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Chester in 1839

CHESTER, an ancient and celebrated city of England on the River Dee, near to where it falls into an estuary of the Irish Channel.

In nothing is the impression of the Roman possession of this island more observable than in the names of so many considerable places, into which this word Chester, which is the Latin Castrum or Castra, enters ; Manchester, Ribchester, Grantchester, &c. Sometimes it appears in the form of Caster, as Doncaster, Tadcaster. It is sometimes much contracted, as in Manceter, Exeter, Wroxeter. It occurs here without any prefix, but anciently this city was called West Chester. There are other Chesters and Castors.

It might be inferred from the name alone that these were originally military stations. But Chester does not depend on etymology alone for proof of its Roman origin, or of its having been the station of a part of the Roman army. The distribution of the streets, the two main thoroughfares cutting one another at right angles in the centre of the city, is Roman. There is reason to conclude that the fortifications of the city are on a Roman basis. Some remains of Roman masonry have been discovered ; and Chester has produced innumerable coins, fibulae, inscribed tiles, inscribed stones and altars, the usual vestiges of the Romans. The most important discovery of this kind was made in 1653, when a votive altar to Jupiter Tanarus was dug up, which had been raised by an officer of the twentieth Legion called the Victorious. Other traces of this particular Legion have been found at Chester, confirming what we find in Antonine’s Itinerary, that at Deva (which is evidently the Dee, meaning the station on the Dee, as Doncaster is in the same Itinerary mentioned as Danum, the Don, the river on which it is situated) the twentieth Legion had its station. The Welsh name of Chester has reference to the same fact ; being, when rendered into English, the City of the Legion on the waters of the Dee.

Chester had, in the middle ages, several historical writers of its own, as Roger called De Cestria, Ralph Higden, and Henry Bradshaw. We pass over their traditionary stories of the antiquity and origin of their city as undeserving regard, and consider what has now been related as the sufficient and the true account of the origin of this city. We might, if our limits would allow, pursue the inquiry further, and ask why the Romans fixed upon this point as the permanent station of one of their legions, and at what period of their possession of Britain this was done. The Messrs. Lysons conceive that the original castrum was constructed by Ostorius Seapula soon after the defeat of Caractacus.

Chester was evidently the most considerable place in a large tract of country in the Roman times, and so continued when the Romans had withdrawn their forces. The posession of it was an object of importance to the Saxons and to the remains of the Britons. The two nations seem to have possessed it by turns, and it was certainly one of the last, if not the last, of the places which yielded to the Saxon power. In the Saxon Chronicle we are told that Ethelfrid, king of Northumbria, took it from the Britons in A.D. 607. After that date it was in the hands of the Britons, who held councils in it for political purposes. Finally, in A.D. 830, it fell under the power of Egbert.

From that period to the Conquest, 1066, Chester is often mentioned in the annals of the Saxon sovereignty, its own annalists have delighted to record that King Edwin was one day rowed by six kings (no doubt small Welsh princes) on the waters of the Dee. Its situation as a frontier fortress against Wales necessarily gave it importance ; but it had also a consequence as a place of security for the inhabitants of the coast when they were menaced with invasion from the Danes and Northmen.

The circumstance which we have just mentioned was the cause of one of the most important events in the history of Chester. On one occasion, when a descent from the Danes was apprehended, the body of Saint Werburgh, a Saxon saint, daughter of Wulphere king of Mercia which had been preserved as a sacred relic, was removed for security to Chester. This was in A.D. 875. These relics remained at Chester. No doubt some kind of Christian community existed at Chester before this circumstance occurred ; but from this time Saint Werburgh became the tutelar saint of Chester ; a religious community was founded, among whom she was held in especial honour, and in whose church her relics were sumptuously enshrined. The house continued to flourish through a period of six centuries and a half, one of the wealthiest of the monastic establishments in England, its annual revenues exceeding £1000, when at the Reformation it was dissolved with the other foundations of its class.

