Historiography is the study of the methods of historians in developing history as an academic discipline, and by extension is any body of historical work on a particular subject. The historiography of a specific topic covers how historians have studied that topic using particular sources, techniques, and theoretical approaches. The discussion can be extended to examine the way in which history is portrayed given the times and viewpoint of the historian. It is commonly recognised by historians that, in themselves, individual historical facts dealing with names, dates and places are not particularly meaningful or interesting except to very few. Such facts will only become useful when assembled with other historical evidence in an overall picture, and the process of assembling this evidence is understood as a particular historiographical approach.
In some ways Historiography is similar to an analysis of a long-passed legal case. Events exist, and there are witnesses to some or all of these events. The witnesses may be "unreliable" for various reasons including failure of memory, personal prejudice, a tendency to elaborate on their testimony or a desire to conceal guilt. The later analyst may also not have access to all the materials which could have been collected at the time, and is unable to go back and explore the facts further. The records of an enquiry and events surrounding it may be incomplete. A good example of this from Chester is the supposed "murder" of Charles Moston, a canal boatman who died in 1877. Moston's case illustrates well how the evidence can point to inconsistencies, some of which were revealed during the inquest and some of which remain puzzling to this day. In the inquest which formed a part of the Moston case "historic" events were being examined within a very short time of their occurence, and with actual witnesses available for questioning, but only parts of the "truth" may have come out, even though several witnesses changed their "story" during the course of the inquest. Then there is the issue of how the case is reported: most of what we know is taken from the newspapers of the time, which intentionally or not might introduce another layer of "smoke and mirrors".
Historiography also sheds some light on the personalities of historians. Chester has a long series of Georgian and Victorian guidebooks starting with Broster and continuing through the likes of Pigot, Hanshall, Seacome, Hemingway, Hughes and Windle. All of these books treat similar subject matter but each reveals it in a slightly different way, showing in each case something of the character of the writer and the nature of their times. Hemingway, for example, can be a very confusing "witness" to a later reader interested in facts as his two books describe Chester some years apart, but the one written first was published second. However, Hemingway also places a personal gloss on the history he recounts.
History as "truth"
The extent to which historians are selective about their sources is one factor in how an eventual view of the past is assembled. It may be that some sources are available to some historians and not to others. Then there is the issue of the veracity of the sources used, which may themselves have a particular bias, whether intentional or not. Another layer is the political and/or philosophical position of the historian, who may interpret the actions of those long dead in the light of more modern concerns and behaviors. A factor which is particularly relevant to these history pages is that it is concerned with the history of Chester and Cheshire, and uses places, people and events associated with that geography to construct a narrative. One reason for that is the assumption that history is more interesting and comprehensible when linked to the familiar, or at least the commonplace. The objective is not to make Chester seem more important in the course of history than it actually is.
As an example of this, some of the first research which led to this present site was sparked off by the memorial to Owen Jones on what was once the Grosvenor Club building just inside the Eastgate at Chester. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people will walk past this every day but few will notice it and fewer still will have any idea of why it is there and what it represents. Matters are complicated enough in view of the relatively small amount of information which exists about the historical Jones. His original name, if the story of his being a foundling is true, would (probably) not even have been Jones. The consequences of his bequest to the guilds of Chester can be interpreted in many ways ranging from the establishment of a useful charity which still exists and does good works, to helping maintain a corrupt administration which had major consequences for the social, political and industrial development of Chester. As an example of the latter, local historian Frank Simpson wrote of the charity:
- "About this time (1773) many were admitted into the Companies through favour, for the sole purpose of partaking of the Bequest, and others were kept out by the demand of arbitrary fees; although many well-to-do citizens partook of the distribution, they gave receipts for their shares describing themselves “poor brothers."
Is this a basis for an assumption of ongoing corruption in the Corporation? - and what weight should we give the natural tendency to assume that any "political" organisation, such as the Corporation, is both inept and corrupt? Simpson can be read as stating a simple fact or expressing an opinion.
How Owen Jones came to be on the frontage of what was once the "North and South Wales Bank", together with a host of coats of arms is another question: again, several explanations can be posited. "Blue Plaque's provide another example of how the perception of history can be "innocently" distorted.
At times, history can be "distorted" so far that it becomes myth and legend, or myth and legend can become incorporated into history. Early written histories of Chester are full of examples of this, but it can also be found in word-of-mouth "urban myths". A good example of that is the common belief that the Town Hall in Chester only has a clock-face on three sides because "the inhabitants of Chester would not give the Welsh the time of day". In reality, the explanation may be more to do with the fact that the building is essentially a scaled-down copy of the Cloth Hall in Ypres (Belgium), which also only has a clock on only three of its faces, and in any event the clock was only installed around 1980. A related legend is that the Chester people so dislike the Welsh that it is legal to shoot them after dark. Once again, this is a popular myth based on history which has become distorted over the years: the original basis of the "Shoot the Welsh" story finds its roots in the support of Cestrians for the Welsh back in the time of Richard II, not in any dislike of them (and the penalty for the Welsh supporting the night economy of Chester was decapitation). The Town Hall provides other examples of how history can be distorted in the form of its decorative murals, which are either less than historically accurate or raise the interesting question as to why the particular subject matter was chosen, while other events were missed-out. In the larger scheme of things Chester's Town Hall is not a particularly important building, but it is a familiar one to many and so forms a useful setting for historical illustrations.
