The History of Cheshire After 1066

Medieval Cheshire

The battle at Hastings/Senlac Ridge in October 1066 did not secure French-Norman control of England. Active opposition to the new regime continued, and during the following four years William I (first Roman Catholic king) imposed his authority by military power, suppressing uprisings and meting, out savage retribution to those who opposed him. This process culminated in the ‘harrying of the north’, when French-Norman armies marched through Yorkshire and Northumbria during the summer of 1069, laying waste the land as they went, and then crossed the Pennines into Cheshire where a rebellion had broken out in the autumn of that year. The consequences were fearful: a considerable part of the county was devastated during the winter of 1069-70, the uprising was crushed, and the possibility of future unrest was eliminated by the almost complete dispossession of the native landholders (most notably earl Edwin of Mercia) and the redistribution of their properties.

The devastation wrought at this time is reflected in the laconic entries of Domesday Book, compiled 15 years later. For many Cheshire places the word wasta is used, with the sense of ‘abandoned or useless land’. There are difficulties in interpreting the term, because land can be abandoned for a variety of reasons, but most of the Cheshire places so described seem to be those which had been destroyed in 1069 and had not yet recovered. The tax valuations for 1066 and 1086, recorded in Domesday, reinforce this impression; time and again the 1086 figure is only a fraction of that for 20 years earlier, reflecting a drastic decline in value and productivity.

The distribution of the manors which were ‘waste’ suggests that the Norman forces entered Cheshire over Woodhead, and then passed down Longdendale towards Stockport and Macclesfield. Although ‘waste’ manors are found in all parts of the county, the concentration of devastation around Macclesfield is particularly notable, and this district clearly suffered most severely from William’s retribution. In eastern Cheshire the land, the settle­ments and maybe the fabric of society were in a ruined state for decades after 1070, a time of darkness about which we can do little more than speculate. There was an eventual recovery, but since farming on the Pennine slopes was already of marginal viability much permanent damage was probably inflicted in those areas.

At Chester, a vital strategic objective, there is evidence of destruction on a large scale. The city was perhaps besieged, although the chronicles are silent on that point, and the term ‘thoroughly devastated’ is used in Domesday Book. The survey states that whereas before 1066 there were 48 houses which paid tax (implying a population of at least 2,400), by 1107 there were 25 fewer houses, the scale of the loss, making it certain that major catastrophe had taken place. Furthermore, by 1086 the numbers had not grown again, which strongly implies a continuing economic crisis.

Government and Administration

One immediate result of the rising was a total reorganisation of Cheshire’ administration. The devolving of power to a loyal supporter of the crow was to be a well-used French-Norman device for securing and administering difficult frontier areas, and with this in mind William in 1071 conferred the new title of Earl of Chester on one of his chief supporters, his nephew Hugh of Avranches, known to posterity as Hugh Lupus (‘Hugh the Wolf’) or, more disparagingly, Hugh the Fat. This formidable man was granted vast estate in Cheshire—at Domesday the crown had no land under its direct control anywhere in the county, and all the estates which might otherwise have belonged to the king were held instead by the earl. This pattern, though, wasp inherited from before 1066, when earl Edwin of Mercia was by far the greatest landowner and the king had no Cheshire estates. William was not, of course, bound in any way by pre-Conquest practices or systems of government, but the powerful existing tradition must have been an advantage

Hugh and his successors, by virtue of their wealth, close relationship to the royal family, and strong personalities, were major figures in the politics of early medieval England—none of these attributes alone made this inevitable, but in combination they had very considerable force. Some historians have argued that the grant to Hugh was accompanied by the crea­tion of a formally distinctive system of government for Cheshire, distin­guishing it from the rest of the country. This claim is no longer accepted, but the earls unquestionably wielded enormous power and this seems to have led to a gradual increase in the specific privileges of the county which they ruled.

