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Bridgegate II

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

11. Chester Castle



Castle II


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Aold painting of Chester Castles we leave the Old Dee Bridge and the roar of the weir behind us, we come to a section of Chester's ancient city walls that has undergone considerable changes over the centuries.

Without doubt this piece of high ground round which the River Dee sweeps in a gradual curve has had strategic importance from earliest times, and around the year 907AD, the Saxons of Mercia under Aethelfleda, as part of their re-occupation of the old Roman fortress, erected a fortified base here and incorporated it into their extension to the walls, to serve as part of their defences against the Danes, then being driven out of Ireland and looking for new lands to occupy.

Of this Saxon castle no trace remains and very little more is known of the site until the winter of 1069-70, when the army of Duke William of Normandy came to Saxon Chester, which became the last remaining great town in England to fall to the Conqueror's sword during the final stages of the Harrying of the North in 1069-70, fully three years after the Battle of Hastings.

Numerous rumours had long been circulating among the Norman army about the bad roads, the position of the city- surrounded as it was by thick forests and treacherous swamps- of its numerous inhabitants- and of their obstinate courage and deadly familiarity with the longbow. Many of William's nobles, worn out by the struggles in the North, and alarmed at these stories, demanded their discharge. Some actually retired to Normandy, abandoning the lands with which they had already been rewarded; but the persuasive powers of Duke William prevailed- he promised them great rewards, and, as the conquest of Chester was the last of his projects, that they would find rest after this one final victory.

chester castle from aboveAs it turned out, as the Norman army prevailed. The death toll during the campaign is believed to have been around 150,000, with substantial social, cultural, and economic damage. Due to the ruthless and violent "scorched earth" policy which the Normans employed, much of the land was laid waste and depopulated. In parts of the north, the damage was such that the survivors had to resort to cannibalism. Inevitably, plague followed. All told, about a fifth of the population of England may have died during the Norman Conquest. We know little about the battle for Chester or the number of casualties involved but we do know that a very large proportion of the houses in the town were destroyed.

William granted the Earldom of Chester first to Walter de Gherbaud- who, however soon returned to an easy life in Normandy- and then to his nephew, Hugh D'Avranches- know as Lupus (the wolf) but in later life, especially by the Welsh, as Hugh Vras (Hugh the Fat) - "To hold to him and his heirs as freely by the sword as the King holds the Crown of England".

The Earldom became very powerful and virtually independent of the Crown, the Earl having his own Parliament consisting of eight of his chosen Barons and their tenants, and they were in no way bound by any laws passed by the English Parliament with the exception of that of treason.

Griffith's Hugh erected a typical Norman timber motte and bailey castle here which was soon rebuilt in enduring stone. Of the fate of the Saxon stronghold formerly occupying the site we know nothing at all, but its Norman successor over the course of centuries grew into a formidable defensive structure of great strategic importance.

Following the Crown's annexation of the Earldom of Chester in 1237, when the last Norman Earl died without issue, considerable enlargement and strengthening were carried out by Henry III and Edward I, particularly in the outer bailey, where the pallisade was replaced by a great stone wall in 1247-51.

Chester Castle was the frontier base from which North Wales was attacked and eventually conquered in the 12th and 13th centuries and the exchequer, courts and prison were based here, as well as housing the garrison.

In 1246, Owen ap Gruffydd (Owain Gwynneth) escaped from imprisonment here to join his brother Llewelyn in the fight against the English, under whose leadership in 1257 they "ravaged the country to the very gates of the city".

In 1276-7 Edward came twice to Chester to summon Llewellyn to make peace, but was each time refused, on the grounds that the Prince of Wales "feared for his safety", whereupon the King laid siege to Rhuddlan Castle, where Llewellyn was starved into submission.

In 1397, it is recorded that the Deputy Constable of Chester Castle, Thomas le Wodeward, took delivery of certain new supplies:

• 11 iron collars and 2 gross of iron chain.
• 2 pairs of iron belts with shackles
• 2 pairs of iron handcuffs with 4 iron shackles
• 7 pairs of iron feet fetters with 3 shackles
• 1 hasp for the stocks

In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, took Chester, soon after mustering his troops under the walls and marching against Richard II, whom he took at Flint Castle. He returned to Chester with the unfortunate monarch (dressed in the monk's robe in which he had attempted to escape) and the Earl of Salisbury "mounted on two little white nagges not worth 40 francs" and lodged them in the Castle. After resting in a tower over the outer gateway, they were escorted to Westminster. Bolingbroke deposed Richard- who was murdered in prison the following year- and was elected King Henry IV by Parliament.

