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The Cathedral I

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Cathedral II

The Cathedral III

"I wolde I were as bare as the Beschope of Chester"
An ironic allusion to the wealth of the Bishopric c.1470

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A brief introduction to Chester

The Northgate
The North Wall
The Phoenix Tower
The Kaleyard Gate
The Cathedral
The Eastgate
The Newgate & Wolfgate
The Amphitheatre / galleryAmphitheatre Comments
St. John's Church
The 'Roman Garden'
River Dee & Grosvenor Park
The Bridgegate
The Castle
The Grosvenor Bridge
The Roodee
The Watergate
The Infirmary
The Watertower
Tower Wharf
St. Martin's Gate
The Bridge of Sighs
Chester's visitors through time
The Rows of Chester
The Chester Gallery
Old Maps & Aerial Photos
Old photos of Chester & Liverpool
Vanished Chester Pubs
Chester Cinemas
The Old Port
The Chester Canal
The Royalty Theatre
Chris Langford Gallery
Mystery Plays Gallery
Chester Anagrams!
MickleTrafford Railway Stroll
Letters about the CDTS Busway
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Fpainting of cathedralollowing the rule of St. Benedict, the monks of Chester Abbey lived lives of simplicity, held all things in common, worshipped eight times a day, studied, cared for the sick, welcomed travellers and distrubed alms to the poor.
Around the year 1195, one of their number, Lucian, wrote enthusiastically of his brothers:

"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."

Bear in mind the importance with which the activities of these monks were held by the entire society. They were considered of equal status to, for example, the military: the role of the soldier was to defend the country, perhaps giving his life in the process, while the monk devoted his life to prayer- it was believed by all to be vitally necessary to keep the 'spiritual batteries' topped up in order to defend the world from the clutches of the Evil One.

During the later middle ages, however, the Abbey became extremely rich and powerful, owning land and property throughout Cheshire and far beyond. The Earls of Chester gave the Abbots rights equal within their jurisdiction to their own, which were themselves equal to those of the Crown elsewhere in the country. They were strict landlords and hard taskmasters. The medieval trials by fire, water and combat were practiced in the Abbot's courts and malefactors were summarily executed by the Abbot's officers.

After the Dissolution, ecclesiastical justice continued to be administered in the Lady Chapel. It was here, in 1555, that George Marsh, a widower with children, was condemned to death for preaching the 'heretical' doctrine of Martin Luther by the Bishop of Chester, George Coats.

George Marsh was the only person martyred in Cheshire under Queen Mary. He was a preacher from Deane, a suburb of Bolton. He first went about the neighbouring villages preaching stories from the bible but was later employed by King Edward VI in 1547 as a preaching minister. He was a tall man and an eloquent speaker. But during the reign of Queen Mary his preaching came into conflict with the new Catholic ways. He was brought before Justice Barton at Smithills Hall near Bolton (A sign there draws the visitor's attention to a mark in the floor, said to be a footprint made by Marsh when he stamped his foot during his interrogation). He refused to deny his beliefs and so was imprisoned for a time at Lancaster Castle where people flocked to his prison cell to hear him preach.

consistory courtHe was then moved to Chester to be tried and imprisoned in the terrible Northgate Gaol. He was given the chance to go free if he recanted but his refusal sealed his fate. He dragged on a hurdle to Spital Boughton (Chester's traditional place of execution, overlooking the River Dee about a mile from the town) where he was tied to the stake and a barrel of tar was set above his head to drip on him as he burned. It is said that the fire was badly managed and his death was "protracted". After it was over, his ashes were collected by his friends and buried in St Giles' Cemetery nearby. The spot where he, and countless others, died so cruelly is today marked by a memorial obelisk erected in the 19th century.

In 1636, the Bishop's, or Consistory, Court (illustrated right) was moved from the Lady Chapel into the unfinished south-west tower of the Cathedral, where its heavy oak furnishings- an enclosure with a bench, surrounding a large table, may still be inspected by visitors today, the only complete example to survive in all of England. Consistory courts dealt with all manner of legal issues affecting the church, some of a life and death seriousness but many more trivial- disputes about alterations to church buildings and the like. The last case heard at Chester was in the 1930s and concerned a priest who had attempted suicide.

