In Roman times it was a place of much importance, being the spot in which the great Roman road, Watling Street, terminated, after running across the island in a direct line from Dover
The Britons held the town, after the Roman legions were withdrawn from the island, till the Saxon invasion. The Saxons attacked and took it in 607; but the British princes gathered an army and regained it, possessing it in peace till about 828, when Egbert, King of the West Saxons, and finally of England, took it.
After Egbert's death Ethelwolf held the Witenagemot here, and received the homage of tributary kings, "From Berwick to Kent." He was crowned at Chester in 837.
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; but Alfred hastened to the rescue of his city; besieged them in Chester for two days; drove away all the cattle; burned the corn; and slew every Dane that dared venture outside the encampment. Eventually the Danes were driven out, and retreated to North Wales. They had, however, nearly destroyed the city; but that wonderful woman Ethelfleda, the great daughter of the great Alfred, rebuilt and fortified it with walls and turrets.
In the time of King Edgar it was a station for the Saxon army, and it is recorded that he sailed up the Dee to Chester, and that eight kings or sub-kings came thither at his command to pay him homage. They were Kenneth, king of Scotland; Malcolm, king of Cumberland; Maccus, king of Anglesey and the isles; three kings of Wales, and two others who obeyed the summons. But "his puerile vanity," says Sharon Turner, " demanded a more painful sacrifice. 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."
This disgraceful story is, however, contradicted by some historians, and it is to be hoped that it is not true.
We have already mentioned that there is a tradition averring that Harold escaped from Hastings; that when his body was found, though sorely wounded, he was not dead; that he was removed and concealed till he recovered; that then, one eye being blind, he withdrew to Chester, and resided as "an anchorite in a hermitage close to St. John's Church, which is very romantically situated, and is a remarkably fine building."
After the Conquest, William, the Norman, made Cheshire a County Palatine, and it had consequently the power of holding Parliaments, and keeping its own Courts of Law, in which any offense against the dignity of the "Sword of Chester" was punished as if the offence had been given to the royal Crown. The power of life and death was in the "Sword of Chester," which is now preserved in the British Museum.
William created Hugh Lupus, who was one of his own relatives, Constable and Earl of Chester; for being so near the Welsh Marches, it was often at feud with its warlike neighbours, and required a martial ruler. Sir Walter Scott has used the state of the marches at that period, and the need of the Wardens being efficient soldiers with great effect in "The Betrothed."
There is something picturesque and quaint in some of the records of the fights on the Welsh Marches.
Earl Randle the Third, being surrounded by a Welsh army in the Castle of Rhudlands, and in imminent danger, despatched a messenger to Roger de Lacy, the Constable of Chester, praying for aid. The constable had not sufficient force with him to be of use; but Chester Fair was being held at the time, and he and his son-in-law, Ralph Dutton, went out into it, and asked if the minstrels and idle people in it would march against the Welsh, "for the love of Ralph Dutton," who was known to be extremely popular. The fiddlers at once volunteered, and one minstrel walked through the Fair, singing to his fiddle-
The invitation to fight thus given was irresistible to the people, and was instantly accepted. The whole Fair turned out for such a frolic, and Dutton, who actually did fight, "in his doublet," i.e., without armour, arranged and marshalled this extraordinary army, so as to give it the best appearance he could, and led them to the relief of his lord.
The Welsh, descrying from a distance the advance of a very large body of troops, - they knew not of what kind - broke up the siege at once, and retreated over the border. The Earl was saved, and the grateful noble rewarded De Lacy by giving him "power over the instruments of the earl's preservation." Every anniversary, therefore, of the "Fight of the Fiddlers," as it was called, was kept by the assembling of all the minstrels and musicians of the county at Chester, when they walked in procession, playing all the way, to the Church of St. John; attended Divine service; and then escorted De Lacy to his home. Here their course of life and conversation was inquired into, and then they were feasted by their lord.
This annual procession of the Chester minstrels was not discontinued till the middle of the eighteenth century. The privileges granted to De Lacy and his heirs descended to the Dutton family, whose steward presided over the courts of inquiry as to the lives of the minstrels and musicians; and the latter claimed from him at the feast four bottles of wine, a lance, and a fee of fourpence halfpenny each. The rule or jurisdiction of the Duttons over the minstrels and wandering musicians was recognized by parliament as late as George II.'s reign, and clauses "saving their rights" have found their way into modern vagrant acts.
