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A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

An Introduction to Chester

Introduction II

"What strikes one as so very remarkable is how seldom any inhabitant of the City of Chester seems to display an interest in the history, customs and architecture of his city. One would suppose that sometimes those living in so interesting a place would seek for information on many matters of local history and genealogy, but so far as one can see, familiarity breeds indifference and apathy, and it is left mainly to non-residents and 'outsiders', so to write, to elucidate the history of the neighbourhood by their queries and answers. Can it be that residence in Chester dulls the imagination?"
Comment by 'T. L. O. W' in The Cheshire Sheaf: January 1936

Tchester jesterhe ancient and beautiful city of Chester is situated in north west England, close to the border with North Wales. In addition to its unique covered galleries, known as the Rows, and countless other architectural gems, the city possesses the most complete circuit of Roman, Saxon and medieval city walls in Britain.

Many are the legends associated with the city's origins. To quote the authors of the 1792 Chester Directory, Barfoot and Wilkes, "The ancient name of this city, it is said, was Neomagus, so called from Magus, son of Samothes, son of Japet (himself a son of Noah)- its founder, 240 years after the Flood; an assertion which, if authenticated, places Chester on a line of antiquity with any other city in the universe"

Around the year 1500, Brother Henry Bradshaw, quoting an earlier Chester monk, Ranulf Higden's Polychronicon ('Universal History') which was written around 1350, says: "The founder of this city, as saith the Polychronicon, was Leon-Gawer, a mighty strong gyant, a man beyond the moon and called by Marius the vanquisher of the Picts, who builded caves and dungeons many a one; no goodly building, ne proper, ne pleasant. But King Leir (Shakespeare's King Lear) - a Briton fine and valiant, was founder of Chester by pleasant building, which was named Guer Leir by the King"

Chester owes its existence largely to the strategic importance of its site, a promontory of Old Red Sandstone surrounded on the west and south by the River Dee and first recognised, as far as we know for certain, 2000 years ago by the Roman Legions. Almost certainly the site must have been inhabited well before that time, but in a place where virtually every square inch of land has been built and rebuilt upon many times over the centuries, positive evidence is most difficult to uncover, although shards of pottery discovered in Abbey Green were identified as dating from Neolithic times (c.4000-2400BC), making them the first examples of pottery of this period known from Cheshire, and a graphic illustration of how people from earliest times recognised and utilised the defensive possibilities of this sandstone plateau above the River Dee.

The nature of any settlement of "Painted Britons"- the local tribal groups were known as the Cornovii- encountered here by the first Romans may be imagined from the commentaries of Julius Caesar, who famously landed in Britain in 55BC: "A town amongst the Britons is nothing more than a thick wood fortified with a ditch and ramparts, to serve as a place of retreat against the incursions of their enemies"- and by the Roman historian Strabo: "When they have enclosed a large circuit in their forests with felled trees, they build within, houses for themselves and hovels for their cattle".

It must be said, however, that, though we know virtually nothing about the local tribes, many of the indiginous peoples of the British Isles at this time were highly cultured- skilled poets and fine craftsmen. It was probably in Caesar's interest, as with would-be conquerors before and since, to make out he was dealing with a barbarian population; such dispatches would doubtless go down well in Rome with those interested parties putting up the money for his wars.
In addition, placing the Iron Age inhabitants of the future site of Chester within the tribal territory of the Cornovii may merely have been an administrative convenience- such 'tidying up' is known to have occured elsewhere in the Roman Empire- and the pre-conquest peoples may equally well have been allied to the Coritani or Brigantes to the east (whose territory stretched "from coast to coast") or the Ciangi to the east- or may have preserved a considerable degree of independence.

gladiatorsAs previously observed, the future site of Chester would have attracted settlers from earliest times, but the Roman military presence at Chester probably began with a fort or marching camp at the mouth of the Deva Fluvius (River Dee) very likely established during the early campaigns of governor Publius Ostorius Scapula against the Deceangi in north-east Wales sometime around AD47/48. There is some evidence of pre-Flavian occupation, possibly even a timber-built fort, but proof positive of a Scapulan foundation has yet to emerge.

After the first tentative forays of Scapula, the next military activity in the area was conducted during the early administration of governor Sextus Julius Frontinus sometime around AD74 when an auxiliary fort was constructed at Chester. The placement of this fort was a strategic move by Frontinus designed both to block the route of any routed British bands trying to escape to the north, and also to guard against any help arriving from the Brigantes.
By AD79 the site had developed into the twenty-five hectare fortress base of Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis ('Dutiful and Faithful'). Archaeological evidence indicates that it was laid out over the cultivated fields of the shadowy former inhabitants.
Titus was Emperor in Rome, Jerusalem had been captured and destroyed five years earlier, St. Peter was ten years dead and the Gospels of Matthew and John lay ten years into the future.

