Category Archives: Mediaeval History

Heritage Festival Tour: Chester Cathedral’s Medieval Architecture by Nick Fry

The Grade 1 listed Chester Cathedral. .

As part of Chester Heritage Festival, this tour of Chester Cathedral lead by tour guide and cathedral expert Nick Fry took us through the architecture of what was the Benedictine abbey (then known as St Werburgh’s) from 1092, when it was founded by Earl of Chester Hugh d’Avranches (known as Hugh Lupus), until 1539, when it was closed by Henry VIII.  The abbey was saved from most of the indignities inflicted on other suppressed abbeys by its conversion to a cathedral in 1541, when the wide-ranging architectural changes being implemented by the abbey’s Benedictine inhabitants were brought to a close.  This tour was the story of the abbey, rather than the later cathedral that underwent its own changes and was particularly fiddled around with in the Victorian period.

Viewed through a later gothic arch, the Romanesque arches just beneath the former roof level, with re-used Roman columns, look very attractive but archaic

Nick talked us through how, between 1092 and 1539, the abbey underwent a number of architectural innovations, from its Romanesque origins, through the innovations of gothic design, to its final days as a monastery. Key Romanesque features are rounded arches, and columns that instead of being incorporated into the arches stand slightly apart from them.  The gothic was innovated in France, specifically notable at Saint Denis in Paris, but spread rapidly to Britain, and its influence is visible in the the increasingly formal, elaborate and technologically more efficient pointed arches, rib vaulting and decorative window tracery.  

The talk was wrapped up with master mason Tom in the abbey garth, the central square garden around which the abbey cloisters were arranged.  Tom was an excellent speaker and talked us through the tools of the trade and the key characteristics of the raw materials used for different parts of the building, demonstrating the use the tools, and his skills, on a piece of ornamental sandstone on which he was working.  Both the tour by Nick Fry and the masonry demonstration by Tom Livingstone were excellent.  

The Romanesque is distinguished by its curves and its monumental solidity.  There are only pieces of it remaining from the former abbey, before the monks started to modernise, but enough to give an idea of the different architectural paradigm of the period.  The north transept is remarkable not merely for its Romanesque arches and windows, but the re-use of Roman columns in their manufacture.  This portion of the cathedral looks the most instinctively old, and gives the best idea of what the rest of the abbey must have looked like, with a footprint not that much different from the cathedral’s.  The small windows were typical of the Romanesque, as bigger windows would have undermined the strength of the walls that was required to support the big arches. Another section that preserves the Romanesque is the cellar (above ground; undercrofts were under ground) that is now used as the ticket office and reception, with great, stumpy pillars with scalloped decoration supporting vast ribs over which many layers of material provided the vaulted ceiling.  Other Romanesque features have been incorporated into the later gothic architecture, primarily doorway arches, in some cases seamlessly, in other cases rather peculiarly.  See Buildwas Abbey in Shropshire for an idea of what St Werburgh’s Abbey may have looked like in its Romanesque phase.  There is also an excellent 3D artist’s reconstruction of a typical Romanesque Church, which is very reminiscent of the north transept at Chester Cathedral, on the Historiographies On the Evolution of Art website.  

Romanesque arches in Chester Cathedral

Looking in particular at the rounded arches of the north transept one can understand why the Romanesque must have seemed suddenly old fashioned and under specified when the senior members of the monastery saw the new gothic features, enabling slender, seamless columns, soaring arches and vast windows with complex tracery.  The photograph to the right shows one of the earliest experiments with the gothic arch, a slight point at the top of the streamlined arch over a more ornate decorative arch below.

One of the earliest gothic arches in the abbey with a curving profile but a pointed tip, sitting over an elaborate decorative feature. The slender columns, however, stand proud of the stonework, a very Romanesque trait.

Nick emphasised that because abbeys were designed as homes not primarily for monks but for God, they had to be the biggest and best that the available money could buy.  The possibilities of the gothic, allowing the light of God to enter the cathedral, and elaborate decorative features to be added, were all in the interest of this celebration of the divine. This is quite different from the Romanesque conceptualization where the darkness of the church, forced by the small windows that could be no bigger due to the strong walls required by the arches, added to the mystery and unknowable nature of the divine.  I suspect that the new gothic designs were probably also in the interests of the incumbent abbots and the abbey, as a place of prestige, pilgrimage and conspicuous display.  The redesign started at the east end and worked towards the west.

The advantages of the gothic were not merely dictated by fashion, devotion and prestige, but were technologically superior as well, meaning that they offered significant improvements over the Romanesque for the master masons who both designed and built ecclesiastical buildings, vaulted spaces using multiple supporting ribs requiring less raw materials to make the magnificent ceilings of, for example, the slype, the vestibule, the chapter house and the Lady Chapel.

The Early English gothic Lady Chapel, painted during the 1960s in the colours that would have adorned it when it was built c.1270

There are three main periods of British gothic architecture – Early English (roughly 1190-1260), Decorated (c.1260 – 1360, itself sometime subdivided into the Geometrical and the Curvilinear) and Perpendicular (c.1350 – 1500s).  Nick made it clear that although they are traditionally assigned to certain date spans, there are really no clear divisions between them. Although the Early English is broadly earlier than the Decorated, which was itself followed by the Perpendicular, there were overlaps, with older styles sometimes maintained in the face of new fashions and innovations.  There are examples of all of these in the cathedral, although the perpendicular is confined to one window; the fashion-conscious plans for St Werburgh’s Abbey were cut off in their prime by Henry VIII.

The Early English is exemplified by the Lady Chapel, where a daily mass was held in honour of the Virgin Mary at a period when her cult was particularly popular.

The Decorated is most evident in the quire stalls, each one unique, made of thousands of pieces of beautifully carved oak, which took twenty master craftsmen a mere two years to complete in situ. The craftsmen were probably also responsible for the quire stalls in Lincoln Cathedral, to which they are very similar.  There are also windows in the south transept chapels and the south wall of the nave that feature elaborate tracery from this phase.  The glass is all modern, the Medieval stained glass having been destroyed, but the finely worked tracery reflects the taste for increasing decorative complexity.

The Perpendicular is confined to the big stained glass window at the west end of the cathedral, with mullions (upright stone dividers) that extend all the way from the base of the window to its top, the emphasis on long, tall shapes that soar heavenwards.

A window in the Decorated style at right (south wall) and Perpendicular style (west end, over main entrance)

The abbey was designed and built by master masons, who had at their disposal a repertoire of ideas and visualizations that they could build into stone.  There are portraits of two of them high in the quire, one of them bearded with his plans folded in his lap.  Abbeys on this scale take decades to build, and as fashions change are almost always under reconstruction, with older sections being replaced and new sections added.  Matters were complicated during the gothic period of the abbey by Edward I, who had his own priorities.  Although Edward was conscious of the role of abbeys in Medieval society, compensating Welsh abbeys for the damage inflicted during the conquest of Wales, this respect did not prevent him raiding the master masons of Chester Cathedral for his castle building projects in the late 13th century.  Similarities between the abbey architecture and that of Caernarfon castle considered to be indicative of the presence of the same master masons at both.  This discontinuity of design and build shows in a number of  flaws and oddities in the cathedral today, which give the building real personality.

The arches on the right (south) were built in around 1360, 130 years earlier than those on the left (north).

One of the remarkable features of the cathedral today is to be found in the abbey nave, where the two parallel lines of arches flanking the main body of the nave, which at first glance appear to mirror one another, were in fact built 130 years apart.  The interruption between them was thanks to the Black Death of the mid 14th century, which plunged the nation into both humanitarian and economic crisis.  Only 130 years after the first set was built on the south side could the project be completed on the north side, which says something about the attitude of the abbot.  The abbot and master mason between them, as Nick pointed out, could have decided to implement an entirely new design in order to put their own personality on the nave, but they decided to emulate the original design, with only some of the decorative flourishes on the capitals showing major differences.   The earlier decorative details on the south side are simpler and more subtle, those on the north side more elaborate.

We finished the tour in the garth (the garden at the heart of the abbey complex), where mast mason Tom Livingstone gave us an excellent lecture on how the Medieval masons designed the stonework in the abbey, and how this work was then implemented.  The range of tools, including chisels and mallets, was remarkably small given how sophisticated the carving needs to be.  Tom said that the essential skill in a mason’s armoury was being able to chisel perfectly straight lines.  The question of whether a circle is a curve or a million straight lines is not one a mason needs to worry about – the answer is always a million straight lines.  Tom showed us how different methods of quarrying created different marks on the stone, and why different grain types were more suitable for certain architectural roles.  Tom’s own kit contains chisels reinforced by tungsten carbide and nylon as well as pear wood mallets, because without a blacksmith to hand, the original tools, blunting constantly, would require frequent repairs that would be very inconvenient.  I would really like to see more of the team’s work in action.  You can follow Tom and the members of the team on Twitter at https://twitter.com/chesterworks

If you get the chance to go on one of Nick Fry’s guided tours, I recommend him.  There is nothing dry about his talks, which are both informative and humorous and stuffed full of fascinating details about architectural quirks and unusual features.

Thanks too to Green Badge Guide Katie Crowther, who let me know that this tour was being organized.

My previous post about Chester Cathedral, under Katie’s guidance in March 2022, takes in the Anglo-Saxon origins, the Benedictine abbey years and the cathedral years.

 

Valle Crucis Abbey #4 – Patrons, abbots and priors

Cadw sign at the site showing a cutaway of how the interior of the Valle Crucis abbey church may have appeared

Part 1 of this series about Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen introduced the background to 12th Century monasticism in Britain, via St Pachomius and St Benedict, and talked about the Cistercians, the spread of the Cistercian order in Wales and why Valle Crucis was located where it was.  Part 2 looked at how the buildings at Valle Crucis were used and how the monastic community functioned.  Part 3 looked the architectural development of the abbey, an architectural jigsaw of a story from foundation in 1201 to dissolution in 1536.

Part 4 and upcoming part 5 look at how the patrons, abbots, priors and monks of the Cistercian Order contributed to life at Valle Crucis.  In Part 4, the top levels of the abbatial hierarchy are introduced, and in Part 5 the main body of the monastic community is described, all helping to build a view of what sort of people were to be found at the abbey, and what life was like within the cloister.

It is the way of the literate world that more is known about those at the top of the hierarchy than those of the main body of the community, because it is the patrons and abbots whose names were on formal documentation, and who were accountable to the mother abbey at Strata Marcella, to the General Chapter at Cîteaux, to the pope, and ultimately to God. More mundanely, the abbots were also subject to the vagaries of political activity and war, and as leaders of the abbey were named as its representatives.  Even so, there are considerable gaps in the list of abbots at Valle Crucis, many of whom are simply unrecorded and others are known only by their names, and even then not always with certainty, and sometimes only partially.
dsfsdfsdfs

Normans, Cistercians and Welsh princes

The remains of Strata Florida in midwest Wales. Photograph by Jeremy Bolwell. Source: Wikimedia

Although Wales had its own monastic tradition both before and after the Norman invasion in 1066, by 1150 Norman lords had established houses attached to a number of monastic orders in Wales, connected with French orders.   The Normans also set about normalizing the priesthood, bringing it under the archdiocese of Canterbury, and a number of new dioceses were established, each under a new, Norman-sponsored bishop.  Welsh Cistercian monasteries were spawned by  the Anglo-Norman abbeys in Tintern and Whitland in the south.  Whilst Tintern remained embedded in the Norman-Marcher tradition, Whitland’s fortunes became bound up with the Welsh princes in the 12th century when the Lord Rhys ap Gruffudd restored the fortunes of Deheubarth by claiming it from the Anglo-Norman Robert fitz Stephen.  Lord Rhys assumed patronage of both Whitland (founded with monks from Clairvaux) and Strata Florida in mid-west Wales (founded with monks from Whitland), the latter initially founded by fitz Stephen.  The new Welsh monasteries spawned by Whitland spreading from south to north, were all founded with this sense of being true to the Cistercian order, the spirts of St Benedict, the Virgin Mary and Christ, but were, at the same time, Pura Wallia, pure Welsh.

The regulations and charters of the Cistercians formalized the original intentions of St. Robert of Molesme Benedictine Abbey, who founded the Cistercian order in 1098.  Robert was was conscious that the  labora component of the Benedictine motto “ora et labora” (prayer and work) had been largely abandoned.  In the Cluniac order in particular there was too much comfort, a lot of elaborate and time-consuming ora and very little labora.  Cistercian abbeys were intended to be self-sufficient, combining work, prayer and solitude, distant from the distractions of urban areas.  This was Robert’s vision for the New Abbey at Cîteaux.  Robert was recalled somewhat forcibly to Molesme to resume his role, but was succeeded as abbot at the New Monastery by Alberic (1099-1109), who built on Robert’s initial work and successfully obtained papal privilege for the new abbey and its community in 1100.  Alberic was in turn succeeded by Stephen Harding in 1109, an English monk and theologian who consolidated his predecessors’ work over the next 25 years.

The New Monastery at Citeaux as it is today. Source: European Charter of the Cistercian Abbeys and Sites

Abbot Stephen Harding is usually credited with much of the underlying structure that ensured the success of the Cistercian order.  He appears to have understood that new abbeys, each one its own world isolated from its predecessors and peers, meant that standards would be difficult to maintain.  One of his priorities was to standardize life throughout the Cistercian network of abbeys, to ensure conformity to both the Benedictine Rule and Cistercian values, and it is generally thought that he produced the official constitution for the Order, the Carta Caritatis (Charter of Care), ratified by the Pope in 1119.  Amongst other regulations were a number that dealt with governance and accountability.  The governance was to ensure that all abbeys had the resources to conform to the Cistercian vision.  The accountability was the means by which abbeys were monitored, disciplined and assisted.  

Aerial view of Valle Crucis. Source: Coflein

Records of life at Valle Crucis are sketchy.  To complicate matters, as the centuries passed and the Cistercian order relaxed some of the more severe of its dictums, daily life changed accordingly.  This means that there is no single Valle Crucis way of life because as ideological decay set in, so did the way in which lives were lived.  This phenomenon of gradual departure from early Cistercian values is by no means unique to Valle Crucis, and was remarkably consistent across the Cistercian abbeys and across the centuries.  Some of this is visible at Valle Crucis, and the records that do survive give some insights into a few of the peaks and troughs at Valle Crucis.  Between what is known about Valle Crucis and what is known about Cistercian abbeys in general, we can make a fair stab at getting to know some of the people and their roles.
asfdasdf

Patronage of the abbey

The founder and first patron of Valle Crucis

Cistercians might seek relatively remote locations, but they never made any decisions about founding new abbeys without the input of the Cistercian order, local senior clergy and influential secular local dignitaries.  The most important of these secular authorities was the patron who put up the money for the building of the core monastic buildings, including the church, and provided the abbey with lands to secure its income.  Welsh monasteries were not merely religious but had a political and territorial role.

Valle Crucis Abbey in its valley setting today. Source: Archwilio

Prince Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor of Powys Madog (north Powys, northeast Wales) was the last of the major landholders in Wales to invest in a Cistercian establishment, and was convinced by four of the nearest abbots that he should found a monastery in his territory, extending the reach of the Cistercians in Wales.  Investing in Valle Crucis was not a light-hearted undertaking.  As well as land on which to establish the monastic precinct (the monastery buildings, the abbey church, the gatehouse, storage facilities and possibly farm buildings), the abbey had to be allocated lands to ensure that it could at least achieve self-sufficiency and, ideally, to make a profit to fund future activities.  Although monks took a vow of poverty, some abbeys and priories became very wealthy in their own right.  In the case of Valle Crucis, endowment  first meant relocating the village that already occupied the land chosen for the abbey, and providing it with land and other properties, such as mills and fishing rights.  The lands subsequently allocated to the abbey, both highland and lowland, suitable for livestock grazing and agricultural development respectively, had previously fed into Madog’s own coffers.

Depiction of purgatory in the 15th Century Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry. Source: Wikimedia

In return, what did Madog acquire to compensate himself for the ill-will of villagers and farmers, the loss of a useful revenue stream?  The position, prestige and identify of the Welsh princes in the 12th Century was dependent not merely upon political power, but also on spiritual security, which could be secured by investment in monastic establishments and the prayers that would be dedicated to them by the monks.  Richard Southern’s epic narrative about the Middle Ages emphasises the importance of monasteries to patrons (p.225):

The battle for the safety of the land was closely associated with the battle for the safety of the souls of their benefactors.  It was this double objective that induced great men to alienate large portions of their property for monastic uses.  They and their followers and families . . . believed that their temporal and eternal welfare equally depended on the warfare of the monks.

At the same time, his personal prestige would grow along with the monastery.  He had achieved a new status, a validation of his authority and a connection into the wider European world of erudition, culture and divine integrity represented by the spread of the Cistercians and their influence.  With a Cistercian abbey in his heartland, no-one could accuse any ruler of presiding over an uncivilized land.  The spread of the Cistercians in Wales was often connected with reinforcing power, prestige and identity, whilst still maintaining a Welsh personality all wrapped up in a nicely Christian package.  A neat trick.

By investing in a monastic establishment, Madog also stayed on the good side of the Church.  More importantly, what he obtained for himself and his family was the most important direct commodity that the abbey had to offer – its prayers.  As the horrors of purgatory loomed ever closer, patrons hoped that the strength and integrity of monastic prayer would offer powerful intercession.  The prayers of monks who were so close to the divine might work wonders on behalf of the deceased and his family.  Although the Cistercians initially banned burial of secular people within monastic premises, no matter how important, this rule was not observed at many Cistercian monasteries, and certainly at Valle Crucis part of the arrangement seems to have included the burial of Madog and members of his family within the monastic precinct, yet another step nearer to God.

Patrons descended from Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor

When Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, prince of Powys Fadog (north Powys) died in 1236, his son Gruffudd Maelor ap Madog (c.1220-1269/70), appears to have taken over most of the responsibilities of Madog’s role, although the domains were split between all five of Madog’s sons.  It was Gruffudd who in the year of his father’s death re-confirmed the founding charter, meaning that Valle Crucis retained the properties and assets that had been bestowed upon it by Madog.  He had two sons, Gruffydd Ial ap Madog and Madog ap Gruffydd Maelor.  The family had complicated allegiances, swapping sides between the Welsh and the English, but retained their lands until Edward I took Powys Fadog in 1277.  Gruffudd’s sons were both buried at Valle Crucis, and had presumably taken over the patronage as their father had done before them.

Patronage under English rule

Map showing Bromfield and Iâl (Yale). Source: Rogers 1992, p.444

Valle Crucis, located in a part of Powys known as Bromfield and Iâl, found itself in the middle of several political tugs of war and it is difficult to know what sort of patronage followed between the death of Gruffyd and the suppression of Valle Crucis in 1536.  The answer lies somewhere in the history of Bromfield and Iâl, which had become something of a diplomatic bargaining chip. It seems worth recounting some of that history in order to highlight how political complexities could impact both Valle Crucis and other monastic establishments in Wales.  

Following Edward I’s conquest of Wales Edward I’s reparations to Valle Crucis were generous, but these were intended for replacement of stock, repairs to property, and general compensation for the injury to the dignity of the monastery, but Edward did not replace the Powys princes as patron.  Madog ap Gruffyd, the great-grandson of founder Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, was buried in the abbey in 1306, as was his cousin Gweirca, implying that they continued to support the abbey even after Edward I.  However, on the death of Madog ap Gruffyd everything changed.

Much of the following has been based on information from the 1992 doctoral thesis The Welsh Marcher Lordship of Bromfield and Yale 1282-1485 by Michael Rogers (any errors are, of course, my own).  Rogers quotes a charter of Edward I from 7th October 1282 at Rhuddlan:

Notification that the king, for the greater tranquillity and common benefit of him and his heirs and of all his realm of England, has granted by this charter to John de Warenne, earl of Surrey, the castle of Dinas Bran, which was in the king’s hands at the commencement of the present war in Wales, and all the lands of Bromfield, which Gruffudd and Llywelyn, sons of Madog Fychan, held at the beginning of the said war . . . saving to the king the castle and land of Hope . . . ; and the king also grants to the earl the land of Yale, which belonged to Gruffudd Fychan, son of Gruffudd de Bromfield, the king’s enemy; doing therefor the service of four knights’ fees for all service custom and demand . . .

Seal of John de Warenne, 6th Earl of Surrey. Source: Wikipedia

Two years later in 1284, John de Warenne granted Bromfield and Iâl to his son William, who died young in 1286.  The crown once again took possession whilst John tried to claim his rights to the lands, but in the following year Bromfield and Iâl were restored to John, in spite of possible claims of William’s baby son, also John, born in 1286.  When John de Warenne died on 27th September 1304, his grandson and heir, William’s son John was still a minor and became a ward of the king, with Bromfield and Iâl remaining in crown hands until 1306.

The history of Bromfield and Iâl was tied closely to the history of the village of Holt, which was also given to John Warren on Madog’s death, and which also passed to William.  John began the castle, which William subsequently continued to build.  Holt and its castle passed by marriage into the hands of the Earl of Arundel, who fell foul of Richard II and was executed.  After reverting to the crown and again being granted to the Earls of Arundel, Holt and its castle were granted by Richard III to Sir William Stanley, together with Chirk Castle the lordship of Bromfield and Iâl (now known as Yale) in 1484. It is this family that appear to have taken on the patronage of Valle Crucis.  Unfortunately Stanley was himself executed for treason in 1495.  Holt Castle next passed to William Brereton, who was apparently also a patron of Valle Crucis, before being executed in 1536 under Henry VIII for most foolishly tinkering with Ann Boleyn.  Bromfield and Iâl was then transferred to the crown under Henry VII and subsequently Henry VIII.

Sir William Stanley. Source: Wikipedia

In 1536 the Act of Union withdrew the special status of the Marcher lordships, and Bromfield and Iâl were incorporated into the new county of Denbighshire, together with Chirkland, Denbigh and Dyffryn Clwyd. 1536 was a momentous year for Bromfield and Iâl, and marked the dissolution of Valle Crucis.

After the death of Madog, with Bromfield and Iâl passing to John de Warenne, Valle Crucis had now of passed from the Welsh line to the English.  In spite of its location in the territory of Bromfield and Iâl, it is by no means clear whether Valle Crucis received any real material support from de Warenne or subsequent owners of the land.  On the other hand, it seems as though the descendants of the former Welsh ruler of Powys Madog still took an active interest in the abbey, and that local landowning patrons may have been involved with the abbey’s writing of Welsh history and its connection with Welsh poets, whom local gentry also supported.  The Trefor family, from whom two of the 15th century abbots as well as bishops of St Asaph were derived, is one example.

It was not until the arrival of Sir William Stanley in the picture that clear support for the abbey is once again demonstrated.  Whilst it is possible that the Stanley family may have continued to support the abbey on a private basis after Sir William’s death, it is more likely that reversion to the ownership of the crown changed the abbey’s circumstances yet again.  Eventually Bromfield and Iâl passed to Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond and Somerset, who became the patron of Valle Crucis and who was involved in untangling the problems that ensued, not long before the dissolution, under Abbot Robert Salusbury.