Cheshire’s special status in the later medieval period was thus derived from the power of the earldom and its relationship to the crown, not from any favour shown to Cheshire for its own sake. Local structures of government did gradually evolve, though in fact much of Cheshire’s administration: was identical to that of other counties. However, the earldom itself exercised powers which would in other counties have been royal—local courts were headed by the earl’s justicular, while the earl’s chancery and exchequer at Chester castle secured local powers of taxation and exemption from certain monetary and military obligations. By 1195 it was being argued that Cheshire itself had special rights setting it apart from the rest of the country, and in 1215 this seemed to be exemplified when its baronial lords secured a separate version of the Magna Carta from the earl, not from the king.

In 1237, however, the last French-Norman earl died without male heirs, and Henry III intervened to take control of the immensely powerful earldom and its assets. After a lengthy court case it was determined that the heirs in the female line had no claim and in 1241 the chief heir, William de Forz, was compelled to surrender the title of earl of Chester to the king. Royal appointees took over the local administration—in particular, the king’s judges began to sit in Cheshire courts—and although the structure of admin­istration was largely unaltered its circumstances were greatly different. In 1253 the entire county was granted to the king’s heir on the condition that it remained part of the crown’s estate, and in 1256 Prince Edward, as earl of Chester, visited the city. From this time onwards the title has always been held by the eldest son of the sovereign.

The administrative consequence of these manoeuvrings is that in 1247 the separate government of Cheshire was confirmed, perpetuating the system which had been inherited from the French-Norman earls and, more remotely, their Saxon predecessors. Cheshire had its own courts, own procedures and officers for accounting, and own ‘civil service’, and during the rest of the Middle Ages royal business was usually exercised in the name of the earl of Chester. Cheshire was eventually granted the status of county palatine, a term which first appears in the 1290s but was not officially used until a century later, finally giving formal recognition to its separateness.

This special status did not mean that Cheshire was notably peaceful in the Middle Ages, for the population had strong grievances regardless of-­perhaps even because of—the system of government. In the years around 1350 there was widespread discontent resulting from the excessively high taxes levied by the administration of the Black Prince, the earl of Chester, a problem which was exacerbated by the gross misuse of patronage and the levying of fines in order to raise revenue. Discontent continued: in 1400 this was the only county which offered serious resistance to the new regime of Henry IV, and in 1403 a large group of gentry from the north-east of the county were involved in Hotspur’s rebellion which ended in defeat at Shrewsbury. Cheshire’s loyalty was certainly not guaranteed.


Castles in medieval Cheshire
Castles in medieval Cheshire

After the occupation of Chester in 1070 William I built a motte and bailey castle—an earth mound topped by a timber palisade and tower—to command the city. It stood on the rock outcrop above the Dee, outside the old Roman fortress, and at the beginning of the 12th century was reconstructed in stone to serve as the major royal stronghold in the region. Further modifications were made during the 13th century, including the addition of royal apartments for Edward I and his queen, who stayed there when the Welsh wars brought them to the area. The Roman and Saxon walls north and east of the city were reconstructed in the 12th century, and in the 1120s a new southern stretch was built in conjunction with the castle. The two-mile circuit, completed by the western wall at the end of the century, was guarded by 10 towers and there were substantial defended gates as well as minor passageways which could be blocked if the need arose.

Elsewhere in Cheshire other castles were constructed in the 150 years after the Conquest/Crusade. They, like Chester castle, usually served a dual purpose they had a military and strategic role, but their place as the headquarters of local administration and of the management of landed estates was of: equal, and with time greater, importance. The rebellion of 1069 was shortlived, and once the county was pacified only a limited military presence was needed, so many castles were small and temporary. There was a series of simple motte and bailey sites in the west of the county, along the Dee valley where the threat from Wales was a serious problem at first, but the numbers are far fewer than in other counties on both sides of the Welsh border, primarily because in the 12th and early 13th centuries the English frontier still lay further west within what is now Wales. Surviving examples of motte and bailey castles include those at Malpas and Aldford, the latter, as its name suggests, guarding an old fording point on the Dee.

