Cheshire Before the French-Norman Conquest/Crusade
The Geographical Background
From Shining Tor above Macclesfield it is possible on a clear day to see to the south-west the great expanses of the Cheshire plain stretching to the Shropshire border with, beyond, the distant line of the Welsh hills extending from Mold down towards Oswestry. To the north-west, the lowlands of the Mersey valley and south Lancashire are easily visible. Although this is not a small county, almost all of historic Cheshire—Longdendale excepted—can be encompassed in that single view. It thus has a very clear geographical unity and coherence, and recent research suggests that its identity may be several thousand years old.
Within that geographical unit—the lowland which lies between Wales and the Pennines and south of the ancient frontier of the Mersey valley—there is of course much geological and scenic variety, and historically there has been an immense diversity of patterns of human activity. The landscape of modern Cheshire is, almost without exception, made or modified by man—from the highest moors above Longdendale to the coastal marshes of the Dee estuary, man’s imprint is everywhere apparent, even in places which may at first glance seem natural and wild.
The Pennines are the prominent backdrop to eastward views from much of Cheshire: a rim of gritstone uplands rising to almost 1,800 feet along the Derbyshire border and to 1,909 feet at Black Hill at the head of Longdendale, the highest point in the old county. The soils are acid and thin, and there are extensive tracts of peat moorland, particularly above Tintwistle at the southern edge of a great expanse of bleak moors extending northwards into Yorkshire, today lonely and little-visited with the exception of the all-tootrodden Pennine Way. The hills above Macclesfield and Congleton are gentler and more accessible, dissected by valleys, criss-crossed by roads and tracks, and with more settlement.
Early travellers and agricultural writers regarded the Pennines with loathing, as being both physically terrifying and economically worthless, and the first historians were no happier—George Ormerod, in his history of the county published in 1817, claimed that Longdendale was scarcely civilised. But in reality their economic value was, and is, great. Around the Goyt and Dane there were workable reserves of coal and ironstone, building stone and fireclay, resources which have been instrumental – shaping both past settlement and present landscape. Here and a along the Etherow valley there was a superabundance of water, and the last 150 years this has become major element in the development the region, powering early industries and feeding chains of reservoirs all the larger valleys. Now, as well as their continuing economic va1u the hills have a crucial and some times controversial role as a ‘recreational resource’.
The lowlands of the Cheshire plain, occupying the greater part of the county, are covered with thick deposits of glacial boulder clays and tills interspersed with sands and gravels. The clays are potentially very fertile and this has produced the prosperous agriculture which is now considered typical of the area—although in the past poor drainage impeded the develop-; ment of settlement and farming in some parts. The sands and gravels, in contrast, were of low fertility, and until recent times these expanses of pooi soils supported heathiand vegetation—the name Rudheath is a reminder of that character—while in areas such as Congleton and Oakmere there are still working sandpits.
At the northern edge of the plain there are extensive peat deposits, the lowland mosses, which resulted from poor drainage. The north Cheshire mosses were a major landscape feature, stretching in an arc from Lymm to Wilmslow and including the now-celebrated Lindow Moss. Elsewhere in the plain there are peaty hollows and small mosses which diversify the present landscape and historically were of significance to the local economy, agriculture and settlement. In south Cheshire glacial moraines, extendinl along the Shropshire border, have produced a landscape of meres and pools, with tracts of fenland and low hills of sand and gravel.
The popular image of the plain is of undulating pastoral acres witi black and white farmhouses—a smiling land dotted with woods and meres But this is only half the picture: the plain also includes the great industria complexes of Winsford and Northwich, for beneath its surface are th saitfields which have been exploited for thousands of years. Because i offers few barriers to communications it is crossed by the arteries of ou age, the main railways and the incessantly noisy M6 and M56. Its norther, fringe is prime building land: for two centuries the Manchester conurbatio has been greedily chewing at its edges, with all the present-day problems c planning and land-use control which that entails. New roads and perpetual pressure upon building land make this the most troublesome part of the county for those who endeavour to mould present and future landscapes.
The mid-Cheshire ridge winds, narrow and sharply defined, down the centre of the county. It is no more than four miles across, 575 feet above sea level at Eddisbury in the north and 695 feet at Bickerton Hill in the south. Rising steeply from the plain, its scale accentuated by the sometimes precipitous slopes cut in its hard, erosion-resistant sandstones and conglomerates, it is a prominent landscape feature, and is perceptibly a boundary between, two halves of the county to this day. Its attractive woodlands and superb views across the plain meant that it is now, especially in the Frodsham and Delamere areas, experiencing increasingly intensive recreational use.