Some historical "myths" even have their roots in "news" media - "fake news" is nothing new. There is a popular story that a gunfight took place in what is now Grosvenor Park just before the Civil War on the site of the Cholmondeley mansion. The real story is actually far more interesting, with the gunfight being an early example of lurid "fake news". Other examples have the effective founder of the Chester Chronicle newspaper (John Fletcher) having built Pontcysyllte Aqueduct - a biographer's error and possibly the result of a misguided or mischevious diarist. An unwanted consequence of an error in any body of work is often that the entire work becomes suspect as a result, especially when it states a fact boldly without providing a source. Very often, however, the reasons why these errors creep in are of themselves interesting. One good example from Chester concerns the "legend" that the finding of a "Roman" coin in Park Street led to the words "The Fear of the Lord is a Fountain of Life" being inscribed on the front of a building - the words being a translation from the latin "TIMOR . DOMINE . FONS . VITAE" stamped on the coin. That there is something "fishy" with this story is immediatly apparent when one considers why the ancient Romans should have used the words of the King James Bible (Proverbs [14:27]) on a coin. Unfortunately, several historians repeat the "Roman Coin" story as well as assuming that the building in question is medieval (it was built in 1881). But is it unfair to then consider an entire guidebook which mentions this as "truth" to be untrustworthy, or cease to believe anything that a newspaper prints because it once got a weather forecast wrong?
The tendency to link a known historical person to a place has also led to some interesting "legends". Examples from Chester include the long-standing association of King Harold (of "Hastings") with the Hermitage, which no doubt brought fame and pilgrims to St Johns to see both his resting place and the church's fragment of the "True Cross". Other kings associated with Chester incluide Charles, who probably didn't watch his army defeated on Rowton Heath from the Phoenix Tower during the Civil War and Richard II, who may or may not have hidden his Royal Treasure down the well at Beeston Castle. The builder of Beeston Castle was the Norman Earl Ranulf de Blondeville, and much of the history surrounding him and his relatives may also have become distorted for a variety of reasons. One purpose of this site is not to "set the record straight", but to point out some of the issues and shed some light on the back-stories to some of these "legends". For example, Charles Kingsley is yet another person often associated with Chester, although he only lived here briefly, and even then on a temporary basis. Kingsley is remembered as a writer of children's books, but modern re-interpretation of him reveals a much darker side to his character and his often very questionable treatment of historical facts, as well as his essentially racist treatment of Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution. Of course, not everything written about any of those mentioned is innaccurate and many of the "not quite true" facts are themselves closely linked to what is actually believed to be "historical truth". Many commentators on his poem "The Sands of Dee" know that Kingsley lived in Chester, but then state that he wrote the poem while living in the area, which is quite untrue: he wrote the poem two decades before moving to Chester.
"Ghost Stories" often feature distortions of reality. There is a common story in Chester that the "Moors Murderers" were held in the cells of the police station beneath the Town Hall and that a "strange presence" is sometimes felt there. However this is based on a myth, as Hindley and Brady were held at Risley diuring their trial at Chester and driven the 25 miles to Risley and back every day. Simple examination of the Town Hall site reveals that there is no way that the couple could be transferred between the cells and a car without being exposed to the public.
Chester provides many more examples of the distortion of history, some of which are quite amusing, especially where it comes to the "Mock Tudor" architecture which was adopted at the end of the 19th Century and among which only a few "unmodified" Tudor (not medieval) buildings can be found. Some of the reconstructions are barely distinuguishable form the originals, such as the fourth bay added in the 1930's to the 1591 Stanley Palace. Others, such as the frontage of a building in Bridge Street with a carving of "King Charles" (legs cut down to fit the niche) are possibly an intentional parody which the architect (Thomas Edwards) might have expected to be obvious to most people. Edwards also did the "Roman coin" house in Park Street - maybe a strong hint that he had a peculiar sense of humour? - and the Drill Hall in Volunteer Street, another example of a building made to look like it dates from earlier than it actually does. It is only when all three of these buildinga are compared does a pattern of imitating the past in a specific way emerge.