King John spent a few days at Chester in 1222.
On the death of the seventh Earl of Chester of the Norman line, Henry III. thought it inexpedient that the Earl's daughters should possess such a city; for Chester was the rendezvous of the English army until the complete subjugation of Wales, and the king said "he cared not to parcel out so great an inheritance to distaffs." He therefore gave the ladies lands elsewhere, and bestowed Chester on his own warlike son, Prince Edward. He, however, never assumed the title, but gave it to the first Prince of Wales, Edward of Carnarvon, since which time the eldest son of the king or queen of England has inherited the title of Earl of Chester, as well as that of Duke of Cornwall.
In the barons' wars the city and castle of Chester were taken by the Earl of Derby.
King Richard II. was brought here a prisoner by his usurping cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, afterwards Henry IV.
The memory of Richard led captive by his crafty kinsman evidently left an unpleasant impression on the men of Chester; for they were right willing to take part in the rising of the Percies. They fought under Hotspur at Shrewsbury, or Hateley Field, and the greater number of knights and esquires of the county fell in that fatal battle, June 22, 1403. Two hundred Cheshire gentlemen died with Harry Percy, fighting against the usurping House of Lancaster.
In the Marian persecution, Chester was the scene of an amusing but most important and fortunate incident. In the year 1558 Dr. Henry Cole, Dean of St. Paul's, was entrusted with a commission by Queen Mary to institute a persecution of heretics in Ireland, where, in the north, were many Protestants. The dean stopped at Chester on his way, and went to the Blue Posts Inn, where he was visited by the mayor, to whom he told the errand he was going on to Ireland. Opening his cloak-bag he took out a leather box, saying, with exultation, "I have that within this box that will lash the heretics of Ireland." The hostess by chance (or shall we say providentially?) overheard their conversation, and having a brother a Protestant there, was much alarmed for his safety. With astonishing quickness of thought and deed, while the dean accompanied the mayor with great ceremony downstairs, she opened the box, took out the commission, and put in, instead of it, a pack of cards, with the knave of clubs uppermost; there can be no doubt from her wit and readiness that she was an Irishwoman. The dean sailed immediately afterwards for Ireland, and arrived Dec. 7th, 1558. Being introduced to the Lord Deputy Fitzwalter and the Privy Council, he explained the nature of his embassy, and then presented the box to the Lord Deputy, who took it, opened it, and beheld the knave of clubs!
The dean was astonished and mortified; he declared that the commission had been made out and put in that box, and that it must have been stolen. "Then," said the Lord Deputy, "you have nothing to do but to return to London and get it renewed; meantime, we will shuffle the cards."
The dean was obliged to take this unwelcome advice; but it was a bad time of year, and before he could reach Ireland a second time Queen Mary was dead. The woman whose wit and presence of mind had thus saved many lives was rewarded by Elizabeth, when she became queen, with a pension of forty pounds a year.
In the war between Charles I. and his parliament, Chester stood firm for the king, "by the virtue of its inhabitants," says Lord Clarendon, "and the interest of the bishop and cathedral men; but especially by the reputation and dexterity of Mr. O. Bridgman, son to the bishop, and a lawyer of very good estimation; who not only in. formed them of their duty and encouraged them in it, but upon his credit and estate, both of which were very good, supplied them with whatever was necessary for their defence; so that they were not put to be honest and expensive together." But they had no garrison of soldiers, nor any officers to direct their own efforts at defence, till the king sent Sir Nicholas Byron to command them as Colonel-general of Cheshire and Shropshire.
Chester was besieged, but most gallantly defended by Lord Byron, the nephew of the governor.
The siege began at Midsummer, 1653, and ended February, 1646, a period of nearly three years; the garrison were then reduced to the last extremity for food, and were feeding on cats, dogs, and rats. In those days, no other city had endured such an amount of suffering as loyal Chester did, but it had to surrender from actual famine at last.
Prior to that event, however, King Charles, on his way to Scotland, where he hoped and intended to join Montrose, came to Chester. The king found the city in great danger, for the Parliamentarians had taken the outworks and suburbs by surprise, and the king's appearance at once amazed and alarmed the besiegers and cheered the besieged.
