and requirements of administration and tax collection. Without the Roman administration the need for city life and means to support it both faded away. There were a few exceptions in London, York, Canterbury and Wroxeter. There is only very scant evidence for any continuation of "Roman" culture at Chester and what little is known is discussed below.


Faced with a lack of aid from the remnant of the Empire the Romano-British were forced to rely on mercenary troops and what forces they could gather among themselves. A number of semi-legendary rulers seem to have tried to hold parts of the country together. Much has been written about the actual historical existence (or not) of these figures, who include:

  • Ambrosius Aurelianus, (Welsh: Emrys Wledig; called Aurelius Ambrosius in the Historia Regum Britanniae and elsewhere) a possible war leader of the Romano-British who may have won an important battle against the Anglo-Saxons in the 5th century. He is mentioned by Gildas (who is copied by Bede) and by "Nennius". Despite attempts to find a definite historical basis he remains an essentially mythical figure;
  • Arthur: who may have been a Romano-British leader fighting against the invading Anglo-Saxons some time between the late 5th century and early 6th century. He is first mentioned by "Nennius". The legendary Arthur developed as a figure of international interest largely through the popularity of Geoffrey of Monmouth's fanciful and imaginative 12th-century Historia Regum Britanniae (History of the Kings of Britain). The historical basis for King Arthur has been long debated by scholars.
  • Vortigern: according to the traditional view, he invited support from Saxon mercenaries with dire results. Having invited the Saxons to defend him from the marauding Picts, in return for a small patch of swampy land near Ramsgate (by 2015 this had become a UKIP stronghold), Vortigern seemed to think that the Saxons would ignore the fact that they were the most powerful military force in an otherwise undefended country. This was to be one of the least intelligent political decisions in British history.
  • A war-lord named Cunedda who was invited to protect north Wales from the depredations of the Irish and came to be the founder of the Kingdom of Gwynedd.

Archaeological studies show that during the alleged lifetime of these figures, the Anglo-Saxon expansions do seem to have been halted for a whole generation. However there is little evidence to suggest that even if these figures existed they had anything to do directly with Chester.


Despite the Roman departure, Chester and the Wirral probably continued to be important trading centres. There were trading centres on the Wirral at Hoylake and Meols (Melr = sandbanks). These are sites of many archeological finds and Iceland has "Melar" place names of similarity. Very little is known about the two centuries from the Roman departure to around the year 600. One possible reason for at least the later part of the lack of written history may have been a climate change event possibly brought about by a volcanic eruption or other cataclysm in 535-536. Another event that was perhaps important was the Pandemic known as the Plague of Justinian, which afflicted the entire Mediterranean Basin, Europe, and the Near East, severely affecting the Sasanian Empire and the Byzantine Empire and especially its capital, Constantinople. From historical descriptions, as much as 40% of the population of Constantinople died from the plague. It is named after the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) emperor Justinian (11 May 482 – 14 November 565). The plague weakened the Byzantine Empire at a critical point, when Justinian's armies had nearly retaken all of Italy and the western Mediterranean coast. The evolving conquest would have reunited the core of the Western Roman Empire with the Eastern Roman Empire. Some historians have suggested that the plague was the final stage in the collapse of the Western Roman Empire.

The plague spread as far as Britain where it possibly claimed the life of Maelgwn Gwynedd who died c.547. This gives at least some connection to the Chester/North Wales region. Other links to the region can be found through Vortigern and Cunedda, but these again do not appear to directly connect to Chester.

Maelgwn Gwynedd

The traditional version of his death from Welsh history records:

  • "And Maelgwn Gwynedd beheld the Yellow Plague through the keyhole in the church door and forthwith died. One account of the Yellow Plague is as a strange beast with yellow eyes, teeth, and hair; another describes it as a column of vapour rising from the earth to heaven and sweeping along the ground. The church where he died was thought to be Eglwys Rhos, not far from his court"

Surviving records suggest he held a pre-eminent position among the Brythonic kings in Wales and their allies in the "Old North" along the Scottish coast. According to legend, Maelgwn was buried on Ynys Seiriol (now known as Puffin Island in English), off the eastern tip of Anglesey. One thing worth noting is that Maelgwn had links with the remnants of the Roman Empire: the Byzantine historian Procopius records of Justianian:

  • "On all his [Justinian's] country's potential enemies he lost no opportunity of lavishing vast sums of money ... as far as the inhabitants of Britain."

It has been long held that the Anglo-Saxons migrated to sub-Roman Britain in large numbers in the fifth and sixth centuries, substantially "displacing" the British people (who became the Welsh). However recent evidence may suggest that the Anglo-Saxon "invasion" was much more like the Norman "invasion" and that while it involved a change of ruling elite, it did not involve wholesale displacement or "ethnic cleansing" of Britains. In support of this, recent analysis of genetic evidence indicates than even in the east of England, where there is the best evidence for migration, no more that 10% of paternal lines can be designated as coming from an “Anglo-Saxon” migration event and that in the same English regions 69% of male lines are still of aboriginal British origin.

Prior to the Battle of Chester (616 - see below), Chester was part of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, a Brythonic Kingdom which covered much of north Wales. The main centre of power in this kingdom was at Deganwy now a relatively quiet village at the mouth of the River Conwy. "Brythonic" languages are believed to have been spoken on the entire island of Britain as far north as the Clyde-Forth. Beyond this was the territory of the Picts and Gaels. According to early medievael historical tradition, the post-Roman Celtic-speakers of Armorica (literally - "by the sea") were migrants from Britain, supposedly resulting in the similar Breton language, a language similar to Welsh which survives there to this day - the area is called "Brittania". A modern theory based on genetic evidence puts this the other way around and suggests that in palaeolithic times, as the ice sheets retreated, a dark-haired people migrated from a refuge in Spain up the coastline of the emerging islands (i.e. "by the sea") and populated Brittany, Cornwall and Wales.

Hengest and Horsa, from "A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence" by Richard Verstegan (1605). Incongruously dressed and armed with a crossbow: the crossbow is portrayed as a hunting weapon on four Pictish stones from early medieval Scotland (6th to 9th centuries)


Returning to the early Dark Ages, Gildas's "The Ruin Of Britain" is one of the few sources from this period but is a notoriously inaccurate "rant". Writing around 550, he places the guilt for the eventual invasion of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons firmly in the hands of the British ruler Vortigern

  • Then all the councillors, together with that proud tyrant Gurthrigern [Vortigern], the British king, were so blinded, that, as a protection to their country, they sealed its doom by inviting in among them like wolves into the sheep-fold), the fierce and impious Saxons, a race hateful both to God and men, to repel the invasions of the northern nations. Nothing was ever so pernicious to our country, nothing was ever so unlucky. What palpable darkness must have enveloped their minds-darkness desperate and cruel! Those very people whom, when absent, they dreaded more than death itself, were invited to reside, as one may say, under the selfsame roof. Foolish are the princes, as it is said, of Thafneos, giving counsel to unwise Pharaoh. A multitude of whelps came forth from the lair of this barbaric lioness, in three cyuls, as they call them, that is, in there ships of war, with their sails wafted by the wind and with omens and prophecies favourable, for it was foretold by a certain soothsayer among them, that they should occupy the country to which they were sailing three hundred years, and half of that time, a hundred and fifty years, should plunder and despoil the same. They first landed on the eastern side of the island, by the invitation of the unlucky king, and there fixed their sharp talons, apparently to fight in favour of the island, but alas! more truly against it. Their mother-land, finding her first brood thus successful, sends forth a larger company of her wolfish offspring, which sailing over, join themselves to their bastard-born comrades.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle tells a similar tale:

  • AN CCCCXLIX. Her Mauricius1 7 Ualentines onfengon rice 7 ricsodon uii winter. 7 on hiera dagum Hengest 7 Horsa, from Wyrtgeorne geleaþade, Bretta kyninge, gesohton Bretene on þam staþe þe is genemned Ypwinesfleot -- ærest Brettum to fultume, ac hie eft on hie fuhton. Se cing het hi feohtan agien Pihtas, 7 hi swa dydan, 7 sige hæfdan swa hwar swa hi comon. Hi ða sende to Angle 7 heton heom sendan mare fultum, 7 heom seggan Brytwalana nahtnesse 7 ðæs landes cysta. Hy ða sendan heom mare fultum. Þa comon þa menn of þrim mægþum Germanie: of Eald Seaxum, of Anglum, of Iotum. Of Iotum comon Cantware 7 Wihtware -- þæt ys seo mæið ðe nu eardaþ on Wiht -- 7 þæt cynn on Westsexum þe man gyt hæt Iutna cyn. Of Eald Seaxon comon East Sexa, 7 Suð Sexa, 7 West Sexan. Of Angle comon, se a siððan stod westi betwyx Iutum 7 Seaxum, East Engla, Midel Angla, Mearca, 7 ealle Norðhymbra.
  • 449: Here Mauricius and Valentinian seized the empire and reigned for seven winters. In their days Hengest and Horsa, invited by Vortigern, king of the Britons, sought Britain on the shore called Ebbsfleet -- at first as protection for the Britons, but later they fought against them. The king commanded them to fight against the Picts. They did so, and had victory wherever they went. Then they sent to Angeln and called on them to send more forces, and to tell people about the worthlessness of the Britons and the merits of their land. Then they sent them more support. These men came from the three races of Germany -- from the Old Saxons, from the Angles, and from the Jutes. From the Jutes came the Kentish people and the Wightish people -- that is the race that now dwells on Wight -- and that race in Wessex that is still called the race of the Jutes. From the Old Saxons came the East Saxons, the South Saxons, and the West Saxons. From Angeln, which afterwards stood deserted between the Jutes and Saxons, came the East Angles, Middle Angles, Mercians, and all the Northumbrians.

The ASC is terribly confused about people and dates for this early period. Mauricius is most probably Flavius Marcianus emperor of the Byzantine Empire from 450 until his death in 457. The other emperor mentioned is Valentinian III installed Western Emperor in Rome, in 423, at the age of six (hardly "seizing" the empire). Thus while events concerning Vortigern seem to be around the year 450 there remains some doubt.

As noted above, the Pillar of Eliseg, also links Vortigern to Magnus Maximus who died in 388. The relevant line of the pillar is badly damaged and reads:

  • Maximus of Britain [Conce]nn, Pascen[t], Mau[n], An[n]an (+) Britu, moreover, (was) the son of Guorthi(girn), whom Germanus blessed and whom Severa bore to him, the daughter of Maximus the king, who slew the king of the Romans +

The reference to St Germanus is interesting as this may be a borrowed reference to a second visit to Britain by St Germanus of Auxerre in c. AD 446-7, when he met with a British leader Elafius and supposedly miraculously cured his crippled son (see: Mold Cope).

Hollinshead mentions an "Earl of Chester" in connection with the coming of the Saxons but his source is unknown:

  • Amongst other of the Britains, there was one Edol earle of Glocester, or (as other say) Chester, which got a stake out of an hedge, or else where, and with the same so defended himselfe and laid about him, that he slue 17 of the Saxons, and escaped to the towne of Ambrie, now called Salisburie, and so saued his owne life. Vortiger was taken and kept as prisoner by Hengist, till he was constreined to deliuer vnto Hengist thrée prouinces or countries of this realme, that is to say, Kent &Essex, or as some write, that part where the south Saxons after did inhabit, as Sussex and other: the third was the countrie where the Estangles planted themselues, which was in Norfolke and Suffolke. Then Hengist being in possession of those thrée prouinces, suffered Vortigerne to depart, &to be at his libertie.
  • When this Aurelius Ambrosius had dispatched Vortigerne, and was now established king of the Britains, he made towards Yorke, and passing the Gal. Mon. riuer of Humber, incountred with the Saxons at a place called Maesbell, and ouerthrew them in a strong battell, from the which as Hengist was fléeing to haue saued himselfe, he was taken by Edoll earle of Glocester, or (as some say) Chester, and by him led to Conningsborrow, where he was beheaded by the counsell of Eldad then bishop of Colchester.

Edol (as earl of Chester) will turn up again in "The Birth of Merlin", a Jacobean play first performed in 1622. While the first printed edition of the play attributes the play to William Shakespeare and William Rowley, most scholars reject the attribution to Shakespeare and believe that the play is Rowley's, perhaps with a different collaborator.

Hengist has a connection with Chester through the Anonymous Short English Metrical Chronicle (Auchinleck Manuscript, NLS Adv. MS 19.2.1, ff.304ra-317rb) dated to 1330s. This has a lengthy section on 'Hengist' (f.307vb-f.308vb, lines 655 to 876) wrongly considered by the author as an ancient king of the Britons who reigned a hundred and fifty years. The foundation of many towns including Chester is therein attributed to him - also the establishment of the institution of parliament; the establishment of the institutions of shire and hundred; the measurement of furlong and mile; the building of Stonehenge (which is there derived from his name); the re-naming of London 'Hengisthon'; the conjouring of three hundred fiends to build a stone bridge twenty miles over the sea to France; the conquest of many lands beyond the sea;the begetting of thirty five children (twenty seven sons and eight daughters) by seven wives! This is not believed to be accurate.

The Votadini

Nennius, the 10th-century Welsh chronicler, traced the Kingdom of Gwynedd's foundation to Cunedda a member of the Votadini.

  • Maelgwn, the great king, was reigning among the Britons in the region of Gwynedd, for his ancester Cunedag, with his sons, whose number was eight, had come previously from the northern part, that is from the region which is called Manau Gododdin, one hundred and forty-six years before Maelgwn reigned. And with great slaughter they drove out from those regions the Scotti who never returned again to inhabit them.
Map showing the location of Gododdin, covering most of the original Votadini territory, while the southern part between the Tweed and the Tyne formed its own separate kingdom called Brynaich. Cunedda, legendary founder of the Kingdom of Gwynedd in north Wales, is supposed to have been a Gododdin chieftain who migrated south-west about this time. It is possible that the initial link between North Wales and the north-east was established by the Romans, who garrisoned both regions from Chester.

Between 138-162 the Votadini came under direct Roman military rule as occupants of the region between Hadrian's and the Antonine Walls. Then when the Romans drew back to Hadrian's Wall the Votadini became a friendly buffer state, getting the rewards of alliance with Rome without being under its rule. After Theodosius recovered Britain from revolt in 369 this region may have become the province of Valentia. One Roman (or Romanised) leader of the Votadini appears to have been named Paternus and was to become "Padarn Beisrudd" (of the red robe) in the Welsh legends of his grandson Cunedda. By around 427 it appears that Scoti settlements appear to have established in Wales (Gwynedd and Dyfed) by the Laighin of Leinster and Ui Liathain tribe of Munster, which were being used as advance bases by Irish and Pictish raiders to launch strikes deeper into Britain. The situation became desperate for the British in AD 429 when a large army of Saxons and Picts aided by the Irish settlements struck out through Wales. According to Nennius, Cunedda migrated with his sons and followers from Brythonic Lothian, in southern Scotland, in the early part of the 5th century. Various dates and causes have been put forward for this migration. Some have suggested that the migration occurred as early as the late 370's under Magnus Maximus, others have suggested as late as the late 440's under Vortigern. The purpose of this invitation to migrate may have been to provide a Romano-British military force to defend North Wales and Cheshire against Irish invaders. Soon only Llyn, Arfon, Arllechwedd and the majority of Anglesey remained in Irish hands. Cunedda also took raiding parties further south and expelled the Ui Liathain from Gwyr, Cedweli and parts of Dyfed.

Cunedda founded a dynastic clan from which Welsh nobility claimed their descent for centuries afterwards. Everyone seems to want to claim a connection with Cunedda - it has also been suggested that Vortigern and Cunedda are the same person (and Irish). According to "Brut Y Brenhinedd", a medieval Welsh history, Cunedda's daughter, Gwen, was the mother of Eigyr (Igraine), the legendary Arthur's mother, thus making Cunedda Arthur's great-grandfather It has been suggested that Cunedda made Chester his base (or one of them). Harleian MS 3859 states:

  • These are the names of the sons of Cunedda, whose number was nine: Tybion, the first-born, who died in the region called Manau Gododdin and did not come hither with his father and his aforesaid brothers. Meirion, his son, divided the possessions among his [Tybion's] brothers. 2. Ysfael, 3. Rhufon, 4. Dunod, 5. Ceredig, 6. Afloeg, 7. Einion Yrth, 8. Dogfael, 9. Edern. This is their boundary: from the river which is called Dyfrdwy [the Dee] , to another river, the Teifi; and they held very many districts in the western part of Britain.

The Arrival of the Anglo Saxons

From around 450 until 575, very little is known about what was happening in Britain and what has survived is a confusing mix of what are probably separate legends which were later blended together or simply confused. From the middle of the 5th century the Germanic raiders began to settle in the eastern river valleys. Later civil wars seem to have broken out, which have been interpreted either as being between pro-Roman and independence groups or between "Established Church" and Pelagian parties, a class struggle between peasants and land owners and/or a coup by an urban elite. A recent view sees Britain violently fragmenting into kingdoms based on British tribal identities. To summarise so far we have:

  • Events surrounding Constantine the Great (died 337) and his dynasty which lasted until about 350;
  • A series of Welsh legends/histories which are possibly partly based on events surrounding the revolt of Magnus Maximus / Macsen Wledig (died 388);
  • Constantine III, who died in 411 and was unrelated to Constantine the Great;
  • Vortigern known perhaps as a king of the Britons or at least connoted as such in the writings of Bede, Nennius and Gildas. His existence is contested by scholars and information about him is obscure;

Geoffrey of Monmouth was particularly guilty of sowing immense confusion in his largely self-constructed History of the Kings of Britain (c.1136) which was based partly on Gildas, Bede and Nennius, and partly on his own imagination. Geoffrey has a List of kings of Britain which includes Romans such as Carausius, Allectus, Constantius Chlorus, Constantine I, Magnus Maximus, Constantine III and Constans II, and then has Vortigern, his son Vortimer, Aurelius Ambrosius, Uther Pendragon, and Arthur.


Werburgh's shrine in the Cathedral links the Kentish Royal Legend to the story of Mercia. The people on the shrine are coloured: blue for Mercian rulers, green for Kentish, women in yellow.

As noted above, in the fifth century, raids on Britain by continental peoples had developed into full-scale migrations. The newcomers are known to have included Angles, Saxons, Jutes and Frisians, and there is evidence of other groups as well. These groups captured territory in the east and south of England. There is both documentary and archaeological evidence that Kent was primarily colonised by Jutes, from the southern part of the Jutland peninsula. According to legend, the brothers Hengist and Horsa landed in 449 as mercenaries for the (possibly mythical) British king, Vortigern. After a rebellion over pay and Horsa's death in battle, Hengist established the Kingdom of Kent. Some historians now think the underlying story of a rebelling mercenary force may be accurate; most now date the founding of the kingdom of Kent to the middle of the fifth-century, which is consistent with the legend. This early date, only a few decades after the "departure" of the Romans, also suggests that more of Roman civilization may have survived into Anglo-Saxon rule in Kent than in other areas. However connections between events in Kent and those in Wales, such as the involvement of Vortigern, may well be products of later myth-making.

Sources for this period in Kentish history include the Ecclesiastical History of the English People, written in 731 by Bede. Bede was interested primarily in England's Christianization and since Æthelberht of Kent was the first Anglo-Saxon king to convert to Christianity, Bede provides more substantial information about him than about any earlier king. However much of this information either conflicts with other sources or leads to improbable lifespans. In his Ecclesiastical History, Bede includes his list of seven kings who held imperium over the other kingdoms south of the Humber as "Bretwalda". The usual translation for imperium is "overlordship". Bede names Æthelberht as the third on the list, after Ælle of Sussex and Ceawlin of Wessex. Bede follows Æthelberht with three of his fellow Northumbrians: Edwin, Oswald and Oswiu. Notably none of these are British, but all Anglo-Saxonx. The anonymous annalist who composed one of the versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle repeated Bede's list of seven kings in a famous entry under the year 827, with one additional king, Ecgbert of Wessex (whose Wessex dynasty was organising the Chronicle).

According to Bede, Æthelberht not only had some special role in the rulership of Britain, but was descended directly from Hengist. Bede gives the line of descent as follows:

  • "Ethelbert was son of Irminric, son of Octa, and after his grandfather Oeric, surnamed Oisc, the kings of the Kentish folk are commonly known as Oiscings. The father of Oeric was Hengist."

All of the above would become part of the Kentish Royal Legend upon which the iconography of the shrine of Werburgh at the Cathedral is based, mixed-in with a dose of Mercian history. This links Werburgh directly to Æthelberht.

The Saxons Settle

This is the darkest part of the Dark Ages. In Europe, there was a steep decline in population, reaching its lowest point around 542 with the what may have been the first outbreaks of bubonic plague (the Plague of Justinian) which may have killed 50% of the population of Europe and put an end to any Roman attempts at a recovery of the empire. This also reached Ireland in 544 or 545 and in 547 reached Britain. An evocative 8th Century Saxon poem "The Ruin" describes this or a similar plague and Roman ruins:

  • Crungon walo wide, Cwoman woldagas, Swylt eall fornom, Secgrofra wera; Wurdon hyra wigsteal, Westenstaþolas, Brosnade burgsteall, Betend crungon,
  • Came days of pestilence, on all sides men fell dead, death fetched off the flower of the people; where they stood to fight, waste places and on the acropolis, ruins.