To the west the broad valley of the Dee is a frontier zone, where the visual backdrop is the Welsh mountains and where for many centuries there has been a political border of exceptional importance. Far more than the Pennines, the Dee has remained a tangible and definable frontier—between cultures, between nations—and the location of Chester, commanding the east-west route into Wales at the point where the river becomes tidal, has been pivotal to the history and geography of Cheshire itself. Winter flooding of the river is still a regular occurrence, there is little riverside settlement and few road crossings, and the valley has encountered fewer of the development pressures which have afflicted other parts of the county.
The Wirral, the great sandstone peninsula jutting out into the Irish Sea, was long a comparatively remote area, but in the 18th century the improvements in communications began to reduce its isolation. The development of Birkenhead and Wallasey after the 1840s, and the building of the thi Mersey tunnels between 1880 and 1970, made it an integral part of 1 Merseyside conurbation, while heavy industrialisation along the north shi transformed its economy. The coastline of the Wirral has altered consideral during the past three thousand years. There has been substantial erosi between Hoylake and New Brighton and extensive deposition in bc estuaries. In the Roman period the sea extended up to Chester, but sir the 16th century silting and reclamation have produced thousands of ac of saltmarsh and polderland below the city, totally altering the configu tion of the Dee estuary. Along the Mersey the coastline has also undergo major change. Two thousand years ago the lowlands of Ince and the by Gowy valley were open water and the sea probably reached as far inla as Stoak: all the land where the Stanlow refineries now stand has be reclaimed since that period.
The physical background has been modified over the millennia by mat generations of human activity. Settlement, agriculture, industry, and the development of communications networks have altered the face of Cheshire as of every other part of England, beyond recognition. The process is cumulative—each generation inherits a landscape legacy which in its turn it changes and passes on. Historians and archaeologists can piece together evidence for these changes but inevitably the picture is incomplete, for the sources are often fragmentary and the interpretations of the evidence a open to argument and debate.
Our knowledge of pre-Roman Cheshire resembles a giant jigsaw, where many of the pieces are missing but for which new pieces are frequent found. Aerial photography and systematic archaeological investigation reveal numerous sites, which continue to be supplemented by chance find but how the pieces fit together is often unclear. Much is a complete blank-although, for example, human occupation is known from northern England as early as 200,000 BC there is no reliable evidence from Cheshire until after 12,000 BC.
By that time the Pennine fringes were being used by seasonal hunters whose territories extended into Cheshire, where extensive forests and men provided excellent hunting. From about 6000 BC some sites in the county itself can be identified, though many others must have been destroyed by later agricultural and industrial activity, or simply remain unrecognised. Nevertheless, more abundant evidence is starting to emerge. For example on Alderley Edge, a dry hilltop with easy access to water supplies, flint and chert implements have been found, and excavations at Tatton Mere have revealed settlement of this date. Recent work on wetland areas is produced extensive evidence of early prehistoric occupation at, among other place Oakmere in Delamere Forest and widely in the mosses of north Wirral. At Hilbre island a concentration of finds survived perhaps because there h been little later activity to destroy the traces.
From about 5000 BC farming activity can be identified, with evidence of ploughing at Ashton near Tarvin and elsewhere, while the coastal sites between Hilbre and New Brighton were occupied from this period onwards. Hitherto, the county’s forest cover was very extensive though varying in density—some of the Pennine summits were less thickly wooded, as were the lowland mosses. However during the Neolithic period (4500 to 2000 BC) systematic clearance of the forest began, providing land for arable farming. On the sandier soils of the plain, which were well-suited to arable agriculture, the removal of woodland cover has been permanent.
Palaeobotany, the investigation of past vegetation, has highlighted this process using pollen records from lakes and bogs. These show, for example, that at Hatchmere in Delamere Forest cereal crops were being grown between 4200 and 3500 BC. The process of clearance was slow at first, and at times was reversed as woodland began to regenerate, but overall there was a general decline in tree cover which is traceable through the period of Roman occupation and into the Middle Ages. This was a landscape change of fundamental importance—Cheshire may seem a well-wooded county, but much of what we see is in fact of recent origin. In the later Middle Ages there was probably significantly less woodland than today.
With arable farming and forest clearance came permanent settlement and communities which used pottery vessels and a wide range of sophisticated stone tools. Such communities also built monuments to their dead, often on the borders of their territory. In Cheshire the finest example is the early Neolithic chambered tomb at the Bridestones, east of Congleton on the Staffordshire border. Here the great stone uprights, formerly covered by a large earthen mound, are a powerful reminder of technological capabilities six thousand years ago. Enough remains to show affinities of design with monuments in western Scotland, northern Ireland and the of Man, implying cultural links between these areas and Cheshire. origin of stone axes discovered in the county also points to prehistoric trade connections. The most common source of ‘foreign’ axes was quarries high on the slopes of the Langdale Pikes, from which tools distributed widely across northern England. Others came from Penmaenmawr near Conwy, and from Cornwall. Neolithic Cheshire w regular commercial contact with the rest of the British Isles and in abroad, since jadeite axes found at Chester and Lyme Handley can o have come from the Continent.