A few other castles with special strategic value were rebuilt in stone. Those at Halton and Frodsham, perched on prominent hills above the. Mersey lowlands, overlooked the ancient fords at Runcorn and Hale and commanded the estuary and the lowland routes along it. A substantial, stone castle was built before 1093 at Shotwick, then on the Dee estuary but now well inland, protecting a quay which was an embarkation point for Ireland and commanding a ford across the Dee sands. Excavations have shown that it had several circular towers and a square keep, and it must have been a formidable fortress, especially when viewed from the water. Perhaps the best known Cheshire castle is Beeston, on its huge crag rearing dramatically above the plain. It was a latecomer, constructed in 1220 by Earl Ranuif III possibly to protect the route through the mid-Cheshire ridge which is now followed by the canal and railway, but more probably as a very visible demonstration of power.

The local administration of the medieval county was based on the system of hundreds and lordships, as it was in most of England. At Domesday Cheshire was divided into 10 hundreds, together with two hundreds, Atiscros and Exestan, which lay west of the later boundary in what, eventually became Flintshire and Denbighshire. The hundreds were already ancient units at the time of the Conquest/Crusade, and recent research has emphasised how they related to very early estates and leading churches of the first phase of Mercian Christianity.

Higham has shown that eight of the 10 hundreds in 1086 were based on pairings of the great parishes of the early minster churches, and that in many instances there is evidence of a royal grant of land to the relevant churches. This implies that the hundreds were the product of a degree of coherent planning long before the Conquest/Crusade, and as is the case elsewhere there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that some may conform with Romano-British land divisions. The inherited system was remodelled after the Conquest/Crusade, so that in the later Middle Ages the number of Cheshire hundreds was reduced to eight, their detailed boundaries were reorganised, and some of the names were altered, but the basic pattern was retained until the 19th century.

In 1182 the lands between the Ribble and the Mersey had become part of the new county of Lancashire, fixing Cheshire’s northern border, but the frontier with Wales was less easy to define. Prolonged English efforts to subdue north Wales culminated in the Statute of Rhuddlan in 1284, by which the area was formally brought under English control and the administrative system of north Wales was anglicised. The county of Flintshire was established, and four lordships created in what was later to be Denbighshire, pushing the English frontier westwards to the Clwyd and reducing the area of Cheshire by the transfer of most of Atiscros and Exest hundreds. Flintshire also took in the southern portion of the Cheshire hundred of Dudestan or Broxton, to form the detached division known Maelor Saesneg (‘Saxon’) east of Wrexham. The boundaries of Cheshire thus defined lasted until the 20th century.

The Medieval Church

Cheshire was originally part of the diocese of Lichfield, which covered roughly the same area as pre-850 Mercia. However in 1075 Peter, the first French-Norman bishop, moved the diocesan seat to Chester and designated as its cathedral the collegiate church of St John, just outside the walls. Chester thus became a cathedral city, and the next two decades saw the rebuilding of the church in keeping with its new status. Work was still unfinished when in 1102 bishop Robert de Limesey decided to move the see again, this time to Coventry. Occasional political turbulence in Cheshire and, more seriously, the comparative remoteness of Chester were factors which probably encouraged the decision. The first diocese of Chester thus lasted on 27 years, and thereafter Cheshire was part of the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, whose bishops retained the courtesy title of ‘bishop of Chester’. They had a palace in the city, where in 1086 the bishop owned 56 houses and were major landowners elsewhere in the county throughout the Middle Ages. After 1315 a series of agreements produced a practical working arrangement whereby the archdeaconry of Chester, which encompassed Cheshire and south Lancashire, acquired considerable administrative independence because of the need to devolve the work of the sprawling diocese.

