Chester Castle

Chester Castle

Norman Chapel

Norman Chapel


Chester Castle is in the city of Chester, Cheshire, England. It is sited at the southwest extremity of the area bounded by the city walls. The castle stands on an eminence overlooking the River Dee. In the castle complex are the remaining parts of the medieval castle together with the neoclassical buildings designed by Thomas Harrison which were built between 1788 and 1813. Parts of the neoclassical buildings are used today as Crown Courts and as a military museum. The museum and the medieval remains are a tourist attraction.

The castle was built in 1070 by Hugh d'Avranches, the second Earl of Chester. It is possible that it was built on the site of an earlier Saxon fortification but this has not been confirmed. The original structure would have been a motte-and-bailey castle with a wooden tower. In the 12th century the wooden tower was replaced by a square stone tower, the Flag Tower. During the same century the stone gateway to the inner bailey was built. This is now known as the Agricola Tower and on its first floor is the chapel of St Mary de Castro.

The chapel contains items of Norman architecture. In the 13th century, during the reign of Henry III, the walls of an outer bailey were built, the gateway in the Agricola Tower was blocked up and residential accommodation, including a Great Hall, was built along the south wall of the inner bailey. Later in the century, during the reign of Edward I, a new gateway to the outer bailey was built. This was flanked by two half-drum towers and had a drawbridge over a moat 8 metres (26 feet) deep. Further additions to the castle at this time included individual chambers for the King and Queen, a new chapel and stables.

Prominent people held as prisoners in the crypt of the Agricola Tower were Richard II and Eleanor Cobham, wife of Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and Andrew de Moray, hero of the Battle of Stirling Bridge. During the Wars of the Roses, Yorkist John Neville, 1st Marquess of Montagu was captured and imprisoned at the castle by Lancastrians following the Battle of Blore Heath, near the town of Market Drayton, Shropshire, in 1459. He was released from captivity following the Yorkist victory at Northampton in 1460. Outside the outer bailey gate was an area known as the Gloverstone where criminals waiting for execution were handed over to the city authorities. The Great Hall was rebuilt in the late 1570s.

During the Civil War Chester was held by the Royalists. The castle was assaulted by Parliamentary forces in July 1643, and in January and April 1645. Together with the rest of the city, it was besieged between September 1645 and February 1646. Following the civil war the castle was used as a prison, a court and a tax office. In 1687 James II attended Mass in the chapel of St Mary de Castro. In 1696 Chester mint was established and was managed by Edmund Halley in a building adjacent to the Half Moon tower. During the 1745 Jacobite rising a gun emplacement was built on the wall overlooking the river.

By the later part of the 18th century much of the fabric of the castle had deteriorated and John Howard, the prison reformer, was particularly critical of the conditions in the prison. Thomas Harrison was commissioned to design a new prison. This was completed in 1792 and praised as one of the best constructed prisons in the country.

Harrison then went on to rebuild the medieval Shire Hall in neoclassical style. He also built two new wings, one to act as barracks, the other as an armoury, and designed a massive new entrance to the castle site, styled the Propylaeum. The buildings, which were all in neoclassical style, were built between 1788 and 1822. The architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner comments that Harrison's work constitutes "one of the most powerful monuments of the Greek Revival in the whole of England".

In February 1867, Irish Fenian Michael Davitt led a group of IRB men from Haslingden on an abortive raid for arms on the castle. The Army moved in to take hold of the castle and in 1873 a system of recruiting areas based on counties was instituted under the Cardwell Reforms and the castle became the depot for the two battalions of the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment of Foot. Under the Childers Reforms, the 22nd regiment evolved to become the Cheshire Regiment with its depot in the castle in 1881.

In 1925, after being used for 200 years as a warehouse and ammunition store, the crypt and chapel in the Agricola Tower were reconsecrated by the Bishop of Chester for the use of the Cheshire Regiment. In 1939 the chapel was refurnished. The castle remained the depot of the Cheshire Regiment until 1939, when the regiment moved out to Dale Barracks.