By around the year 500 the Angles had settled the North Sea and Humber coastal areas, particularly around Holderness. The Angles then appear to have suffered early setbacks - which may have become the basis for the Arthurian legends, especially as regards a battle known as "Mount Badon". The cleric Gildas (c. 516 – 570) lived through this period and stated that the battle took place in the year of his birth. He also mentions "a memorable plague". A tradition in north Wales places the beheading of Gildas' brother, Huail, at Ruthin, where what is said to be the actual execution stone has been preserved in the town square (St. Peter's Square). According to a further legend, another brother of Gildas, Celyn ap Caw maintained a watchtower at Garth Celyn on the north coast of Gwynedd where the Roman road from Chester, linking the forts of Conovium and Segontium, crossed the river. Gildas does not mention Arthur but seems to imply that since the battle times had improved (although some cities were deserted):

  • ..after this, sometimes our countrymen, sometimes the enemy, won the field .. until the year of the siege of Mount Badon, when took place also the last almost, though not the least slaughter of our cruel foes, which was (as I am sure) forty-four years and one month after the landing of the Saxons, and also the time of my own nativity. And yet neither to this day are the cities of our country inhabited as before, but being forsaken and overthrown, still lie desolate; our foreign wars having ceased, but our civil troubles still remaining. For as well the remembrance of such a terrible desolation of the island, as also of the unexpected recovery of the same, remained in the minds of those who were eyewitnesses of the wonderful events of both, and in regard thereof, kings, public magistrates, and private persons, with priests and clergymen, did all and every one of them live orderly according to their several vocations. But when these had departed out of this world, and a new race succeeded, who were ignorant of this troublesome time, and had only experience of the present prosperity..

Archaeological evidence from Anglo-Saxons graves suggests that some of their settlements were abandoned and the frontier between the invaders and the natives was pushed back around 500. This could have been due to military action or could have been due to the plague. However, the Anglo-Saxons held onto the present counties of Kent, Sussex, Norfolk, Suffolk, and around the Humber; while the native British controlled everything west of a line drawn from the mouth of the Wiltshire Avon at Christchurch north to the river Trent, then along the Trent to where it joined the Humber, and north along the river Derwent and then east to the North Sea, and an enclave to the north and west of London, and south of Verulamium (St Albans), that stretched west to join with the main frontier. The Britons defending this pocket could move their troops along Watling Street to bring reinforcements to London or Verulamium.

The Kingdom of Powys emerged during the Middle Ages following the end of Roman rule in Britain. Based on the Romano-British tribal lands of the Ordovices in the west and the Cornovii in the east, its boundaries originally extended from the Cambrian Mountains in the west to include the modern West Midlands region of England in the east. During the Roman Empire, this region was organised into a Roman province, with the capital at Viroconium Cornoviorum (modern Wroxeter). Throughout the Early Middle Ages, Powys was ruled by the Gwerthrynion dynasty, a family claiming descent jointly from the marriage of Vortigern and Princess Sevira, the daughter of Magnus Maximus. Archaeological evidence has shown that, unusually for the post-Roman period, Viroconium Cornoviorum survived as an urban centre well into the 6th century and thus could have been the Powys capital.

There is little archaeological evidence of activity at Chester in this sub-Roman period, but it is believed that the Roman site at Wroxeter (near Shrewsbury) was definitely still occupied and there is evidence at Wroxeter of extensive re-building in wood some time after the vast Roman Baths' Basilica was partly demolished around 350. In the 5th century a large winged timber hall was erected within the remaining walls complete with classical, Roman-style portico and steps. Behind it stood rows of timber booths along a finely sifted gravel street which was roofed in. More wooden buildings with classical facades stood beyond. It has been suggested that this was the palace of a major Dark Age King, possibly the capital of an enlarged Kingdom of Powys, ruled over by the (in)famous Vortigern.

Opinion is divided as to when the Wroxeter was finally abandoned, but it is believed to be between AD500 - AD650, at around the same time that the Saxons were founding Shrewsbury (Anglo-Saxon Scrobbesburh = "fort in the scrub-land region" or "Scrobb's fort"). There appears to have been no corresponding wooden construction at Chester. South of Chester, Eccleston has a name which is a compound of the latin for church (ecclesia) and the English word for settlement (tun). This may indicate some kind of religous settlement, possibly relocated from the Roman village at Heronbridge.

Within the city, the Roman building would have begun to decay. Evidence shows that courtyards became covered with a layer of earth containing many animal bones, which indicates that people still lived there, but perhaps not many. One interesting consequence of the Roman ruins was the development of The Rows. The ground behind Row properties is the same level as the first floor walkway and is thus generally 9ft (3.3m) higher than at the street frontage. This has come about because of the differential clearance of the ruins of Roman buildings which were removed along the frontages of the main streets because such areas were the most sought after as building plots in the medieval town where the majority of the inhabitants made their living through commerce.

Anglo Saxon settlement 550-800

The arrival of the Saxons in Cheshire is revealed as the increase in Anglo-Saxon names for settlements, such as those ending in "wich" from the old word "wic" meaning trading village or "ton" from "tun" meaning village. One other possible indication of early Anglo-Saxon occupation is the place-name "Henwald's Lowe" (later the Gorse Stacks), just north-east of the Roman fortress. Henwald's Lowe became common land, and its name, a combination of an Old English personal name and Old English hlaw, 'mound' or 'hill', may indicate an early aristocratic burial. A Celtic monastery had been established at Bangor-on-Dee in about AD 560 by Saint Dunod and was an important religious centre in the late 5th and early 6th centuries.

  • Towards the river Deva were situated, in the first place, the Carnabii. Their principal places were Benonse, Etocetum, and Banchorium, [Bangor on Dee] the last the most celebrated monastery in the whole island, which being overthrown in the dispute with Augustine was never afterwards restored; and the mother of the rest, Uriconium, esteemed one of the largest cities in Britain. In the extreme angle of this country, near the Deva, was the Roman colony Deva, the work of the twentieth legion, which was called Victrix, and was formerly the defence of the region. This place is supposed to be what is now termed West Chester - Richard of Cirencester - NB this work is now known to be a forgery by Charles Bertram

By 575 British defences in the Midlands collapsed, the Anglo-Saxons obliterated the British Watling Street salient and overran the London - Verulamium area and much of the plain of the Midlands. Around 584, the Kingdom of the Iclingas became Mercia. Mercia's evolution from the Anglo-Saxon invasions is more obscure than that of Northumbria, Kent, or even Wessex. The name Mercia is Old English for "boundary folk" (see marches), and the traditional interpretation was that the kingdom originated along the frontier between the Welsh and the Anglo-Saxon invaders. The earliest king of Mercia of whom any details are known was Creoda, said to have been the great-grandson of Icel, son of Eomer. Creoda came to power about 585 and built a fortress at Tamworth, which became the seat of the Mercian kings. He was succeeded by his son Pybba in 593. Cearl, a kinsman of Creoda, followed Pybba in 606. However even these few details have been treated with suspicion by many historians as they are only known through later writers whose sources are no longer available.

Christianisation of Anglo-Saxon England was to expand greatly around AD 600, influenced by Celtic Christianity from the northwest and by the Roman Catholic Church from the southeast. The first Archbishop of Canterbury, Augustine took office in 597. In 601, he baptised the first Christian Anglo-Saxon king, Aethelbert of Kent. However, by the year 600, the "Briton's" of the western coast still had a continuous range from south Wales to Strathclyde. This was soon to change, at Chester.

A digression - What about King Arthur?

The historical basis for the King Arthur legend has long been debated by scholars. One school of thought, citing entries in the Historia Brittonum (History of the Britons) and Annales Cambriae (Welsh Annals), sees Arthur as a genuine historical figure, a Romano-British leader who fought against the invading Anglo-Saxons sometime in the late 5th to early 6th century. The Historia Brittonum, a 9th-century Latin historical compilation attributed in some late manuscripts to a Welsh cleric called Nennius, contains the first datable mention of King Arthur, listing twelve battles that Arthur fought. These culminate in the Battle of Mons Badonicus, or Mount Badon, where he is said to have single-handedly killed 960 men. Recent studies, however, question the reliability of the Historia Brittonum. Other scholars argue that Arthur was originally a fictional hero of folklore—or even a half-forgotten Celtic deity—who became credited with real deeds in the distant past. They cite parallels with figures such as the Kentish totemic horse-gods Hengest and Horsa, who later became historicised. Bede ascribed to these legendary figures a historical role in the 5th-century Anglo-Saxon conquest of eastern Britain. It is not even certain that Arthur was considered a king in the early texts. Neither the Historia nor the Annales calls him "rex": the former calls him instead "dux bellorum" (leader of battles) and "miles" (soldier). The present writer suspects there might have been a British soldier named Arthur who had a series of victories over the Anglo-Saxons around AD 500 and who was remembered in increasingly elaborate legends throughout the Middle Ages and into modern times as the "once and future king" who would return in his country's hour of need.

One thing that is clear is that Arthur (even assuming he existed) could not have been an "Englishman", and would not have had mounted knights fighting in plate armour and would never have seen a stone castle. The armour and weapons which Hollywood portrays Arthur and his knights as using date from many hundreds of years later than the first mention of the battles in which he is supposed to have fought. Arthur and his knights wearing plate armour is as anachronistic as Harold turing up at the Battle of Hastings with tanks.

Geoffrey of Monmouth

Gerald of Wales tried (and failed) to warn the world about Geoffrey of Monmouth.

If the legendary Arthur lived at all it would have been between the departure of the Romans and the "conquest" of Britain by the Anglo-Saxons. However the fact is that, apart from a very few sources, no-one of this name is mentioned until many years later, when Geoffrey of Monmouth first introduces him in Historia Regum Britanniae written about 1136.

  • After the death of Uther Pendragon, the barons of Britain did come together from the divers provinces unto the city of Silchester, and did bear on hand Dubricius, Archbishop of the City of Legions, that he should crown as king Arthur, the late King's son. For sore was need upon them, seeing that when the Saxons heard of Uther's death they had invited their fellow-countrymen from Germany, and under their Duke Colgrin were bent upon exterminating the Britons. They had, moreover, entirely subdued all that part of the island which stretcheth from the river Humber as far as the sea of Caithness. Dubricius therefore, sorrowing over the calamities of the country, assembled the other prelates, and did invest Arthur with the crown of the realm. At that time Arthur was a youth of fifteen years, of a courage and generosity beyond compare, whereunto his inborn goodness did lend such grace as that he was beloved of well-nigh all the peoples in the land.

The "City of the Legions" mentioned by Geoffrey is probably Caerleon rather than Chester.

The historian Francis Pryor famously remarked that this gap between the "historical" Arthur and Geoffrey was like Simon Schama being the first historian to mention Oliver Cromwell. Geoffrey claims in his dedication of the "History of the Kings of Britain" that the book is a translation of an "ancient book in the British language that told in orderly fashion the deeds of all the kings of Britain", given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford. No trace of this "source" has ever been found, and many historians believe that it does not exist. William of Newburgh, in the late-12th-century commented that Geoffrey "made up" his narrative, perhaps through an "inordinate love of lying". William goes on to state:

  • "For the purpose of washing out those stains from the character of the Britons, a writer in our times has started up and invented the most ridiculous fictions concerning them, and with unblushing effrontery, extols them far above the Macedonians and Romans. He is called Geoffrey, surnamed Arthur, from having given, in a Latin version, the fabulous exploits of Arthur, drawn from the traditional fictions of the Britons, with additions of his own, and endeavoured to dignify them with the name of authentic history."

In reality much of the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth appears to be derived from Gildas's 6th century polemic "The Ruin of Britain", Bede's 8th century "Ecclesiastical History of the English People", the 9th century "History of the Britons" ascribed to Nennius, the 10th century Welsh Annals, medieval Welsh genealogies (such as the Harleian Genealogies) and king-lists, the poems of Taliesin, the Welsh tale Culhwch and Olwen, and some of the medieval Welsh Saint's Lives, expanded and turned into a continuous narrative by Geoffrey's own imagination. Most of these earlier works do not mention Arthur at all.

In 1136, when Geoffrey was writing, the country was about to plunge into a disturbed period known as "The Anarchy" and a history of a more ordered Britain (with local rather than Anglo-Saxon roots) was probably quite welcome. Similar considerations might well have led to "Arthur" being mentioned by the anonymous writer referred to as Nennius who wrote his Historia Brittonum in around 830.


Chapter 56 of Nennius discusses twelve battles fought and won by Arthur, here called dux bellorum (war leader) rather than king:

  • At that time, the Saxons grew strong by virtue of their large number and increased in power in Britain. Hengist having died, however, his son Octha crossed from the northern part of Britain to the kingdom of Kent and from him are descended the kings of Kent. Then Arthur along with the kings of Britain fought against them in those days, but Arthur himself was the military commander ["dux bellorum"]. His first battle was at the mouth of the river which is called Glein. His second, third, fourth, and fifth battles were above another river which is called Dubglas and is in the region of Linnuis. The sixth battle was above the river which is called Bassas. The seventh battle was in the forest of Celidon, that is Cat Coit Celidon. The eighth battle was at the fortress of Guinnion, in which Arthur carried the image of holy Mary ever virgin on his shoulders; and the pagans were put to flight on that day. And through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ and through the power of the blessed Virgin Mary his mother there was great slaughter among them. The ninth battle was waged in the City of the Legion. The tenth battle was waged on the banks of a river which is called Tribruit. The eleventh battle was fought on the mountain which is called Agnet. The twelfth battle was on Mount Badon in which there fell in one day 960 men from one charge by Arthur; and no one struck them down except Arthur himself, and in all the wars he emerged as victor. And while they were being defeated in all the battles, they were seeking assistance from Germany and their numbers were being augmented many times over without interruption. And they brought over kings from Germany that they might reign over them in Britain, right down to the time in which Ida reigned, who was son of Eobba. He was the first king in Bernicia, i.e., in Berneich.

There is some evidence that Nennnius used Welsh sources. This would explain the odd description of Arthur bearing the image of the Virgin Mary on his shoulders at Guinnion - a confusion of the Welsh word iscuit (shield) for iscuid (shoulders)! "The City of the Legion" may be again a reference to Caerleon, whose name translates as such, but it might also refer to Chester (see below). Nennius was writing for Merfyn Frych ap Gwriad, king of Gwynedd (r. c. 825-844) in the 4th year of his reign, probably sometime between 828 and 830 and it has been proposed that one object of the work was to provide a "Celtic" history of Britain for the Welsh as opposed to the "English" history of Bede. In addition, the times leading up to Merfyn's reign were unsettled for both Gwynedd and neighbouring Powys - both kingdoms were beset by internal dynastic strife, external pressure from Mercia.

Arthur of Brittany

As with the later case of Geoffrey of Monmouth, this Arthur makes his appearance when the country needs him. Arthur "returns" again in the 1180's and this time the politicking is Plantagenet:

John and Arthur of Brittany - would you trust your stepson with this guy...
  • The son of Geoffrey Plantagenet, and Constance, Duchess of Brittany, was born at Nantes, on Easter Day, 1187, six months after the death of his father. He was the first grandson of Henry II., for the graceless young King Henry had died childless. Richard was still unmarried, and the elder child of Geoffrey was a daughter named Eleanor; his birth was therefore the subject of universal joy. There was a prophecy of Merlin, that King Arthur should re-appear from the realm of the fairy Morgana, who had borne him away in his death-like trance after the battle of Camelford, and returning in the form of a child, should conquer England from the Saxon race, and restore the splendours of the British Pendragons. At the same time a Welsh bard directed King Henry to cause search to be made at Glastonbury, the true Avalon, for the ancient hero's corpse, which, as old traditions declared, had been buried between two-pyramids within the Abbey. There, in fact, at some distance beneath the surface, was found a leaden cross inscribed with the words, 'Here lies Arthur, Once and Future King'

This Arthur has a definite link to Chester through his step-father Ranulf of Blundeville, and the sword "Excalibur" even turns up in connection with him - being handed over to Tancred of Sicily by Richard II while naming Arthur as the future King of England. Unfortunately, this Arthur would be murdered and never become king. Despite his death, the "Chester Mystery" novels have the principal character DI Dutton spending some of his spare time on writing his Arthur Counter-factual history of this Arthur.

The Chivalric Arthur

Arthur and his retinue appear in some of the Lais of Marie de France, but it was the work of another French poet, Chrétien de Troyes, that had the greatest influence on the Arthurian legend. Chrétien wrote five Arthurian romances between c. 1170 and c. 1190. Erec and Enide and Cligès are tales of courtly love with Arthur's court as their backdrop, demonstrating the shift away from the heroic world of the Welsh and Galfridian Arthur. The end of the Middle Ages brought with it a waning of interest in King Arthur. Although Malory's English version of the great French romances was popular, there were increasing attacks upon the truthfulness of the historical framework of the Arthurian romances – 1634 saw the last printing of Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur for nearly 200 years. In the early 19th century, medievalism, Romanticism, and the Gothic Revival reawakened interest in Arthur and the medieval romances. In 1816, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur was reprinted for the first time since 1634. Tennyson's Arthurian work reached its peak of popularity with Idylls of the King, which reworked the entire narrative of Arthur's life for the Victorian era. In the years following the outbreak of the Second World War, Arthur's legendary resistance to Germanic invaders struck a chord in Britain and his myth has continued to develop since then.

Arthurian Chester

Stained glass window from St Johns showing Edgar the Pacific on the River Dee during his journey to or from what would be Chester's original Cathedral. No one seems to be steering the boat.

There are few links between Chester and the legend of Arthur. Some historians believe that 's "ninth battle...in the City of the Legion", as recorded by Nennius is a misplaced reference to this later battle (see below) which was possibly fought at Heronbridge. Heronbridge is on the Roman Road south of Chester towards the Wrekin which almost certainly follows a much earlier trade route. The road links Chester with Wroxeter (or 'Viroconium'). "Arthurian" Sites along this route include Hawkstone Park and the Red Castle and these have been associated with various "Grail Legends". Another connection is that between Ranulf de Blondeville (stepfather of Arthur of Britanny) and Whittington Castle through Fulk FitzWarin. Some of these tenuous links are featured in the Chester Mystery novels about the fictional detective Richard Dutton. Higden's Polychronicon dismisses the existence of Arthur completely on the basis of lack of historical evidence.

Henry Bradshaw, in his Life of St Werburgh mentions Arthur briefly:

  • Certaynly sith baptym came to Chester cite Soone after Lucius and afore kynge Arthure By the grace of god and their humilite The faith of holy churche dyd ever there endure Without recidivacion and infection sure ; Wherefore it is worthy a singular commendacion Above all citees and towns of this region . The perfect begynnyng and fyrst foundacion Of the monasterie within the sayd cite Was at the same tyme by famus opinion That baptym began with this countre . The great lordes of Chestre of landes and auncetre First edified the churche for comfort spirituall In honour of the apostels Peter and Paule.

Finally, a suggestion has been made that the reference in the following passage from Geoffrey of Monmouth is a reference to Chester rather than Caerleon:

  • " From the approach of the Feast of Penticost Arthur .....resolved the whole magnificent court , to place the crown upon his head and to invite all the kings and dukes under his subjection to the soleminity ..... He pitched upon the City of Legions as a proper place for this purpose , for besides the great wealth of it, above all other cities its situation of ..... was most pleasant, for on one side it was washed by the noble river so that kings and princes from countries beyond the seas might have the convenience of sailing up to it ; on the other side the beauty of the meadows and groves , and the magnificence of the royal palaces with lofty gilded roofs that adorned it may even rival the grandeur of Rome . There came ....The Arch bishops of the three Metropolitan Sees , London York and Dubricius of the City of the Legions, this Prelate who was Primate of Britain and Legate of the Apostolic See, was so eminent for his piety that by his prayers he could cure any sick person"

The last reference may be inspired by the fact that Edgar the Pacific was similarly crowned in Chester in the 10th Century. As mentioned in the Chester Chronicle:

  • A.D. 972. This year Edgar the etheling was consecrated king at Bath, on Pentecost's mass-day, on the fifth before the ides of May, the thirteenth year since he had obtained the kingdom; and he was then one less than thirty years of age. And soon after that, the king led all his ship-forces to Chester; and there came to meet him six kings, and they all plighted their troth to him, that they would be his fellow-workers by sea and by land.

Dubricius was a genuine Bishop of Caerleon (Wales) in the 6th Century Dubricius was the illegitimate son of Efrddyl, the daughter of King Peibio Clafrog of Ergyng. His grandfather threw his mother into the River Wye when he discovered she was pregnant, but was unsuccessful in drowning her. However Chester is also known as Caerleon.