The Cheshire Domesday records 28 places with a church or priest, together with St Werburgh, St John and three other churches in Chester itself, but this was not a complete picture. Churches at Macclesfield, Prestbury, Shotwick and Stoke had apparently been destroyed during the Conqueror’s/Crusader harrying of the county, and at Cheadle, Over and elsewhere pre-Norman crosses are found in churches not recorded at Domesday—indicating that there were other churches beside those listed. Using this evidence it appears that at the time of the Conquest there we probably 45-50 churches in Cheshire After 1066 many new ones were founded by local lords, as at Nantwich, Bruera, Bromborough, Shocklach, Coddington, and Christleton, and this process increased the overall numbers considerably. By 1200 there were at least 65 churches and chapels in Cheshire, and a survey of 1541 listed 94.

The medieval parish structure showed important regional differences. In west Cheshire most parishes were small, many embracing only a single community, but in the east and south the medieval parishes were often very large—Great Budworth parish in­cluded 35 and Prestbury 32 town­ships. This variation may reflect the strong influence of the Celtic church in west Cheshire, where in 1086 there were small semi-monastic groups of priests serving individual communi­ties, but differing densities of popu­lation and wealth may also have been significant—the west was more pros­perous and more settled. Many of the larger Cheshire livings were com­paratively wealthy, so that parochial incumbents were not impoverished, but the uneven distribution of parish churches meant that there were also numerous ‘unbeneficed priests’ and chapel clergy—over 180 of them in 1379—who were often desperately  poor. The medieval church in Cheshire therefore had serious problems administration and quality.

The parishes of medieval Cheshire
The parishes of medieval Cheshire

There were few religious houses in Cheshire, perhaps because the county had no developed pre-Conquest monastic tradition but more significantly because, in the earls of Chester, it had a powerful ruling family which was by contemporary standards remarkably uninterested in sponsoring monastic foundations. Earl Hugh I’s re-endowment of St Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester seems largely to have exhausted the spiritual resources of his family, and most other monasteries in medieval Cheshire were therefore founded by lesser families, and were correspondingly small. None was in the top rank of income and endowed wealth, and none was noted for its learning. St Werburgh’s and Combermere had sizeable estates spread throughout Cheshire, but the others had comparatively small amounts of property, usually in their own localities. Some of the smallest were very short-lived, or moved quickly to better sites, and during the 14th and 15th centuries others came under the enforced ‘protection’ of the Crown in periods of financial and administrative chaos. With the exception of Norton Abbey there is little evidence of marked support for individual houses as they met their fate in the late 1530s.

St Werburgh’s, a late 7th-century collegiate church, was reborn in 1092 when Earl Hugh I transformed it into a Benedictine abbey endowed with extensive lands. Hugh bequeathed it major estates in the Chester area, and other members of his family continued to give property and encouraged their retainers to do the same. This wealth made possible the reconstruc­tion of the church in the 12th century and again in the 1270s and 1280s. St Werburgh’s was involved in the wool industry and the maritime trade with Ireland, and operated lucrative fisheries on the Dee. A third phase of rebuilding, started in the late 1480s using timber from Delamere Forest, was still under way in the 1520s, but the abbey was forced to surrender to the king in January 1540 when, with 28 monks and an income of almost £1100, it was by far the largest and wealthiest house in the county.

The Benedictine nunnery of St Mary, Chester, founded between 1150 and 1185 by Earl Ranuif II, enjoyed the support of prosperous local families whose daughters had entered the house. This could not prevent a major financial crisis in the mid-13th century, when the nuns told Queen Eleanor that they had to beg for food, and its problems were exacerbated by a lengthy dispute with the city authorities over land. Nevertheless, the wills of Chester citizens even after 1500 include many references to the nunnery, suggesting that it still enjoyed local favour, and the same applies to the Franciscan and Dominican friaries. These were both founded in the early 13th century in Watergate, the very busy main street leading from the city centre to the port: like all friaries they relied originally upon alms from passers-by, and so needed such potentially lucrative sites.