"Sir Marmaduke Langdale was sent," says Lord Clarendon, "with most of the horse, over Holt Bridge, that he might be on the east side of the river Dee, and the king, with his guards, the Lord Gerrard and the rest of the horse, marched directly into Chester, with a resolution that, early the day following, Sir Marmaduke Langdale should have fallen on their backs," it should assail the besiegers in the rear, "when all the force of the town should have sallied forth and enclosed them. But Sir Marmaduke Langdale being that night drawn on a heath two miles from Chester, had intercepted a letter from Pointz" (who was pursuing the king) "to the commander who was before Chester, telling him that he was come to their rescue, and desiring to have some foot sent to him to assist him against the king's horse." The next morning he appeared, and was charged by Sir Marmaduke and forced to retire with loss, but he still kept near enough for the foot from the besiegers' camp at Chester to come to him. "The besiegers began to draw out of the suburbs with such haste" (the next morning) "that it was believed in Chester they were upon their flight; and so most of the horse and foot in the town had orders to pursue them. But the others' haste was to join with Pointz, which they quickly did; and then they charged Sir Marmaduke Langdale, who, being overpowered, was routed and put to flight, and pursued by Pointz even to the walls of Chester. There the Earl of Lichfield, with the king's guards, and the Lord Gerrard, with the rest of the horse, were drawn up, and charged Pointz and forced him to retire. But the disorder of those horse that first fled had so filled the narrow ways, which were unfit for horse to fight in, that at last the enemy's musketeers compelled the king's horse to turn, and to rout one another, and to overbear their own officers who would have restrained them. Here fell many gentlemen and officers of name, with the brave Earl of Lichfield, who was the third brother of that illustrious family that sacrificed his life in this quarrel. He was a very faultless young man, of a most gentle, courteous, and affable nature, and of a spirit and courage invincible, whose loss was by all men exceedingly lamented, and the king bore it with extraordinary grief." 1
The poor king had witnessed the fight on Rowton Heath from the walls, or rather from the top leads of the tower now called the Phoenix Tower, where he stood with the Mayor of Chester, the Recorder, Sir Francis Gamull, and Alderman Cowper, and gazed mournfully on the defeat of his soldiers. What his feelings must have been we can imagine I He stayed only one night after this defeat at Chester, and then left with only five hundred horse, and sought refuge in North Wales.
The "Great Stanley," as he was called, the seventh Earl of Derby, and the husband of the brave lady who so gallantly defended Lathom House, was a prisoner in Chester Castle.
In 1651 he set out from the Isle of Man to join Charles 11. at Worcester, taking with him three hundred Royalists. But when he arrived in Lancashire he found the king had quitted that county; however, he gathered three hundred more followers in Lancashire and Chester, and advanced to Wigan, where he and his men were attacked in a narrow lane by 1,800 dragoons under Lilburne, and by Cromwell's foot militia. In this fight Lord Derby received seven shots on his breastplate, many cuts and wounds, and had two horses killed under him. He mounted a third horse, and cut his way through the Parliamentarians to Worcester Field. After the Royalist defeat there he conducted the king to Whiteladies and Boscobel, and thence, with forty other Royalists, made his way into Cheshire. They met on the way a regiment of foot and a troop of horse of the Roundheads, and were compelled to surrender, but on terms that were afterwards "most disgracefully violated." He, a prisoner of war, fighting for the Crown, was tried by a Court martial for high treason, and sentenced to be executed in four days' time at Bolton. While he was in Chester Castle he nearly escaped from its leads by means of a long rope thrown up to him from outside the walls; he fastened the rope securely, slid down it, and reached the banks of the Dee, where a boat waited for him; but his flight was discovered, he was seized, and brought back to the castle, where two of his daughters had their last interview with him. Next day he was executed at Bolton, his own town.
