Our History - Chester Cathedral

Our History

Chester Cathedral is one of the most significant heritage centres in the north west of England.

Our history spans almost one thousand years and holds the stories of millions of people including medieval pilgrims, weary worshippers, Civil War armies, Anglo-Saxon saints, Victorian visitors and everyone in between! Read on to find out a little bit of our amazing history.

Chester Cathedral occupies the north-eastern quarter of the centre of Chester and has done so for at least eleventh centuries. There has been a church of some type on the present site of Chester Cathedral since the eighth century, although human occupation of the space extends to the first century AD when it was part of the fortress of the Roman legion Legio XX Valeria Victrix. There are some considerable gaps in the history of the site following the end of Roman administration in the late fourth century. We do, however, retain the physical legacy of the north-eastern line of the defensive wall as the city wall today.

The building of churches and development of the area continued after Roman occupation as Chester eventually became absorbed into the Saxon kingdom of Mercia. The next major event for our history occurred towards the end of the seventh century when a church dedicated to St Peter and St Paul was established on the cathedral site. This church was rededicated in the early tenth century to St Werburgh, a seventh century Mercian princess who was Abbess of Ely and rose to have charge of all the nunneries in Mercia. She had died c.700 AD and was buried in Hanbury in Staffordshire. One tradition maintains that Aethelflaed, the daughter of Alfred the Great and sister of Edward the Elder, the then King of Wessex, arranged for St Werburgh’s relics to be translated to Chester, hence the dedication.

In 1070, William the Conqueror and his army passed through Chester to ensure no rebellion lingered in this area. He established a strong earldom at Chester which heavily influenced the history of the Cathedral. In 1092, the first earl, Hugh of Avranches – nicknamed ‘le Gros’ (the Large) or Lupus (the Wolf), and nephew of William the Conqueror - converted the church of St Werburgh into a Benedictine monastery. Earl Hugh sought the help of Anselm of Bec in Normandy (later St Anselm) to establish a community at the now Abbey of St Werburgh. Richard of Bec was sent to become the new abbot with a group of monks to support him.

The Norman monks embarked on a major building programme to create an impressive abbey with its church and the monastic ranges around the cloister. The church they built was Romanesque in style, characterised by semi-circular arches. Work was completed during the twelfth century with the nave of the church, although more building work continued at the end of the century and early into the thirteenth in the newly introduced gothic style.

As the early medieval period continued in Chester, the establishment of the Abbey of St Werburgh contributed heavily to everyday life and served an important function for local people. The Abbey’s role in guarding the relics of their patron saint gained them huge popularity. One example of this played out during a major fire which broke out in 1190. Fearing that it would consume the city, the monks bore the relics in procession around the site of the fire, which was duly quelled. However, we should resist taking these stories as indicators of peace between church and city in Chester. Throughout the early medieval period – indeed, throughout much of the life of the Abbey and Cathedral – disagreements, legal disputes, and even murder has broken out on our site. Disputes usually concerned the alleged illegal use of land, often with the Abbey as the prosecutor. Control over the Kaleyard Gate in the city wall was another point of friction. The Kaleyard – the garden of the kitchen monastery – had previously been accessed only be travelling around the Cathedral precinct and through busy streets via the East Gate. In 1275 the community petitioned King Edward I for permission to cut a gate in the city wall to provide direct access. It was granted, but the mayor and corporation objected because of the danger at that time of Welsh incursion.

Chester Cathedral’s most famous monk was alive during this time. Ranulph Higden, the author of numerous influential texts including the Polychronicon, a comprehensive history of the world to the time of writing in the first half of the fourteenth century, took monastic vows in 1299. He died in March 1363-64 and was buried in the South Quire Aisle, near what is now the Chapel of St Erasmus. His tomb was opened in 1874 and his corpse was found wrapped in ‘a coarse woollen cloth of a reddish brown’ (quoted in R. V. H. Burne, The Monks of Chester (S.P.C.K: London, 1962), 81.)

The present Cathedral building is the product of another building campaign which started commenced around the mid-thirteenth century and continued on and off until the Dissolution in 1540. In this period were built the east range of the Cloister including the Chapter House (c. 1230s-1240s), the Lady Chapel, and the Quire. However, the work on the Quire did not proceed smoothly. This period coincided with King Edward I’s campaign of conquest and castle building in North Wales. Men and supplies were conscripted from all over England and were funnelled through Chester and into Wales. The presence of a squad of experienced masons at the Abbey was too much of a temptation. In 1277, Edward borrowed 100 of the abbot’s men for work at Flint Castle and more again in 1282. Consequently, the work progressed in fits and starts and the junction between various parts is sometimes rather clumsy. Building work continued into the fourteenth century with the crossing tower and huge South Transept.

