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History of Chester

Chester began when the Romans built a fort next to the River Dee about 75 AD. The Roman fort was called Deva. At first the fort was made of wood. It had a ditch outside and an earth embankment with a wooden palisade on top. At the beginning of the 2nd century parts of the fort were rebuilt in stone. Soon a civilian settlement grew up outside the fort at Chester. The soldiers provided a market for the civilian’s goods. In Roman Chester there were the same craftsmen found all over the empire such as potters, bakers, butchers, carpenters and blacksmiths. Roman Chester was also a busy little port and luxuries such as wine and finely made pottery were imported. In Roman Chester there was a large amphitheatre were people were entertained by gladiators or by cruel ‘sports’ such as cock fighting and bear baiting. However in the 4th century Roman civilisation began to break down. In England people drifted away from the towns like Chester and they were left almost or wholly abandoned.

Saxon Chester

What happened to Chester after the Romans left is not known for certain. There may have been a small number of people living within the walls of the old town, farming the land outside. After the Romans left, England and Wales split into rival kingdoms. Chester probably lay within a northern Welsh kingdom. However the Saxons invaded eastern England and pushed westwards. By the 7th century they had reached Cheshire. About 617 AD a battle was fought at Chester between the Welsh and the Saxons. The Saxons won and Chester fell into their hands. The Saxons gave Chester its name. They called any group of Roman buildings a ceaster. In time this was corrupted to Chester.

In the 9th century the Danes invaded England. In the winter of 893/94 a Danish army made use of the old Roman fort. They wintered there and were besieged by Alfred the Great. In the early 10th century Chester was made into a burgh or fortified settlement. The Saxons had a policy of creating burghs across their kingdom as strongholds in case of Danish attack. Streets were laid out in Chester and people were encouraged to come and live there. Soon Chester was a flourishing little town with a mint and a weekly market. Chester was also a port. Wine was imported from France and Spain. Food was brought from Ireland and livestock from Wales. Chester was a thriving little town with a population of about 2,000.

Chester in the Middle Ages

In 1069 the north of England rebelled against William the Conqueror. In retaliation he carried out the ‘harrying of the north’. In Chester more than 200 houses were destroyed. In 1070 William built a wooden castle at Chester to hold the inhabitants in check. In the 13th century it was rebuilt in stone. In 1092 a weir was built across the Dee. On both sides of the Dee watermills ground grain to flour. In 1071 King William made a man named William of Avranches Earl of Chester. The Earl had control of the town. However from 1301 the kings oldest son was the Earl of Chester. Chester thrived in the early Middle Ages. It still imported luxuries like wine and traded with places like Ireland and North Wales. In Chester the main industry was leather. There were skinners and tanners. There were also glovers, shoemakers and saddlers. Some wool was also woven in the town and exported. Chester had an annual fair. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year. People would come from all over Cheshire to buy and sell at a Chester fair.

In the Middle Ages craftsmen dug cellars under their houses and sold their wares from a room at the front of the house. In Chester the bedrock is only a short distance under the soil so ‘cellars’ were built at least partly above ground. Craftsmen sold goods from balconies on the first floor. This is the origin of the Chester Rows. The Kaleyard gate was built in 1274 so that monks could reach the yard where they grew kale. The Water Tower was built in 1322. In the late Middle Ages Chester may have had a population of about 4,000 (although a great many people died in the Black Death of 1349). However in the 15th century the port of Chester declined as the river Dee silted up. In 1092 the Saxon church of St Werburgh was converted into an abbey. Then in the mid 12th century a nunnery was built in Chester. In the 13th century the friars arrived in Chester. Friars were like monks but instead of withdrawing from the world they went out to preach. There were 3 orders of friars in Chester. The Dominicans arrived in 1236. They were known as black friars because of their black costumes. Franciscans or grey friars followed them in 1237. Lastly the Carmelites of white friars came to Chester by 1277. In the Middle Ages the church founded ‘hospitals’. There were 3 of them at Chester including St Leonard’s, a leper hostel about 1 mile from the town. Like all Medieval towns Chester suffered outbreaks of fire. This was a constant hazard as most buildings were made of wood with thatched roofs. There were fires in Chester in 1115 and 1278.

Chester in the 16th and 17th Century

In 1506 Henry VII gave Chester a great charter. It was made a county in its own right separate from the rest of Cheshire. In 1538 Henry VIII closed the friaries in Chester. In 1540 he closed the nunnery and the abbey and in 1541 Chester abbey was made a cathedral. In the 16th and 17th centuries Chester was known for its leather industry. There was also still a wool industry. The wool was woven then fulled. In other words it was pounded in clay and water to clean and thicken it. The wool was pounded by wooden hammers worked by watermills on the Dee. The port thrived although the Dee was no longer navigable as far as Chester and ships had to embark from downriver. Chester remained an important market town. In the early Middle Ages there was only one weekly market but by the 17th century there were several specialised markets in Chester. Like all towns in those days Chester suffered from outbreaks of plague. There were epidemics in 1517, 1552, 1603 and 1605. Nevertheless Chester grew rapidly and may have had a population of about 7,000 by 1600. Stanley Palace was built in 1591 and from 1609 horse races were held on the Roodee.

In 1642 came civil war between king and parliament. The people of Chester supported the king and earthwork defences were erected around the town to protect the suburbs that had grown up outside the walls. Parliamentary troops attacked Chester in July 1643 but they were beaten back and retreated. However in July 1644 the king lost the battle of Marston Moor. In November a parliamentary army laid siege to Chester. The siege lasted for 6 months until May 1645. At that time the parliamentary troops were needed elsewhere and withdrew. In September 1645 the king came with an army to Chester. The parliamentarians approached Chester and the royalists went out to meet them but they defeated at Rowton Moor. He is said to have watched the battle from Phoenix Tower, which was renamed King Charles Tower. The king then retreated and left Chester to its own devices. The parliamentarians laid siege to Chester once again. The people stubbornly fought on although the parliamentary troops fired cannons over the walls damaging many buildings in Chester. However the royalists were now losing the war and it was only a matter of time before Chester surrendered. Finally in February 1646 the people of Chester bowed to the inevitable and gave in. However in 1647 there was a severe outbreak of plague in Chester. It returned in 1650 and 1661. In 1650 9 almshouses were built in Chester. However only 6 remain. Gods Providence House was built in 1652.