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Chester Castle

In the City of Chester near the Racecourse and River, on the border with Wales.

Agricola's Tower, the original gatehouse of the inner bailey at Chester.

Photographs and text copyright by John Northall 2006

With acknowledgements to Chester City Council, English Heritage and The Oxford History of England.

The remains of Chester castle stand on a low hill within a bend of the River Dee, just a stones-throw from the border with Wales. Although this once-mighty fortress has been obscured by newer buildings there is still enough of the ancient fabric left to entertain the interested visitor.

Looking north up to the motte from the direction of the old harbour.

Origins

William the Conqueror ordered the original Norman castle to be built here in 1069-1070 when Chester became the last Saxon burgh to fall during his subjugation of northern England. After the Saxons surrendered their city a large motte-and-bailey castle was built on the site of a Roman auxiliary fort of 79 AD, overlooking the lowest fording point of the river. The Roman fortress-city of Deva had been refortified around 907AD by the Mercian king Aethelfleda to withstand the Danes after their expulsion from Ireland but it's unclear if the Normans reused the Saxon fort. What is known is that William destroyed half the Saxon houses in Chester to accommodate his new works.

The Half Moon tower on the northern end of the oval motte.

The north and east sides of the inner bailey were built on a spur of rock above the sloping riverbank and an oval-shaped mound was built to the west, probably crowned by a sturdy timber tower. A large circular outer bailey stood to the north and strong timber palisades around the insides of the broad ditches protected the whole site. A small harbour was situated between the motte and the river to make use of the excellent water-transport links to Holt and beyond in one direction and the North Wales coast in the other.

Sketch plan of the castle earthworks based on an aerial photograph.

After a short tenure by Walter de Gherbaud the castle and surrounding districts were given by the king to another of his loyal followers, Walter's nephew Hugh de Avranches, who went on to make a fortune from his position of the Earl of Chester. The new owner was an ambitious man and Chester became the supply base for incursions along the coast in association with Robert of Rhuddlan. The fortunes of the Norman invasions of Gwynedd ebbed and flowed over the years with the invaders periodically being forced back but they were always secure in their fortress of Chester, protected by the River Dee on one side and the marshes and forests of Cheshire on the other.

St Mary de Castro chapel in Agricola's Tower.

Developments in Stone

The castle was gradually rebuilt in stone and one of the oldest stone buildings, dating from around 1200, still remains in an excellent state of repair. It was the original stone entrance to the inner bailey and was named Agricola's Tower, although it can have had little to do with the long-dead military governor of Roman Britain that it was apparently named after. The finely vaulted entrance passage was 8 feet wide but its outer end was walled up when a new twin-towered gate was built. The chapel of St Mary de Castro is situated directly above the entrance passage and wall paintings of around 1220 AD were revealed within it when the many layers of internal whitewash were removed in the 1980s.

Perhaps the oldest stone tower of the castle was the Flag Tower, built at the centre of the motte within the stout wooden palisade that ran around its top. When the palisade was replaced in stone it was built in line with the front of the Flag Tower so that the tower was flush with the wall instead of projecting from it, an antiquated arrangement also evident in stone castles built in the 12th century. The lower half of the Flag Tower still stands although it's not visible from outside the castle.

The stairs within the wall of Agricola's Tower. The chapel is through the doorway to the left.

Henry the Third instigated a huge programme of castle building during his troubled reign and he was responsible for the addition of stone flanking towers at Chester, having taken the Earldom of Chester for himself in 1237 when the Earl of Chester died without a successor. Henry spent 1,717 on Chester, compared to 10,000 in total on his castles in Wales, and the Half Moon tower on the motte is believed to date from his time.

The outer bailey was provided with a high stone wall in 1247 and its former location is marked by the remains of its encircling ditch around the present day county court car park. The wall was almost 400 metres in length and provided enough space to house an invading army in addition to the hall, chapel and well. The Great Hall in the outer bailey and the inner gatehouse were both replaced around 1250 but Agricola's Tower was still defensively valuable as it overlooked the deep ditch between the outer and inner baileys.

The line of the ditch around the outer bailey can still be seen even though the walls were demolished in the 18th century to make way for the County Court.

Henry's son, that passionate castle builder Edward the First, also improved Chester after he was awarded the Earldom od Chester in 1254. The pipe rolls disclose that 3-6-6d was paid out in 1286 for the transport of steel from Newcastle-under-Lyme and 1,401-11-7d was spent in total between 1284 and 1291. This covered the cost of individual chambers for the King and Queen, a new chapel, stables and a large twin-towered outer gatehouse that had a drawbridge over a moat that was an impressive 8 metres deep.

Looking east from the main road, the whole length of the unusual oval motte can be seen. The oldest stone tower of the castle, the Flag Tower, once rose from the centre of the wall in the vicinty of the blocked-up horizontal gun port.

