1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Chester (England)

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CHESTER, an episcopal city and county of a city, municipal, county and parliamentary borough, and the county town of Cheshire, England, 179 m. N.W. of London. Pop. (1901) 38,309. It lies in a low plain on the Dee, principally on the north (right) bank, 6 m. above the embouchure of the river into its wide, shallow estuary. It is an important railway centre, the principal lines serving it being the London & North-Western, Great Western, Cheshire Lines and Great Central. The city is divided into four principal blocks by the four principal streets—Northgate Street, Eastgate Street, Bridge Street and Watergate Street, which radiate at right angles from the Cross, and terminate in the four gates. These four streets exhibit in what are called “the Rows” a characteristic feature of the city. Their origin is a mystery, and has given rise to much controversy. In Eastgate Street, Bridge Street and Watergate Street, the Rows exist on each side of the street throughout the greater part of its length, and may be described as continuous galleries open to the street, over and under which the houses lining the streets project, and which are formed as it were out of the front first-floor of the houses, approached by flights of steps from the roadway. The Rows are flagged or boarded under foot and ceiled above, thus forming a covered way, standing in the same relation to the shops, which are at their back, as the foot pavement does in other towns. In Northgate Street, on the other hand, the Row on the west side is formed as it were out of the ground floor of the houses, having cellars beneath, while on the east side the Row is formed at the same elevation as in the other three principal streets. In these streets are several examples of old timbered houses and some good modern imitations of them,—all combining to give a picturesque and individual character to the city. Among the most interesting of the ancient houses are Derby House, bearing the date 1591, Bishop Lloyd’s house, and God’s Providence House in Watergate Street, and the Bear and Billet in Lower Bridge Street; the three last date from the 17th century. There is also a chamber with stone groined roof of the 14th century in the basement of a house in Eastgate Street, and another of a similar character in Watergate Street. A mortuary chapel of the early part of the 13th century exists in the basement of a house in Bridge Street.

Chester is the only city in England that still possesses its walls perfect in their entire circuit of 2 m. The gateways have all been rebuilt at various dates; the north and east gates on the site of the Roman gates. The Grosvenor bridge, a single span of stone 200 ft. in length, said to be the largest save one in Europe, carries the road to Wrexham and Shrewsbury over the Dee on the south-west; while the old bridge of seven arches is interesting on account of its antiquity and picturesqueness. The castle, with the exception of “Caesar’s Tower,” and a round tower with adjacent buildings, in the upper ward, was taken down towards the end of the 18th century, and replaced by a gateway, barracks, county hall, gaol and assize courts.

The cathedral church of Christ and the Virgin Mary, which stands towards the north of the city within the walls, rose on the site of a church of extreme antiquity. It appears that the dedication of this church was altered, perhaps in the reign of Athelstan, from St. Peter and St Paul to St Werburgh and St Oswald, St Werburgh being a niece of St Etheldreda of Ely. In 1093 Hugh Lupus, earl of Chester, richly endowed the foundation as a Benedictine monastery. The bishops of Mercia had apparently a seat at Chester, but the city had ceased to be episcopal, until in 1075 Peter, bishop of Lichfield, removed his seat thence to Chester, having for his cathedral the collegiate church of St John. The seat of the see, however, was quickly removed again to Coventry (1102), but Cheshire continued subject to Lichfield until in 1541 Chester was erected into a bishopric by Henry VIII., the church of the dissolved abbey of St Werburgh becoming the cathedral. The diocese covers nearly the whole of Cheshire, with very small portions of Lancashire and Staffordshire. The cathedral does not rank among the most splendid English churches, but possesses certain details of the highest interest, and gains in beauty from the tones of its red sandstone walls and the picturesque close in which it stands. It is cruciform with a central tower 127 ft. high. The south transept is larger than the north. The nave is short (145 ft.), being of six bays; the southern arcade is Decorated, while the northern, which differs in detail, is of uncertain date. The basement of the north-western tower—all that remains of it, now used as a baptistery—is Norman, and formed part of Hugh Lupus’ church; and the fabric of the north wall is also of this period. The north transept also retains Norman work, and its size shows the original plan, as the existence of the conventual buildings to the north probably rendered its extension undesirable. The south transept has aisles, with Decorated and Perpendicular windows. The fine organ stands on a screen across the north transept; but some of its pipes are upon the choir screen, both screens being the work of Sir Gilbert Scott. The style of the choir is transitional from Early English to Decorated, and its length is 125 ft. It is a fine example, and its beauty is enhanced by the magnificent series of ancient carved wooden stalls unsurpassed in England. The Lady Chapel, east of the choir, is of rich Early English workmanship. Of the conventual buildings the cloisters are Perpendicular. The chapter-house, entered by a beautiful vestibule from the east cloister, and lined with cases containing the chapter library, is Early English (c. 1240). The refectory, adjoining the north cloister, is of the same period, with Perpendicular insertions; it has been curtailed in size, but retains its beautiful Early English lector’s pulpit. An early Norman chamber, with massive pillars and vaulting, adjoins the west cloister, and may be the substructure of the abbot’s house. The abbey gateway is of the 14th century.

