Topography 900-1914: Early medieval, 900-1230

A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 2003.

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'Topography 900-1914: Early medieval, 900-1230', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography, ed. C P Lewis, A T Thacker( London, 2003), British History Online [accessed 13 July 2024].

'Topography 900-1914: Early medieval, 900-1230', in A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Edited by C P Lewis, A T Thacker( London, 2003), British History Online, accessed July 13, 2024,

"Topography 900-1914: Early medieval, 900-1230". A History of the County of Chester: Volume 5 Part 1, the City of Chester: General History and Topography. Ed. C P Lewis, A T Thacker(London, 2003), , British History Online. Web. 13 July 2024.

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Although Roman buildings survived and were perhaps occupied for at least part of the period between the 5th century and the 10th, settlement can be traced only in Lower Bridge Street, outside the walls of the former fortress. Æthelflæd's reconstruction of the defences, however, evidently encouraged fresh building in timber within the Roman enceinte. (fn. 1) The reoccupation seems to have advanced from the south: throughout the early Middle Ages occupation was densest in the area between the river Dee and the city's main east-west axis, along Eastgate Street and Watergate Street. Further north, part at least of the area between Northgate Street and Eastgate Street was occupied by St. Werburgh's minster and its precinct, while the north-western quarter seems to have remained largely derelict after the abandonment of the Roman buildings. (fn. 2)

Topographical Effects of the Roman Remains

The relationship of the Roman fortress to the medieval street plan is complex. (fn. 3) Most obviously, the four main gates and the streets to which they gave access had Roman origins. Eastgate, Watergate, and Bridge Streets correspond almost exactly to their Roman counterparts, the via principalis and the via praetoria, although in places later street frontages encroached upon them. The development of Northgate Street was less straightforward. In the Roman plan north-south thoroughfares ran east and west of the headquarters building (principia) and of a large courtyarded building immediately behind it, before uniting to form the via decumana. In the early Middle Ages, however, a new main axis ran north from the intersection of Watergate Street and Bridge Street; passing initially over the eastern part of the principia, presumably by then ruined or demolished, it then traversed the remains of the eastern wing of the courtyarded building, before passing over levelled barracks to reach the Northgate. In the middle of the street there was an open area, formed from the courtyard of the building behind the principia and later the site of St. Werburgh's fair and a market. Such evidence suggests that the location of Chester's four main streets was determined as much by the need for direct routes between the Roman gates as by the continued use of Roman thoroughfares. The relatively limited continuity between the Roman and early medieval street plans is further indicated by the abandonment of many of the fortress's lesser roads. (fn. 4)

The remains of the fortress's buildings left a lasting impression on the city's physical character. (fn. 5) In late Anglo-Saxon times, for example, a sunken-floored hut was built within a roofless but still largely intact Roman building north of Princess Street. (fn. 6) Other major structures, including the principia, the elliptical building, and the legionary bathhouse, survived at least in part until the 12th century, and even as late as the 14th Ranulph Higden could refer to 'foundations made from enormous stones, established . . . by the labour of the Romans'. (fn. 7) Above all, the siting of several parish churches was determined by Roman buildings or their remains. St. Peter's, for example, was raised several feet above street level on the foundations of the Roman principia, while St. Michael's, St. Bridget's, Holy Trinity, and perhaps St. Chad's were built into or abutting the defences of the legionary fortress, and St. Martin's was next to the south-west angle tower. (fn. 8)

Almost certainly the accumulation of collapsed Roman materials caused a steep rise in ground level on either side of the main thoroughfares, a feature which contributed to the formation of the Rows. (fn. 9) The largest Roman buildings were particularly difficult to clear and obstructed the development of later streets. The principia, for example, survived in sufficient bulk to ensure that Northgate Street did not, as would seem natural, continue Bridge Street but deviated slightly to the east. The legionary baths, much of which remained until their clearance in the 1960s, prevented the development of streets leading off the east side of Bridge Street and the south side of Eastgate Street. (fn. 10)

The Roman walls and gates, including those which later disappeared, exerted a particularly strong influence. The medieval Eastgate, for example, was formed from the north portal of its Roman predecessor, which survived until 1768. Several early streets, moreover, followed the line of the Roman defences. Thus the south and west walls of the legionary fortress were by 1200 skirted on the outside by Pepper Street, Cuppin Street, Nicholas Street, and Linenhall Street, and on the inside by White Friars, Weaver Street, and Trinity Street, which ran roughly along the line of the Roman intervallum road. Water Tower Street occupied a similar position in relation to the north wall. A similar feature at Abbey Green, later abandoned, replaced a Roman road over which soil had accumulated. (fn. 11)