From about 2500 BC the climate gradually became warmer and d and arable farming was possible at higher altitudes. The frontiers of settlement advanced into the Pennines, and by 1500 BC the arable cultivation of upland Cheshire was possibly greater than at any other time. Some: Bronze Age burial places—earth barrows or stone cairns—are known, another two dozen possible sites. Even with due allowance for losses in intervening 3500 years, it is clear that they are found predominantly on sandier soils and well-drained slopes, with very few in the Dee and Weaver valleys—implying that those areas, with their poorly drained heavy so. were still not settled to any significant extent.
After 1500 BC there was climatic deterioration, and in the damper colder conditions the uplands of Pennine Cheshire could no longer be used for arable farming. Settlements on the higher slopes were abandoned, and the land was returned to grazing or reverted to moorland and thin woodland. On the plain, though, there is evidence of industrial activity, including bronze working at Beeston which was perhaps associated with the copper ores the Peckforton Hills. For a long time Bronze-Age working of Cheshire or, could not be proved, but recently a wooden shovel found during 19th century mining at Alderley Edge has been dated to that period, about four thousand years ago, supporting the view that the numerous rounded hammerstones found in the old workings are also of Bronze-Age date.
More evidence for Cheshire trading links with other areas appears in the Iron Age (from 700 BC). By the 5th century BC salt from the Weaver valley was being used at the hillfort on the Wrekin which was the capital of the Cornovii, and sometime in the next half millennium Cheshire was absorbed into Cornovian territory. The important site at Meols, on the northern tip the Wirral, has revealed coins dating from 500 BC to the mid- 1st century AD from, among other places, Carthage and Brittany. It seems to have been a major centre for international trade with links to the Mediterranean, a role which it played for several more centuries, and it is possible that the mineral wealth of north Wales may have been traded from Iron-Age Meols.
Iron-Age field systems have been identified at Kelsall, with other possible sites at Storeton and Bidston, while recent work in Chester showed that the Roman fortress was built on the ploughed fields of a farming settlement. Pollen evidence from Bar Mere at Bickley, on the Shropshire border, and from Peckforton, also points to substantial farming activity. The most impressive Iron-Age monuments in Cheshire are the hillforts on the mid-Cheshire ridge, so substantial that a thousand years later Eddisbury was refortified against Scandinavian incursions The hillforts have all suffered severely from ploughing,
afforestation, landslipping, quarrying and human feet, but their strategic value and the effort involved in their construction are unmistakable. Helsby, for example, commanded a magnificent view of the Mersey estuary, the Wirral, the Dee and the plains of south Lancashire.
Some of the forts perhaps enclosed more-or-less permanent settlements, but others may have been primarily for military or political purposes—at Beeston an Iron-Age earth rampart with timber palisading, guarding a settlement, was the distant forerunner of the medieval castle. Only one possible hillfort has yet been recognised in the Cheshire Pennines, at another Eddisbury in Rainow. I as is likely, hillforts represent the focus of economic and social activity in the period from 1000 BC until the Roman occupation, the Pennines were probably a peripheral zone between the lands of the Cornovii and of the Corieltauvi, whose territory included the Peak District.
Although Cheshire was part of Cornovian territory it may well have ha a perceptible regional identity of its own. This has implications for the post-Roman period, for it has been argued that after the Romans departed the political unit of the Cornovii, stretching from the Mersey to the Hereforshire border, was recreated, and that it perhaps remained as a recognisabi entity throughout the Roman period when Wroxeter was the regional capita Along the western slope of the Pennines was the belt of land known in tli Middle Ages as the Lyme, a name which survives in a sequence of place names from Ashton under Lyne, via Lyme in Cheshire, to Newcastle under Lyme. ‘Lyme’ seems to have been the particular name, perhaps derive from the Celtic word for ‘elm’, for the wooded frontier zone between the plain and the hills. The situation of the Bridestones, on the county boundary; the paucity of hillforts and other Iron-Age sites in the Macclesfiel hills; and the existence of a pre-Roman name for the frontier land, a imply that this was a major boundary.
The outline geography and history of Roman Cheshire have long been knowni but much of our detailed knowledge is the result of recent archaeologica’ research. The most spectacular discovery, one of European importance, was the uncovering of the Lindow Man in 1984, followed by the finding of the scattered fragments of a second body. Bog bodies are known from many parts of northern Europe, but the Lindow example is the most complete to have been found in recent times in England. It was at first thought that the body was prehistoric, but later assessment points to dates of the 1st century AD for Lindow Man and the 2nd century for the second body.
