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The North Wall

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

3. The Phoenix Tower

The Kaleyard Gate

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daffodils by the Phoenix TowerT
he Phoenix Tower is a much-restored medieval structure
standing on, or close to, the site of the original Roman North East Tower. Between here and the Northgate formerly stood two further interval towers, projecting inward from the wall. They were constructed and placed according to the specifications of Roman military architects such as Marcus Vitruvius Pollio who directed that towers should be round, to deflect missiles and the force of battering rams, and placed so as to be within bow-shot of each other. He also directed that a wall should be of such a thickness that two armed men could pass on top of it without impediment.

Vitruvius' works were the standard reference on building principles from Roman times right up to the 18th century and his was the second book- after the Bible- to roll off the printing presses of Gutenberg. Read the whole of his On Architecture on Bill Thayer's magnificent website at the University of Chicago here.

"The towers", wrote William Webb in the middle of the 17th century, "whereof there are divers upon the said walls, were, as I suppose, made to be watch towers in the day and lodging places in the night, and in the time of storms, for the watchmen that kept watch upon the walls in those times of danger, when they were so often besieged by armies of enemies, and in such perilous surprizes, though now some of them be converted to other uses".

In December 2009, the foundations of a previously-unknown Roman interval tower were discovered during archaeological investigations upon a section of the City Wall near the Grosvenor Precinct which had collapsed in the Spring of the previous year. Go here to learn more...

As late as 1571, Braun's map of Chester shows that the walls boasted no fewer than seventeen towers. Sadly, a mere handful survive today and of these, the Phoenix Tower is probably the best known.

phoenix carvingBy the mid-17th century, the tower was in a ruinous condition, but was nontheless taken on as the meeting place of two of the city guilds- the Company of Barber Surgeons, Tallow Chandlers and Wanchandlers, the other was that of the Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers & Stationers- on the understanding that they would put it in good order and subsequently maintain it. Because of the battering it had received during the Civil War siege, the upper parts of the tower had to be largely rebuilt.

The badge of the Painter's Guild was a phoenix and a fine carving of it by the heraldic artist and historian Randle Holme III was placed above the door to the lower chamber (illustrated left). He was paid 18 shillings for it, and 6 shillings was paid to the mason who fixed it in place. The rebuilding took place in 1658 and the stone was fixed in place at that time.

You may notice that under the now rather battered phoenix- one of its wings and a surrounding shield being now missing- the date 1613 is clearly visible. This records the date when the two companies first began their joint occupation of the tower, and not the date of its restoration. Randle Holme recorded that he was not actually paid for his labour until 1693- 35 years later!

He had been born in Chester in 1627 and was the most distinguished of the four persons who bore that name. He was a member of the Stationer's Company, and served it as an alderman for forty years, until his death in 1699. He is said to have been the first freemason in Chester, and in 1688 was appointed to the illustrious position of Sewer of the Chamber-in-Extraordinary to his Majesty, King Charles II.

The task of a sewer, we should explain, was that of food taster, the official who tested each of the dishes placed before the King to ensure they were of sufficient quality- and, one assumes, not poisoned! He was also responsible for serving the meal- inferior servants brought the food from the kitchen but the sewer placed the dishes before the King and removed them afterwards. A rather menial task for a favoured, high-ranking official, one may think, but nothing compared to such as the Groome of the Stoole, who was responsible for wiping the Royal bottom, inspecting the contents of the pan and consulting with the physician should anything seem amiss... Positions such as these meant that those so 'honoured' were closer to the King and had his ear (at the very least) on a daily basis and were thus considered most privileged.

phoenix tower from canalThe four generations of men bearing the name Randle Holme were,

• Randle (Randulph) Holme I (1571-1655). His father had been a blacksmith from Tranmere near Birkenhead. He became Sheriff of Cheshire and reputed deputy to the College of Arms for Cheshire, Shropshire and North Wales in 1615-1616, and was Mayor of Chester between 1633-1634. He is recorded as a painter (probably an heraldic painter) in the Stationers Company in Chester.