I suspect that there is a lot more to be said on the above, and hope to dig out some more details as I continue to look into Valle Crucis.

Abbots of Valle Crucis

One of the ways in which Cistercian standards were maintained was in the strict hierarchy of the abbey.  The senior position was abbot, who was supported by a prior and, at larger establishments a sub-prior.  Beneath them were the choir monks who made up the primary community of the monastery.  Although monks were in theory equal in status, many of them had particular responsibilities, and the requirement for self-sufficiency meant that these roles were very clearly delineated and were of importance to the smooth running of the abbey.  The monks assigned certain roles were called obedientiaries.  The monks will be discussed in part 5.

The role of the abbot

The remains of Strata Marcella, the abbey from which Valle Crucis was founded. Source: Coflein

The most important person in the abbey was the abbot (from the Greek abbas, father).  He would normally be assisted by a prior, the second in command.  The abbot was responsible for maintaining order according to the Cistercian regulations.  He was accountable to both the mother abbey, Strata Marcella in mid Wales, as well as the founding abbey, Cîteaux, for the abbey’s performance and adherence to Cistercian standards, as well as for internal morale and discipline.  An abbot could have been a prior or an experienced monk before being elevated to the most senior position within a new abbey.  He could be promoted internally from within his own abbey or another Cistercian abbey on the retirement, death or elevation of a predecessor. Alternatively, when a new abbey was established the mother house provided the abbot and monks, and the new abbot was responsible for managing not only the monks but also for overseeing the building of the monastery and its church, a process that could take 40 years or more.

Most importantly, the abbot was responsible for ensuring that salvation was ensured for all of of the monks under his authority.  Salvation could only be achieved by undivided focus on God, achieved by adhering to the Order’s rules, including obedience, commitment and remarkable self-discipline.  Individual breaches of internal order would be profoundly disruptive to the community as a whole and, depending on the nature of the transgression, could place the individual’s soul in jeopardy.  Even the most dedicated and devout might find frustrations and difficulties associated with such a life.  Maintaining strict discipline, albeit with compassion, empathy and care, was of fundamental importance for a community that lived together, usually for life, and the abbot was responsible for the wellbeing of both individual monks and the community as a whole, the father of his community.

Salvation.  God seated in glory with angels to either side, proclaims salvation; the archangel Michael fights the 7-headed dragon as devils are hurled by other angels from the sky.  From the Cistercian Abbey of Citeaux. Source: Wikipedia

The abbot was also responsible for the welfare of the monastery’s finances and its economic  self-sufficiency.  Each abbey received land and associated assets to ensure that it was self sufficient, but these resources did not manage themselves and, with assistance from key obedientiaries, the abbot was responsible for ensuring that the abbey achieved ongoing financial security.  Obedientiaries, monks with specific roles within the community, were each allocated a budget to finance their particular area of responsibility, and the abbot would have been responsible for overseeing how to allocate funds, and how these individual budgets, once allocated, were employed.  The running of a monastic establishment was equivalent to running a business, and the abbot was its managing director.

Each year, abbots were obliged to proceed to the heart of the Cistercian order, the New Monastery at Cîteaux, to attend a meeting called the General Chapter, which discussed matters of policy, changes to the rules and statutes, and disciplinary matters and ensured that standards were maintained. Sometimes abbots at lesser abbeys such as Cymer near Dolgellau, or abbeys going through economically rough patches, were forced to borrow the funds required for this long trip, which might place a heavy burden on the economic resources of the monastery.    

Abbots of Valle Crucis

The abbey took its tone from the abbot, and there were both successes and failures recorded at Valle Crucis.  Nothing much could be done about the war waged by Edward I on the abbey’s properties, and although reparations were made by Edward twice in the late 13th Century, the financial constraints and perhaps even some privation within the community may have been felt.  It would have been the job of the abbot at that time of these and other difficulties to mitigate the impacts of the worries and any challenges that the abbey experienced.

There are no likenesses of any of the abbots of Valle Crucis, with the possible exception of a stone effigy that may have been Abbot Hywel, shown below and discussed further in part 5.  The Cistercians did not believe in adorning their monasteries with art works, and even though later Cistercian abbots might have indulged themselves with portraits, during the dissolution of the monasteries, Henry VIII commanded that all the assets of the monasteries be sold or destroyed.  Only a few Cistercian portraits therefore survive, and none of them were from Valle Crucis.

Sculpted face at the far end of the slype. Source: Wikimedia

Valle Crucis, founded in 1201 with monks and an abbot, Abbot Philip, from Strata Marcella, received an annual visitation from the abbot of Strata Marcella, or his proxy, throughout its life to ensure that it was conforming to the rules and values of the Cistercians.  Nothing is known of Abbot Philip, except that his appointment as abbot of an important new house marks him out as a highly responsible and suitably motivated individual, in all ways suitable for the daunting task of bringing up a monastery and its economic infrastructure from scratch.  Certainly the architectural development of the abbey argues that Abbot Philip was very capable in at least that respect, but a statute issued early in his tenure refers to him rarely celebrating Mass or receiving the Holy Eucharist.  He was apparently not alone, as the Abbots of Aberconwy and Carleon were also found guilty of the same lax behaviour.   

There is mention of an an Abbot Tenhaer in 1227 and again in 1234.  Nothing about him is known, but three dates tie in roughly with his tenure.  In the mid 1225 and 1227 Valle Crucis was recorded as being in dispute with neighbouring monasteries Strata Marcella and Cwmhir respectively, probably in connection with grazing rights.  In 1234 the General Chapter recorded that the incumbent abbot had allowed women to enter the monastic precinct.  The name of the abbot is not given, so the guilty party could have been either Tenhaer or his immediate successor whose name is not recorded.

Between approximately 1274 and 1284 an Abbot Madog or Madoc is known, his name recorded in two notable documents.  The first was a letter to the Pope in 1275, in which seven of the Welsh Cistercian abbots defended the reputation of Llywelyn against charges made by Anian, Bishop of St Asaph. The other six abbeys were Aberconwy, Whitland, Strata Florida, Cwmhir, Strata Marcella and Cymer.  Valle Crucis is recorded in the same year as having only 5 monks.  The second document is a document dating to December 1282, which notes a loan from Prince Llywelyn ap Gruffud of £40.00 to “expedite and sustain Abbot Madog” on abbey business.  That was a substantial sum – the National Archives Currency Convertor estimates that today this would equate to £27,762.78 (or 47 horses, 88 cows or 173 stones of sheep wool) It may well have had something to do with Edward’s two major assaults on Wales in 1277 and 1282–83 respectively.  Edward’s generous compensations to Valle Crucis and other northern abbeys indicate the level of damage inflicted on the monastic establishments, allocated to Valle Crucis in 1283 and 1284 (£26 13s  4d and 160 respectively – the latter the highest sum paid to a Welsh Cistercian monastery).

Fragment of a gravestone, possibly from Valle Crucis and perhaps showing Abbot Hywel. Photograph by Professor Howard Williams. Source: ArchaeoDeath blog

An Abbot Hywel is mentioned in February 1294 and July 1295. The dates tie in with a record showing that Edward I placed the estates of Roger of Mold in the care of the abbey in 1294 (whilst Roger was on Crown work in Gascony), and then visited in person in in 1295, making oblations (religious gifts) of “two cloths.”  It is possible that he is the same Hywel Abbas shown in the fragment of a gravestone effigy showing a tonsured monk, first recorded in 1895 and now in Wynnstay Hall near Ruabon, which was on loan for a period to Llangollen Museum. A photograph of the effigy is shown left.  Professor Howard Williams and colleagues have researched the fragment, the style of which is consistent with the late 13th century, and believe that it probably came from Valle Crucis.  Whilst it may have been one of the choir monks, the investment in the carving of the slab argues that it was someone of more importance.  

Abbot Hywel was succeeded by a number of abbots about whom, again, almost nothing is known, but in 1330 Abbot Adam was appointed and is apparently mentioned on several occasions until perhaps January 1344.  It is thought that the inscription that remains clearly visible on the rebuilt gable on the west façade of the abbey church belongs to this abbot, claiming credit for the restoration work.  His inscription was not consonant with Cistercian ideas of modesty and humility, but this type of autograph was by no means unknown in the Cistercian Order.

St Asaph Cathedral, which dates back to the 13th Century. Source: Wikipedia

Again there are some names or partial names recorded, but this was the period of the Black Death that arrived in 1349, when keeping up to date records was probably the last thing on most people’s minds, and it is not until Abbot Robert Lancaster that more details are again available.  Abbot Robert was installed as abbot of Valle Crucis in about 1409, the year in which the papacy was reunited under pope Alexander V after the Great Schism of 1378.  Shortly afterwards he was elevated to the bishopric of St Asaph.  He held the positions of Abbot and Bishop simultaneously, until September 1419.  His is an interesting case, although not unique.  In that same year, 1419, a petition to the pope records that he had undertaken repairs to the monastery following a fire possibly inflicted during the Owain Glyndŵr rebellion.  Another extension to his twin role was granted In June 1424 for another fifteen years.  The conflicting demands of St Asaph and Valle Crucis may have tested his leadership skills because there is papal correspondence to the monastery, reminding the monks of their vows of obedience to the abbot, implying that there had been at least one serious breach of discipline or a challenge to his authority.  Abbot Robert may have retained the abbacy of Valle Crucis up to the time of his death in March 1433.  It is somewhat ironic that 6 generations on from Madog ap Gruffudd Maelor, the founder of Valle Crucis, the damage inflicted on the abbey during the Welsh rebellion between 1400 and 1410, was lead by Madog’s own descendent Owain Glyndŵr.  This time, there was no compensation, and it is not known how Valle Crucis, under Abbot Robert, was able to fund its own recovery.

The English Richard or John Mason held the position of abbot, for a period period lasting between February 1438 and July 1448, which may have been a period of neglect, although the evidence for this has not been clearly stated.  Abbot Mason was English, which may have caused difficulties within a Welsh context.  Although 18 years after the end of Owain Glyndŵr’s rebellion, nearly a generation on, there must have been residual resentment and a sense of loss amongst the Welsh gentry of Powys Fadog, if not amongst those monks of the Valle Crucis community who retained a sense of Welsh identity.

Sculpted head at the far end of the slype. Photograph by Llywelyn2000 Source: Wikimedia

There is a gap of some seven years in the records, but the three abbots that followed, Sîon ap Rhisiart (John ap Richard, 1455-1461), Dafydd ab Leuan ab Iorwerth (1480-1503) and Sîon Llwyd (John Lloyd) seem to have engineered a turnaround in the fortunes of the abbey, which now came under the patronage of the Stanley family who have been discussed above.  Under these abbots, Valle Crucis became a centre for literature and poetry.  At the same time, it seems to have become a rather more gregarious establishment than in previous centuries, entertaining high profile guests in fairly lavish style, praised in verse by Welsh poets Guto’r Glyn, Gutun  Owain and Tudur Aled.

Abbot Sîon ap Rhisiart (John ap Richard) was abbot between c.1455 and 1461.  David Williams refers to him as an “abbot-restorer,” who was from an important local family, the Trefors.  He is best known for the enthusiasm with which his hospitality was received by the poet Gutun Owain who described Valle Crucis as “a palace of diadem.”

Abbot Dafydd ab Leuan ab Iorwerth seems to have become abbot in February 1484.  He may have come from the Aberconwy monastery, and was again a member of the important local Trefor family.  He too was being praised by the Welsh poet Gutun Owain for his hospitality, commenting, with hindsight somewhat ambivalently “how good is the lord who loves to store his wealth and spend it on Egwestl’s noble church.”  Owain also praised Dafydd’s architectural achievements, including a fretted ceiling in the abbot’s house.  The village of Egwestl was the one that Valle Crucis had supplanted, and the abbey was still known locally by the village name.  Abbot Dafydd became deputy reformator of the Cistercian Order in England and Wales in 1485, a position of considerable importance.  Between 1500 and 1503 he was raised to the position of Bishop of St Asaph in Wales which, like Abbot Robert Lancaster earlier in the same century, he held concurrently (in commendam) with the the abbacy of Valle Crucis.  He died in about 1503.

Abbot Sîon Llwyd (John Lloyd) became abbot in about 1503 and stayed in the position until about 1527.  He became one the overseers of the compilation of the Welsh pedigree of Henry VII, a royal appointment, and in 1518 he was described as “king’s chaplain and doctor of both laws.”  Like his two predecessors, he was praised in verse for his hospitality by a well known poet, this time Tudur Aled.  Although he was buried at Valle Crucis, his tombstone was moved after the suppression and placed outside the church of Llanarmon yn Iâl.

Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond and Somerset, and patron of Valle Crucis during the abbacy of Robert Salusbury and during the dissolution of the abbey. Source: Wikipedia

Unfortunately but interestingly, this relatively brief period of glory was followed by disgrace.  The richness of the abbey in its late years, and its comfortable lifestyle, seems to have attracted quite the wrong sort of abbot, of which more in the next post.  The member of a local family was appointed to the post of abbot, although it is far from clear how he was able to obtain the position.  The family was prominent and well respected, but Abbot Robert Salusbury, who held the position from 1528-35 has been implicated in a number of crimes and felonies and appears to have had no training as a monk.  As Evans puts it (Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw 2008):  “He was a totally unsuitable candidate, who appears to have been imposed upon the abbey;  he was probably under age, never served a proper novitiate as a monk, and does not seem to have been properly professed or elected.” Five monks left, leaving just two behind, forcing Robert Salusbury to acquire seven more from other monasteries, who he paid to serve.  In February 1534, with matters clearly out of control at the abbey, Henry Fitzroy, duke of Richmond and Somerset, Lord of Bromfield and Iâl, and patron of Valle Crucis, sent a visitation (inspection) to Valle Crucis, headed by Abbot Lliesion of Neath (reformator of the Cisternian order in Wales), and accompanied by the abbots of Aberconwy, Cwmhir and Cymer.  Things were soon set in motion for change.  In June 1534, the abbey was put under the care of the Abbot of Neath. in 1534, assisted by the prior Robert Bromley.  Salusbury was sent to Oxford for re-education, with a generous allowance, but the order’s good intentions were wasted.  Salusbury was eventually imprisoned in the Tower of London for leading a band of highwaymen in Oxford.

Abbot John Herne/Heron/Durham had the unenviable task of succeeding Robert Salusbury.  He had been a monk of the Abbey of St Mary Graces, Smithfield, London. It must have been something of a culture shock transferring from one of the Cistercian order’s few urban locations to the rural splendours of Valle Crucis, especially as he found the finances in such a poor state that he was forced to borrow £200 to meet the expenses of his own installation.  He was abbot of Valle Crucis from June 1535 until August 1536.  He was abbot when the Valor Ecclesiasticus, Henry VIII’s valuation of all the abbeys in the  realm, was carried out.  All monastic establishments valued at less than £200.00 were listed for immediate suppression and and the abbey was closed accordingly in 1536.  Henry Fitzroy, patron of Valle Crucis, died in the same year, at the age of 17.  After the suppression of the abbey, it is recorded in March 1537 that Abbot John was granted a pension.
fsdfasdf

Priors and sub-priors

The opening page of the Valor Ecclesiasticus, showing Henry VIII. Source: Wikipedia

The prior was secondary only to the abbot, was usually promoted from within the abbey’s own ranks and could rise to abbot of the same or another establishment, particularly a new, daughter establishment.  

The only prior to receive  attention in records associated with Valle Crucis is Prior Robert Bromley, who had been at Valle Crucis since about 1504 was passed over in favour of Robert Salusbury in 1528, a clearly very bad decision.  Williams says that he was given several privileges, perhaps as compensation for being passed up for the abbacy in 1528:  “He was now absolved from ecclesiastic censure due (if any) for not wearing the habit; he was permitted (because of infirmity) to wear linen next to his skin, long leggings of a decent colour (the monks were normally hare legged beneath their habit, and a ‘head warmer’ under his hood; he was allowed to talk quietly in the dorter [dormitory] . . . . and to eat and drink in his own (prior’s) chamber” (The Welsh Cistercians, p.68).  Such concessions were usually allowed only to the abbot.  When Salusbury was ousted by the Abbot of Neath in 1534, it was put in Bromley’s care temporarily, but he had no desire to become abbot of such a neglected establishment.  He too was a victim of the Valor Ecclesiasticus, and was respectably pensioned off.
fsdfasdf

Final comments on part 4

Valle Crucis from the south

As I was trying to untangle the stories of Powys Fadog and Bromfield and Iâl with a view to determining how they impacted patronage of the monastery, and to see what sort of political world surrounded and incorporated the abbey, it became increasingly clear why there were peaks and troughs in its career.  Whilst there were  periods of investment in architecture and scholarly output, it was also clear, and perfectly understandable, that the abbey had been through periods of downturn and neglect.  

The Black Death of 1349 raised questions in secular minds about the value of the clergy and of monastic prayer, whilst the Hundred Years War between 1337 and 1453 and the Great Schism of 1378-1409 inevitably challenged more than the idea of a unified Cistercian identity, placing Britain and France (the homeland of the Cistercians), in opposing camps.  For the entire period of the Great Schism, the annual General Chapter at Cîteaux was cancelled, with a papal bull from Urban VI releasing the Cistercians outside France from their obedience to the abbot of Cîteaux.  The General Chapter resumed in 1411, but the tone of Europe, the perception of the Church and the character of the Cistercian order had changed. It was during the late 14th and 15th centuries that the abbots of Valle Crucis became more worldly, less committed to the original ideals of either St Benedict or the earliest Cistercians.

The penultimate abbot, Robert Salusbury, was clearly a very poor decision, but demonstrates how both the abbey’s current patron, Henry Fitzroy, and the Cistercian order mobilized together to resolve the undoubtedly embarrassing problem.  They might not have bothered had they known how soon their world was to come tumbling down.

Next

Part 5 is coming shortly, and will talk about the monastic community below the level of abbot and prior, and how the monks and their colleagues lived their lives.  All parts are available, as they are written by clicking on the following link: https://basedinchurton.co.uk/category/valley-crucis-abbey/
fsdfasdf

Sources for part 4:

Tying in various bits of data would have been a lot more difficult without the excellent Monastic Wales website, a brilliant resource for all monastic establishments in Wales, which lists a number of abbot names mentioned in documents, highlighting gaps in the sequence and allowing a clear impression of what is and is not known about both the abbey and its abbots.  I used this as my starting point for reading about the personnel at Valle Crucis.  As usual, The Welsh Cistercians by David Williams (2001) and the booklet Valle Crucis Abbey by D.H. Evans (2008) have been invaluable.  

All sources for the series are listed in part 1.

 

Chester Abbey and Cathedral – A first visit and an outline history

Introduction

Chester Cathedral from the south-east. Photograph by Stephen Hamilton.  Source: Wikipedia

First, my sincere thanks to Katie Crowther Chester Green Badge tourist guide, who initiated me into the multi-layered and complex history of the cathedral and its environs.  On holidays in the past I have experienced horrible tour guides, primed to stuff visitors to the eyebrows with indigestibly voluminous facts and figures, until the will to live id vanishing fast, sanity is being eroded by the nanosecond, and absolutely nothing sticks.  Katie, by contrast, imparted exactly the right amount of information to make sense of how the building had evolved and how it had functioned in the course of its daily existence, pointed out unmissable features from every period, talked through key figures in the cathedral’s distant and more recent past, and answered all my questions., It was not a wall of sound.  It was a relaxed stroll, not a route march, and I came away feeling bright, alert and informed, rather than resentfully crushed and exhausted 🙂  Needless to say, any opinions and any errors below are my own, and nothing to do with Katie’s excellent narrative.  

The rib-vaulted cloister

It is quite impossible to do justice to Chester Cathedral in a single blog post, so I have had to cherry-pick just a handful of features.  There is so much to see, and it is a place that rewards repeat visits.

Although the title of the post refers to this being my first visit, I had in fact visited the cathedral many years ago, but I had no clear recollection of the appearance of the interior which is infinitely more impressive then I remembered.  The red sandstone, beautifully carved and finely finished, gives it a warmth and personality that I had forgotten, and there were features like the the utterly superb quire and misericords (mercy seats) and the consistory court that were so surprisingly original and unique that I blush for the fact that I had failed to appreciate it all on my previous visit.

We arrived at the cathedral on Friday 25th February, a bright and sunny day that filled the place with light.  I had a head stuffed with a complete tangle of questions.  Who was the cathedral dedicated to?  Who was St Werburgh and why is she featured so strongly in the cathedral’s iconography?  I remember being surprised some time ago that she was female.  Her name is clearly Anglo-Saxon, so how does that fit in to a Christian context?  The cathedral was previously an abbey, and most monastic houses were dissolved by Henry VIII, so how did it survive to become the most important ecclesiastical establishment in Chester?  And, in passing, why on earth is the south transept so ridiculously enormous?  Katie explained all.

St Werburgh

7th Century Britain. Source: Wikipedia

The story starts not in Cheshire, but Mercia.  Mercia no longer exists, but what we call Cheshire today is a small northern part of the vast Mercian hegemony, which peaked during the 8th Century, when it covered a huge portion of England south of the line of the Mersey.  Christianity had not replaced older religious beliefs at this time, but it was making inroads.  Pope Gregory the Great had sent a mission to convert England in the 6th century, and his envoy Augustine was given permission by the King of Kent, whose wife Bertha was Christian, to establish himself in Canterbury and to preach the Christian message.  The message was slowly disseminated throughout England, and the monastic tradition began to gather real momentum during the 7th century. 

Werburgh, or Werberga, was a royal princess, born in Stone in today’s Staffordshire in the mid 7th century at around 650.  Her parents were King Wulfhere and Queen Ermenilda, herself daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent, where Augustine had first established himself.  Werburgh’s maternal aunt was Etheldreda, Abbess of the Abbey of Ely.  Options were limited for an aristocratic woman in the 7th century, and rather than chosing marriage Werburgh opted for the conventual life, following in her aunt’s footsteps and eventually rising to the position of Abbess of all the nunneries in Mercia.

Lovely pilgrim badge showing the geese of St Werburgh, probably bought in the 14th century by a pilgrim to the abbey. Source: British Museum

Saints, as part of their job description, perform miracles, evidence of being touched by God.  Werburgh’s main miracle is somewhat unusual. As well as the usual miracles “to alleviate sickness, trouble, pain or personal problems” (Nick Fry 2009), her main claim to miraculous fame was the episode with the goose.  When Werburgh heard that geese were attacking attacking the abbey’s fields, she asked a servant to round them up and secure them.  He was unable to resist temptation, and cooked and consumed one of them.  When Werburgh returned and set about releasing the geese, its companions asked for their missing friend to be returned to them.  Touched by their pleas, she gathered up the carcass and feathers of the eaten goose, and brought the bird back to life.  This story may incorporate the reality of flocks of migratory geese devastating crops, with placatory sacrifices made to prevent such devastation.  These, when combined with ideas of resurrection, were all folded into the interface between the still partially pagan community and the Christian church, formalized in communal secular rites of gleaning (leftover crops collected by the poor) and the Christian celebration of the harvest (in which fruit, vegetables and grain crops were donated to the poor), which Thomas Pickles refers to as “the moral economy.”

