|Chester's High Cross|
Formed by the conjunction of the Roman’s three great internal thoroughfares within the military fortress, Chester’s High Cross, in common with the rest of the city’s historic fabric has been subject to considerable change during its 2000 years of history. Originally, little more than a natural convergence of the Roman’s Via Praetoria, Via Principalis and Via Decumana the site of the later High Cross stood in front of what was once the entrance to the legionary’s Principia or headquarters building, the remains of which now lie largely beneath St Peter’s Church and the generally modern buildings that lie immediately north and west of it.
The actual High Cross at Chester, the stone monument that stands on the site today, is simply thought to be the latest in a long line of such structures that have occupied this particular spot, although its purpose has undoubtedly changed from purely religious to entirely civic over several hundreds of years. The first “Cross” may well have its early origins in the construction of the nearby St Peter’s church which was thought to have been re-founded by the Anglo Saxon leader Aethelflaeda around the end of the 9th or beginning of the 10th centuries. This cross was not thought to be in anyway unusual and over the succeeding hundreds of years, numerous such monuments were likely to have been erected both inside and outside of the city, including those dedicated to St Anne, St Stephen, St Martin, etc. Most of these would subsequently disappear however, most notably during the 16th century, when the entire country was said to have been wracked by the religious purges and excesses of successive monarch’s including Henry VIII, Queen Mary and Elizabeth I.
In 1584 the Cross at the centre of Chester was reported to have fallen down, though whether or not this was due to a deliberate act of religious vandalism, intolerance, or just sheer old age is unclear. In 1644 a similar event was said to have occurred, although most commentators of the time suggested that it was more likely that poor workmanship or general neglect had caused the collapse rather than anything malicious or untoward. However, given the events of the time, the English Civil War and the ensuing siege of Chester, it was perhaps little wonder that when the forces of Parliament did finally conquer the Royalist city that the relatively insecure High Cross was an easy target for Roundhead frustrations who were said to have pulled it down purely as an act of retribution in 1646.
Described as having a seven sided capital sitting atop a 3 metre shaft, the Chester Cross was reported to have been smashed into several pieces by the Parliamentary vandals, who then simply discarded the remnants around the adjoining city streets. The head of this original Cross was said to have been inscribed with ornate tabernacle work, along with images of various saints and been topped with a slightly smaller capital designed in a similar manner. Following its demolition, the broken pieces of the monument were thought to have been buried below the walls of the nearby St Peter’s church and seem to have remained largely forgotten for an extended period of time, until they were rediscovered when the stairway to the church was being rebuilt in 1804. The recovered fragments were then removed to the care of St Peter’s, until finally in 1815 they were handed over to Sir John Cotgreave who relocated the remnants to his new home at “Netherleigh” in the suburb of Handbridge.
According to legend, Sir John intended to use the shaft of the cross as the base for a sundial that was being installed within the grounds of his new home, but after being constructed it almost immediately fell down. Re-erected once again, the feature once again fell over and perhaps through utter disgust and personal frustration the stonework was simply allowed to remain in the ditch into which it fell. Fortunately however, the pieces were subsequently recovered from the grounds at a later date and returned to the city, although the head of the medieval cross was thought to have been donated to the Grosvenor Museum.
As the central meeting point for Chester’s early streets, it seems likely that the High Cross would have been first and foremost, a rallying point for the citizens and defenders of the city. However, as time passed and the city’s commerce developed, the area of the Cross would have become much busier as citizens, visitors and traders moved back and forth between the different parts of the city. Consequently, its position became far more central to the city’s everyday life and the High Cross was reportedly used to house Chester’s Pillory, its Whipping Post and its Stocks, as well as being the place where public announcements were made and decrees issued. A far narrower, dirtier and cramped location than today’s representation, due in part to the presence of the previously mentioned instruments of punishment, the city’s High Cross was also known to be the site of fairly unpleasant bull-baiting contests, where the unfortunate beast would be tormented and set upon by the dogs owned by Chester’s resident Butchers and Bakers. The final bull-bait was said to have taken place in the city in 1803, although such practices were thought to have continued elsewhere in the outlying suburbs for many years after that.