• Randle Holme II was Sheriff during his father's term as Mayor 1633-1634, and a royalist Alderman of Chester during the Civil War siege from 1643-1645.

• Randle Holme III (1627-1699. The one connected with the Phoenix Tower). In 1688 he wrote and illustrated the most comprehensive encyclopedia of everyday life of the English 17th century we posess today, "The Academy of Armory, or 'A storehouse of armory and blazon microform. Containing the several variety of created beings, and how born in coats of arms, both foreign and domestick. With the instruments used in all trades and sciences, together with their terms of art. Also the etymologies, definitions, and historical observations on the same, explicated and explained according to our modern language. Very usefel for all gentlemen, scholars, divines, and all such as desire any knowledge in arts and sciences'.

phoenix tower watercolourIt was said to have been one of the most voluminous and extraordinary books ever written, and the first book of quality to be printed in Chester. Actually, only Books one, two and some of Book three were actually printed by Holme at his house in Chester as the project eventually proved to be too expensive to complete. The rest of Book three and Book four had to wait until 1905 when they were finally published by an organisation of bibliophiles known as The Roxburghe Club.

• Randle Holme IV (1659-1707). He worked in partnership with his father, was Sheriff of Chester in 1705–06 and Deputy Herald. He married Margaret Lloyd from Llanarmon, Denbighshire, and had five children who all died young. He himself died, the last of his line, on 30 August 1707 and was buried at the church of St Mary's-on-the-Hill, Chester- as were his three predecessors. Their memorials can still be seen there today. Now deconsecrated, St. Mary's today serves as a fine education centre. Find out more about this remarkable family here.

Left (and below): a couple of fine watercolours of the Phoenix Tower, published as postcards. Note the horse-drawn barge on the towpath. Over the years, the towing ropes have left deep grooves in the sandstone at the base of the tower that can be seen to this day.

The Phoenix Tower was later also let to various of the other companies, including the barbers, coopers, butchers, weavers, joiners and clothworkers, and in this way became the headquarters of the city guilds. They held their meetings in the upper chamber, which was strewn with rushes and decorated with garlands of flowers at their annual meeting on the festival of St. Luke in October.

During the Civil War, the guilds met instead in Watergate Street, the Phoenix Tower being used for ordnance- a gun emplacement. Their carved crests, along with the old phoenix, were formerly displayed on the tower, but around 1810, they were replaced with the much-photographed plaque we see above the door today, together with a newly-carved phoenix. The sharp-eyed may notice that the two phoenixes on the tower are of different varieties: the Holme bird is based on the Painter-Stainers' 'Chinese Phoenix', first used in a 1486 crest, and the later bird in the peak above the upper chamber door is the standard heraldic device of a 'demi-eagle, wings displayed, issuant from flames'.
phoenix tower postcard
I will now tell you a little of the great events the commemorative plaque commemorates.

King Charles
The Phoenix Tower was, in earlier times, generally known as the Newton Tower, that being the name of the suburb overlooked from the wall at this point, and, more notably, later as the King Charles Tower to commemorate the events of September 1645, during the English Civil War, when King Charles I, together with the mayor, Sir Francis Gamul, stood on the roof and witnessed the rout of his army by Parliamentary forces after the Battle of Rowton Moor (or Rowton Heath). The inscription upon the tower states:


Actually, it would have been impossible to see the field of battle from here- what they probably witnessed was later action on Hoole Heath and fugitives from the fray being pursued and harried through the eastern suburbs.

From the first, Chester had supported the King's cause and now, with his last remaining army, he had hurried to the relief of its garrison. Charles, with a strong bodyguard, had entered the city across the Old Dee Bridge from Wales on the 23rd September while his main force closed from the Cheshire side.

On the following morning, it was surprised by a Parliamentary army at Rowton Moor, two and a half miles south east of Chester. In the fierce engagement which followed, the Royalists were overcome but rallied on Hoole Heath, (now the site of the pleasant residential suburb where these words are being written)- one and a half miles east of the Phoenix Tower.