Shrine to St Werburgh

Werburgh died on February 3rd in 706 and was buried at Hanbury in Staffordshire.  This was not, however, her final resting place.  Viking incursions in the 9th Century led to the decision to move Werburgh to greater safety.  When her tomb was opened, she was found to be perfectly preserved, absolute confirmation that she was indeed a saint.  Werburgh was brought to Chester, a fortified and much more secure urban location than Hanbury.  It is thought that there was a wooden church dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul founded here by Wulfhere, which would have housed her remains, and over which the abbey was later built.  When the abbey was erected, she  was rehoused within its walls and remained safe until Henry VIII’s suppression of the monastic houses, when her shrine was destroyed and her remains lost.  The remnants of her shrine were reconstructed in the 19th Century, and remain today within the cathedral, but Werburgh’s remains were never recovered.  Werburgh continues in her role as the patron saint of Chester, which is one of a handful of English cities to have a female patron saint (including Ely, whose patron saint is Werburgh’s aunt Etheldreda).

Hugh “Lupus” d’Avranches and the Benedictine Abbey

Coat of arms of Hugh d’Avranche. Source: Wikipedia

The history of any ecclesiastical establishment is greatly influenced by its patrons and by the aristocracy that owned the land on which it was built.  Early pre-Norman monasteries were dependent upon initial royal patronage and ongoing interest.  Vale Royal in Cheshire is a good example of an abbey that had initial royal input from Edward I, but thanks to Edward’s war in Wales soon afterwards, failed to secure finance to support the initially highly ambitious plans.

After the Norman conquest under William in 1066, Norman aristocrats were put into positions of power, particularly along the Welsh borders, and they too began to found monastic houses.  In Chester, which had given William considerable trouble in the 1070, William installed his nephew Hugh d’Avranches (1047-1101), as Earl of Chester, an immensely powerful position with powers second only to the king.  He was known as Hugh Lupus (Hugh the Wolf) in earlier life, and later on (and much less flatteringly) Hugh the Fat.  His first major investment was the building of Chester Castle.  Having already founded two Benedictine monasteries in Normandy, in 1092 Hugh set about creating a new abbey in Chester, inviting the great theologian and philosopher Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1093 to 1109) to advise him.  The new Abbey of Saint Werburgh provided a new home for the saint, whose remains had attracted pilgrims from the moment of her death, and gave Hugh Lupus the hope not only that monastic prayers would ensure his salvation, but that pilgrims would help to support the abbey’s upkeep.  In tones of some austerity and disapproval, John Hicklin summarizes his final years:

Hugh Lupus, following the example of most of his predecessors, lived a life of the wildest luxury and rapine.  At length, falling sick from the consequence of his excesses, and age and disease coming on, the old hardened soldier was struck with remorse; and—an expiation common enough in those days—the great Hugh Lupus took the cowl, retired in the last state of disease into the monastery, and in three days was no more.

Plan of Chester Cathedral, showing how the layout is arranged around the abbey cloister, and providing an idea of how the building developed from the Norman period onwards. Click to expand, but also have a look at the source page, where the numbers are tied in to a key.  Source: Wikipedia

An abbey, headed by an abbot or abbess and occupied by monks or nuns, is a monastic establishment, incorporating a church, chapels, administrative and domestic buildings, all arranged around a covered walkway that encloses a square garth, or garden.  This walkway and garth, the cloister, was the focal point of British Benedictine and St Benedict-inspired monasteries.  Chester’s abbey gave its character to the subsequent cathedral, with the abbey church forming one side of a four-sided architectural complex that surrounded a square cloister and “garth” or garden.  The early abbey church was built along traditional lines, in the form of a cross.  The long part of the cross was the nave, where the lay brothers (and later the general public) sat.  This terminated at a stone screen (now a 19th century wooden screen), on the other side of which was the crossing, the section immediately under the tower.  On either side of the crossing were the two short arms of the cross, called transepts.  Beyond was the chancel, the private area where the monks performed their liturgies.  As time went on, this basic plan became more elaborate as suggested on the above multi-period plan.

Interestingly, the abbey’s plan is, like Tintern in south Wales, flipped, counter to the Benedictine plan.  In an ideal world the abbey church was built to the north of the cloister, putting the administrative and domestic buildings of the monastery around the cloister facing south, into the sun and warmth, the tall church building providing some shelter from the wind and rain.  At Chester, however, the church was built to the south, and the other cloister buildings to the north.  I can’t see any reason why this should be so, but sometimes the practicalities of sourcing water or building drainage caused this type of inversion where no topographical reason was obvious.  The conventional arrangement of the abbey church has been retained, with an east-west axis in which the nave at the west end.

Lovely remnants of the Norman north transept

Although the Gothic style, first introduced into the monastery in the 13th century dominates today, early Norman Romanesque features are found at various points throughout the Cathedral.  The most substantial and most arresting can be seen in the north transept, a great chunk of wall and arches thought to incorporate earlier Roman building materials.  The Norman abbey church’s floorplan was big.  Built in the shape of a cross, the long section, the nave, is thought to have been the size that it is today.  The walls were shorter in height than the current cathedral, probably little more than half the height, and the east end was probably apsidal (semi-circular).  The north transept (the left arm of the cross) sits on the original footprint of Hugh’s abbey church and retains some of its Romanesque features, with the rounded rather than pointed arches, with a row of small arched arcades perched on top of the great arch, representing the top level of the Norman abbey.  The little row of arches may be Roman in origins.  At the west end of the nave, the baptistry also features some superb Romanesque arches.  The present day refectory dates mainly to the late 13 or early 14th century, but the arch leading into it from the cloister is Norman, its arch featuring scalloped shaping.

Norman arches from the abbey’s pre-Gothic period

I thought I should say, before proceeding, that when I went back to take photographs on another day, the nave was filled with a purple light, and there was a raised platform, presumably for some upcoming event.  Apologies, therefore, for the slightly surreal purple lighting in one or two of the shots that follow.

The Gothic Abbey

Although the Norman abbey defined the layout of the cathedral complex, it grew upwards and outwards as new demands were made of it and new abbots (and restorers) wanted to put their own stamp on it.  The abbots and patrons of Chester, confronted with new abbeys being built all over England and Wales in the newly fashionable Gothic style with its soaring, upwardly mobile character, must have looked at their short walls and Norman curves and found them very dated.  Major programmes of modernization began in the 12th Century and carried on throughout the abbey’s life until the late 1530s, not in a smooth programme of architectural revision, but in fits and starts as energy and funds permitted.  One of the earliest of these transformations was the arch and window that accompanied the day stairs (leading from the former monks’ dormitory) in the east walkway, which are probably 12th century and are decorative but bold and unfussy.  In 1282 the abbey remarkably introduced running water, which was piped from Christleton, two miles away.

The chapter house

The mid 13 century remodelling of the important chapter house, where the monks met daily to discuss their work, address disciplinary matters and to hear a reading of a chapter from the Rule of St Benedict, included an impressive rib-vaulted roof, each vault slender and elegant.  The vestibule, the approach to the chapter house, has a lower and less elegant still very impressive stone rib-vaulted ceiling as does the neighbouring slype (a passageway, which acted as a meeting place for the monks, sometimes referred to as a parlour).

From the earliest history of the abbey, those who were important to the abbey were buried there.  An example is Ranulf de Blondeville, 6th Earl of Chester, descendant of Hugh Lupus, and the builder of Beeston Castle.  He died at Wallingford on 26 October 1232.  According to one of his biographers, Iain Soden, Ranulf’s remains were divided between different places. His viscera were buried at Wallingford Castle, and his heart was taken to and buried at the abbey he had founded, Dieulacres, near Leek in Staffordshire.  The remainder was carried to St Werburgh’s.  Today this seems bizarre, but it was not at all unusual in the 13th century.  (See my post about Ranulf here). The abbots of the abbey had the right to be buried at the site, and some of them were buried under the arches along the wall shared between the cloister and the church.  This cloister was used for reading and writing, and it must have been unnerving for the monks to be watched over in their work by the former abbots.

The Lady Chapel was one of the first major additions to be completed during the abbey’s reinvention of itself, completed in the late 13th century, providing a new eastern extension of the south aisle.  The “Lady” refers to the Virgin Mary, for whom a Mass was dedicated daily.  George Gilbert Scott had a hand in its 19th century modernization, but the colours date to a  sympathetic 1969  restoration of the chapel and are designed to replicate the types of colours that would have been used in in the medieval period.  One of the surviving ceiling bosses is an usual and terrific scene showing the murder of Thomas Becket.  Henry VIII ordered most of the scenes showing this event to be destroyed, making it a very rare survivor.  All of these roof bosses, showing some similarly fascinating scenes, are well worth taking the time to appreciate.

Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the Gothic abbey is the quire area at the east end of the abbey church, where the monks delivered their liturgies, their songs and delivered their prayers, the opus dei  (God’s work) laid down by St Benedict in his monastery in Monte Cassino, Italy, in the 6th century, which were performed seven times during the day and once at night.  The Rule of St Benedict century states clearly that the opus dei should be delivered standing, which was a challenge for the elderly or otherwise impaired.

From the 12th century onwards a small ledge began to be added to cathedral quires, providing support for the monks, particularly valuable for the elderly or infirm.  Not a chair, more a prop to rest on, the misericords were the perfect opportunity to add decorative flourishes, and those at Chester are particularly splendid featuring scenes from a number of sources.  They were constructed in around 1380, probably by the craftsmen who were responsible for the quire stalls in Lincoln Cathedral.  It is worth taking some time to explore them.  The elephant with horse’s hooves and a castle on his back is a particularly well known favourite, but all of them have massive charm and merit.  If you are interested in the quire sculptures, a leaflet in the gift shop has an amazingly useful site plan of the quire, showing where to find each of the most interest corbels, misericords and bench ends.

The enormous south transept of the church, complete with side aisles, was a mid 14th century extension of the original south transept.  Originally the south and north transepts, the short arms of the cross, will have mirrored one another.  The extension was built to incorporate four new chapels for ordained monks to practise masses for the souls of the dead.  In the mid-14th century, the time of the Black Death and subsequent phases of plague, the subjects of death and the reception of the dead were very much on the minds of all people.

The pulpit and the stairs that lead up to it in the refectory, now used as a café

Another feature of the abbey that survives today is the refectory, where the monks gathered to eat, most of which dates to the late thirteenth or early 14th century.  One of my favourite details in the cathedral is the magnificent pulpit, built into the wall in stone, and reached via a stone staircase fronted by a row of five arches and itself framed by a pair of arches.  The arches, although clearly gothic in inspiration, also appear to echo the scalloping of the Norman archway that opens into the refectory from the cloister.  Meals were eaten in silence but, much like Cuban cigar factories, the silence was alleviated by readings.  Religious texts and hagiographies (biographies of saints) were favourite subjects.  The roof dates to 1939, and should not be missed.

As with the rest of Europe, the 14th century was scarred by successive plagues, the city was in crisis, labour was difficult to secure, the economy was under enormous strain.  There was a hiatus in work in the abbey between 1360 and 1490. 

Chester Cathedral garth. Photograph by Jeff Buck. Source: Geograph.

The garth, which would have been used for growing medicinal plants and herbs, is framed by a stone arcade, that today is sheltered by much later glass, about which more below.  The cloister, its rib-vaulted arcade, with ornamental bosses where the ribs meet, and its arcade are very fine indeed, and although built first in the late 11th century, it was modified several times over the centuries, including the 19th and early 20th centuries.  In spite of the different styles and ideas, it still manages to provide a sense of peace and orderliness.  All the walkways were used for processional purposes, but each of the walkways could be used for different activities.  In the north walkway, the lavatorium was located, a water trough in which the monks washed their hands before entering the refectory to eat.

In this cloister walkway, between the columns on the left, there were desks called carrels where the monks wrote and copied from other texts. A modern version has been placed there as an example.  The arches on the right mark the burial places of former abbots.

During the medieval period, the role of literature became important in monastic establishments.  The copying of books, both religious and historical, to build libraries and to disseminate knowledge, was an important part of many abbatial activities, carried out in the south walkways of the cloister, between its pillars, at desks called carrels.  It is thought that the Chester “mystery plays” (dramatizations of episodes from either Old or New Testament) were written here and enacted by the monks up until the 14th century, when the Chester Guilds, of which 23 survive, took over, each performing a different play in the streets of Chester.  The Ironmongers Guild performed The Crucifixion, for example, whilst the Guild of Grocers, Bakers and Millers performed The Last Supper.  Opposite the carrels are arched recesses, which once housed tombs.  

There are two pieces of glass thought to be original are fragments, tiny details.  One shows a resurrected figure on Judgement Day, which is quite frankly the stuff of nightmares, and the other a man, crowned and bearded with a halo.  The light was too dim for me to even make the attempt to photograph, so the two below are by Jeff Buck, from the Geograph website.

Medieval glass fragments incorporated into a modern design with plain glass. Photograph by Jeff Buck. Source: Geograph

Originally the abbey was supposed to have two big towers at the west front, in the style of Notre Dame in Paris or Kölner Dom in Cologne, but the early stump of the southwest tower, started at around 1508, was blocked off.  It is interesting that ambitious construction was carrying on so late.  Not only was the wealth to do this available, but there appears to have been no sense, at least at Chester, that the monastic system was under any threat, a threat that became a reality only 30 years later.  The consistory court (see later) sits under the proposed site of the southwest tower and the baptistry under the northwest.

The abbey occupied 6 hectares of the town’s land, and was enclosed by walls with access controlled by gatehouses.  This was a source of ongoing dispute between the abbey and the town, and as late as 1480 seems to have resulted in something of a brawl between monks and tradesmen.  Greene comments that “the wall failed to prevent the monks from going out into the town to frequent taverns and consort with prostitutes,” behaviour that would not have endeared the monks to either the Church or to the townspeople.

The original monastic structure may have been quite neatly planned, but its growth over the centuries was clearly organic, responding to specific needs and ambitions, and even today continues to be modified as restoration and conservation require ongoing modifications. 

Henry VIII’s new England and the founding of the Cathedral

What children of my generation all knew about Henry VIII was that his physical appearance was quite unmistakeable, and that he chopped off the heads of his wives.  I am sure that our teachers tried to stuff us full of more relevant information, such as the importance of Henry’s decision to establish the Church of England, but rolling heads have a way of grabbing the attention in ways that ecclesiastical reform does not.  I confess that the chopped heads still horrify me, but history turns its attention to the consequences of one particular beheading, that of Catherine of Aragon, who failed to deliver an heir to the crown.  Henry wanted to divorce her but was denied permission by the Pope.  In order to legalize his marriage to Anne Boleyn, he pushed through the Act of Supremacy, putting himself and his heirs at the head of the Church of England.  Looking back at the earlier legacy of Henry I, whose only male heir had drowned, plunging the country into civil war on the king’s death, it was perfectly clear to kings that a legitimate male heir was essential for succession.  Elizabeth I proved them wrong, but the legacy of the civil war between Henry I’s chosen successor, his daughter Matilda (often referred to as the Empress Maud), and Henry’s nephew Stephen, who took the throne on Henry’s death, would not have encouraged anyone to have high hopes of a stable country under parentally-sponsored female succession.

Valle Crucis Abbey near Llangollen, founded in 1201, was dissolved in 1536 and thoroughly pillaged by Henry VIII, as well as being robbed for building stone by local people, and is now a ruin. This postcard shows it in 1905.

Henry VIII, now freed from Papal obligations, took the opportunity to “suppress,” or eliminate the monasteries.  He saw them on the one hand as a disruptive legacy of the Papal regime, potentially undermining his new order, and on the other as a source of much-needed wealth.  Some abbeys were merely pillaged for their leaded roofs, their valuable fittings and their treasures before everything else was auctioned off.  Some were converted into parish churches, and still others were gifted to Henry’s followers and became elaborate homes.  Other abbeys were less fortunate, and were razed to the ground.  Chester Abbey experienced none of these humilities, being one of the rare ecclesiastical survivals of Henry VIII’s rampage of pillage and, in some cases, persecution. 

As part of Henry’s reorganization of his lands, central England was divided into new regions.  Whereas formerly Chester had been part of the enormous diocese of Lichfield (a diocese being an ecclesiastical unit, including parishes, over which a bishop had authority), Chester became a diocese in its own right, and it needed a cathedral of its own with a bishop at its helm.  The former abbey was the perfect choice for fulfilling the role of an icon of Henry’s Church of England, stamping out the old and ushering in the new with the same sweeping wave of the royal hand in 1541.  It became the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.  

The Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary

Chester Cathedral in 1656. Source: British History Online

The post-monastic cathedral in the later 16th century to the beginning of the 19th century is worthy of more than a small section on a single post.  Chester Cathedral is so big and there is so much to see that it is difficult to pick out just a couple of features to talk about, but here are some that seem important to its role and its development.  Interestingly, most of the cathedral’s footprint belongs to the abbey, and only a few extensions were made.  That surprised me, but it is possible that an abbey that was home to an entire community of monks was more than enough for a non-residential cathedral.

The only Consistory Court to have survived history in Britain is now at the west end of the nave, a truly remarkable thing.  It was originally built in the late 16th century, and located in the Lady Chapel.  It was moved to the end of the nave in 1636, losing part of the canopy over the main chair in order to fit it in.  Although tiny by modern court standards, there is something about it that remains seriously intimidating.  The diocese had a significant role in legal issues, not merely wills and probate as one might expect, but also dealt with libel, witchcraft and heresy.  They were also responsible for fining those who failed to attend church.  It was a time-consuming role, and the chancellor was supported by to clerks, who flanked him, and an apparitor who sat in the seat raised at the corner to oversee the paperwork on the table below. 

A splendid memorial dating to 1602 is still in situ between the south transept and the crossing, brightly coloured and completely engaging.  It depicts Thomas Greene, Sheriff of Chester in 1551 and mayor in 1569, with both of his wives, both of whom he outlived. All of their hands were originally clasped before them in prayer, but during the Civil War in the middle of the 17th century, the hands were chopped off because they were considered to be popish, and it is something of a miracle that the rest of the memorial survived. 

The Civil War had a serious impact on Chester, culminating with the Siege of Chester that took place over 16 months between September 1644 and February 1646.  It must have been a time of great trauma for the cathedral, which must at the same time have supported the local community to the beast of its abilities.  The cathedral’s medieval windows, deemed to be idolatrous, were all smashed.  A tragedy.  It was all replaced with plain glass until modern stained glass was added.

The south transept

Nick Fry tells how the huge south transept effectively became a church in its own right towards the end of the 15th century, a story of some perseverance by the parishioners of the collegiate church of St Oswalt who had been given the right to use the south transept in the 11th century.  In the 13th century, the abbey decided to usher them into their own premises very close to the cathedral, in what is now Superdrug, but they managed to reclaim the south transept in the late 15th century, coming full circle.  Wooden screens were erected between the south transept and the rest of the church, effectively segregating it, and these were only removed in the late 1880s, when the south transept resumed its role as a component part of the cathedral proper.

Another, very fine feature of the cathedral, is an ornamental lantern dating to the 17th century that hangs in the baptistry over the 19th century font.  Both lantern and font are framed between two lovely Norman arches.
afafafd

The 19th Century Cathedral 

The 19th century modifications are pretty much as you would expect.  There are some rather unlovable features like some of the mosaics and some of the highly coloured stained glass windows that are teetering right on the perilous edge of being a step too far.  These are very consistent with a society that often valued lavishly rich and romanticized themes.  But there is also much to admire.  There are some imitation medieval windows, that capture at least something of the essence of the earlier periods, and there are some unexpectedly attractive ceilings.

Old Testament themed mosaics dating from the 19th Century in the north aisle of the nave

There are several mosaics from this period in the cathedral, some better than others.  Most are contained within relatively limited spaces, but the north aisle of the nave has an entire sequence dedicated to scenes from the Old Testament.  The one shown here from the 1880s shows the Pharaoh’s daughter finding the baby Moses in his basket on the Nile.  Others, behind the High Altar (showing the Last Supper showing Judas, isolated from the group and minus a halo) and the ones in the St Erasmus Chapel, patron saint of sailors and also known as St Elmo, which was co-opted as a memorial to Sir Thomas Brassey by his family, were designed by J.R. Clayton and feature a lot of gold and very bright colouring.

Thomas Brassey was an important personality in Britain’s head over heals expansion of the railways.  He was a civil engineer and railway entrepreneur who was such a prolific investor that by the time of his death in 1870 he is credited with having built one in every twenty miles of railway in Britain.  He had worked under Thomas Telford when he was young, on the London to Holyhead Road, and he later became a major investor in the company that was formed to rescue Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s enormous ship, Great Eastern after she was launched having bankrupted her owners (see my post about Great Eastern here).  He was born in Aldford, south of Chester, and the chapel of St Erasmus, includes a marble bust of Brassey by M. Wagmiller.

Not part of the aesthetic design but unmissable and absolutely endearing in the unfathomable way that so much 19th century engineering is, is the 19th century heating system.  In 1999 underfloor heating was installed in the cathedral, but it was not the first heating to be installed.  In the 19th century circular cast iron Gurney stoves were added, manufactured by The London Warming and Ventilating Company who bought the patent registered in 1856 by Goldsworth Gurney, surgeon turned engineer.  The stove looks like the filter in my wet-and-dry vacuum cleaner, with ribs standing out from a central cylinder, distributing heat in a full circle.  It was fired by anthracite, and the entire thing sat in a trough of water, helping to add humidity to the air.  The cathedral retains severalof them, and they are in at least 22 other cathedrals too.  One wonders what the monks would have made of it.  A smaller but still sizeable version was installed in Captain Scott’s hut in Antarctica, carried there by ship.  The mind boggles.  An interesting modification of Scott’s was the addition of a water tank about the radiator, to heat water, vital for the freezing conditions (for photos see the page dedicated to the stoves on the Antarctic Heritage Trust website).    

The most irritating aspect of the 19th century work was George Gilbert Scott, who clearly loved medieval architecture and sculpture, but could not prevent himself making what he believed were improvements on the original conceptualization.  Scott was given a regrettably free hand with the renovation work, and reimagined much of the original architecture with his own vision.  One cannot argue that he was attempting to do anything but good, albeit with a lot of self-indulgence coming into play, but he often got it rather dreadfully wrong.  On the other hand, I am a pushover for 19th century floor tiles, and he produced some rather good ones, including the rectangular section of the Crossing (beneath the tower).  He was also responsible for the current organ, which incorporated elements from an earlier 19th Century organ, and has been extended since.  It sounds marvellous.