Other houses were involved in trade and commerce. The small priory at Birkenhead operated the ferry across the Mersey, while Combermere abbey, a Savignac house founded by Hugh Malbank of Nantwicb in 1133, had endowments which included salt-works in the town. Combermere also had important sheep-farming and wool interests, but it was ruined in the 13th and 14th centuries by bitter disputes with other houses and by gross mismanagement of its finances, which led to its bankruptcy in the 1270s and again in 1410; in 1414 the abbot was accused of counterfeiting.

Religious houses in medieval Cheshire
Religious houses in medieval Cheshire

Norton Priory, founded by William FitzNeal, constable of Chester and baron of Halton, moved to its eventual site in 1134. It had generous endowments of lands, saltworks and local churches, although there were problems with the constant flooding of riverside properties, and in 1391 the house was sufficiently influential to be raised in status from priory to abbey. Norton was well administered, avoiding many of the irregularities
31 Chester Cathedral, of other local houses, and in October 1536 was the only Cheshire monastery to resist the dissolution. The abbot and brethren and many servants drawn from the south-east and tenants attacked the king’s commissioners, and only the personal intervention of local landowners spared the abbot from execution.

Vale Royal Abbey was not founded until 1270, when the future Edward I redeemed a vow made seven years earlier while praying for salvation during a storm at sea. This was to be an abbey of glittering magnificence, the largest Cistercian house in England, and in 1277 the king and queen personally laid a foundation stone. In 1281 the community moved to temporary buildings from its interim home at Darnhall, and in 1283 the site was consecrated during a second royal visit, but the scale of the plan, was its undoing. Despite involvement in the wool and wine trades and other commercial enterprises, the community could not finish its great church, and although in 1353 the Black Prince revived the scheme most of the nave blew down in a gale in 1360—a sorry fate for what should have been one of the greatest monasteries in all the world. There­after Vale Royal was a miserable spectacle, financially precarious, riven by internal bickering, and notable for deplorable conduct—in 1433 the ab­bot was accused of rape and in 1437 he was murdered by a large band of armed men at Over.

Perhaps the most useful religious foundations were the hospitals. St Giles’ at Broughton, for example, was founded as a leper institution before 1180, evolved into almshouses for the poor, and because of its good work was spared the Dissolution. In 1606 it had seven inmates, but the buildings were destroyed in the Civil War and the site was acquired by the city of Chester. St John’s hospital, Chester, was also demolished in the Civil War, but afterwards was rebuilt and survives today as almshouses. Elsewhere in the county there were several leper hospitals which eventually became places for the support of the poor, infirm, elderly or otherwise deserving, such as the hospital at Denhall, near Burton in Wirral, which helped shipwrecked mariners and poor travellers from Ireland.

Cheshire’s monasteries have left few remains, with the exception of St Werburgh’s, which is now the cathedral of Chester, and the refectory and undercroft at Birkenhead. The ruins and foundations of Norton priory were the subject of a very detailed and important programme of archaeo­logical excavation, and are now open to the public, while at Combermere and Vale Royal the churches were destroyed but some of the monastic buildings were incorporated in the great mansion houses of the lay owners who acquired the properties after the Dissolution.

Agriculture, Forests and Rural Society

Until recently medieval Cheshire was regarded as poor and backward, with an underdeveloped agricultural system in which arable farming played little part because high rainfall made cereal crops unproductive. This dismal picture is now regarded as seriously flawed; better use of documentary sources and more thorough field investigation show that arable, far from being a minor feature, was actually of major significance. Its physical legacy, the characteristic ‘ridge and furrow’ which results from ploughing in strips, is extensive in central Cheshire and was undoubtedly more widespread in the past—much has been destroyed by deep ploughing since 1945.