Both were young men who had been violently killed, the first by garrotting, drowning and having his throat cut, the second by decapitation. Thr overwhelming evidence points to ritual sacrifice, widely attested from other parts of northern Europe. They had well-trimmed fingernails and showed no evidence of hard manual work, suggesting that they were warriors of high ‘caste’. More remarkably, both were painted with vivid blue copper pigments, a fascinating discovery which is the first archaeological confirmation of the existence of the blue-painted warriors who so amazed the Roman invaders. The wider implications of the two bog bodies are very significant—the sacrifice of a warrior in Celtic fashion during the 2nd century in an area under Roman control suggests a much greater survival of pre-Roman culture than has previously been appreciated.
It is likely that the Cornovii of Cheshire and Shropshire were among the eleven tribes said to have submitted to the Romans in the early years after the conquest, and that the initial Roman advance towards the North West was aimed primarily at the hostile tribes of Wales. Suggestions that there was a Roman military presence in the Chester area as early as AD 60, as part of the Welsh campaign, receive no archaeological support. However, occupation must have come soon after this date because a major Roman objective was the pacification of the Deceangli, whose territory included the rich Flintshire lead and silver deposits. By AD 74 these mines were under Roman control, and a small fort may thus have been constructed at Chester a few years earlier to guard the eastern approaches to Deceanglian territory. No trace of such a fort has yet been found, but Roman pottery of the late 60s onwards is known.
Of much greater significance, however, were two large-scale campaigns after AD 71, the first directed at the Brigantes of the Pennines and the second intended to stamp out the last traces of Welsh resistance. During these campaigns a full-scale occupation of Cheshire was undertaken, and the great legionary fortress at Chester was founded to serve as the military centre for the whole of north-west England and north Wales. Chester was the obvious site, close to (but not within) the potentially-dangerous territories of north Wales, reasonably near the equally uncertain Pennines, and with its estuary a base for naval supervision and control of the northern Irish Sea. Its function as the gateway to north Wales was of profound importance: through the ensuing two thousand years the city has depended heavily on that role, and has derived its administrative and commercial strength from it.
The new fortress was situated on the north bank of the Dee, at the lowest potential bridging point before the estuary, where a sandstone ridge, came close to the river and offered excellent views in all directions. Building work on the 56-acre fortress seems to have been completed in 79-80. Initially it had a ditch and turf rampart topped by a palisade and towers of wood, but after 100 it was extensively reconstruct in stone and a new ditch system was cut. Some of the walls still survive, built into the later medieval fabric but the Roman gateways have all disappeared—the last, Eastgate, was demolished in 1786.
Inside were barracks, a large headquarters building, an imposing bath house (on the eastern side of Bridge Street), granaries, workshops an numerous ancillary buildings. The fortress occupied much of the area which was later the medieval city, and beneath the streets and in the cellars of modern centre much Roman fabric remains. Outside the east gate was large civilian settlement stretching along the line of Foregate Street, which was the main shopping area of Roman Chester just as it is today. South of this suburb was the amphitheatre, part of it still visible at the corner Souters Lane (and more of which may be made accessible if current development plans come to fruition) West of the fort was another bat complex, surrounded by densely. packed houses and streets, while on the edge of what is now the Roodee and was then part of the tidal estuary, was an area of wharves, jetties warehouses and commercial buildings. On the south side of the fly were quarries at Handbridge, where there is one of the most remarkable survivals from Roman Britain, relief of the goddess Minerva carved into the rock face.
Chester was a major military commercial centre, with a high s in the hierarchy of Roman towns. the economic focus of the region had a flourishing market and an important craft and industrial sector.
Recent research hints at the existence of a prata legionis (‘meadows of the legion’) around the city, an area under military control which provided food supplies and other essential resources for the garrison. Its boundaries are likely to have included the river Gowy and the Peckforton Hills, and it probably encompassed the important stone quarries there and at Storeton. There was a substantial civilian town at Heronbridge and at Saitney another settlement, perhaps a fishing village, has been identified—the city clearly had a series of satellite communities.
On the southern edge of the area, at Holt, were workshops which until the 120s produced virtually all the pottery used by the Chester garrison. In 1992 a small and hitherto unknown Roman fortlet was discovered at Ince, and this has been dated to AD 80-100. The site, probably linked with Chester via a branch road from Bridge Trafford, commands a wide view of the Mersey estuary and may have been part of a system of out-defences or reconnaissance.
Cheshire was peaceful from an early date, with no lingering threat of hostile action by the native population, so the direct military presence in the rest of the county was limited. The Roman road network is only known incompletely, but the basic structure is clear. The nodal points were Chester, served by at least seven roads, and Manchester, with six. Two key routes crossed Cheshire. One ran northwards from Whitchurch (Mediolanum) through Middlewich, to Wilderspool on the Mersey, and was part of the great highway which linked London with the regional capital at Wroxeter and then Carlisle. At Middlewich this south-north road met a link route along the Trent valley from the East Midlands. From Wbitchurch another major road ran northwards, through Tilston—where there was a small town—to Chester, and there was also an east-west trunk route from York, via Manchester and Northwich, to Chester.