Chester had also in the Saxon times a peculiar local government, and peculiar municipal customs, of which there is a large and particular account in ‘Domesday Book.’ The number of the rated houses was 431. It had its trade by sea and its home trade ; and there is reason to believe that associations of the members of particular trades, which have flourished longer at Chester than in most other places, had their origins in Saxon times, and that even some of the public processions and the sports with which the inhabitants of Chester have been from time immemorial entertained, may be continuations of Saxon usages.

Chester had also in Saxon times a large shire attached to it, which in form has been aptly compared to an eagle’s wing, the of it touching on Yorkshire. This was called Chester-shire (Cestre-scyre), contracted into Cheshire. The bishop of Lichfield was also in remote times not unfrequently called bishop of Chester. At the Conquest this shire was given by one sweeping grant (with the exception of what belonged to the bishop) to Hugh of Avranche, commonly called Hugh Lupus, or Hugh Wolf, who had for his favourite device the Wolf’s Head. Hugh was a near relation of the Conqueror, and possessed this portion of the conquered country with the Saxon title of Earl, but with some privileges which did not always accompany such concessions.

Cheshire became what is called a County Palatine, having courts peculiar to itself and the custody of its own records. Hugh resided in the castle at Chester, and there he held his courts and parliaments, in which sat the superiors of the religious houses of the county, together with the eight great subinfeudatories, among whom he distributed the greater portion of his territory. The succeeding earls of his family, of whom there were six, maintained the same state. The series terminated in the reign of Henry III, and from that time the Earldom of Chester has been in the crown or in the hands of members of the royal house. Most of the large tenures created by the Conqueror reverted sooner or later to the crown by forfeiture or marriage.

The period from the Conquest to the reformation of religion, forms another great era in the history of English cities. In that period Chester was often visited by the king, and was occasionally the scene of interesting public events. It has had a series of charters, by which valuable privileges were granted or confirmed, from the beginning to the close of that period, viz., from Hugh Lupus and some other of the succeeding earls of Chester, and when they were extinct, from the Kings Edward the First and Third, Richard the Second, and Henry the seventh. As early as 1242 there is found a person with title of mayor, who presided over a guild merchant or mercatorial. Chester was in those times a place of considerable trade.

Beside the great monastery of Saint Werburgh, there was a religious community of women established within its walls : the black, the white, and the grey friars, had each an establishment in Chester : a college of the Holy Cross is mentioned, and hospitals of Saint Anne and of Saint John the Baptist, of which the latter escaped suppression at the Reformation, and continues to this day ; besides numerous parish churches, all of which were founded before the close of the period of which we are speaking.

Chester had, during this period, among its inhabitants, some whose names are connected with the early literature of England ; we have already mentioned three such persons, and it may be added, that Higden, the most celebrated ot the three, whose era was the reign of Edward III, is supposed to be the author of a set of mysteries, or religious dramas, which were exhibited by the several trades in Chester from time to time, and of which copies have descended to the present day.

Towards the close of the reign of King Henry VIII, two great changes took place at Chester. First, in the 34th of that reign, writs were first issued to it to send members to parliament; and second, it became the seat of one of the newly appointed bishops. The house of Saint Werburgh being dissolved, its church became the cathedral of the new see. A dean and six prebendaries were placed in it, Thomas Clark, the last abbot of Saint Werburgh, in Chester, being made the first dean. The revenue of the dissolved monastery furnished a provision for the prebendaries, dean, and bishop. The diocese assigned to him was the whole county of Chester, which had previously been under the superintendence of the bishop of Lichfield, and the county of Lancaster, with the archdeaconry of Richmond, part of the ancient diocese of York. At the same period, 1544, a grammar school was founded, and Chester was appointed, about the same time, one of the sanctuary places.

From the period of the Reformation to the present time there are no very striking events in the history of Chester, nothing which in any eminent degree affected the condition or character of the place. It occasionally received royal visitants, and in the civil wars it had to endure a protracted siege. King Charles I was for a time in the city, and from one of the towers, on the walls, is said to have personally witnessed the defeat of his army on Rowton Heath.