Extramural Roman streets and buildings also left their mark. Lower Bridge Street perpetuated the line of the via praetoria from the south gate of the legionary fortress to the bridge over the Dee, while other streets continued the via decumana and the via principalis through the north, east, and west gates. Roman buildings remained standing west of the fortress until they were robbed or demolished by the Franciscans and Dominicans in the 13th century. To the east, the amphitheatre remained a notable feature, skirted by the road issuing from the Newgate and leading to St. John's church. (fn. 12)

Layout of the City

By the mid 11th century Chester contained c. 500 houses or more, (fn. 13) concentrated along Watergate, Eastgate, and Bridge Streets. Those thoroughfares therefore probably presented quite an urban appearance, crowded with properties laid out on long strips stretching back from narrow frontages to afford the maximum number of citizens access to the street. (fn. 14) That was certainly the arrangement in the post-Conquest city, and there is little to imply that it was the result of recent planning: neither the 12th- and 13th-century holdings in the main streets nor the undercrofts built upon them were particularly uniform in size. (fn. 15) On the other hand there are indications that beneath that diversity there lurked a degree of planning at an earlier phase. Especially suggestive is the frequency with which measurements involving a unit of 11 feet occur in the frontages along the main thoroughfares: some 45 frontages measured about 55 feet each and another 14 about 66 feet. Such relatively wide plots clearly predated the irregularly sized undercrofts of the 12th and 13th centuries, and may have originated in the AngloSaxon period. (fn. 16)

It seems unlikely, therefore, that the Normans replanned the core of Chester. Even the apparent discontinuity between the late Anglo-Saxon structures found in Lower Bridge Street and the later street pattern may be explained by interpreting the huts there as standing to the rear of plots fronting the main thoroughfare. Replanning is apparent only in the northern part of the medieval walled town, for instance in the comparatively undeveloped area around Princess Street, where the Anglo-Saxon timber structures were not aligned with the later plots fronting Northgate Street or Princess Street. (fn. 17)

If the Normans did not replan Chester as a whole, their impact was nevertheless great. In particular, the building of a motte and bailey castle south-west of the legionary fortress probably entailed much destruction, and was associated with the enlargement of the walled area to its full medieval extent. By the 1070s the west and south walls of the Roman fortress were already perhaps disappearing; the protection afforded by extending the north and east walls to the river would have rendered them unnecessary. The building of churches at or near the west and south gates also suggests that the latter were disused. At all events, Shipgate in the southern riverside wall existed by the 1120s, and by the 1190s both St. Mary on the Hill and the Benedictine nunnery were within the walled enclosure. (fn. 18)

The castle and the area around it became an important focus in the Anglo-Norman town. The castle itself was the scene of much building activity in the 12th century. Originally relatively small, with a bailey coextensive with the present inner ward, by the 13th century it had been greatly enlarged, and the earliest buildings, presumably of wood, had been replaced in stone. (fn. 19) Also highly conspicuous were the residences of the earl's senior officials. Earl Ranulph III's chancellor, Peter the clerk, for example, built a house at the corner of Lower Bridge Street and Castle Street, later known as the Stone Hall, which included an undercroft and presumably a large first-floor hall. (fn. 20) It provides a good instance of the quite grand urban buildings put up by such men, especially under Ranulph III, when the city and shire were central to the earl's grandiose territorial ambitions. (fn. 21)

A dominant feature of the early town was its two ecclesiastical precincts, upon which the Normans also had a considerable impact. At St. John's, the enhancement of its status to that of cathedral, although temporary, inaugurated a new building programme. The work, however, proceeded very slowly, presumably because of shortage of funds, and interest in the building revived only in the early 13th century, when important local officials like the justice of Chester, Philip of Orby, were establishing chantries there. In the 12th century the area around St. John's still formed a distinct quarter, the bishop's borough, which included the 'basilica' or minster of St. Mary, the parochial chapel of St. James, a hermitage, and residences assigned to the bishop and archdeacon. (fn. 22)