The complex is entered from Grosvenor Road through the Propylaeum, a Grade I listed building. This consists of a massive entablature supported on widely spaced (areostyle) Doric columns, flanked by temple-like lodges. Directly ahead is the former Shire Hall (also listed Grade I) which now houses the Crown Courts. Its façade has 19 bays, the central seven bays of which project forward and constitute a Doric portico. To the left is the former barracks block which is now the home of the Cheshire Military Museum. To the right is the block which was originally an armoury and later an officers' mess. Both blocks are in neoclassical style and are listed Grade I.

Further to the right are the remains of the Norman castle. The Agricola Tower is a Grade I listed building. It is built in sandstone ashlar with a metal roof in three storeys. The ground floor has a blocked gateway and to the right of the gateway is a slightly projecting stair turret. Internally, the ground floor consists of a crypt, and the first floor contains the chapel of St Mary Castro. The Agricola Tower is also a scheduled monument. The chapel is still consecrated as the regimental chapel of the Cheshire Regiment. Its ceiling is covered with frescos dating from the early part of the 13th century which depict the Visitation and miracles performed by the Virgin Mary which were revealed during conservation work in the 1990s.

To the south and the west, the curtain walls, which include the Halfmoon Tower, the Flag Tower and the gun emplacement, are listed Grade I. Other walls within the castle complex are listed Grade II. These are the retaining walls and the railing of the forecourt designed by Thomas Harrison, and two other areas of the medieval curtain walls. In the castle courtyard is a statue of Queen Victoria dated 1903 by Pomeroy. The inner bailey is managed by Cheshire West and Chester Council on behalf of English Heritage.

* –– *

Without doubt this piece of high ground round which the River Dee sweeps in a gradual curve has had strategic importance from earliest times, and around the year 907AD, the Saxons of Mercia under Aethelfleda, as part of their re-occupation of the old Roman fortress, erected a fortified base here and incorporated it into their extension to the walls, to serve as part of their defences against the Danes, then being driven out of Ireland and looking for new lands to occupy.

Of this Saxon fortress no trace remains and very little more is known of the site until the winter of 1069-70, when the army of Duke William of Normandy came to Saxon Chester, which became the last remaining great town in England to fall to the Conqueror's sword during the final stages of the Harrying of the North in 1069-70, fully three years after the Battle of Hastings.

Numerous rumours had long been circulating among the Norman army about the bad roads, the position of the city, surrounded as it was by thick forests and treacherous swamps, of its numerous inhabitants, and of their obstinate courage and deadly familiarity with the longbow. Many of William's nobles, worn out by the struggles in the North, and alarmed at these stories, demanded their discharge. Some actually retired to Normandy, abandoning the lands with which they had already been rewarded; but the persuasive powers of Duke William prevailed, he promised them great rewards, and, as the conquest of Chester was the last of his projects, that they would find rest after this one final victory.

As it turned out, as the Norman army prevailed. The death toll during the campaign is believed to have been around 150,000, with substantial social, cultural, and economic damage. Due to the ruthless and violent "scorched earth" policy which the Normans employed, much of the land was laid waste and depopulated. In parts of the north, the damage was such that the survivors had to resort to cannibalism. Inevitably, plague followed. All told, about a fifth of the population of England may have died during the Norman Conquest. We know little about the battle for Chester or the number of casualties involved but we do know that a very large proportion of the houses in the town were destroyed.

William granted the Earldom of Chester first to Walter de Gherbaud- who, however soon returned to an easy life in Normandy- and then to his nephew, Hugh D'Avranches- know as Lupus (the wolf) but in later life, especially by the Welsh, as Hugh Vras (Hugh the Fat) - "To hold to him and his heirs as freely by the sword as the King holds the Crown of England".