Said to have been located at what would now be the junction of Bridge Street and Watergate Street, Chester’s stocks, whipping post and pillory were reported to have been sited on an elevated platform, sufficiently high enough to allow a small shop to be located beneath it. Although the names and purpose of the first two devices are plain enough, the Pillory appears to have been a variation of the stocks, but one where the miscreant was required to stand with their hands and head restrained by the device, often for hours at a time. A second occasional punishment associated with the Pillory was commonly inflicted on slanderers or seditious libeller’s who were found guilty of such offences by the city courts. Their ears might be nailed to the retaining board of the device and then simply removed with the use of a razor or sharp knife, as happened to a small number of men whose opinions were deemed to be slanderous, libellous or treasonous.
Although some historic sources suggest that the Pillory had existed in Chester since Tudor times, both the Anglo Saxon and later Norman societies were thought to have employed similar devices for punishing wrongdoers. However, it doesn’t appear to have been a regular form of punishment in the city and by 1789, it was reported that no person had been “pilloried” in Chester for some 20 years and during the previous 90 years only 4 people had actually been sentenced to this particular penalty.
As Chester’s main streets gradually became populated with stone built cellars, grand halls and their early elevated arcades in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, then maybe this period also saw the construction of the first Pentice building, the forerunner of today’s Town Hall. Known to have existed by the beginning of the 15th century, this timber and stone construction was reported to have essentially “wrapped around” the southern and eastern walls of St Peter’s Church and was little more than a highly impressive two storey “lean to”, within which a series of civic and commercial chambers were arranged.
Incorporating a number of civic offices, including the city’s Treasury Chamber and the Pentice Court, an earlier building was reported to have been largely rebuilt in 1497. This early administrative centre was the base for the city’s Mayor, his Sheriff’s and the Clerk of the Pentice, who nowadays would probably be known as the Town Clerk. Within this building, local trading or business disputes would be settled, apprenticeships registered and local taxes paid. In fact, apart from Crown or national matters which were dealt with at the Castle, most of the city’s day-to-day commercial activities were brought before the Mayor and his Corporation who were housed within the Pentice building.
In addition to being the commercial and administrative centre of Chester, the city’s Pentice was also the civic heart of the community, the place where nobles and local dignitaries would be entertained by the Mayor and his Council. When King Charles I visited Chester in 1642 prior to the outbreak of the English Civil War, he was said to have been heartily entertained by the Corporation and a number of Chester’s leading citizens at the Pentice. It was also on this building that Chester’s historic Wooden Glove would be hung to announce the start of the city’s annual fairs, a tradition that was said to have begun in the 13th century, but was done away with in 1836 by a particularly miserly Mayor, who refused to pay the cost of having the emblem hung out. Unfortunately, the Pentice building failed to survive that late, reportedly being demolished in March 1806, many years after the Mayor and Corporation had finally removed themselves, first to St Nicholas’ Chapel in Northgate Street and then later to the new Exchange Building on the Market Square which was raised in 1698.
Associated with the Pentice building, was the Mayor’s Balcony, an elevated platform from which the Mayor and his corporation could deliver local ordinances, election results, civic speeches, as well as watching events unfold at the High Cross which lay beneath their vantage point. Later reports suggest that this mayoral balcony lay slightly to the west of St Peter’s church doorway, the site now incorporated into the elevated row which fronts the modern day Deva Hotel.