Although the spiritual activities of the Abbey continued, by the 14th century, many of the monks were living a life of relative ease, often discarding their habits for fashionable dress with ornamental belts and trimmings. They hunted in the forest and feasted noisily- their scraps going not to the poor but to feed greyhounds and hunting dogs. Around 1480, it was recorded that "divers wymen" were accused of being "the paramours of the monkes of Chester".

The Abbot was all-powerful within his domain, answerable only to the Bishop and the Pope. By the 16th century, the monks were building fine new halls on their estates, the chief of these being at Saighton Grange, about four miles south-east of Chester, where they laid out a thousand-acre park.

A 19th century photograph of the Cathedral, taken just before the commencement of its radical restoration. No trace of the wall on the right or of the extensive graveyard remain with us today.

The Domesday Book records Saighton as belonging to 'St. Werburgh's', referring to the Saxon minster run by canons- the Benedictine monks came six years later, in 1092. They developed the land as a grange, or agricultural estate, later incorporating a country retreat for the Abbots. In 1249 they 'crennelated'- fortified- the buildings, the Welsh border being not far away, and in the 1490s, during the reign of Henry VII, Abbot Simon Ripley rebuilt the gatehouse and marked it with his crest of a black dog and the motto "Advance Boldly".

The only surviving part of the monastic grange is the gatehouse, which has been designated by English Heritage as a Grade I listed building, and is one of only two surviving monastic manorial buildings in Cheshire, the other being Ince Manor. The rest of the buildings are Victorian and modern and are now the home of Abbey Gate College, whose motto remains "Advance Boldly".

But all this was to end suddenly in 1540 with the Reformation and Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries. In the colourful words of local guide and author Thomas Hughes, "Bluff King Hal, that shameless polygamist, in a fit of pretended religious zeal, dissolved all these fraternities, and, pocketing the spoil, dealt out their lands to his creatures with right royal munificence".
old engraving of cathedral
Throughout the country, the splendid old buildings were dismantled and sold off for building materials and the monks cast out, but in Chester, St. Werburgh's Abbey was transformed into the 'Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary' and thus it was that John Clarke, the 25th and last Abbot, became the first Dean. He did not long enjoy his new office, which began 4th August 1541, as he died the following month.

We can hardly blame Abbot Clarke for surrendering his monastery, for it had become obvious that there was no alternative- his predecessor, Thomas Marshall, who had been become Abbot of Colchester Abbey, refused to give up his house, and, in 1539, was hanged outside its gates. The same thing happened to the Abbots of Reading and Glastonbury.

Of the twenty two monks resident at the Abbey in 1538, ten were selected to remain as members of the Cathedral staff and the rest were issued with pensions and lump-sum gratuities of approximately a half-year's pension, in order to pay for their secular clothing, food and accomodation until their first pension payments became due. Thus, they can hardly be said to have been harshly treated.

"A Mouldering Sandstone Cliff"
At first, the fabric of the new cathedral was treated with almost as little respect as that of the other dissolved abbeys. By 1580, it was said to be "in great decay and the glasse thereof carryed to their pryvate benefices by the Dean and Chapter".

old cathedral photographWhen the Roman Legions built the fortress of Deva, they were obliged to utilise the local sandstone, but had the wisdom to use only the hardest types available. (Chester's finest extant example of Roman masonry, the North Wall, in places stands strong and proud after seventeen centuries). The monks of the rapidly-expanding Abbey seemingly lacked the Roman engineer's knowledge and worked largely with softer, but more easily obtainable, types of stone. Consequently, over the centuries, the fabric of the building became seriously eroded. The Cathedral, in common with the rest of the town, had been badly treated during the Siege of Chester during the English Civil War in the 1640s, and lead was stripped from the roof in order to make musket balls.

In the early years of the 18th century, the famous author of Robinson Crusoe, Moll Flanders and much else, Daniel Defoe wrote of his visit to the Cathedral, "'tis built of a red, sandy, ill-looking stone, which takes much from the beauty of it, and which yielding to the weather, seems to crumble, and suffer by time, which much defaces the building" and by 1798, it was described as "one of the most heavy, irregular and ragged piles".

