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The Cathedral part II

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Cathedral III


The Cathedral part IV

"The church and clergy here, no doubt,
Are very near akin,
Both weather-beaten are without,
And mould'ring are within."


Renowned author and Dean of Dublin Cathedral Jonathan Swift
(after having been 'stood up' for a dinner date by Cathedral clergy)


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Up to the 18th century, burials within Chester Cathedral, and the Abbey before it, were common and much sought-after.

A contributor to The Cheshire Sheaf in 1879 wrote: "St. Werburgh's Abbey at Chester was a favourite place of sepulture from very early days, as the numerous memorial slabs taken out from the lower levels close to the rock, during the recent restoration, very fully prove".

The cost towards the end of the practice, to those not privileged to free access, was "£5 for burial in the side alleys and £10 in the body of the quire". At the time, this was a considerable sum, but nontheless, the cumulative effect of hundreds of such interments eventually resulted in a serious undermining of the Cathedral's fabric- by Scott's time, the side walls of the eastern end were noted to be leaning feet out of true.

Many of the external features you see today are by its major restorer Sir George Gilbert Scott, including the spires and small towers atop the main tower, which had been originally built about 1210 and which was described by him, before its long-overdue restoration, as a "picturesque and crumbling pile of soft sandstone, inhabited by jackdaws".

A confirmation of this state of affairs comes in the form of an interesting reminiscience from the February 1882 edition of the Sheaf, wherein a contributor recalled, "When some fifty years younger than I am now, I used to watch with boyish interest the movements of the sable birds that then flourished in and about the crumbling and crannied walls of Chester Cathedral. The jackdaws' nests were up far away out of ordinary reach; but the increase in population was at times so great, and the birds made such havoc in the spongy and perishing stone, that a raid had each season to be made upon them to keep the colony down. Long ladders were projected at all sorts of angles, and a dozen or two eager marauders pursued their deadly mission at the mouths of the principal nests. I'm afraid I was myself at such times one of the foremost invaders of the poor birds' territory, and have gone home at night laden with the spoil of their young".

The exterior facing of the 13th century Lady Chapel, the building nearest to the East Wall, is also Scott's. It is as if the entire structure had been 'wrapped up' in a new stone overcoat - but there is less obviously new work inside the Cathedral but many of the monastic buildings- considered to be the finest in Britain- survive relatively unchanged. Among them is the Refectory, where once the monks ate their frugal meals in silence, except for the voice of one of the brothers giving bible readings from the late 13th century stone lectern or pulpit, which is built into the wall and reached by an arcaded stairway. It, too, is considered to be to be one of the finest in the country.

The Refectory itself, though basically Norman, was remodelled in the 13th century and the windows were altered again in the 15th to give the impression of a later building. One modern addition is the magnificent medieval-style hammer-beam roof which was built under the direction of architectural historian F. H. Crossley as recently as 1939.

After a period, ending in 1876, housing The King's School, (look for the grafitti scratched into the walls by generations of long-dead pupils) the Refectory is today filled with the gentle chatter of visitors and other refugees from the busy city outside, having resumed some of its ancient function by serving as the Cathedral's teashop and restaurant.

The East Window had been completely rebuilt by Giles Gilbert Scott in 1913 and in June 2001, to mark the new Millennium, a great new stained glass west window was installed in the Refectory. Created by Bristol-based artist Rosalind Grimshaw, assisted by Patrick Costeloe, the window was inspired by the biblical quotation, "And God saw everything He had made, and behold it was very good". There are six main panels, each two feet wide and sixteen feet high, depicting the six days of Creation, including the passing from darkness into light, the creation of dry land from the water and the coming of fish, sea creatures and

chester misericordAlso ranking as some of the finest of their kind are the highly-decorated oak Choir Stalls of c.1380 (illustrated at the top of the page) with their imaginatively-carved misericords. Despite having been moved several times over the centuries, they have nontheless survived intact and with remarkably little sign of wear or damage for over six hundred years of regular use. Novelist Henry James was inspired by "the vast oaken architecture of the stalls, climbing vainly against the dizzier reach of the columns".

(Read his affectionate description of Chester in his "most perfect" 1903 novel, The Ambassadors here).

These misericords ("mercy seats") are small shelves which project from the undersides of the hinged choir stall seats upon which the monks supported themselves during the long hours of worship. Because they were usually tucked away out of sight, the the carvers were allowed considerable freedom of expression in their decoration. The exquisite finesse of the pinnacled canopies over the choir stalls contrast sharply with the earthly subject matter on the misericords beneath- men wrestle, foxes steal grapes, a wife beats her husband, a unicorn is slain after laying its head in the lap of a virgin, angels play lutes and biblical scenes are flanked by monsters and mythological figures from distant pre-Christian times- all of the utmost liveliness and fascination. The story of St. Werburgh- to whom the Cathedral is dedicated- and the 'restored goose' is here also, but some of these medieval masterpieces are now sadly lost to us, for 150 years ago, Dean Howson ordered five of them to be destroyed on the grounds that they were "very improper"..