Within the walls there are several churches of ancient foundation; thus St Peter’s is said to occupy the site of a church erected by Æthelflæd, queen of Mercia, and St Mary’s dates from the 12th century. None, however, is of any special interest; but the church of St John, outside the walls, which as already stated became the cathedral in 1075, is a massive early Norman structure, with later additions, and, especially as regards the exterior, considerably restored in modern times. Its fine tower fell in 1881. It was a collegiate church until 1547, and there are some remains of the adjoining buildings. Among numerous modern churches there may be mentioned St Mary’s without the walls, built in 1887 by the duke of Westminster, of red sandstone, with a fine spire and peal of bells.

Among the chief secular buildings, the town hall replaced in 1869 the old exchange, which had been burnt down in 1862. The Grosvenor Museum and School of Art, the foundation of which was suggested by Charles Kingsley the novelist, when canon of Chester cathedral, contains many local antiquities, along with a fine collection of the fauna of Cheshire and the neighbourhood. The King’s school was founded by Henry VIII. (1541), who provided that twenty-four poor scholars should be taught free of cost. It was reorganized as a public school in 1873, and possesses twelve king’s scholarships tenable in the school, and close scholarships tenable at the universities. Among other schools may be mentioned the blue-coat school (1700), the Queen’s school for girls (1878), the girls’ school attached to the Roman Catholic convent, and the diocesan training college for schoolmasters. For recreation provision is made by the New Grosvenor Park, presented to the city in 1867 by the marquess of Westminster; Handbridge Park, opened in 1892; and the Roodee, a level tract by the river at the base of the city wall, appropriated as a race-course. An annual race-meeting is held in May and attendedby thousands. The chief event is the race for the Chester Cup, which dates from 1540, when a silver bell was given as the prize by the Saddlers’ Company. Pleasure vessels ply on the Dee in summer, and an annual regatta is held, at which all the principal northern rowing-clubs are generally represented. The town gains in prosperity from its large number of visitors. The principal industries are carried on without the walls, where there are lead, shot and paint works, leather and tobacco factories, and iron foundries. The trade gilds number twenty-four. There is a considerable amount of shipping on the Dee, the navigation having been much improved in modern times. The parliamentary borough returns one member. The municipal council consists of a mayor, 10 aldermen and 30 councillors. Area, 2862 acres.