The Earldom became very powerful and virtually independent of the Crown, the Earl having his own Parliament consisting of eight of his chosen Barons and their tenants, and they were in no way bound by any laws passed by the English Parliament with the exception of that of treason.

Hugh erected a typical Norman timber motte and bailey castle here which was soon rebuilt in enduring stone. Of the fate of the Saxon stronghold formerly occupying the site we know nothing at all, but its Norman successor over the course of centuries grew into a formidable defensive structure of great strategic importance.

Following the Crown's annexation of the Earldom of Chester in 1237, when the last Norman Earl died without issue, considerable enlargement and strengthening were carried out by Henry III and Edward I, particularly in the outer bailey, where the pallisade was replaced by a great stone wall in 1247-51.

Chester Castle was the frontier base from which North Wales was attacked and eventually conquered in the 12th and 13th centuries and the exchequer, courts and prison were based here, as well as housing the garrison. In 1246, Owen ap Gruffydd (Owain Gwynneth) escaped from imprisonment here to join his brother Llewelyn in the fight against the English, under whose leadership in 1257 they "ravaged the country to the very gates of the city". In 1276-7 Edward came twice to Chester to summon Llewellyn to make peace, but was each time refused, on the grounds that the Prince of Wales "feared for his safety", whereupon the King laid siege to Rhuddlan Castle, where Llewellyn was starved into submission.

In 1397, it is recorded that the Deputy Constable of Chester Castle, Thomas le Wodeward, took delivery of certain new supplies:

  • • 11 iron collars and 2 gross of iron chain.
  • • 2 pairs of iron belts with shackles.
  • • 2 pairs of iron handcuffs with 4 iron shackles.
  • • 7 pairs of iron feet fetters with 3 shackles.
  • • 1 hasp for the stocks.
  • In 1399 Henry Bolingbroke, Duke of Lancaster, took Chester, soon after mustering his troops under the walls and marching against Richard II, whom he took at Flint Castle. He returned to Chester with the unfortunate monarch (dressed in the monk's robe in which he had attempted to escape) and the Earl of Salisbury "mounted on two little white nagges not worth 40 francs" and lodged them in the Castle. After resting in a tower over the outer gateway, they were escorted to Westminster. Bolingbroke deposed Richard- who was murdered in prison the following year- and was elected King Henry IV by Parliament.

    These great events were, of course, immortalised by Shakespeare, and John Speed commented of Richard, "If to spare his people's bloud he was contented so tamely to quit his royall right, this fact doth not only seeme excusable, but glorious; but men rather think that it was sloth, and a vaine trust in dissimulation which his enemies had long since discovered in him".

    After centuries of service (from the Saxons to the 20th century Edwardians, architects built for ever, not for mere decades as now) Chester Castle sustained serious damage during the Civil War, and by the 18th century had been allowed to fall into a state of advanced decay.

    After the war, Oliver Cromwell had ordered many castles, such as that at nearby Liverpool, to be partially or completely demolished so they could not be used to wage war again, but here at Chester the least damaged parts of the building continued in use; writing of Chester Castle in the Vale Royal of England in 1651, Daniel King recorded that,

    "The castle is a place having priviledge of itself, and hath a Constable... At the first coming in is the Gate-house, which is a prison for the whole County, having divers rooms and lodgings. And hard within the Gate is a house, which was sometime the Exchequer but now the Custom House. Not far from thence in the Base Court is a deep well, and thereby stables, and other Houses of Office. On the left-hand is a chappell; and hard by adjoyning thereunto, the goodly fair and large Shire-Hall newly repaired; where all matters of Law touching the County Palatine are heard, and judicially determined. And at the end thereof the brave New Exchequer, for the said County Palatine. All these are in the Base Court. Then there is a Draw-Bridge into the Inner Ward, wherein are divers goodly Lodgings for the Justices, when they come: And herein the Constable himself dwelleth. The Thieves and Fellons are arraigned in the said Shire-Hall; and, being condemned, are by the Constable of the Castle, or his Deputy, delivered to the Sheriffs of the City, a certain distance without the Castle-Gate, at a stone called The Glovers Stone from which place, the said Sheriffs convey them to the place of execution, called Boughton"

    Another source records that that criminals were handed over "at Glovers Stoune to such officer of the Cittie of Chester, in and from hence to whipp them through the Cittie". In the years since, what is conjectured to be the old Glovers Stone which long marked the boundary of this 'no-man's-land' between the authorities of Crown and City outside the Castle gateway was moved to a small garden area under the city walls and close to the Watertower, where it may still be seen today.