In 2010 a theory was put forward that Camelot was in fact Chester, and the "Round Table" was a reference to the Amphitheatre. This is not taken seriously by historians, but was briefly leapt upon by local businesses as a way of providing some publicity for the city.

Summary: The Post Roman Period (400-600)

This period saw the collapse of any effective military response to the settlement of eastern England by the Anglo-Saxons. Whether they first came as mercenaries or were simply colonists is unclear. In later times the legends of King Arthur would emerge as what is perhaps a rather distorted echo of the events of these times. The early Anglo-Saxons have left few if any written records of their arrival and what survives is a British record that has been filtered through the likes of Gildas or adapted into myths and legends. By the end of this period the administration in England was Anglo-Saxon, the religion was "pagan" and the remains of the Romano-British culture seems to have been confined to Wales. Chester was almost certainly occupied and appears to have been under largely Welsh control, possibly being an established ecclesiastical center and an important border trading location.

600-800: The Heptarchy and the Mercian Supremacy

The period from around AD 500 to around AD 850 has been described as the Heptarchy, though this term has now fallen out of academic use. The label arose on the belief that the seven Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia, Kent, East Anglia, Essex, Sussex and Wessex were the main political units of south Britain. However, recent scholarship has shown that during this period several other kingdoms were politically important. These include Hwicce, Magonsaete, the Kingdom of Lindsey and Middle Anglia. Mercia's rise to prominence was not to be easy. By the early seventh century Northumbria had consolidated from the sub-kingdoms of Bernicia and Deira to become the dominant power in England. A series of battles which started at Chester and continued for almost fifty years was needed for Mercia to hack it's way to the top of the heap. It is a story which starts with St Augustine and ends with St Werburgh.

Æthelberht of Kent

As many were taught at school, Æthelberht of Kent was the first English King to convert to christianity circa 601. However he had married a Christian princess named Bertha before 588, and perhaps earlier than 560. Bertha was the daughter of Charibert I (c517-567), one of the Merovingian kings of the Franks. As one of the conditions of her marriage she had brought a Frankish bishop named Liudhard with her to Kent as her chaplain. Bede hardly mentions this bishop at all. Bede states that Æthelberht died in 616 twenty-one years after his baptism. Augustine's mission from Rome is known to have arrived in 597, and according to Bede, it was this mission that converted Æthelberht: hence Bede's dates are inconsistent as they imply Æthelberht was baptised before Augustine arrived. It is perhaps no coincidence that kings began converting to Christianity at the time when larger kingdoms began to be formed. Christianity brought with it access to writing systems to create written law codes, and charters to transfer rights and property.

Augustine and The Battle of Chester (c. 616)

Britain around 600 - note the areas of swamp or flooding in Yorkshire and around the Wash. The flooded Humber and the Pennines formed natural boundaries for "Northumbria", which developed into a significant political force.

As noted above, the struggles of the period prior to 600 give rise to the legends of Uther Pendragon and King Arthur. It is sometimes said that Ambrosius Aurelianus, a possible leader of the Romano-British forces, was the model for the former, and that Arthur's court of Camelot is an idealised memory of pre-Saxon Romano-British civilisation. The ninth battle of the legendary King Arthur was supposedly fought at The City of the Legion ("nonum bellum gestum est in urbe legionis"). Some have suggested that this is Chester, while others propose Caerleon, York or Carlisle. The list of battles is given by Nennius in his Historia Britonum compiled some time around 820, and whether Chester was the site has been the subject of conflicting theories. The legendary battle is not mentioned by Gildas writing in the early sixth century, who only mentions "Mons Badonicus", the last Arthurian battle. What is known for a fact is that there was a major battle at Chester in post-Roman times, and that may have later been drawn into the Arthurian legends (despite it being a Northumbrian victory over the Welsh). Dates given for the Battle of Chester vary, but 616 seems a reasonable estimate.

The battle had consequences for the religious development of England, as the 600-800 period opened with an important synod of St Augustine with the British bishops at "Urbs Legion" (Chester). This was listed in the Annales Cambriae for the year 601. Augustine was a Benedictine monk who arrived in Britain 597 and became the first archbishop of Canterbury. While he is considered the "Apostle to the English" and a founder of the English Church it should not be forgotten that the Celtic church was already flourishing, possibly as a survival of Christianity from Roman times, or possibly as a result to earlier waves of missionaries. St Patrick was Romano-British and had been active in the first half of the 5th century. By 600, in Kent, the Saxon king Æthelberht was at least in the process of converting to Christianity and obviously both the Celtic and the Roman Church saw the opportunities that this would bring. Augustine, tried to reach an agreement with the Celtic bishops who would not cooperate with the new arrival from Rome, and refused to give up their existing traditions regarding baptism and the dating of Easter. That Chester was selected as the location of a synod suggests that some local infra-structure had survived. A Celtic monastery had been established at Bangor-on-Dee in about AD 560 by Saint Dunod and was an important religious centre in the late 5th and early 6th centuries. According to some accounts, St Dunod was still alive at the time of the Synod and apparently chaired the meeting (although this may not have been the case).

Augustine died in 604. Shortly thereafter in 616 the Battle of Chester was fought between Æthelfrith of Northumbria (a Pagan) against Kings Selyf Sarffgadau of Powys (leading the army of Din Eirth) and Cadwal Crysban of Rhôs (with a smaller force from eastern Gwynedd) - and possibly also Iago ap Beli. A large number of Saint Dunod's monks were slaughtered (said to be in keeping with Augustine's prophecy that if "they would not accept peace with their brethren, they should have war with their enemies"). Geoffrey of Monmouth (in History of the Kings of Britain) states that one of leaders of the British was "consul urbis" (Consul of the City) and that:

  • "After this all the princes of the Britons met together at the city of Legecester,(..possibly Chester/possibly Leicester..) and consented to make Cadwan their king, that under his command they might pursue Ethelfrid beyond the Humber. (Book XII part I)".
St Augustine (first third of the 6th century – probably 26 May 604) was a Benedictine monk who became the first Archbishop of Canterbury in the year 597. He is considered the "Apostle to the English" and a founder of the English Church. Pope Gregory ("the Great") chose him in 595 to lead a mission, usually known as the Gregorian mission, to Britain to Christianize King Æthelberht and his Kingdom of Kent from Anglo-Saxon paganism. Kent was probably chosen because Æthelberht had married a Christian princess, Bertha, daughter of Charibert I the King of Paris (as shown in this fanciful illustation). There was already a thriving Christian church in Britain at the time. The death of hundreds of British clerics to the pagan Northumbrian king Æthelfrith around 616 at the Battle of Chester was taken by Bede as fulfillment of a prophecy allegedly made by Augustine that the British church would receive war and death from the Saxons they refused to proselytise.

Holinshead repeats this:

  • After that the Britains had cōtinued about the space almost of 24 yéeres without anie one speciall gouernour, being led by sundrie rulers, euer sithens that Careticus was constreined to flée ouer Seuerne, and fought oftentimes not onelie against the Saxons, but also one of them 613 against another, at length in the yéere of our Lord 613, they assembled in the citie of Chester, and there elected Cadwan that before was ruler of Northwales, to haue the souereigne rule & gouernement ouer all their nation, and so the said Cadwan began to reigne as king of Britaine in the said yéere 613. But some authors say, that this was in the yéere 609, in which yéere Careticus the British king departed this life. And then after his deceasse the Britains or Welshmen (whether we shall call them) chose Cadwan to gouerne them in the foresaid yéere 609, which was in the 7 yéere of the emperour Phocas, and the 21 of the second Lotharius king of France, and in the 13 yéere of Kilwoolfe king of the Westsaxons.

While one generally accepted date is 616, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says in 605 (in one version and 606 in another version) that:

  • And her Æðelfrið lædde his færde to Legercyestre, & ðar ofsloh unrim Walena. & swa wearþ gefyld Augustinus witegunge. þe he cwæþ. Gif Wealas nellað sibbe wið us. hi sculan æt Seaxana handa farwurþan. Þar man sloh eac .cc. preosta ða comon ðyder þæt hi scoldon gebiddan for Walena here. Scrocmail was gehaten heora ealdormann. se atbærst ðanon fiftiga sum. (a rather free translation reads...And here Æthelfrith led his militia to the castle of the legions (Chester), and there slew innumerable Welsh. And so was fulfilled Augustinus's prediction (prophecy), that he said give the barbarians no peace with us, they shall owe their death to the hands of the Saxons. There were slain also 200 priests that came in order to pray for the Welsh soldiers. Brochfael was called their leader, and he escaped as one of fifty.)

The dates of the battle remains troublesome and the following sources differ:

  • Anglo-Saxon Chronicle - 607: This year Ceolwulf fought with the South-Saxons. And Ethelfrith led his army to Chester; where he slew an innumerable host of the Welsh; and so was fulfilled the prophecy of Augustine, wherein he saith "If the Welsh will not have peace with us, they shall perish at the hands of the Saxons." There were also slain two hundred priests, (18) who came thither to pray for the army of the Welsh. Their leader was called Brocmail, who with some fifty men escaped thence.
  • Annals of Tigernach - 611: The battle of Chester where the saints were slain; and [where]Solon, Conan's son, king of Britons, and king Cetula fell. Æthelfrith was the victor; and immediately afterwards he died.
  • Annals of Clonmacnoise - 613: The battle of Carleil or Carlegion, where Folinn, Conan's son, king of the Britons, was killed by Æthelfrith; who having the victory died himself instantly.
  • Annals Cambriae - 613: The battle of Caer Legion [Chester]. And there died Selyf son of Cynan. And Iago son of Beli slept [died].
  • Annals of Ulster - 613: The battle of Chester in which the saints were slain, and Solon, Conan's son, King of Britons fell.
  • Annals of Innisfallen - 614: The battle of Chester, in which hosts of saints fell, [was fought] in Britain between the Saxons and Britons.

Who was Brochmael?

Just who "Brochfael" was presents something of a problem. Some writers have suggested that "Brochfael" was Brochwel ap Cyngen, better known as Brochwel Ysgrithrog, was a king of Powys in Eastern Wales (the nickname Ysgithrog has been translated as "of the canine teeth", "the fanged" or "of the tusk" - perhaps because of big teeth, horns on a helmet or an aggressive manner). However Brochwel is believed to have died c. 560. Thomas Pennant even suggests that the Pillar of Eliseg identifies the Brochmael of the battle of Chester as the son of Eliseg.

Edwin (Old English: Ēadwine; c. 586 – 12 October 632/633), also known as Eadwine or Æduinus, was the King of Deira and Bernicia – which later became known as Northumbria – from about 616 until his death. He converted to Christianity and was baptised in 627. Æthelfrith became king of "Northumbria" no later than 604 and, during the reign of Æthelfrith, Edwin was an exile. The location of his early exile as a child may have been in the kingdom of Gwynedd, fostered by king Cadfan ap Iago. By the 610s he was in Mercia under the protection of king Cearl, whose daughter Cwenburg he married. By around 616, Edwin was in East Anglia under the protection of king Raedwald. Bede reports that Æthelfrith tried to have Raedwald murder his unwanted rival, and that Raedwald intended to do so until his wife persuaded him otherwise with Divine prompting. Æthelfrith faced Raedwald in battle by the River Idle in 616, and Æthelfrith was defeated; Raedwald then installed Edwin as king of Northumbria.

Hollinshead writes thus:

  • It chanced that he had espied before the battell ioined (as Beda saith) where a great number of the British priests were got aside into a place somewhat out of danger, that they might there make their intercession to God for the good spéed of their people, being then readie to giue battell to the Northumbers. Manie of them were of that famous monasterie of Bangor, in the which it is said, that there was such a number of moonks, that where they were diuided into seuen seuerall parts, with their seuerall gouernors appointed to haue rule ouer them, euerie of those parts conteined at the least thrée hundred persons, the which liued altogither by the labour of their hands. Manie therefore of those moonks hauing kept a solemne fast for thrée daies togither, were come to the armie with other to make praier, hauing for their defender one Brocmale or Broemael, earle (or consull as some call him) of Chester, which should preserue them (being giuen to praier) from the edge of the enimies swoord.

The event is also mentioned in Bede's Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum:

  • ...rex Anglorum fortissimus Aedilfrid collecto grandi exercitu ad ciuitatem Legionum, quae a gente Anglorum Legacaestir, a Brettonibus autem rectius Carlegion appellatur, maximam gentis perfidae stragem dedit (..the warlike king of the English, Ethelfrid, having raised a mighty army, made a very great slaughter of that perfidious nation, at the City of Legions, which by the English is called Legacestir, but by the Britons more rightly Carlegion.)

The "200 priests" mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle are reputed, according to the historian Bede, to have come from Bangor-on-Dee. They were later to be the subject of a poem by Sir Walter Scot which was set to music by Beethoven. Bede does not seem to be quite right about his "Brochfael" who he has guarding the monks and fleeing at the first sign of trouble and, who is probably not be the same character mentioned on Eliseg's Pillar. Further confusion is caused by many writers who have made "Brochwel" an ancestor:

  • "Brochwel Yscithroc, Consul of Chester, who dwelt in a town then called Pengwerne Powys, and now Shrewsbury (Salopia), whose dwelling house was in the verie same place where the college of St Chad's now standeth." - Dr Powel's Historie of Cambrie (1584 edition)

For further information see the last paragraph of Bede, Book II, Chapter II. If you are really interested in this confused period of history, see Vortigern on Wikipedia or see the Vortigern Studies website.

Did Geoffrey Get It Right?

Geoffrey of Monmouth, in his pseudo-historical History of the Kings of Britain describes the battle of Chester thus (and has "Brocmail" as consul of the city):

  • Therefore Ethelbert, king of Kent, when he saw that the Britons disdained subjection to Augustine, and despised his preaching, was highly provoked, and stirred up Ethelfrid, king of the Northumbrians, and the other petty kings of the Saxons, to raise a great army, and march to the city of Bangor, to destroy the abbot Dinooth, and the rest of the clergy who held them in contempt. At his instigation, therefore, they assembled a prodigious army, and in their march to the province of the Britons, came to Legecester, where Brocmail, consul of the city, was awaiting their coming. To the same city were come innumerable monks and hermits from several provinces of the Britons, but especially from the city of Bangor, to pray for the safety of their people. Whereupon Ethelfrid, king of the Northumbrians, collecting all his forces, joined battle with Brocmail, who, having a less army to withstand him, at last quitted the city and fled, though not without having made a great slaughter of the enemy. But Ethelfrid, when he had taken the city, and understood upon what occasion the monks were come thither, commanded his men to turn their arms first against them; and so two hundred of them were honoured with the crown of martyrdom, and admitted into the kingdom of heaven that same day. From thence this Saxon tyrant proceeded on his march to Bangor; but upon the news of his outrageous madness, the leaders of the Britons, viz. Blederic, duke of Cornwall, Margaduc, king of the Demetians, and Cadwan, of the Venedotians, came from all parts to meet him and joining battle with him, wounded him, and forced him to flee; and killed of his army to the number of ten thousand and sixty-six men. On the Britons' side fell Blederic, duke of Cornwall, who was their commander in those wars.
Heronbridge seen from orbit. The elongated oval site is visible in this satellite photograph to the east of the line of the Roman road. To the west of the road can bee seen signs of a ancient trackway splitting off from the line of the road and tending south west - the road followed this line until some time after 1830 (see tithe map below). Some ridges and furrows are also seen in the western field and these date from Mediaeval times. During the original excavations in 1930 and 1931, a mass burial site was discovered within an earthwork and skeletons excavated. These were lost during the Second World War, but have since been rediscovered. Recent information has come to light due to the efforts of the Chester Archaeological Society, which does seem to pin the Battle of Chester down to Heronbridge or nearby. The evidence takes the form of a mass grave pit containing only male skeletons, of no more than middle age who seem to have died from battle wounds. The care with which the bodies are laid out seems to imply that this is a burial by the victorious Æthelfrith.

As usual Geoffrey is happy to mix fact with fiction: Æthelfrith wasn't a Saxon (he was Anglian) and he wasn't marching south to destroy Bangor! However, there may just be more truth in Geoffrey than at first appears: Æthelfrith may however have been stirred into action by the activities of Edwin of Northumbria. Edwin had been disinherited by Æthelfrith. While the location of his early exile as a child is not known, later traditions, reported by Reginald of Durham (and Geoffrey of Monmouth), place Edwin in the kingdom of Gwynedd, fostered by king Cadfan ap Iago. This could have made him a childhood companion (some say rival) of Cadfan's son, Cadwallon ap Cadfan. By the 610s Edwin was certainly in Mercia, under the protection of king Cearl, whose daughter Cwenburh he married. By around 616, Edwin was in East Anglia, under the protection of king Raedwald. Raedwald, despite his conversion to Christianity (Roman rather than Celtic) is the most likely contender for the Sutton Hoo ship burial (the sole surviving witness to the excavation of the Sutton Hoo boat burial was living in Chester c 2007). Bede reports that Æthelfrith tried to have Raedwald murder his unwanted rival, and that Raedwald was minded to do so, only being persuaded otherwise by his wife (a woman of pagan custom and high moral principle whose name is unknown) with "Divine prompting". What Geoffrey seems to be hinting at is some clever manoeuvring by recent Christian converts to pit the pagans against the Celtic Christians. Regardless of the exact course of events, Raedwald was to face Æthelfrith in battle by the River Idle in 616 (where the Roman road from Lincoln to Doncaster crosses the River Idle near Bawtry), and there Æthelfrith was killed, along with one of Raedwald's son's, Rægenhere.

It was not known whether the Battle of Chester was actually fought close to the city, or to the south at or towards Heronbridge (where there are graves from the period). Raphael Holinshed suggests that the battle was fought outside the city:

  • "The Britains that dwelt about Chester, through their stoutnesse prouoked the aforesaid Edelferd king of the Northumbers vnto warre: wherevpon to tame their loftie stomachs, he assembled an armie & came forward to besiege the citie, then called of the Britains Chester. The citizens coueting rather to suffer all things than a siege, and hauing a trust in their great multitude of people, came foorth to giue batell abroad in the fields, whome he compassing about with ambushes, got within his danger, and easilie discomfited."

Recent information has come to light due to the efforts of the Chester Archaeological Society, which does seem to pin the battle down to Heronbridge or nearby. The evidence takes the form of a mass grave pit containing only male skeletons, of no more than middle age who seem to have died from battle wounds. The care with which the bodies are laid out seems to imply that this is a burial by the victorious Æthelfrith. Radiocarbon dating places the remains at the right time for the battle. If it is accepted that this is the site of the Battle of Chester then this is the the earliest positively identified battle site in England.

The battle formed part of a complex struggle between the Northumbrians, the Welsh, the Mercians and just about everyone else in Britain during the "Dark Ages", but Æthelfrith's victory at Chester has been seen as having great strategic importance, as it may eventually have resulted in the separation of the British between those in Wales and those to the north. However, the story does not end simply with the battle. Both Edwin of Northumbria and Cadwallon still have a part to play out.

The People of the Wrekin

Just who ruled Chester after 616 is simply unclear. Very shortly after the Battle of Chester Aethelfrith of Northumbria was himself killed in a conflict with Raedwald of East Anglia. Edwin of Northumbria then finally gained his north-eastern throne. Meanwhile, the Welsh had elected Cadfan as their new ruler. He was succeeded by his son, Cadwallon op Cadfau, who became engaged in an initially disastrous campaign against Northumbria. Following a series of epic defeats, Cadwallon retreated first to Môn (Anglesey) and then to Ynys Glannauc (Puffin Island) before being forced into exile across the Irish Sea to Dublin. He would however return. This would place Chester under Northumbriam rulership for a time.

To the south dwelt the Wreocensæte (Old English: Wreocensǣte, Wocensǣte - their name approximates to "Wrekin-dwellers"). They were to become the most northerly of the three Mercian subject kingdoms facing Wales, with the Magonsæte to their south, and the Hwicce furthest south. Their kingdom may have covered much of modern Cheshire and Shropshire and is roughly equivalent to that of the pre-Roman and Romano-British Cornovii whose principal cities during Roman times were given by Ptolemy as Deva (Chester) and Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter). Maps showing the range of Wreocensæte settlement include Chester and the Wirral. "West Chester" is mentioned by Richard of Cirencester as being a settlement of the "Carnabii" (probably the Cornovii). This would place Chester still under the rulership of the Romano-British.

Chester, showing Saxon place names - "tun", means fenced area or enclosure

A little evidence for early Saxon settlement in the Wirral in the early seventh century comes from Meols, where a quoit brooch and several Anglo-Saxon coins have been found. A blue glass bead of a type associated with 7th century cemeteries has been found on Hilbre Island. However there is no evidence of place names which take the form "-ingas" and "-ingaham" (meaning "folk-of" and "folk named after") and are associated with early Saxon settlement. There are only later forms such as "-ington" (Bebington, Puddington, Mollington). Clearly a few isolated finds of beads, brooches and coins could be indicative of trade rather than settlement - it is worth remembering that the route followed by Watling Street from Chester to London seems to have been in use from pre-Roman times.

