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Chester is a well-preserved Roman city with some fine Tudor architecture

Posted in Ancient History, Architecture, British Cities, Historical articles, History, Royalty on Friday, 29 November 2013

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This edited article about Chester first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 469 published on 9 January 1971.

Stanley Palace, picture, image, illustration

Stanley Palace, one of the finest half-timbered buildings in Chester

On 23rd September, 1645, King Charles I watched the final stages of the Battle of Rowton Heath from the Phoenix Tower on Chester town walls. Later he moved to the cathedral tower and, while he was talking with a captain, the officer was hit and killed by a bullet. This narrow escape must have been unnerving for the king as he watched his forces getting the worst of the battle. He had hurried to the town when he had learnt that the attack was imminent in the hope of encouraging the troops but he now realised that despite this the Parliamentarians were almost sure to take the town and that he had better escape as quickly as possible. Before he left, he asked the townsfolk to try to hold out for another ten days to delay the advance of the troops surrounding the town. In fact they resisted until the following February by which time the town had suffered many losses and had to sell much of its plate to raise money to pay the troops. As we now know their sacrifices did not lead to victory for the King’s cause. As Charles left the town, he must have thought how the Stuart fortunes had declined since the time when his elder brother Henry had been Earl of Chester – a title which since the 13th century has always been given to the eldest son of the monarch when he is created Prince of Wales.

This title reflects the importance placed on the town in the past, for its holder had very special powers. Owing to the difficulties of stretching their forces across the country, the Normans did not reach Cheshire until four years after the Battle of Hastings. When the area was subdued, William the Conqueror decided that it would be very difficult to maintain an effective control over such a far-distant area from London and he therefore made it a palatinate or sub-kingdom in which the Earl of Chester ruled with powers equal to those of the King. He also had power to capture as much of Wales as he could – the area won in this way later became Flintshire.

The long journey from the Channel coast had been as troublesome for the Roman invaders and they had first consolidated their position at Wroxeter near Shrewsbury before advancing to Chester (or Deva as they called it). Once having taken the position, they used it as the headquarters for one of their three legions in the country. During this time, it became a large and important centre – excavations at present in progress are revealing the amphitheatre, the largest yet discovered in Britain, measuring 314 by 286 ft. When they left, like many other of the sites they chose for purely military reasons, it appears to have been deserted for many years. It was not until 907 that Ethelred and Ethelfleda restored the town, after which it must have grown quickly for, by the end of the century, Chester had its own mint.

Chester is unlike many other old towns because its main streets have the grid-like pattern of the old Roman plan and much of the North and East walls fall on the line of the original Roman defences and still contain some of their work – the walls were later extended on the other two sides to take in the extra area which the town covered in the 12th century. Chester is unique among English towns in still having the complete circuit of its walls in good condition, although they have had to be pierced in a number of places to make way for new roads.

Another unique feature of Chester is the Rows – now to be seen around the main junction in the town where the East/West Watergate and Eastgate Streets cross the North/South line of Northgate and Bridge Streets. These are double-tiered lines of shops with the upper tier set back and a covered footway, sheltered by the buildings above, in front of the shops. Although the idea of a raised and sheltered line of shops is being discussed in many modern towns, Chester has had the Rows for many centuries. They are now a great attraction and are popular with shoppers and tourists but, in earlier days, when it was not possible to light them properly the rows were dark and gloomy and Celia Fiennes, that doughty 17th century lady who went about England on horseback recording her views on what she saw, wrote that they were “dismal and inconvenient.”

The Rows are found only in those parts of the town which had a definite Roman origin and it has been suggested that possibly the builders took advantage of the remains of the Roman buildings as foundations – in a number of cases there are Roman relics in the cellars of the modern shops.

It appears that at first there were stalls at street level but, by the early 14th century, there are mentions of the Rows. At first, the upper storeys of the houses did not shelter the upper walk and the overhung portions are later extensions. It also appears that at first the lower storeys at street level were used as stores and only later converted into separate shops.

It is possible that the idea of the Rows originated as a form of defence against the Welsh who made frequent raids – indeed there was at one time a law in the town which declared that Welsh men (and women) were not to enter the town before sunrise and had to leave by sunset; were not to walk about armed “except with a knife to cut their dinner”; and if three of the Welsh folk met together within the walls they were likely to be sent to prison as rebels. Obviously the citizens of Chester had learnt by hard experience not to take any chances where the Welsh were concerned!

An interesting sidelight on the unique position of Chester is that, in order to preserve his own authority over the castle, the king decreed that this was to be considered as being outside the town. At several times, this led to unexpected results. When John Wesley visited the city on one occasion he met with violent opposition, so he moved to the Castle and, as this was “outside the city,” he was able to continue preaching safely. Later, in 1866, the position regarding the castle brought difficulties when it was decided to hold the courts there, for the law required these to sit within the city. In order to overcome the difficulty, a special Act of Parliament had to be passed.

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