The courses of all these roads are known with certainty for much of their distance. Some are followed by modern roads, such as the four straight miles north from Middlewich along King Street to beyond Broken Cross, and the ASl through Vicarscross on the eastern approach to Chester, while other stretches can be traced in the lines of lanes, footpaths and boundaries. There was also an extensive network of subsidiary routes, some of regional importance, but the courses of these are often less certain. Thus the road from Chester to Wilderspool split near Daresbury with an eastern branch heading for the Mersey crossing at Stretford (Street ford) and Manchester. Only short stretches of this road have been identified with confidence. Likewise, a known road westwards from the Roman spa at Buxton must have continued to Middlewich and the Chester road near
Kelsall, but almost none of its course has been fixed on the ground.
The Romans, like their successors in every century to the present, were interested in the salt deposits of mid-Cheshire, and trade and industrial activity, rather than military planning, were crucial factors in determining the pattern of occupation in the county. A fort was constructed at Northwich (Condate) in the late 1st century, on the road from Chester to Manchester near its crossing of the main north-south route. It was close to salt sprin and finds of lead evaporating pans in the area point to Roman saltworkings here, although later activity has destroyed most of the evidence.
At Middlewich there was an important Roman town, appropriately calded Salinae, which apart from Chester was much the largest in the county. It grew up along the main road from Chesterton to the north, at a major junction—there were also roads to Whitchurch, Chester, Buxton and perhaps Manchester. This gave valuable passing trade, but the town was also a significant industrial centre and of course had thriving saitworks. The recent discovery of a late 1st century Roman military enclosure on the northern edge of Middlewich suggests that the routes from Chesterton and Whitchurch may have played an important part in the initial military campaigns in the North West, and supports the long-standing view that the site had a military role in its early period.
The salt springs at Northwich and Middlewich had been exploited even before the Roman conquest but this was unlikely to have been the case at Nantwich, which for the Romans was probably the least important of the three. Nevertheless, substantial traces of Roman occupation have been found, and more evidence is concealed by the modern town. There are also increasing indications that in south Cheshire the Romans exploited rural salt springs—a lead evaporating pan was found at Shavington near Crewe in 1993, and other finds come from Tetton and Moston near Sandbach.
The most complex and extensive Roman site outside Chester was at Wilderspool, south of the Mersey opposite Warrington. Here the expansion of the new town in the 1970s and the redevelopment of Greenall’s brewery in the early 1990s allowed a comprehensive programme of excavation which revealed that this was not a military site (although a short-lived fort on the north bank at Warrington seems likely) but, instead, a large industrial and trading centre around the southern end of a bridge built in the early 70s. It had excellent road links and being at the head of navigation on the river became a trans-shipment point for the import and export of goods.
Pigs of lead, cast in Flintshire and then brought upriver, were reworked in the workshops at Wilderspool—some were lost en route, and 20 were found in the river off Runcorn in the 16th century. The lead was used for many everyday objects, but also for pans for the saltworkings further south. There are indications that glass may also have been manufactured at Wilderspool, and bronzeworking was certainly carried on, probably using copper ore from Alderley Edge and north Wales. The very wide range of bronze objects includes a large number of items of military equipment, and one of the functions of the town was the production of supplies for North-West garrisons.
Ironworking was important at Wilderspool, the excavations revealing furnaces and large timber buildings which were probably smiths’ workshops, and of crucial significance to the town and to the regional economy were very large potteries, which from the late 1st century were supplying most of Lancashire and Cheshire and whose products were distributed as far afield as Hadrian’s Wall and central Scotland. All these activities—and others which have been recorded, such as carpentry and textiles—emphasise the very wide hinterland of the first industrial town in North-West England. By the early 3rd century, however, its industries were in decline, perhaps because of the declining economic vigour of this fringe of the empire. Although settlement and some commercial activity survived until almost the end of Roman rule, Wilderspool was by then a pale shadow of its former self.
As well as the ‘formal’ Roman roads there was a network of minor routes and country lanes of which little is known. The rural landscape and economy of Roman Britain long received less attention than it deserved, and in the popular imagination the settlement of the countryside was equated with the luxurious architecture of the villas. In reality, though, most areas had more conventional farms, and Cheshire itself has very little evidence of true villas. The only one known with absolutely certainty was the very modest example at Eaton by Tarporley, situated at the northernmost limit of villas on the west side of Britain. There are suggestions of villa-like; buildings at Crewe Hall near Farndon and at Tattenball, but even with these (and allowing for other undiscovered examples) the villa was clearly not typical of the Cheshire countryside 1,800 years ago.