While there may have been local incidents of "ethnic cleansing" it appears wrong to assume that invaders simply wiped-out the indigenous populations or drove them away. The idea that the Britons were driven wholesale into Wales by the invading Saxons is outdated. Studies have shown that neither Anglo-Saxons nor Celts had much impact on the genetics of the inhabitants of the British Isles, and that "British" ancestry mainly traces back to a Palaeolithic Iberian people, now represented by Basques.

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

In "Origins of the British" (2006), Stephen Oppenheimer states (pages 375 and 378):

  • "By far the majority of male gene types in the British Isles derive from Iberia (Spain and Portugal), ranging from a low of 59% in Fakenham, Norfolk to highs of 96% in Llangefni, north Wales and 93% Castlerea, Ireland. On average only 30% of gene types in England derive from north-west Europe. Even without dating the earlier waves of north-west European immigration, this invalidates the Anglo-Saxon wipeout theory..."
  • "...75-95% of British Isles (genetic) matches derive from Iberia... Ireland, coastal Wales, and central and west-coast Scotland are almost entirely made up from Iberian founders, while the rest of the non-English parts of the British Isles have similarly high rates. England has rather lower rates of Iberian types with marked heterogeneity, but no English sample has less than 58% of Iberian samples..."

Similar arguments apply to the eastern coast of the islands. Eastern England probably had a different genetic make-up to Wales long before the Anglo-Saxon "invasion". What happened in fact during the Dark Ages was largely the same as what had plainly happened in Roman times and would happen again with the Norman invasion. It was largely (there were exceptions) the ruling and upper classes and thereafter language, religion and culture which were replaced with each new conquest. Skeletal evidence for the existence of two populations that are to an extent reproductively isolated is more circumstantial, and rests on the stature differential between men buried with, and those buried without weapons in cemeteries of Anglo-Saxon England. Men with buried with weapons (47% of male adults) have been suggested, on a number of archaeological and skeletal indicators, to be immigrants and descendants of immigrants, while men without weapons (53%) are a more disparate group that appears to include a sizeable proportion of native Britons. The stature differential between the two groups persists from the later fifth until the end of the sixth century, but begins to break down in the seventh century. The eventual settlement of the area around Chester by the Anglo-Saxons gave rise to many local place names.

Cadwallon's Return and The Mercian Supremacy

Mercia in the 6th, 7th and 8th Centuries

The "Tribal Hidage" is a list of territorial assessments in Anglo-Saxon England which lists regions and the number of "hides" those regions contained. A "hide" is the unit of land needed to support a peasant and his household - "enough land for one plough in a year". In case of war, five hides were supposed to supply one fully armed solider. The "Hidage" is generally understood to have been created in Mercia sometime between 650 and 850. Mercia's core territory (in the Trent valley)is given at 30,000 hides. The territory including Chester is given at 7000 hides (Wocen sætna is syfan þusend hida). At the time, the population of "England" was probably less than a million.

With the expansion of Mercia the surrounding petty kingdoms were adsorbed. As well as the Cheshire/Shropshire lands of the Wreocensæte, these included the lands "between the Ribble and the Mersey" (S. Lancs), the Peak District (Pecsaetan), Lindsey, the lands of the Middle-Angles, Middle-Saxons, Hwicca and Magonsaete. This was almost everything between the Thames and the Humber.

Incorporation of the Wreocensæte into Mercia brought a second wave of Saxon settlement into Cheshire and further changes to place names: "Wallasey" means "island of the Welsh" in Anglo-Saxon (Walh meaning foreigner or serf). In some places less disdain for the locals was shown: "Combermere" is derived from Cymry (meaning "fellow countryman") and mere (lake).

The Mercians were originally Anglo-Saxon polytheists, but missionaries from Rome began converting the "pagan" Anglo-Saxons to Christianity at the end of the sixth century, and this process was well underway in Penda’s reign (see below), though Penda himself remained a pagan throughout his life. Records survive of the baptism of other kings at this time — Cynegils of Wessex was baptized in about 640, for example. However, later kings, such as Cædwalla of Wessex, who ruled in the 680s, are recorded as pagan at their accession. The reason for royal conversion were political as well as spiritual given that the Church was a powerful political force on the continent. It also meant that any dead relatives could quickly become a saint. There were also two churches to choose from. After Æthelfrith was killed in battle around 616 and Edwin of Deira finally became king of Northumbria, Æthelfrith's son Oswald fled northwest to the Gaelic kingdom of Dál Riata where he was converted to Celtic Christianity by the monks of Iona. Meanwhile, Paulinus, the first bishop of York, converted King Edwin to Roman Christianity and began an extensive program of conversion and baptism.

Penda and the rise of Mercia (620-660)

Mercian Rulers - the Kings of the Angles were descended from Icel, whose father "Eomer son of Angeltheow" was used by Tolkien in "Lord of the Rings" as the basis for Éomer, literally translating to "Horse-famous".

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

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

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

Family of Wulfhere showing his daughter Werburgh and relation to Penda and Oswiu.

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

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

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

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

Wulfhere's Daughter and the other Werburgh (660-750)

Werbergh - Princess of Mercia, later saint, from stained glass at the Cathedral.

Werburgh (Werburga) Patroness of Chester, Abbess of Weedon, Trentham, Hanbury, Minster in Sheppy, and Ely, was born in Staffordshire early in the seventh century and died in 699. Her mother was Eormenhild, daughter of Ærconberht, King of Kent, and his wife Sexburga. Her father was Wulfhere, son of the lifelong pagan Penda and eventually to be king of Mercia. There are no contemporary records of Werbergh's activities - the earliest account of her life was written by Goscelin, a Flemish monk, towards the end of the 10th century.

Legend says that Wulfhere wished to marry his daughter, Werburgh, to Werbode, (a "perverse heathen" according to Chamber's Book of Days). However, Werburga's brothers, Wulfad and Rufinus, objected to the union. Unable to defeat their opposition, Werbode poisoned the King's mind against his sons and obtained his authority to have them arrested for treason. Wulfhere too hastily accepted the fabricated evidence and the guiltless young men were condemned to death. On discovery of the plot, Werburgh decided to become a nun and:

  • "Werbode was poisoned by an evil spirit, and died raving mad".

This story is unlikely to be true, as the only recorded sons of Wulfhere were Coenred (who was young at the time) and possibly a Berhtwald (who would have been even younger).

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

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

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

Stained glass window from St Johns showing the founding of the Church in 689. The "king" in the image is presumably Æthelred who was standing-in as ruler for Werburgh's under-age brother Coenred. One of the bishops may be intended to be Wilfrid. The woman on the right may be intended as Osthryth (died 697), queen of the Mercians, wife of King Æthelred and daughter of King Oswiu of Northumbria and his second wife Eanflæd. She was murdered by the nobles of Mercia.
Wilfrid (originally spelled Wilfrith; c. 633 – c. 709) was an English bishop. Born a Northumbrian noble, he entered religious life as a teenager and studied at Lindisfarne, at Canterbury, in Gaul, and at Rome. He returned to Northumbria in about 660, as abbot of a newly founded monastery at Ripon. A zealous partisan of the Roman cause, in 664 at the Synod of Whitby, he became famous for his speech advocating the Roman method for calculating the date of Easter. His success prompted the king's son, Alhfrith, to appoint him Bishop of Northumbria. The plague of 664 had a direct role in the rise of Wilfrid - had Tuda not died at such a critical time, it is unlikely that Wilfrid would have been promoted to the episcopate so young or gained so much power. Wilfrid chose to be consecrated in Gaul because of the lack of what he considered to be validly consecrated bishops in England. During Wilfrid's absence Alhfrith led an unsuccessful revolt against his father, Oswiu, leaving a cloud over Wilfrid's appointment as bishop. Before Wilfrid's return Oswiu had appointed Ceadda in his place, resulting in Wilfrid's retirement to Ripon for a few years. After becoming Archbishop of Canterbury in 668, Theodore of Tarsus resolved the situation by deposing Ceadda and restoring Wilfrid as the Bishop of Northumbria. Wilfrid discharged his episcopal duties, founded monasteries, built churches, and improved the liturgy. However his diocese was very large, and Theodore wished to reform the English Church. When Wilfrid quarrelled with Ecgfrith (the new Northumbrian king) Theodore carved up Wilfrid's diocese and appointed three bishops to govern the new sees. After Ecgfrith expelled him from York, Wilfrid travelled to Rome to appeal. The new Pope Agatho ruled in Wilfrid's favour, but Ecgfrith refused to honour the papal decree and imprisoned Wilfrid on his return to Northumbria before exiling him. Wilfrid spent the next few years in Selsey, where he founded an episcopal see and converted the pagan inhabitants of the Kingdom of Sussex to Christianity. Theodore and Wilfrid settled their differences, and Theodore urged the new Northumbrian king, Aldfrith, to allow Wilfrid's return. Aldfrith agreed to do so, but in 691 he expelled Wilfrid again. Wilfrid went to Mercia, where he helped missionaries and acted as bishop for the Mercian king Æthelred (in part, it seems, in Chester). In 700, Wilfrid appealed to the papacy about his expulsion and Pope Sergius I ordered that an English council should decide the issue. This council, held at Austerfield in 702, attempted to confiscate all of Wilfrid's possessions. The decision of the council was that Wilfrid should remain exiled from York and return to the monastery of Ripon and not leave and no longer be a bishop. Wilfrid disagreed with this decision and 704 the 70 year-old appealed to the papacy (Pope John VI) again and his opponents in Northumbria excommunicated him. John VI convened a synod of Greek-speaking bishops to hear Wilfrid's cause, a linguistic hurdle that much perturbed Wilfrid, but the papacy upheld Wilfrid's side. Wilfrid was eventually reconciled to the archbishop, bishops and laymen at the Council of Nidd in 705. He died shortly thereafter in 709.

In 689, according to tradition, the Mercian king Æthelred (Werbergh's uncle) founded St Johns Church at Chester.

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

Werbergh died at Trentham, 3 February, 699 or 700. She had apparently decided on Hanbury as her final resting place but happened to be at Trentham when she died. The nuns at Trentham refused to give up the body and even instituted security arrangements to prevent its removal. Despite this an expedition from Hanbury succeeded in "miraculously" recovering her remains. She was not to stay in Hanbury forever.

The "Wilfrid" mentioned in the Chronicle appears to be an exiled Bishop from Northumbria. Æthelred had also made Wilfrid bishop of the Middle Angles, and supported him at the council of Austerfield in about 702, when Wilfrid argued his case for restoration before an assembly of bishops led by Archbishop Berhtwald of Canterbury. Æthelred's support for Wilfrid embroiled him in dispute with both Canterbury and Northumbria, and it is not clear what his motive was, though it may be relevant that some of Wilfrid's monasteries were in Mercian territory. Wilfrid was not known for his diplomacy and commentators have said that Wilfrid "came into conflict with almost every prominent secular and ecclesiastical figure of the age." Hindley, an historian of the Anglo-Saxons, states that "Wilfrid would not win his sainthood through the Christian virtue of humility." In Chester, the head pieces from several early "Celtic" stone crosses can be seen in St Johns Church. The Grosvenor Museum has another decorated cross head on display, which originally came from a "Celtic" monastic site on Hilbre Island. Wilfrid was known as an advocate of Benedictine monasticism, regarding it as a tool in his efforts to "root out the poisonous weeds planted by the Scots", so his involvement in the establishment of St John's may well have been part of an attempt to wipe out the last of the influence of the Celtic church.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle mentions Coenred (Werburgh's brother) becoming "King of the Southumbrians" (a title of unclear meaning) in 702. However Coenred's reign is poorly documented and some versions have him becoming king in 704. According to Bede, Coenred abdicated in favor of Æthelred's son Ceolred after four years, went with Offa (an East Saxon ruler - not the one of the Dyke) to Rome and was made a monk by Pope Constantine. Whether Coenred went entirely willingly is not certain - sending unwanted rulers off to become monks was an alternative to putting out their eyes and cutting off their hands - but the Liber Pontificalis records his safe arrival in Rome. He died soon after. In 715, the Mercians under Ceolred fought a battle against the West Saxons under Ine at "Woden's Barrow" the outcome of this battle, the result of an invasion by Ceolred of West Saxon territory, was not recorded. In 716, Ceolred died; Saint Boniface later described him as dying in a crazed frenzy at a banquet:

  • "gibbering with demons and cursing the priests of God".

The fact that several kings seemed to have died at banquets while "posessed by evil spirits" could be taken as indications that they died of poison rather than any supernatural cause. According to Britannica Ceolred was married to St. Werburga of Mercia (who is not the same as the St Werbergh of Chester). He was succeeded by his cousin Æthelbald, who, in 757, was "treacherously murdered at night by his own bodyguards" (possibly with the involvement of Offa). Beornred (Anglo-Saxon Beornrǣd) was briefly King of Mercia in 757, following the murder of Æthelbald. However, he was defeated by Offa and fled. The ASC for 757 records:

  • 7 þy ilcan geare mon ofsloh Æþelbald Mearcna cyning on Sæcandune, 7 his lic ræsteð on Hreopandune, 7 he ricsade .xli. wintra. 7 Beornred feng to rice 7 lytle hwile heold 7 ungefealice, 7 þy ilcan geare Offa geflemde Beornred 7 feng to þam rice 7 heold .xxxix. wintra, ... (... and in the same year Aethelbald, king of Mercia, was killed at Seckington, and his body rests at Repton; and he ruled 41 years. And then Beornred succeeded to the kingdom, and held it a little while and unhappily; and that same year Offa put Beornred to flight and succeeded to the kingdom, and held it 39 years...)

Offa and his Dyke (750-800)

Wat's Dyke and Offa's Dyke

Offa of Mercia like his assassinated kinsman Æthelbald, was a descendant of Eowa, a brother of (and possibly co-ruler with) Penda of Mercia. Consequently, there were probably several surviving members of Wulfhere's line (Werbergh's family) around at the time of his succession. There would be few left by the time of Offa's death. The late 9th- and early 10th-century Welsh writer Asser wrote that:

  • "there was in Mercia in fairly recent time a certain vigorous king called Offa, who terrified all the neighbouring kings and provinces around him, and who had a great dyke built between Wales and Mercia from sea to sea" (Asser, Life of Alfred, 14).

William Camden in the 1600's wrote:

  • The Britwales or Welchmen, a verie warlike nation, for many yeeres defended their libertie under Petie-kings: and albeit they were secluded from the English Saxons by a Ditch or Trench which King Offa cast (a wonderfull peece of worke), yet otherwhiles by fire and sword they spoiled their cities, and in like sort suffered at their hands all extremities of hostilitie whatsoever.

Offa ruled Mercia from 757 until his death in 796 and it has long been accepted that Offa's Dyke was a work which he commissioned. Marking borders with a rampart and a ditch wasn't a new thing - a number of other earthworks date from roughly this period, including the Danevirke in Holstein and the Devil's Dyke in Cambridgeshire. However Offa's Dyke is not now believed to have stretched continuously from "the Dee to the Wye", but rather provided a clear border where there was no topographic boundary. Parallel to the Northern part of Offa's Dyke is Wat's Dyke believed to be an older structure.

Offa's kingdom extended between the Trent/Mersey rivers to the Thames Valley, and from the Welsh border to the Fens. At the height of his power, he also controlled Kent, East Anglia and Lindsay (Lincoln).

Hollinshead writes the following about the size of Mercia

  • About the same time also, and 585 of Christ, the kingdome of Mercia began vnder CRIDA who was descended from Woden, and the tenth from him by lineall extraction. The bounds of this kingdome were of great distance, hauing on the east the sea vnto Humber, and so on the north the said riuer of Humber, and after the riuer of Mercia, which falleth into the west sea at the corner of Wirhall, and so comming about to the riuer of Dee that passeth by Chester, the same riuer bounded it on the west from Wales, and likewise Seuerne vp to Bristow: on the south it had the riuer of Thames, till it came almost to London. And in this sort it contained Lincolneshire, Notingamshire, Derbishire, Chesshire, Shropshire, Worcestershire, Glocestershire, Oxfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Hertefordshire, Bedfordshire, Huntingtonshire, Northamptonshire, Leicestershire, and Warwikeshire.

Offa had alliances with Northumbria and Wessex, confirmed by the marriage of two of his daughters to their Kings, Aethelred of Northumbria (who married Ælfflæd) and Beorhtric of Wessex (who married Eadburh).

There is perhaps more to this tale of dynastic weddings. Around 789 the Frankish king Charlemagne (who united most of Western Europe during the Middle Ages and laid the foundations for modern France and Germany) suggested that his son Charles the Younger should be married to Offa's daughters Ælfflæd. Offa insisted that the marriage could only go ahead if Charlemagne's daughter Bertha was married to Offa's son Ecgfrith. Charlemagne took offence, broke off contact, and closed his ports to English traders.

The Annals of Chester did not record this, only noting:

  • dcclxxxix Primus Danorum educatus [adventus] in Angliam qui docuerunt Anglos nimis potare. (789 The first arrival in England of the Danes, who taught the English to drink too much.)

Normal relations between Charlemagne and Offa were eventually reestablished, the ports were reopened, and a few years later, in 796, Charlemagne and Offa concluded the first commercial treaty known in English history, however it appears that the support of the Carolingians was thereafter with Wessex rather than Mercia. In 796 Offa founded St Bridget's Church in Lower Bridge Street - this existed for over 1000 years, but was demolished in 1825 to make way for Grosvenor Street. One of the styles of pottery from this period is known as "Chester Ware". Chester-type pottery is a hard, sandy brown ware, wheel thrown and kiln fired. Dating to the tenth and eleventh centuries it is found from Chester to Hereford, covering most of Mercia. Chester ware pots have a distinctive flanged rim, rouletted shoulder and sagging base - and would have been used to cook over an open fire. However, despite the name the pots seem to have been made in and around Stafford.

Offa died in 796, on either the 26 or 29 July, and was probably buried in Bedford a place not noted for royal tombs and indicative of the way the wind was blowing for his dynasty. He was succeeded by his son, Ecgfrith, but according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Ecgfrith died after a reign of only 141 days. A letter written by Alcuin in 797 to a Mercian ealdorman named Osbert makes it apparent that Offa had gone to great lengths to ensure that his son Ecgfrith would succeed him - wiping out all other possible rivals. Alcuin's opinion is that Ecgfrith:

  • "has not died for his own sins; but the vengeance for the blood his father shed to secure the kingdom has reached the son. For you know very well how much blood his father shed to secure the kingdom on his son."

As no close male relatives of Offa or Ecgfrith was left Coenwulf, Ecgfrith's successor, was only distantly related to Offa's line. Offa's tomb was later washed away by a flood.

..and then there were those Danes. The first raids started around this time and would continue for the next century.

Summary: The Mercian Spring (600-800)

This period is marked by the re-introduction of christianity and the growth of Mercia as a major power-block. One noted characteristic of the Mercians is the somewhat chaotic nature of the succession to kingship. Another feature of this period are the frequent conflicts between various local rulers. Northumbria dominated much of the first half of this period but by around 685 it's power was largely spent. Mercia appears to have expanded westwards into the Welsh borders leaving a clear "tide mark" along what is now Offa's Dyke, although the actual line of the border probably fluctuated. A major factor in bringing about the end of this period was the arrival of the Vikings.

800-1000: Viking Raids and The Growth of Wessex

Alfred with his prefferred weapon, a devastating axe

Alfred and Arthur should not be confused, although they sometimes are, especially in Hollywood. Arthur, if he existed, would probably have been a Romano-British war-leader around the year 500 and was fighting the Saxons. Alfred, who did exist, was a Saxon war-leader who came to prominence almost four hundred years later (in the 870's) and fought the Danes. Both are sometimes portrayed as chivalric knights armed with equipment (heavy lance and full plate armour) that dates from the end of the 14th Century another five hundred years to a thousand years later. So the historical depiction of Arthur as a mediaeval knight are as anachronistic as William the Conqueror arriving in England to find Harold waiting with his army and just a few Harrier Jump-Jets to even up the odds :). In truth Alfred would have fought with an axe.

Alfred spent much of his life fighting the Vikings who now began to raid both from Ireland and Scandinavia. Chester was raided repeatedly during this period and, as a result of these attacks, the Roman walls were extended and rebuilt. In the face of the invaders the Mercian rulership crumbled as much of eastern England was over-run. Wessex barely managed to hang on then fight back and unite the country. By the close of the tenth century Mercia with it's focus now firmly in Chester was potentially on the point of emerging as a power one final time.

