Reformed Churchmen

We are Confessional Calvinists and a Prayer Book Church-people. In 2012, we remembered the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer; also, we remembered the 450th anniversary of John Jewel's sober, scholarly, and Reformed "An Apology of the Church of England." In 2013, we remembered the publication of the "Heidelberg Catechism" and the influence of Reformed theologians in England, including Heinrich Bullinger's Decades. For 2014: Tyndale's NT translation. For 2015, John Roger, Rowland Taylor and Bishop John Hooper's martyrdom, burned at the stakes. Books of the month. December 2014: Alan Jacob's "Book of Common Prayer" at: January 2015: A.F. Pollard's "Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation: 1489-1556" at: February 2015: Jaspar Ridley's "Thomas Cranmer" at:

Thursday, February 5, 2015

February 875 A.D. Chester Abbey, Cheshire—Founded by Secular Canons; Destroyed in Danish Raids, 875; Refounded by Aethelfaed, Daughter of King Alfred, 907; Benedictine Monks, 1092; Dissolved 1540

February 875 A.D.  Chester Abbey, Cheshire—Founded by Secular Canons;  Destroyed in Danish Raids, 875;  Refounded by Aethelfaed, Daughter of King Alfred, 907;  Benedictine Monks, 1092; Dissolved 1540; Episcopal Diocesan Catheral; Province of York; 201 Miles Northwest of London, about 2200 As the Crow Flies

No author. “Chester Cathedral.”  Chester Virtual Stroll.  N.d.  Accessed 23 Nov 2014.


There is much that remains mysterious about the early history of the site now occupied by the beautiful Chester Cathedral. 

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  stands where Deva's South Gate once was and Holy Trinity in Watergate Street is on the site of the long-vanished West Gate. (These once-important entrances fell out of use when the City Walls were extended to their present positions by the Saxon re-occupiers over a thousand years ago).

The Saxon church appears upon this Chester penny of c. AD 920

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."

Interestingly, in October 2001, while investigating the site of a former telephone exchange half a mile or so from the Cathedral in Boughton, archaeologists unearthed a small slab of slate bearing a fragmentary portion of a Latin inscription, susceptum solvit laetus merito- ("gladly and with joy he fulfilled his undertaking to the god who well deserved it").

It was found on the bed of a Roman water channel, 2 metres wide and lined with wood and stone, which eventually dried up and then used as a rubbish tip. A local expert commented "the obvious inference is that this inscription came from a temple. If this is so, then we have the first written reference to a temple in Chester. Because the piece was essentially found in an ancient rubbish tip, it is hard to pinpoint the exact location of where the temple once stood. Chester was such a prominent place in Roman times, it is unusual that we have never found any record of a Roman temple before but this discovery now sets the record straight".

Right: an interesting early 19th century view of the Cathedral as seen from Cow Lane Bridge.

In the winter of 1921-2, during the construction of the War Memorial (illustrated here) between the South Porch and the entrance to the South Transept, the extensive remains of a grand Roman building (the temple?) were unearthed. Lying beneath seven feet of earth and built upon the solid bedrock, were discovered well-built walls four feet in thickness with fine ashlar faces on both sides and built in thin courses of 4-5 inches in depth. Some sections were, curiously, built on top of flat paving stones, themselves lying on the sandstone bedrock- a rather unnecessary procedure, one would have thought, but one which may point to the fact that this wall was built upon the remains of an even earlier building. Well formed pieces of cornice were also found, each weighing up to 10 cwt.

It seems likely that Chester's first Christians suffered along with their fellows during the waves of persecution which regularly swept over the Roman Empire. During the course of describing the death of the first English martyr, Alban, at Verulamium (modern St. Albans) in AD 301,Bede recorded that, "Diocletian in the East and Herculius in the West ordered all churches to be destroyed, and all Christians to be hunted out and killed. This was the tenth persecution since Nero and was more protracted and horrible than all that had preceded it. It was carried out without any respite for ten years, with the burning of churches, the outlaw of innocent people and the slaughter of martyrs".

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).

The Cloisters at Chester Cathedral: left, by George Cuitt (1779-1854) and below, by Steve Howe 1992

St. Werburgh
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..."