    In the 18th century, a remarkable event in early avaition history occured at Chester Castle, which was recorded the year after its undertaking by the ‘pilot’, Thomas Baldwin, in his book, AIROPAIDIA: Containing the Narrative of a BALLOON EXCURSION from CHESTER.

    He wrote, “On Thursday, the 8th of September, 1785, at six in the morning, one of the cannons (a six-pounder] was first fired in the Castle yard, to inform the city and neighbourhood that the necessary preparations were making to inflate the balloon. At xii the cannon fired a second time, to announce that the process was in a proper degree of forwardness. Before half-past one, Mr. Lunardi had inflated his balloon in the finest manner; and at 40 minutes past one, the Balloon having a levity which not less than 20 pounds weight would counterpoise, Mr. Baldwin was liberated by the hands of Mr. Lunardi, who suffered no one to approach the car.

    The car first landed at 28 minutes past three, in a field belonging to a farm called Bellair, in the Township of Kingsley, near two miles east by south from the Town of Frodsham, and twelve from Chester. He landed exactly at 7 minutes before four, near the middle of Rixton Moss; and on his return to Chester the following day he was met by the Militia Band and ushered with loud huzzas into his native city.”

    This historic event took place less than two years after the world's first manned flight, that of the Montgolfier Brothers' balloon in Paris on 21st November 1783.

    Around 1780, 100 years after the Vale Royal entry was written, the old stones of the medieval Chester Castle were swept away to make room for the buildings we see today. This great complex of Shire Hall, courts, prison, armoury and barracks was designed, after winning a competition, and a prize of 50 guineas, by Thomas Harrison, then a relatively obscure architect with very few buildings to his name, and were erected between the years 1785 and 1822.

    Harrison (1744-1829) was born in Richmond, Yorkshire, the son of a joiner. His early talent for mechanics, mathematics and drawing won him the patronage of a local nobleman, who sent him on that essential experience in the education of a privileged young man of the day - the Grand Tour of Italy, where, despite having no formal architectural training, he gained a reputation based upon his designs for a number of buildings in Rome, although none were actually built.

    Upon returning to England, Harrison worked on a few minor architectural commissions before winning the Chester competition at the age of 40. The commission was originally just for a new gaol but was later extended to cover the rebuilding of the medieval Shire Hall, unfortunately for us: by all accounts it had been a most beautiful and impressive building, and in 1804, extended again to include new barracks and armoury blocks.

    When completed, the complex covered a much larger area than the old Castle, extending well beyond the medieval curtain walls. To complete his scheme, Harrison designed an impressive new entrance in the Greek Doric style, which was erected between 1810 and 1822, a free-standing structure similar to Berlin's famous Brandenburg Gate, built about twenty years earlier and said to be based on the Propylaeum of the Acropolis in Athens.

    The centre of the new legal buildings was the Assize Court with its massive and impressive portico. Each of its twelve Doric columns is formed from one single stone 23 feet in height. When the first of these was raised, with great ceremony, within a cavity in the plinth was placed a lead box, inside which was a small Wedgewood urn, this in turn containing several coins of the day. An engraved brass plate was fastened over the cavity before the column was hauled into position.