There are therefore many reasons why the "historical truth" gets distorted. These might include: mistake, political propaganda, humour, over-ethusiastic reconstruction, elevation of ancestors or simply a wish that things might have been different. The rest of this article provides further examples of some of these as an illustration of how historical fact, especially as regards Chester, can get distorted. This is not an exhasiive list of reasons and in many cases the reasons overlap. It is also not an exhaustive list of errors and/or distortions. What it certainly isn't is an attempt to belittle the efforts of other writers on history, but show how history, especially that encountered in the everyday, can often be more interesting than it might seem on the surface.
Some mistakes are simple - a brick gets dropped. A clear example in Chester is the signage outside of Parker's buildings in Foregate Street. Parker's buildings were constructed in 1888–89 for the Grosvenors. The building was designed by John Douglas and work was supervised by the Duke's nephew and agent, Cecil Parker, and the finished building named after him. Douglas' relationship with Parker was not harmonious, and they frequently clashed over the design details. It is believed that the regimented and rather severe block which eventually emerged was the result of Parker's interventions as Douglas normally exhibits much less stark lines and more individuality to the various parts of his designs. When the block of flats was completed, Parker still took the opportunity to have another dig at Douglas as he complained about "poor materials and workmanship". In May 2007 some new signage was put up on Foregate Street to inform passers-by about the buildings and unfortunately the images of Douglas and Parker were interchanged, so that each has the other's name under his image. Given that the pair did not get on, both would have probably been mortified, if they were around to see it. All this tends perhaps to paint Parker in a bad light: arguing with the noted architect and naming the buildings after himself, but this one incident does not really justify forming an opinion of the man, especially as what draws attention to the fact that they did not get on is an error made much later. And while the building might look like a Victorian "throwback" it is very similar to "affordable" housing that was being built in the East End of London at the time and was certainly still desirable in the 1980's.
Some mistakes should be obvious. The signage at the Amphitheatre in Chester shows a left-handed "Saint" Gildas writing with a quill and ink and wearing a robe with long sleeves that would be sure to smear his writing. As for his sainthood, that is probably a confusion with the French St Gildas. To add more confusion he was most likely a monk at Bangor Tewdws in Glamorgan, not Bangor-on-Dee as the signage states: the latter was probably not even founded when Gildas was writing. Finally, Gildas is possibly depicted as having a tonsure of the type used by the Latin Church, not the Celtic to which he would have belonged.
Other mistakes are less obvious, such as the apparent switching around of some of the coats of arms on the Suspension Bridge, and the changes in tincture which were introduced during restoration. These are perhaps forgivable errors, especially as the local council seems to have a long tradition of getting public signage wrong. A further example is the stone plaque at Recorders Steps, which delares that the steps were built in 1700 for the convenience of Roger Comberbach. Unfortunately, the steps were actually built in 1720-22, and that was after Comberbach had died in 1719. It is hardly the fault of the corporation because the error seems to have occured in an early guidebook written by Hanshall, and then was copied by later guidebooks. Once mistakes find their way into sources (there are probably quite a few mistakes on this wiki) they tend to get passed on, creating multiple instances of evidence which seem to point to the same fact, but are actually based on the same error. Another commonly repeated error is that is that Northgate Gaol had a "little ease" type of cell, only it wasn't in the Gaol, but on the other side of what is now the canal in the "House of Correction".
Even capable historians can make mistakes, especially when touching on subjects outside of their expertise. In an article on the ballooning exploits of Thomas Baldwin around 1785 one well-known local historian refers to experiments using helium (when he may have meant hydrogen). Helium itself was not discovered until 1868 and only became available in quantities after 1903, with the first use in balloons about 1921. Looking into the error could however lead a historian to discover that Baldwin had indeed done practical experimental work on ballooning, rather than being the "mere adventurer" as portrayed in one pamphlet about him. Other seemingly outrageous tales can also have grain of truth in them: while it is still unproven that Haile Selassie visited Chester, it has now been remembered that his daughter once lived in Upton.
The problem with these mistakes is that they get repeated by those who quite innocently take them as facts. The English composer and musician William Lawes is often noted as being killed at the Battle of Rowton Moor, whereas he served in the King's Lifeguards who went with the King to Chester and probably only took part in fighting at Hoole.
Sometimes distortion of historical fact is intentional, and often for political reasons. Those killed on HMS Chester during the Battle of Jutland included John Travers Cornwell (VC) (8 January 1900 – 2 June 1916), - who died aged 16. Although Cornwell survived long enough to reach hospital in Grimsby, he died of his wounds on 2 June. Much propaganda was made out of Jack's death with numerous parallels to the death of Giocante Casabianca at the battle of the Nile (origin of "the boy stood on the burning deck..."). The bible belonging to "Jack" Cornwell is in Chester Cathedral as is a memorial to the ship and it's dead (and the ship's ensign and union flag). The 5.5 inch gun served by Cornwell is preserved in the Imperial War Museum in London. Cornwell was awarded the VC for bravery posthumously and was the inspiration for the "Scout Victoria Cross" (The Cornwell Scout Badge). He was featured on many "Cigarette cards", in his uniform and wearing his Victoria Cross, which would have been impossible given that it was a postumous award. However the fakery did not stop there - for the person shown in the potraits is not John but his brother George, as there were no photographs of John available. Other "pictures" of John Cornwell are based on the image of his brother Ernest. Even his Victoria Cross has been touched by propaganda: they were not made from Russian cannon used in the Crimea, as the metal is of Chinese origin.