Instead, aerial surveys have revealed numerous examples of native-type farmsteads from the Roman period, the successors of the Iron-Age settlements of earlier centuries. Cheshire, not quite on the frontier but certainly. on the economic margin of the empire, probably retained many of the characteristics of pre-Roman farming systems, but the countryside was well-used. The clearance of woodland continued during the four centuries of Roman influence, and much of the remaining tree cover was removed.; The county’s rural landscape was probably one of open landscape of grass-p land, extensive arable farming, small areas of woodland and dispersed; settlement. We would perhaps find it familiar.
Mercia and the Danes
The idea that the Romans suddenly departed in 410 and then civilisation was obliterated dies hard, but the overwhelming evidence is to the contrary. Roman authority began to disintegrate well before the 5th century, and yet some romanised elements survived much longer. For Cheshire detailed documentary sources do not begin until after the Conquest, but archaeological evidence is now beginning to emerge—the Dark Ages are becoming less dark. Pollen analysis from various parts of the county, including Lindow, suggests that woodland clearance, arable farming and the use of extensive pasture continued. The salt resources of the wiches were certainly exploited after the Roman period. The wich element in their names is the Saxon wic, ‘a trading settlement’, found in some of the greatest towns of pre-Conquest England such as Ipswich and Sandwich, and this reinforces the impression that these three places had become urban well before the Conquest.
Chester itself shows archaeological evidence of early post-Roman occupation, not unexpectedly in view of the strategic significance of the site, and Bede called it a civitas, implying that it was recognised as an important centre. There is growing evidence that a substantial trading port, perhaps associated with the settlement further upriver at Chester, existed at Meols in the 6th and 7th centuries. It had links to the Continent and north Africa and it imported luxury goods, suggesting that at least some levels of post-Roman Cheshire society were sophisticated and wealthy.
It is likely that Christianity reached Cheshire before the end of the Roman period, but archaeological and documentary evidence is absent. There are, however, good grounds for postulating organised Christian worship in the period before the arrival of the Saxon Mercians in the 640s and 650s. The name of Eccleston, just south of Chester, includes the word ecles, Old Welsh for ‘church’, which is usually taken as a reliable indicator of a British place of worship. Here there is also possible evidence of early Christian burials. Not far distant was the well-documented and very important Celtic monastery at Bangor-is-y-Coed, a focal point in the early Christian life of west Cheshire and eastern Clwyd. Other signs of Christian activity in this period include Old Welsh names such as Landican on the Wirral (Lan-tegan, ‘the church of St Tegan’) and references to the holding of a synod at Chester in 603 or 604, at which St Augustine debated with representatives of the Celtic church. The dedication of churches to known Celtic saints, as at Heswall and Wallasey, may also be relevant, but dedications can be unreliable.
Some have suggested that by the 7th century west Cheshire was linked with the Celtic kingdom of Powys, but it has recently been argued that all the later county was then part of the territory of the Wrocensaete, ‘the people dwelling around Wroxeter’, and so was the northern half of a reconstituted territorial unit resembling that of the Iron-Age Cornovii. In about 616 a battle was fought at Chester in which Aetheifrith of Northumbria defeated the British. For a time Cheshire fell under Northumbrian sway, but in 633 the combined forces of Gwynedd and Mercia defeated the Northumbrians and from this time onwards southern influences began to prevail. The active enlargement of Mercian frontiers, outwards from the core of the kingdom around Lichfield and Tamworth, meant that by the 640s they were pushing against the Welsh in Powys.
In turn, this aggrandisement brought the Mercians into conflict with Gwynedd, which claimed overlordship of northern Wales, and led to protracted military and political tension. Higham argues that as a result the Mercians could not allow autonomy to the Wrocensaete in Cheshire, and not only integrated their territories within the Mercian kingdom but also began work on border defences. Wat’s Dyke, running from Basingwerk in Flintshire southwards a few miles west of the present Welsh border, was probably built by Penda of Mercia (died 655) as a protection for the Cheshire lands. After the formal creation of Cheshire Wat’s Dyke was regarded as its western border, and remained so until after the Norman Conquest.
Cheshire was thus a frontier zone, comparatively backward socially an economically. There was, for example, no mint at Chester despite the large scale production of Mercian coinage in the 8th century. Mercian ruler continued to engage in conflict with the Welsh, and on some occasions t latter were the more effective force, raiding deep into Cheshire. This was a troubled land, and economic stagnation was the inevitable result of politic and military uncertainty. Offa of Mercia probably built his famous dyke the 760s and 770s, trying to define a frontier, but raiding by both side. continued unabated. In the 820s the Mercians, capitalising upon politic crises in Gwynedd, seized large parts of north-east Wales, but this wa followed by reversals and thereafter, for practical purposes, the frontier roughly followed the line of Wat’s Dyke.