The modern day St Peter’s Church lies above the remains of the Roman headquarters building of the former military fortress, the Principia. Although the church was reportedly founded by the Anglo Saxon leader, Aethelflaeda around the end of the 9th, or beginning of the 10th century, it is known to have been substantially rebuilt in the middle of the 14th century, with much of the church’s current architecture thought to date from between 1350 and 1550. The medieval builders responsible for the construction were said to have rebuilt the church’s north aisle above an existing undercroft, which explains the church’ elevated floor, rather than it being set at street level. It is also worth noting, that this later church is thought to have a substantially larger footprint than its Anglo Saxon predecessor, reflecting its increasing importance and status within the city.
The modern day church looks very different from that which existed in earlier years, when St Peter’s was known to have been partially obscured by the city’s Pentice and its outside stairwell was on an entirely different alignment. Additionally, from around the middle of the 16th century a “Rectory” was thought to have existed above the southern porch of the church. Reported to have been constructed of timber and plaster, this structure was said to have formed two separate chambers and in 1699 a petition was made to erect a stairwell from the south doorway directly to this “Rector’s House”, a plea which was subsequently granted. Church records are said to recall the individual holders of the post of Rector at St Peter’s all the way back to 1195.
The church’s looming spire was reported to have been taken down in 1780 having been struck by lightning and the south wall was said to have been damaged by Thomas Harrison during work he undertook in the area in around 1804, possibly with work involved with the then still standing Pentice building. These defects were thought to have been subsequently repaired by the architect John Douglas when he undertook work on the church in 1886.
The first clock to be installed at St Peter’s was said to have been provided by a city clockmaker called William Sampson in 1585 and in return for his gift he was thought to have been made a Freeman of Chester sometime afterwards. The clock which currently adorns the south face of St Peter’s tower was thought to have first been installed in 1813, as part of the re-casing work undertaken on the church by Thomas Harrison in that year. In 1825, the clock face was said to have been adapted so that it could be illuminated by gas light.
On the northern side of St Peter’s, the church’s ancient burial grounds are generally hidden from public view by later developments and are simply marked by a paved courtyard surrounded by a number of city inns and Harrison’s two classic commercial buildings. Although part of the church’s early graveyard is thought to lie below the extended medieval precincts of St Peter’s itself, many other early internments have undoubtedly been disturbed and possibly removed due to the location of the church itself and the subsequent need for building land in the area.
During the 17th century, the graveyard was reportedly still being used as a regular shortcut by the customers of the three city taverns which stood in the area and records suggest that the churchwardens of St Peter’s were being instructed to find a solution to this particular problem. One method of controlling these unauthorised incursions was said to have involved nailing shut the rear doors of the offending taverns, so that customers were forced to use an alternative route, but within a short time these doors were thought to have been forced open again and the problem returned. It was possibly as a result of these issues, that finally the church and city authorities ordered the entire area to be paved, thereby preventing further damage to the final resting places of these early parishioners.
The other major structure that once inhabited the south east flank of the city’s High Cross area was the main water Conduit that served a number of the principal buildings in this part of the city. Some sources suggest that this particular storage tank had existed from as early as the 1580’s when such water services were becoming increasingly popular throughout much of England, but formal records from Chester would seem to indicate that construction of the conduit at the High Cross was in fact commenced around 1622.
This public reservoir was said to have been constructed by John Tyrer, the same man who was responsible for the Water Tower at the Bridgegate and a second conduit in the outlying suburb of Boughton, on the site of some fresh water springs. As the Roman’s had done some 1500 years earlier, Tyrer was reported to have transported this fresh water supply through the city streets by way of lead piping and delivered it directly to the conduit. A later reporter described the water house as being built of stone and sitting on four great arches and decorated with the emblems of some of Chester’s most notable families, including the Stanley’s who were associated with the Earldom of Derby. When the conduit was finally being demolished in 1805, it was reported that a large vat of wine was emptied into the water tank, allowing the liquor to flow freely to the waiting citizens of Chester. The site of the early reservoir is now thought to be marked by the buildings at No 2 Eastgate Street and 1 Bridge Street which were both designed and constructed by the local architect TM Lockwood in 1888 for the then Duke of Westminster.