    Due to the court's foundations being situated over the old moat of the medieval castle, considerable structural cracking occured and when, in 1920, major repairs were undertaken, this urn was found together with, under another column, a small brass snuffbox which had belonged to Admiral Lord Nelson, which also contained coins. When the columns were re-erected in 1922, the urn was replaced in situ, coins dated 1921-22 having been added. The snuffbox, however, was added to the collection of Cheshire Regimental relics.

    The interior of the court was built in a semi-circle with twelve Ionic columns as supports. Originally, the jury's retiring room and the turnkey's lodge were to the left of the court, as was also the entrance to the cells, the lower level of which were occupied by the felons and the upper by the debtors. The upper cells survive today and are used for the daily housing of prisoners awaiting appearance in what is today Chester Crown Court. Many famous trials have taken place here over the years, none more notorious than that of Brady and Hindley, the 'Moors Murderers' in 1966.

    Today, the Castle houses Chester Crown Court, some of the departments of Cheshire West and Chester Council (formerly Cheshire County Council) and the fascinating Cheshire Regiment Military Museum.

    With the exception of occasional patches of medieval walling, the only survivor of the great castle in which Henry Bolingbroke imprisoned Richard II in 1399 is the three-storey red sandstone tower of c.1200 curiously named Agricola's Tower- it certainly has no Roman connection- and even this was refaced by Harrison. This was one of the towers of the Inner Bailey. The site of the Outer Bailey is represented by Harrison's courtyard, the Shire Hall occupies the site of the medieval Great Hall, and the barracks wing that of the outer gatehouse.

    Curiously, there is a record that, in 1581, the city magistrates bought the old Shire Hall in the Castle "for six Cheshire cheeses", and moved it to the Market Square where it was first served as a granary, and was then appropriated by the city's butchers, and became the flesh shambles.

    The Inner Bailey was to the south, beyond Harrison's armoury wing, and the so-called Agricola's Tower was sited between the inner gatehouse and the Inner and Outer Bailey walls. Its top floor houses the fine Norman / Early English Chapel of St. Mary de Castro, where have recently been discovered some very fine ceiling paintings, hidden under- and preserved by- chemical deposits from the gunpowder which was once stored here.

    From earliest times, prisoners of every rank from King to peasant were confined at Chester Castle. People were imprisoned, and frequently executed, for trifling offences, and inprisonment in those ancient dungeons must always have been a terrible experience; crowded together in filthy conditions and suffering an existence of almost-total inactivity, often in shackles fastened to the wall.

    The Chester Plea Roll in 1435 recorded the terrible punishment of 'pressing', meted out to one who refused to defend himself: "Thomas Broune of Irby complained to the Justice of Chester that John Strete of Nantwich stole a horse of his, worth 12s. Strete was arrested, but refused to plead; he could speak but of his malice he would not. The jury convicted him and the sentence was pronounced: let him be sent back to prison in the King's Castle of Chester and there be kept under strict custody, lying naked upon the floor; let iron above what he can carry be placed upon his body; as long as he lives let him have a morsel of bread one day and the next a drink of water from the nearest prison gate, until he shall die there in the said prison."

    By the middle of the 'civilised' 18th century, and the massive increase in prisoners of war "brought in by the cartload" following the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745, overcrowding, bad food and filthy conditions led to outbreaks of disease, notably typhus, resulting in large numbers of deaths among the inmates. In addition, the advent of the American War of Independence made it more difficult to transport prisoners to the plantations, as had been the norm previously, leading to a further increase in the population.

    In the following year, a letter recorded "There is a very contagious and mortall Distemper in the Castle of which the Gaoler and his wife are dead and Rebells and Debtors in abundance. Since the Gaoler's death the Rebells have attempted to knock the Turnkey's brains out and have cutt and mangled him desperately".

    In 1783, the great prison reformer John Howard visited Chester. (His name lives on in today's Howard League for Penal Reform). On a visit overseas, he had been captured by privateers and imprisoned in terrible conditions in France. After his release, this bitter experience led him to devote his considerable energies and fortune to campaigning for an improvement in prison conditions.