Years later, the author Charles Hiatt recalled that "the surface rot of the very perishable red sandstone, of which the cathedral was built, was positively unsightly" and that the "whole place, before its restoration, struck one as woebegone and neglected; it perpetually seemed to hover on the verge of collapse, and yet was without a trace of the romance of the average ruin".

Not that the problems of decaying stonework and shoddy maintainance were confined just to the Cathedral. The lovely church of St. John the Baptist over the centuries suffered no less than three collapses of its towers- the central tower twice during the middle ages and the great west tower as recently as 1881.

cathedral porchWriting of the West Front of the Cathedral in 1854, author and guide Thomas Hughes said "Time has, of course, been at work here, as elsewhere, gnawing away at the old red sandstone; but there is still enough left to give us an idea of its ancient beauty... but it is now fast going to decay."

(This remarkable aerial view- a detail from John McGahey's famous View of Chester from a Balloon- shows the cathedral and its surroundings as they appeared around this time).

Right: "The decay has gone deep into the stone and left its courses projecting, rounded and shapeless, like the layers of a mouldering rock"

Consequently, a number of more-or-less necessary restorations have taken place. An early one- in 1702- was financed by King William III allowing the Dean & Chapter to organise a general collection throughout the parish churches of the entire country; fourteen shillings and sixpence was donated by the congregation of Llanymblodwell and four shillings and sixpence from Llanymynech, both in Montgomeryshire and the good folk of Ormesby St. Margaret in Norfolk contributed two shillings and twopence. As many as four restorations took place during the 19th century alone- by Thomas Harrison in 1818-20, R. C. Hussey in 1843, Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1868-76 and Sir Arthur Blomfield in 1882-87.

Thomas Harrison, the prolific Chester architect who was also responsible for the Grosvenor Bridge, the rebuilding of the Castle, the Northgate and much else, fell out seriously with the Dean and Chapter who, while responsible for the maintainance of the Cathedral fabric, wanted to pay someone else less than he asked to supervise the plans he had so painstakingly prepared. In a forthright letter, he "presumed the Dean... wished to have a man of some experience to advise with, and superintend, the necessary works of this decayed building" and then asked rhetorically, "You cannot imagine that I, or any other person, would willingly lend his name as architect to the repairs required in this almost ruinous church... without having the superindendence of such repairs. Would the public be as ready to free me from the responsibility of any failure as the Chapter express themselves to be? I doubt it much".
old photograph od cathedral
Harrison was famously abrupt, but he knew his business and his opinion was doubtless valid, since, amazingly, virtually no maintainance work had been carried out on the building since the 1530s- 300 years previously! What the aforementioned Dean and his preceding 'guardians of the fabric' had been doing during all this time is anyone's guess. Nontheless, the work on rebuilding the buttresses of the south transept, whose stability had long been a cause for concern, and also of repairing its gutters, went ahead without him. The latter work was so badly executed that it had to be redone a mere six years later. To add insult to injury, Harrison was not even paid his princely fee of £25 for his work during his lifetime. He may have considered himself a professional man, worthy of reasonably prompt payment for services rendered, but in the eyes of that 'Man of God', the Dean of Chester, he was a mere tradesman, whose bills could be paid when it was deemed convenient- or not at all. The money only appeared ten years after Harrison's death, and then only then when his executors threatened to kick up a fuss about it.

Scott's restoration was by far the most radical- before work commenced, he wrote that virtually the entire building "was so horribly and lamentably decayed as to reduce it to a mere wreck, like a mouldering sandstone cliff". In a lecture in 1870 outlining his proposals, he declared that "probably no building in England has suffered so severely... the decay has gone deep into the stone and left its courses projecting, rounded and shapeless, like the layers of a mouldering rock. It is a distressing kind of work, yet, if conscientiously carried out it is the saving of the old design, even though the old material gives way to new."

The situation is clearly illustrated in the two photographs above- both of which had been taken after some restoration had taken place- notice how radically different those sections appear.

Chester Cathedral bathed in winter sunlight: January 2007, photographed by the author.

Scott was amazed to discover that the eastern part of the church had no foundations at all, and it consequently had to be underpinned, with foundations inserted and missing buttresses replaced. Work on the Lady Chapel revealed, at a depth of nine feet below the present surface, a Roman concrete floor, a drain and traces of a road, which ran diagonally under the south-eastern buttress.