They called their new fortress Deva or Dewa ('The Goddess') after the native people's name for the the then-great river dominating the site: the Dyfrdwy- the Dee, as we know it now. Water sources in general and rivers in particular were deemed to be sacred places and the habitations of supermortal beings and, to this day, most British rivers have retained their ancient Celtic names.
The external dimensions of their fortress were 1,950 x 1,360 feet (594 x 415 m), which, allowing for the width of the defences gave an interior area of about 56 acres (22.7 hectares). This early Flavian timber fortress is evidenced by lead piping bearing the name of Gnaeus Julius Agricola.

Around AD87 the Second Legion was withdrawn from Britain by the Emperor Domitian to be used in his wars in Dacia, and to replace them at Chester with Legio XX Valeria Victrix ('Strong and Victorious') were forced to abandon their newly-built fortress at Inchtuthil on the Tay, and were withdrawn from Scotland in order to maintain a strong legionary presence outside North Wales.

The fortress was rebuilt in stone around AD102, during the reign of Trajan. These defenses consisted of a massive stone wall, fronted by a double ditch and backed by a rampart of sand and clay. Antonine pottery of c.170 confirms occupation in the latter half of the second century. Further reconstruction is recorded on an inscription of Elagabalus (c.235) and repairs were made to the fortress wall c.301-306. By 383 the silting up of the river Dee was a major factor in the abandonment of the Deva Fortress.

Rebuilding and expansion of the fortress continued throughout the centuries of occupation and, in its final form, Deva would have covered an area of about 65 acres. With its imposing walls and great buildings, it must have been a breathtaking sight. A large amphitheatre outside the south-east corner of the fortress could seat eight thousand people.
Such was the size of the fortress and grandeur of its architecture, and especially of such unique structures as the Elliptical Building (whose remains were outrageously obliterated when the ironically-named Forum council offices were constructed in the 1960s) it is strongly surmised that Deva was being prepared to become the capital city of Roman Britain.
Its occupants, despite hailing from every corner of the known world, were all (with the obvious exception of the slaves) counted as Citizens of Rome, and therefore enjoyed rights, laws and a standard of living the likes of which would not be seen again in Europe until modern times.

The basic staple of the Roman soldier was bread, and each soldier was allocated about three pounds of corn per day in order to make a nourishing type of wholemeal loaf. When in garrison at the fortress, legionaires also ate a considerable quantity of meat. During excavations over the years at Chester many bones of animals and birds and the shells of molluscs have been uncovered, proving that the soldiers had a very healthy diet. The animal bones included those of domesticated ox, sheep, goat and pig, also game animals such as red deer, roe deer, and boar, which were very likely being hunted and killed for sport. The bones of wild and domesticated fowl included those of chicken, duck, goose, pheasant and swan. The main types of seafood consumed were oysters and mussels.

There is an interesting paragraph in the second century geographical treatise by Claudius Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) which says: "From these (the Ordovices) toward the east are the Cornavi, among whom are the towns: Deva, Legio XX Victrix 17°30 56°45 Viroconium 16°45 55°45".
The Ordovices were a savage tribe from the valleys of North Wales, against whom the legionary fortress at Chester was directed. The extract shows that the Prata Legionis, the surrounding land which came under military jurisdiction of the Twentieth Legion stationed at the Deva fortress, was appropriated from the tribal territories of the Cornovii, whose cantonal capital lay at Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter, Shropshire).

Chester also appears in two (out of fifteen) routes in the Antonine Itinerary, produced in the late 2nd century. The first mention is in Iter II, "The route from the 'Entrenchments' to the Port of Rutupiae", which details the Roman road-stations between Hadrian's Wall and the main port of embarkation for the continent at Richborough in Kent. On this route, Chester appears as Deva Leg XX Vict, which again confirms that the Twentieth Legion were garrisoned here, 20 miles from Condate (Northwich, Cheshire) and 10 miles from Bovium (Tilston, Cheshire).

One of the most interesting routes in the Itinerary is Iter XI, entitled "the route from Segontium (Caernarfon) to Deva", this seventy-four mile long route features Chester as one of its termini. Iter XI is discussed in the page for St. Asaph, the last but one station, which lies 32 miles from Chester.
It seems likely that the Chester fortress was abandoned by the legions sometime towards the end of the fourth century, and there is no mention of Deva in the Notitia Dignitatum published around the turn of the fifth. The town is mentioned in the seventh century Ravenna Cosmology, appearing as Deva Victris, between the unknown towns Saudonio and Veratino.