    He persuaded the government to order gaolers to be paid properly, formerly they were forced to live on what they could extort for the inmates- and prisons to be kept clean and their occupants decently fed. He described the medieval Northgate Gaol as "insufficient, inconvenient and in want of repair" and compared it to the Black Hole of Calcutta. Stung by Howard's criticisms, the city authorities realised something had to be done, so, as part of the rebuilding of the Castle, a new prison was commissioned and opened in 1792.

    Harrison paid attention to the recommendations of the reformers, and consulted the leading prison architect of the day, William Blackburn. His design aimed to provide the inmates with dry and airy cells, and the sexes were separated for the first time. Different classes of prisoner were also segregated, debtors were housed in 'airy yards' on the upper level, said to "command a delightful view of the fine ruins of Beeston Castle".

    Upon completion, Harrison's gaol was praised as "in every respect one of the best-constructed goals in the Kingdom". However, in 1817 the architect James Elmes commented "No-one viewing this edifice can possibly mistake it for anything but a gaol, the openings as small as convenient and the whole external appearance made as gloomy and melancholy as possible".

    On 14th August 1878, the London Times reported an exciting event at the Castle: "A fire broke out at Chester Castle on Monday evening, beneath the new court, which has recently been erected at a cost of £10,000. As soon as the flames were observed the men stationed at the Castle turned out and manned their engine. A window in the carpenter's store-room, in which the fire was raging, was broken, and volumes of water were poured in.

    The scene was exciting, for on one side the county prisoners were incarcerated, and on the other, in immediate proximity to Caesar's Tower, separated only from the burning building by a guard's box, immense quantities of ammunition are stored. To prevent the fire from extending to this tower, therefore, was the chief object of the men, as an explosion would have inevitably been terribly destructive to life and property. In a short time the rmen mastered the flames though the fire continued to burn for some time afterwards. The Chester fire brigade was unable to be present in time to render assistance, in consequence of a failure of the telegraphic apparatus. The storage of so large a quantity of ammunition in the city will forthwith be the subject of discussion in the Town Council".

    * Visiting *

    Chester Castle is not an easy place to visit. There is much to see and do in Chester and a walk around the periphery of the castle is rewarding. The principle means of breaching the gates is through the 'Secret Chester Castle Tour'. The tour takes place on the first Tuesday and third Friday of every month, April through October.

    The Cheshire Military Museum is a military museum in Chester. The museum covers the history of four British Army regiments connected with the County of Cheshire from 1685 onwards: the Cheshire Regiment, the Cheshire Yeomanry, the 3rd Carabiniers, the 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, and also the Eaton Hall Officer Cadet School. The museum is located in the former A block at Chester Castle. The building is recorded in the National Heritage List for England as a designated Grade I listed building.

    An innovative and attractive museum relating the story of the men of the regiments of Cheshire, their families and their community. This 300 year history is told through art, artefacts and memorabilia including fine displays of uniforms, medals and weapons. “The War Horse” exhibition traces the story of the horse and other equine beasts in war from the times of the Ancient Egyptians to the modern day. There are toilets at the museum and full disabled access.

    The Castle is open to vist, without access to the tower, for free:

  • Tuesday to Saturday, 10:00 to 16:30.
  • Sunday, 13:00 to 16:00.
  • Monday Closed.

    Location : Chester Castle, Grosvenor Street, Chester, Cheshire, CH1 2DN

    Transport: Chester (National Rail) then 1 mile. Bus routes: Arriva 1, 3, 3A, 4, 4A, X11, 12, 13, X44, X55; GHA services X1 & 11A pass close by.

    Opening Times : see above.

    Opening Times Museum: Daily except Wednesday, 10:00 to 17:00

    Tickets Secret Tour: Adults £7.00;  Concession £6.00 ;  Family £16.00.

    Tickets Regimental Museum: Adults £4.00;  Concession £2.00 ;  Family £9.00.

    Tel: 03703331181