Here again, they were defeated. In the words of a witness, they were "as much dispersed as the greatest rout could produce..."

phoenix tower 1860Much of this was seen by the King from where he stood, but, wishing for a better view, "he removed to St. Werburgh's steeple (the Cathedral tower) where, as he was talking with a captaine, a bullet from St. John's gave him a salute, narrowly missing the King, hit the said captaine in the head, who died in the place".

You may just see the tower of St. John the Baptist's Church (lying between the Phoenix Tower and the Cathedral, just to the right of the tall tree) in the background of this handsome 1860 illustration. But not, sadly, any more in reality, for it fell down on Good Friday 1881, the weight of the Parliamentary guns mounted high up in the tower and the shock of their explosions no doubt contributing greatly to its eventual collapse. Only its still-impressive base, rising to a height of around twenty feet, remains with us today.

The lovely Norman church itself- once Chester's first cathedral when our current one was an abbey full of monks- although sorely abused during the conflict, survived and should be considered an essential place to visit when you come to Chester.

(The picture predates Scott's restoration and 'improvement' of the Cathedral in 1868-76, when the ornamental spires and towers we are familiar with today were added. And this remarkable aerial view- a detail from John McGahey's famous View of Chester from a Balloon shows the area around the Phoenix Tower as it appeared around the same time). In addition, here is an interesting watercolour of the tower as it appeared in 1885.

The Battle of Rowton Moor ended Charles' military career and from thenceforth he was a fugitive. After spending the night at the house of the Mayor in Lower Bridge Street (the splendid Gamul House, which now houses a unique public house, The Brewery Tap), he fled from Chester the following day with 500 horsemen, en route for Denbigh Castle.

The dastard Charles, careless of renown,
Stood here and saw his army overthrown.
A British Prince, to basely run away
From heroes, slaughtered in his cause that day!

Before leaving, he advising the citizens to hold out for a further ten days before honorably surrendering. In fact, they endured the siege for a further four months, until January 1646, having been brought by necessity to a diet of vermin, horseflesh and pet animals. These privations doubtless contributed greatly to the great plague of 1647/8 when "2000 persons died and the city became so deserted that grass grew high in the street at the High Cross".

A little more than three years later, on Tuesday, January 30th 1649, just over three hundred and fifty years ago, a vast gathering of people stood in the snow before the Palace of Whitehall in London to see a man in a mask sever, at one blow, the King's head from his body, and, holding it up before them, exclaim, "This is the head of a traitor".

Right: a fine 19th century view of the Phoenix Tower by the famous watercolourist Louise Rayner. This is actually one of the monochrome photographs she had commissioned from her paintings as an additional source of income.
See much more of Louise's evocative Chester work here..

A stained glass window, in the Barnston chapel of St. Chad's Church, Farndon depicts a number of those who participated in the Siege of Chester, and provides an interesting illustration of the costume and arms of the period. Farndon- and Holt, across the river- are beautiful villages connected by an ancient stone bridge, itself the scene of Civil War skirmishes, just a few miles from Chester and well worth visiting if you can.

I can also recommend, if you can find it, Norman Tucker's novel Master of the Field (Brian Beveridge Ltd Chester: 1949, but unfortunately no longer in print)- a wonderful evocation of our city and its people during these stirring events of so long ago.

The Chester guide and author Joseph Hemingway, writing in his Panorama of the City of Chester of 1836, says of the vicinity of the Phoenix Tower, "We cannot but observe that this portion of the circuit of the walls is remarkably pleasant. On the left hand are seen the Cathedral, Abbey Street and Square, the Dean's Field and mansion, and Abbey Green, with a row of genteel houses; and on the right, towards the centre of the county... are the Broxton and Peckforton hills, the old castle of Beeston, rising in the clouds, the shattered battlements and ruined fragments of which are perceptible to the naked eye on a clear day".

press clipping 1903"Inclining more to the left, the eye skims the ancient forest of Delamere... till at last, in the same direction, the interesting landscape terminates by a distinct view of the bold and precipitate hill of Helsby....