These great events were, of course, immortalised by Shakespeare, and John Speed commented of Richard, "If to spare his people's bloud he was contented so tamely to quit his royall right, this fact doth not only seeme excusable, but glorious; but men rather think that it was sloth, and a vaine trust in dissimulation which his enemies had long since discovered in him".

After centuries of service (from the Saxons to the 20th century Edwardians, architects built for ever, not for mere decades as now) Chester Castle sustained serious damage during the Civil War, and by the 18th century had been allowed to fall into a state of advanced decay.

After the war, Oliver Cromwell had ordered many castles- such as that at nearby Liverpool- to be partially or completely demolished so they could not be used to wage war again, but here at Chester the least damaged parts of the building continued in use; writing of Chester Castle in the Vale Royal of England in 1651, Daniel King recorded that, "The castle is a place having priviledge of itself, and hath a Constable... At the first coming in is the Gate-house, which is a prison for the whole County, having divers rooms and lodgings. And hard within the Gate is a house, which was sometime the Exchequer but now the Custom House. Not far from thence in the Base Court is a deep well, and thereby stables, and other Houses of Office. On the left-hand is a chappell; and hard by adjoyning thereunto, the goodly fair and large Shire-Hall newly repaired; where all matters of Law touching the County Palatine are heard, and judicially determined. And at the end thereof the brave New Exchequer, for the said County Palatine. All these are in the Base Court. Then there is a Draw-Bridge into the Inner Ward, wherein are divers goodly Lodgings for the Justices, when they come: And herein the Constable himself dwelleth. The Thieves and Fellons are arraigned in the said Shire-Hall; and, being condemned, are by the Constable of the Castle, or his Deputy, delivered to the Sheriffs of the City, a certain distance without the Castle-Gate, at a stone called The Glovers Stone from which place, the said Sheriffs convey them to the place of execution, called Boughton"

Another source records that that criminals were handed over "At Glovers Stoune to such officer of the Cittie of Chester, in and from hence to whipp them through the Cittie".

chester guided walksIn the years since, what is conjectured to be the old Glovers Stone which long marked the boundary of this 'no-man's-land' between the authorities of Crown and City outside the Castle gateway was moved to a small garden area under the city walls and close to the Watertower, where it may still be seen today.

In 1696, a mint was set up at Chester Castle. This was part of an effort to completely renew the nation's currency, and the man in charge in London was one Isaac Newton (later knighted for these efforts, but not for his science). To take charge of the Chester mint he appointed the great astronomer Edmund Halley (he of comet fame), who spent two years here. The site of the mint is marked on signs put up by English Heritage, just behind the Half Moon Tower- and you can read some of Halley's reminisciences of his time in Chester here.

Today, incidentally, Britain's currency- and also the coinage and banknotes of many other countries- is produced at only one location, the Royal Mint at Pontyclun, South Wales.

The two watercolours above by Moses Griffith (1747-1819) shows Chester Castle as it appeared around 1750, thirty-odd years before its almost total demolition and rebuilding- as does the fine modern drawing higher up the page by David Vale. When we view the magnificent remains of Conwy Castle and the other great Edwardian strongholds of neighbouring North Wales, it is easy to feel a great regret that more of the ancient fabric of Chester Castle was not allowed to survive to the present day.

vale royal castle pictureIn the illustration, you can see across the outer bailey to the great outer gateway, built around 1292, whose two tall half-drum towers flanked a drawbridge across a moat cut more than eight metres below the modern surface. On the left is the Great Hall or Shire Hall of 1250-3 (rebuilt in 1579-81) which housed the courts of the justices of the county and at its south end was located the Exchequer Court of the County Palatine of Chester. It was here, on 3rd February 1646 that the citizens of Chester completed the capitulation of their city to Parliament after a long and bloody siege.

Right: Chester Castle as recorded in pen-and-ink in Daniel King's 'Vale Royal of England', 1656, a decade after the end of the Civil War. St. Mary's Church, the old Bridgegate and the now-vanished fortifications on the southern end of the Old Dee Bridge are also clearly visible.