Other examples of propaganda include the prophecies of the Cheshire "prophet" Robert Nixon and probably even his very existence. Nixon is associated with Vale Royal and follows a typical pattern of the use of prophecy for propaganda purposes: (a) a prophet is stated to have said that X would happen (in this case the birth of a Cholmondeley heir), (b) it is shown that such did happen, so an as yet unfulfilled prophecy (in this case a Jacobite heir) must also be true. The church, as is often the case, is the home to many myths: which in Chester include that of "Saint Olave", whose small church is to be found in Lower Bridge Street. In reality Olaf II was a Norwegian King, but is probably better described as a psychopath rather than a saint. However at the time the Pope confirmed him to be a saint it was expedient to do so due to the growth of the church in Scandinavia.
Under this heading can also be listed the tendency of some historians simply to avoid a particular subject. An example is Æthelflæd, "Lady of the Mercians", who was responsible for much of the re-development of Chester around the year 900 and yet is hardly mentioned in the offical version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle produced by the scribes of Wessex (or indeed commemorated in Chester). Only in the "B-version" of the Chronicle are her acts recorded where alternative entries are given for the years 911-918, and tell a quite different story of her involvement. Her ancestor Ecgbert gets a similar treatment at the Town Hall where he described as "uniting the kingdoms" whereas he was briefly the most powerful warlord in England and only visited (then Welsh) Chester to sack it. The reason for these distortions is that the Wessex scribes who prepared the ASC were playing-up the activities of Alfred the Great and his son Edward the Elder and played-down any success of the Mercians.
Sometimes "propoganda" reaches as far as what might be considered deliberate misrepresentation. The "Grosvenor Treasure" is connected with Chester only through the association with fabulous wealth and while it has its origins in an actual shipwreck, the value of the treasure and even its nature would grow and change over the years as supposed "treasure hunters" attempted to raise funds from hopeful investors to recover the treasure.
Even the Chester Imp has turned-up as propaganda. In 2015 the "Daily Mirror" published a story that the Imp had been "rediscovered after 1000 years". This is rubbish for several reasons, firstly becausse the Imp had been in plain sight for centuries and indeed is mentioned in may guidebooks and secondly because in 1015 that part of the Cathedral had not even been built. The propaganda aspect here is that the story was apparently circulated by Chester BID to encourage tourism.
There are several historic descriptions of the Battle of Chester, which probably took place around 616 at Heronbridge. Those of Bede and others differ significantly in terms of the reasons for the battle. Bede, who had a personal interest in the calculation of the date of Easter seems to make arguments over that date into a major cause of the battle. Geoffrey of Monmouth appears to use it for a quite a different purpose and incorporates it into a pseudo-historical narrative to justify the Norman overlordship of Wales. Other early historians, such as Nennius apparently distort history to provide a basis for the claim to the Welsh throne of a new dynasty, having roots going back to what appears to be a remnant of Roman forces based at Chester who survived in North Wales. Of course, those are only interpretations of why these historians might be read in a certain way and should be considered alongside the archaeological interpretation of actual "bones in the ground" under the ditches and banks at Heronbridge.
When the Chester Mystery Plays were performed they purported to show actual historical events. The purpose of these depictions was to modify or control present behaviour and to provide evidence that as past prophecy had proved true, so present prophecy would also prove true. Shakespeare's "history plays" can be seen in the same light, they often modify details of the past as a consequence of the politics of Shakespeare's own time. One notable example being the changes Shakespeare makes as regards the involvement of the Stanley family. This has even led some to suggest that the plays, in particular the history plays, were authored by the Stanleys: see Shakespeare and Chester.
Another myth associated with the Mystery Plays is that they were authored by Ranulph Higden, compiler of the Polychronicon. Higden was a well-known historian and a monk at the Cathedral and his name was probably attracted to the plays because of his fame. This possibly also gave some validity to the aspects of the plays which were raising issues over their meaning and interpretation. However there is no historical document which states that this was the reason his name was associated with the plays, and the argument that it was done with a definite purpose in mind remains a surmise - it could equally well be a simple error.
Humour and Entertainment
Some historical myths persist because they are amusing or entertaining. In some cases the claim is so outlandish that it must be intended as a joke. The guild website for Chester used to state that the "cappers", who made headgear, got their name because they used to make percussion caps for firearms, despite the cappers having been in existence before percussion caps were known. The reference to firearms is so outrageous that it must have been intended as a joke.