Nothing is known of the Anglo-Saxon church and precinct of St. Werburgh's. The existence of a boneworking industry appropriate to an early minster, housed in late Anglo-Saxon workshops at Abbey Green near the Northgate, might suggest that the early precinct occupied almost the whole north-east quarter of the Roman fortress. (fn. 23) In the 1090s, however, the minster's successor, the new Benedictine abbey, acquired from Earl Hugh I an area between the church and the Northgate. (fn. 24) The refoundation entailed much building activity, almost certainly planned before 1092. The work, which was evidently well advanced by the 1120s, probably continued spasmodically throughout the 12th century. It was accompanied by the enclosure of the precinct and by the establishment outside the Northgate of a graveyard with a chapel dedicated to St. Thomas Becket. (fn. 25)

By the late 12th century the basic outlines of the medieval city were established. The defences which surrounded Chester had reached their full extent. (fn. 26) To the south lay the harbour and to the west the Roodee was a broad expanse of tidal meadow. (fn. 27) Within the walls there was a market place where the main streets intersected, at the Cross, and further open space used for markets and fairs west of the abbey precinct. (fn. 28) In the south-west, around the castle, lay a prosperous quarter favoured by the earl's retainers. (fn. 29) Elsewhere, however, there was probably much open land. In the north-west quarter of the Roman enceinte the abandonment was such that the fortress plan was lost, and by the 12th century one or two new streets wandered over the foundations of demolished barrack blocks. (fn. 30) The area remained relatively open throughout the Middle Ages. (fn. 31) Further west, between the Roman and medieval west walls, there was more open ground, occupied partly by the religious communities established there between the 1150s and the 1230s, and partly by the area known throughout the Middle Ages as the Crofts. (fn. 32)

Within the medieval walls a new street plan was emerging by the 12th century. Besides Northgate Street and the roads which followed the Roman defences, innovations included westward extensions of the fortress's surviving lesser thoroughfares across the additional area enclosed by the medieval defences at City Walls Road and Bedward Row. (fn. 33) Fleshmongers Lane (later Newgate Street) connected St. Werburgh's with St. John's, running from Eastgate Street across the line of the Roman south wall to Newgate; Barn Lane (later King Street) led to the abbey's grange; and Parsons Lane (later Princess Street) ran westwards from the abbey gate. Claverton Lane (later Duke Street) apparently housed burgesses of Claverton living in the city by 1086, while Gerrards Lane (later Crook Street), a Roman road reused by the Anglo-Saxons, seems to have been extended northwards to Princess Street. (fn. 34)

Beyond the landward walls lay suburbs. Outside the Northgate much of the area near the walls must have been taken up by the hospital of St. John. Further out lay the abbey's graveyard and chapel. Although there were already some houses, the area cannot have been heavily built over, since in the 13th century fields lay next to the graveyard. (fn. 35) There had probably been more building to the east, both in the area of the bishop's borough around St. John's, and further north along what by the 13th century was known as Foregate Street, the extramural continuation of Eastgate Street. (fn. 36) In the later 12th century there were evidently three roads running eastwards from the town, one carrying straight on to Christleton, a second going south-east along the right bank of the Dee to Aldford, and a third leading north-east. (fn. 37) At the city limits the hospital of St. Giles had already been established. (fn. 38)

To the south, across the river, lay the suburb of Handbridge, divided in 1086 into three small manors. The area was largely agricultural: the manors were assessed at 3 carucates and contained land for eleven oxen worked by seven bordars. (fn. 39) By the 12th century the site of mills and fisheries, (fn. 40) in the early 13th it also contained a settlement at Newbold, somewhere to the east of Dee Bridge. (fn. 41)

The buildings of the city burned twice, in 1140 and disastrously in 1180, (fn. 42) an indication that they were largely of wood. There were, however, stone churches at St. Werburgh's, St. John's, and St. Michael's, and the castle acquired stone towers and walls in the 12th century and the early 13th. (fn. 43) In addition some large houses were also of stone, such as those of Peter the clerk and perhaps Winebald the sheriff, the latter standing in the market place. (fn. 44) The only surviving material evidence for a secular building of the period is, however, the undercroft of no. 37 Watergate Street, the walls of which pre-dated the insertion of its late 13th-century stone vault. (fn. 45)