We can also see the church of St. Mary-on-the-Hill (a Norman foundation, rebuilt in the 16th century and restored by Harrison in 1861-2, and again by Seddon in 1891) on the far left and above it the Old Dee Bridge crosses the River Dee, much as it continues to do to this day. The church is also known as St. Mary-Within-the-Walls to distinguish it from the first church to be built on the other side of the river, St. Mary-Without-the-Walls in Handbridge, whose fine tall spire is clearly visible from all around. Built in 1887, occupying a site of a Roman cemetery, it was a gift to the city from the Duke of Westminster.

St. Mary-Within-the-Walls, however, has a far more reaching history. The original church on the spot, dating from the early 12th century, was known as St. Mary de Castro ('of the Castle'). The porch of present structure contains stones brought from the nunnery of St. Mary's, which once stood overlooking the Roodee where the unsightly Police HQ building is now. The tower was once much lower than it is today- as a precaution against attack it was forbidden for any neighbouring building to overlook the walls of the Castle. The ornately-carved upper parts of the tower we see today st.mary's churchwere added by the castle's re-builder, Thomas Harrison in the middle of the 19th century. The interior of the church is very fine and boasts a splendid English oak inner roof, brought from Basingwerk Abbey (whose picturesque ruins still survive near Holywell in North Wales) when that establishment was dissolved by the agents of King Henry VIII. Many of Chester's greatest citizens were buried here and some of their monuments are likely to surprise the visitor, being as they are painted in bright colours. The church was deconsecrated in 1972 and today hosts an education centre operated by Cheshire County Council.

In the 18th century, a remarkable event in early avaition history occured at Chester Castle, which was recorded the year after its undertaking by the ‘pilot’, Thomas Baldwin, in his book, AIROPAIDIA: Containing the Narrative of a BALLOON EXCURSION from CHESTER.
He wrote, “On Thursday, the 8th of September, 1785, at six in the morning, one of the cannons (a six-pounder] was first fired in the Castle yard, to inform the city and neighbourhood that the necessary preparations were making to inflate the balloon. At xii the cannon fired a second time, to announce that the process was in a proper degree of forwardness.
Before half-past one, Mr. Lunardi had inflated his balloon in the finest manner; and at 40 minutes past one, the Balloon having a levity which not less than 20 pounds weight would counterpoise, Mr. Baldwin was liberated by the hands of Mr. Lunardi, who suffered no one to approach the car.
The car first landed at 28 minutes past three, in a field belonging to a farm called Bellair, in the Township of Kingsley, near two miles east by south from the Town of Frodsham, and twelve from Chester. He landed exactly at 7 minutes before four, near the middle of Rixton Moss; and on his return to Chester the following day he was met by the Militia Band and ushered with loud huzzas into his native city.”
This historic event took place less than two years after the world's first manned flight, that of the Montgolfier Brothers' balloon in Paris on 21st November 1783.

Around 1780, 100 years after the Vale Royal entry was written, the old stones of the medieval Chester Castle were swept away to make room for the buildings we see today. This great complex of Shire Hall, courts, prison, armoury and barracks was designed, after winning a competition- and a prize of 50 guineas- by Thomas Harrison- then a relatively obscure architect with very few buildings to his name- and were erected between the years 1785 and 1822.

Harrison (1744-1829) was born in Richmond, Yorkshire, the son of a joiner. His early talent for mechanics, mathematics and drawing won him the patronage of a local nobleman, who sent him on that essential experience in the education of a privileged young man of the day- the Grand Tour of Italy, where- despite having no formal architectural training- he gained a reputation based upon his designs for a number of buildings in Rome- although none were actually built.

st.bridget's and castleUpon returning to England, Harrison worked on a few minor architectural commissions before winning the Chester competition at the age of 40. The commission was originally just for a new gaol (see next page) but was later extended to cover the rebuilding of the medieval Shire Hall- unfortunately for us: by all accounts it had been a most beautiful and impressive building- and in 1804, extended again to include new barracks and armoury blocks.

When completed, the complex covered a much larger area than the old Castle, extending well beyond the medieval curtain walls. To complete his scheme, Harrison designed an impressive new entrance in the Greek Doric style, which was erected between 1810 and 1822, a free-standing structure similar to Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate- built about twenty years earlier- and said to be based on the Propylaeum of the Acropolis in Athens.

