The History of Chester
As late as the 12th century William of Malmesbury still dubbed Chester: ‘The city of the legions,’ commemorating its foundation by the Romans . In about 70AD Legio II Adiutrix established a fort they named Deva, probably after the River Dee besides which the city stands; a decade later Legio XX Valeria Victrix garrisoned the place. Conjecture has it the extensive development of the settlement indicates it was intended to be the capital of the Romans’ Northern Province, rather than York /Eboracum: the amphitheatre was the largest in Britain; the fortress far larger than that at Eboracum. Deva was manned by the legions until the late 4th century, and perhaps even nearer to the time of their abandonment of the country. Though the Roman legions left a millennium and a half ago, much of the walls they raised still stand as testament to their labour.
What was Deva became Chester – derived from the Latin ‘Caster’, a fort - long after the Roman withdrawal. The site was probably occupied for a time by the Celts in the area, before the Saxons eventually displaced them, cementing this change by the Saxon victory over the Celts in a battle at Chester in 617AD. The town had no great significance, however, until the reign of Alfred the Great , when it became one of the network of ‘burghs’ established to defend against Danish attack – Chester had in fact been occupied by the Danes for a time in the last decade of the 9th century. As a burgh Chester had a market, which with the town’s port led to it becoming a centre of trade.
King Edgar supposedly declared himself King of the English in Chester, where he was holding court, six regional kings having declared their fealty to him there.
Chester suffered as William the Conqueror subdued his new kingdom, with many houses razed to the ground during the Harrying of the North in 1069. But the significance of the town was such that William had a castle constructed there and established an earldom – a prize for his nephew that also brought a responsibility to control the region. This consolidated Chester’s economic importance, with a weir and watermills soon built by the Normans .
Religious foundations were drawn to, and funded by, the economic prosperity of Chester: in 1092 the Benedictines established a monastery in the town; the 13th century saw the arrival of the Dominicans, Franciscans and Carmelites at a period when for once in its history Chester was a place of industry: the fur trade flourished there, the port bringing furs for processing from far and wide.
The walls of Chester, begun by the Romans, were added to with towers and improvements throughout the Middle Ages, a mark of its strategic location as a marcher stronghold against the constant threat of Welsh insurrection over the nearby border. Strange local legends about the relationship with Wales persist – it is erroneously said that it’s legal to shoot a Welshman with a bow and arrow within the town walls; and the Town Hall was built with three clock-faces rather than four, the Welsh side bare as some claim the people of Chester would not give the Welsh the time of day.
Chester was granted a charter by Henry VII , and his son and successor made it a bishopric in 1541. As a port Chester inevitably suffered more than its share of plague outbreaks: in 1349 the Black Death devastated the place; there were further epidemics in 1517, 1552, 1603, and 1605. And miserably after the sufferings of the Civil War the city was ravaged by the disease in relatively quick succession in 1647, 1650, and 1661.
In that Civil War Chester had been of great importance for Charles I , and was twice besieged by the Parliamentarians. The Battle of Rowton Heath in September 1645 saw the Royalist army defeated, partly because of Charles’s habitual indecisiveness; he suffered a personal blow with his cousin, the Earl of Lichfield, killed in the battle, but it also meant Charles had to flee knowing this last port in his power would inevitably fall to the Roundheads.
During the Commonwealth Chester became one of the great coaching cities, partly because it remained the great departure point for Ireland as it would until the end of the Georgian era – Jonathan Swift was one who regularly travelled that route via Chester. In the Middle Ages it had grown as a trading centre, still evidenced by the unique two-tiered medieval arcades of the Rows, albeit much rebuilt in later centuries: the bedrock lies only a few feet below the surface, making the digging of conventional storage-cellars for merchants very hard, so they built the ‘cellars’ partly above ground, and their shops above that. Trade burgeoned, but industry had not taken. The continual fight against the silting of the Dee did not help the city’s cause, and even the arrival of the canal system there in 1797 failed to bring much manufacturing beyond its traditional leather making and fur processing. During the Napoleonic Wars, however, shipbuilding thrived, with its ancillary rope-making; and the shot tower built in 1800 still stands as proof of the brief blossoming of lead processing then.
When the railways arrived in 1840 they brought not industry, but those fleeing its grime and noise. Chester was gentrified. The city’s first theatre had been established in 1773; shortly afterwards the castle underwent improvement and rebuilding, a fitting adornment for the place. In 1865 the Grosvenor Hotel was built to accommodate well-off visitors, and the following year Grosvenor Park was laid out to cater for their exercise. Such a place required a fitting civic centre, and this came in 1869 with the Venetian Gothic town hall.
Through the 20th century and into the current one it has kept and even added to its attractiveness, most notably with the renowned Chester Zoo opening in 1931. Following the line set in the Middle Ages and earlier Chester has continued to develop as a major retailing hub for its region, and an administrative centre as Cheshire’s county town.