Ridge and furrow resulted from the ‘open field’ system, whereby individuals held strips of land within larger unenclosed arable areas which were communally managed. Most Cheshire townships probably had such fields until the later Middle Ages—the system is indicated by documentary evidence from some 60 per cent of townships, and it has been said that ‘hardly a township could be found which could not show evidence of open field arable agriculture’. However, in many townships the process of enclosure, whereby these fields were hedged or fenced and taken out of communal management, was already well advanced by 1500. In Cheshire the classic three-field system with regular rotation, characteristic of the Midlands, did not operate. Open fields here were often comparatively small, and many places had more than three fields; there was no uniformity.

Arable farming was essential in all medieval communities because each had to grow its foodstuffs—there was no longer-distance trade in grain, and agricultural specialisation did not emerge until much later. In Cheshire the predominant cereal crops were probably oats and barley, which can. tolerate damper and cooler conditions and have no difficulty in thriving on the fertile plain, and the only areas of the county without significant arable were the Pennine uplands, the forest areas between Frodsham and Winsford, and the mosslands along the upper Mersey valley.

The Domesday Survey hints that agriculture was then comparatively poorly developed—if measures such as the density of plough teams are used —and indicates a marked regional contrast between the developed west and the more thinly-settled east, but by the 13th century this was changing. The population of Cheshire and of England grew rapidly during the 12th. and 13th centuries, subjecting the existing farmland to severe strain because it had to support many more people. Additional areas therefore had to brought into cultivation (generally for arable) by the clearance of wood land and ploughing-up of rough grazing land.

This conversion to arable is extensively documented in Cheshire as other northern counties, and is identifiable from place-names and written sources. Examples are numerous. In Wirral over 1,000 acres of ‘ne ploughings’ were listed in a 1303 survey, while in Little Sutton the tenants of the abbot of Chester ploughed up 95 acres in 1286 and dug 42 marlpits to provide top-dressing for the new lands. The extent of the change was remarkable: when Rudheath was investigated in 1347-8, to assess the legality of ‘squatter’ encroachments, 2,723 acres were found to have been carved out of the waste for ploughland, at least 1,555 acres before 1300. In Macclesfield forest virtually all the tenancies recorded in the early 14th century in places such as Whaley, Pott Shrigley and Disley were of holdings assarted (cleared from waste) since the Conquest, mostly between 1240 and 1310. Enclosures on this scale were undertaken with the agreement of or by the edict of, the lord: for example, in 1310 the abbot of Chester and Matthew de Aipraham agreed to allow the enclosure of the heath in Tilston Fearnall and Alpraham, except for a strip along the border marking the division between their respective manors.

So great was the pressure on land that by the early 14th century unsuitable terrain was being ploughed, as at Frodsham where the coastal marshes were brought into use. This impressive transformation of the landscape involved a major extension of the frontiers of agricultural exploitation, using up most of the remaining rough grazing lands and waste so that in the first years of the 14th century Cheshire probably had more arable land than at any time before or since. In 1298 Burton in Wirral had 760 acres of arable, 300 acres more than in 1813, and just over half the area of the manor was under the plough.

By the 1330s, though, economic buoyancy and population growth had ended, and a series of bad harvests and epidemics halted the process of agricultural colonisation. This reversal was enormously accelerated by the Black Death, which swept with ferocity through Cheshire after 1349; in Macclesfield about half the tenants of the earl’s estates died during the plague. The result of the catastrophic fall in population was that large areas of arable were abandoned—there was nobody to till them and no­body to consume the crops. Throughout Cheshire vacant tenancies were legion, and those tenants who remained could not always cultivate their lands. Thus in 1372 the tenancies of eight properties in Macclesfield were confiscated because the land had been out of use for up to twelve years.

After 1348 some small farming settlements were abandoned or depopulated, particularly on marginal lands where the economics of exploitation were always doubtful. In 1360 at Aston juxta Mondrum, on the heavy clays and infertile sands of south Cheshire, arable land was described as ‘unlettable’ and was turned over to pasture. When six arable fields at Oulton were valued in 1376 their only worth was said to be for ‘herbage’ for animals, and at Frodsham over one third of the arable on the lord’s estate was converted to pasture between 1350 and 1370. Research in the Wirral suggests that some hamlets shrank in the later medieval period—Poulton Lancelyn, Barnston, Woodchurch and Moreton are examples. At Meols coastal erosion and blowing sand may well have exacerbated a wider economic decline.