Located next to the Romanesque arch in the north transept is a tiny and extraordinary back-lit copy of a painting by Lucas Cranach the Elder.  What makes it extraordinary is that it was painted onto a caterpillar net, like a cobweb.  I had never heard of this 19th century tradition, but it apparently became very popular in Austria and there are only around 60 examples remaining in existence.

There are a lot of sculptural memorials to the deceased hanging from the walls, most of them relating to tombstones below, under the cathedral floor.  All of them are interesting, but some of them have slightly unusual inscriptions, of which three are shown below, and are side by side in the cathedral, all in the north quire aisle (number 15 on the plan at the top).

The Cathedral in the 20th – 21st Centuries

There was no sudden break between the 19th and 20th centuries, but the onset of war in 1914, and then again in 1936, must have raised the cathedral’s role as a place of solace and support.  In the south transept there are a number of memorials  commemorating military sacrifice from various periods, but those from the two World Wars are characterized by a brevity and understatement that makes them particularly touching.

At the same time, the cathedral continued to be developed architecturally.  One of the most remarkable innovations of the early 20th century, and one of its best, was the glazing of the cloister arcades the personal mission, in 1920, of the new Dean, Frank Bennett.  As well as the main window lights, which show saints, including St Werburgh and her aunt St Ethelreda, archbishops of Canterbury, holy days or important festivals, there are also little memorials that are far more personal and provide a link with some of the people who were part of Chester’s everyday life:  one commemorates the Cheshire mountaineers George Mallory and Andrew Irvine.  Another is dedicated to John Elliott “Physician of this City.”

  dfasdaf

Moving more firmly into modern times, more recent experiments with modern sculpture and stained glass are worth thinking about.  How you feel about any of the modern contributions to Chester Cathedral is a very personal thing.  Some of the modern stained glass is inoffensive, some of it is a lot less successful.  The garth has been beautifully planted with spring bulbs, but its dominating feature is a substantial modern sculpture in the centre, and I would have preferred the monastic peace without the contrived intrusion, although I loved the sound of the fountain.  I could also seriously live without the big flat-screens, which show as white rectangles in the photograph on the left at the top of this section.  I mentioned above that there was purple lighting in the nave when I returned to take photographs on March 3rd.  The overall impact was distinctly weird, but probably had relevance to an upcoming event, and was only temporary.  

One of the modern touches does a good job of linking past and present, and draws some attention from visitors, a fascinating American quilted representation of the Mystery Plays.  Katie says that it was once kept in an inlet at the approach to the main entrance, and that it was stolen.  The police were involved and it was eventually returned and is now safely installed in the body of the cathedral.  We stood and looked at it for a while, picking out scenes that are particularly intriguing or amusing.  The Mystery Plays are still enacted today every five years, and are coming up again in 2023.

The former monks’ dormitory is now the Song School.  The dormitory had been replaced by a concrete roof by the time that the decision was made to build the Song School over the  rib-vaulted chapter house vestibule, the slype and the song practise room, and is accessed from the day stairs, by which the monks entered the cloister when it was still an abbey.  It has been very sympathetically done from the outside view.  The red sandstone is very new and clean, but will weather in time and I like that it is differentiated from the older stone, not pretending to be something that it is not.

Addleshaw Tower. Photograph by Mike Peel. Source: Wikipedia

Not part of the cathedral building, but in its surrounding gardens and best seen from the Chester Walls is the Grade II-listed standalone bell tower, the Addleshaw Tower, something that is likely to divide opinion.  I rather like it, although a lot of people don’t.  It was built to house the bells after they had been renovated, and when the original bell tower was deemed to be rather too fragile to support the weight without additional structural work that could have been excessively intrusive.  The idea of an external bell tower was a neat solution, but of course the design was controversial.  The design by George Pace was displayed at the Royal Academy of Art’s annual Summer Exhibition in 1969, and the foundation stone was laid by Lord Leverhulme in 1973.  The main external building materials are pink sandstone and Welsh slate, which hide a reinforced concrete frame.  It has been well maintained and still looks brand new.
asfadsfasf

Those who are working behind the scenes today to sustain Chester Cathedral for the modern world have done an excellent job of making the transition from place of worship to tourist attraction, whilst ensuring that there are still spaces available for private prayer, with plenty of quiet areas in which to light candles.  I was particularly touched by the prayer for Ukraine placed in St Werburgh’s Chapel at the east end of the north aisle (number 16 on the plan above).  

Chester Cathedral works, and it is a good example of how to get it right.  I have always struggled a little with churches and cathedrals, mainly because the blend of old and new is often (but not at Chester) so jarring, and so difficult to process.  Tatty vestries, rows of plastic chairs, and aged sun-bleached pinboards with dog-eared notices often make for a dismal experience. In spite of modern seating, there is nothing remotely dismal about Chester Cathedral, which balances modern lighting (not usually purple) and underfloor heating with daily services, and a nice blend of dignity, heritage, practicality and the divine, celebrating its more remote past and retaining a sense of purpose.  I’m not quite sure how it has been pulled off. 

At the moment the far west end of the name is being restored, and that is one of the most notable and admirable signs of modern activity, but although this is just one restoration project, this is probably a never-ending story with small pockets and larger programmes of of work being undertaken all the time, and there are probably many more underway out of sight of the public.

Final Comments

Later pillar somewhat ruthlessly positioned in front of one of the Norman archways in the cloister. My favourite bit of the cathedral, because it is so human

It is interesting that when it comes to describing the cathedral today, it is the abbey that stands out as the main influence on everything that happened subsequently, even the 19th century attempts to give it a new touch.   I was expecting more 16th-18th century interventions, but even though the Norman has largely been eliminated by the abbey’s Gothic phases, it is the pre-Dissolution abbey that still speaks out, even through a veil of 19th century and even more recent modifications.

I tend to bang on about multi-layered experiences when talking about enduring archaeological and historical buildings, because the sense of time being both visible and concealed, thick and thin, horizontal and vertical, subtle and brash usually hits me like a tidal wave.  Chester Cathedral, incorporating the remains of the 7th Century shrine and remains of Saint Werburgh, was built, rebuilt, renovated and reinvented over 600 years, and is still in use today as both a place of worship and a tourist resort.  It fills the head with temporal chaos, but it’s a good chaos because it represents the accumulation of history, and even though it scrambles the brain, that historical scramble has an awful lot to say.  The challenge is to get to grips with the narrative.  

I am colossally aware of the futility of making the attempt to do justice to the cathedral in a single post.  The guide books help enormously, doing an excellent job of trying to compress a staggering amount of information into something digestible, but it’s still a big ask to contain centuries of change within a restricted format.  If you are are going, I recommend either booking a tour or buying a guide book online before you go and reading it first.

The organ, which dates to the 19th century, was being played whilst I was there to take photos, a stunning sound, and if you want to get a sense of how wonderful it is, have a look and listen at this YouTube video of an hour-long concert held in Chester Cathedral, beginning with the Overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute, in which the cathedral’s is being played by the remarkable Jonathan Scott, who talks about how the organ delivers its sound via keys, pedals and stops.  There is some great footage of Jonathan Scott’s finger work on all four tiered keyboards, and for me it was a particular revelation to see the amazing foot work required. I had no idea. There are also some great internal views of the cathedral on the video.  It lasts for an hour, and is a truly illuminating insight into organ music.


Visiting and accessibility

We drove in to Chester, and parked at the Little RooDee car park on Grosvenor Road, just round the back of Chester Castle.  It is a long-term car park, £5.00 for the whole day, and worth it for a visit to the cathedral, where there is so much to see, particularly when you are planning on lunch as well.

Full details of the cathedral’s opening times etc are at www.chestercathedral.com, and should be checked in case things change.  Photography is permitted, although lighting is very low. I didn’t check about flash and cannot find any reference to it on the website.  Access is currently free, but suggested £4.00 donations are very much appreciated and deserved – you can donate in the reception area by popping money into an enormous glass coffer, by handing it to the person on the till, or by buying Lego blocks of the superb Lego cathedral in the nave, which is such fun (a pound a block) and very useful for getting a birdseye view on the cathedral buildings.  All the contributions go to repairs, conservation and restoration.

Regarding accessibility, there is not much to worry about.  It has not been converted throughout for wheelchair access, at the time of writing, but there is a ramp from the reception area into the main cathedral and there is still a lot to be seen without tackling steps.  For those on foot, there are only a few stone steps here and there, and for most people these are too few to worry about.  Most are very shallow and easy to tackle, and those that are likely to trip you up in the low light are painted white along the edges.  Like all old buildings, however, keeping an eye on where your feet are going is a very good idea.

If you are keen on stained glass, be warned that nearly all of it is 19th Century and modern, and that if you want to get a good idea of it, a bright day helps.

On both visits I was very lucky to be trdated to live music.  There was choral singing in the south transept when I was there with Katie, the singers informal in jeans and comfy clothes, filling the entire cathedral with a gentle but lovely sound.  This happens between 10.30 and 12.00 on Fridays in the south transept, led by Ella Speirs.  According to her website, sing.dance.love., the music was developed by Taize, an ecumenical  community in France founded after the Second World War, which creates a harmony  in song using short phrases from scripture.  It was a fabulous accompaniment to the visit, for which my thanks to those who took the trouble to lend their voices to the morning.  On the day when I was taking photographs, the following week, an organist was playing, and the sound was glorious.

Our final stop was the monastic refectory, a tall, light-filled space, now a really good coffee shop/café where we had lunch.  Very appropriate.  As you wait for your food to arrive you can admire the glorious 1939 hammer-beam ceiling, the Gothic architecture, the modern stained glass window, and soak up the atmosphere.  I had latte and a Welsh rarebit, the latter served with a gorgeous coleslaw that tasted anything but synthetic and a light and ultra-fresh salad with crispy oak-leaf lettuce, crunchy cucumber and firm but juicy little cherry tomatoes, all tossed in just the right amount of balsamic dressing. The cheese was golden, perfectly melted, deliciously browned in places and gorgeous.  I’ll be stopping there again.

The garth within the cloister, a completely secluded area. The Water of Life sculpture is in the foreground, and the new sandstone of the Song School is clearly visible behind the cloister arcade. Photograph by Harry Mitchell,  Source: Wikipedia

We exited through the gift shop, as you do, where there are postcards, books, booklets, choral music, DVDs, jewellery, games and other items.  If you are interested in exploring the subject of the cathedral’s stained glass, you can buy a booklet about it, and the same with the misericords.  The shop is very nicely done, and you can buy your stamps for postcards at the same time.  I came away clutching postcards, stamps, a guide book and the little leaflets about the misericords and the cloister windows.

There are “Cathedral at Height” tours that take you to upper layers in the cathedral, all the way to the top of the tower, and although I haven’t yet done this, Katie says that a reasonable amount of fitness is required (216 steps), and anyone suffering from claustrophobia or vertigo may want to think twice.  I suffer from neither, and am seriously looking forward to the experience and the views from the top of the tower.  Find out more on the Chester Cathedral website.
fasfasfasd

Sources

When the bells were removed, George Pace designed a ceiling decoration in gold on wood in 1973, to seal the bell tower, that still draws the eye and looks stunning

For the first time, my main source cannot be pinned down to a publication.  Thanks very much again  to Katie Crowther, Chester Green Badge tourist guide for introducing me to Chester Cathedral, who says that Nick Fry’s generous contribution of his expertise on the cathedral’s history was a great source of information for all those on the Green Badge course.  His guide book is listed below. I did not take notes, and the following sources helped me to nail down facts that I had half-remembered.  Any errors in the above are, as usual, all my own work 🙂

fdasfsdafasf

Books and papers

Burton, J. and Kerr, J. 2011. The Cistercians in the Middle Ages.  The Boydell Press

Fry, N. 2009.  Chester Cathedral.  Scala

Greene, J.P. 1992.  Medieval Monasteries. Leicester University Press

Hiatt, C. 1898. The Cathedral Church of Chester.  A Description of the Fabric and A Brief History of the Episcopal See.  George Bell and Sons. Available on the Internet Archive

Hodge, J. 2017. Chester Cathedral. Scala

Smalley, S. 1994. Chester Cathedral. Pitkin Guides

Soden, I. 2021 (second edition). The First English Hero: The Life of Ranulf de Blondeville. Amberley

Pamphlets

Brooke, J., Fry, N., Ingram, B., Moncreiff, E. and Thomson, J.  (no date).  The Windows of the Cloister.  Chester Cathedral

Smalley, S. (additional research, Fry, S.) 1996. Chester Cathedral Quire Misericords. The Pitkin Guide. Chester Cathedral.

Uncredited 2010, with an introduction by the Dean of Chester.  Refectory Treasures. Chester Cathedral

Websites

Antarctic Heritage Trust
The Gurney Stove in Antarctica
https://nzaht.org/gurneystove/

British History Online
Chester Cathedral 
A History of the County of Chester: Volume 3. Originally published by Victoria County History, London 1980, pages 188-195
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol3/pp188-195

Chester Cathedral
https://chestercathedral.com 

Historic England
Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary 
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1376398?section=official-list-entry

Chester Mystery Plays
About the Plays. Keeping History Alive and Well
https://chestermysteryplays.com/discover/history/

Earls of Chester Family Tree
Chester ShoutWiki http://chester.shoutwiki.com/wiki/File:EarlsTree2.jpg

Dr Thomas Pickles
Why did St. Werburgh of Chester Resurrect a Goose?
www.youtube.com/watch?v=GhWq2ZS3XkE

Historic England
Official list entry
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1376398?section=official-list-entry

JPP (CDM) Ltd
Song School, Chester Cathedral
https://jppcdm.co.uk/project/new-song-school-constructed-on-medieval-cloisters-at-chester-cathedral/

Sing.Dance.Love
Fridays 10.30-12 at Chester Cathedral in the South Transept
https://www.singdancelove.co.uk/taize-at-st-peters

Telling Stories from Handling Medieval and Early Modern Objects

Many thanks to Chester Archaeological Society for circulating the news that Dr Katherine Wilson (Associate Professor in Later Medieval European History, University of Chester) was inviting CAS members to see and handle medieval objects in Chester from the Grosvenor Museum’s collections at two pop-up events.  Both were part of the Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries initiative.  The first event was on the day that I attended, the 3rd March at the Garret Theatre in the Story House, and another on the 4th March.  We were all greeted warmly by the team from Chester University, which included students who were seated in front of trays full of objects for us to go and investigate and learn about.

The format was very straightforward and worked perfectly.  A number of trays containing the objects were organized on a u-shaped table layout, so that we could easily move between them without being on top of each other.  In front of each tray was a University of Chester student, all of them helping us to explore the objects, encouraging discussions and real involvement with the objects in front of us and how they might lead us to understand more about the lives that left them behind.  Each tray had a selection of very different objects, so in each case there was a lot to talk about.  I didn’t catch the names of the students, but they were excellent.

Chester has a rich Medieval past, but as the team made clear, most people thinking about Medieval Chester focus almost exclusively in terms of the Cathedral and the half-timbered shop fronts, when there are not only other great buildings, like St John’s Church (Chester’s first cathedral), but there are also all the objects that have been excavated over the years, the items of every day life that people used, wore, carried with them or used in their daily work.  These items bring to life, at least in the imagination, the people who owned them.

Sole of a leather shoe, beautifully shaped. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Each object has a knack of opening windows into other parts of Medieval life that are no longer easily visible or reproducible.  The shoes were particularly evocative.  The first tray at which I sat down contained fragments of a black material, some very thin, one rather thick.  When I was asked what I thought they were, I said the first thoughts that came into my head: leather, protective, item of clothing.  I guessed a hood, perhaps because I was drenched from rain 🙂  They were, of course, fragments of shoes.  In the other boxes there were far more complete items, one sole with an additional patch of leather attached over the heel as a protective layer, much like a flat shoe today.  All of them bore the signs of wear, most of them were marked by tiny holes where one piece had been connected to another, and there was even a fabulous child’s shoe with an open toe.  These shoes, preserved in a waterlogged ditch just outside Chester, posed so many questions – how expensive were they (a goose, a sheep?), and in turn were they high status objects?  Were they everyday wear or were they only worn for best?  Where did their owners wear them?  How far did their owners, wearing their leather shoes, travel for trade, as messengers, or on pilgrimage?

Two of the keys in the object handling trays. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

There were several keys, some of which had remarkably patterned and intricate ends or bits.  For every huge key there must have been a vast door, opening into home or business premises, whole worlds within worlds.  For every tiny key, each fascinating in its own complexity, there is a missing lock, a missing box and the missing contents to contemplate.  Perhaps such keys, each either looped or perforated at the tops, were carried on a string, worn around the neck when small enough or tied to a belt or locked in a draw, along with other keys.  Whilst the keys themselves were portable, and the small keys may have opened small and very portable chests, the big keys probably opened big doors, either room doors or cupboard doors, and whilst the keys themselves were portable, what they were opening was much less so.

The pieces of wheel-thrown pottery were impressively large and well made.  There was no sign of glazing, so these were probably very practical, every day items.  Being rim sherds, the diameters could be calculated to give an idea of the size of the pots.  There were no bases, so it was not possible to see if there was any sign of the sort of charring that would be expected for cooking.  Perhaps they were used for storage.  They were solid and designed to be moved around, re-used and to do a reliable, practical job.  A piece of handle probably belonged to an even bigger vessel, looking very like a Roman amphora handle, thick and ribbed, impressively chunky.  The contents of the vessel must have been heavy to require such big handles, perhaps a liquid of some sort.  If these items travelled, and were broken in the process, it was probably in the process of being shifted across a room or in the case of the thick-handled vessel, perhaps being carted from farm or port to market.

Medieval floor tile. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Medieval floor tiles seem like the antithesis of mobility or portability, but they too had travel tales to tell, as one of the students pointed out very vividly.  Between the pattern designers, the clay diggers, the mould-makers, the artisans and those who laid the floors, these pieces passed from hand to hand until they were eventually laid on the ground.  They are thick, about 3.5 cms from memory, and as the lady sitting next to me pointed out at one of the trays, there was little sign of inclusions in the fabric.  This presumably made them less prone to cracking, more able to bear the weight of people walking over them.  The tiles were splendid, the glazed ones with the indented moulded decoration capturing light as we moved them.  In candle light, the images, lions and griffins, must have appeared to shift and shimmer, providing them with a type of dynamism beyond the pattern that the contributed to on the floor.  I was looking at the Victorian floor tiles in Chester Cathedral last week, for which I have a guilty liking based on the hallways of countless terraced houses around the country, but when compared to the Medieval ones they seem very two-dimensional and glossy.  The Medieval ones have a texture, luminosity and energy that are truly remarkable.

There was one piece, possibly a tile, that was neither rectangular or glazed, but perfectly round with a lion’s head looking out.  The puzzle, the student told me, was that the rectangular ones were all mass-produced, because they would be laid on floor, just like modern ones, but round ones were most unusual.  This was small, only about 10cm in total diameter, and deeper than the square ones.  It was also, if memory serves, made of stone.  The lion’s head was painted on, not moulded, and although the disk itself would have been fairly tolerant of feet, I wonder about that lion.  A possibility is that it was the centre of a radiating design, but the radiating pieces would also have to be specially shaped, and if so, where are they?  As he said, a puzzle, but a very nice one.

A remarkable ampulla. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

Some of the objects came from outside of Britain.  A gorgeous little cross within a circle, just a few centimetres across, was from Siena in Italy, and was probably sewn on to a piece of clothing, and would have looked like a brooch.  Other items may have worked their ways all the way down the Silk Road, eventually finding their way to Chester.  One particularly startling piece, featuring a very austere male face, is a tiny St Thomas Becket flask for containing holy water, called an ampulla (ampullae in the plural), the ears forming little loops for string attachment to a belt or clothing.  Its weight suggests that it was made of lead.  Some of these long-travelled objects were moulded, and easy to mass produce, but owning them would still have been precious, often representing a serious achievement, something to which others might aspire, and making the owner visibly one of a circle of similar achievers, irrespective of birth or background.
asdfasdfsd

Silver spoon handle with face of St Peter topped by a cockerel. Source and copyright: The Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries (MOB)

In another tray was a tiny but highly decorative little piece of metal, a devotional token. It is in the face of a head, and was broken below the neck, so certainly had once been somewhat longer.  It probably had something of a similar role to a pilgrim’s badge – the souvenir or, rather more importantly, an indication of pride, the sense of achievement with which a particular devotional religious task is associated.  There was also a very, very thin copper ring on the same tray that had a wide section at the front, with tiny little carved symbols marking it, thought to have been different events in the owner’s life.  In another tray was a silver spoon handle from Rome showing the face of St Peter and topped with a cockerel, representing Peter’s denial of Christ three times. These three items were so small and personal that they spoke of how people who made long journeys, perhaps people who did not have sufficient silver pennies to make many such journeys, valued these objects as emblems that declared numerous concepts – achievement, affiliation with an idea or an ideal, veneration of a religion or a preferred saint.  One student (wish I had known any of their names) had on his own jacket a replica pilgrim’s badge of geese in a basket, the symbol of St Werburgh, whose remains were moved to Chester Abbey (now Cathedral) in the 10th century, attracting  pilgrims.

Poppy worn by thousands of British people each year in memory of those lost and wounded in war. Photograph by Philip Stephens. Source: Wikipedia

Taking this a step further, people have been using objects to signify identity, nationality and membership since prehistory, and we still wear objects to communicate similar ideas.  Examples are badges of membership of a particular association or society; shirts supporting a particular sporting team; sweatshirts declaring an affiliation to a particular university; handbags advertising how elite they are by displaying their designers’ logos; poppies on Remembrance Sunday expressing our debt to those injured in war and, just recently MPs in the symbol-laden House of Commons wearing Ukrainian flag ribbons.  Today some of these icons and symbols travel the globe very easily, but travel was more difficult in the past, and some images that found there ways into Medieval society travelled from other parts of the planet via trade and pilgrim routes, copied and re-interpreted as they travelled.  The emblems of association with guilds, religions and the signals of achievement must have had a much greater depth to them, and new images and their ideas must have been both challenging and fascinating.

National Archives Currency Converter showing the results for the estimated value of £1.00 in 1440

Distributed through a number of the trays  were coins, tiny silver pennies, so thin that they were terrifying to handle and difficult to read.  One was a Henry VI penny, so beautiful and so subtle that it looked more like a piece of ornamentation than something one would do business with.  The question of how one measures value came up.  Many exchanges were done in kind, trading one set of skills or products for another in the form of services, foodstuffs and finished products but for  assessing those who had coinage, the National Archives has a fabulous Currency Convertor, enables you to put in a year, a monetary value (like a penny, pound or £10, 3s, 1d and press a button to calculate how many horses, heads of cattle, sheep wool, days of labour etc you would get for your money.  It goes back to 1270 and gives a vivid sense of what value something may have been in the past, and since I found it about 10 years ago has always made me think of historical coins in terms of what that would have purchased. If we plonk ourselves down somewhere in the middle of the king’s first reign, say 1440, when there were about 240 pennies to the pound, what would £1.00 have bought you? One horse, two cows or seven stones of wool.  That also equates to 33 days of a skilled tradesman’s labour.   All those little pennies added up to something very significant if only, just as today, you could save enough of them.