802 Egbert returns from exile - the end of the Mercian Supremacy

Porch sculpture at Chester Town Hall - Ecgbert was King of Wessex from 802 until his death in 839. His father was Ealhmund of Kent. In the 780s Egbert was forced into exile by Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric of Wessex, but on Beorhtric's death in 802 Egbert returned and took the throne. Egbert appears to have visited Chester but once, around 830. As one writer records: During Egbert’s final war with Cornwall, the North Welsh had to the best of their ability aided their fellow Britons, and therefore Egbert launched a punitive expedition against them. He laid siege to and took Chester, then capital of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd – strongest of all the several North Welsh states. Of the punishments Egbert visited upon these Britons, the most humiliating was his command that the statue of their ancient king, Cadwalhon, be destroyed and never replaced. When he returned to Wessex, Egbert decreed that all the Welsh and their offspring leave his kingdom within six months or be put to death. Egbert ordered this apparently at the instigation of his wife, Redburga, who did exercise some political influence over her husband, and whose hatred of the Welsh was well-known.

Ecgbert (also spelt Ecgberht) was King of Wessex from 802 until 839. His father was Ealhmund of Kent. In the 780s Egbert was forced into exile by Offa and Beorhtric of Wessex, but on Beorhtric's death in 802 Egbert returned and took the throne. With the death of Offa and Beorhtric the focus of power shifted to the House of Wessex. Under Egbert, Wessex rose to become the most powerful of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, overthrowing the supremacy of Mercia. Egbert of Wessex captured Chester in 828. Holinshead recounts the conquest as follows:

  • After that king Egbert had finished his businesse in Northumberland, he turned his power towards the countrie of Northwales, and subdued the same, with the citie of Chester, which till those daies, the Britains or Welshmen had kept in their possession. When king Egbert had obteined these victories, and made such conquests as before is mentioned, of the people héere in this land, he caused a councell to be assembled at Winchester, and there by aduise of the high estates, he was crowned king, as souereigne gouernour and supreame lord of the whole land.

Foxe puts it as follows:

  • Bernulph, king of Mercia above mentioned, with other kings, had this Egbert in such derision, that they made of him divers scoffing jests and scorning rhymes, all which he sustained for a time. But when be was more established in his kingdom, and had proved the minds of his subjects, and especially God working withal, he afterward assembled his knights, and gave to the said Bernulph a battle in a place called Elinden, in the province of Hampton; and notwithstanding in that fight was great odds of number, as six or eight against one, yet Egbert (through the might of the Lord, which giveth victory as pleaseth him) had the better, and won the field; which done, he seized that lordship into his hand; and that also done, he made war upon the Kentish Saxons, and at length of them in like wise obtained the victory. And, as it is in Polychronicon testified, he also subdued Northumberland, and caused the kings of these three kingdoms to live under him as tributaries, or joined them to his kingdom. This Egbert also won from the Britons, or Welchmen, the town of Chester, which they had kept possession of till this day.

It is interesting that both Holinshead and Foxe suggest that Chester was at the time a Welsh city, as it is clear from the location of Offa and Wat's dikes that Mercian power previously extended to the west of the city. However other sources suggest that after a period of incessant strife between the Britons and their Saxon invaders the city may have changed hands before the district was subjugated by Ecgbert around 830. It has been suggested that the Riven Gowy at one time marked the Welsh Border.


This image (borrowed from Revealing Cheshire's Past publication "Invasion and Settlement") shows a reconstruction of an 8th Century workshop hut in Chester. The Southern or Western gate of the remains of Roman Chester can be seen in the background.

In 830, Mercia (and possibly Chester) briefly regained its independence under Wiglaf — the Anglo Saxon Chronicle merely says that Wiglaf "obtained the kingdom of Mercia again" and it is not clear quite what had occurred. The most likely explanation is that this was the result of a Mercian rebellion against Wessex rule. Wessex's sudden rise to power, and its failure to retain this dominant position, have been explained by fluctuations in Carolingian support. It is known that the Franks supported Eardwulf when he recovered the throne of Northumbria in 808, so it is plausible that they also supported Egbert's accession in 802. Carolingian support was not to last. The Rhenish and Frankish commercial networks collapsed at some time in the 820s or 830s, rebellion broke out in February 830 against Louis the Pious, the first of a series of internal conflicts that lasted through the 830s and beyond until the Treaty of Verdun (843). These distractions may well have reduced Louis's ability to support Egbert leaving Mercia and Wessex to find a balance of power for themselves.

Britain in 878 - showing the area of Danish occupation.

While Mercia regained independence under Wiglaf, this may (depending on whether or not Chester was still in Mercia at the time) only have been notional as in 837, Æthelwulf of Wessex (later to become Alfred The Great's father) held the Witenagemot (literally "meeting of the wise") in Chester, and, being crowned (in Kingston not Chester?), received at Chester the homage of tributary kings, "From Berwick to Kent." (Encyl Brit 1911). In that same year, it is calculated that Comet Halley may have passed as close as 0.03 AU (3.2 million miles) from Earth, by far its closest approach - the tail of the comet may have stretched 90 degrees across the sky.

In 840, Wiglaf died and Mercia was faced with a succession crisis as his son Wigmund died at once and was succeeded by Wigstan (who did not want to be king), who abdicated leaving Ælfflæd (his mother) as regent. She was deposed by Beorhtwulf who became the fifth ruler of Mercia that year. He lasted until 852, when Burgred became ruler of Mercia and promptly invaded Wales. In 868 the Chester Annals record a severe famine, followed by a visitation of the plague. Alfred the Great married Ealhswith that year and came to the aid of Burgred of Mercia, who was attacked by Danes.

Burgred would hang on until 874, when the Danes drove Burgred from Mercia and appointed a Mercian ealdorman Ceolwulf II as a puppet ruler, demanding oaths of loyalty to the Danes. Burgred retired to Rome and died there. He is buried in the church of Sancta Maria, in Rome. Such was the unsafe state of the country that in 875, St Werbergh's shrine, containing her mortal remains was moved to the Church of St. Peter and St. Paul within the city walls of Chester, where, presumably finding her final resting place, she promptly turned to dust. For the year 876 the Chronicle of Chester Cathedral records:

  • Eodem anno hiemantibus Danis apud Rependon fugatoq: rege Merciorum Burdredo, Hamburgenses sibi timentes cum feretro corpus Divæ Werburgæ tunc primum in pulverem resolutum ad Legecestriam tanquam ad locum tutissimum contra stragem barbaricam confugerunt. (In the same year, when the Danes made their winter quarters at Repton after the flight of Burdred, king of the Mercians, the men of Hanbury, fearing for themselves, fled to Chester as to a place which was very safe from the butchery of the barbarians, taking with them in a litter the body of S. Werburg, which then for the first time was resolved into dust.)

It was a pity that Werbergh did not end up in St Johns Church which, after all, had been established by her uncle Æthelred of Mercia. However as events were to turn out that might not have been the safest place for her remains. The midsummer date of the feast of her translation, the 21st of June, was to become the date of the fair held each year after Hugh of Avranches allowed the Abbey at Chester that right.


Roman marching camps have been found in one cluster to the north of Chester and another to the east. These are probably "practice" camps. However, the relevant thing on the map for this section is the "well" marked in the north-east corner. This is "Plegmund's Well".

Viking invasions were noted from 851, for which year was written in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle:

  • "The same year also a great army of the pagans came with three hundred and fifty ships to the mouth of the river Thames, and sacked Dorobernia, which is the city of the Cantuarians, and also the city of London, which lies on the north bank of the river Thames, on the confines of Essex and Middlesex; but yet that city belongs in truth to Essex; and they put to flight Berthwulf, king of Mercia, with all the army, which he had led out to oppose them."

Just who the "Danes" were has caused some confusion as they were not necessarily from Denmark. "Northmen" was famously used in the prayer: "A furore normannorum libera nos domine" ("From the fury of the Northmen deliver us, O Lord!"), doubtfully attributed to monks of the English monasteries plundered by Viking raids in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Northmen were also known as Ascomanni, "ashmen", by the Germans, Lochlanach by the Irish and Dene (Danes) by the Anglo-Saxons. The Slavs, the Arabs and the Byzantines knew them as the Rus' or Rhōs, probably derived from various uses of rōþs-, i.e. "related to rowing", or derived from the area of Roslagen in east-central Sweden, where most of the Norsemen who visited the Slavic lands came from. Some archaeologists and historians of today believe that these Scandinavian settlements in the slavic lands formed the names of the countries Russia and Belarus). The Slavs and the Byzantines also called them Varangians (ON: Væringjar, meaning "sworn men"), and the Scandinavian bodyguards of the Byzantine emperors were known as the Varangian Guard.

The "Danes" of what was to become the "Danelaw" are referred to in the ASC as the "Great Heathen Army". The army arrived in Britain in late 865, landing in East Anglia. Under the command of Halfdan Ragnarsson and his brother Ivar the Boneless (who had to be carried about), with the support of Ubbe Ragnarsson. It has been said that the invasion was prompted by the murder of their father Ragnar Hairybreeches by Ælla of Northumbria. By late 866, they had conquered the Kingdom of Northumbria (and killed Ælla), followed in 870 by the Kingdom of East Anglia. In 871, the Great Summer Army arrived from Scandinavia. This reinforced the Great Heathen Army, enabling it in 874 to conquer Mercia. The same year, a considerable section settled in the conquered territories, followed by a further section in 877. Halfdan moved north to attack the Picts, while Guthrum emerged as the war leader in the south.

Alfred (Aelfred) the Great became ruler of the West Saxons after he and his brother defeated the Danes in 871 at the Battle of Ashdown in Berkshire. The death of his brother Ethelred, in 871, left Alfred as successor. Despite the victory at Ashdown, the West Saxons were forced to negotiate and pay tribute after losing further battles. In January 878, the Danes made a sudden attack on Chippenham, a royal stronghold in which Alfred had been staying over Christmas, "and most of the people they reduced, except the King Alfred, and he with a little band made his way by wood and swamp, and after Easter he made a fort at Athelney, and from that fort kept fighting against the foe" (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle). Wessex was reduced to a few square miles of swamp and Mercia was occupied by the Danes.

But Alfred refused to surrender and in 878, he rallied men from Somerset and Wiltshire and again defeated the Danes in the Battle of Edington. The Danes made peace and Guthrum, their king, was baptised with Alfred as his sponsor. By 886, Alfred had freed London from Danish occupation and a treaty was made with Guthrum and the East Anglians. England was divided, with the east (between the Rivers Thames and Tees) declared to be Danish territory - later known as the 'Danelaw' - where English and Danes were treated as equals by law.

England after the Treaty of Chippenham in 878

Alfred has two clear connections with Chester. The first involves Plegmund later the Archbishop of Canterbury from 890 to 914. Prior to being summoned by Alfred to work as a scholar he lived as a hermit just outside of Chester. The site on which he lived as a hermit is said to be that occupied by St Peter's in Plemstall. Nearby can be found St Plegmund's Well. The second connection involved a Viking invasion of 894.

King Alfred at Chester (c. 894)

Around 893, a fresh wave of Danes crossed to England in 330 ships of two divisions and attacked. They landed and entrenched themselves, a larger body at Appledore, Kent, and a lesser, under Haesten, at Milton, also in Kent. The invaders brought their wives and children with them, indicating their intention of conquest and colonisation. King Alfred, in 893 or 894, took up a position from where he could observe both forces, but while he was in talks with Haesten, the Danes at Appledore broke out and struck north-westwards. They were overtaken by Alfred's eldest son, Edward the Elder, and defeated in an engagement on the outskirts of Farnham in Surrey (Edward later died leading an army against a Cambro-Mercian rebellion, on 17 July 924 at Farndon, south of Chester). Meanwhile, the force under Haesten set out to march up the Thames Valley, but they were met by a large force under three great ealdormen of Mercia, Wiltshire and Somerset. The Danes were driven off to the north-west, before finally being overtaken and blockaded. An attempt to break through the English lines failed and, after collecting reinforcements, the Danes made a forced march across England to occupy the ruined Roman fortress of Chester, arriving late in the year. Just what the Danes are up to makes some sense when one realises that the Wirral had strong Viking connections after 902 and there may already have been some link ten years earlier.

"Urnes" style runic inscription at St John's. Possibly Viking graffiti on stonework re-used from the Amphitheatre.

The Victorian work Picturesque England describes the fortifications at this 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...

This may 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 amphitheatre.

According to the "Wessex" version, King Alfred (or possibly one of his sons) hastened to Chester. The English did not attempt a winter blockade, but besieged the Danes for two days, while they drove away all the cattle; burned the corn thereabouts and slaughtered every Dane that dared venture outside the encampment. Early in 894 (or 895), want of food obliged the Danes to retire once more to Essex (after a few raids on Wales).

Hollinshed describes the events as follows:

  • "Besides this, other armies there were sent foorth, which comming out of Northumberland tooke the citie of Chester, but there they were so beset about with their enimies, that they were constreined to eate their horsses. At length, in the 24 yéere of king Alfred, they left that citie, and fetcht a compas about Northwales, and so meaning to saile round about the coast to come into Northumberland, they arriued in Essex, and in the winter following drew their ships by the Thames into the water of Luie." (probably Leigh-on-Sea)

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.)

The Chronicle of Bishop Asser refers to similar tactics and events (although this almost certainly a different conflict):

Roman Chester - with the dotted line showing the line of the walls as repaired and extended by Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred. The City Walls still largely follow the Saxon line.
  • He pursued them, killing them as they fled up to the stronghold, where he seized all that he found outside--men, horses, and cattle--slaying the men at once; and before the gates of the pagan fortress he boldly encamped with his whole army. And when he had stayed there fourteen days and the pagans had known the horrors of famine, cold, fear, and at last of despair, they sought a peace by which the king was to take from them as many named hostages as he wished while he gave none to them--a kind of peace that they had never before concluded with any one.

The story of Alfred at Chester is in many respects puzzling, for what were the Cestrians doing at the time? If it is assumed that the Vikings actually occupied the city, then they would surely have helped themselves to any provisions to be found. This would have meant starvation for the inhabitants of Chester. Even if the Vikings only occupied the "castle" (the Amphitheatre?) then the city (not to mention St Johns Church) would have been an obvious target once Alfred left.

One possible suggestion is that Chester was not actually inhabited at the time and that "westre ceastre" in the ASC should be read as a "waste" (i.e. abandoned) fortification. However, this is also strange, as within five years the city is described as being besieged by the Vikings and shortly thereafter was extensively re-fortified (see below) and provided with a major mint. Earlier events, such as the translation of the remains of St Werbergh to Chester in 875, seem to indicate the existence of at least one religious community in Chester.


Æthelflæd - daughter of Alfred of Wessex married into the Mercian ruling elete and, restored and extended the City Walls along their modern course as part of a grand strategic plan to defeat the Danes. This image is from the Cartulary of Abingdon Abbey.

Æthelflæd (alternative spelling Aethelfled, Æthelfleda, Ethelfleda) (872/879 – 918) was the eldest daughter of King Alfred the Great of Wessex and his wife Ealhswith. She was born around AD 872. She had four or five younger siblings, including Edgar the Elder and Ælfthryth. Ælfthryth was an ancestor of Matilda of Flanders, who married William the Conqueror, first monarch from the House of Normandy, which means that following the Norman conquest of England and the death of William I, all the monarchs of England were also descendants of the House of Wessex.

She was 15 when she married Aethelred later the ealdorman or earl of Mercia, in about 886, and had one daughter, Ælfwynn. While travelling to Mercia for her wedding her party was attacked by the Danes in an attempt to kill her and so sabotage the alliance between Wessex and Mercia. Though half her company perished in the first attack, Æthelflæd used an old trench as a fortress, and defeated the Danes. Malmesbury relates, that after the birth of her first child she was:

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

On her husband's death in 911 after the Battle of Tettenhall, Æthelflæd was elevated to the status of "Lady of the Mercians". This title was not a nominal position; she was a formidable military leader and tactician. Æthelflæd ruled for approximately eight years. The Battle of Tettenhall in 910 was the turning point in the battle against the Danish Viking invaders by the united forces of Edward the Elder of Wessex and Ealdorman Æthelred of Mercia. It saw the crushing defeat of the last of the large Danish Viking armies to ravage England, including the deaths of the Danish Kings, Eowils and Healfdan (joint Kings of Northumbria).

Ingamund - the Viking "Invasion" (c902)

In 900 Alfred died and Edgar the Elder was consecrated at Kingston-upon-Thames by the archbishop of Canterbury, Plegmund (of St Plegmund's Well fame):

  • "Edwardus rex Anglorum est consecratus in regem a Pleemundo Dornobernensi archiepiscopo apud Kingestune." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle)

In 902, a Hiberno-Norse community settled in Wirral after its expulsion from Dublin, arriving somewhere between "Vestri-Kirkubyr" (West Kirby) and "Melr" (Meols). The exiles, led by one Hingamund, were granted land in Wirral by Æthelflæd and soon established a community with a clearly defined border, its own leader, its own language (Norse), a trading port, and at its centre a place of assembly or government (þing vollr) - the "Thing" at Thingwall. They also brought their religion with them to "Thor's Stone" (Mjollnir) at "Thorsteinn's farmstead", now Thurstaston Hill. It is also possible that the Norwegian "Labskause" may have come to this part of the country at that time and survived as "scouse"

Archaeology confirms a Hiberno-Norse presence in Chester: a brooch with Borre-Jellinge ornament found at Princess Street is identical with a brooch found in Dublin, and must have derived from the same mould. So trade had been established with Chester but the Vikings cast covetous eyes on the wealth of the city. In 905 (some sources say 912), the Norsemen revolted and attempted to take the city of Chester. The opening of the story involve a certain amount of treachery:

  • At first, the Saxon inhabitants of Chester placed a force outside the city gates and then staged a mock retreat. The Norse followed and the gates were closed behind them, trapping them in the city where a great number were slain.
  • Following this, the Saxons came to an arrangement with the Irish, who were "no friends of the Saxons but hated the Norsemen more" to meet with the Norse and propose to betray Chester. Unfortunately this was a double-cross and the Norse that came (unarmed) to the meeting were also slain.

Their subsequent Norse attempt at taking the city took on all the elements of a farce:

  • The first Norse attack upon the walls was driven off by dropping rocks upon them. The Norse answer to this was to protect their heads with wooden hurdles supported by wooden beams;
  • The Saxon answer to the hurdles was to pour boiling beer on the Vikings (which of course ran through the hurdles). The Norse response to this was to cover the hurdles with animal skins;
  • Fire would have been the next Saxon weapon, and the Vikings would have countered this by protecting their assault on the wall with soaking-wet sails from their ships;
  • Unfortunately for the Vikings the Saxons has a secret weapon - they threw at the Vikings "all the beehives of the town". For the Vikings, trapped inside their heavy, soaking wet, hide and sail-covered siege shelters - now also filled with very agitated bees - that was enough, and the attempt on the city was abandoned.

"Ingamunds saga" (and the "Three Fragments" of the "Annals of Ireland" - see page 234) repeat the story as follows:

  • "..But the other forces, the Norsemen, were under hurdles piercing the walls. What the Mercians and the Irish who were among them did was to throw large rocks so that they destroyed the hurdles over them. What they did in the face of this was to place large posts under the hurdles. What the Mercians did was to put all the ale and water of the town in the cauldrons of the town, to boil them and pour them over those who were under the hurdles so that the skins were stripped from them. The answer that the Norsemen gave to this was to spread hides on the hurdles. What the Mercians did was to let loose on the attacking force all the beehives in the town, so that they could not move their legs of hands from the great number of bees stinging them. Afterwards they left the city and abandoned it. It was not long before they returned."

The later fortunes of Ingamund's people is not entirely certain: there was a sizeable Scandinavian "ghetto" in the southern quarter of Chester later on, centred on the church of St Olave’s (the Norwegian king, Olaf Haraldsson, martyred in 1030), and it would appear that many of them settled down in the city as merchants, possibly giving rise to the Gloverstone enclave.

Refortification And The "Dark Ages" Mint

Edward the Elder - killed at Farndon while putting down a revolt
Mercian defence strategy. The green areas are occupied by the Hiberno-Norse, while the blue are occupied by the Danes. The line of fortifications from Chester to Manchester is intended to prevent a flank/rear attack on Tamworth, the Mercian political center. The approximate boundaries of England for 917, 920 and 927 are shown.

While Alfred the Great (871–899) was the first to style himself "King of England" his son, Edgar the Elder (899–924) went further by establishing his rule over the Danelaw. In 919, the year following the death of his sister Æthelflæd, Edgar the Elder usurped the rule of Mercia from Æthelflæd's daughter Ælfwynn, and in 927, Northumbria (the last independent kingdom) fell to Edgar the Elder's son Æþelstān.

Æthelflæd's refortification of Chester was part of a larger strategic intent. At the time the Danes had occupied much of the North Sea coast and were in a position to threaten the Mercian political center at Tamworth. Meanwhile the Hiberno-Norse had invaded parts of Wirral and much of coastal Lancashire and Cumbria. The Cheshire plain offered an easy line of approach to Tamworth assuming landings along the Dee and Mersey estuaries, so Æthelflæd and her brother built a line of "burhs" (fortified sites) at Chester, Eddisbury, Runcorn and Manchester. At Chester and Manchester this involved the use of Roman fortifications, whereas at Eddisbury an Iron-Age hill-fort was re-used. The reality of the danger was emphasized in 920 when a Norse army from Dublin landed and penetrated as far as Davenport in Cheshire. With her flank secure Æthelflæd was able to take part in the campaigns against the Danes who hand been driven out of much of Lincolnshire and Yorkshire by 927.