The circuit of the wonderful old walls round Chester is about two miles. We gazed from them one autumn day over the plain towards Rowton Heath; there were clouds floating over the sky, and that peculiarly solemn and still light that we see at the waning of summer. There was an inexpressible feeling of sadness in the scene, as if nature herself kept some thought of those unhappy days when the passions of men, and that great instrument of the Evil One against Christianity, Party Spirit, stained the rich soil of our fair and once peaceful land with blood. "O Liberty!" cried Mde. Roland, "what crimes are committed in thy name!" and we might add, "O loyalty" also; for from both sides the helpless country people suffered. Rupert and Oliver alike burnt villages.
Close beside where we stood was the Phoenix Tower, which Charles ascended to watch the fight; and there are other towers, and curious ones, on the walls. At the angle of the city walls, close to the old bridge, are the Dee Mills, famous in song and story. Every nursery knows about the Jolly Miller
These mills were built at, or probably before, the Norman Conquest, and Earl Hugh Lupus derived a revenue from their grist. Edward the Black Prince rewarded the valour of a gallant Welshman at Poictiers by giving him these Mills.
But the most remarkable and picturesque part of Chester is the Rows, as they are called. They are in the old part of the town. The ground floor of the Rows is built even with the pavement or roadway. On the top of the front lower rooms or shops is a street or gallery into which the first floor windows look; the first floor receding, and opening on the " row" or street passing over the lower rooms. The second floor is built out over the row and even with the ground floor, as is all the upper part of the house; it is supported by pillars of solid masonry, and forms a roof over the row, which has, of course, a palisade or rails along the part open to the street. The Rows afford a pleasant walk on wet days, and contain some very fine shops. At the famous pastrycook's, Bolland's, the county people frequently meet at luncheon, and Brown's shop is equal to a London one.
The projecting house-fronts have gabled roofs, lattice windows, and cross beams carved and painted; they are chiefly buildings of the sixteenth century, and are extremely picturesque, as are some of the larger old houses in the town. The chief of these is the mansion called Stanley Palace, which was anciently the dwelling of the Stanleys of Alderley, and Weever, in Cheshire, an offshoot from the Stanleys of Lathom and Knowsley. The family obtained a peerage in 1839. The house, now occupied by the Archaeological Society, is a three-gabled building of timber, wonderfully carved; its massive staircase, oaken floors, and the panelled rooms are very fine. The date 1591 is inscribed on its front it stands in a narrow passage opening out of Watergate Street.
Bishop Lloyd's house in Watergate Row has a wooden front, sculptured all over with groups from Scriptural history, from the Garden of Eden to the Crucifixion.
"God's Providence" House is a memorial of the Plague in 1662. It has the motto, "God's Providence is my inheritance," carved on the old oak front The back part has been rebuilt.
We have forgotten to mention an old tower on the walls, called sometimes Julius Caesar's Tower, and sometimes Agricola's Toner; it is square, and cased with red stone. It was once a chantry or chapel of St. Mary's; it is now a powder magazine, which the Fenians intended to capture, when they meant to surprise the garrison in 1867. It is near the weir on the Dee.
The Water Tower at the north-west angle of the city walls was built in 1332 by a mason who was paid £100 for the job. There is a higher tower upon the wall above, connected by a steep flight of steps and an embattled terrace with the lower tower, up to which the tidal waters of the Dee used to flow, so that ships could be moored to the tower by the ringbolts fixed to its foundations. The upper tower or keep is now a museum of curiosities; the lower tower has a flag staff. This tower bore the brunt of battle at the great siege by the Parliamentarians, in 1645, when towers and ramparts were much injured.
The Bishopric of Chester dates from Henry VIII.'s time, who founded within the site of the Abbey of Werburgh a new episcopal see and a cathedral church.
The cathedral is an irregular, spacious, and heavy building of redstone.
The ancient abbey must have been a very great establishment, and some of it survives in the cathedral chapter-house, the architecture of which is very beautiful, and it is also interesting as containing the grave of Hugh Lupus, who was interred here by his nephew, Randle the First, who built the chapter-house. In 1724 the remains of the EarlPalatine were discovered there, in a stone coffin, on which was sculptured a wolf's head, in allusion to his name Lupus. There was originally a rhyming inscription annexed, commencing,-
The sculptured stone case of the city's titular saint, St. Werburgh, is used as the bishop's throne.
Among the remains of the abbey are the great abbey gate, and the cloisters, which form a quadrangle a hundred and ten feet square, in the style of the fifteenth century.
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