It’s amazing how one can get things so badly wrong.  One object, with a very sharp point and spurs of different sizes, I speculated might have been a device for cleaning sheep hooves.  I am a bit livestock-orientated, having specialized in livestock management in my own research.  On rethinking, I thought that it might have been used for both piercing and shaping leather or other materials.  Turns out that it was another key, presumably incredibly well worn 🙂  One of the great things about the object handling event was that there was absolutely no derision.  All ideas were welcomed.  Handling the objects, talking about them, thinking about them was a great way of bringing all that reading to life and imagining how people’s lives actually looked and felt.

Grosvenor Museum. Photograph by Dennis Turner. Source: Geograph via Wikipedia

There will be an exhibition based on a similar theme at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester beginning at the end of April.  I used to volunteer there, working on finds during the 1980s.  Dates and top-level details for the upcoming exhibition, which will probably be added to in the future as the exhibition nears, are at:
https://events.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk/event/medieval-chester-retold/

Repeated thanks to Dr Katherine Wilson and her excellent team, who did such an excellent job of talking us through the objects on the trays in front of them.  Thanks again too to Chester Archaeological Society for the email that told me that it was happening.  A great couple of hours.  For more about the Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries project, see the website at:
https://mob.chester.ac.uk/
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/

I went for a second wander around the cathedral afterwards, and was lucky enough to catch the organ in full swing.  Glorious.  Although this is a 19th century organ, with bunches of pipes popping up everywhere, there are records of an organ in the abbey since before the Dissolution, perhaps contemporary with some of the objects that we were handling today.
asdfsdfsdfsd

Links connected with Thursday’s event:

Mobility of Objects Across Boundaries website
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/

Mobility of Objects: Pilgrim badges and devotional tokens from the Grosvenor Museum, Chester (video)
https://www.openartsarchive.org/resource/mobility-objects-pilgrim-badges-and-devotional-tokens-grosvenor-museum-chester

Object Videos Pilgrimage Badges and Devotional Tokens (video)
https://mobilityofobjectsacrossboundaries.wordpress.com/object-videos-handling-session-2-pilgrimage-badges-and-devotional-tokens/

Education Object Boxes
https://mob.chester.ac.uk/activities/education-object-boxes-for-schools/

Other sources

Useful details about ampullae
Ampulla
https://medievallondon.ace.fordham.edu/collections/show/90

Today in 1201: The foundation of Valle Crucis Abbey

Happy Birthday, Valle Crucis!

Had it survived Henry VIII’s nation-changing tantrum, otherwise known as the dissolution of the monasteries and the birth of the Church of England, the Cistercian monastic order’s abbey at Valle Crucis would be 821 years old today.  Today its lovely ruins are managed by Cadw and although a caravan park has been plonked right on its doorstep, it is still a glorious place to visit, sitting on the edge of a classically bubbling brook and overseen by the brilliant colours of the hills above.

I have already written first about the background to the abbey and then about how each of the monastic buildings was employed, and there are more parts to come.

In the meantime, here are a couple of photographs of one of my top favourite places, taken on 26th January.  I should mention that although the Cadw page for Valle Crucis says that it is open, it is actually currently closed to the public due to Covid, with a big, chunky padlock barring access.  The Cistercian monks would probably have applauded 🙂

 

A short walk along the Dee at Holt, taking in Holt Castle

Holt Castle

After a morning of shifting logs, the sad remnants of an enormous fallen tree, from one end of the garden to the other and stacking them in the shed, I was fairly stiff and very bored.  It was a lovely day, so even though there is an immense pile still sitting there, I put the wheelbarrow back in the garage and decided to go and walk along the river, taking in Holt Castle.

A number of people have asked me if I’ve visited the castle yet, and my answer that the last time I saw it was probably 30 years ago always seems a tad lame, given how close it is.  I will talk about the castle on another post, but it was interesting today to see how much it has changed.  When I was last there, it was inaccessible and covered in ivy.  I remember the doorway hanging in the side of the wall, and remembered that it was built on a sandstone base, and that local sandstone was quarried from around the castle to provide building material and form a moat, but I had forgotten anything else that I knew about it.  Today, I was so pleased to see how well it has been served since I last saw it.  There is now a staircase leading to the top of the castle, from which the views of the Dee and the fields beyond are excellent, and there is plenty of signage to explain all the features remaining, and to show what existed in the Middle Ages.  I must try to find the photographs I took 30 years ago for comparison.

I was walking straight into the sun, which was beautiful but blinding, so after visiting the castle I retraced my steps and headed instead towards the bridge, crossed the road just before it, and went through the gate into the grass field that flanks the Dee to its west, heading north in the direction of Chester.  It was only a short walk.  I did not pass out of the field onto the track, which was covered with deep pools of muddy water, but the sun on the grass made it glow, the reflections in the river were lovely, and the cobwebs forming silver nets on the ground were glorious, and all in all it was a really rewarding stroll.

 

 

 

 

Visiting and accessibility notes

There is no carpark for the castle, but during the week there is plenty of on-road parking.  The footpath leading down to the Dee is well maintained, but as it opens into the open grass it is muddy and a little slippery after rainfall.  That is true for the worn footpaths around the castle too, so suitable footwear is required.  The path leading up to the top of the castle is gravel set into a plastic matrix, and felt very safe underfoot.  The metal staircase up tot he top of the castle is also well-textured underfoot, with a good handrail.  It’s only a short flight.  Do note that the noise from the bypass is considerable, so if you were thinking of carrying on along the Dee to the south after seeing the castle, do bear that in mind.

The walk along the Dee has no car park on the Holt side, but cross the bridge and there is a small car park on the Farndon side, to the south of the river (to the right as you cross from Holt into Farndon).  You can then return across the bridge on the narrow footpath to do the walk on the west of the river heading north.  As you open the gate, you may again find that the converging feet and paws have muddied the approach from the field, making it slippery.  The rest of the walk through the field is slip-free, and on the flat.

A Chester Local List Workshop – what is local listing all about?

A few weeks ago, Chester Archaeological Society forwarded a request from Cheshire West and Chester (CWAC) for participants to attend a Local List Workshop.  I volunteered, but at that time I had only the fuzziest idea of what a local list actually is.  This post aims to clarify the subject of local lists and provides an account what happened during the fascinating Chester workshop.

A lot of county and city councils have programmes dedicated to local listing, and are running their own workshops and other forms of interaction with the public in order to launch their own local lists.  So what is a local list when it emerges from its burrow?

What Local Listing is not

The Grade 1 nationally-listed Chester Cathedral. Shame about the big purple sign, which completely destroys the first impression.  One of the lessons of Chester is that inappropriate signage and shop frontages can intrude very negatively on an otherwise beautiful city.

First, it’s useful to understand what local listing is not.  Local listing is not the same as the more familiar sense of the term listing, which is where a building or monument is “graded.”  Most of us are aware that when a building is officially listed and allocated a grade (Grade 1, grade 2 etc), it is given a special status and there are limits on what can be done to it and how it can be used.  Here’s part of the English Heritage explanation:  “Listing marks and celebrates a building’s special architectural and historic interest, and also brings it under the consideration of the planning system, so that it can be protected for future generations.  The older a building is, and the fewer the surviving examples of its kind, the more likely it is to be listed.”  There are currently 511 listed buildings (Grade 1, Grade 2* and Grade 2) in Chester City Ward alone.  Chester Cathedral, for example, is Grade 1 listed.  This is a national designation, and usually referred to as National Listing.

Local Listing

Local listing is different.  For a start, it is not a national designation and is not determined by a centralized national unit.  It is organized on a local basis by the council.  Here are some of the details on the Cheshire Local List Project website:

“In addition to the National designations, (including Listed Buildings, Scheduled Monuments, Registered Parks and Gardens and Registered Battlefields) local heritage can also be identified through the production of Local Heritage Lists of non-designated heritage assets. These enable the significance of any building or site on the list to be better taken into account in planning applications affecting the building or site or its setting.”

As I discovered recently when contesting a planning application, one of the sticking points in objecting to any planning application is the concept of a “material consideration.”  A material consideration is something that a planning department takes into consideration when accepting or rejecting a planning application.  More to the point, anything that is not a material consideration is ignored when objections are made.  Local listing ensures that even those aspects of the built environment that are not nationally listed and have no grading are included as a matter of material consideration, which may make all the difference to communities attempting to care for their assets.

National, graded listing is designed to protect buildings and other sites, and ensures that when changes are proposed, a process of consultation takes place, but there are many other buildings, sites and objects that are not nationally listed, but nevertheless have an important role in communities, either because they contribute to community identity, or represent significant markers of local history.   As locally listed entities, these become subject to material consideration in the planning process.

The Cheshire Local List Project (CLLP) website goes on:

The Cheshire Local List gives importance to local heritage within the planning system, but also allows the expression of community identity, both through the list itself and through engagement in the research and designation process. It is a key component of conservation area management and Neighbourhood Plan development, and allows numerous stakeholders to better understand and appreciate the heritage of the county and its communities.

It would have been helpful if the word “listing” had been confined to national graded listing to avoid any confusion, but hey-ho, we’re stuck with it, and whatever it is called it is a really good idea, assuming that it is well implemented and becomes an integrated part of local planning procedures.  Local listing is a government initiative that sits at a level beneath graded listing, and is a much less formal designation, but could be just as important for communities if they work with councils to identify important local sites that cannot be nationally listed.  It puts the onus on councils to engage with the idea, but my hour on Google suggests that many have taken up the gauntlet.

The idea of the workshop

One of the Project’s aims is to be community-lead.  Here’s the official wording:  “We see the Cheshire Local List as a community-driven dataset. Rather than impose detailed criteria, which may be restrictive and exclusive, we have developed non-asset-specific criteria which we hope will enable local communities to define local heritage significance on their own terms.”

The term “community-driven” is often an indication that an organization intends to do nothing at all unless poked firmly in the ribs by some community-based pressure group, but here we had excellent James Dixon, Built Environment Officer (Conservation and Design) at CWAC, reaching out to Chester Archaeology Society, amongst other groups, for people to come and participate in a series of workshops.  The objective, ongoing, is to understand sensory experiences of small groups of people walking the same route through Chester to see how this might help to build an idea of what the concept of local listing might contribute to a city that already has 511 nationally designated listed buildings.   Rather than looking at the merit of individual buildings, this approach sought to develop an idea of how people respond to and interact with the city as a whole.

The approach is evidence-based.  Evidence-based approaches have become popular in all sorts of research that involves human interaction, including archaeology, social science and economic development as well as urban planning.  They have largely emerged from the basic idea of phenomenology – the way in which different living spaces are experienced and interpreted by individuals and communities – but are now a tool for developing  strategies or policies.  It takes the idea that how people live their lives and how they perceive their built, natural and cultural environment should influence what decisions should be made about those environments.  First, of course, is the requirement to understand people’s responses, both conscious and subconscious to the context under discussion, in this case the city of Chester.  In our workshop group at least, it produced some interesting results.

Another concept that has been incorporated into the Cheshire approach is “group value.”  This divorces heritage in its own right from other things we appreciate, such as assets, objects and spaces and how we experience all of these in a sensory way.  Valuable buildings are easy to put a finger on, describe and evaluate, but the open spaces in front of them, the odds and ends of  modern sculpture, ancient architectural lumps and bumps, and the occasional well-positioned tree or cobbled footpath are more difficult to evaluate.  And yet, they too are part of the heritage landscape, the built environment, the cultural context or whatever else we are calling it this year.  My above whinge about the purple sign in front of Chester Cathedral is just as important to people’s perception of how we move through our cultural space as the building we want to engage with, because signage is an attention grabber, and it manages expectations.

Archaeologists and historians are always flipping between what a site, building or object might have meant in the past and what it means in the present and how that distinction influences how we interpret the past.  That’s the archaeologist in me talking, but it works for any entity that we look back on from the perspective of time.  Cities and towns are accumulations, so we are reacting not to a single slice of time, but to an amalgamation that spans the oldest to the newest building and and is generally  experienced by the user (shopper, visitor, worker) as something that instead of having many multi-layered and multi-temporal identities, has one single identity in their own minds, in this case the identity of being Chester.

Because we humans are all so different from one another, a Chester identity is no single thing, because different people will respond to it in different ways depending on, for example, nationality, familiarity, personal interests, and the way in which they are intending to interact with it.  So Chester actually has multiple identities, each person perceiving the city as single cohesive entity but each doing so from a different perspective,  meaning that there are multiple identities of Chester, all of them compressing the complexities built up by time into a hurried present-day reality through which we pass, often in a tearing hurry.

In order to move beyond this sense of Chester being any single thing, James has come up with a method of directing participants in the workshop to look at Chester in an alternative way, something that had nothing to do with arranging its buildings chronologically or by function, but by asking us to think about how we reacted to different sensory aspects of it.

Participating in the workshop

Post-Covid there are a lot of empty shops, looking abandoned and derelict, dragging down the image of their neighbouring shops. The entire of the St Werburgh Row is devoid of life, and tragic. This initiative, however, where empty shop windows are provided with imaginative Chester-themed boards is excellent, raising a smile. The one here is the former Patisserie Valerie on Bridge Street.

On the 18th of November, the 90 minute workshop started at the bottom of Bridge Street, where we received our instructions from James, an excellent, reassuring communicator who turns out to have a natural gift for herding cats.  From the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross, and then from The Cross to the top of Northgate Street, the workshop set out to build an evidence base of sensory experiences including, for example, colour, sound, smell and texture, and more elusive concepts like fun and solitude.

James handed each of us a 6x4inch card, at the top of which was written a single word.  There were eight of us in the group, which was a good number for exploring some of the concepts, and enabled us to exchange notes on three occasions, once after we had walked Bridge Street, once after Northgate Street, and once in the town square, outside the town hall.  The topics were, in no order, were texture, colours, sound, stillness, views, words, and mine was fun.

There were Covid-aware latex gloves for those of us who wanted to explore texture by touch.  We could partner up with someone else, we could proceed en masse, or we could go off individually.  Apart from that we were given no direction so that the thoughts that came to us were not influenced in any way by James, or by the council’s objectives.

The idea was to write down words that occurred to us in relation to the given topic on the card.  I have to say my heart sank because I had no idea how I was supposed to interpret “fun,” but it was hugely enjoyable once I got into the swing of it.  The photos on this post are snaps that I took as I was walking around and thinking about my target word.  It came in very handy for consolidating my thinking as I went along.  If I had had a different word on my card, the photos would have been entirely different, which is an interesting thought in its own right.  For example, if I had had “stillness” or “texture,” both my words and photos would of course have been quite different.

The record cards

The keywords are clever, because they avoid simple reductionist descriptions based on liking or disliking, positives and negatives and instead focus on more nuanced responses and descriptions.

When he set us off on our own, James said that there was no right or wrong thing to write down, that the whole point was to let us react and write accordingly.  We had a card for Bridge Street and either the reverse side or a new card for Northgate Street.  One of mine is shown here, annotated to make it legible.  As well as capturing our thoughts so that we didn’t have to remember them, they helped us to marshal our thoughts when we gathered to discuss our findings.  We handed the record cards in at the end, so that James could collate them with those of other workshops.  The cards were an important part of the workshop.  Several of us had to apologize for our handwriting 🙂

Discussing the keywords

James was great at getting us together, on four separate occasions.  Two of the discussions were about what we had written on our record cards.  Here’s just a bit of  that, but I am sure that James received radically different comments when running different workshop groups, so this is just a sample of a sample.

In all the discussions it was clear is that we were all looking in different directions, and that’s partly because of the keywords, which directed attention to different parts of the built environment, and partly because of how we interpreted those keywords and what took our interest.

The Cross

Our first stop to exchange notes was at The Cross, where Bridge Street meets with the other three primary roads preserved from the legionary fortress, Eastgate Street, Watergate Street and Northgate Street.  We had at that stage walked only up Bridge Street.  James asked us what struck as what we found surprising about Bridge Street, within the parameters of the keywords on our cards.   I didn’t know anyone’s names, so these comments are all anonymous, and are shorter, simplified versions of what was discussed:

The Rows. There is a lot more stillness here than down on the streets, at least at the moment.  It makes for a nicer experience, but I am sure that the shops would prefer greater footfall.

Views:  As one looks up towards the Cross, the impression is of a great complexity pattern of walls and facades of buildings that forms an incredibly intricate pattern that frames the view from the floor up.  Some bits stick out, some don’t, and all the buildings have their own character, but they lead unambiguously to The Cross, along a road that is surprisingly wide given its Medieval past.  The rows give the whole thing a very distinctive feel, and means that the shops on those level are set back from the road. Everything converges on St Peter’s church, which is a big red sandstone building that draws the eye.  The path from one end to the other, seen as a view, is almost too much for the eye to make sense of.

Touches of colour in the old buildings above shop level stand out and are welcome.

Colours:  The biggest surprise was the contrast between the more or less uniform character of the builds above the shop frontages versus the brightly multi-coloured shop frontages themselves.  There were only a few details in colour on the older half-timbered buildings, which made the colour stand out.  Chester at street level is a torrent of colour, but when one captures a little of it in the buildings that soar above the shops, it is a lovely piece of deliciousness.

Sound:  In this area, the biggest surprise was what could not be heard.  There was such a cacophony of clinks, roadworks and street music, that the things that one could see going on around one, were lost in the other noise.  A pair of hard heels could be heard, but trainers and other soft-soled shoes were lost in the overall sound.  Even individual voices were difficult to make out.

Words:  At shop level the impact of words, in the form of text, was impossible to avoid, and overwhelming.  Branding and signage dominate, in a variety of lights and colours, and it is difficult to differentiate one from another.  Silent, in terms of audibility, they still manage to form a cacophony.

Different ideologies expressed in different building materials, different approaches, different design ideas,  different colours and textures.

Texture:  Texture occurs at every level.  It changes underfoot, but is most obvious in the walls, which are red sandstone, yellow sandstone, brick, wood, concrete and many other materials, which each has its own personality.  Decorative plasterwork is very distinctive and very fine, but not always noticed.  Each texture has its own character – granular, soft, smooth, slippery etc.  Each adds to the diversity of the buildings.

Stillness:  This one was rather sad in many ways at this point.  The main stillness was embedded in failed, closed-down shops.  There had been several before Covid, but there have been some tragic losses since.  These were all devoid of movement and interaction, dead areas that people walked past without looking.  More amusingly, anywhere not selling coffee had a certain stillness, by contrast to those places that were, which were busy, noisy and drew attention to themselves.

Fun:  There is not a lot of fun at foot level because it is all shops with unlovely frontages, but look up and there is a lot to make one smile in the decorative architectural elements that embellish the buildings, particularly the 19th century facades, a bit like excessively ornate wedding cake decoration, and improbable towers and incredibly ornate ironwork.  Often OTT, and very confident, these flourishes  are always very finely crafted.  They are both fine and truly great fun.

The Story House

The Story House is a thing of real ugliness, but even so I would defend it energetically if anyone were to threaten it because it is a monument to its era.  Not all heritage is pretty.  The same could be said for the telephone box in the foreground.  The bollards, however, at the edge of the road, were agreed by all to be cultural as well as physical barriers.

Our next stop was at the Story House.  Northgate Street had started out very like Bridge Street, with lots of engaging architecture similar to Bridge Street, again sitting on top of ordinary shop frontages, but as one proceeds, it opens out and there’s a lot of more architecture to see, some from more recent times, not all terribly positive.  The four most dominant buildings as one filters through the narrow entry to the market square are Chester Cathedral, the Town Hall, the Motor Works, and the Story House.  There is also a very conspicuous frontage to The Forum Shopping Centre, which incorporates the market.  At the moment, the Christmas market dominates the public space, closely clustered and overwhelmingly full of cooking smells.  We walked past the market and gathered in front of the Story House to discuss the walk up Northgate Street.

Inevitably and fascinatingly, we all talked about how interesting it was to compare the walk from the bottom of Bridge Street to The Cross with the walk from The Cross to the Story House.

Views:  This was a story of constriction within fairly narrow confines to a sense of release in the big space in front of the Market Square and the Town Hall, but it was also a story of disappointment.  The sense of being lead somewhere by views of trees beyond the narrow start of Northgate Street lead to nothing more than an untidy space that was undefined and offered nothing like the oasis that was suggested by the trees.  At this time of year, particularly, the trees lend very little because they are deciduous and have dropped all of their leaves untidily onto the ground.  The Christmas market did not improve matters.  The cathedral, to one side, was a pleasant presence but did not dominate.  The main dominating factor, in terms of being lead forward, was actually the Story House, not Chester’s most aesthetically pleasing building.  Beyond the Story House, the symmetry collapses and there is nothing to tempt one forward.

Colours:  This is so dependent, just as it was on Bridge Street, on where you happen to look.  Ground level is bright and full of aggressive colours, but although on Bridge Street these were very jarring, they are more restrained on Northgate Street.  Looking up things are far simpler with black and white facades, and reddish-brown brickwork that provide a warmer feel.  The Christmas decorations were felt, by everyone who expressed an opinion, to be just right, not overstated or understated, but entirely suitable for the job in hand.

Sound:  In contrast with Bridge Street, Northgate Street was a far richer audio experience.  There was tapping, humming, rattling, the sound of wheeled suitcases on cobbles, a bicycle, and more human traffic, as well as the inevitable street music.  The sound of heeled shoes versus trainers was again particularly noticeable.  Reaching the marketplace, the noise of people talking increased enormously, and there was more traffic.

Words:  The plethora of promotional messages at street level was again dominant.  It was all very urban and vibrant, but there was also text in the historic buildings above the shops, where there were other messages to be seen that were resonant of the past.

Textures:  There were so many textures to be seen including the old versus the new, tiles versus glass, wood versus brickwork and the incorporation of carvings and sculptures into building facades.  As well as buildings, there were plants and trees to take into account, including moss on cobbles next to the cathedral.

Stillness:  The cathedral, a former abbey, is an oasis of stillness in the city, and offers a gateway into an inner peace, including its gardens.  The interface between the city and the peace beyond is provided by the Abbey Gate, and was probably the only entirely still place in the part of Chester that we walked on that day.

Fun:  Again there were a lot of excellent architectural details that were functionally unnecessary but expressed real exuberance.  Examples are the little sculptures in niches above the row of shops that includes Lakeland and Zara, little towers at the top of buildings and ornamental plasterwork on all sorts of buildings.  The overall impression of certain attention-grabbing buildings, like the town hall and the motor works lift the spirits, and both these draw attention to the positive impact of colour in building materials.