The intermediate scenery is most rich and various, forming a level vale, with very slight declivity. Here may be viewed the church of Waverton and the church and village of Christleton, with the thickly-studded mansions of Littleton, Vicar's Cross, Hoole and Newton. Still nearer is seen the beautiful hamlet of Flookersbrook (close to where these words are being written) , abounding in neatly-built modern dwellings, to which, if the epithet elegant be not admitted, the term comfortable is very appropriate".

Left: this sad little story appeared in the long-defunct Chester Courant in January 1903

Today, this view from the City Walls is considerably curtailed, thanks to a combination of mature trees and tall buildings.

In 1854, Mr Benjamin Huxley rented the top floor of the Phoenix Tower at a rent of 2s 6d per annum, on condition that "he only use it as an observatory".

phoenix tower engravingThis interesting 18th century drawing of the tower records the erection of the first handrail on the inner face of the walls ( the city wall of York bear no such protection to this day) - as part of their restoration after the long battering during the Civil War. Also to be seen is a mysterious extension resembling a stone-built arbour on the far side of the tower, of which no apparent trace remains today.

However, on looking over the parapet, the base of this structure is visible. In 1697, the great astronomer Edmond Halley- he of comet fame- sat on this very spot and observed a rare triple rainbow:
"On the Sixth Day of August last, in the Evening, between Six and Seven of the Clock, I went to take the air upon the Walls of Chester, when I was surprized by a sudden shower, which forced me to take shelter in a Nich that afforded me a seat in the Wall, near the North East Corner thereof. As I sat there, I observed an Iris, exceedingly vivid, as to its Colours, at first on the South Side only, but in a little time with an entire arch..."

A double rainbow is quite common, but the third rainbow is actually around the sun and is very difficult to see. Halley's third rainbow was of a different type- the water in the Dee estuary was calm enough to act as a mirror, producing an image of the sun below the horizon. The third rainbow was the primary rainbow from the image of the sun, as Halley concluded. So intrigued was he that he later went on to investigate the mathematical details of rainbows.

Halley spent two years in charge the mint at Chester Castle. This had been set up in 1696 as part of an effort to completely renew the nation's currency, and the man in charge in London was one Isaac Newton (later knighted for these efforts, but not for his science) and he used his influence to gain Halley the appointment. After leaving the mint at Chester, Halley was given the command of a warship, the Paramore Pink, by King William III. This was not as strange as it sounds, for Halley had been working on determining the longitude using variation of the compass and this was the main purpose of the voyage, although he was also required by the king to "attempt the discovery of what land lies to the south of the western ocean"...

Left: a visitor poses for his photograph in the upper doorway of the Phoenix Tower in 1869. A sign on the walkway advertises a museum within. No such institution exists there today.

Halley had examined reports of a comet approaching Earth in 1531, 1607 and 1682. He concluded that these three comets were actually the same comet returning over and over again, and predicted the comet would come again in 1758 but he did not live to see it as he died in 1742. You can read more of his remarkable life at here and learn more of his impressions of Chester here.

On the subject of mints, Britain's currency- and also the coinage and banknotes of many other countries- is today produced at only one location, The Royal Mint at Pontyclun in South Wales.

In 1978, extensive repairs were carried out on the Phoenix Tower, when all the roof slates, leadwork and guttering were renewed and a new weathervane, representing a phoenix rising from the flames, was provided.
phoenix tower today
The tower's whitewashed interior has a remarkable atmosphere that is well worth experiencing. It had long been used as a museum, and, until a few years ago, housed a fascinating exhibition depicting events during the English Civil War in Chester, including 17th century armour, pottery and musket balls, and on the upper floor, a map of the Rowton Moor battlefield and several detailed miniature reconstructions of the key events of the siege.

Right: the Phoenix Tower in 2014, freshly-restored with its new viewing platform.

All of this has sadly gone now and the tower lies bare of exhibits. At the time of this update it sadly appears that, as with the Watertower on the diagonally-opposite corner of the Chester's circuit of walls, the Phoenix Tower is likely to remain mostly closed to visitors for the forseeable future due to a "funding shortage", and the only times they can be visited now are on special, and infrequent, 'Heritage Open Days"....

