and CHESTER CITY WALLS
Chester was founded by the Romans as a base for a Legionary force tasked with suppressing North Wales and North West England. Later refounded as a Saxon burh, it developed into a thriving port. The Normans built Chester Castle shortly after the invasion and later the Roman and Saxon defences were modified into substantial walls that defended the city.
The Romans invaded Britain in AD 43 and initially established a frontier running between Lincoln and Exeter. By the AD 50s though they were pushing northwards mounting campaigns into Wales from new Legionary bases at Usk, which was home to the Twentieth Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix), and Wroxeter where the Fourteenth Legion (Legio XIV Gemina Martia Victrix) were stationed. By AD 60 Roman forces were assaulting Anglesey in north-west Wales when the entire occupation of Britannia province was thrown into turmoil by the Boudica rebellion the same year. Although defeated it took another ten years before the Romans were able to mount a large scale invasion of Wales again and even then the operations were focused on South Wales. Further disruption was caused by the withdrawal of the Fourteenth Legion from Britain in AD 67 which was not replaced until three years later by the Second Adiutrix Legion (Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis). Initially based at Lincoln, around AD 75 they built the Legionary fortress at Chester as a base from which to launch renewed operations against the tribes of northern Wales.
The Roman advance continued north in the late AD 70s/early AD 80s culminating in the Roman victory at the Battle of Mons Graupius (AD 83) fought in Aberdeenshire. Inchtuthil Legionary fortress was established on the River Tay as a base for the Twentieth Legion but Roman plans for a permanent occupation of Scotland were abandoned following the outbreak of war in Dacia (modern day Moldova). The Second Adiutrix Legion (Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis) was re-deployed there in AD 86/7 and the Twentieth was withdrawn from Inchtuthil and moved to Chester. By AD 100 the Tyne-Solway isthmus had become Rome's northern frontier.
Chester Roman Fortress (Deva). The configuration of the Roman fort still defines the layout of the modern city. Northgate Street, seen in the photo right, mirrors the line of the via Praetoria.
The Legionary Fortress
The initial layout was configured in the standard Roman 'playing card' format with a Headquarters building in the centre. This was surrounded by the Commanding Officer's house and granaries whilst barracks and workshops were located in the four quadrants. Roads ran North/South and East/West through the centre of fort. The walls, initially earth and timber, were replaced in stone as it became clear Chester would be the permanent home for the Legion. Outside the walls of Deva a civilian settlement emerged consisting of traders and “associates” of the military men inside the fortress.
The Twentieth Legion remained stationed at Chester until AD 383 when it was redeployed to the Rhine in an attempt to deal with the incursions into the Roman empire. At some point thereafter the Twentieth was annihilated in a border skirmish with the Vandals.
After the Romans
Little is known about Chester during the Dark Ages but it seems likely that some form of settlement continued in the area. The site seems to have fallen under Welsh control during the fifth and sixth centuries but by the early seventh century the Saxons were competing for control. The Battle of Chester was fought in AD 617 after which the area became part of what later became known as the Kingdom of Mercia. A Saxon settlement had been established at Chester no later than AD 650 and thrived due to trade with Ireland and beyond.
By the late ninth century much of northern and central England had been overrun by the Vikings. After successive English Kingdoms fell, the West Saxons started establishing burhs (fortified towns). This system ensured the local residents could resist a Viking assault, thus allowing the Royal army the freedom to campaign where it was most effective rather than having to rush to the aid of every settlement, and also enabled effective taxation which could fund the war machine. Burhs were first established in the south but, as the heirs of Alfred the Great sought to drive back the Vikings, new towns were founded in Mercia. Chester was the first in the north-west and was refounded in AD 907 by Aethelflaed, daughter of King Alfred the Great and wife of the Mercian ruler Ethelred I. The north and east walls of the former Roman Legionary fortress were reused whilst new defences, extending towards the River Dee on the north-west and south sides, were built. These enhancements consisted of an earth rampart topped with a timber palisade. A High Cross marked the centre of the settlement and the St Werburgh Abbey was founded in the north-east quadrant. This establishment would eventually go on to occupy a quarter of the burh.