We did not, of course, explore internal spaces, but the idea of exploring interfaces between external spaces and internal spaces is an interesting one.  Little corridors leading from one space to another gave an almost secret feel to some of the city.

The good, the bad, and the highly nuanced

The other two discussions took place first in the public space in front of the Town Hall and the entrance to the market (The Forum Shopping Centre) and then at the point of Bridge Street where it becomes traffic-free and were less on what was on our cards than on our overall impressions.

Market / Town Hall Square

When we paused in front of the Town Hall, in what is usually an open area, we were asked what our impressions were of that public space.  The Christmas market was setting up, obscuring a sense of what it is like of most days of the week, but some interesting comments emerged.

Two of the dominant buildings, the Town Hall and the old Motor Works were exuberant, and were terrific examples of how whole buildings can express the enthusiasm and enjoyment (as well as ambition and pride) of those who created them.  They, together with the Story House and the Cathedral, surround the public open space.  The chap who was looking at “views” drew attention to how we had been funnelled from the lower end of Northgate Street, between buildings similar to those in Bridge Street into a space that, from a distance, with trees visible, had led to a sense of anticipation, but had very little to offer.  There were random odds and ends dotted around, leading to the sense that there was no cohesion in the space.  A very grubby Roman column here, a modern sculpture there, and an anti-terrorism barrier across the road.  I think that we all had the sense that nothing seemed properly integrated, and that a public space that might have had real potential was actually very drab, in spite of being surrounded by some great buildings, each of a very different but superb character.  We also looked at a bike rack that was very intrusive but could be placed somewhere less conspicuous and still be useful.  This was no piazza or plaza, and there was really nothing to celebrate.

The entrance to the indoor market.  A reminder of Chester’s Roman heritage, or just ugly?

I found myself almost back to back with a Roman soldier who was explaining something to a small group of visitors. I love the soldiers, who certainly come under the heading of “fun,” because wherever they go they raise a smile, but these soldiers, whether giving guided tours to adults or leading long strings of children wearing cardboard armour and carrying cardboard Legio XX shields, are a terrific innovation.  Some of us were also facing a Roman column that usually looks a little forlorn and isolated, and for which I have affection, but on that day looked more than a little farcical hemmed in on all sides by the Christmas market.   In Chester, a great effort has been made to incorporate the city’s Roman past, and there are constant, excellent reminders that help to reinforce the fact that as well as the built environment, the buried environment also plays an important role.  But that column could do with a rethink and a clean.

Little flourishes are worth looking out for.

Although the keywords on the record cards avoid simplistic likes and dislikes, positives and negatives, we found that in discussions value judgements were inevitable, because for every example of “fun” there is probably a “dull” in the next street, and for every ten tactile and aesthetically enjoyable examples of “texture” there is probably an edifice of brutal concrete nearby (the Pepper Street multi-storey car park springs to mind for both examples).  One of the interesting things from the discussions was that there are so many positives that the negatives stand out as noticeable intrusions on the positives.  One of the workshop members pointed out that anti-terrorist bollards, for example, are not only very ugly with their modern appearance and big lights, but give a misleading sense that there are better bits and less desirable bits of the city, separating  areas in which one is safe and where there are good thing to visit from those which may be not quite as safe, and not quite as worth visiting.  Once this was pointed out, everyone agreed, and we all understood that the city should not be seen in terms of what lies within and  what lies beyond those bollards, but that the perception is difficult to avoid.

Upstairs or downstairs – where does the fun lie?

Response to the keywords is a hugely personal thing.  I am guessing that many workshops would be required to capture even a small sample of what an entire community might think and feel about their living environment.  I interpreted “fun” as anything that would make me smile spontaneously.  I automatically looked away from the street level shopfronts to the upper levels where time, imagination and skill have wrought wonders. Some shop road level frontages are better than others, but for me all are brash, most of them frightfully ugly, and I hate shopping anyway, so nothing fun is to be found there.  But I have friends for whom shopping is hugely enjoyable, and the bright lights and colourful window dressings are all part of the enjoyment, and some of them would be puzzled by me describing architectural exuberance and decorative flourishes as “fun.”  So my interpretation of fun, confined to the upper levels where history looks down at me and I look back at it, would not be someone else’s.

Pausing again on Bridge Street

We paused again on Bridge Street, just on the uphill side of the anti-terrorist bollards, to discuss our views.  We were on borrowed time, as we had eaten up most of our 90 minutes, but we were all eager to point out the negatives of our immediate environment, because we all wanted to see improvement to encourage businesses to invest in that part of town.  Everyone agreed that the anti-terrorist bollards seemed, again, to cut one part of the street from another, and that the area north of Bridge Street was rather more prestigious than that to the south of them.  We also looked at some truly awful shop frontages, text-heavy, with lurid colours, tacky.  We asked about planning permission for frontages, as we were standing in front of a particular shocker at the time, and it turns out that they are indeed subject to planning permission, but that some retail outlets do not follow the procedures.  There is a lot of work to check up on those who ignore the rules, and it takes even longer to enforce the violated regulations.

The future

James said that he will feed back to Chester Archaeological Society about the results of the workshops once they have all been completed, and I really look forward to that.  Particularly, it will be interesting to know the answer to James’s own question – what can the local list do that designated graded listing does not already do in somewhere like Chester, which has listed buildings everywhere you turn?

The good news, even before the workshops have been completed and their findings collated, is that the Local List facility is already up and running and you can nominate an “asset” for local listing if you feel that it has particular community value and should be taken into account when planning and other issues are raised that might place it under threat.  You can find out full details on the Chester Local List Project website at the following address:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/guidance:

The Proposal Process

When you make a proposal or proposals for the Cheshire Local List, you will first have the option of creating and revising a draft that will not be reviewed until you submit it. When you submit your proposal, a Conservation Officer will check it to see if more information is needed. If so, it will come back to you for revision, and if not it will be moved forward for approval.

Make a proposal for the Cheshire Local List here

Approvals for nominations to the Cheshire Local List will be done by a panel of Conservation, Planning and Built Environment officers from Halton, Cheshire West and Chester and Cheshire East.

The final list will be put forward for formal adoption by each of the three boroughs in due course as part of the development of new Supplementary Planning Documents for local heritage.

The Assessment Criteria are here:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria

The top-level asset categories are Buildings; Parks & Gardens; Landmarks, Art Works and Way Finders; Other Sites, Structures & Landscapes, but see the following page for more information on each category:
https://local-heritage-list.org.uk/cheshire/assessment-criteria-asset-type

If or when I hear more about the project, I’ll post about it on the blog.

Valle Crucis Abbey #1 – An introduction to the Cistercians and Valle Crucis

Valle Crucis is a superb example of a ruined Cistercian abbey, located less than an hour’s drive from the Chester-Wrexham area, in a lovely valley on the edge of a quiet stream that flows into the Dee.  It has been extensively surveyed, the few documents relating to the site and its antecedents have been studied and the site has been excavated both in the 19th Century and in the 1970s.  Importantly, most of the main features of the core buildings are identifiable, and can be discussed in terms of how the monastery was planned and used.  All of  these resources form a good basis for understanding how Valle Crucis was established and used, and what happened to it after it was “suppressed” or decommissioned following Henry VIII’s dissolution of most of Britain’s monasteries.

This is the first of a series of posts looking at monasticism in this part of the northwest, on both sides of the Welsh border, and heading some way down the Marches as far south as Shrewsbury on the English side, and Strata Marcella near Welshpool on the Welsh side.  These posts are quite long.  Valle Crucis, is used in this series of posts to introduce not only this particular abbey, but also the ideas that lead to monasticism, different monastic orders and the  distinctive architecture that defines most of the monastic orders in Britain.

An “order” is a shared monastic tradition, a set of spiritual ideals often spelled out in considerable detail in rules that covered everything from how many times a day a monk should pray, communally or individually, to where and when they could speak, eat and sleep, and what work they should engage in.  All orders involve a degree of renunciation and isolation by communities of monks.  Monastic architecture reflects both the need to gather a community in one establishment, adhering to a single set of rules, and the need to divorce that establishment from the rest of the world.  Unlike monks, friars could leave the monastic community (friary) to preach and tend to the poor, and were often located in urban contexts, but other orders chose to confine themselves to an abbey to focus their attentions on worship and scholarly activities that celebrated God.  Some chose to locate themselves far from other human habitation.  All were what is now termed Catholic, and all owed allegiance to the Pope, as well as to the heads of their own order, and to the founders who endowed their properties with land and resources.  The religious orders of the 12th and 13th Centuries in Britain were differentiated from one another based not on their religious beliefs, but on their ideas about how best to worship and celebrate God.  They dedicated themselves to spirituality and worship in different ways, based on traditions established in the history of monasticism.

St Pachomius in St Shenouda Monastery, Egypt. Source: St Shenouda Monastery website

Monasticism grew out of an early tradition in 3rd-4th Century A.D. Egypt where the devout might abandon their communities to live as hermits in the desert hills and mountains, divorced from anyone else.  They had as their models St John the Baptist and Jesus, both of whom had engaged in devout isolation in the desert.  Hermits began to organize themselves into communities that focused on offering guidance and communal prayer whilst still offering isolation from the distractions of secular life.   In the 4th Century, former soldier Pachomius, having followed the eremitic path in the Egyptian desert to live the life of a hermit, heard a voice telling him to establish a community for hermits like himself, a coenobitic (“common living”) way of combining isolation from the outside world with communal support and guidance.  This acknowledged that whilst individuals might seek out a life divorced from the material, they could well need help to achieve the sort of enlightenment that they were seeking.  These communities were therefore sources of knowledge, wisdom and education as well as worship.   He established his monastery in Tabennisi in Egypt, and simultaneously began to develop the first set of formal rules for guiding life in a monastery, which grew over time.  The rules combined prayer, solitude and work in a communal and very isolated environment, a difficult balance to strike.  This  was successful and soon spread.  Monasteries began to appear throughout the Mediterranean from where they spread into Europe.

A 12th Century interpretation of St Benedict delivering his monastic rule in the 6th Century AD. Source: Wikipedia, via Monastery of St. Gilles, Nimes France (1129)

In 6th Century Italy, St Benedict developed another set of rules for monastic living that required not only individual prayer and communal worship, but outlined a strict regime of living that included eating merely for fuel rather than enjoyment, a largely vegetarian and very narrow diet, and the requirement for manual work, including contributing to building projects and labouring in the fields.  The concept of an abbey emerged, a religious establishment consisting of both a monastery and a church in a single complex, housing a community of monks who do not leave the premises.  St Benedict’s form of monasticism was popular and spread throughout Europe.

As Benedictine monasticism spread and developed its own personality over the centuries, the strictness of St Benedict’s rules was often abandoned to enable a much more comfortable lifestyle, with an emphasis on liturgy rather than work, a varied and rich diet that included meat, and an emphasis on glorifying God through rich works of art and generous patronage.  Some abbots became involved in religious and state politics beyond the abbey walls, and became influential in their own right, far from the unworldly vision of  monks that St Benedict had promoted.  In the 12th Century this more opulent version of Benedictine monasticism was epitomized by the Cluniac order of monks (named after their abbey at Cluny in France).  The Cluniac order was the apogee of this desire to express devotion through liturgy and art, the elaborate and rich monasteries home to opulent treasures, art works, tapestries and fabulous stained glass that were intended to both reflect and celebrate the glory of God, and the monks entertained lavishly, rubbing shoulders with the rich and powerful.  This trend sat ill with those who sought a simpler, modest, withdrawn and hard-working way of serving God, true to St Benedict.

Johann Petr Molitor, Cistercian monks, murals in the Capitular Hall, Cistercian Abbey Osek, North Bohemia, before 1756. Source: Wikipedia, from the Cistercian Abbey of Osek, North Bohemia

During the early Middle Ages, the Cistercians, named after their first abbey, the 1098 New Monastery at Cîteaux (Cistercium in Latin) in France, set about returning to the values of St Benedict, which led to the reformation of some branches of Benedictine-based monasticism.   New Cistercian abbeys were established as a network of child abbeys, each secondary to its own mother, and all owing allegiance to the founding house at its core, Cîteaux.  Each new abbey could spawn one or more other abbeys.  The third abbot of the new Cistercian order, Stephen Harding, wrestling with the problem of how to ensure that the Cistercian principles would not submit to similar decay, retained the Cluniac’s governing principle of the first abbey being the mother for all subsequent houses of the order, to ensure consistency and standardization throughout the order.  This contrasted with Benedictine abbeys that adhered to the same 6th Century monastic rules proposed by St Benedict, but were wholly independent of one another.

Harding’s own guidelines, building on those of St Benedict, also included obligations that had to be acted upon on a regular basis by the entire family of abbeys.  One of these was that all the same liturgies should be used in all abbeys.  A unique requirement was that all abbots should attend, annually, the General Chapter at Citeaux, a meeting of all the abbots that discussed changes, challenges and difficulties, and enforced discipline.  Another innovation was that when an existing abbey founded a new house, the mother abbey was obliged to arrange annual visits to its daughter houses to ensure that the standards, values and rules of the Cistercian order were being maintained.  In this way, for the 11th,12th and much of the 13th centuries, the Cistercians maintained control and uniformity over a vast family of monastic houses, including Valle Crucis.  The monks wore undyed habits, unlike the other Benedictine orders whose habits were dark brown or black.  Accordingly, they became commonly known as the White Monks.  

Citeaux Abbey. Source: Wikipedia

The Cistercians combined worship with hard work in remote places that encouraged contemplation, eliminated distractions and enabled focus on a communal but pared down livelihood that was far more in keeping with St Benedict’s more spartan ideals.  After Cîteaux, the most important Cistercian monastery, responsible for evangelizing on behalf of the Cistercians, was Clairvaux (founded 1115), which was the home base of abbot St Bernard.  St Bernard was a restless and vocal monastic propogandist of the 12th Century who, in contradiction to the rules of the order, travelled far and wide to bring the Cistercian message to the western world, and whose sayings are still widely quoted: “Arouse yourself, gird your loins, put aside idleness, grasp the nettle and do some hard work.”  He was an advocate of crusades, connected with monarchs, politicians and other religious hierarchy, promoted the cult of the Virgin Mary, and became an unexpected and influential celebrity and icon, the poster-child of the Cistercian message.  Gascoigne calls him “the most influential monk of the Middle Ages.”

St Bernard in his white robes holding a delightfully improbable demon at his feet.  Marcello Baschenis, c.1885. Source: Wikipedia

Very quickly, new Cistercian abbeys proliferated in Europe and across Britain, always in isolated locations, each connected as a daughter to its mother abbey, to which it owed homage and loyalty.  Clairvaux was the mother abbey for Whitland in south Wales, which was established by monks from Clairvaux itself.  Whitland in turn established other abbeys including Strata Marcella near Welshpool, and this abbey in turn established Valle Crucis.  It took 86 years from the foundation of Clairvaux until the foundation of Valle Crucis, but it was only four monastic steps from St Bernard, and that sense of proximity must have resonated at Valle Crucis, as with all the abbeys in Wales.

Every Cistercian abbot had to return from his abbey to Citeaux every year for what was known as the General Chapter, a great conference of abbots.  This was the case even for abbeys that were located overseas, and the British abbeys were subject to this costly and time-consuming annual trek.  Also on an annual basis, the abbot or his prior if he had one (the abbot’s second in command) would visit a given abbey’s daughter abbeys to ensure that everything was running according to the original Benedictine plan.  This led to a degree of standardization and adherence to the order’s rules that was not necessarily seen in the other orders.

The remains at Valle Crucis offer a great opportunity for discussing the main points of Cistercian architecture, life and economic strategy.  It is a site that reinforces many of the observations that have been made about Cistercian monastic traditions throughout Britain, but which is also interesting in its own right.  The Welsh abbeys provide a particular opportunity for considering how their circumstances may have differed from their English counterparts, due to a series of factors including the patronage of Welsh abbeys by the Welsh princes, the wars fought on monastic land by Edward I and Owain Glyndŵr, and the character of the landscape in which the abbeys were built.  Other orders will be discussed in the future.

Introducing Valle Crucis

The East Range

Valle Crucis was built in a scenic valley beneath the Horseshoe Pass near Llangollen, on the banks of Nant Eglwyseg, a fast-moving stream that ran into the Dee and now feeds the Llangollen canal. 

Both choir (or quire) monks and lay brothers were housed at Valle Crucis.  The choir monks and lay brothers lived different lives.  Their refectories, dormitories and latrines were all quite separate, and their roles within the abbey were clearly delineated.  Although the lay brothers would worship in the church, they were confined to the nave and a screen separated them from the choir brothers.  The lay brothers ate more advantageously, as they needed a better diet to support them in their daily work.  Cistercian orders worshiped seven times a day and once at night, and engaged in scholarly pursuits, but were also expected to engage in manual labour, contributing to the work carried out by lay monks.  Lay monks (conversi) were illiterate and worked the land, but were resident at the monastery.  They had their own separate quarters for sleeping and eating, and were confined to a section of the church that was divided from the parts of the church used by the quire monks.  Their church worship was much less frequent than that undertaken by quire monks, as most of their day was taken up by agriculture, crafts and building works.

The name of Valle Crucis is Latin, meaning Valley of the Cross, a reference to the 9th Century inscribed Pillar of Eliseg that was erected to commemorate the ancestors of Concenn of Powys, a  Welsh chieftain who died on pilgrimage to Rome in 858.  Eliseg was Concenn’s great-grandfather.  The inscription is now illegible but was recorded in 1696 and lists great deeds of ancestors, presumably with a view to establishing an incontrovertible connection to the lands on which the cross was constructed.

Survey, excavation, restoration and modern research

Carved head found in the refectory during excavations, and now rather a long way from home in the National Museum in Cardiff.  Source: Evans 2008, p.47

Documentary resources are few and far between for Valle Crucis, so other ways of exploring the history of the site have been employed.  The documentary archives of other monasteries and of related properties have helped to provide some additional information, but the documentary picture remains very threadbare.

Because of the architectural and functional standardization of monastic establishments, it has been possible to extrapolate the roles of much of the site’s key buildings by comparison to other Cistercian abbeys, but this only takes one so far.

Observing the above-ground architecture has taken matters a lot further, telling a story of a major fire forty years after the foundation of the abbey, and the changes in architectural direction that had to be taken as a result.  As the decades and centuries passed, changes in Cistercian values and ideas are captured in the architectural features and new decorative motifs.  This rich source of information has been supplemented by data that has come from the ground.

One of the illustrations from Butler’s 1970 excavations, published in 1976

One of the fads of the 19th Century was antiquarianism, the investigation of ancient sites of all ages.  Excavations became popular activities, although often hair-raising in the level of destruction achieved in the process of the pursuit of dazzling objects.  Valle Crucis did not escape this attention, and a series of archaeological excavations were carried out in both the middle of the 19th century, and in its latter half.   An anonymous letter to Archaeologia Cambrensis dating to 1863 by a visitor to Valle Crucis condemned the mid 19th Century excavations by W.W.E. Wynne, but the subsequent excavations by Harold Hughes appear to have been carried out with rather more integrity.

In 1970 the site was excavated by Lawrence Butler.  He reported on the findings, including the chronological sequences from the site, and full details of the pottery in 1976.  The pottery was limited in type and form but covered the full range of the site from construction to dissolution.  The faunal remains were analyzed by the ever excellent Graeme Barker as part of that project’s post-excavation work, to provide information about diet and economic activities, and his report was published in the same year.  The results of this particular project are of great interest as Butler found evidence of the earliest clearance of the site and was able to clarify details of fire, flood and alterations to the architecture in line both with these events and in response to the relaxation of Cistercian rules.

Because work has been concentrated on the core abbey buildings, it is less clear how the larger monastic precinct was organized.  This is the area surrounding and beyond the abbey’s heart, that were essential to the abbey’s economic survival, in which agricultural and activities took place, and in which vital supplies were stored for consumption or trade.  

Illustration from the 1895 excavation report by Harold Hughes.

Restoration work began with clearance of the site for excavation, but more ambitious work followed.  Sir Gilbert Scott, the renowned Victorian architect, was employed to repair the west front of the church in 1872, and Sir Theodore Martin restored part of the east end in 1896.  The difference in the stonework at the  and the site has been made safe for visitors.

After passing into the hands of the Ministry of Works in 1950, Valle Crucis was eventually transferred into the care of Cadw in 2008, which retains responsibility for the site.  Between them the site was made safe for visitors and Cadw has expended some effort on information signage to help visitors understand some of the site’s history.


How Valle Crucis and other Welsh abbeys were founded

12th Century links between Cistercian monasteries. Source: Evans, D.H. Valle Crucis Abbey (Cadw). Although Citeaux, the node for all Cistercian abbeys, established early new bases in France, it was Clairvaux under the lead of St Bernard that was responsible for the earliest new abbeys in Wales. Of these Whitland was the most important for the northward spread of monasticism. The green lines emanating from Savigny reflect the Savignac order, which merged with the Cistercians after only 20 years, in 1147. So although Basingwerk in the north and Neath in the south were founded as Savignac orders, after 1147 they were brought under the rule of the Cistercians at Citeaux.

Valley Crucis was at the northeastern end of a branch of a monastic chain that spread from south Wales to the north over a period of some 60 years during the 12th Century, building on a much older European monastic tradition.  The Cistercian order of monks spread through Wales during the 12th Century AD from the of Wales where it was established by monks from the French monastery Clairvaux, forming an eastern and a western chain of monasteries.

The first new Cistercian abbeys were established in Wales in the wake of the Norman conquest, the earliest at Tintern in 1131, and had a distinctly Anglo-Norman flavour.  However, a second strand of Cistercian monasticism spread in Wales.  It began at Whitland (Abaty Hendy-gwyn ar Daf), founded in 1140 by monks from St Bernard’s abbey at Clairvaux, second only to the Cistercians’ founding abbey at Citeaux.  Whitland spawned a series of abbeys that were funded by the native Welsh princes and were populated mainly by Welsh monks, a pura Wallia (Welsh Wales) version of Cistercian monasticism that nurtured Welsh literature and learning.  This spread into the poorer and more remote areas of Wales.

Valle Crucis was founded in 1201, the daughter house of Strata Marcella Abbey (Abaty Ystrad Marchell) near Welshpool, founded by Owain Cyfeiliog, prince of southern Powys, itself a daughter house of Whitland.   Establishing an abbey was an expensive undertaking, both in terms of its construction and providing it with the resources to ensure ongoing economic security. Accordingly, every new abbey required an endowment by a donor, someone with enough land and wealth to give some of it away in return for divine good will and the prayers offered by the monks for the souls of the donor and his family.  The donor usually required a guarantee that they would be buried within the abbey church, and that their family would be buried either within the church itself or within the monastery precinct.  Monks were considered to have a hotline to God.  Having dedicated their lives to Him, and living sin-free lives, they built up a surplus of virtue and influence that could be employed on behalf of the living in order to provide for them in the afterlife, an intercession to minimize the impact of sins committed in life.  Valle Crucis Abbey was founded by Prince Madog ap Gruffydd. 