Chester's Role in the Subjugation of Gwynedd

Both Henry and Edward launched invasions of North Wales from Chester as it was ideally situated to supply their forces by sea along the coast. The river here is wide and the open sea is a few miles downstream. Edward in particular used this to his advantage and he built new castles at Flint, Rhuddlan, Conwy, Harlech, Beaumaris and Caernarvon that were provided with their own harbours. This allowed them to resist starvation when under siege and prevented the fate that befell his father's strong but isolated hilltop castles at Dyserth and Deganwy. All of these castles were supplied from Chester.

A daring escape was made from Chester castle in 1246 by Owen ap Gruffydd, brother of Prince Llewelyn, who had been held hostage by King Henry. Owen rejoined Llewelyn's forces and in 1257 they "ravaged the country to the very gates of the city" before the outbreak of an uneasy peace.

A view of the castle made by the Buck Brothers in 1727. The remains of the Water Gate to the harbour can be seen in the left foreground.

After Edward succeeded Henry in 1272, Llewelyn was twice summoned to Chester to pay homage to the new king but failed to attend as he "feared for his safety". Edward then decided to prove his ascendancy through force of arms and in 1277 laid siege to Rhuddlan, where Llewelyn was starved into submission and forced to sign a peace treaty that reduced his lands considerably. Chester was then used as a staging post in the supply of men and materials for the construction of new castles at Flint, Rhuddlan, Ruthin and Denbigh.

Castles that were supplied by sea from Chester.

Chester was once more used as a supply base in 1282 when Edward responded to an uprising started by Llewelyn's brother Dafydd. Llywelyn belatedly joined the revolt but this time there would be no treaty and, during a hard-fought campaign that lasted throughout the winter into 1283, the indigenous forces were slowly crushed. Again, Chester was the gateway for a huge logistical operation that saw the rise of magnificent castles at Conwy, Harlech, Caernarvon and Beaumaris. The independent monarchy of Wales was extinguished forever.

A plan of the castle before its partial demolition in the 18th century. The three marked towers still stand.

A Change of Use

The river between Chester and the sea slowly silted up in the middle ages and Chester consequently declined in importance, its role as a maritime supply base being gradually taken over by Liverpool. In common with many other castles, Chester was pressed back into use during the English civil war and suffered as a consequence when the Parliamentarians besieged it between September 1645 and February 1646. However, it was not completely ruined and was put to good use as a prison, court and tax office. Daniel King described the new use of the castle in his book of 1651:

"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 drawbridge 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".

The rear of the Half Moon Tower seen from within the inner bailey, with the remains of the mint behind it.

In 1696 Edward Halley, the man who named the famous comet, set up a mint in Chester castle during a national effort to replace the debased currency of England. The remains of the Halley's mint exist as a rectangular building behind the Half Moon tower.

Later developments

An engraving by the Buck brothers made in 1727 and a watercolour painted by Moses Griffith in 1750 both show the castle as substantially complete but in 1780 it was largely demolished to make way for the county hall, courts, a new prison and barracks for the Cheshire Regiment. The redevelopment was complete by 1792 and the prison was considered to be one of the best in the kingdom. Part of it can still be visited as it houses a small museum featuring a reconstructed prison cell.

Moses Grittith painted Chester Castle in 1750. This view shows the inner bailey looking south from the centre of the outer bailey.

The southern wall of the inner bailey was removed by the military in 1776 to make way for a four-gun platform that gave a broad field of fire across the river. The height of the Flag and Half Moon towers were reduced so that cannon mounted on their roofs would have stable platforms, as was also done at other strategically sited castles such as Carlisle and Dover.

This gun platform was built in the 18th century to provide defensive cannon fire across the River Dee.

An external view of the gun platform shows how it abuts the southern end of the motte.

The Castle Today

After the army moved out for the last time the remains of the Castle were cleared, renovated and then opened to the public. Although the outer bailey now exists only in its ground plan some substantial stone masonry still stands on and around the earthworks of the inner bailey. In addition to Agricola's Tower, remains of the Flag and Half Moon towers can still be seen on the line of the wall that runs up and along the motte. A wall walk runs along the outer wall near Agricola's Tower and across the gun platform.

A view of the Half Moon Tower during consolidation work on the Flag Tower. The rectangular windows are not original.

To find the remains of the castle, it's best to park in the Little Roodee car park next to the river and then wander up the hill towards town. The position of the motte is obvious as it overlooks the car park. To gain access to it, cut through the county court car park via its grandiose stone gateway and at the far right hand corner you will enter the inner bailey through the area of the demolished inner gatehouse. The rear of the Half Moon tower and the badly truncated Flag tower are then on your right and Agricola's Tower is to the left beyond the small museum.

 

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