A complete photographic record of the misericords of Chester cathedral- and of many other places- may be found on Dominic Strange's excellent website, Misericords of the World.

elephant carvingLook out also for the curious cloven-hoofed elephant on the end of one of the choir stalls- the fanciful creation of a medieval craftsman who had obviously never laid eyes upon the real thing. One had been brought to England in 1255, a gift to Henry III from Louis IX of France, and carvings made of it at the time were the model for copies which appeared for more than a century afterwards. Elephants had first come to Britain long before this, however, for a troop of them had accompanied the Emperor Claudius during the first days of the 400-year Roman occupation of our islands, when he rode in state to Camulodunum (modern Colchester) in August AD 43 to accept the surrender of several of the local tribes- to whom the great creatures must have been a truly awe-inspiring sight.

While on the subject of cloven hooves, here is a curious story recorded by one Mr Edward Thomas in a 1906 edition of the Cheshire Sheaf:
"When I became a chorister in Chester Cathedral in the year 1828, I, as was the custom with all new boys, was shown by the older choristers a flagstone at the north east corner of the cloisters on which was a mark (below), said to be the Devil's footprint, and was told that if the flag was removed and replaced by a new one, on the following morning, the footprint would be there again".

"devil's footprint"To the best of our knowledge, this splendid legend has of recent times become entirely forgotten- it certainly appears in no contemporary guidebooks we have seen. Our photograph shows the nearest thing we could find to a 'Devil's Footprint'- perhaps now somewhat worn since it was exhibited for the edification of those Georgian choir boys.

The Devil makes yet another appearance in a better-known Cathedral legend, that of the Chester Imp. This tells us that, centuries ago, during the construction of the nave, a priest was startled by the sight of a demonic face leering at him through one of the windows. This he took to be Satan himself, come to investigate this latest fortress against his dark powers. Prompt action was taken, and stonemasons were ordered to carve an equally-ugly image and mount it where, should the Devil dare to look in again, he would be frightened away!

At intervals, from the mid-18th century onwards, attempts were made to hold music festivals in the Cathedral. Conscious of the fact that the rapidly-rising and wealthy cities of Liverpool and Manchester were easily able to attract the best artistes, Chester's organisers strove to compete, but were continually running into difficulties.
In 1821, for example, one Madame Camporese caused a great stir due to the high level of fees she demanded for performing. The still-thriving Chester Chronicle dryly commented at the time: "We are sorry that anything like dissatisfaction should have been expressed by the lady, after the very liberal treatment she experienced from the committee. We believe she only gave five songs in the church, for which she had £150, enough in all common conscience one would have thought. The air of Italy, however, as connected with pecuniary matters, has unquestionably a bracing tendency".
In 1842, the festival had to be cancelled as "the Bishop has objected to sanction it on account of the concerts and ball which follow the oratorio, and the Dean and Chapter have refused to lend the nave of the Cathedral for the morning performances". The citizens of Chester were said to have been "highly incenced" by the uncooperative attitude of the Cathedral authorities.
Today, however, Chester Cathedral continues to host a wide variety of (considerably better organised) musical events. Just last week, this writer and his wife greatly enjoyed a performance of one of his favourites, Mahler's Symphony no 2, 'The Resurrection', performed by the Chester Philharmonic Orchestra.

norman arch in cathedralThe Treasure House Mystery
Sir George Gilbert Scott, restorer of the Cathedral, believed in the existence of a secret chamber concealed somewhere within its walls, and for two centuries or upwards lost sight of by the authorities.

Perhaps this was because he had heard that the whole of the Cathedral's records, except some Treasurers' and Receivers' papers, and a few detached fragments, were all missing for at least a century after its foundation. And it certainly is strange that little or nothing prior to the Restoration should remain in the hands of the Chapter authorities- no Chapter Act Books, no church plate, no ancient manuscripts, no library, no counterpart leases, not even the precious Charter of the Cathedral itself! What became of it all? Destruction at the time of the Civil War is one alternative, the other a secret storehouse, perhaps walled up, during the Siege, and never revealed to the successors of those responsible appointed at the Restoration.

Right: Norman and Gothic architecture side by side in the North Transept of the Cathedral

Sir Peter Leycester, in his Antiquities Touching Cheshire, referring to the Charters granted by Earl Hugh to St. Werburgh's Abbey in 1093, says "This agrees in time with the Original Charter of the Foundation, which I transcribed out about 1644, then remaining among the Evidences of that Church, which were then kept in a certain room within St. Werburgh's Church in Chester." He says further, that the Evidences in question were "after removed thence in the late War". Sir Peter was resident in Chester throughout the Siege.
16th century Treasurers' Accounts of the Dean & Chapter confirm the existence then and for nearly a century afterwards of the Cathedral Treasure House:

• 1572-3. For tacking of (taking off) a locke in ya tresery house, and me'dyng ye same xiijd.
• 1583. For 2 lodes of coles and two of turfes for the Treasure house xvijd.
• 1584. Payd to Stocken (the smith) for openinge of the lockes of the Treasure house dore iijd.
• 1602. For a new key to the Treasure house dore vjd.
• 1604. For mending the looke of the Treasure house dore iiijd.
• 1623. A locke and key for the letters Patients iiijd.