The centre of the new legal buildings was the Assize Court with its massive and impressive portico. Each of its twelve Doric columns is formed from one single stone 23 feet in height. When the first of these was raised, with great ceremony, within a cavity in the plinth was placed a lead box, inside which was a small Wedgewood urn, this in turn containing several coins of the day. An engraved brass plate was fastened over the cavity before the column was hauled into position.

Due to the court's foundations being situated over the old moat of the medieval castle, considerable structural cracking occured and when in 1920, major repairs were undertaken, this urn was found together with, under another column, a small brass snuffbox which had belonged to Admiral Lord Nelson, which also contained coins. When the columns were re-erected in 1922, the urn was replaced in situ, coins dated 1921-22 having been added. The snuffbox, however, was added to the collection of Cheshire Regimental relics.

chester castle engravingThe interior of the court was built in a semi-circle with twelve Ionic columns as supports. Originally, the jury's retiring room and the turnkey's lodge were to the left of the court, as was also the entrance to the cells, the lower level of which were occupied by the felons and the upper by the debtors. The upper cells survive today and are used for the daily housing of prisoners awaiting appearance in what is today Chester Crown Court. Many famous trials have taken place here over the years, none more notorious than that of Brady and Hindley, the 'Moors Murderers' in 1966.

"Would you have me go to Chester and work there now? I don’t like the thoughts of it. If I go to Chester and work there, I can’t be my own man; I must work under a master, and perhaps he and I should quarrel, and when I quarrel I am apt to hit folks, and those that hit folks are sometimes sent to prison; I don’t like the thought either of going to Chester or to Chester prison. What do you think I could earn at Chester?"
Tinker: "A matter of eleven shillings a week, if anybody would employ you, which I don’t think they would with those hands of yours. But whether they would or not, if you are of a quarrelsome nature you must not go to Chester; you would be in the castle in no time".
George Borrow: Lavengro (1851)

old and new views of castle

Above left: Thomas Harrison's rebuilt castle as we see it today. Right: what we may still have if the rebuilding had not occured- an amazing recreation by Martin Moss of the medieval castle surrounded by the traffic and structures of modern Chester.
The Castle features in another of Martin's works- a remarkable view of Chester from across the River Dee around the year 1750...

victoriqn view of chester castle

Now go on to part II of our exploration of Chester Castle...

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 19

  • 1637 Sheriff Wilcock committed to gaol for arresting the goods of Robert Green with drawn swords, at his own suit, without previous proceedings at law; two serjeants-at-mace had their gowns taken off... The first public coach service started between Birmingham and Holyhead, via Nantwich and Chester. Torture abolished in England.
  • 1642 The English Civil War begins with the raising of the royal standard at Nottingham. First signs of civil disturbance broke out in Chester- a drum was beaten for the Parliament at the High Cross, on the orders of Sir William Brereton. Such was the outrage of the mainly pro-Royalist population, that it took all the persuasive powers of the Mayor to prevent Sir William being lynched. Soon after, King Charles visited the city and was entertained by the corporation at the Pentice. While here, he received news from Prince Rupert of their victory at Worcester, and took possession of the colours taken at the battle. Sir Isaac Newton born and Galileo Galilei died.
  • 1643 The King appointed Sir Nicolas Byron as Governor of Chester and the city prepared for war- men were armed, trenches dug, the Walls repaired and lined with mud, the Newgate was blocked up and cannon mounted in strategic locations. The city was well provisioned with essential supplies, drawbridges were made for the Eastgate, Northgate and Castle and various earthworks were constructed in the hope they would delay the enemy's approach. On the 18th July, Sir William Brereton's forces attacked the city, but were repulsed and withdrew. Many properties outside the Walls were pulled down to prevent them providing cover for the attackers.
  • 1644 Lord Byron is made Governor of Chester. The Battle of Nantwich resulted in the town being captured by Parliament. Prince Rupert was appointed in March as Commander-in-Chief of Cheshire, and by June, his engineers had strengthened Chester's defences. The Governor, Colonel Marrow, was killed in a skirmish with Parliamentary troops. In October, Chester was blockaded by Sir William Brereton. Ming dynasty in China ends, Manchu dynasty in power until 1912

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