Original sacristy entrance, 13th Century.

Prince Madog ap Gruffydd controlled the territory of Powys Fadog from the Tanat valley in the south to the edge of Chester from 1191 until his death in 1236, and was an ally of his cousin Llywelyn ap Iorwerth (Llywelyn the Great), prince of Gwynedd, d.1240.  In accordance both with tradition, and to fulfil the terms of his original financing and support of the abbey, he was buried in the abbey church at Valle Crucis, although the exact site of the grave has been lost.  The map above left shows the territorial divisions in Wales in 1267, with Powys Fadog bordering Chester, Gwynedd, southern Powys (Powys Wenwynwyn) and England. 

Valle Crucis was supplied with at least twelve monks (considered by St Benedict to be the minimum number for founding a monastery, following the twelve apostles), possibly thirteen, who were installed in temporary accommodation with a wooden church.  Work would have begun immediately on the stone church, the sacristy and the accommodation, and the 1970 excavation found unmistakeable signs of this work.

Choice of location

The map to the left (Ordnance Survey SJ24/34) shows the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân, all a short drive from Llangollen, which was probably a large village that would have benefitted from the proximity of the monastery and its associated farms (known as granges).

Ordnance Survey map SJ24/34, showing the relative locations of Valle Crucis Abbey, the Pillar of Eliseg and Castell Dinas Brân (the latter not built until 1270, 69 years after the foundation of Valle Crucis)

The Cistercian ideal of a contemplative existence away from distractions meant that new abbeys were sited where monks could practise their devotions in relative seclusion, although not in complete isolation.  They were often near to well-established routes, and they always located themselves near to water that would be used for drinking, cooking, cleaning, ritual purification, as well as fishing and sometimes for powering water mills.  Abbeys were supposed to be economically self-sufficient, so abbeys still needed to be near enough to manors and villages to enable them to trade their produce, mainly agricultural, in exchange for the basics required for sustaining the abbey, both the choir monks (the dedicated monks within the monastery) and the conversi or lay brotherhood.

Although little is known about Llangollen in the late 12th Century, there was some type of settlement recorded there based around a church, and in 1284, Edward I granted the manor of Llangollen to Roger Mortimer, together with the rights for a weekly market and two annual fairs.  Llangollen was far enough away for monks to feel that they were isolated from civilization, but near enough to a village to enable contacts to be established if required for sourcing produce, raw materials and other goods.  The site of the abbey was clearly idyllic.  The following is an evocative excerpt from a paper by John Williams, who reported on the abbey in 1846 in the journal Archaeologia Cambrensis:  

Luxuriantly watered by a clear stream and sheltered by high hills, the sides of which are gracefully ornamented by trees, the place altogether appears as if especially intended to be the home of peace and happiness – a paradise for restored man, where he might securely worship his Creator and cultivate the graces of heaven implanted in his soul.

The sad remains of Strata Marcella Abbey, which supplied the founding monks of Valle Crucis.  Source: Coflein website – RCAHMW, taken by C.R. Musson, 2/1/1995.

The founding monks of Valle Crucis from Strata Marcella near Welshpool certainly thought so.  They moved the residents of the existing hamlet of Llanegwest to a new location in order to establish themselves in this particular paradise in the form of a fine abbey.  Llanegwest was probably a fairly tiny settlement, and it was relocated to Maelor Gymraeg (on the far northeastern border).  This was by no means unusual, and there are enough records of hamlets and villages being moved to make way for a monastic establishment for this to be seen as a fairly standard (if somewhat ruthless) act in the establishment of a new Cistercian abbey.

The fish pond at Valle Crucis

The Cistercians were renowned for their use of water, which in some abbeys included sophisticated networks of sunken drains that fed into and out of monastic buildings.  The siting of Valle Crucis next to the Eglwyseg was essential for sourcing water that was used for cooking, cleaning, washing, for use in rituals and for creating a fish pond and a drainage system to flush both the choir monks’ and lay brothers’ latrines.

The pond is an expanded version of the original one, and is the only one surviving in Wales.  As early Cistercians could not eat meat under St Benedict’s rules, except on certain nominated days, fish was often an important component of the diet.  As the rules relaxed, meat found its way into the diet on more than just special days, but in the early abbeys fish was often responsible for providing much-needed protein.

The latrines, located on the first floor at the end of the dormitories, were flushed by drains below, which diverted fast-moving stream water to clear waste back into the stream,  presumably downriver of the monastery.  Cleanliness was an important component of monastic life, with monks washing their hands before each meal, and latrines associated with the devil.

Pillar of Eliseg by David Parkes 1809. Source: National Library of Wales

Finally, the Pillar of Eliseg may or may not have influenced the location of the abbey, even though it provided the abbey with its name.  It is, however, entirely possible that the presence of the ancient cross as a clear and ancient statement of Christian affiliation would have been particularly attractive to the new abbot and his monks.  Perhaps more significantly, it was probably particularly resonant for the founder-patron of the abbey, Prince Madog ap Gruffydd, embedded as the monument was with memories of the past inhabitants of the region who sought to defend it against all-comers.  With the Marcher Lords at the borders and the English beyond, Madog probably felt a close affinity with Concenn and his predecessors.   The cross still stands to the north of the abbey, but is considerably shorter, with bits missing, including the top, base and arms of the cross.  In the view to the right by David Parkes, dated 1809, the remains of Valle Crucis are visible at the lower left of the image.

I had initially assumed that the siting of Valle Crucis took into account the proximity of Dinas Brân, a Medieval castle that was also located in the Vale of Llangollen and can be seen from the abbey.  The castle was not, however, built until 1270.

View from the interior of Valle Crucis. I find it hard to get my head around the idea that this and other very narrow views were all that the monks would have seen. They could not explore the environment in which their abbey was located, because they were confined to the monastic precinct.  They could merely see it, never truly experience it.


The remains of Valle Crucis

Valley Crucis provides a very useful template for understanding other monasteries in the Benedictine tradition, all incorporating a church and the main monastic buildings arranged around a square cloister, consisting of a walkway connecting the buildings around a garden or “garth.”

Cadw site plan, with photographs of mine added to show the relative location of some of the key features (click to expand).

Above is a site plan of Valle Crucis, which adopted the typical layout of a Benedictine abbey that the Cistercians had adopted, basing themselves on the Benedictine rule.  The earliest known abbey in Britain that adopted this basic layout was Glastonbury Abbey.  Part 2 will show this image again, and look at these and other features in detail, discussing how they reflect historical developments from the foundation of the abbey at the beginning of the 13th Century, via fire, flood, fluctuating fortunes and changing ideas to its dissolution in the mid 16th century.

As I mentioned at the start of this post, Valle Crucis is not merely of interest as a component of the Vale of Llangollen landscape, but is a useful representative of both Welsh and English Cistercian traditions.  It both exemplifies many of the historical details that have been assembled about Cistercian monasticism in Britain, and provides an impressive volume of data that both reinforces existing knowledge and adds to it.  Some of this will be explored further in the next three posts.

This post, Part 1, has introduced the Cistercian order and explained why Valle Crucis was located where it is.  The next post, part 2 looks at the organization of the abbey in terms of its purpose and how it was built to meet the needs of the monastic community, looking at each room in turn.   All parts are available, as they are written, by clicking on the following link: https://basedinchurton.co.uk/category/valley-crucis-abbey/

 

Sources for the Valle Crucis series

Resources that were of particular use are picked out in bold.

Books and papers

Anonymous (A. Traveller) 1863.  Valle Crucis Abbey – Correspondence To the Editor of Archaeologia Cambrensis.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3rd series, No.33, January 1863, p.68-72
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2995788/67#?xywh=-1466%2C103%2C5111%2C3522

Aston, M. 2000. Monasteries in the Landscape.  Tempus

Barker, G. 1976.  Diet and Economy at Valle Crucis:  The Report on the Animal Bones.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.117-126

Butler, L.A.S. 1976.  Valle Crucis Abbey:  An Excavation in 1970.  Archaeologia Cambrensis 125 (1976), p.80-116
https://journals.library.wales/view/4718179/4747123/95#?xywh=-1521%2C-15%2C5975%2C3940

Burton, J. and Kerr, J. 2011.  The Cistercians in the Middle Ages.  Boydell Press

Burton, J. and Ströber, K. 2015.  Abbeys and Priories of Medieval Wales. University of Wales Press

Cantor, N. 2002. In the Wake of the Black Death and the World it Made.  Perennial

Carr, A.D. 1970. An Aristocracy in Decline: the Native Welsh Lords after the Edwardian Conquest.  Wesh History Review 5 (1970), p.103-29

Clwyd and Powys Archaeological Trust.  Historic Settlement Survey – Denbighshire – 2014.  Llangollen SJ 2150 4190, 105978.
https://cpat.org.uk/ycom/denbigh/llangollen.pdf

Coppack, G. 1990.  Abbeys and Priories. Batsford.

Davies, J. 2007 (3rd edition).  A History of Wales.  Penguin

Evans D.H. 2008, Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Edwards, N. 2008.  The Pillar of Eliseg.  In: Evans D.H., Valle Crucis Abbey, Cadw

Gascoigne, B. 2004 (revised edition).  A Brief History of Christianity. Constable and Robinson

Greene, J.P. 1992.  Medieval Monasteries.  Leicester University Press

Gresham, C.A. 1968. Medieval stone carving in North Wales: Sepulchral slabs and effigies of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. University of Wales Press

Hughes, H. 1894, Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 11:43 (1894), p.69-85, 257-75
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3009987/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Hughes, H. 1895. Valle Crucis Abbey. Archaeologia Cambrensis, 5th series, 12:45 (1895), pp. 5-17
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/3010260/#?xywh=-853%2C-196%2C3885%2C3913

Huws, D. 2000.  Medieval welsh Manuscripts. University of Wales Press

Jenkins, G.H. 2007.  A Concise History of Wales.  Cambridge University Press

Jones, O.W. 2013. Historical writing in Medieval Wales.  PhD thesis, Bangor University
https://research.bangor.ac.uk/portal/files/20577287/null

Jones, O.W. 2020. The Most Excellent Princes: Geoffrey of Monmouth and Medieval Welsh
Historical Writing.  In Henley, G. and Smith, J.B. (eds.) A Companion to Geoffrey of Monmouth.  Brill

Kelley, J. 2006.  The Great Mortality.  An intimate history of the Black Death. Harper Perennial

Kerr, J. 2006. Life in the Medieval Cloister. Continuum

Lewis, S. 1849.  Holt in A Topographical Dictionary of Wales: ‘Heyop – Holyhead’, p.418-430.
Available on British History Online https://www.british-history.ac.uk/topographical-dict/wales/pp418-430#h3-0009

Long, J.F. 1992.  1147 Rejected: A study of Cistercian and Savignac Possessions in England and Wales 1127-1176.  Master of Arts Dissertation, University of Manitoba, December 1992

Miller, D. 2017.  Sing a New Song. The Spirit of Cistercian Liturgical Reform and the 1147 Hymnal. M.A. Thesis, Central European University, Budapest. https://www.etd.ceu.edu/2017/miller_dane.pdf

Morris, R.M. 1987. Bare Ruined Choirs. The Fate of a Welsh Abbey. Stanley Thornes Ltd.

Platt, C. 1984.  The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. Chancellor Press

Pratt, D. 2011.  Valle Crucis abbey:  lands and charters.  Denbighshire Historical Society Transactions

Price, G.V. 1952, Valle Crucis Abbey. Hugh Evans and Sons / The Brython Press

Rees, W. 1920.  The Black Death in England and Wales, as Exhibited in Manorial Documents.  Transactions of the Royal History Society.  vol.3, Dec.1920, p.115-135

Robinson, D. 2006.  The Cistercians in Wales. Architecture and Archaeology 1130-1540.  Society of Antiquaries London

Rogers, M. 1992.  The Marcher Lordship of Bromfield and Yale.  Unpublished PhD.  University College Wales, Aberystwyth.  Available on EThOS at
https://ethos.bl.uk/OrderDetails.do?uin=uk.bl.ethos.262474

Silvester, R.J., and Hankinson, R., 2015. The Monastic Granges of East Wales. The Scheduling Enhancement Programme: Welshpool. Clwyd-Powys Archaeological Trust (CPAT)

Southern, R.W. 1970. Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages. Penguin

Stephenson, D. 2016. Medieval Powys.  Kingdom, Principality and Lordship 1132-1293. Boydell and Brewer

Ströber, K. 2008. Social Networks of Late Medieval Monasteries.  In Burton, J. and Ströber, K. Monastery and Society in the British Isles in the Late Medieval Period.  Boydell and Brewer

Venning, T. 2015 (second edition). The Kings and Queens of Wales. Amberley

Waddell, C., 1993. Towards a new provisional edition of the Statutes of the Cistercian General Chapter, c. 1119-1198. In (eds.) F. R. Swietek and J. Sommerfeldt.  Studiosorum Speculum: Studies in Honour of Louis J. Lekai.  Kalamazoo, p.384-419.

Williams, D. 1984.  The Welsh Cistercians.  Cyhoeddiadau Sistersiaidd

Williams, D. 1990.  Atlas of Cistercian Lands in Wales.  University of Wales Press

Williams, G. 1976 (second edition). The Welsh Church from Conquest to Reformation.  University of Wales Press

Williams, H., Smith, G, Crane D. and Watson, A.  2018.  The Smiling Abbot: Rediscovering a Unique Medieval Effigial Slab. Archaeological Journal, 175, 2, p.255-291
DOI: 10.1080/00665983.2017.1366705

Williams, J.  1846.  Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 1 , 1846 p.17-32, 151-153, 279-280
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2989093/17#?xywh=-893%2C45%2C3900%2C3929

Wynne, W. W. E. 1848. Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 3:11 (1848), p.228-229
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991333/41#?xywh=-913%2C-241%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1849. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, 4:13 (1849), p.22-27
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2991554/21#?xywh=-849%2C-1035%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E.  1851. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 8 (1851), p.282-284
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990655/21#?xywh=-893%2C-221%2C3920%2C3949

Wynne, W. W. E. 1852. Excavations at Valle Crucis Abbey.  Archaeologia Cambrensis, new series, 10 (1852), pp. 93-96
https://journals.library.wales/view/2919943/2990849/12#?xywh=-893%2C-199%2C3900%2C3929

Yorke, T. 2004.  The English Abbey Explained.  Monasteries – Priories.  Countryside Books

Ziegler, P. 1969. The Black Death.  William Collins, Sons and Co.

Websites

Ancient and Medieval Architecture
Llantysilio – Valle Crucis Abbey
https://tinyurl.com/8fuybma9

ArchaeoDeath – Death and Memory, Past and Present (blog)
Valle Crucis – Reused Ruins, Water and Death In Absentia by Professor Howard Williams
https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2014/02/12/valle-crucis-reused-ruins-water-and-death-in-absentia/
The Smiling abbot of Valle Crucis
https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2016/03/31/the-smiling-abbot-of-valle-crucis-an-archaeodeath-exclusive/
Valle Crucis tags
https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/tag/valle-crucis/

Coflein
Valle Crucis
https://coflein.gov.uk/en/site/95205/

English Heritage
Valle Crucis Abbey
https://cadw.gov.wales/visit/places-to-visit/valle-crucis-abbey

An Essay on Cistercian Liturgy by Dr Julie Kerr
Cistercians in Yorkshire, University of Sheffield
www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/cistercian_life/spirituality/Liturgy/Cistercian_liturgy.pdf 

Monastic Wales
Valle Crucis (Abbey)
https://www.monasticwales.org/browsedb.php?func=showsite&siteID=35

The Cistercians in Yorkshire Project
https://www.dhi.ac.uk/cistercians/

WordProject
Psalms (audio readings)
https://www.wordproject.org/bibles/audio/01_english/b19.htm

afsdfsdfs

Shocklach motte and bailey castle(s) at Castletown

Two sites with one name

Shocklach East is on private land, but its north side can be viewed from the north over a short fence. The image has been stitched together from three photographs, hence the slightly odd appearance.

The name Castletown seems rather glamourous for what today is a wholly rural, agricultural landscape.  Castletown is located south of Crewe-by-Farndon and north of the village of Shocklach and west of the Castletown Farm on a peaceful country road.  On the Ordnance Survey map, which I was studying when working on the post about the 1854 Chester to Worthenbury toll road, there are some interesting details that merited further investigation.  Where the small Castletown bridge crosses a small stream, that eventually flows into the Dee, there are two fairly large sites shown flanking the road.  Collectively, even though they are near to Castletown, they are known as Shocklach Castle, although they actually make up two separate castle sites.

Map showing the sites at Shocklach either side of the Crewe-by-Farndon road as it crosses Castletown Bridge. Source: Public Map Viewer

A visit to the two-part site marked on the map means looking from the side of the road.  The site is not on a public footpath but is very close to the road, and some of the earthworks are clearly visible. As you can see on the above map, the site to the west can be seen from the Crewe to Shocklach road, whereas the one on the other side of the road is best seen from the lane that heads west to Castletown Farm.  For the purposes of this post, I have referred to these sites as Shocklach East and Shocklach West.

Click to see a bigger image.  The location of the Castletown / Shocklach mottes, south of Crewe by Farndon and to the north of Shocklach. Source: Public Map Viewer

The Shocklach site is a scheduled monument, which means that it is protected by the state.  It is recorded as Shocklach Motte and Bailey Castle by the government quango responsible for scheduled archaeological and historic monuments, Historic England.  Its listing code is 1012620, and it was first scheduled in November 1926.  The listing covers both Shocklach East and West.  It is well worth repeating Historic England‘s “Reasons for Designation:”

Shocklach Castle is of particular importance as one of a group of early post-Conquest (c.1100) mottes forming a defensive system aimed at curbing constant Welsh raids on the rich farming areas of south Cheshire. Additionally the site lies within an area containing the most important concentration of medieval monuments in Cheshire. These monuments include two shrunken medieval hamlets, a defended green lane, a Norman chapel, well preserved ridge and furrow, a ford across the River Dee, and a complex of communally owned watermeadows.  The monument is situated in a dingle thought to have been one of the ancient trackways utilised by the Welsh in their frequent raids into southern Cheshire.

It is difficult to imagine this sleepy road and its flanking fields having a strong military presence.  From the early 12th century onwards, however, the motte and bailey site sat on the edge of a settlement whose people were centred on successful economic activities including cultivation and probably livestock management, albeit fearful of attack from Wales.

Archaeological investigation at Shocklach West during the 1980s by the University of Chester (in those days called University College Chester) revealed a lot more than can be seen today.  As above, the site consists of two sets of earthworks, one to the west of the road, covered in trees, and one to the east, which is free of vegetation.  The two sites are scheduled together under one registration number, but it should not be forgotten that they are two separate entities, each of which needs to be understood in its own right.  Rachel Swallow, who excavated the site, talks about the confusion caused by the presence of two separate entities, one each side of the road:

There is a general, and historic, confusion about the function and purpose of the two monuments at Castletown.  The Ordnance Survey (OS) 25 inch maps of 1879 and 1911 clearly mark the monument to the east as a ‘castle’ and ‘moat’, with that to the west of Castletown Bridge as a ‘moat’. The survey of 1964 reinterprets the mound to the west as a ‘motte’, with the earthworks 30 metres to the east marked as a ‘moat’, but not as the site of a castle. In the early nineteenth century, Ormerod stated that the earthworks to the east appear unconnected with those he seemed to believe were of the Norman fortress to the west.

In the discussion below, the two will be dealt with separately first, before looking at how they might related to one another, but first a little look at what motte and bailey castles actually are.

Background – what is a motte and bailey castle?

Miniature from illuminated Chronicle of Matthew Paris (1236-1259), from BL MS Cotton Claudius D. vi, f.9, showing Henry I of England enthroned. Held and digitised by the British Library. Source: Wikipedia

Motte castles are medieval fortifications introduced into Britain by the Normans, made up of a defensive structure built on an artificial mound.  The bailey was a small group of buildings fenced and sometimes moated, attached to and protected by the motte castle. By the time that the Shocklach motte and bailey castle was built, either towards the end of the reign of William the Conqueror or at the beginning of the reign of Henry I, there were political and territorial disputes, particularly within Wales and along the Welsh-English borders.  One of the manifestations of this ongoing disruption was frequent cross-border raids to secure territories and resources.  

Armed dispute over territory and resources has a long heritage in Britain.  From the mid 4thmillennium BC there are the first signs of violence related to competition for resources, and it is likely that livestock raiding was an ongoing problem from that point forward.  It has been suggested, for example, that protection of livestock and  of grain, as well as of people, could have been a primary role of fortified Iron Age hillforts.  

When William the Conqueror arrived in 1066, he began to replace the existing aristocracy with those that he had brought with him, men that he could trust to support him to take control and enforce peace.  English names were quickly replaced by Norman ones in records and by Domesday, merely 20 years after the conquest, only 8 percent of landholdings were held in English names.  The Normans built castles to help them to govern and to demonstrate their power.  Castles, initially turf and timber, sprang up everywhere, later replaced by bigger stone structures.   As Crane observes:  “early Norman castles had more in common with Roman marching forts than with tribal hillforts.  They could be built with astonishing speed, they were virtually impregnable and their construction had more to di with military expediency than with cultural bonding.”

Dorling Kindersley reconstruction of a small motte and bailey castle showing the main features. Fortifications could be very small. Source: Dorling Kindersley Find Out website.

In a motte and bailey arrangement a fortification sits on a natural or artificial mound with an accompanying settlement in a walled/fenced area at its foot, sometimes surrounded by a moat or ditch.  Where the mound was specially built, it could be made of earth, rubble, or both.  A palisade, or fortified fence, surrounded the apex of the mound, on which some sort of tall fortified structure was built, providing views over the surrounding countryside to watch for any oncoming attack.  Most are now covered in grass and sometimes trees.   Where a bailey is also present a palisaded enclosure at the base of the motte, and connected to it, often contained buildings for people, livestock, and grain and water storage, and may surrounded by a bank as well.  These have often vanished from sight today.  Where water was locally available, these defences could also include moats (which in the soggy Cheshire area, might have doubled up as useful drainage ditches).  

Cardiff Castle’s shell keep. Source: Wikipedia

Motte and bailey castles are found in all areas where human population is found, including towns, villages and rural areas.  Although they are generally characterized as being located on high ground, in good strategic positions that are highly visible from the surrounding area, this is more difficult to arrange on the flat expanses and floodplains of Cheshire.  Historic England says that there are over 600 motte castles and motte-and-bailey castles are recorded in England, of which around 100-150 are motte castles without accompany baileys.

