Certainly, it occupies a large central area within the former Roman fortress of Devaand substantial traces of this doubtlessly still lie beneath the present building, even including, it is conjectured, remains of a Roman temple dedicated to Apollo. And, in the words of the 19th century Chester guide and author Thomas Hughes, "that this temple had itself supplanted a still older fane of the superstitious Druids".
The later continuous occupation of the site for well over a thousand years by a succession of church, abbey and cathedral buildings has, however, understandably prevented attempts to substantiate these claims.
According to Henry Bradshaw, a 16th century Chester monk and scholar, Christianity was introduced here in about AD140 by Lucius, King of the Britons. This is entirely unproven, but King Lucius certainly existed and is mentioned by Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth.
Contemporary opinion places the coming of Christianity to Britain to c. AD175-200 and it seems certain that missionaries would early on have found their way to the fortress of Deva, home as it was to a cosmopolitan population of soldiers, sailors, merchants and others hailing from all parts of the vast Roman Empire. Just when and where they erected their first church we have no idea, indeed, a permanent building may not have appeared at all until after the abandonment of the fortress by the Legions early in the 5th century. Recognising the inherent power of ancient Pagan sites and the reverence in which they were held by the people, the early Christians commonly utilised them for their new churches, and an abandoned temple here in the heart of the old fortress would doubtless have qualified as such a prestigious location. We know that other ancient Chester ecclesiastical foundations were founded upon the sites of less venerated structures such as abandoned Roman gatehouses- St. Michael's in Bridge Street
Evidence of the practice of reoccupying ancient holy sites can be found in a letter from Pope Gregory to Abbot Mellitius (dated to 601 AD) asking him to help Augustine with the conversion of the Anglo Saxons:
"We wish you to inform him that we have been giving careful thought to affairs of the English, and have come to the conclusion that the temples of the idols among that people should on no account be destroyed. The idols are to be destroyed, but the temples themselves are to be aspersed with holy water, alters set up in them, and relics deposited there. For these temples are well-built, they must be purified from the worship of demons and dedicated to the service of the true God. In this way, we hope that the people, seeing that their temples are not destroyed, may abandon their error and, flocking more readily to their accustomed resorts, may come to know and adore the true God."
Bede, who wrote his great History of the English Church and People at Jarrow in remotest Wearside in North East England in the first half of the eighth century, during the so-called Dark Ages, also recorded that, "In the same persecution suffered Aaron and Julius, citizens of the City of the Legions" ( that being the meaning of Chester's name).
So far, very much is romantic conjecture but what is certain is that, around the year 690, the Anglo-saxon princess Werburgh (also here), daughter of Wulfhere, King of Mercia, and grand-daughter of King Penda, after "a life of pious works", died and was buried at Hanbury in Staffordshire. Not much more is now known about her, beyond her royal liniage, her reputation for sanctity and her powerful connections, with several sainted aunts and a revered grandmother, St. Sexburgh.
The author of the 1792 Chester Directory wrote of her early life: "Werburgh... who, the good wives of the present day will wonder to hear, took the veil after living for three years with her husband, Ceolredus, in a state of vestal purity! Whether the chaste lady's immaculacy was was more ascribable to a constitutional coldness or to a spiritual heat, historians have not been kind enough to inform us; nor even have they vouchsafed to say what sort of a man her husband was..."
A few years after her death, her body was found to be "miraculously uncorrupted" and her tomb became an object of veneration. But, a century and a half later, around 875, an invading Danish army advancing upon nearby Repton ("The historic capital of Mercia") made it necessary for the Saint's remains to be moved to a place of safety. The nuns made for the famous walled city of Chester and re-interred their charge in a Saxon church dedicated to St. Peter and St. Paul, which had been founded by Werburgh's father Wulfhere around AD660, possibly incorporating parts of the old Roman temple.
Not a trace of the Saxon church where Werburgh was laid to rest remains visible above ground today, although excavations during the recent replacement of the nave floor revealed stonework which may have formed part of it.
When the mortal remains of Saint Werburgh was brought to Chester, they were put into a casket which was eventually, around 1340, housed in a beautiful and ornate carved shrine. Upon the efficacy of this shrine and its relics, the church was to gain a considerable- and exceedingly lucrative- reputation as a place of pilgrimage.
Henry Bradshaw (died 1513), a monk of the Abbey whom wrote a famous life of the saint, claimed that the shrine had been responsible for miraculous interventions that had saved Chester in times of peril. For example, when the Welsh under King Gruffydd besieged the city, the shrine was lifted up onto the battlements; as soon as the King looked upon it, he was struck blind and the siege was abandoned.
The presence of the saint was given as the reason the Abbey was untouched when much of Chester was destroyed by a succession of disastrous fires.
The shrine, once brightly painted and containing a jewel-encrusted casket housing the relics of the saint, was broken up on the order of Henry VIII at the reformation when the Abbey itself was dissolved, and parts of it were actually incorporated into the fabric of a grand throne constructed soon after for the new Bishop. In 1876, its scattered portions, as many as could be found, were re-assembled by one of the cathedral's restorers, Sir A. W. Blomfield, and today the understandably battered-looking result stands in the Lady Chapel. It no longer houses the bones of Werburgh however, and nobody now knows what became of them.
In the time of King Aethelstan, around AD 975, a monastery was founded here and dedicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald. In 1057, Leofric, Earl of Mercia, largely rebuilt the church and gave land for the support of the foundation.
(The finest Norman ecclesiastical architecture in Chester, however, is to be seen in the wonderful building we are to visit later in our stroll: the Church of St. John the Baptist)
In 1101, after a lifetime of excess, Hugh the Wolf, oppressor of the people and father of numerous illegitiate children, having over the years become Hugh the Fat- took Holy Orders and became a monk of the Abbey, doubtlessly in a last-minute attempt to atone for his numerous sins.