The next stage was to rebuild the nave. It appears that the south side was rebuilt first, leaving the old north side in place. However, disaster in the form of the Black Death struck the country in 1349. Abbot William de Bebington died in that year. We do not know if he was specifically a victim of the plague, but it must undoubtedly have had a major effect on the monastic community and on its manors and income. Building work appears to have almost ceased.

Towards the end of the fourteenth century, the interior of the church also received some attention, with Chester Cathedral’s highly prized Quire Stalls with ornately carved misericords being carved and installed. Archaeological excavations in the 1990s also revealed a wealth of decorated, glazed floor tiles that are contemporary with the stalls, suggesting that the Nave was also refurbished at this time.

Building in the fifteenth century continued more slowly due to political turmoil (Hundred Years War, Wars of the Roses). Towards the end of the century Abbots Simon Ripley and John Birchenshawe achieved an impressive amount of building work, including the completion of the Nave and probably the South Transept, the West front and south-west tower, the upper part of the North Transept, the stone pulpitum between the Nave and Choir and the eastern chapels on either side of the Lady Chapel. The cloister walks were some of the final elements to be built, with stone vaults added to replace wooden ones. The windows were also glazed at this point, probably for the first time. The architectural details of the new work throw light on the date and political background to the project. One corbel bears the arms of Henry VIII and one of the bosses those of Cardinal Wolsey with his cardinal’s hat for the crest. Other bosses bear the arms and initials of Thomas Marshall, abbot 1527-29. Abbot Birkenshawe had fallen out with Cardinal Wolsey and been dismissed in 1524. The fall of Wolsey in 1529 led to the reinstatement of Abbot Birkenshawe. Marshall must have resigned and was later made abbot of Colchester. He was subsequently hanged outside his gatehouse for opposing the surrender of his abbey to the King.

Henry VIII’s Dissolution of the Monasteries reached Chester in early 1540 and the monks surrendered to the King’s commissioners on 20 January. Chester Cathedral was instituted on 4 August 1541 with the last Abbot, Thomas Clarke, becoming the first Dean and nine of the monks taking up positions as canons. The building remained relatively unscathed by the Dissolution, although the Shrine must have been disassembled and relics removed, as well as the removal of other iconoclastic images. The new Cathedral took on an educational establishment with its new foundation - the King’s School – which was housed in various parts of the old abbey before settling in the Refectory which is occupied until 1876.

Jumping forward 100 years, Civil War broke out in 1642 with Chester on the side of the monarchy. King Charles arrived in the city in September with a force to relieve it of the besiegement by Parliamentary forces. It was almost immediately defeated at Rowton Moor, just outside the city. The episcopacy (the Government of the church by bishops) was abolished during the Commonwealth which meant that the Cathedral stopped operating during that period. At the Restoration in 1660, Cathedral life resumed. In June 1682 the Duke of Monmouth passed through Chester with a riot in his wake. A mob broke out in the city and amused themselves by throwing stones through the stained-glass windows of the Cathedral. This treatment of the buildings by the mob is reflective of the overall state of disrepair it had fallen into by this date, which continued into the eighteenth century.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries at Chester Cathedral were characterised by neglect and ruin. The local ‘Cheshire’ sandstone out of which the buildings are built is naturally friable and erodes more quickly than stone from other parts of the country and no doubt the industrial revolution exacerbated weathering. In 1819 Chester Cathedral’s architect Thomas Harrison refaced the south front. He was the first of a series of eminent nineteenth-century architects who undertook the restoration of the Cathedral culminating in the work of Sir George Gilbert Scott (architect 1868-76). The external appearance of the Cathedral today is in great measure the result of their extensive restorations. The interior was also beautified with the Quire Stalls and screen being restored, the high vaults inserted, and the church opened up. Although their work does not match our modern conservation principals, it ensured the survival of the Cathedral in the face of extreme decay.

The eighteenth and nineteenth centuries also saw a significant increase in the Cathedral’s involvement with colonial projects. Memorials throughout the Cathedral reflect the involvement of people from Cheshire and north west in the Transatlantic slave trade and, later in the nineteenth century, colonial projects in India. Chester Cathedral has lots of hidden histories which we are working to uncover.

This work continued into the twentieth century with the rebuilding and restoration of the cloister walks, west range, and refectory. In the later twentieth century, a new free-standing bell tower was built in the south-eastern corner of the estate in 1973 as the central tower in the Cathedral was no longer considered to be strong enough to ring the bells. The nave floor was repaved in 1997 and a song school built over the east cloister, occupying the the site of the former abbey’s dormitory.

Information based on unpublished work by Simon W Ward, Cathedral Archaeologist.

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