Although the best known examples were multi-purpose bases combining the functions of elite residences, administrative centres, strongholds for the protection of economic resources and the material objects that made up personal wealth, and, when needed, a garrison for military activity, there are many much smaller versions, particularly in rural areas, that worked as secondary support to bigger castles and served mainly as watch-posts with small garrisons attached.  Ruined sites and modern artistic reconstructions based on excavations indicate that these might be very modest affairs, with a motte might support a fortification that was little more than an elaborate, defendable shed overlooking a small enclosed gathering of buildings into which people and livestock could retreat, as the excellent reconstruction above from the Dorling Kindersley Find Out website suggests.  They became more elaborate as time went on, evolving into the shell keep, the successor to the the motte and bailey castle.  An example is the shell keep on a motte at Cardiff Castle, shown above the left, which shows how truly impressive they could become.

 

The Castle Sites

Aerial view of Shocklach East in the early 1980s the shadows highlighting some of the earthworks. Source: Morris 1983, plate 2, page 60

The earliest motte and bailey site at Castletown, known as the Shocklach castle, is thought to have been originally built by the Barons of Malpas sometime around 1100, the year in which Henry I acceded to the English throne, in a co-ordinated effort initiated by William the Conqueror and built on by William Rufus to demonstrate English power and to protect the region from frequent Welsh raids.  In the early Medieval period, Malpas, Shocklach and Castletown lay in Anglo-Saxon Mercia, but after the Conquest they quickly came under the control of Norman Chester.

The names and lives of the individual barons at this time are by no means clear, and the line of succession is particularly confusing.  Cotgreave’s 2008 research has ruled out a number of earlier proposals, but in spite of his efforts he has been unable to provide a definitive story of the 12th-13th Century Barons of Malpas.  The barony of Malpas had covered a huge chunk of southern Cheshire at Domesday in 1086, when it was under the lordship of Robert fitzHugh, and consisted of some 43 townships, but it was divided into two halves (moieties) at some point after Domesday, possibly due to the lack of descendent in the direct line.  Part of the barony was apparently granted to Gruffydd ab Owain at around the time that Shocklach was built, potentially “one of the Welshmen on whom Henry I lavished grants in 1102 as bribes for support against the early of Shrewsbury.”  Redistribution of baronial lands was common when kings rewarded loyalty with property.  However, the land seems to have then passed into the hands of two other families, the Patrics and the Belwards.  For anyone wanting to follow the story further, see Cotgreave’s paper (in Sources, below). 

Distribution of castle sites under the control of Chester. Source: Swallow 2013-14.

Although Shocklach was held by the Malpas manor, it was occupied by families, who owed service to Malpas.  Rachel Swallow, who excavated Shocklach West, describes how between 1208 and 1229,  it was granted to David de Malpas (1185-1252) whose daughter was married to Rhodri ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd (c.1230-1315), probably a diplomatic alliance to reduce hostilities between Cheshire and Gwynedd.  He apparently had no right to his wife’s lands and Shocklach passed to new families (Sutton and St Pierre) as moieties (i.e. the land was halved for sharing).

Whichever family built the first Shocklach motte-and-bailey castle, it was one of a number built along either side of the river Dee to protect English farms and resources against the Welsh.   Shocklach was only one location in a string of defensive sites.  Looking at the local Ordnance Survey maps, there are motte and bailey castles and, often separately, moats all around this area.   The map above, from Rachel Swallow’s excavation report, shows the distribution of all the local ones, forming, depending on how you look at it, either two very rough lines north to south (running either side of the River Dee) or one zig-zagging line that spans and incorporates the Dee.

Whatever else we take away from the artists’ motte-and-bailey reconstructions, like the Dorling Kindersley one above, when we consider the sheer volume of these structures on OS maps of the area, the overall impression is that defence of even small settlements was an everyday component of life, made particularly important by proximity to the Anglo-Welsh border.

Shocklach East

Shocklach East. Source: Swallow 2013-14

Shocklach East is most clearly visible from the lane that leads to Castletown Farm.  It consists of a D-shaped moat or ditch (which is now filled with trees and shrubs) that protected a motte, which remains free of tree cover.  The motte-and-bailey earthworks to the east at Shocklach are heavily eroded but are nontheless better preserved than those to the west, on the other hand, are larger and lower than those to the west,

The motte is in the southeast ern section of the site and is today c.4-5m high (measured from the base of the ditch).  This is not visible from the road. It is oval-shaped, and surrounded by a low bank.

The ditch is on three sides, occasionally referred to as a moat, with a causeway that gives access to the main enclosure on the northeastern side.

Swallow says that the D-shaped bailey to the south is typical of the area, with kidney-shaped bailey and similar to that of Pulford castle. It measures c. 70 x 78m internally, and it too is surrounded partially by a ditch to the north a by a stream valley to the south.  Suring the survey, it was recorded that the ditch was up to 2.7m deep.  Although now dry, the ditch would have been joined to the stream to form a small moat.  

This motte and bailey castle was not physically attached to the Shocklach West site, which is a full 30m away.

Shocklach West

Behind this dense hedge is Shocklach West. I did my best to lean through the mass, but absolutely nothing was visible through the wilderness of vegetation.

The Shocklach West motte has not been excavated and, indeed, it would be difficult to see how it could be done efficiently.  It is completely hidden from view by trees that have been established over large section of the land, and the roots will be playing havoc with the underlying contexts, rearranging any structural remains and moving around objects.  I did my absolute best to get some sort of view through the shrubs, but there is nothing at all visible at the time of writing (mid-September) due to the dense tangle of shrubs and weeds around the trees.  A return visit in winter after the leaves have fallen and the weeds have died down may reveal more of the outline of the motte.

This view, taken from near to Shocklach West, shows the sort of view that the structure on the top of the motte would have had.

Like most rural motte and bailey castles, only the most labour-intensive features have survived.  The motte is around 5-6m high, which is quite sizeable after centuries of erosive forces, and there are remains of a silted ditch on south, southwest and eastern sides, beyond which there is an outer bank.  On the north and west sides, the bend in the stream forms another line of defence.  The size is consistent with other motte and bailey sites in the Welsh Marshes dating from the 11th and 12th centuries, spanning both Saxon and Norman periods.

The site is located on a hill with superb views over the Dee valley to the west with the Welsh foothills in the distance, and across fields to the east.

Another view taken from near to Shocklach West, showing the sort of view that the structure on the top of the motte would have had, across the surrounding woodland towards the Welsh foothills.

Two Castles, two stories? 

Both castles benefitted from a potable water source provided by the stream, and may have been positioned partly in relation to the road that passed between them.  Both were located on good agricultural land, indicating that they had something to protect, and were fairly evenly spaced from other castles that dotted the Dee valley.  Medieval hamlets in the Castletown area may have been served by one or both of the castles.

View from Castletown to the east

Swallow offers a number of suggestions for why two castles were required so close together, which take into account that no excavations have taken place at one site, and little dating material was found at the other, making it uncertain if the two sites were precisely contemporaneous or if one preceded the other.  Here are some of the options that she discusses:

  1. The castles could have been used together to protect the road that passed between them, a major route between north and south along the border.
  2. After the paired mottes were built contemporaneously, a bailey might have been added to the east later, in a lower position that was strategically less valuable than the motte to the west.  Some objects found at the site lend support to this interpretation, as does the fact that the eastern bailey seems to post-date some medieval ridge and furrow fields. 
  3. The pair has similarities to another pair of mottes in East Chelborough, Dorset, where a second motte replaces the first.
  4. Documentary sources refer to dual lordship and moieties, and it is possible that the monuments were held by different interests, perhaps representing Caldecott and Shocklach.  Swallow suggests, for example, that the motte to the west could like within Church Shocklach township, rather than Caldecott or Castletown. 
  5. A toll gate recorded in the route between the two sites suggests that this was a popular route for travellers and traders.  Twin castles, or an earlier and later castle may have been established to ensure that territories on either side of the road both benefited from toll income.  Although the site may have been established initially for military purposes, commercial interests may have become important too.  

See Swallow’s paper, which is available online, for more details.

Contemporary sites at Castletown

There are other sites in the Castletown area near Shocklach East and West, which are also scheduled.

The first consists of the remains of a village or large hamlet, some farm buildings and a ridge and furrow field system. Like the two castles, these have been included under one listing by Historic England, with the identification number 1016588.  These include at least six tofts (house platforms) and crofts (small farming enclosures) that make up the remains of hamlets to the north and south of Castletown Farm.  As well as the surviving components of buildings there are visible remains of ridge and furrow cultivation that lie to the east of the hamlets.  Although these remains are divided, this is only because the later Castletown Farm was built over other parts of the former settlement.  

The nearby church of St Edith (Historic England 1228322) is not currently open to the general-interest public, but makes for a nice stroll if you are in the area, because it is lovely with its mellow red sandstone walls and its bellcote, even when only viewed from the outside, and still has weekly services.  Parts of the church, including the south wall of the nave and the south doorway date to the mid 12th Century while the north wall of nave  is probably 13th Century.  Later modifications in the 15th and 17th Centuries were very sympathetic to the original design.


Later history of Castletown

Swallow mentions that Castletown Bridge, which carries the road across the stream between the two castles, “was probably the site of the medieval toll gate, catching people and animals entering Cheshire from Wales to the south and west, as Shocklach castle guarded the only road into Cheshire at this point.”  Documentation suggests that a toll gate was present there
from at least 1290.  Swallow suggests that Shocklach castle had a defensive function until at least the latter part of the fourteenth century and probably became the site of a fortified manor house, mentioned in 1499, when the notorious judge Lord Dudley claimed rights to Shocklach, “and to have a toll for himself and William Brereton.”   Passing into the hands of the the Breretons, it then passed to the Hills and the Drakes.


Conclusion

Although today Shocklach sits in a peaceful area that consists mainly of farms and large fields divided by hedgerows, it is clear that from the early 12th Century, the twin mottes at Shocklach were important components in a wide line motte-and-bailey castles that made up much of the defence of the border between England and Wales.  Then too there were small hamlets and farms.  Although these lay on territory that was under dispute and where livestock and stored cereals may have been seen as easy pickings, they were supported by the presence of the castles.  Other nearby sites that are relevant are a Medieval field system at Castletown Farm and the local Shocklach Church, which retains a Norman arch.  The latter will be discussed on another post when I can gain access to the interior.  Between them these and other Medieval sites along the Dee valley the Castletown sites preserve part of the story of life along the Welsh-Cheshire border at this time.

Visiting: 
You can pull over on the edge of the relatively quiet road (pull well over in case of agricultural vehicles), but the site, on both sides of the road, is on private property so you cannot actually walk on or around the site.  You can only view it from the roads.  Before leaf-fall, Shocklach West is completely hidden by vegetation, but the north side of Shocklach East can be seen over a short fence.  I wouldn’t recommend it for a walk, because it is not on a public footpath, there is no pavement, the verges, where available, are narrow and uneven and the road is very bendy and rather narrow, not ideal for avoiding any traffic, most of which travels at some speed.


Sources:

Books and papers:

Cotgreave, P. 2008.  The Barony of Malpas in the twelfth century.  Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire (2008), 157, (1), 1–32.
www.hslc.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2019/01/157-2-Cotgreave.pdf 

Reynolds, S. and White, G. 1997-98.  A Survey of Pulford Castle.  Chester History XXXVII, p.23-25

Pryor, F. 2010.  The Making of the British Landscape.   How We Have Transformed the Land, from Prehistory to Today.  Allen Lane

Swallow, R. 2013-14. Two For One:  the Archaeological Survey of Shocklach, Castle, Cheshire. Cheshire History Journal, No.53, 2013-4
https://www.academia.edu/4577267/Two_for_One_The_Archaeological_Survey_of_Shocklach_Castle_Cheshire_in_Cheshire_History_Journal_No_53_2013_4_Cheshire_Local_History_Association_2013_

Williams, R. 1983. Church Shocklach, Castletown:  the “moated” site. Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.59–60
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf 

Williams, R. 1983. Castletown.  A Deserted Hamlet? Cheshire Archaeological Bulletin 9, p.61
http://www.cheshirearchaeology.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/CAB-Vol-9.pdf


Websites:

Ancient and Scheduled Monuments

https://ancientmonuments.uk/114798-medieval-settlement-and-part-of-field-system-at-castletown-farm-shocklach-oviatt-and-district

Historic England
Shocklach motte and bailey castle, list entry 1012620
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1012620
Medieval settlement and part of field system at Castletown Farm
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1016588
Church of St Edith
https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1228322

Archaeology and Metal Detecting Magazine
Shocklach: Its History and Archaeology. By Dave Sadler 5th September 2021
https://archmdmag.com/shocklach-its-history-and-archaeology-by-dave-sadler/

 

Cheshire Proverbs 5: We shall live till we die if the pigs don’t eat us


“We shall live till we die if the pigs don’t eat us”

J.C. Bridge no.382, page 149


J.C. Bridge does not say why this proverb is supposed to be characteristic of Cheshire, and nor is he at all helpful as to its origins and meaning.  One of the puzzles in the proverb is the idea implicit in the phrasing that being eaten by a pig does not necessarily result in instant death. Alternatively, the phrase might be interpreted as suggesting that we will live until we are supposed to die unless the pigs get to us first, suggesting an interruption to the divine plan that would otherwise see us die on a certain date.  How to get nearer to the actual meaning?

Tantrabobus

Bridge, apparently in an attempt to elucidate the situation, makes the sole comment “We shall live till we die like Tantrabobus” and leaves us to make of that what we may.  I remained unenlightened.  I had no idea what or who a Tantrobobus might be, and the matter is still more than a little opaque.  The word was certainly a late 18th century colloquial term used in the U.S. state of Vermont.  The Only in Arkansas website describes it as follows:

A modern interpretation of the Tantrabobus. Source: Oxford University Press blog

A Tantrabobus, or ‘Haint’ was an evil monster rumored to live inside wells. According to Philip Steele’s book Ozark Tales and Superstitions, children were encouraged to never look inside wells lest the monsters place a spell on them and draw them down into the darkness forever.
[Ozark is an area shared between neighbouring Arkansas, Missouri and Oklahoma]

This story is echoed in various Arkansas-related websites and books, and was clearly a widespread legend, perhaps dreamed up and disseminated by parents to warn children against the dangers of deep wells.  Painting the ceiling of a house porch blue was supposed to scare off the haint.

Unless the origins of the well-inhabiting monster were in England, it’s difficult to see how it relates to a Cheshire proverb.  A slightly different word, however, does originate in England. “Tantarabobs” was apparently a Devonshire name for the devil, and the Oxford University Press’s blog offers another devil-related version:

Tantrumbobus is a relative of Flibbertigibbet, Hoberdidance, and Obidicut (also known as Haberdicut), the fiends mentioned in King Lear. I wonder whether English dander “to walk around; to talk inherently” and especially Old High German tantaron “to be out of one’s mind” are kin of the British devils, and, if so, whether those devils were also known on the continent.

All very interesting, but I still had no idea why anyone might be eaten by a pig before the date in Death’s personal organizer.

The country of the Gadarenes

Part of Newberry’s 1928 analysis of Seth as a black pig

In ancient Egypt, the pig is associated with Seth, the ambivalent but mainly trouble-making deity, in direct opposition to the good god Osiris, who Seth killed and dismembered, scattering his remains in the Nile (but don’t panic; he was re-assembled and resurrected by the goddess Isis). Following the Egyptian idea of evil and pigs being identified with one another, I had a look around and sure enough, the Christian devil is sometimes equated to a pig.  According to the Open Bible website, there are numerous verses that concern themselves with pigs.  One in particular, in Matthew 8:28-32, tells a story of transmogrification, whereby humans are converted into pigs (English Standard Version):

And when he came to the other side, to the country of the Gadarenes, two demon-possessed men met him, coming out of the tombs, so fierce that no one could pass that way. And behold, they cried out, “What have you to do with us, O Son of God? Have you come here to torment us before the time?” Now a herd of many pigs was feeding at some distance from them. And the demons begged him, saying, “If you cast us out, send us away into the herd of pigs.” And he said to them, “Go.” So they came out and went into the pigs, and behold, the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and drowned in the waters.

Fascinating and horrifying, but not an explanation of being eaten, unless “eat” is a metaphor for being transmogrified / transmigrated.  This is what Richard Jefferies (1848-1887) inferred in the late 19th Century.  His longer version of the proverb is “Ah well, we shall live till we die, if the pigs don’t eat us, and then we shall go acorning.”  He writes that the proverb is “a clear survival of the belief in transmigration, for he who is eaten by a pig becomes a pig, and goeth with the swine to eat acorns.” 

The story Jeffries recounts to illustrate this is the nearest I have found to an explanation of the proverb.  He tells the tale of a village elder who had been generous to everyone around him, but had suffered persecution.  He magnanimously ignored the offenses against him, but his rather less forgiving family consoled themselves with this proverb.  I take it from this that the family thought that the perpetrators would suffer some form of retribution roughly comparable to being consumed by pigs and forced to eat acorns. 

In other words, what goes around comes around.

All of that offers some sort of answer about the connection between the Tantrabobus, the pig and the devil, and also gets close to what the proverb may mean, but it doesn’t get us anywhere near to explaining why this proverb was considered by Bridge to have some peculiar connection to Cheshire.  So my final question concerned the role of pig in Cheshire farming through the centuries prior to Bridge’s 1917 book.

Pigs in Cheshire

Generically, because pigs are omnivorous, will eat agricultural and household waste and will happily forage in woodland, and because they have big litters of piglets that can be eaten or sold, they offer a useful complement to the big three livestock breeds: cattle, sheep and goat.  The big three give birth to only one or two infants at a time, and although these too can be eaten or traded, their great value lies in the fact that the females can be milked and used to produce dairy products.  In terms of both meat and dairy, livestock represents storage on the hoof.  If disease hits any of the big three herds, the recovery time can take many, many years.  The big three are therefore curated with great care, whilst pigs, being both easier to feed and producing multiple offspring, are inherently much more disposable.

Men knocking down acorns to feed swine, from the 14th century English Queen Mary Psalter, MS. Royal 2 B VII f.81v. Source: British Library via Wikipedia

During the Anglo-Saxon period, the pannage system involved the seasonal driving of pigs into woodland to feed upon acorns, nuts, rhizomes and roots.  In some areas this persisted well into the Medieval period.  Cheshire, once full of rich forests, was ideal pig territory, offering shade, food and shelter, because pigs, in their natural environment, are woodland dwellers.  Although often seen in Britain today in open fields, in their preferred habitat they forage with their leathery snouts for roots and nuts under trees, and they nest in hollowed-out depressions.  They cannot perspire, so they wallow in woodland mud and pools of water to keep cool in the summer.  Sociable creatures, they tend to form communities.

Image from the Hunterian Psalter folio 6r. Gathering acorns for pigs in November. Source: Glasgow University Library

In the later Middle Ages, there is plenty of evidence that pigs were increasingly managed as a resource, making use of their singularly indiscriminating appetites to trim down agricultural stubble, devour household waste (including food leftovers and household rubbish) and the by-products of dairying, and in Cheshire this was particularly related to cheese-making.   Many became enclosed in fields, gardens and even sheds.  A single pig could be kept by even the poorest householder, and the owner of several pigs could generate a good income by selling both piglets and fattened pigs for slaughter.  As late as 1550 it is recorded that pigs still roamed the streets in Chester, and they were probably even more prominent in everyday village life.

In the latter part of the 18th Century, pig keeping was usually an essential part of farming practise, even on farms dedicated to cheese-making.  Geoffrey Scard gives the example of a 25 acre dairy farm majoring on cheese, which had the following holding of livestock in the latter part of the 18th Century:

 9 crossbred Cheshire shorthorns, 2 yearling heifers, 2 heifer calves, 10 pigs and 20 hens.

Pigs were clearly an essential part of the economic profile of the farm.  Scard next gives the example of the much larger 243 acre dairy farm at Cholmondeley in the 19th Century.  The following animals were kept:

2 ponies, 3 carthorses, 51 milking cows, 16 two-year heifers, 17 yearling heifers, 15 heifer calves, 1 bull, 66 Shropshire ewes and lambs, 55 half-breed withers and 100 pigs.

Piglets of the Welsh pig breed. Source: British Pig Association

In simple numbers, pigs dominated, but as a balance to cattle and sheep.  In the late 19th Century, a breed known as the Welsh became popular.  A very pale pink-white, with big lop-ears, it was first mentioned in the 1870s when, according to the British Pig Association, there was a considerable trade in Welsh and Shropshire pigs into Cheshire, specifically for fattening on milk by-products, from cattle (and possibly sheep).  The milk by-products would have had to be disposed of and wasted if not consumed, so it was essentially free to feed pigs who became fatter and more valuable and were handy waste disposal units to boot.  By contrast, the feeding of cattle was expensive, so using milk by-products to feed pigs helped to pay for the upkeep of cattle.

From this we can conclude that the pig had an important role in Cheshire, and that this may account for why Bridge considered the proverb to be peculiarly appropriate in a book of Cheshire proverbs.

All of this is pure speculation, but what an awful lot of fun 🙂

For more about J.C. Bridge and this Cheshire Proverbs series, see Cheshire Proverbs 1.

An index of all posts in the Cheshire Proverbs series can be found on the Heritage page

Sources:

Books and papers

Bridge, J.C. 1917,  Cheshire Proverbs and Other Sayings and Rhymes Connected with the City an County Palatine of Chester Phillipson and Golder (Chester)

Hamilton, J.  and Thomas, R. 2012.  Pannage, Pulses and Pigs: Isotopic and Zooarchaeological Evidence for Changing Pig Management Practices in Later Medieval England.  Medieval Archaeology 56(1), p.234-259
https://www.academia.edu/15571794/Pannage_Pulses_and_Pigs_Isotopic_and_Zooarchaeological_Evidence_for_Changing_Pig_Management_Practices_in_Later_Medieval_England

Jeffries, R. 1948Field and Hedgerow: Being the Last Essays of Richard Jefferies.  Lutterworth Press
https://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/7030

Newberry, P.E. 1928. The Pig and the Cult-Animal of Set. The Journal of Egyptian Archaeology
Vol. 14, No. 3/4 (Nov., 1928), p.211-225

Scard, G. 1981.  Squire and Tenant:  Rural Life in Cheshire 1760-1900.  Cheshire Community Council

Websites

British History Online
Later medieval Chester 1230-1550: Economy and society, 1350-1550
https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/ches/vol5/pt1/pp64-80

The British Pig Association
The Welsh
https://www.britishpigs.org.uk/welsh

Only In Arkansas.com
Arkansas Superstitions: The Tantrabobus in Grandpa’s Well by Liz Harrell
https://onlyinark.com/culture/arkansas-superstitions-tantrabobus/

OpenBible.info
Pigs
https://www.openbible.info/topics/pigs

Oxford University Press blog
A few bogus etymologies: “tantrum,” “dander,” “dandruff,” and “dunderhead,” along with “getting one’s goat” by Anatoly Liberman
https://blog.oup.com/2017/09/tantrum-dandruff-dander-etymology/

Wordfoolery blog
The history of the word “bogus”
https://wordfoolery.wordpress.com/tag/word-origin/