The first such we know of, the De Laude Cestrie ('Of the Praise of Chester') was written around 1195 in the cloisters of Chester Abbey by a monk by the name of Lucian. His work is, in fact, the earliest guidebook to any provincial English town, and only a little later than the first-known description of London.
Lucian is one of the few members of the monastery, apart from the Abbots, that we know by name. He was almost certainly English, not Norman or Welsh (British), and was educated in Chester at the Collegiate Church of St. John the Baptist.
Much of Lucian's work, undertaken in the second year of the tenure of Abbot Geoffrey (1194-1208), is taken up with sermonising, but there are also numerous fascinating references to the abbey and city as it was at the end of the 12th century. For example:
"The native of Chester remembers how three roads branch off outside Eastgate and how beautiful and pleasing are the names of the places to which they lead. The road straight in front straight in front leads to Christ's Town (Christleton), that on the right to the Old Ford (Aldford) but if it turns to the left it comes to a place which they rightly call the Valley of Demons (Hoole) with reference to the hiding places of those who lie in wait... the wanderer... is despoiled by thieves and robbers".
This latter road took its origins in the Roman road which ran
from the fortress of Deva, along the line of today's Frodsham Street and Brook
Street, through the suburb of Hoole and on to Frodsham and Warrington. Much
of the route remains in use to this day- although some sections, as at the Newton
Hollows in Hoole, are now little more than footpaths.
Hoole Heath in Lucian's day had been granted by the Earls of Chester as a sanctuary for criminals. In addition to their attentions, nervous travellers had also to run the risk of encountering The Hound of Hell- for it was believed that the hollow way along the old Roman road was haunted and that hundreds of sightings of a huge, black slavering dog with "great white teeth like knives" were reported here. For this reason, the Fraternity of St. Anne's set up a 'cross' at the head of St. Anne's Lakes- where the Flookersbrook public house is today. It was here that travellers stopped to pray for protection from the 'devils' ahead.
This 'cross' was not a true cross but actually part of a medieval statue which, for some reason, "offended" a noblewoman in Clwyd.The statue was put on trial, found guily and hung! The rope, however, broke so the statue was was instead cast into the waters of the River Dee where it was washed up under the walls of Chester. Part of it was buried in St. John's Church and the rest was set up by St. Anne's Lakes where it remained until the Civil War in the Seventeenth century, at which point it vanished without trace.
(There are some curious similarities between parts of this story and one concerning a statue of the Virgin Mary which was washed up on the Roodee)
Readers will be relieved to know that Lucian's 'devils' have long since been driven away and Hoole is now a pleasant residential suburb where the author sits writing this, the most recent of guides to the ancient city of Chester!
"Chester has four gates, which look on the east to India, on the west to Ireland, on the north to Norway and on the south to Wales, which is all of the island left to the Britons, through their unnatural civil wars. Our Chester has also, by the favour of God, a rich and graceful river beneath its walls, beautiful and abounding in fish, with a harbour on its south side for ships from Aquitaine, Spain, Ireland and Germany, which by Christ's guidance and by the labour and skill of the merchants come and unload at the city bay with many goods, so that comforted in all ways by the grace of our God, we may drink wine more often and more plentifully.... Here also, by the marvellous power of the Creator, a most marvellous sea shore gladdens our eyes, being now water and now dry land... on the same day and at the same place God provides both a road most suitable for travellers to use, and the deepest waters for aquatic beasts to swim in".
This refers to the Roodee which at that
time was completely submerged at high tide. The Dee at this time was a much
larger and more active river than it is today and was the chief sea port of north
west England until the continued silting of the estuary made it impossible for
large ships to reach Chester's quays and the bulk of international trade went
to Liverpool, a few miles away
on the river Mersey.
It is fascinating to speculate that, but for this natural disaster, Chester may have retained the monopoly on sea-borne trade, developing into a large modern seaport and mighty Liverpool may have remained much longer as a small fishing community and may even today be attracting visitors to view its quaint ancient buildings...
"Chester has two straight streets that meet in the centre and make four... The market is in the centre whence may be seen on the east the churches of St John the Forerunner, on the west St. Peter the Apostle, on the north St. Werburgh the Virgin and on the south St. Michael the Archangel."
Referring to the patroness of the abbey, St. Werburgh, he somewhat generously claims,
"There is no-one among the people so simple or so foolish who does not know the etymology of her name- she is called Were-burg because she is the preserver of the city... When fire invaded the streets and destroyed everything, (this was in 1180) immediately her name came into mind. She was called on and her shrine placed in the street and she answered the prayers of her petitioners."
Presumably this means that the abbey and its precincts were not damaged by the flames. It would seem that the prayers of the unfortunate townsfolk did not, unfortunately, carry quite as much influence.
Lucian sternly admonishes his fellow Cestrians:
"But you, the most delightful of cities, heedlessness lies heavy in your eyes. Commonly you run to behold the savagery of hounds, the ferocity with which they tear the flesh of bulls, the limbs of bears. Only a few years ago, you leapt up and rushed outside the walls, people of all ages and both sexes and of every walk of life, so that scarcely one old woman remained, to watch two men armed to the teeth and on horseback fighting on a level piece of ground... Though they had no military training, yet with a reckless courage they made sport that was no sport, and for the ready cheers of the crowd of spectators they fought, spurring hard with their hearts on fire. And then the Engishman prevailed as you willed him to do and pursued and pressed hard on his adversary..."
Again referring to the townspeople, some mixed messages:
"For they seem affable in company, cheerful at meals,
liberal in hospitality, quick-tempered, glib tongued, merciful to the afflicted,
compassionate to the poor, not double-dealing, not grossly gluttonous, not knowing
what hard work means, often borrowing other people's property without leave..."
Finally, referring to his fellow monks, Lucian really goes to town:
"The visitor meets with a cheery and kindly welcome and with joyful and affectionate looks. Food is put before him and a place at table is freely granted him with befitting graciousness. In their (the monks) characters are found simplicity, sincerity and refinement; in their manners orderliness, calm and self-control. Their goodness, as if emanating from the atmosphere of the place, should refresh every human mind. Just as we praise well-trained men because they are not borne down by the weight of their arms or the pertinacity of the enemy, so we admire the monks of Chester because they are not wearied by the toil of their joyful yoke. To the local people they are are cheery; to those who come from afar they are jovial, ready to open their hearts to them. The seats about their table are worn by reason of their being well-known and frequented by strangers. Seldom are they free from crowds flocking round them, and in all this do they follow the example of their King - if much has been given you, distribute it liberally; if little, this also impart cheerfully."
To learn a little about another of Chester's vanished religious
communities, go here to visit the nuns of St. Mary's
and here to read the accounts of generations
of later visitors to Chester...