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Key to the City™, Chester.

A Brief History of Chester

East Gate Clock, City Walls, Chester
East Gate Clock, City Walls, Chester

Chester was founded by the Romans who arrived late AD 61 and afterwards occupied the city for several centuries building an impressive fortress. The city's earliest name was Deva, after the river, while the name by which we know the city is the Saxon form of the Latin word castra (a camp).

After the withdrawal of the Romans, Chester was reduced to ruins by the King of Northumbria in 607, and by the Danes in 894. The city was rebuilt in 909 by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, who extended its bounds, including the site of the present Castle, which was erected by William the Conqueror.

It was the last place of importance in England to submit to the Conqueror, who bestowed it upon his nephew, Hugh Lupus. On Lupus, William also conferred the dignity of Earl of Chester, a title which, since the time of Henry III, has been borne by the heir to the English throne. In the days of Edward I, Chester figured prominently in the wars between the English and the Welsh; in those of Charles I, it was the first city in the Kingdom to declare for the King, and the last to succumb to the parliamentary forces. In 1659 an unsuccessful attempt was made to garrison it for Charles II.

Braun and Hogenberg's map of Chester of 1581 shows the the town layout as we know it today. You can see The Cross, the Cathedral, the River Dee and the Town Wall with entry gates including North Gate and East Gate. You can view Braun and Hogenberg's map by clicking here.

Town Hall, Chester
Town Hall, Chester

During the 1700s Chester started to grow rapidly with more houses being built well outside of the town walls. Chester was a prominent market town with its port providing both trading and shipbuilding opportunites. The Shropshire Union Canal reached the town improving transport links to the rest of the country. During this period the town gates were replaced to improve access for traffic.

By the 1800s, Chester had become an important town. Escaping the heavy industry of nearby northern cities, it was becoming a popular tourist centre. During this period of gentrification, the railway and later horse drawn trams arrived; Grosvenor Park, a new Town Hall and library, and the Grosvenor Museum all opened.

Important remains of Roman Chester were found in 1927 and in 1932 remains of the amphitheatre were unearthed just outside the New Gate.

Town Walls, Chester
Town Walls, Chester

The Walls are the most complete specimen of city walls in England, and give a good idea of what at one time was considered an adequate defence for a populous and wealthy place. The city gates, however, are comparatively modern, and often quite out of the picture. The walls vary in height from 12 to 40 feet, and afford an uninterrupted promenade some two miles in circumference.

Among the cities of Britain, Chester is almost unrivalled in the number of its buildings that are both old and beautiful, and it is pleasant to observe how carefully these are preserved. This is the more noteworthy in view of the fact that the city is exceedingly busy, and its streets are narrow and were once full of traffic - circumstances which have too often been the excuse, elsewhere, for tearing down old buildings. This doesn't mean mistakes haven't been made; the 1960s saw the destruction of Chester Market, history was bulldozed for the building of the sprawling Grosvenor Centre and the inner ring road that saved the city's main streets was a controversial project.

The Cross, Chester
The Cross, Chester

The four main street of Chester still run, as is Roman times, towards the cardinal points, and their meeting-point - The Cross - is still the busiest spot in the city although all road traffic has been diverted to the inner ring road and the streets have been pedestrianised. There is a 'kink' at The Cross in the north-south streets of Bridge Street and Northgate Street which follows the original Roman street plan.

The outstanding feature of the central streets are the half-timbered buildings, with upper storeys supported by stilt-like pillars rising from the kerbs. These are known as The Rows. How they originated is uncertain, and various are the theories advanced to account for them. One is that they are due to the lowering of the roadway in the construction of easier gradients for general travel. This would have exposed the cellers (or crypts) and suggest their conversion into shops. The original shops having been made useless by the removal of the road, may then have been set back and the area occupied by the floors turned into an elevated footway, covered in by the overhanging upper storeys of the houses. The Rows line the four principal thoroughfares and constitute a very pleasant promenade, protected alike from rain and excessive heat.

Last Updated Wednesday 15 April 2020

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