In December 2012, work commenced upon a radical restoration of the Phoenix Tower, designed to eradicate a number of serious structural problems and also, hopefully, prepare the building to once again welcome visitors. It had been discovered that the ancient structure was 'spreading', leading to the danger that the roof may fall into the tower's interior. This was cured by the addition of a specially-crafted steel reinforcing structure cleverly hidden within the building's interior.

In addition, the stonework was cleaned and repointed, the doors were replaced and a new viewing platform, visible in our recent photograph, was constructed at the angle of the City Walls in front of the tower. By the Autumn, work was completed but, several months later, there remains little of the tower re-opening to visitors..

Now we will now continue our wanderings by turning the corner of the City Walls and making our way south toward the Kaleyard Gate...

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 4

  • 1115 The greater part of Chester was destroyed by fire. This happened again in 1118, when, as the monk Bradshaw wrote, "The Monastery of St. Michael (near today's Pepper Street) by the great fire which happened on Midlent Sunday at eight of the clock, when all were in church, was consumed, along with the greatest part of the city". Major fires also occured in 1140, 1180, 1278, 1471 and 1494
  • chester guided walks1120 Richard, second Earl of Chester, his Wife Maud and the Princes William and Richard (the sons of King Henry I) were drowned in the Candida Novis- the White Ship- along with many English courtiers and noblemen, on a return journey from Normandy. It is said that the Master of the ship had told the King that his father had carried Henry's father (William the Conqueror) when he came to fight King Harold, and begged for the honour of ferrying King Henry and his retinue back to England. The King declined, saying he had already chosen another vessel, but said he would be pleased to allow his two sons and many of the nobility to sail with her. The crew were so delighted at this honour that they asked the King to give them three hogsheads of wine- which he did- and consequently they all became hopelessly drunk and unable to control the ship, which foundered on rocks with the loss of about 300 lives- only one man surviving. Soon after, Hugh Lupus' nephew, Ranulf le Meschin, became the third Earl of Chester. One of his first acts was to order all nearby Wirral farms and settlements to be destroyed, the boundaries of the Wirral Hundred to be removed, and the greater part of the Hundred to be planted out as a Royal forest. Chester's population around 2,500
  • 1121 Ranulf le Meschin becomes fourth Earl of Chester (-1129) William becomes second Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1140). Southern section of the City Walls built around this time.
  • 1129 Earl Meschin died and was succeeded by Ranulph de Gernon (-1153)
  • 1135 King Henry I died, after a reign of 35 years, to be succeeded by his nephew- and the Conqueror's grandson- Stephen of Boulogne.
  • 1141 Ralph becomes third Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1157)
  • 1144 The Liber de Compositione Alchemiae or the "The Book of the Composition of Alchemy" is believed to have been the first book on alchemy that was translated from Arabic into Latin. The translator was the Englishman Robert of Chester who was one of the earliest translators to flock to Spain to learn Arabic and to translate some of the Arabic works. He completed his translation on 11 February, 1144.
  • 1146 Poulton Abbey near Chester was founded, followed the next year by the nunnery of St. Mary's.
  • c 1150-1200 Western sector of the City Walls built.
  • 1153 4th Earl of Chester Randle Gernon was poisoned "by witchcraft"- supposedly by William Peverel, Earl of Nottingham. Hugh of Kevelioc becomes 5th Earl (-1181)
  • 1154 King Stephen died and was succeeded by Henry II (1133-1189). From now until 1485 the House of Plantagenet rules England
  • 1154-1159 Pope Hadrian IV, Nicolas Breakspeare- the only English pope
  • 1156 Henry brought his army to Chester and camped on Saltney Marsh en route to Wales to disarm a force led by Owain Gwynedd (1100-1170). The following year he returned to Chester to receive the homage of Malcolm IV, King of Scotland.
  • 1157 Robert Fitz-Nigel becomes fourth Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1174)
  • 1164 Henry's forces here again with the intention of invading North Wales, but the plan was abandoned at the last minute and the army disbanded. The earliest City Charter dates from this year- Henry II confirmed the trading rights which the burgesses of Chester had enjoyed in Dublin under his grandfather, Henry I. It was an indication of the growing importance of Chester's port.

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