Archaeological evidence for the early Mercian period in Cheshire is minimal, but place-names may provide indications of the patterns of settlement. Recent interpretations suggest that those names which incorporate the element hamm may be the primary settlements of Saxon colonisation. They are very often found close to Roman roads, are frequently the admin istrative centres for large estates covering extensive tracts of territory, and may be the foci of large ancient parishes with ‘mother’ churches for the district. Examples in Cheshire include Frodsham, Weaverham and Eastham. There are also some distinctive sites whose names incorporate the terni burh (loosely, ‘defended place’) and which have important early churches—examples include Prestbury, Wybunbury and Wrenbury. It has been argued that these key places represent the earliest phase of organised Mercian Christianity in the county, combining a religious and possibly an administrative role. Archaeological remains from this period include the impressive crosses at Sandbach (associated with a minster church founded as early as the late 7th century) and stonework at Landican and Overchurch.
The penetration of Cheshire by the Mercians was very limited in the years before their conversion to Christianity. It is very significant that no pagan Saxon burials have been found in Cheshire, indicating that when the Saxons arrived they were already becoming Christian. The conversion and the occupation of Cheshire were thus simultaneous, which perhaps explains the particular associations of some places in Cheshire with St Chad, founder’ of the diocese of Lichfield. For example, there is a very ancient tradition that the chapel at Cbadkirk near Stockport was one of the first Christian churches in the county. Other early associations are with St Werburgh, the niece of Ethelred of Mercia and traditionally the foundress of the church of St John the Baptist at Chester.
The county had comparatively few churches until the late 10th century, and some of those were probably destroyed or damaged during Scandinavian raids. By the late 11th century, however, a revival in fortunes was under way. In 958 King Edgar had granted a charter and endowments to the collegiate church of St Werburgh in Chester (the distant forerunner of the present cathedral) and in 973 he visited Chester and gave grants to the church of St John. Before 1057 the powerful Earl Leofric of Mercia had re-endowed both foundations, while elsewhere in the county local lords set up churches and chapels on their estates.
Norse attacks on north Wales and Ireland began in the late 8th century, and Danish raids on southern England followed soon afterwards. Mercia may have suffered in this period, although there is no reliable evidence, but the Danes certainly attacked from the east in the years before 870 and in 874 they took control of the kingdom, establishing a puppet regime. The lands east and south of the Peak District were subsequently annexed by the Danes but the rump of north-western Mercia, including Cheshire, was apparently left in the hands of the puppet-king Ceolwulf.
Alfred of Wessex allied himself with the remaining ‘loyal’ Mercians and married his daughter Aethelflaed to Ethelred, their leader and eventual king. The reinvigorated western Mercians undertook a determined resistance to the Danes from about 880 onwards, taking and keeping control of Cheshire against Danish incursions. In 893 the Danes, coming from the east, attacked Chester (described in the chronicles as a ‘deserted city’) and probably over-wintered there. This traumatic event may have awakened the Mercian leadership to the strategic significance of the site, and encouraged a revival of the settlement: archaeological investigation has shown evidence of renewed urban occupation by the end of the 9th century.
In about 902 Irish Norsemen, expelled from Dublin, attacked and began to settle in the Wirral, west Lancashire and north Wales. The Mercians then had to deal with threats on two fronts, and there is evidence to suggest that their rulers, Ethelred and Aethelflaed, came to an accommodation which, by allowing peaceable Scandinavian settlement of the Wirral, freed them to concentrate on the Danish threat further south. The Wirral has a concentration of Scandinavian place-names, some of which include Irish elements, and the name Thingwall refers to a thing, a Scandinavian assembly place. Cheshire’s northern frontier was reinforced by the founding of a series of fortified burhs, intended as bases from which defence could be organised. This policy was established by Alfred in Wessex and borrowed by his daughter, who after Etheired’s death became ‘lady of the Mercians’. In 907 the Roman walls at Chester were refortified—there has been much debate about the precise work undertaken, but it is likely that the eastern and northern walls were reconstructed while the river Dee was the defence for the remainder.
The threat to the northern boundary of Mercia now came from the Danish kingdom based on York, and defensive activity was therefore concentrated on the frontier zone along the Mersey. In 914 a burh was constructed at Eddisbury and in the following year Runcorn was fortified, while Thelwall and Manchester were defended in 919. Thus by 925 a sequence of five burhs guarded the Mersey, part of a wider strategy which also included the fortification of Rhuddlan, Bakewell and possibly Penwortham outside Preston. A contemporary chronicle refers to a raid on Cheshire in 920, reaching as far as Davenport (probably the small hamlet of that name just east of Holmes Chapel) and indicating that these defensive fortifications served a real need, as well as being symbolic of English determination to resist.