At the time of the Norman Invasion, Chester was a thriving port owned by the Crown. Nevertheless Chester resisted Norman rule and in 1069/70 it suffered extensive damage when William I devastated the northern regions in response. Unlike York, where the city was left untouched even though the surrounding area was laid waste, Chester itself was attacked. More than 200 houses were destroyed within the town and the Normans built Chester Castle. This fortification was an earth and timber motte-and-bailey castle raised immediately to the south of the Anglo-Saxon burh.
Chester Castle. Although the castle was rebuilt in the twelfth century, the earthwork motte can still be seen.
The castle and town were granted to Hugh de Avranches in 1071 who was also given the title Earl of Chester. Along with the Earls of Hereford and Shrewsbury, Hugh was responsible for securing the north section of the Anglo-Welsh border and was entitled to expand his territorial holdings into Wales as far as he was able to do so. Over his conquered territories he had palatine powers, effectively quasi-Regal authority to rule the area as he saw fit subject only to loyalty to the English Crown. For the next 200 years Chester became a key base for such operations as the Anglo-Normans embarked on a protracted piecemeal conquest of the Principality that ebbed and flowed depending upon the relative strength/weaknesses of the Normans and their Welsh opponents.
The construction of the castle, outside of the former circuit of the Saxon defences, prompted an expansion of the town defences. By the mid-twelfth century the 'current' circuit of the walls had been established with three new gates built - Bridgegate, Shipgate and Watergate.
City Walls. The city defences were extended in the mid twelfth century to include the castle site and to fully enclose the town even on the sides protected by the River Dee.
Rebuilding Chester Castle
Between 1159 and 1160 over £122 was spent rebuilding the Inner Bailey in stone including the addition of a number of square towers along the length of the curtain wall. This included the Agricola Tower which acted as the gatehouse at this time. Further rebuilding occurred when Chester reverted to Crown ownership after the death of the last Earl, John the Scot, in 1237. In particular the Outer Bailey, which was still a timber fortification, was rebuilt in 1245 by Henry III. Further upgrades followed in 1251 which focused on the residential and administrative buildings. The upgrades were clearly significant for Henry bestowed the title of Earl of Chester upon his son, Prince Edward, in 1254.
Chester Castle. The castle was rebuilt in stone in the mid twelfth century. Agricola Tower served as the gatehouse.
The Second Barons War
Henry III suffered a major revolt from his key Barons in 1258. Led by Simon de Montfort, Earl of Leicester the King was defeated at the Battle of Lewes (1264) and effectively became a prisoner. Chester Castle was taken over by the rebels and fell under the authority of Lucas of Taney. However, at the Battle of Evesham (1265), Prince Edward defeated Montfort and in the subsequent weeks retook Chester Castle.
The accession of Edward I in 1272 saw Chester become the frontline in his operations against Northern Wales. In the latter years of the proceeding reign, Henry III had recognised Llywelyn ap Gruffudd as Prince of Wales. Edward I initially accepted this but, when Llywelyn failed to pay homage to Edward, the English invaded. In the First War of Welsh Independence (1276-7) a three pronged attack was made into Wales with the main assault being launched from Chester. All land to the east of the River Conwy was then taken under English control but this was only a temporary outcome. The Second War of Welsh Independence (1282-3) saw the English invade again - with the main assault once more deploying from Chester - at which point Edward cemented his conquest with a series of new fortifications and upgrades to existing ones. At Chester over £1,400 was spent upgrading the defences and enhancing the accommodation to support the regular Royal visits. Further work was done in 1293 when the Outer Gatehouse was built. Substantial repairs were also made to Agricola Tower in 1302 following a fire.
Later Medieval Period
By the early fourteenth century Wales had largely been pacified and the castle became predominantly an administrative site. Even in that role, some aspects were moved outside the castle precincts including the court house in 1310 and the exchequer in 1401. The presence of the Royal Castle did however ensure significant local recruitment. Having fought the Welsh for centuries, many Chester men were experienced archers and were eagerly recruited by various Kings to man their armies. Such archers played critical roles in the battles of Crecy (1346), Poiters (1356) and Agincourt (1415).