She first became a nun at Ely, lived most of her life at Weedon, Northamptonshire, died at Threckingham in Linclolnshire and was buried in Hanbury, Stafforshire. An account of her life, written by the Flemish monk Goscelin at Canterbury at the end of the 10th century, told how she was kind to every creature of God, even the wild geese that ravaged her fields at Weedon. It is said that, after shutting a large flock of them indoors overnight as punishment, she pardoned and released them. Upon discovering that one of their number was missing, having been stolen by a servant, the birds came winging noisily back to her. Werburgh understood the meaning of their cries, and, having secured the release of their fellow, she rejoiced with them, saying, "Birds of the air, bless the Lord!" The whole flock then flew away and never again interfered with the land of the blessed Werburgh.

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.

The church was re-dedicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald in 907- just over 1100 years ago- by Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who had recently reoccupied and extended the abandoned Roman fortress as part of here campaign against the Norsemen and who rebuilt St. Peter's at the Cross- where its successor still stands- and to which the dedication was transferred. 

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.

Right: This statue of Werburgh graces the front of the Roman Catholic church also dedicated to her in Park Street, which was founded in 1873.

The Shrine
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.

After the Norman conquest (Chester was the last city in England to fall, a full three years after the battle of Hastings) the Conqueror's nephew and first Earl, Hugh D'Avranches, known as Lupus ('the Wolf') and Ermetrude, his wife, transformed the building into a grand Benedictine monastery, assisted by Anselm, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. The first monks came from the abbey of Bec in Normandy. Work started in 1092, and, over the next couple of centuries, the modest church was transformed into a great monastic complex, built in the Romanesque style. Parts of this Norman building may still be seen today, most notably in the North Transept, where a great arch and triforium survive unchanged after more than 900 years. The north-west corner of the Cathedral is the oldest part of the nave, its original Norman end, with imposing rounded arches built around 1140.

The Cathedral Baptistry set in the Norman North West Tower.

(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.

For the best part of the next three centuries- to the very eve of the Abbey's suppression in 1538- work went on continuously to produce the building much as we know it today.

Set high in the Lady Chapel is this ceiling boss depicting the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket in 1170. He engaged in conflict with Henry II over the rights and privileges of the Church and was assassinated by knights loyal to the king in Canterbury Cathedral. He was canonized soon after his death. In 1220, Becket's remains were relocated from his first tomb to a grand shrine where it long attracted great numbers of pilgrims. This was destroyed in 1538, during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, on the orders from Henry VIII, who also scattered Becket's bones and ordered that all images of him be obliterated. Even to mention his name was forbidden. Hence Chester Cathedral's relic of Becket is a very great rarity.

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.

In the Baptistry, also, is to be found a centuries-old board for the ancient game of nine men's morris or merrillsscratched into the stone of the plinth of the north east tower- where, perhaps, the monks whiled away some of the little leisure time they enjoyed between services.

The Chapel of St. Nicolas
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.

The abandoned chapel fell into disuse until the Abbey was dissolved, when for a time it housed the King's Schoolbefore being purchased by the town to serve as a new Common Hall. The lower room was used for the storage of bulk goods such as cloth, wool and grain "to be vended and sold by Forreiners and Strangers, at times allowable in the city" and the upper room for "assemblies, elections and courts".

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.

Both an Act of Parliament and the personal assent of the Monarch were necessary at this time in order to obtain a licence to open a public theatre and copies of that pertaining to Chester still exist, dating from the early part of the reign of George III, 1761. Audiences didn't sit quietly to enjoy a play as they do today, but would argue and fight among themselves and throw objects and abuse at the performers if their efforts failed to please. Of the Act relating to Chester, it is interesting to note that it was allied to an Act of Queen Anne for "reducing the laws relating to Rogues, Vagabonds, Sturdy Beggars and Vagrants".

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".

Dickens seemed to have suffered from the cold excessively in Chester. He wrote that, while staying at the Queen Hotel, "he felt like a piece of meat hanging in a larder". (The Queen, opposite the railway station, remains one of Chester's finest hotels- and is doubtessly rather warmer these days).

The 13th century Chapel of St. Nicolas- much altered and enlarged over the years to accomodate a school, Common Hall, theatre, cinema and a variety of shops- as seen from the roof of Chester Cathedral in 1997. In front of it stands St. Werburgh's Row and in the background the tower of St. Peter's Church at The Cross.. Photograph by the author.

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.

Go on to Part II of our exploration of Chester Cathedral...

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 8

  • 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".

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