In the mid-13th century, the new Gothic style of architecture spread from Europe, first appearing at Chester in the beautiful Lady Chapel of c.1260 and the Chapter House of c.1250, from where the abbey was administered and the monks would listen to a daily chapter from the rule of St. Benedict. This was also the burial place of the Abbots and also of most of the Earls of Chester. This has one of the finest vaulted interiors of its type anywhere, a splendid example of the first period of native Gothic architecture, the Early English.
The Baptistry (above) is housed in one of the oldest surviving sections of the Cathedral, the Romanesque (Norman) north-west tower, built in the middle of the 12th century. The white marble font was found in a ruined church in Italy and is carved with early Christian symbols such as peacocks (representing the resurrection) and bears the Greek letters alpha and omega. Said to have been made in the sixth or seventh century, its original purpose remains a mystery- perhaps it was the well-head in some long vanished village.
Like the Saxon minster before it, the Abbey served the townspeople as a parish church, services being held in the south aisle of the nave at an altar dedicated to St. Oswald.
With the rebuilding of the nave in the 14th century, they were required by the monks to move to a former guild chapel dedicated to St. Nicolas, which had been built in 1280, and which is still standing just across the road from the Cathedral in what is now St.Werburgh Street.
Their new accomodation seems to have been unpopular with the parishioners as they later returned to worship in the exceptionally-large south transept of the Abbey, which was designated as the Parish Church of St. Oswald and actually walled off from the rest of the building. This unusual situation continued until as late as 1872, when the new Church of St. Thomas of Canterbury in Parkgate Road, one of hundreds of churches designed by Sir George Gilbert Scott- became the church of the Parish of St. Oswald.
When the new Exchange was built in nearby Market Square in 1695, the old chapel became the Wool Hall and thirty years later was adapted for the showing of plays, being greatly upgraded in 1773 to become the Theatre Royal, where appeared such stars of their day as Sarah Siddons in 1786 and Edmund Kean.
The theatre long after remained a source of official suspicion and plays were required to be licenced by the Lord Chancellor right up to the 1960s.
In 1854 the building was enlarged- the new frontage being designed by James Harrison- and then became a Music Hall. Charles Dickens, who read here in 1867, described it thus: "The hall is like a Methodist Chapel in low spirits, and with a cold in its head".
In 1921, the Music Hall became the oldest building in the world to be used as a cinema and showed Al Jolson's 'talkie' The Singing Fool six years later, September 23rd 1929. (Read about it in our brief history of the cinema in Chester here). It closed in 1961 and became a branch of Lipton's, the first supermarket within the City Walls. Since that time, it has housed a number of retail businesses and today the venerable 13th century Chapel of St. Nicolas plays host to a branch of Superdrug.
• It was announced in May 2001 that Chester's other surviving old music hall and theatre, the Royalty in City Road, was to be demolished, eventually to be replaced by a hotel. Go here to see some photographs and learn a little of its fascinating history...
Before moving back into the Cathedral, notice the fine row of shops facing it and adjoining the old chapel: St. Werburgh's Row, built for the Hodkinson Trustees in a sensitive Arts and Crafts style in 1935. The row was designed by Maxwell Ayrton (1874-1960) who, in partnership with Sir John Simpson, was more famously the architect of the first Wembley Stadium, with its world-famous twin towers.
- 1354 The title 'Admiral of the Dee' first conferred upon the Mayor by Edward the Black Prince. In the following year, he granted the Dee Mills to Sir Howell Fwyell for life, in recognition of his bravery at the Battle of Poitiers.
- 1357 A fat ox sold for 6s 8d, a fat sheep for 6d, a pig for 1d. Labourers earned 6d per day.
- 1362 Piers Plowman, poem in Middle English, ascribed to William Langland of Malvern
- 1363 Thomas de Newport becomes seventeenth Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1386)
- c.1375 The Chester Mystery Plays first performed.
- 1376 Edward the Black Prince died. The
following year, Edward III died and his grandson Richard, son of the Black
Prince, assumed the throne as Richard II (1367-1400). Robin
Hood first appears in
English popular literature. Having become an infamous refuge for vagabonds
and outlaws, the Wilderness
of Wirral, "was, on the petition of the citizens of Chester,
deforested by the order of Edward III:
"His way was wild and strange, by banks where none had been... into the wilderness of Wirral, where few dwelled who granted any good to God or man" (Sir Gawain and the Green Knight)
- 1377 The Abbot was granted permission to crenellate his gates and boundary walls and the great Abbey Gateway was built.
- 1379 A bushel of wheat sold for 6d, a gallon of white wine for 6d, a gallon of claret for 4d, a fat goose for 2d and a fat pig for 1d. The Old Dee Bridge reconstructed in stone, as we know it today.
- 1380 The magnificent choir stalls in the Cathedral were installed this year.
- 1387-1400 Chaucer: The Canterbury Tales. Henry de Sutton becomes eighteenth Abbot of St. Werburgh's (-1413)
- 1393 Sir Baldwyn Rudistone and other desperados excite a dreadful riot in the Abbey Precincts and city. After killing one Sheriff, taking the other prisoner and injuring the Mayor, they were finally expelled but returned a few days after with 300 men, and attempted to take the place by surprise, but were repulsed and many taken prisoner.
- 1396 Richard II marries Isabella of France. The following year, he visited Chester and was provided with 2000 loyal archers as his bodyguard, who wore his personal motif of the White Hart. He was very popular with the citizens and adopted the outlandish title of "Prince of Chester for the love he bare to the Gentlemen and Commoners of the Shire of Cheshire". In September 1397 began the Parliament in London for which the King had around him "a great guard of Cheshire men to secure his person".