Humorous stories about the well-known also tend to survive. The 2nd Duke of Westminster, married and divorced three times, was (probably from the late 1920's) infatuated with Coco Chanel and urban legend states that as a token of his affection, all the lampposts in Westminster were embossed with her Sheela na gig "CC" logo in gold, alongside his somewhat phallic "W" crest, for Westminster. It’s rumoured that this grand gesture was a precursor to a marriage proposal, which Coco turned down with the famous dig at the Duke’s previous marriages:
- "There have been many Duchesses of Westminster, but only one Coco Chanel."
Westminster City Council offer a far less exciting explanation for the mystery: "CC" simply stands for City Council (and the lamposts were not installed until the 1950's). In reality, the 2nd Duke has a fascinating history which is often overlooked, as is Coco Chanel's history in WW2.
There are many other odd sounding historical "facts" about Chester that are often repeated for entertainment and some of them do appear to have a grain of truth in them: a Mrs Deponeo used to play the accordion for loose change and definitely wasn't homeless, although she probably didn't go home in a Rolls Royce; and a Billy Squibble was put on trail for having sex with a farmyard animal for a bet, but it was a pig and not a duck. Going further back, a story is told of the Grosvenors that at one time two brothers were in dispute over the ownership of land and chose to settle the issue with a race of which the winner would be decided by being the first to place his hand upon it. The story is a very common one, with the one falling behind hacking off his own hand and throwing it ahead of the other, and this is said to be "proved" by a red hand on some coats of arms. In fact, the red hand is a "cadency" mark which, since 1611 when James I invented the title, any baronet can add to his arms to indicate his rank and the same story has cropped-up for many families.
There is a curious Chester legend that "when the city under the control of the Vikings" the locals plotted to overthrow them on Shrove Tuesday. The attack on the Vikings was to begin with the murder of the guards which they had posted, but as the conspiritors approached their presence was given away by the crowing of roosters. This was said to be the origin of a Chester entertainment on Shrove Tuesday where a cockerel was tied down by one foot and players could try to knock it down with a stone flung from 22 yards. This was apparently done in Eastgate Street. There was a small fee to take part but if you knocked the cock down it was yours. Exactly the same "sport" of "cock-tossing", with minor variations, was known to have been played in many places including Abingdon and is also mentioned by Samuel Pepys in his diary entry for Tuesday 26 February 1660/61. The origin in Chester is a myth.
Another myth is that suspected Chester witches were rolled down Barrel Well Hill (in barrels) to see if they would sink in the river. This is untrue. The Chester Witch Trials held in St Nicolas Chapel decided the matter, and, if guilty they were hanged, not burned. Another mistake about the witches is the number who were executed - one city guide quoted a figure of 34, but that was the number of trials and there were in fact only eight executions.
Another story is that in 1815 a cat hoax supposedly rocked Chester. According to the press reports at the time someone plastered the city with handbills offering to buy cats (‘Hoax at Chester’,Chester Chronicle, 1 Sept. 1815, p. 3). These informined the local citizenry that the Island of St Helena was infested with rats. This was a problem; it had recently been decreed that the captured Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, would be exiled to the small island. As such, cats, primarily skilled ratters, were required for migration to the island to make it habitable. The press is said to have reported that hundreds of cats were rounded up and delivered, yet there was no buyer to be found. It was said that in the resulting chaos, people were injured, and hundreds of cats were drowned in the River Dee. This story was widely reported at the time up and down Britain. Soon enough it was also told in newspapers and compendia of trivia across the anglosphere. Yet, the Great Chester Cat Hoax never happened; it was a journalistic invention which rapidly transformed into a widely believed urban legend, despite the Chronicle publishing a rebuttal, trying to place the blame on an Irish newspaper, and presumably make capital out of the anti-Irish sentiments of the times.
Chester's "Tudor" buildings are an enormous draw for tourists, but almost all of them date from the late 19th and early 20th century. Architectural historians have referred to the conversion of Georgian brick frontages to "Tudor" black and white as "nailing on boards and planks". This is a little unfair as many of the "Georgian" buildings actually retain medieval structural features, which were first fronted with fashionable Georgian facades and these were then hidden behind what is sometimes called mock Tudor and sometimes called English Revival. Chester's churches have been a particular target of this "enthusiastic" restoration. In some cases this had led to really strange results: in St Werburgh Street one finds an elaborate half timbered frontage which contains effigies of Norman Earls as well as of Queen Victoria. St Johns has a Norman interior hidden within a Victorian shell. "God's Providence House" is said to bear a beam carved with words to commemorate how its inhabitants were saved from the plague, but all but that beam is later reconstruction with quite different proportions, and though the beam is said to be original, it was straightened with a steam press. Even the original house dates from after the plague, and the the wording "God's Providence is Mine Inheritance" may be a family motto which predates the plague by at least 20 years, with the legend being simply the work of a Victorian novelist.