From this date, the Treasure House is no more named in the Chapter records. But if it be the same room with which Sir Peter Leycester was acquainted, the disappearance of the chamber is contemporaneous with the last days of the Siege of Chester in 1646.

Unlike the terrible damage inflicted upon Chester in the Civil War, three centuries later, during World War II, it largely escaped the appalling mayhem visited upon many British cities- especially neighbouring Liverpool- but, during late 1940 and the early months of 1941, the city experienced its worst attacks from enemy bombers. The Cathedral suffered damage during the raids of November 29th / 30th and on December 1st 1940 when incendiary bombs blew out many windows, including those of the St. Erasmus Chapel, the Choir Clerestory and the South Nave Aisle. There was also much damage done to the roofs. The cost of repairs was recorded as amounting to "six thousand, five hundred and thirty eight pounds, six shillings and eleven pence".

memorial plaqueIn 1949, the Cheshire Sheaf recorded that the following anonymous poem was found "on the back of an old picture in Chester Cathedral"...

Isn't it strange that princes and kings,
And clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
And ordinary folk like you and me,
Are builders for eternity?
To each is given a bag of tools,
An hourglass and a book of rules,
And each must build, ere his life is flown,
A stumbling-block or a stepping stone.

A locally better known poem is that which is inscribed upon an old clock in the Cathedral:

When as a child I laughed and wept- time crept.
When as a youth I dremed and telked- time walked.
When I became a full grown man- time ran.
And later as I older grew- time flew.
Soon I shall find while travelling on- time gone.
Will Christ have saved my soul by then?- Amen.


The first known guidebook to Chester, the De Laude Cestrie ('In Praise of Chester') was written about 1195 by Lucian, one of the monks of the Abbey. For some fascinating insights into the city and Abbey as he saw them at the end of the 12th century, go here.

From the 12th century to the Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 1540s, fully 25% of the area within Chester's walls was occupied by monastic communities. To learn a little of the Benedictine nuns of St. Mary's, go here. You can also find out something more of them, together with the Black Friars, in our Roodee chapter and of the Grey and White Friars in our Watergate chapter. Alternatively, visit a stunningly beautiful building, still very much with us- well over a thousand years old and our city's first cathedral: the unique church of St. John the Baptist.

chester guided walksOn we go to discuss some of the controversies concerning Chester Cathedral in modern times....

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 9

  • 1447 Eleanor, Duchess of Gloucester, confined in the Castle for 'practicing the King's death' before being sent to the Isle of Man to serve her sentence. A Cheshire gentleman, Robert Needham, was convicted of assisting her husband in a rescue bid. After he was taken to Tyburn and supposedly hung, and had already been stripped by the executioner in readiness for quartering, he was found to be still alive- and was therefore pardoned.
  • 1451 Christopher Columbus and Amerigo Vespucci born. Leonardo da Vinci born the following year.
  • 1453 End of the Hundred Years' War with France
  • 1455 Richard Oldham becomes twenty second Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1485)
  • 1460 Richard of York defeats Henry IV at Northampton, but is defeated and killed by Queen Margaret at Wakefield. The following year, Richard's son Edward is crowned Edward IV(1442-1483). A new pillory set up at Chester Cross at a cost of 6s 8d.
  • 1463 Several citizens of Chester slain at Mold by Rinalt of the Tower, and the Mayor hung on a staple in his hall.
  • 1470 Edward IV visited Chester. An invasion led by the Earl of Warwick ('Warwick the Kingmaker') restored Henry to the throne. The roof of St. John's Church was "covered with lead". During the same year, the Central Tower fell, destroying the Choir
  • 1471 Edward IV defeats and kills Richard, Earl of Warwick at Barnet, defeats Queen Margaret and kills Prince Edward at Tewkesbury. Henry VI murdered in the Tower of London. First mention in documents of the Bull Inn- now known as the Pied Bull, in Northgate Street. Albrecht Dürer born
  • 1474 William Caxton prints the first book in English
  • 1483 Edward IV died. His son, planned to become Edward V (1470-1483- some say 1485), was in fact never crowned. His coronation had been scheduled and was being planned when Parliament made the determination that he was illegitimate, which barred him from the throne, and offered the crown to his uncle, Richard. Edward was imprisoned with his brother in the Tower of London (The 'Princes in the Tower') and there was murdered. His uncle, Richard, Duke of Gloucester assumed the throne as Richard III (1452-1485).
  • 1484 Richard III granted Chester remission for 10 years of the sum of £73. 10s 1d of the fee farm rent, because of the impoverishment of the city and port due to the silting of the River Dee.


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