Major rebuilding of the north and west walls took place in the late third or early fourth centuries- possibly as a result of a period of abandonment- and at least one major building in the fortress continued in use up to the end of the fourth century. Thus, it may be that the final withdrawal from Deva did not occur until soon after this time, possibly by Maximus for his continental expedition of 383. It is also possible that a Legion or Legions other than the XXth garrisoned the fortress at this time. We have no way of knowing, although tombstones found built into the North Wall do provide some evidence for this.
When the end finally came, the deserted Romanised Britons saw the disappearance of their former protectors, and the ever-increasing raids of Pictish sea pirates and neighbouring tribes as "a great calamity" and appealed thus to Rome for assistance: "To Aetius, thrice Consul, the groans of the Britons: the barbarians drive us to the sea, the sea throws us back onto the swords of the barbarians, so that we have nothing left us but the wretched choice of being drowned or butchered."

After the withdrawal the Legions, and in common with many other English towns, Chester seems to have lain deserted for many years (The first English meditation on old stones, The Ruin, an evocative description of those times, may be read here). Then, around the year 893, when the old fortress lay within the Kingdom of Mercia, a raiding party of Danes discovered and occupied this "deserted city in Wirral which was called Chester". The Mercians regained much of their territory from the Danes in the early tenth century, when, under Queen Aethelflaed, Chester was re-fortified as a burgh in 907- the centre of a line of lesser burghs which stretched from Manchester to Rhuddlan and protected Mercia's northern frontier. This date marks the commencement of Chester's development as an English

benedictine monkIn late Saxon times, Chester was one of the largest and most important towns in England and had a considerable population of around 3000 inhabitants.
(We are currently preparing a new chapter, telling the stirring story of Chester between the times of the Romans and the Normans)
Five hundred years after the Legions withdrew from Deva, their Saxon successors knew the city as Legecaester, a translation of part of the British (Welsh) Caer Lleon Vawr ar Ddyfrdwy or 'Camp of the Great Legion on the Dee'- also called Caerleon-ar-Dour. Long before the Norman conquest, the first part of the name was being omitted in documents, and by the time of Henry I (1100-1135) the coinage had also simplified it to a form which is recognisable as the modern Chester. Our Welsh-speaking neighbours however, to this day refer to the city as Caer.

A fascinating and convincing theory was propounded by Robert Stoker in his book The Legacy of Arthur's Chester (1963), who pointed out that there were actually two cities bearing the name Caerleon, and, after the departure of the Legions, it was here, Caerleon-upon-Dee that became the ecclesiastical and civil capital of the Kings of Britain, Capital of Wales, GHQ of the centuries-long campaigns against the Saxons and the city of the coronation, in the early seventh century, of a not-so-legendary King Arthur- not Caerleon-on-Usk (Roman Isca) in South Wales. The confusion seemingly lay with Arthur's medieval chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose patron, Robert of Gloucester, was Lord of the Monmouth Marches, where Caerleon-on-Usk is situated. It seems that Geoffrey, doubtess partly in order to please his Lord, attributed all references dealing with 'Caerleon-ar-Dour' (Chester) to Caerleon without qualifying which one the old chronicles were referring to. Consequently, Stoker claims, historians have ever since been crediting, for example, Isca with having an archbishop since AD180 because a local boy in Monmouth had said so nine hundred years later.
Whatever the case, think of the still-magnificent old fortress when you go here to read Geoffrey's description of the coronation of King Arthur...

Throughout the centuries, as peoples came and went and wars were won and lost, Chester continued to gain increasing military, political and economic significance due to its position as the lowest bridging point of the River Dee, controlling a key route into North Wales and the main western route to northern England and to Scotland.
Its port early provided a major link in communications with Europe and Ireland, remaining for centuries the greatest seaport in Northern England until the disastrous silting of the Dee and the meteoric rise of the Port of Liverpool.

For centuries, Chester's walls knew little peace, but "echoed to to the clang of arms, the tramp of mailed feet and the din of warfare". Attacked, besieged and damaged, rebuilt and extended by Roman, Briton, Saxon, Welshman, Viking and Norman, Cavalier and Roundhead...
Thomas Pennant
remarked that the city seemed to have been a constant rendezvous of troops for every expedition on this side of the Kingdom from the time of the Normans to the final conquest of Ireland by William III.

Now go on to part II of our Introduction to Chester, check out the route map or go straight to the Northgate...

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