At Eddisbury the Mercians reused the prehistoric hillfort to provide a military outpost for Chester. The burh at Runcorn was on Castle Rock, a prominent headland which projected into the Mersey at its narrowest point and was an obvious location for controlling the Mersey valley and the river – it may, indeed, have had a naval role. Whereas Eddisbury is unlikely to have been intended for permanent settlement, at Runcorn a new minster church was founded and the burh had an administrative role, implying that Aethelflaed intended it to be an urban centre—an aim which remained unfulfilled. The burh at Thelwall was probably very small and located next to the river, where there may have been a small creek-harbour. It is possible that it was intended as a substitute for Runcorn: in the medieval period Thelwall was a detached part of Runcorn parish, implying an early link between the two.
Cheshire Under English Rule
Aethelflaed died in 918, and in the following year her brother, Edward the Elder of Wessex, deposed her daughter Aelfwyn and seized the Mercian throne. He began to consolidate his two kingdoms, pushing northwards into Lancashire and Wales, but his seizure of power provoked resistance among the north Mercians, who perhaps feared the loss of their political and administrative identity. In 922-4 there was a major revolt in Cheshire against his rule, and local insurgents allied themselves with the Welsh whom Edward was attacking. The king was campaigning in Cheshire when he died at Farndon in 924. This reduced the political and military crisis, for his son Atheistan had been brought up in Mercia and was more sympathetic to its feelings. His lenient treatment of Cheshire (including a tax burden which was proportionately less than that of most other counties) helped to further its integration with the English state.
The name Cheshire is not recorded—as Legeceasterscir, ‘the shire of the city of the legions’—until 980, but the county was probably created by Edward the Elder in about 920. The Domesday Survey (1086) included south Lancashire with Cheshire for convenience, but the Mersey, the name of which means ‘boundary river’, is known to have divided the kingdoms of Northumbria and Mercia and there is no doubt that this was the real boundary. On the east the ancient frontier along the Pennine crest above Macclesfield was made more real by the presence in Derbyshire of a strong Danish element. It was probably Edward the Elder who ensured that Longdendale was brought within Cheshire, rather than being administered from Derby, as would otherwise have been possible (and as happened a thousand years later, in 1974). The retention of Longdendale in English hands ensured that the strategic route into Yorkshire, a possible line of invasion, was secure:
Comparative peace and security were established by 930, although there were Norse raids from time to time—that in 937 was crushed by the English in one of the most famous battles of the age, at Brunanburgh, which is generally identified as Bromborough. Cheshire experienced a modest economic revival during the half-century after 920. There is abundant evidence for a peaceful Scandinavian presence in Chester, and the trading role of the city must have expanded rapidly in these years. A mint operated there under Aetbelflaed; until 970 this was a particularly productive source of coinage and one of the most important mints in England, a sign of economic progress and stability. This may have been in part the result of political policy: Higham suggests that Aetbelflaed and her successors exacted tributes of silver bullion from kings in north Wales, and that this was brought to Chester and converted into cash.
King Edgar visited Chester after his coronation in 972 and there received the submission of all the kings in north and west Britain. In a famous episode, a powerful symbol of his dominance, be was rowed by these kings along the Dee from Farndon, where there was a royal palace, to Chester itself, and for a brief period the city may have been regarded as a north-western capital. However, after his death in 975 there was renewed political instability, and a fresh outbreak of Danish military activity. In 980 the county suffered severely during Viking raids, and Ethelred II used Chester as a naval base for futile campaigns against the Norse in the Irish Sea. During this period of turmoil and crisis we know little of what was happening in Cheshire, though it was once more a turbulent and troubled frontier region.
Because of the continuing insecurity of the area successive kings had attempted to retain close control over the administration of the county by keeping large estates in royal ownership. In the later 10th century, however, the incorrigible weakness of Ethelred II and his government allowed the delegation of this control to leading nobles. Eadric Streona, the earl of Mercia, governed Cheshire, Shropshire and Staffordshire from his headquarters at Chester, and his ‘separatist’ tendencies in the quasi-principality which he governed were a source of concern to Etheired’s son, Edmund Ironside, who during his brief reign in 1016 attempted to reassert royal control.
The separate identity of the three counties as one unit survived this abortive suppression, and their de facto autonomy is often apparent in the period before the Norman Conquest in 1066. Under Leofric of Mercia (1030-57) Cheshire was ruled by the head of the most powerful noble house in England, a dynasty which—until challenged by the Godwins under Edward the Confessor—conducted its own foreign policy in negotiations with the princes of north Wales. This meant that the king’s direct writ scarcely ran in the county, and at the time of the Conquest/Crusade earl Edwin, Leofric’s grandson, reigned supreme in Cheshire.