As a consequence of this reconstruction many buildings in Chester bear two dates marked on their structure. One being the date of the original building and the other the date of rebuilding. However there is at least one case where a building bears a single date which is wrong. One of the best known examples is Tudor House in Lower Bridge Street which bears a date of 1503, when in fact it probably dates from 1603 but where the original date has been innaccurately copied mistaking a "6" for a "5". Some buildings exhibit a "distortion" of history by the incorporation of criss-cross "diapering" in blue brick. At one time this was linked to buildings owned by the Grosvenors, but later designers have incorporated it as an architectural feature without there being any such association.
The City Walls of Chester are another example of works which have been largely reconstructed from their original Roman form, first by the Romans themselves, later by the Anglo-Saxons and later still as they were well-used in the Civil War and then converted into a promenade. Opinions on the Walls, Chester Castle and The Rows have changed over the years. It is now firmly established that the castle is Norman and did not exist before about 1069 even as an initial wooden version. However, early historians write of the Vikings occupying the "castle" about 900. This can be explained by assuming that the Vikings actually occupied the remains of the Amphitheatre, still then sitting above ground. With the loss to visibility of the Amphitheatre in later years two different explanations developed - one that there was an earlier castle and the other that the early historical records were wrong. Shortly after it was realised that the early "castle" was actually a reference to the Amphitheatre it was easy to spot Viking "graffiti" at St Johns, possibly on stone robbed-out of the Amphitheatre. In that case, the early historians made sense once it was obvious they were talking about the Amphitheatre and not Chester Castle.
To the gentry of Cheshire ancestry was of extreme importance, whether for the puposes of prestige or to prove some inheritance. The number of websites dedicated to ancestry shows that this is still of considerable interest today, and some people will apparently overlook many facts to be able to name a notable ancestor. In at least one case - that of the "Cromwell Portraits" - a whole slew of historical innaccuracies has clouded matters so much that the truth and even the reasons behind the distortion may be forever lost.
Victorian scholar Sir Lionel Cust (director of the National Portrait Gallery from 1895 to 1909) identified a portrait supposedly by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543) as a likeness of Catherine Howard - 5th wife of Henry VIII. The NPG's painting supposedly came from Overleigh Hall, near Chester (Strong, 1969, p. 41). It passed into the collection of Thomas Cowper who gained possession of the estate, in part through descent and in part through purchase, in c.1660. It then descended through the family to Thomas Cholmondeley of Condover (1793-1863) - who was the nephew of the last of the Cowpers. The label on the reverse of the portrait reads T.C. and probably refers to Cholmondeley. In c.1816 the portrait and other Overleigh pictures were removed to Condover Hall - possibly because Overleigh was to be let out as a school building. The portrait was sold in the Cholmondeley sale at Christie’s in 1897 described only as ‘a Lady, in black dress’ (and from Overleigh). It was purchased by the National Portrait Gallery in 1898 (while Cust was director) as "Catherine Howard", but it was only after the sale that the dealers Colnaghi and Cust would actually identify it as such. It is believed to be based on a three-quarter-length portrait thought to be by Holbein, now in the Museum of Art, Toledo, Ohio. Although the Toledo version (dated c.1540) has previously been called Catherine Howard, there is no evidence for this to have actually been a portrait of Howard. It has been suggested, instead, that the sitter was, Elizabeth Seymour (1518-1568) a member of the Royalist wing of the Cromwell family who apparently once owned the picture, and sister to Jane Seymour (c. 1508 – 24 October 1537 another wife of Henry VIII).
The results of analysis by dendrochronology of the wood on which the work is painted indicate that the last tree ring dates from 1609 which suggests that the only measurable board used for the panel came from a tree which was felled sometime between 1612 and 1644. On that basis the picture can be dated to the later seventeenth century. Catherine Howard died 13 February 1542 (aged 18–19). Elizabeth Seymour (1518-1568) was also long dead by the dendrochronology date of 1612-1644 and was only Elizabeth Cromwell from 1537 to 1551 (between ages 19-33). The NPG'a portrait cannot be by Holbein and must be a later copy. The puzzle arises because the painting at Overleigh was always described as Elizabeth Cromwell. A typical description is found in "The New British Traveller" (1819):
- The ancient manor house was of timber and very spacious was demolished during the siege of Chester. The present mansion was not erected untill after the Restoration and it since received considerable additions. It contains a good Library and a great number of old portraits particularly some valuable ones of the Cromwell family of which the principal are the following mentioned in an inventory in the Library: Oliver Cromwell, uncle and godfather to the Protector aet 84 1646; Lady Elizabeth Cromwell first wife of Sir Oliver and daughter of Sir Henry Bromley, Lord Chancellor; Colonel Henry Cromwell aet 60 1645; Colonel John Cromwell second son of Sir Oliver; William Cromwell fourth son of Sir Oliver; Major John Hettley painted in a large wig; Sir Thomas and Lady Hettley Dr Sparks MD and Mr Manley.