The three earliest charters in the possession of the corporation were granted by Ranulph or Randle, earl of Chester, early in the thirteenth century. Charters were granted or renewed by several monarchs, and its corporation and parliamentary annals exhibit the usual amount of party struggles and disputed rights; so that the Reform Act, and the Municipal Corporation Reform Act, may be regarded as what more than anything else in its more recent history will influence the future character and condition of the place. Previously to the passing of the Reform Act, the election of members of parliament was in the freemen, who were usually about 1200. The city was divided into twelve wards and nine parishes.

The modern history of the trade of Chester is rather the history of its decay, to which the prosperity of the port of Liverpool has in some degree contributed ; but this decline is partly owing to the bad navigation of the Dee. A few gloves are manufactured here, and Chester has long had a reputation for the making of tobacco-pipes. Its fairs, of which there were two of very early date, and one by a charter of King Charles II, were long amongst the most celebrated of that species of mart, as long as the inland consumption was chiefly supplied in that way.

King William established a mint at Chester, which had however no long continuance. A canal, which was cut in 1772, had no success till after many years the company united themselves to the proprietors of the Ellesmere canal. When the Act of Toleration gave liberty to the non-conforming Protestants to meet publicly for worship, they erected a spacious meeting-house in Chester, one of the earliest ministers in which was Matthew Henry, whose writings were long in great esteem in the non-conformist body. The modern Independents, the Baptists, and the Quakers, have each meeting-places in Chester; there are also a Roman Catholic and five Methodist chapels.

The grammar-school of Chester, called the King’s School, which is attached to the cathedral, is under the direction of the dean and chapter; there is also the marquis of Westminster’s school, for 400 or 450 boys and girls, who are educated at the expense of the marquis; a diocesan school, and three infant schools. Chester has had many public benefactors, so that its charities are numerous. In 1700 a blue-coat school was founded, and in 1750 another for girls. The General Infirmary was opened in 1761. In 1763 an act of parliament was passed for the regulation of a house of industry ; there is also a school of industry ; and Sunday-schools were established when first the idea was suggested.

Chester has always been the residence of many families of gentry. It has its theatre, its assembly, and its races. Several persons of literary eminence have resided here in recent times, as Dr. Haygarth and Mr. Falconer. In the seventeenth century Chester was the residence of a remarkable family named Holme. A taste for accumulating local and historical information appeared in four successive generations of this family, the individuals all bearing the name of Randal. The last Randal Holme being poor, sold the whole collection to the earl of Oxford, who was then forming his great library. These manuscripts came with the rest of the Harleian collection to the British Museum, where they form 267 volumes, numbered in the catalogue 1920-2187 ; they abound in minute information, especially respecting Chester and the whole county.

The population of Chester, in 1774, was 14,713 persons ; in the last census, 1831, it was 21,344. The number of houses inhabited was 4,096 ; uninhabited, 388 ; building, 43. The number of families, 4,628 ; of which 355 were chiefly employed in agriculture; 2,665 in trade, manufactures, and handicraft ; and 1,608 not comprised in either of those classes : the number of marriages in 1830 was 396.

Chester is one of the very few places in England which have maintained in a tolerable state of completeness walls which were erected for their defence in remote ages ; at no place are they so entire as at Chester. But now, instead of contributing to the defence of the inhabitants, they afford only an agreeable promenade, with pleasant views, at various points, of the surrounding country ; they are nearly two miles in circuit.

The walls and the rows are two most striking objects in Chester to a stranger. The rows are a species of wide foot-path, raised above the level of the street, at the height of the first story of a house, and covered over head by the third story of the house ; it is as if the room in a series of houses was thrown open, or rather taken away, which would otherwise be what is usually called the front room of the first floor. The two great intersecting streets are, for the most part, constructed on this plan : Pennant supposes that this mode of construction may have existed from the Roman times.

The corporate officers of Chester, previously to the late Act, were a mayor, recorder, two sheriffs, twenty-four aldermen, and forty common-councilmen.