The History of Chester - Sarah Woodbury

The History of Chester

The City of Chester is the first stop of our Wales Odyssey!  We began with a tour of the walls, which were begun when the city was called ‘Deva’, and fortified by the Romans.


“The Roman military presence at Chester probably began with a fort or marching camp at the mouth of the Deva Fluvius (River Dee) very likely established during the early campaigns of governor Publius Ostorius Scapula against the Deceangi in north-east Wales sometime around AD47/48. There is some evidence of pre-Flavian occupation, possibly even a timber-built fort, but proof positive of a Scapulan foundation has yet to emerge.

After the first tentative forays of Scapula, the next military activity in the area was conducted during the early administration of governor Sextus Julius Frontinus sometime around AD74 when an auxiliary fort was constructed at Chester. The placement of this fort was a strategic move by Frontinus designed both to block the route of any routed British bands trying to escape to the north, and also to guard against any help arriving from the Brigantes.

By AD79 the site had developed into the twenty-five hectare fortress base of Legio II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis. The external dimensions of the fortress were 1,950 x 1,360 feet (594 x 415 m), which, allowing for the width of the defences gave an interior area of about 56 acres (22.7 ha). This early Flavian timber fortress is evidenced by lead piping bearing the name of Gnaeus Julius Agricola.”

“After the Romans withdrew circa AD400, the prosperous city fell prey to marauding Danes and Saxons and was virtually derelict by 900.

The Normans reached Chester circa 1070 and a revival began, Chester Castle was built, housing Hugh the Wolf, First Earl of Chester, nephew of William the Conqueror. By the Middle Ages, Chester had become an affluent and prosperous port. It was during this time that the famous Rows were built. so that by the 13th century, it had again become a centre of shipping trade, a port serving Scotland, Ireland, France and Spain. In the 14th century began the Mystery Plays and pageants for which the city became famous. Henry VIII granted a charter in 1541 and made Chester a bishopric.”

“Five hundred years after the Legions withdrew from Deva, their Saxon successors knew the city as Legecaester, a translation of part of the British (Welsh) Caer Lleon Vawr ar Ddyfrdwy or ‘Camp of the Great Legion on the Dee’- also called Caerleon-ar-Dour. Long before the Norman conquest, the first part of the name was being omitted in documents, and by the time of Henry I (1100-1135) the coinage had also simplified it to a form which is recognisable as the modern Chester. Our Welsh-speaking neighbours however, to this day refer to the city as Caer. …

Robert Stoker in his book The Legacy of Arthur’s Chester (1963), who pointed out that there were actually two cities bearing the name Caerleon, and, after the departure of the Legions, it was here, Caerleon-upon-Dee that became the ecclesiastical and civil capital of the Kings of Britain, Capital of Wales, GHQ of the centuries-long campaigns against the Saxons and the city of the coronation, in the early seventh century, of a not-so-legendary King Arthur– not Caerleon-on-Usk (Roman Isca) in South Wales. The confusion seemingly lay with Arthur’s medieval chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose patron, Robert of Gloucester, was Lord of the Monmouth Marches, where Caerleon-on-Usk is situated. It seems that Geoffrey, doubtess partly in order to please his Lord, attributed all references dealing with ‘Caerleon-ar-Dour’ (Chester) to Caerleon without qualifying which one the old chronicles were referring to.

Consequently, Stoker claims, historians have ever since been crediting, for example, Isca with having an archbishop since AD180 because a local boy in Monmouth had said so nine hundred years later.  Whatever the case, think of the still-magnificent old fortress when you go here to read Geoffrey’s description of the coronation of King Arthur…

Throughout the centuries, as peoples came and went and wars were won and lost, Chester continued to gain increasing military, political and economic significance due to its position as the lowest bridging point of the River Dee, controlling a key route into North Wales and the main western route to northern England and to Scotland.”

2 Replies to “The History of Chester”

  1. Wonderful – looking forward to Wales. Was in Chester about 25 years ago, and what I remembers most is that I had the best lamb dinner!

    1. We had a great time. It’s nice that they are restoring the walls so you can walk all around the city on them.

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