The historiographic puzzle here is why a painting which ended up at Overleigh was listed as being the later Elizabeth Cromwell when it was actually a copy of a genuine Holbein for which the sitter may well have been an earlier Elizabeth Cromwell. Several historians are involved in the puzzle - William Cowper (1701 – 12 October 1767) of Overleigh Hall was an antiquarian who was reputed to have published material in his own name that he had stolen from others. His papers were frequently used as a basis for research by Ormerod. Thomas Cholmodeley of Vale Royal, through whose hands the papers and painting seem to have passed, perhaps had some vague interest in antiquarian matters and may, for whatever reason, have added to the mystery and confusion.
Chester's medieval "High Cross" stands at the center of the city where the four main streets meet. It has stood there for long years past - well, at least from 1975, when it was reconstructed after a few hundred years of absence. But how much (if any) of it is made of fragments what one might call the "true cross"? The Cross was broken up after the surrender of Chester at the end of the Civil War siege. Crosses such as this were seen as symbols of idolatry, particularly around Chester where the iconoclast John Bruen had smashed-up several in the years leading to the Civil War. The Chester "High Cross" had particular associations with the Parliamentarians as a symbol of Royalist control.
The fragments of the High Cross were supposedly "hidden under the steps of nearby St Peter's Church, and stayed there forgotten until it was rediscovered in 1820, during the course of repairs." We are then told that "a churchwarden placed the pieces in his garden in Handbridge, until they were acquired by the 1st Duke of Westminister some 60 years later" (who apparently gifted them to the Grosvenor Museum). The city council re-erected the Cross in the Roman Garden in 1949, but, with the coming of pedestrianization, it was restored to its ancient original site at the intersection of the city's main streets in 1975, after an absence of some 329 years. Even during its absence the cross continued to attract "myths" - one comonplace story being that a Sherman tank collided with it during WW2, when it was not even there.
But is what now stands outside St Peter the "true cross"? Hemingway, the most believeable of several witnesses, writes that what was at Netherlegh (just south of Handbridge) was ornamented (if damaged) and refers to Hanshall's depiction of the cross as actually seen by Randle Holme. The cross fragment as supposedly supplied by Hugh Lupus Grosvenor is hardly ornamented at all, except around the lower part of the head where somewhat worn angels can be made out. But the head of the modern cross seems much too small as compared with Holmes drawing and the thickness of the shaft, and the placement and appearance of the angels differs significantly.
To cast some doubt of the motives of those involved in the "restoration", Grosvenor was at the time (1880) involved in two very suspicios events: a dubious election that led to Chester being disenfrachised and what modern DNA evidence suggests may have been a race-horse swap (which even formed the basis of a Sherlock Holmes story, the well-known "Silver Blaze"). The historiographical question is how one should interpret the evidence and to what extent the testimony of the various winesses should be believed, especially where the evidence reveals of conflict in the testimony. Holme's drawings of the cross are quite different from the appearance of the cross today and are believed to have been done from the original - he certainly had access to some of the fragments (the base at least) as he draws those too. The extent to which stonework may have survived can be perhaps judged by comparison with the Nun's Grave from Vale Royal, which may be a 19th Century forgery. Yet another "cross" may have gotten caught-up in some wishful thinking. The Upton "plague stone", discovered in 1931, is often said to be a relic of a past pestilence where money could be left to purchase food. However, the opinion of archaeologists has been that it was the base of a cross and that the opening which now contains a bowl for money was simply intended to recieve a vertical shaft.
"Wishful thinking" may also form the basis for the legend that Richard II's Royal Treasure was once (and perhaps still is) down the well at Beeston Castle. Those who promoted the legend were probably unaware that chronicles, some written in medieval French, made it clear that the treasure may well have been kept at Holt Castle, recovered by Henry IV and subsequently dispersed. Similarly, the editor of the "Chester Chronicle" Herbert Hughes appeared happy to believe that an earlier editor of his newspaper, John Fletcher advised Thomas Telford on the construction of the Chester Canal, and Hughes wrote a book on the subject. In reality a little fact checking would have shown Hughes that there were two John Fletchers living in Chester at the time - one a newpaperman, the other a canal engineer.