The English Civil War started in Autumn 1642 with Chester supporting the Royalist cause. It became a key stronghold for the King with its port facilities offering the opportunity to import men and war material from Ireland and the continent. Accordingly substantial earthworks were constructed around the town including numerous artillery positions guarding all approaches. these were tested in July 1643 when Parliamentary troops attacked but were beaten back. However, the following year the Royalist forces in the north were decimated at the Battle of Marston Moor. This gave Parliament a free hand in the north and in November 1644 Chester was besieged once more. Their blockade continued for 6 months but the siege was lifted in May 1645 when the troops were deployed.
In June 1645 the Royalist war effort suffered a catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Naseby where the Royalist infantry was decimated. Parliament once again besieged Chester (along with the Bristol, the only other major port in Royalist hands) threatening the King's only means of importing a replacement army. Bristol fell on 11 September 1645 and accordingly the King resolved to relieve Chester. His cavalry, around 4,000 strong, had escaped the disaster at Naseby and he attempted to use this force to relieve Chester. At the subsequent Battle of Rowton Heath (1645) his forces were comprehensively defeated. The King fled into Wales leaving Parliament to besiege the city once more and in February 1646 Chester surrendered.
King Charles Tower. Originally called Phoenix Tower, King Charles I allegedly watched the closing stages of the Battle of Rowton Heath from here as his men were slaughtered in the suburbs.
After the war Chester Castle avoided slighting but was occupied by Parliamentary troops. Cromwell used the town as a supply base for his campaigns in Ireland as did William III in the 1690s. By the early eighteenth century though, the castle was ruinous. A lavish plan for a complete rebuild was proposed by the military engineer Alex de Lavaix but it was never actioned. The castle was however used as a prison for Jacobites following their surrender after the Battle of Preston (1715). The requirement for the town walls had also disappeared by this time and in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century they were restyled into a promenade walk around the city.
Significant portions of the castle were demolished in the late eighteenth/early nineteenth century to make way for new buildings. A purpose built barracks was constructed as was the Greek revival style gateway and new court and administrative buildings. The site continues to discharge these legal duties today.
Outer Gatehouse. The castle's outer gatehouse was rebuilt in Greek revival style in the ln the late nineteenth century.
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Chester offers a complete day out for anyone interested in fortifications! The castle, including Agricola Tower and the Inner Bailey, is only opened a few times per week and even then only as part of the escorted 'Secret Chester' tour. The circuit of the City Walls can be walked at any reasonable time however and includes surviving masonry from the Roman and medieval periods although it has been extensively modified over the years and all the gates have been demolished. Also nearby are the remains of the large Roman Amphitheatre, the exposed masonry of an angle tower of the former Legionary fortress and a shrine dedicated to Minerva. The highlight of any visit is the Grosvenor Roman museum with its superb collection of Roman archaeological finds.
Romans. The Romans defined the layout of much of modern Chester and the masonry from the Legionary fortress can be seen in the City Walls on the north and east sides. Other highlights around the city include the Angle Tower (left), Amphitheatre (centre) and Minerva's Shrine (right).
Grosvenor Museum. Don't miss this small but superb museum which includes displays of archaeological finds from the Roman legionary fortress!
Chester Castle. The castle has very restricted opening hours. Ensure you time your visit carefully if you wish to visit the castle's Inner Bailey.
Chester City Defences. The defences evolved around the Roman Legionary fortress. The Saxons extended the walls west and south to the River Dee and the Normans rebuilt the town wall in the twelfth century. During the Civil War substantial earthwork defences were built around the suburbs including a number of artillery bulwarks to control access along the River Dee.
Chester has numerous car parks (most pay and display) situated within easy reach of the old city. One option is shown below which allows visitors to start exploring in vicinity of Chester Castle. Minerva's Shrine is found by crossing Old Dee Bridge, passing the Ship Inn and turning right into the park.
Car Parking Option
Castle Drive, CH1 1SL
Roman Angle Turret
King Charles Tower
Tower Road, CH1 4JA
Tourist Info (Tour Start)
Northgate Street, CH1 2HQ