|s you walk around the walls of Chester, leaving the River Dee,
crossing busy Grosvenor Road and entering Nun's Road, on the left you can see
the great green expanse of the Roodee,
the city's ancient racecourse, and on the right, the vast, and brand new, HQ Building, a development of apartments, offices and hotel that has recently risen upon the site of the Cheshire Police Headquarters building. Pictures of the old and new buildings may be seen on the first of our Roodee pages.
It is difficult to imagine how this area would have looked hundreds of years ago, when of Mammon there was no trace and all the vast area on your right hand side, right as far as the Infirmary at the far end of the road, was entirely occupied by Chester's religious houses: the monasteries of the White, Black and Greyfriars and, immediately on our right, the convent and gardens of the Nuns of St. Mary's, whose lands extended from the arch in the wall near the Castle to Blackfriars, the narrow thoroughfare known in earlier times as Arderne Lane and later as Walls Lane.
Even a century or so ago, things looked very different from today, as you see in this fascinating old photograph, showing a view quite alien even to those who know the area well today. On the right, the Roodee and the great man-made embankment leading to the Grosvenor Bridge are much as we know them now, but nothing at all lies between the City Wall and the distant Castle and the grand Militia Buildings- which stood on the exact site of the modern complex above. All trace of the nun's estates, which thrived here for four centuries, have vanished as if they had never been.
Below, we see a slightly later view, looking in the opposite direction. Villas have started to rise but Nun's Road is yet to appear and its site is still an uneven grassy
track snaking its way along the top of the City Wall.
Around the year 1160, two separate charters brought St. Mary's a large amount of land in Christleton, a village not far from Chester. Despite this, less than 100 years later, in 1253, the financial state of the nunnery was at such a low ebb that the Prioress, Lady Alice de la Hey, petitioned Queen Eleanor ('Eleanor of Provence'), wife of Henry III, giving a pitiable account of their condition. She stated that they were "So greatly reduced as to be compelled every day to beg for their food abroad- slight as even that was."
In 1185, Earl Randle Blundeville granted to the nuns the small manor of Wallerscote in Delamere Forest, a few miles from Chester. They held this until the Dissolution and by virtue of it had rights of pasture in the forest.
Two arches survived which remained in situ for many years,
until the eastern one was removed, around 1783 to form an entrance to the
ruins at St. John's Church from where
it was moved again in 1871 to the position it has since occupied in Grosvenor
Park, as illustrated in the photograph above.
(The great Chester architect Thomas Harrison had, late in life- around 1820, moved from Folliot House in Northgate Street to a new house here, designed by himself, and situated close to his great Grosvenor Bridge project. This was St. Martin's Lodge, a simple and elegant, understated piece of Regency architecture, which remains with us today and, until their neighbouring HQ was demolished, was utilised for administative purposes by Cheshire Police.
Eighty years later, in 1910, Chester historian Frank Simpson wrote that, "The arch was in situ as late as 1827, but one has yet to discover when it was taken down and to what place it was removed."
The anonymous author of an early 19th century work, A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, wrote of the nun's house, "The church was twenty-two yards long and fifteen broad, and supported in the middle by a row of pillars. The Chapel was nine yards by four and three quarters; the cloisters thirty yards by twenty. Vestiges of the walls and arches are yet remaining. In 1805 a Roman tesserated pavement was discovered and may be seen in the gardener's house."
Needless to say, the whereabouts of this ancient relic is unknown today!
Well, in 2008/9 as new archaeological investigation did happen and, we're told, all manner of interesting relics of the old nunnery came to light, including their graveyard. This beautifully-carved coffin lid from the site is now on public display outside the new HQ develpment. The high quality of the workmanship would seem to indicate that an important member of this lost relgious community once lay beneath this stone.
Though the nuns of St. Mary's are centuries dead and their bones and the stones of their house are scattered and lost, a part of them remains with us today, for, around the year 1425 was composed within the walls of the nunnery the beautiful Carol (or Song) of the Nuns of Chester which forms part of the repertoire of choirs throughout the world and is widely available in numerous recordings. This beautiful carol is a combination of an old Latin hymn (Qui Creavit Caelum), with a lullaby verse after each line:
This lovely Latin lullaby utilized by the sisters is one of the typical carols of late medieval England. Yet, by a century or so later the traits which made it typical, that is, the Latin language, strong religious content, and connection with the Catholic Church, had largely disappeared. It is one of the last Latin carols written in England. A distinguished contemporary, “There Is No Rose of Such Virtue,” had already abandoned Latin for English. Even in the still-medieval fifteenth century songs such as "The Boar’s Head Carol” had mostly non-religious lyrics and by the sixteenth-century highly secular carols such as “We Wsh You a Merry Christmas” became commonplace throughout the British Isles. In addition, Henry VIII’s break with Rome in 1534 greatly diminished the influence of the Catholic Church in England. Thus the “Song of the Nuns of Chester” is in some ways the benchmark of the passing of an era. But lest we mourn too much, the period which succeeded it was the English Renaissance, the greatest cultural epoch in the history of that nation and also the golden age of the English carol.
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