Not really falling into any category is the story of the convict ship "Success". Success was formerly a merchant ship of 621 tons, 117 feet 3 inches x 26 feet 8 inches x 22 feet 5 inches depth of hold, built in Natmoo, Tenasserim, Burma, in 1840. After initially trading around the Indian subcontinent, she was sold to London owners and made three voyages with emigrants (not convicts) to Australia during the 1840s. In 1890, Success was purchased by a group of entrepreneurs to be refitted as a museum ship to travel the world advertising the perceived horrors of the convict era - complete with a rather incongruous "iron maiden". Although never a convict ship, and briefly a prison hulk, Success was billed as one, her earlier history being amalgamated with those other ships of the same name including Success, which had been used in the original European settlement of Western Australia. She was incorrectly promoted as the oldest ship afloat. In 1895 she made a trip to England and sometime before 1912 was towed up the Dee to visit Chester, where she became the last large ship to visit the city. Over the years the memory of her visit has been wrongly transformed into her being the last convict ship to sail from Chester.
It is possible to put forward a fairly strong argument that almost any historical figure has myths and legends associated with them. The more famous the figure, then the more pseudo-history they seem to attract. This can be true on a local level - such as at "Gallantry Bank" - nothing to do with a gallant act but actually a distortion of "Gallows Tree" - or as with the "Agricola Tower" at Chester Castle, which was built long after the times of the Roman Agricola.
Chester is full of full of fascinating history and also fascinating distortions of history, and it is interesting to speculate why such distortions occur. However, such speculations need to be treated with a little caution as they may attribute motives for distortion which differ from what the reality actually was. There are several reasons why distortions occur.
In many cases these are simply mistakes or misinterpretations for which the explanation is simply ineptitude or an inaccurate source. If these sources are copied then they can apparently provide further evidence supporting the original error - the date of the Recorders Steps being a case in point.
Some go further to misrepresentations for which the reason may be reasonably innocent - "Jack" Cornwell of HMS Chester was already dead when the papers wanted a portrait of him, so his brother stood in. Is there harm done by this use of his brother's image? Does it commemorate a very brave boy sailor - or encourage others to take part in what might be viewed as an essentially pointless war?
A very few are outright fabrications and even these may arise with no malice intended. The "Black Dog", where the inquest into the "murder" of Charles Moston was held has a legend recorded on signage which purports to be the tale of a local spectral hound. In fact it is a folk-song written in about 1971 by the Marrowbones. The fact that it was a folk-song has been forgotten by many who assume that it is a real local legend.
Of these "myths" more than a few have made their way into guidebooks and even into histories. "Folktales" may start as entertaining stories or ballads, but then take on a life of their own. The reasons for some of the distortions may arise from the political or philosophical beliefs of historians who lived long after the events they discuss, or from other causes. These reasons are often just as interesting as the history itself. The Chester Pageant of 1910 and the Chester Pageant 1937 included a few myths and also several distortions of historical fact, with the possible excuse that they were semi-theatrical events. There was no malice involved in the construction of the pageant performances, but is easy to see how, if these were much older documents they could lead historians astray.
The rise of "online" documentation will no doubt lead to many new myths. It is all too easy for an event to be misremembered or an aspect of it to be distorted in importance and one persons's viewpoint to be propagated widely, copied badly and then assumed to be the "truth". "Ancestry" sites are a particular source of such errors and distortions as their authors are often a little too keen to have a notable ancestor.
Historiography is also self-referential. Any historical writing, even about the theory of history, will focus on specific examples and leave open the question as to why those specific examples were chosen. So, given that historians are aware that "distortions" can happen how should they deal with them? - there are several useful ways of doing this. One is to always look for two or more sources of independent evidence, another is to always give sources. As noted above where a distortion or a contradiction is found the explanation for how it arose is often of as much interest as the history itself.
Of course, myths can be considered as much a part of "real" heritage as actual historical events, but they need to be treated with some care.
Many of the pages on this wiki relate to historical "facts" which may have been misrepresented at some time in the past, the point being both to shed light on the actual history and illustrate how the facts may have been distorted to achieve certain ends. To avoid listing them all, here is a list of pages which are likely to relate to mysteries as there are clear isses with the accepted historical "truth" and sometimes no clear answers:
- Charles Moston: how exactly did he die, and did the man accused of his murder die by accident or not?
- Royal Treasure: was Richard II's treasure ever down the well at Beeston Castle?
- Cowper: just what is the truth behind the art collection that was once at Overleigh Hall?
- Brown: the High Cross in Chester was absent for some 329 years, but does the story of its rediscovery and restoration really add up?
- Chester Mystery Plays: there is a remarkable correspondence between the subject matter of the plays and the order of precidence of the guilds who originally performed them - coincidence, or very clever scripting?
- Æthelflæd: and how she was written out of history;
- Comet: myths about the aircraft and Chester;
- Tunnels: those under Chester are partly an "urban myth", but not all are;
- Blue Plaques: and other signage around Chester;
- The Chester Pageant of 1910 and the Chester Pageant 1937