Æþelstān became the first King of a united England and it has been proposed that while Æþelstān was not the first de jure King of England, he was the first de facto one.

Refortification (c907)

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.

Raphael Holinshead also mentions the same, adding that this was when the walls were extended:

  • 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.

Holinshead 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. He also raises the question of just when the Roman walls were extended. In the original Roman plan the 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 Watertower and from the south-east corner fort towards the river Dee. 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 shows a tower.

The length of walls kept in a defensible state seems to have been consonant with a formula recorded for Wessex in the "Burghal Hidage", which stated that every hide of land assigned to the maintenance of a burh sufficed to provide one man, and that every pole (c. 5 metres) of fortress wall required four men to defend it. The formula probably applied to Chester, whose reeve in the mid 11th century used to call up one man from each hide of the county to repair the walls and bridge. Cheshire was probably notionally assessed at 1,200 hides, suggesting that the early medieval defences were c. 1,524 metres long. Though those measurements do not tally with the length of the Roman walls they would fit quite well with the postulated L-shaped arrangement. This would mean that around 1200 men would be needed to fully staff the walls.

Æthelflædof Mercia is believed to have been a follower of the cult of St Oswald (the same Oswald who had ruled Northumbria and waged war on Mercia). In 909 Oswald's remains (they were now at Bardney Abbey) were captured by a Mercian expedition and (mostly) taken (by Æthelflæd) away for reburial at Gloucester. Oswald's head was interred in Durham Cathedral where it is generally believed to remain, although there are at least four other claimed heads of Oswald in continental Europe. One of his arms is said to have ended up in Peterborough Abbey later in the Middle Ages - where the monks built a watchtower to stop it being moved again. A late tradition holds that the cult of St. Oswald was introduced at Chester when the minster was refounded by Æthelfiæd and re-dedicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald in 907. The foundations of St Oswald's church forms part of the Cathedral. It is odd to think that Werbergh, whose grandfather Penda slew Oswald in 641 at Oswestry, should come together again in this strange way.

Battle of Brunanburh (c937)

Æþelstān presenting a book to St Cuthbert. Illustration in a gospel book presented by Æthelstan to the saint's shrine in Chester-le-Street, the earliest surviving portrait of an English king (Corpus Christi MS 183, fol. 1v)

In 919, the year following the death of his sister Æthelflæd, Edgar the Elder usurped the rule of Mercia from Æthelflæd's daughter Ælfwynn. By this time the northern boundary of England stretched from the Humber to the Mersey. In 919 Edgar the Elder built a new fortress at Thelwall on the Mersey some miles upstream from Runcorn.

  • "Kynge Edwarde made a cite at Thelewall in [th]e northe parte of [th]e Marches, nye the water of Mersee, where he put certeyne knyghtes." -Higden's Polychronicon
  • "A.D. 923. This year went King Edward with an army, late in the harvest, to Thelwall; and ordered the borough to be repaired, and inhabited, and manned. And he ordered another army also from the population of Mercia, the while he sat there to go to Manchester in Northumbria, to repair and to man it. This year died Archbishop Plegmund; and King Reynold won York." -Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

In 924, Edgar the Elder died at Farndon on the River Dee just south of Chester. He was succeeded by his son Æþelstān. Early in 926 Æþelstān gave one of his sisters in marriage to one of his sisters (most likely Edith) to Sihtric the Norse ruler of York. This attempt to find peace with York by non-violent means came to nothing due to Sihtric's death the following year. Sihtric's son, with some help from Dublin, attempted to claim his inheritance by force and Æþelstān went to war. In 927, Northumbria (the last independent kingdom) fell to Æþelstān. His triumph was marked by a gathering held on 12th July 927 on the River Eamont, near Penrith. Within three years Æþelstān had moved the border 80 miles north from the Chester/Manchester line of fortifications. In 934 Æþelstān moved north again and the appearance of powerful English forces in Scotland was enough to unite those north of the border. Olaf III Guthfrithson (Viking King of Dublin) sailed from Ireland in 937 with a large fleet and joined forces with Constantine II (King of Scotland) and Owian I (King of Strathclyde). These combined forces then invaded England.

In 937, at "Brunanburh" Æþelstān and his half-brother Edmund subjected the combined armies of Olaf III Guthfrithson (Viking King of Dublin), Constantine II (King of Scotland) and Owian (King of Strathclyde) to a crushing defeat. The Mercian and West Saxon army attacked in two divisions: Mercians faced the Scandinavians, and the Saxons headed off against the Scots. The precise location of the battle has never been established, but some evidence (possibly) points to Bromborough on the Wirral, a few miles north-west of Chester. The importance of the battle cannot be denied - Æþelstān's defeat of the combined Norse-Celtic force facing him irrevocably confirmed England as an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, forcing the Celtic kingdoms to consolidate in the positions that they occupy today.

This battle has been confused with the legendary Arthurian battle of "Mons Badonicus" which was already reported by Nennius/Gildas in De Excidio Britanniae ("The Ruin of Britannia") many years previously. However, the fact that Alfred fought the Danes at Chester, and that his son Edgar fought (and died) at Farndon, may have meant that if third-generation Æþelstān fought another battle near Chester, later legends would mix all these elements together. Bromborough is perhaps well worth a visit as there is compelling evidence that the Wirral was settled by the Vikings and an excellent guide can be found together with heaps more stuff on the Viking Wirral pages. Tennyson translated an epic poem about the battle and the text can be found on the Victorian Web.

As the Chronicle puts it:

  • 937 - Her æþelstan cyning, eorla dryhten, beorna beahgifa 7 his broþor eac, Eadmund æþeling, ealdorlangne tir geslogon æt sæcce sweorda ecgum ymbe Brunanburh. (A.D.937: Here, King Athelstan, leader of warriors, ring-giver of men, and also his brother, the prince Edmund, struck life-long glory in strife around Brunanburh)

The battle had an amusing sequel in April 2007 when "Dane Motors" wanted to build a showroom on the alleged site of the battle and people were once more "up in arms" about the "Viking invasion". Bromborough has some interesting sites including an ancient set of stones in the churchyard and the alleged landing place of St Patrick (his well is supposedly in Patrick's Wood in Brotherton Park. It is possible that a boundary stone ("Vínheíþr-stan") existed at Upton giving rise to "Wealstone Lane". The reference to "Vínheíþr" is interesting as "Vin Heath" is mentioned in Egils Saga as being the location of the Battle of Brunanburh. Bromborough Pool, is situated on the mouth of the River Dibbin to the south of New Ferry. A creek may well have existed there at the time of the Battle of Brunanburh. The docks into which the site was enlarged were once the biggest private dock in the world and maintained a global reach for over fifty years, supplying the soap factory at Port Sunlight. The dock was officially opened on 17 April 1931 and the first ship to arrive in February 1931 was the United Africa Company ship "SS Nigerian", which brought a cargo of palm kernels from Africa. An Act of Parliament allowing the site to close was passed in September 1986. An application was made in the late 1980s to turn the former dock and the adjacent silting ponds into a major landfill facility. Tipping operations began in 1991 and ceased in August 2006, resulting in a sizable hill where the Vikings may once have landed.

After Brunanburh

Coins from this period have found in Chester

Some writers state that the Chronicle for 942 has another possible entry for Chester (see Oman "England before the Norman Conquest (1910) page 525) but it is much more likely Leicester given the fact that it refers to years of oppression):

  • Her Eadmund cyning, Engla þeoden, mægþa mundbora, Myrce geeode, dyre dædfruma, swa Dor sceadæð, Hwitanwyllesgeat & Himbran ea, brada brymstream. burga fife, Ligereceaster & Lincolne, Snotingaham, swylce Stanford eac Deoraby. Dæne wæron æror under Norðmannum nyde gebæded on hæðenra hæfteclommum lange þrage, oð hy alysde eft for his weorðscipe wigendra hleo, afora Eadweardes, Eadmund(es) cyning. (Here Edmund king, of Angles lord, protector of friends, author and framer of direful deeds overran with speed the Mercian land whete'er the course of Whitwell-spring, or Humber deep, the broad brim-stream, divides five towns. [Leicester/Chester?] and Lincoln, Nottingham and Stamford, and Derby. In thralldom long to Norman Danes they bowed through need, and dragged the chains of heathen men; till, to his glory, great Edward's heir, Edmund the king, refuge of warriors, their fetters broke.)

From c.890, Chester was the most likely site of a mint which is known to have been operated in north-west Mercia. Under Æthelflæd, the coins minted were of a distinctive north-western design, but they reverted to more standard types under Edward the Elder (899–924). Under Edward's son, Æþelstān (924-939), a distinctive type was again issued: these did not feature the head of the "foreign" West Saxon king. It is also probable hat the mint was involved in trade that passed along the Irish Sea routes; in accordance with Hiberno-Norse prejudices it entirely eschewed portrait heads in, and even after the recoining of 973. Examples from the last years of Edgar’s reign of Chester coins lacking a portrait head are to be found exclusively in hoards from Ireland, Scotland, and Man, and perhaps represent a concession to the special requirements of the city’s trade with the Norsemen, exempting it from conformity with the new portrait issue.

The mint became one of the the most prolific centres of coin production in England, rivalling London in importance. Even Welsh coins (bearing the name of Hywel Dda (died 950) were minted here. It is not known for certain whether the original mint occupied the site of the castle, but given that "half the Saxon city" was demolished when the Norman castle was built, it seems possible. For more on the mint and coins see this note on the City Walls, COMPASS at the British Museum or do a search for 'Chester' at the Fitzwilliam Museum coin collection - there is an excellent list of Chester Coins.

Edgar the Pacific

Edgar's reign was, by all accounts relatively peaceful, and as the Chronicles tended to concentrate of bad things happening, comparatively little was written about secular events during his reign. His father, Edmund I had three sisters who were married to foreign rulers: Eadgifu of Wessex (to Charles the Simple, King of the Franks); Eadhild (to Hugh the Great); and Eadgyth (to Otto the Holy Roman Emperor). As noted above a further sister, Edith, probably married the Viking ruler of York. The political alliances with continental powers were a clear sign that Wessex was trying to emerge as more than as a member of a cluster of Anglo-Saxon states.

A fanciful depiction of Edgar as cox on the Dee - Chester did not have a castle and walls (including the Watertower - built in 1323) like this at the time, and Edgar is heading in the wrong direction

Although Edgar the Pacific (959–975) did much to consolidate a fractured and factional Anglo-Saxon island, including his famous meeting at Chester at Edgar's Field on the Dee, the country remained troubled. The Chronicle records the meeting thus (versions again vary):

  • A.D. 972. This year Edgar the etheling was consecrated king at Bath, on Pentecost's mass-day, on the fifth before the ides of May, the thirteenth year since he had obtained the kingdom; and he was then one less than thirty years of age. And soon after that, the king led all his ship-forces to Chester; and there came to meet him six kings, and they all plighted their troth to him, that they would be his fellow-workers by sea and by land.

Edgar was rowed upriver to St Johns Church where he was crowned. However Picturesque England has a different slant on the story, commenting that:

  • "He ascended a large vessel, with his nobles and officers, and stationed himself at the helm, while the eight kings who had come to pay him homage were compelled to take the seats of the watermen, and to row him down the Dee - a most arrogant insult on the feelings of others whose titular dignity was equal to his own. Edgar crowned the scene, and consummated his disgrace, by declaring to his courtiers that his successors might call themselves kings of England when they could compel as many kings to give them such honour."

Florence of Worcester disagrees with the ASC and provides the source for the count of eight kings:

  • "Eight petty kings, namely, Kynath, king of the Scots, Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians, Maccus, king of several isles, and five others named Dufnall, Siferth, Huwall, Jacob, and Juchill, met him there as he had appointed, and swore that they would be faithful to him, and assist him by land and by sea."

Florence's assertion that there were eight kings is substantiated by Ælfric who, in his 'Life' of St.Swithun (written in the 990s) states:

  • "... and all the kings who were in this island, of the Cymry and Scots, came to Edgar, eight kings once upon a day, and they all submitted to Edgar's rule."

Just who all these kings are presents something of a puzzle. These kings are identified (M Westm 375) as follows:

  • "Kenedo scilicet rcge Scotorum, Malcolmo Cumbrorum, Macone rege Monae et plurimarum insularum, Dufnal rege Demetiae, Sifertho et Howel, regibus Walliae Jacobo regc Gawallioe et Jukil Westmariae." (Kined king of the Scots, Malcolm of the Cumbrians, Maco king of Man and of very many isles, Dufnal king of Dyfed, Siferth and Hywel kings of Wales, James king of Galloway and Jukil of Westmoreland.)

This listing presents something of a problem as Dyfed did not exist as such in 972. Owain ap Hywel (died 987) was king of Deheubarth in south Wales and probably also controlled Powys. Possibly the truth is something like that given below:

The Scottish Kings (these are the only ones whose kingdoms are named)..

  • Kynath is Kenneth II of Alba b.~954–d.995 (Modern Gaelic: Coinneach mac Mhaoil Chaluim, anglicised as Kenneth II, (and nicknamed An Fionnghalach, "The Fratricide"). The Chronicle of the Kings of Alba was compiled in Kenneth's reign, and states that Kenneth plundered Northumbria three times, first as far as Stainmore, then to Cluiam and lastly to the River Dee by Chester. These raids may belong to around 980, when the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records attacks on Cheshire.
  • Dufnall has been identified with Dyfnwal III (Gaelic: Domnall mac Eógain, English: "Donald") who was the ruler of the Kingdom of Strathclyde. He is styled Domnall m. Eogain, ri Bretan (king of the Britons) in the Annals of Ulster, which notes his death in 975 on pilgrimage. The Welsh source known as the Brut y Tywysogion calls him "Dunguallon", and confirms that Dyfnwal did indeed set off on pilgrimage to Rome.
  • Malcolm (Gaelic: Máel Coluim) is possibly Máel Coluim I of Strathclyde, Dyfnwal's son. Presumably, by this time, Dyfnwal had abdicated his kingdom and Malcolm had become ruler of the Kingdom of Strathclyde.

A possible Norse-Gaelic..

  • The "several isles" Maccus 'mac Arailt' was king of would be the Isle of Man and the Sudreys (Norse: sudr-eyjar or Southern Isles i.e. the Hebrides and other islands west of Scotland). He appears to have been responsible for a raid on Anglesey a couple of years before the Chester meeting - it has been suggested that Maccus was not actually his given name, but might be misconstrued from the Gaelic 'mac Arailt' i.e. 'son of Harald' - in the B-text of the 'Annales Cambriae' the raider of Anglesey is referred to simply as "filio Haraldi".

The Welsh Kings...

  • "Jacob" is almost certainly Iago ab Idwal, then king of Gwynedd. Iago ruled Gwynedd until 979 when he in turn was taken prisoner by Ieuaf's son, Hywel ab Ieuaf, who took over his kingdom. There appears to be no record of Iago's fate.
  • Huwall is probably Iago's nephew, and rival, Hywel. In 974 Hywel raised an army and drove his uncle from Gwynedd. Iago was able to return, but was forced to share power with his nephew. In 978 Hywel made another attempt to take the kingdom from his uncle, raiding the monastery at Clynnog Fawr. In this raid Hywel has helped by English troops, possibly provided by Aelfhere, Earl of Mercia. Hywel defeated Iago in battle in 979, and the same year Iago was captured by a force of Vikings, possibly in Hywel's pay, and vanished. However it is also possible that the "Howel" mentioned is Owain ap Hywel king of Deheubarth in south Wales and possibly Powys.
  • Juchill/Ithel (from the Welsh elements iud "lord, prince" and hael "generous") could possibly be Morgan the Old (Morgan Hen or Morgan ab Owain or Moragn Hen Fawr) (b930-d974) who united the former kingdoms of Gwent and Glywysing in 942 under the name of Morgannwg (Glamorgan). It is possible also that this was someone else and that the name is a misconception based on the person's title.

And finally..

  • Siferth is a difficult one - but could be another Viking/Dane

Florence continues:

  • "On a certain day they [the "eight petty kings"] attended him [Edgar] in a boat, and when he had placed them at the oars, he himself took the helm and skilfully steered it down the river Dee, and thus, followed by the whole company of earls and nobles, in this order went from the palace to the monastery of St.John the Baptist. After having prayed there, he returned with the same pomp to the palace."

The kings of Wessex between Ecgbert (commemorated at the Town Hall) and Edgar the Pacific (of Edgar's Field fame) show the typical complex succession of the pre-Conquest rulers.

Edward the Elder and his relatives from Ecgberht who is commemporated on the Town Hall at Chester for his capture of the city to Edgar who famously took a boat trip on the Dee from his "palace" to St Johns. The chart shows the unexpected twists and turns of succession in this period, with the eldest son of the king frequently not being the one to inherit or pass-on the "crown". Ecgbert returns from exile to become king and is the father of Æthelwulf. The youngest of which is the later Alfred the Great. However Æthelwulf is effectively usurped by Æthelbald who later marries his own step mother. When Alfred dies his nephew Æthelwold and Edward the Elder have a dispute over the throne. Edward wins and later effectively usurps Ælfwynn, the daughter of his sister Æthelflæd. Upon Edward's death at Farndon there is another dispute between Æthelstan and his rivals Ælfweard (dead wih 16 days) and Edwin (drowned). Æthelstan has no children so the throne goes to Edmund who is eventually stabbed. Eadred dies young, and is succeeded by Eadwig who rules for four years and is succeeded by Edgar the Pacific.

Edgar the Pacific was followed by Edward the Martyr (c. 962 – 18 March 978), his support for Dunstan's Benedictine reform movement provoked the anger and envy of those who had seen the Church as a way to gain wealth and prestige. The ascetic life and the importance of monasticism promoted by Dunstan and his colleagues were not to their liking, and so they looked for – and found – other friends in high places. Ælfhere was a leader of the anti-monastic reaction and a close ally of Edward's stepmother Queen Dowager Ælfthryth. Civil war almost broke out over the disputed succession and in the anti-monastic reaction the nobles took advantage of Edward's weakness to dispossess the Benedictine reformed monasteries of lands and other properties that previous King Edgar had granted to them. Edgar's death was not without portents, after recording Edward's succession, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that a comet appeared:

  • "Then too was seen, high in the heavens, the star on his station, that far and wide wise men call – lovers of truth and heav'nly lore – ‘cometa’ by name. Widely was spread God's vengeance then throughout the land, and famine scour'd the hills. May heaven's guardian, the glory of angels, avert these ills, and give us bliss again; that bliss to all abundance yields from earth's choice fruits, throughout this happy isle."

Æþelræd was the son of Edgar and his second (or perhaps third) wife, Queen Ælfthryth. Æþelræd came to the throne at about the age of 12, following the assassination of his older half-brother, Edward the Martyr. His brother's murder was carried out by supporters of his own claim to the throne, although he was too young to have any personal involvement. Ælfthryth appeared as a stereotypical bad queen and evil stepmother in many medieval histories, where she was generally believed to have been involved in the murder of Edward. The earliest chronicle texts only state that Edward was killed, by the time of later chronicles it was claimed that Ælfthryth plotted the murder and eventually that she did the deed herself.

The Danes renewed their raids on England in 980, attacking Chester and Southampton. Manx Vikings led by King Godfred I allied themselves with Prince Custennin of Gwynedd and raided Anglesey and the Lleyn Peninsula. The AS Chronicle recorded that Vikings ravaged Chester, doing great damage:

  • "the county of Chester was plundered by the pirate-army of the North".

Three of the four Anglo-Saxon coin hoards found in the city, those from Castle Esplanade, Pemberton's Parlour, and Eastgate Street, have been assigned to roughly the same period and interpreted as linked to that raid.

1000-1100: The end of Anglo-Saxon England

King Edward the Confessor and Earl Leofric of Mercia see the face of Christ appear in a Eucharist wafer - nowadays you can buy a toaster which will perform this "miracle" automatically.

In the 11th Century, England was united under a succession of rulers but the real power soon came to lie with the House of Wessex and the Earls of Chester. Each strove to have the other outlawed and at times both were successful. Wales would side with Mercia and be attacked by Wessex, who eventually became dominant. The threat and reality of invasion from Scandinavia continued, but a new threat was stirring across the sea in Normandy. Eventually Mercia and Wessex would be compelled to join forces, but it would be too late to save the Anglo-Saxons from a conquest that would bring about the end of the Dark Ages and leave perhaps the strangest of the many mysteries haunting the ancient and ruinous Church of St Johns in Chester.

Eadric, Leofric and Godiva

The House of Leofric

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. The family of Leofwine (known as the "House of Leofric") were to acquire immense wealth and power, and effectively create the "Earldom" of Chester that survived as an institution separate from the monarchy into the time of Edward I, and the death of the last non-royal earl in 1237.