His aim in the restoration was to make the building conform to his Victorian concept of a mid-thirteenth century 'ideal' but he seems to have overdone it to a great degree, especially on the outside of the building- the numerous 'fancy' features such as the flying buttresses, the parapets along the lines of the roof, the many pinnacles, the gargoyles and the curious five-sided apse at the end of the South Choir Aisle are all his inventions, being entirely absent in the original. It was also his intention to erect a tall steeple on top of the central tower but lack of money meant that this was never achieved. The four over-large turrets atop the tower would doubtlessly have looked more in keeping had this been built.

When the work was complete, one writer thought the Cathedral "a building which, if rather painfully new in appearance, is at least sound, strong and water-tight".

Another of the strange medieval carvings in the choir of Chester Cathedral- half beast, half pilgrim enjoying a mug of ale.

Sir George (1811–78) was a leader in the Gothic Revival in England and may be better known the architect of some of London's best known landmarks, the Albert Memorial, St. Pancras Station (where his son, also named George, tragically committed suicide in 1897) and the Foreign & Commonwealth Office in Whitehall. His working life had commenced with less glamourous commissions, however, notably workhouses and prisons. During his long carreer, he found time to build or restore over 700 buildings around the country. Apart from Chester, Sir George also restored Ely Cathedral and Westminster Abbey- where he is buried.

Sir George's grandson, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott (1880–1960) also undertook an extensive programme of restoration at Chester in 1911-13, including the refectory and the badly-decayed cloisters- at the same time as he was also engaged in an epic undertaking twenty miles away: the construction of the swan song of the Gothic in England, the stupendious Liverpool Anglican Cathedral. He now lies at the crossing beneath his gigantic tower.

Sir Giles was also the architect of Battersea Power Station, restored the House of Commons Chamber after it was damaged in a bombing raid in 1941 and designed the famous British K2 red telephone box- compare its proportions with those of the great tower of Liverpool Cathedral- the similarities are unmistakable!

When you come to the UK, a visit to Chester's ancient cathedral followed by the two magnificent modern ones in Liverpool is an unforgettable experience. This writer would be pleased to be your guide...

Now go on to part III of our exploration of Chester Cathedral...

the cathedral in 1811
Chester Cathedral in 1811

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 9

  • chester guided walks1399 Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster (later King Henry IV: 1367-1413) mustered his troops under the walls and marched 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 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. Piers Legh, a supporter of Richard, would not accompany them, as he was executed and his head was displayed on one of the Castle's towers. 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 ddissimulation which his enemies had long since discovered in him."
  • 1400 The Blue Bell Inn in Lorimer's Row, Northgate Street dates from this period. The Mayor ordered to "apprehend and imprison John and Adam Hesketh for they had broken into the Castle and stolen the keys to the Eastgate, beheaded Thomas Molineux and proclaimed against the King."
  • 1403 The citizens of Chester were pardoned- upon payment of 300 marks- for encouraging the rebellion of the Earl of Northumberland and his son Lord Percy (known as Hotspur) against King Henry IV. They had proclaimed on two occasions that Richard II was alive, and imprisoned in Chester Castle. Henry, Prince of Wales, issues an order expelling the Welsh from Chester.
  • 1413 Henry IV died, his son ascended as Henry V (1386-1422). Thomas Erdeley becomes twentieth Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1434)
  • 1422 Henry V died. His 9 month-old son ascended the throne as Henry VI (1421-1471).
  • 1431 Joan of Arc burned at the stake at Rouen
  • 1435 A great dearth in Chester: the people made bread of peas, feathers and fern roots. This strange reference to eating feathers probably occured due to a scribe's misunderstanding regarding vetches- wild peas- as vetches was also the name given to the flights of arrows made from feathers! John de Saughall becomes twenty first Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1455)
  • 1438 Inca rule established in Peru
  • 1441 Rockley and Rooley, gaolers of the Castle and Northgate, fought a pitched battle to settle their differences on the Roodee
  • 1445 Henry VI visited Chester at a time when the river was silted up, and no large ship could approach within 12 miles of the city, and the town was consequently in a desolute and ruinous condition with a declining population. The King agreed to remit half of the £100 per annum fee farm rent charged under the charter of Edward I.

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