History.—Setting aside the numerous legends with regard to the existence of a British city on the site now occupied by Chester, the earliest authentic information relating to its history is furnished by the works of Ptolemy and Antoninus. As the Roman station of Deva it was probably founded about A.D. 48 by Ostorius Scapula, and from its advantageous position, both as the key to communication with Ireland and as a bulwark against the hostile tribes of the north, it became a military and commercial centre of considerable importance. In A.D. 78–79 it was the winter-quarters of Agricola, and later became illustrious as the permanent headquarters of Legio XX. Valeria Victrix. Many inscriptions and remains of the Roman military occupation have been found, and the north and east walls stand in great part on Roman foundations. The Saxon form of the name was Leganceaster. About 614 the city was captured and destroyed by Æthelfrith, and henceforth lay in ruins until Æthelflæd in 907 rebuilt the walls, restored the monastery of St Werburgh, and made the city “nigh two such as it was before.” In the reign of Æthelstan a mint was set up at Chester, and in 973 it was the scene of Edgar’s truimph when, it is said, he was rowed on the Dee by six subject kings. Chester opposed a determined resistance to the Conqueror, and did not finally surrender until 1070. On the erection of Cheshire to a county palatine after the Conquest, Chester became the seat of government of the palatine earls. The Domesday account of the city includes a description of the Saxon laws under which it had been governed in the time of Edward the Confessor. All the land, except the bishop’s borough, was held of the earl, and assessed at fifty hides. There were seven mint-masters and twelve magistrates, and the city paid a fee-farm rent of £45. It had been much devastated since the time of Edward the Confessor, and the number of houses reduced by 205.

The earliest extant charter, granted by Henry II. in 1160, empowered the burgesses to trade with Durham as freely as they had done in the reign of Henry I. From this date a large collection of charters enumerates privileges granted by successive earls and later sovereigns. One from Ralph or Ranulf de Blundevill, granted between 1190 and 1211, confirms to the citizens a gild merchant and all liberties and free customs, and three from John protect their privilege of trading with Ireland. Edward I. empowered the citizens to elect coroners and to hold courts of justice, and granted them the fee-farm of the city at a yearly rent of £100. In the 14th century Chester began to lose its standing as a port through the gradual silting up of the estuary of the Dee, and the city was further impoverished by the inroads of the Welsh and by the necessity of rebuilding the Dee bridge, which had been swept away by an unusually high tide. In consideration of these misfortunes Richard II. remitted part of the fee-farm. Continued misfortunes led to a further reduction of the farm to £50 for a term of fifty years by Henry VI., who also made a grant for the completion of a new Dee bridge. Henry VII. reduced the fee-farm to £20, and in 1506 granted to the citizens what is known as “the Great Charter.” This charter constituted the city a county by itself, and incorporated the governing body under the style of a mayor, twenty-four aldermen and forty common councilmen; it also instituted two sheriffs, two coroners and a recorder, and the mayor, the ex-mayors and the recorder were appointed justices of the peace. This charter was confirmed by James I. and Charles II. A charter of George III. in 1804 instituted the office of deputy-mayor. The charter of Hugh Lupus to the abbey of St Werburgh includes a grant of the tolls of the fair at the feast of St Werburgh for three days, and a subsequent charter from Ranulf de Blundevill (12th century) licensed the abbot and monks to hold their fairs and markets before the abbey gates. A charter of John the Scot, earl of Chester, mentions fairs at the feasts of the Nativity of St John Baptist and St Michael. For many centuries the rights claimed by the abbot in connexion with the fairs gave rise to constant friction with the civic authorities, which lasted until, in the reign of Henry VIII., it was decreed that the right of holding fairs was vested exclusively in the citizens. Charles II. in 1685 granted a cattle-fair to be held on the first Thursday in February.

In 1553 Chester first returned two members to parliament, having hitherto been represented solely in the parliament of the palatinate. By the Redistribution Act of 1885 the representation was reduced to one member. The trades of tanners, skinners and glove-makers existed at the time of the Conquest, and the importation of marten skins is mentioned in Domesday. In the 14th century the woollen trade was considerable, and in 1674 weavers and wool-combers were introduced into Chester from Norwich. The restoration of the channel of the Dee opened up a flourishing trade in Irish linen, which in 1786 was at its height, but from that date gradually diminished.

See Victoria County History, Cheshire; R. H. Morris, Chester in the Plantagenet and Tudor Reigns (Chester, 1894); Joseph Hemingway, History of the City of Chester (2 vols., Chester, 1831).