Wulfric, Earl of Chester and Chief Councillor of State to King Æthelred the Unready appears to have died on 12 October 1010 but before his death the earldom may have already passed to Eadric Streona - later voted the "worst britain of the 11th Century". William of Malmesbury describes Eadric Streona as "the refuse of mankind and a reproach unto the English". One parentage suggested for Eadric is that his father was Wulfric (which would make Aelfhelm of York - whom he assassinated - his own uncle). Another theory is that his father was Aethelric of Mercia (who was sacked in disgrace due to betraying naval secrets to the Danes and his son Aelfgar blinded, so this is unlikely).

In 1007 Eadric became Ealdorman of the Mercians, and subsequently married Ethelred the Unready's daughter Eadgyth. As Ealdorman, Eadric achieved a victory over the Welsh (See the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle) through underhand means. He is described by Sir Frank Stenton as someone "to whom unknown crimes may be safely attributed". He appears to have endeared himself to Ethelred by arranging the assassinations of his internal opponents. When Ethelred in 1009 proposed a great attack on the Danes, Eadric dissuaded him from carrying it into effect. The kings nick-name Æþelræd Unræd is actually a play on words - Æþelræd means "noble counsel" in anglo-saxon and Unræd means "ill-advised" not "unready". When Ethelred the Unready died in 1016 he was succeeded by his son Edmund Ironside (Edmund II). Unfortunately, the bad advisor stayed on.

History becomes a little complicated in the ten-teens. Sweyn Forkbeard (a Swede) invaded England was accepted as King of England - following the flight to Normandy of Ethelred the Unready in late 1013. Sweyn didn't gain much as he died on February 3, 1014, having ruled England unopposed for only five weeks. He was succeeded as King of Denmark by his elder son, Harald II, but the Danish fleet proclaimed his younger son Cnut (Canute) as king. Early in 1016, Chester was ravaged by Edmund Ironside and Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria because Cheshire men would not fight against the Danes (under Cnut). Cnut was originally driven out of England but returned to defeat Edmund Ironside and become King of England later in 1016, while also ruling Denmark, Norway, parts of Sweden, Pomerania, and Schleswig. A popular story (recounted by Henry of Huntingdon in his Chronicle - see page 196) has it that soldiers acting in favor of Canute hid in the cess-pit of a lavatory and stabbed Edmund Ironsides in the bowels when he sat down to relieve himself (or that the Ealdorman of Chester Eadric Streona arranged for him to be shot from the midden with a primitive crossbow - the "Skåne Lockbow"), though this has never been proven and he may well simply have died of injuries sustained in battle.

Edmund Ironside - shot in the latrine

Foxe favours the cess-pit theory:

  • Soon after, a son of wicked Edricus, hy the mind (as appeared afterward) of his father, espied when King Edmund was at the draught, and with a spear (some say with a long knife) thrust him into the fundament, whereof the said Edmund shortly after died, after that he had reigned two years.

Just for good measure, Cnut married Emma of Normandy. Emma (c. 985–March 6, 1052 in Winchester, Hampshire), was daughter of Richard the Fearless, Duke of Normandy, by his second wife Gunnora. She was Queen consort of the Kingdom of England twice, by successive marriages: initially as the second wife to Ethelred the Unready of England (1002-1016); and then to Canute the Great of Denmark (1017-1035). Two of her sons, one by each husband, and two stepsons, also by each husband, became kings of England, as was her great-nephew, William the Conqueror, Duke of Normandy.

Eadric Streona's power saw its apogee and its fall under the Danish invader Cnut. In 1015 Eadric Streona deserted king Edmund II (King Edmund Ironside) and joined Cnut of Denmark. After the Battle of Otford (1016) he returned to Edmund, but only (supposedly by his treachery at the Battle of Assandun) to secure defeat of the English. At Christmas, 1017, fearing further treachery, Cnut had Eadric slain, "very rightly" according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle - as a result of Eadric beating Cnut at chess and refusing to change the rules in Cnut's favour. During the row which followed Eadric is said to have argued that he had assassinated King Edmund for Cnut's benefit - a fact of which Cnut had been unaware - and Cnut had him axed down on the spot (but not without a humorous comment):

  • The king then commanded that his body thrown into the Thames, and that the head should be fixed upon the gate at the entrance of the palace, " for," said he, " I promised to advance him above all the peers of the realm."
The Countess of Chester ensuring that history remembers her.

Leofwine's son Leofric (married to the famous Godiva) was known as the "earl of Chester" (or "count of Chester"). According to some sources, Leofric (Leof=dear (love), ric=ruler (reich)) was the third son of Leofwine, but as both his elder brothers were killed in battle Leofric succeeded his father. One version has it that Leofric's elder brother "Northman" was killed in 1017, in the losing battles against Cnut. Another source (Glover's, "The history and gazetteer of the county of Derby") tells a slighly more complex tale:

  • The successor to Edric, in the dukedom or earldom of Mercia, was Leofwine, descended from Leofric, earl of Chester, who distinguished himself in the reign of Ethelbald. Leofwine did not long enjoy this dignity, but, dying, left issue three sons, the eldest of whom was named Leofric. The second, named Norman, was in high military trust under Edric Streon, and on the execution of that nobleman, fell a victim to the violence of the people, although he had not participated in the crimes of his patron.

It is not known when Leofric became Earl of Chester but it may have been in 1017, as a result of the unfortunate chess match. Leofric's grand-daughter, Ealdgyth married firstly the Welsh prince Gruffyd (also known as "King Of The Britons" - killed 1063), and secondly 1066 Harold Godwinson (Harold II - killed 1066, Hastings) - Harold complicates matters by having a mistress also called Ealdgyth.

On screen, Leofric has been portrayed by Roy Travers in the British silent short Lady Godiva (1928), George Nader in the film Lady Godiva of Coventry (1955), and Tony Steedman in the BBC TV series Hereward the Wake (1965).

Leofric was obviously a man of considerable talent and statesmanship as no man could survive forty years as Earl without these qualities. Probably made Earl (a rank and title new to the English, replacing and enhancing the Anglo-Saxon "ealdorman") in 1017 by the Dane Cnut, Leofric thrived and survived through Cnut's reign. The next king was Harold Harefoot (1035-1040), in whose selection as successor Leofric was instrumental. Hardacnut, Cnut's other son, reigned next (1040-1042), and then came Edward the Confessor's rule (1042-1066) during which Leofric died (in 1057).


Edward the Confessor was the son of King Ethelred II and Emma, the daughter of Duke Richard of Normandy (upon their marriage, Emma was given the Anglo-Saxon name of Ælfgifu). He was half-brother to King Edmund Ironside and also half-brother to King Harðacnut. Edward was the first and only Anglo-Saxon king of England to be canonised. With his proneness to fits of rage and love of hunting Edward is regarded by most historians as an unlikely saint, and his canonisation as political. In 1159 there was a disputed election to the papacy, and Henry II's support helped to secure recognition of Pope Alexander III. In 1160 the abbot of Westminster, Laurence, seized the opportunity to press Edward's claim to sainthood - a grateful pope issued the bull of canonisation on 7 February 1161. Edward was called 'Confessor' (in 1161) as the name for someone who was believed to have lived a saintly life but was not a martyr. The second English saint canonized by Alexander would be Thomas Becket in 1170. Until about 1350, Edmund the Martyr, Gregory the Great and Edward the Confessor were regarded as English national saints, but Edward III preferred the more war-like figure of St George, and in 1348 he established the Order of the Garter with St George as its patron. It was located at Windsor Castle, and its chapel of St Edward the Confessor was re-dedicated to St George, who was acclaimed in 1351 as "patron saint" of the English race. Westminster Abbey claimed that it possessed a set of coronation regalia that Edward had left for use in all future coronations. Following Edward's canonisation, these were regarded as holy relics, and thereafter they were used at all English coronations from the 13th century until the destruction of the regalia by Oliver Cromwell in 1649.

Edward the Confessor and his brother Æþeling Ælfred made a failed attempt to displace Harold Harefoot from the throne in 1036. Edward returned to Normandy. Ælfred, however, was captured by Godwin, Earl of Wessex who then turned him over to Harold Harefoot. Ælfred was blinded to make him unsuitable for kingship and died soon after as a result of his treatment. When Harefoot's successor Harthacnut died (June 8, 1042), Godwin finally supported the cause of his half-brother Edward the Confessor. Despite his alleged responsibility for the death of Edward's brother Alfred, Godwin secured the marriage of his daughter Eadgyth to Edward in 1045. Foxe (who gets his facts wrong as usual) has Ælfred having his eyes put out and then a particularly gruesome death:

  • That done, they opened his body, took out his bowels, set a stake into the ground, and fastened an end of his bowels thereunto, and with needles of iron they pricked his tender body, thereby causing him to go about the stake till that all his bowels were drawn out. And so died this innocent Alfred or Alured, being the right heir of the crown, through treason of wicked Godwin.

The death of Æþeling Ælfred would haunt Godwin until his dying breath. While it is true that Godwin was "not in the room" when Ælfred was blinded, and true that he did support Edward the Confessor, the charge that he was responsible for the mutilation and death of Ælfred would be raised time and again by his enemies. There is no clear answer as to whether Godwin was aware what would happen to Ælfred (and handed him over anyway) or whether he was simply looking out for himself.

With the death of his half-brother Harthacnut, Edward the Confessor returned to England from exile, bringing a host of "Franks" with him:

  • When king Edward of holy memory returned from Francia quite a number of men of that nation, and they not base-born, accompanied him. And these, since he was master of the whole kingdom, he kept with him, enriched them with many honours, and made them his privy-counsellors and administrators of the royal palace. (Vita Rdward Regis)

On 16th November 1043, Edward, accompanied by Leofric (of Chester), Godwin (of Wessex) and Siward (of Northumbria), travelling from Gloucester, made a surprise visit on his mother, Emma, in Winchester:

  • "... and they deprived her of all the treasures that she had; which were immense; because she was formerly very hard upon the king her son, and did less for him than he wished before he was king, and also since: but they suffered her to remain there afterwards." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' Manuscript D)
  • "... the king caused all the lands that his mother owned to be brought into his hands, and took from her all that she had in gold and in silver and in numberless things; because she formerly held it too fast against him." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle Manuscripts C and E)
  • "Soon after this Stigand was deprived of his bishopric; and they took all that he had into their hands for the king, because he was nighest the counsel of his mother; and she acted as he advised, as men supposed." (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle' Manuscript C)

The 'Translation of St.Mildrith' provides the answer as to why this happened:

  • "... his [Edward's] own mother was accused of inciting Magnus, king of Norway, to invade England, and it was said that she had given countless treasures to Magnus. Wherefore this traitor to the kingdom, this enemy of the country, this betrayer of her own son, was judged, and everything she possessed was forfeited to the king."

Harold, later to be king, was the son of Godwin, but not the eldest son. The eldesr son was Swein. Sweyn sought peace with Gruffydd ap Llywelyn, the King of Gwynedd in northern Wales, which allowed Gruffydd to gain the upper hand over Gruffydd ap Rhydderch, King of Deheubarth and his main Welsh rival. In 1046 Swein supported Gruffydd in the invasion of Deheubarth. On his return from the Deheubarth campaign Swein abducted Eadgifu, the Abbess of Leominster "whom he had corrupted", apparently intending to marry her and gain control of Leominster's vast wealth. However, Edward the Confessor refused permission and Eadgifu returned to her abbey. Manuscript C of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports that:

  • "... he ordered the Abbess of Leominster to be fetched him; and he had her as long as suited him, after which he let her go home."

Late in 1047, Swein left England exiled to the court of Baldwin V, Count of Flanders before traveling around. In 1049 Swein was expelled from Denmark for an unspecified offence and made an attempt to return to England. His younger brother Harold and cousin Beorn Estrithson first opposed Sweyn's return (they had gained shares of his lands when he was exiled), but Beorn eventually agreed to support him. However, while accompanying his cousin to meet Edward the Confessor, Swein had Beorn murdered and was again exiled, condemned as a "niðing" (a man of no honour).

Uneasy relations between Harold's family and the earl of Chester went back a long way. In 1051 a group of Normans (including the visiting Eustace II, Count of Boulogne), became involved in a brawl at Dover and several men were killed. Edward the Confessor ordered Godwin (Harold's father), as earl of Wessex, to punish the people of the town for this attack on his Norman friends. This was standard procedure: the previous King Harthacanute, made himself unpopular with heavy taxation in his short reign and two of his tax-collectors were killed at Worcester by angry locals. The king was so enraged by this that in 1041 he ordered Leofric and his other earls to plunder and burn the city, and lay waste the whole area. Godwin had helped Earl Leofric plunder Worcester, which could not have been pleasant for Leofric's as the city was in his own earldom. Unfortunately, for good measure, Edward raised the hoary old chestnut of Godwin being implicated in the murder of his younger brother Æþeling Ælfred in the reign of Harold Harefoot. Godwin refused to ravage Dover and instead raised an army against Edward the Confessor.

Godwin marched on Gloucester where Leofric of Chester was leading the kings forces but a war was averted when it was agreed that the Witan would sort out the dispute. The earls of Chester (Leofric) and Northumbria (Siward) remained loyal to Edward the Confessor and the Witan eventually declared that Earl Godwin and his sons had five days to leave England. Godwin and his sons, Tostig and Gyrth, went to Flanders. Harold went to Ireland and spent the winter with Dermont, king of Leinster. The following year Harold sailed from Dublin with nine ships, came ashore at Porlock in Somerset and plundered the neighbourhood. He then joined up with his father and brothers and sailed up the Thames. The King summoned the northern earls, and whilst Ralph (the timid) of Hereford and Odda responded, Leofric of Chester and Siward (of Northumbria) were noticeable by their absence. King Edward the Confessor was forced to seek terms.

The Witan, when it met, included Leofric and Siward. Godwin cleared himself, on oath, of involvement in the Æþeling Æfred's death and of treasonable intent by himself and family in 1051. According to the 'Vita Ædwardi Regis', Godwin had (once again) been formally charged with being responsible for the death of Edward's brother. Godwine asked:

  • "... for the king's peace, and offered to purge himself of the crime. But in vain. For the king had so convinced himself of the truth of this crime that he would not hear even one word of the purgation that was offered."

The 'Vita' says that Siward (Northumbria), Leofric and Leofric's son, Ælfgar, were present:

  • "And after they had all struggled in vain to get the foul charge put to the ordeal, the royal court moved from that palace to London."

Earl Godwin forced Edward the Confessor to send his Norman advisers home (..and some, to Scotland). Leofric's son Ælfgar (Elf-spear), had gained from the exile of Earl Godwin of Wessex and his sons in 1051. He was given the Earldom of East Anglia, which had been that of Harold, son of Godwin. Now that Godwin and Edward the Confessor were "reconciled" Harold was restored to his earldom and Godwin and his family, except Swein, still returning from pilgrimage at that time, were restored to their lands and positions. This was to the detriment of Leofric of Chester, but an arrangement was held that, should Harold be appointed to Wessex on his father's death, Leofric's son, Ælfgar, would take again over East Anglia.

At Easter 1053 Godwin died. Legend has it that the issue of the murder of Æþeling Ælfred came up again at a feast and that Goodwin took up a morse of bread and said something to the effect of "if I did that deed, then may this bread choke me". He swallowed the bread and promptly choked and died (it's also said that he suffered a stroke, and died three days later). Harold became Earl of Wessex, and the earldom of East Anglia returned to Ælfgar.

A family tree of the Kings of England from Edgar the Pacific to Harold, showing also how the Earls of Chester inter-married with the Welsh and English Kings. The chart also shows the possible candidates for the mysterious Ælfgyfa in the Bayeux Tapestry.

In 1054 Siward led his now famous invasion of Scotland. During the invasion of 1054, a battle was fought somewhere in Scotland north of the Firth of Forth, a battle known variously as the "Battle of the Seven Sleepers" or the "Battle of Dunsinane". The tradition that the battle actually took place at Dunsinane has its origins in later medieval legend. The earliest mention of Dunsinane as the location of the battle is in the early 15th-century by Andrew of Wyntoun. The purpose of Siward's invasion is unclear, but it may be related to the identity of the "Máel Coluim" (Malcolm) mentioned in the sources. The early 12th-century chronicle attributed to John of Worcester, probably using an earlier source, wrote that Siward defeated Mac Bethad and made "Máel Coluim, son of the king of the Cumbrians" a king (Malcolmum, regis Cumbrorum filium, ut rex jusserat, regem constituit). The identity of Máel Coluim and the reasons for Siward's help are controversial. The traditional historical interpretation was that "Máel Coluim" is Máel Coluim mac Donnchada, known sometimes today as Malcolm III or Malcolm Canmore, and that Siward was attempting to oust Mac Bethad in his favour. Mac Bethad is Mac Bethad mac Findlaích (Modern Gaelic: MacBheatha mac Fhionnlaigh), anglicised as Macbeth. In 1052, Macbeth had become involved indirectly in the strife in the Kingdom of England between Godwin and Edward the Confessor when he received a number of Norman exiles from England in his court.

sources and links

Ælfgar: The Outlaw Earl of Chester

Ælfgar himself was (perhaps wrongly) banished around 1055.

Holinshead writes as follows:

  • About the same time K. Edward by euill counsell (I wot not vpon what occasion, but as it is thought without cause) banished Algar the sonne of earle Leofrike: wherevpon he got him into Ireland, and there prouiding 18 ships of rouers, returned, & landing in Wales, ioined himselfe with Griffin the king or prince of Wales, and did much hurt on the borders about Hereford, of which place Rafe was then earle, that was sonne vnto Goda the sister of K. Edward by hir first husband Gualter de Maunt. This earle assembling an armie, came forth to giue battell to the enimies, appointing the Englishmen contrarie to their manner to fight on horssebacke, but being readie (on the two & twentith of October) to giue the onset in a place not past two miles from Hereford, he with his Frenchmen and Normans fled, and so the rest were discomfited, whome the aduersaries pursued, and slue to the number of 500, beside such as were hurt and escaped with life. Griffin and Algar hauing obteined this victorie, entered into the towne of Hereford, set the minster on fire, slue seuen of the canons that stood to defend the doores or gates of the principall church, and finallie spoiled and burned the towne miserablie.

The rather hopeless defender of Hereford is known to history as "Ralph the timid". Having seen Hereford trashed King Edward raised an army an placed Harold Godwinson in command of it as further described in Holinshead:

  • The king aduertised hereof, gathered an armie, ouer the which Harold the sonne of earle Goodwine was made generall, who followed vpon the enimies that fled before him into Stratcluid. Northwales, & staied not, till hauing passed through Stratcluid, he came to the mountaines Snowdon. of Snowdon, where he pitched his field. The enimies durst not abide him, but got them into Southwales, whereof Harold being aduertised, left the more part of his armie in Northwales to resist the enimies there, & with the residue of his people came backe vnto Hereford, recouered the towne, and caused a great and mightie trench to be cast round about it, with an high rampire, and fensed it with gates and other fortifications. After this, he did so much, that comming to a communication, with Griffin and Ælfgar at a place called Biligelhage, a peace was concluded, and so the nauie of earle Ælfgar sailed about, and came to Chester, there to remaine, till the men of warre and marriners had their wages, while he went to the king, who pardoned his offense, & restored him to his earledome.

The event, also with a possible oblique reference to the mint, and a further reference to a naval base is mentioned again in the Chronicle. Ælfgar is referred to as earl, which he was not quite yet (his father lived until 1057):

  • A.D. 1055. ..the sentence of outlawry against Earl Ælfgar was reversed; and they gave him all that was taken from him before. The fleet returned to Chester, and there awaited their pay, which Ælfgar promised them.

The amount of silver coin being produced at the Chester mint presents something of a mystery, as the weight of metal used seems to be greater than the production capacity of north Wales. One theory to account for this is trade with Ireland, which could have been a source of silver (mined or plundered) and would tie up with the references to "the fleet" above.

The versions of the Anglo-Saxon chronicle treat the exile of Ælfgar quite differently. The [C], [D] and [E] manuscripts say the following:

  • [C]: "Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed without any fault . . ."
  • [D]: "Earl Ælfgar, son of Earl Leofric, was outlawed well-nigh without fault . . ."
  • [E]: "Earl Ælfgar was outlawed because it was thrown at him that he was traitor to the king and all the people of the land. And he admitted this before all the men who were gathered there, although the words shot out against his will."

As regards his return only the [D] verion of the Chronicle has anything to say:

  • "Here Earl Ælfgar was expelled, but he soon came back again, with violence, through the help of Gruffydd. And here came a raiding ship-army from Norway; it is tedious to tell how it all happened."

While other sources exist to clarify events (a major Norwegian attempt was made on England) version [E] says nothing at all, and [D] scarcely mentions it.

Also in 1055, Tostig (Harold's brother) became the Earl of Northumbria upon the death of Earl Siward. Tostig governed in Northumbria with some difficulty and took a heavy hand against those who resisted his rule, including the murder of several members of Northumbrian families. It may well be that the convenient absence of Ælfgar paved the way for Tostig to take over Siward's earldom.