  • 1. Above, Early Medieval Chester: Sub-Roman and Early English Chester, The 10th-Century Refortification.
  • 2. Cf. below, this section (Layout of the City).
  • 3. For the fortress, above, Roman Chester. See map, above, p. 36.
  • 4. S. Ward and others, Excavations at Chester: Saxon Occupation within Roman Fortress, 121-2.
  • 5. What follows depends largely upon T. J. Strickland, 'Survival of Roman Chester', Ward and others, Excavations at Chester: Saxon Occupation, 5-17; Strickland, 'Roman Heritage of Chester: Survival of Buildings of Deva after Roman Period', J.C.A.S. lxvii. 17-36.
  • 6. Medieval Arch. xxvii. 170; Ward and others, Excavations at Chester: Saxon Occupation, 12.
  • 7. R. Higden, Polychronicon (Rolls Ser.), ii. 76.
  • 8. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Medieval Parish Churches: Holy Trinity, St. Bridget, St. Martin, St. Michael, St. Peter; J.C.A.S. lv. 48.
  • 9. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), The Rows: Origin and Early Development.
  • 10. J.C.A.S. lxvii. 20-1, 29-30.
  • 11. Ibid. 21-3; D. J. P. Mason, Excavations at Chester: 26-42 Lower Bridge St. 36-9; Ward and others, Excavations at Chester: Saxon Occupation, 122.
  • 12. Below, this chapter: Later Medieval (Street Plan within the Walls).
  • 13. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Population. See map, above, p. 36.
  • 14. Cf. Winchester: Winchester in the Early Middle Ages, ed. M. Biddle, 454-5, 458.
  • 15. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), The Rows: Physical Form (Burgage Plots, Undercrofts).
  • 16. Pers. comm. Dr. R. Harris (Dept. of Arch., Univ. of Reading), based on O.S. Map 1/500, Ches. XXXVIII. 11.17 (1875 edn.); Rows of Chester, ed. A. Brown, 14-15.
  • 17. Ward and others, Excavations at Chester: Saxon Occupation, 64.
  • 18. Lucian, De Laude Cestrie, 27, 63; J.C.A.S. lxiv. 23-31; V.C.H. Ches. v (2), City Walls and Gates: Medieval and Later; Castle: Buildings.
  • 19. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Castle: Buildings.
  • 20. Charters of A.-N. Earls, no. 282; B.L. Add. Ch. 50177.
  • 21. A. T. Thacker, 'The Earls and their Earldom', J.C.A.S. lxxi. 14-19.
  • 22. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Collegiate Church of St. John; R. Gem, 'Romanesque Archit. in Chester c. 1075-1117', Medieval Arch., Art, and Archit. at Chester, ed. A. Thacker, 38-43.
  • 23. J.C.A.S. lxiii. 31; Ward and others, Excavations at Chester: Saxon Occupation, 83-4, 92-3.
  • 24. Cart. Chester Abbey, i, p. 55.
  • 25. Ibid. i, pp. 55, 132; ii, p. 274; Medieval Arch., Art, and Archit. at Chester, ed. Thacker, 31-8, 41-3.
  • 26. J.C.A.S. lxiv. 23-31.
  • 27. Lucian, De Laude Cestrie, 24, 46.
  • 28. Ibid. 24-8, 46-7; Cart. Chester Abbey, i, pp. 25, 251; ii, p. 268; Charters of A.-N. Earls, no. 231.
  • 29. J.C.A.S. lxiv. 23-31.
  • 30. Ward and others, Excavations at Chester: Saxon Occupation, 13, 122-3.
  • 31. Below, this chapter: Later Medieval (Street Plan within the Walls).
  • 32. J.C.A.S. lv. 32-3.
  • 33. Mason, Excavations at Chester: Lower Bridge St. 39.
  • 34. P.N. Ches. v (1:i), 9, 11, 13, 16-17, 26; Ward and others, Excavations at Chester: Saxon Occupation, 21, 122-3.
  • 35. Cart. Chester Abbey, i, p. 40; ii, pp. 274, 352; Charters of A.-N. Earls, p. 14.
  • 36. P.N. Ches. v (1:i), 75-6.
  • 37. Lucian, De Laude Cestrie, 63-4.
  • 38. V.C.H. Ches. iii. 178.
  • 39. Ibid. i. 356, 358 (nos. 183, 211, 218).
  • 40. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Mills and Fisheries: Dee Corn Mills, Dee Fisheries.
  • 41. B.L. Add. Ch. 72201-2; P.N. Ches. v (1:i), 57-8.
  • 42. Lucian, De Laude Cestrie, 55; Ann. Cest. 20-1, 28-9.
  • 43. V.C.H. Ches. v (2), Collegiate Church of St. John; Medieval Parish Churches: St. Michael; Cathedral and Close: Abbey Church to 1541; Castle: Buildings.
  • 44. Facsimiles of Early Ches. Charters, ed. G. Barraclough, pp. 34-6; Charters of A.-N. Earls, nos. 13, 282.
  • 45. J.C.A.S. lxix. 140.