Leofric dies

The Chester Chronicle of 1057 records:

  • Leofricus Comes Cestriæ reparavit Ecclesiam Collegiatam S. Johĩs Baptistæ ac Ecclesiam S. Werburgæ infra civitatem situatam, ac privilegiis decoravit tempore S. Edwardi Regis et Confessoris, prout refert Willielmus Malmsburiensis de gestis Anglorum Lib. 2 (Leofric, earl of Chester, in the time of S. Edward, king and confessor, repaired, and conferred privileges on the collegiate church of S. John the Baptist, and the church of S. Werburg situate within the city [of Chester] as William of Malmesbury relates in his Chronicle, De Gestis Anglorum, Book 2).

Perhaps more importanly for Leofric in 1057, "Leofrike earle of Chester departed this life" as Holinshead put it:

A somewhat fanciful depiction of Leofric and Godiva (she's a blonde in this one)
  • The same yeare, that is to say, in the seuentéenth yeare or in the sixtéenth yeare of king Edwards reigne (as some write) Leofrike the noble earle of Chester, or Mercia, that was sonne to duke Leofwine, departed this life in his owne towne of Bromelie on the last day of August, and was buried at Couentrie in the abbeie there which he had builded. This earle Leofrike was a man of great honor, wise and discréet in all his dooings. His high wisdome and policie stood the realme in great stéed whilest he liued. He had a noble ladie to his wife named Gudwina, at whose earnest sute he made the citie of Couentrie frée of all manner of toll, except horsses: and to haue that toll laid downe also, his foresaid wife rode naked through the middest of the towne without other couerture, saue onlie hir haire. Moreouer, partlie moued by his owne deuotion, and partlie by the persuasion of his wife, he builded or beneficiallie augmented and repared manie abbeies & churches, as the said abbeie or priorie at Couentrie, the abbeies of Wenlocke, Worcester, Stone, Euesham, and Leof besides Hereford. Also he builded two churches within the citie of Chester, the one called S. Iohns, and the other S. Werbrough. The value of the iewels & ornaments which he bestowed on the abbeie church of Couentrie, was inestimable.

This was not the end of the Earl of Chester's troubles. In 1058 Ælfgar was again accused of treason, and once again Harold (now Earl of Hereford), again went to war:

  • After Leofriks death, his sonne Algar was made earle, and intituled in all his lands and seigniories. In the yeare following, to wit, 1058, the same Algar was accused againe (through malice of some enuious persons) of treason, so that he was exiled the land, wherevpon he repaired againe vnto his old friend Griffin prince of Northwales, of whome he was ioifullie receiued, & shortlie after by his aid, & also by the power of a nauie of ships that by chance arriued in those parts at that selfe same season vnlooked for out of Norwaie, the said Algar recouered his earledome by force, as some haue written. King Edward about the twentith yeare of his reigne, as then remaining at Glocester, appointed earle Harold to inuade the dominions of Griffin king of Wales. Harold taking with him a power of horssemen, made spéed, and came to Rutland, and there burned Griffins palace, and also his ships, and then about Midlent returned againe into England.

Holinshead write "Rutland" when he means Rhuddlan in Flintshire.

Harold - The Once and Future King

Alfred's military strength and that of those who succeeded him, was based upon the footsoldier and the ship. "Redcoat and Dreadnought" would be a winning formula for many years.

In mainland Europe, military technology came up with the stronghold, the mounted knight and the feudal society to support them. The early castle formed an integral part of feudalism: it provided a residence for the lord; provided protection for his followers as guaranteed by their feudal oaths of loyalty and allegiance, while the garrison of the castle was made up of the lord's followers, as per their feudal obligations. When William the Conqueror conducted the Norman Conquest of England, following his invasion in 1066, he brought with him the practice of establishing castles to protect and hold the land. By 1066, this practice was common in western Europe, and the advent of the castle in England was one of the major military advances brought by the feudal Norman knights. Castles continued to develop over the next few hundred years, until the large scale deployment of gunpowder rendered the traditional design obsolete.

The coming of the Normans and the construction of Chester Castle marks the final emergence of Chester from the Dark Ages. However, it is not without a final twist. The story picks up in 1062 when Ælfgar died and was succeeded as Earl of Mercia by his eldest son, Edwin (also called Eadwine).

Aelfgyva in the Bayeux Tapestry

In 1063 Edward the Confessor's military leader Harold (later to become Harold II) son of Earl Godwin, attacked Gryffudd ap Llywelyn's palace at Rhuddlan in Flintshire using Chester as his base and made himself master of the Vale of Clwyd. Following either Gruffydd's death (apparently at the hands of his own troops) - or simply the fact that Gruffydd had fled - Harold married his widow, Aldgyth although he also had a mistress called Ealdgyth. There is a "mysterious lady" (Aelfgyva) in the Bayeux tapestry - who may be Aldgyth - (this has never been confirmed) and who may hint at some scandal well known at the time. Looking at the tapestry in detail, it can be seen that the woman is depicted as being with a tonsured cleric, who is either slapping her face or stroking her cheek (the woman appears to be smiling). The priest is in a peculiar pose and just below the two figures is an obviously naked man in a very similar pose. The image is labled "ubi unus clericus et Aelfgyva" ("where a cleric and Aelfgifu"). Looking at the family tree for the English players in this particular drama, it is clear that Aelfgifu (it means "elf-gift") was either an incredibly common name in the late Dark Ages, or that it was some form of title of rank.

Possible contenders (see the Polychronicon page for more on this) are:

Changes in sea level meant that in 1066 the area shaded blue was either sea or swamp (see how the major roads keep to the high ground). So when William landed at Hastings, there was one obvious place to stop him getting out - Battle, where the "Battle of Hastings" was actually fought.
  • Harold's wife Aldgyth of Chester (who might not actually have been a widow) and who was the daughter of Ælfgar;
  • Harold's mistress, Ealdgyth also known as "Edith Swanneschals" or "Edith the Fair";
  • Eadgyth daughter of Godwin and therefore Harold's sister - the only witness when her husband Edward the Confessor (allegedly) promises Harold the crown of England on his deathbed (January 5, 1066);
  • Cnut's first wife, Ælfgifu of Northampton mother of Harold Harefoot;
  • Cnut's second wife, Emma of Normandy (who changed her name to Ælfgifu when she moved to England) and who previously had been the wife of Ethelred the Unready. Shw was later said to have invited Æþeling Ælfred to England and his death "at the hands of Godwin". Some evidence for her being involved in a scandal with a priest is provided in Higden's Polychronicon.;
  • Ælfgifu of York, first wife of Ethelred the Unready;
  • The wife of Ælfgar, the Earl of Chester, Ælfgifu
  • William's wife Matilda or one of William's daughters (Adeliza, or Adela, (or posibly an Agatha) one of whom was suppoed to have been betrothed to Harold at some point.
  • Harold's mother Gytha Thorkelsdóttir;
  • Harlds's daughter "Gytha of Wessex";
  • Eadgifu, the Abbess of Leominster, who was abducted by Harold's exiled brother Sweyn Godwinson;

Harold's January 1064 marriage seemed like a shrewd political move. Aldgyth was the widow of his enemy and the daughter of the ruling house of Mercia. One of Ealdgyths brothers, Edwin was Earl of Mercia while another, Morcar, would also rise to prominence. Outlaws had just become inlaws. Curiously, these two brothers are mentioned in Alice in Wonderland: ""Ahem!" said the Mouse with an important air. "Are you all ready? This is the driest thing I know. Silence all 'round, if you please! 'William the Conqueror, whose cause was favored by the pope, was soon submitted to by the English, who wanted leaders, and had been of late much accustomed to usurpation and conquest. Edwin and Morcar, the Earls of Mercia and Northumbria'—"

By 1063, Tostig's popularity in Northumbria had plummeted to a new and dangerous level. Many Northumbrians were Danes, and had perviously benefited from low taxation compared with elsewhere in England. However, the Welsh wars needed paying for and Tostig had played a part in that he attacked from the north whilst brother Harold attacked from the South. To add to his unpopularity, in late 1063 or early 1064 Tostig had Gamal, son of Orm, and Ulf, son of Dolfin, assassinated when they visited him under safe conduct.

On 3 October 1065 the thegns of Yorkshire and the rest of Yorkshire descended on York and occupied the city. They killed Tostig's officials and supporters, then declared Tostig outlawed for his unlawful action and sent for Morcar, younger brother of Edwin, Earl of Mercia. The Northern rebels marched south to press their case with King Edward. They were joined at Northampton by Earl Edwin and his forces. There they were met by Earl Harold, who came to negotiate and did not bring his forces. He had been sent by Edward the Confessor to open negotiations with the rebels (who were also the brothers of his wife). After Harold had spoken with the rebels at Northampton, he realised that Tostig (his own brother) would not be able to retain Northumbria. When he returned to Oxford where the royal council was to meet on 28 October, he had probably already made up his mind. Harold persuaded Edward the Confessor to agree to the demands of the rebels. Tostig was outlawed a short time later, possibly early in November, because he refused to accept his deposition as commanded by Edward. Harold's agreement that his brother-in law should prevail over his brother finally cemented the peace between Mercia and Wessex. This led to an enmity between the Godwinson brothers that was to prove fatal, both to them and to their country.

sources and links


Harold dies - or does he? - a Chester legend has it that he later lived in the Hermitage near St Johns Church. It has never been quite clear whether Harold is the one with the arrow in his eye or the one getting cut down by cavalry.

The following events are well known:

  • Edward the Confessor (allegedly) promised Harold Godwinson the crown of England on his deathbed (January 5, 1066). Harold and his sister (Eadgyth - who had married Edward the Confessor in 1045) were the only witnesses. The Witenagemot (the assembly of the kingdom's leading notables) approved Harold for coronation, which took place, with indecent haste, the following day at the newly consecrated Westminster Abbey.
  • Shortly afterwards, on 18th April, a portentous star was seen in the night sky, moving across the heavens with a trail of fire in its wake, it was seen all over England for seven nights thereafter. It is recorded that Harold and the witan saw it while assembled on Thorney Island for the feast of Easter. Many others saw it as an omen of doom, symbolising the wrath of God toward the foresworn Harold - it has now been identified as Halley's Comet.
  • Edwin the Earl of Chester and his younger brother Morcar the Earl of Northumbria, previous enemies of Godwinson, now pledged to support Harold Godwinson. England was then invaded by both Harald Hardrada of Norway and William, Duke of Normandy, both of whom claimed the English crown. Harold offered his rebellious brother (Tostig) a third of the kingdom if he joined him against Hardrada, and Tostig asked what Harold would offer the king of Norway. "Six feet of ground or as much more as he needs, as he is taller than most men" was Harold's response.
  • Edwin and Morcar stood against Hardrada at the Battle of Fulford on September 20, 1066. William Camden writes - "the two Earles Edwin and Morcar led forth a power of souldiers, whom they had raised suddainly and in tumultuary haste: but they, not able to abide the violent charge of the Norwegians, fled for the most part as fast as they could, and together with the Earles made shift to escape." While they were defeated they bought the valuable time need for Harold to arrive with his troops and, five days later, defeat the invader.
  • Harold's army defeated Tostig et al at the Battle of Stamford Bridge (September 25) and Tostig was killed together with Hardrada. Harold now forced his army to march 241 miles (386 kilometres) to intercept William, who had landed perhaps 7000 men in Sussex. Harold's brothers-in-law Edwin and Morcar declined to help on this occasion, preferring to mind their business in the north. This lack of support severely reduced the numbers Harold would be able to use in the battle.
  • The two armies clashed at the Battle of Hastings, near the present town of Battle on October 14. 1066 - Harold died.

Or did he...

sources and links


Despite its name and reputation the Dark Age has left a very visible imprint on Chester, sometimes through quite minor triggers. This period gave Chester its name and the layout of the City Walls expanded upon the original Roman plan. The continued presence of an ecclesiastical center at Chester is perhaps first indicated by the story of St Germanus (see: Mold Cope). The ruins of Roman Chester provided sites and building material for several of the churches established during the Dark Ages, as well as the foundations for the two-tier structures which became The Rows. The Battle of Chester perhaps illustrates how there was some continuity of occupation as a strategic center. It remained a strategic center at the time of Ecgbert and became an important "burh" in the time of Æthelflæd and the death of her brother at Farndon. Other conflicts nearby my have included the Battle of Brunanburh. Plegmund provides some evidence for the ecclesiastical importance of the city, something which was still in evidence when Edgar the Pacific had his famous river cruise from Edgar's Field.

The powerful Ealdormen of Mercia foreshadowed the establishment of Norman Earls of Chester whose palatinate domain was largely independent of the crown and whose institutions survived long after the earldom had become a royal holding. The roots of this independence can be traced back at least to the time of Ælfgar. At the time of the Norman Conquest Harold's family fled to Chester which was one of the last hold-outs of the Anglo-Saxons.

The westward expansion of the Anglo-Saxons stalled at Chester along a border which was in part due to local geology and topography, making Chester an important border city and promoting the growth of trade, leading eventually to a guild system which would influence the development of local government for centuries, and possibly even hold back subsequent development during the Industrial Revolution. Chester was an important ecclesiastical center at points during the Dark Ages and as a consequence ended-up with two major religious centers: the Cathedral and St Johns. The cult of Werburgh was established at Chester during the Dark Ages, possibly thanks to the Vikings causing her relics to be moved from their earlier resting place, and her shrine may have played a small part in the slow slide to a later Civil War. The local influence of Dark Age Welsh legends of an earlier golden age, and a hope that the same would return may have influenced the development of the Chester Mystery Plays.

The detailed history of "Dark Age" Chester is often overlooked in comparison to Roman Chester, the Norman Chester Castle and the effects of the Civil War, but actually provides an interesting perspective on the emergence of a unified England.

Brief Chronology

More detailed chronology can be found in the artiles linked to in the list of dates below. There are very few fixed dates for dark Ages Chester and quite some interpolation and consideration of events elsewhere is needed to fill out the story. Dates given in bold are events in or near Chester.

Fifth century

This century saw the collapse of the Western Roman Empire, which came to an end in 476 AD. This empire had been ruled by a succession of weak emperors, with the real political might being increasingly concentrated among military leaders. Internal instability allowed a Visigoth army to reach and ransack Rome in 410. Some recovery took place during the following decades, but the Western Empire received another serious blow when a second foreign group, the Vandals, occupied Carthage, capital of an extremely important province in Africa. Attempts to retake the province were interrupted by the invasion of the Huns under Attila. After Attila's defeat, both Eastern and Western empires joined forces for a final assault on Vandal North Africa, but this campaign was a spectacular failure. The beginning of the fifth century saw the final withdrawl of the Roman administration from Britain. At first, the chief enemies of an independent Britain were Irish raiders from the west and Picts from the north. Later, Angles, Saxons and Jutes arrived from across the North Sea. The Anglo-Saxons began to settle in what later became England. Christianity, which had been introduced under the Romans, survived in Wales but died out as an established institution in England.

Chester's only connection is a peripheral one in that it was a part of a network of Roman defences along the North Welsh coast that may have been involved with the formation of a Roman successor state in Gwynedd:

  • c420: Battle of Maes Garmon? (see: Mold Cope);

Sixth century

The collapse of the Western Roman Empire late in the previous century left Europe fractured into many small Germanic kingdoms competing fiercely for land and wealth. From the upheaval the Franks rose to prominence and carved out a sizeable domain covering much of modern France and Germany. Meanwhile, the surviving Eastern Roman Empire began to expand under Emperor Justinian, who recaptured North Africa from the Vandals and attempted fully to recover Italy as well, in the hope of reinstating Roman control. The iniatal colonization of the Anglo-Saxons appears to have taken a pause about the year 500. The British rulers, now confined laregely to Wales, were still in touch with the surviving Roman empire in the east, but a major Pandemic marked the end of any hope for a reconquest of the western empire.

Again, there is little connection between Chester and broader events:

  • c540: Gildas writes his "history";
  • c547: Plague of Justinian, see: Pandemic;

Seventh Century

The Byzantine Empire continued suffering setbacks during the rapid expansion of the Muslim Empire. This century saw a resurgence of christianity in Britain, which spread rapidly in influence. Northumbria was the dominant power in England for much of this century. From 597 English rulers were converted by Roman or Irish missionaries. Within a century a flourishing English Church had made dramatic advances in art and architecture.

Chester may well have by now become an important location for the local "Celtic" church and would develop further as an ecclesiastical center. Whilke attempts have been made to link the Battle of Chester to the Augustinian mission, these seem something of a stretch:

  • c600: Augustines mission to Britain;
  • 601: possible synod at Chester;
  • c616: Battle of Chester;
  • c664: Synod of Whitby
  • c650: Werburgh born;
  • c685: Battle of Dun Nechtain - Picts defeat Northumbrians, whose dominance ends.
  • c689: Traditional date for foundation of St Johns;
  • 699: Werburgh dies

Eighth Century

The coast of North Africa and the Iberian Peninsula quickly came under Islamic Arab domination. The westward expansion of the Umayyad Empire was famously halted at the siege of Constantinople by the Byzantine Empire and the Battle of Tours by the Franks. The tide of Arab conquest came to an end in the middle of the 8th century. In Europe, late in the century, the Vikings, seafaring peoples from Scandinavia, begin raiding the coasts of Europe and the Mediterranean, and go on to found several important kingdoms. Mercia became the dominant power in England.

With the growth of Mercia the region around Chester would become contested teritory:

  • c731: Bede writes his history;
  • c750: Werburgh dies;
  • c793: Sack of Lindisfarne. Significant Viking attacks on Britain begin.
  • c796: Offa (of the dyke) dies;

Ninth Century

Britain experienced a great influx of Viking peoples in the 9th century as the Viking Age continued from the previous century. The kingdoms of the Heptarchy were gradually conquered by the Danes, who set up Anglo-Saxon puppet rulers in each kingdom. This invasion was achieved by a huge military force known as the Great Heathen Army, which was supposedly led by Ivar the Boneless, Halfdan Ragnarsson, and Guthrum. This Danish army first arrived in Britain in 865 in East Anglia. After conquering that kingdom, the army proceeded to capture the city of York (Jorvik) and establish the kingdom of Jorvik. Wessex became the dominant power as eastern Mercia was effectively destroyed by the Vikings. The remaining kingdom of Wessex was the only kingdom of the Heptarchy left. Alfred the Great managed to maintain his kingdom of Wessex and push back the Viking incursions, relieving the neighbouring kingdoms from the threat of the Danes following his famous victory over them at the Battle of Ethandun in 878. Alfred re-established Anglo-Saxon rule over the western half of Mercia, and the Danelaw was established which separated Mercia into halves, the eastern half remaining under the control of the Danes.

Chester has by now become of some strategic importance as it is the Irish-sea port of the Mercians:

Tenth Century

In many parts of Europe a culture of feuding local lords developed, controlled only by needs demanded by the upkeep of their network of friends and relations. From the 910s King Edward the Elder (r.899–924) and his sister Æthelflæd, the "Lady of the Mercians", conquered the Danelaw south of the Humber. Edward’s son Æthelstan (r.924–39) advanced still further: in 937 he destroyed a coalition of Vikings and Scots, and became known as "Ruler of All Britain". In the 980s, however, Viking raids resumed, motivated by the ease of extorting vast quantities of silver from English coffers. The raids developed into full-scale invasions which eventually overwhelmed King Æthelred "Unraed" (r.978–1016).

Chester's importance as a port continues to grow as it is refortified as a Mercian burh and is the site of Edgar's "coronation":

Eleventh Century

Early in the century England was conquered by Cnut and the Scandinavians would rule until 1042, when independence would return under Edward the Confessor. Two of the major power-blocks were the House of Godwin (Wessex) and the House of Leofric (Mercia). When Edward died without heirs in 1066, Harold Godwinson seized the throne. England was immediately threatened both by Cnut’s heir, Harald Hardrada of Norway, and Edward’s possible choice of successor, Duke William of Normandy. Hardrada invaded first and was beaten at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire (with the assistance of Edwin and Morcar of the House of Leofric), on 25 September 1066. Harold marched his weakened army south to face William at the Battle of Hastings.

After Harold's defeat, his family fled to Chester (see: Harold's family).

  • c1016: Chester ravaged by Edmund Ironside and Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria because Cheshire men would not fight against the Danes (under Canute)
  • c1062: Ælfgar, Earl of Mercia, dies;
  • 1066: Norman invasion, end of Dark Ages;

Related Pages

Places and Events


Sources and Links

A list of links to the Dark Ages sources on Chester would be very long, so links are listed on the pages mentioned above. For convenience, some links to "original" sources are included below.

Chronicles and other eBooks

N.B. Richard of Cirencester's De Situ Britanniae was faked by Charles Bertram prior to publication in 1747 although it was revealed to be a fake in 1845, it had by then provided misinformation which turned up in many other works.

Further Sources and Links

Chester in Other Historical Periods