In this wholesale conversion from arable to pasture, following the popu­lation decline of the 1350s and 1360s, we may see the earliest signs of Cheshire’s long-term move towards dairying. Arabic remained very signifi­cant but there are indications that on some estates dairying for profit was being introduced by the late 14th century. For example, in Macclesfield Forest specialised vaccaries, or cattle-ranches, were operating by the 1360s. One important purpose of these was the rearing of cattle for sale, but from 1372 onwards cheese was being produced on a commercial basis—in other words, dairying was expanding to become a regular source of income. There was always cheese in Cheshire, but perhaps Cheshire cheese was a 14th-century invention?

Many of the county’s medieval manor houses were reconstructed in the 16th and 17th centuries, the time which architectural historians call ‘The Great Rebuilding’, but a considerable number survive, often with the medieval work concealed by more recent additions. Perhaps the most com­plete example of a medieval Cheshire manor house is the 14th-century Baguley Hall, today incongruously situated in the middle of Wythens-Hawe. At Adlington Hall the later frontage conceals a magnificent late medieval great hall, built by Thomas and Catherine Legh in 1505 Gawsworth, in its exquisite setting includes substantial medieval fabric and the nearby Old Rectory is a fine example of a late medieval hall house Chorley Hall, on the outskirts of Alderley Edge, is probably the oldest inhabited house in Cheshire, but in this case the older portion is a solidly-built stone building of about 1330, approached by a bridge across the moat, and it is the adjoining Elizabethan wing which is heavily half-timbered.

Archaeological and documentary evidence give at least an impression of other houses. None was more remarkable than Belgrave, just outside Chester, where after 1290 Richard Lenginour, one of the supervisors of Edward I’s castle-building programme, built a country retreat and laid out a fascinating formal garden within a double moat, its plan based on that of Flint castle. This was an exceptional property, but moated sites were common in medieval Cheshire, although their distribution was uneven since some soils and sites were unsuitable: the pattern noticed elsewhere whereby moats are concentrated on heavy clay soils, is observable in Cheshire. Surveys of north-east Cheshire show that over 60 per cent of moated sites are less than 250 feet above sea level, though that at Ridge Hall Farm in Sutton, at 750 feet, is one of the highest recorded in Britain.

Most moats were dug in the late 13th and early 14th centuries, and therein lies a main reason for their construction. Although defence was consideration, especially at times of lawlessness, status was of much greater importance. Moats were a demonstration of social elevation and they were most popular in the period when there was greatest competition for land financial gain and rank. In the Macclesfield-Stockport area the Legh family by 1580 a clan with no fewer than nine branches (‘as many Leghs as fleas’ as an uncomplimentary local jingle put it), was in the late 13th century the most active of all local moat-builders, when it was successfully makinig strenuous efforts to establish itself socially, politically and territorially.

Climbing the social ladder was not confined to would-be gentry. Studies of Frodsham in the 14th century, that same period of growth and collapse highlighted the opportunities which existed for the advancement of the lower orders. Bond tenants, who had the use of land together with a money income and other payments in kind because they worked on the lord’s estate, were in a favoured position. Some were able to hold more than one job and thereby accumulate cash to invest in land. Thus Elias of Frodsham was a miller and a carter, and had two sons who were shepherds. The family bought or leased grazing and other assets and so enriched itself, and after the Black Death, when there was plenty of spare land going cheap, they bought property. By the 1360s they had become burgesses of the small borough of Frodsham. It was a time of social mobility and a fluid land market, and the more opportunistic could capitalise on these conditions.

A major component of Cheshire’s medieval landscape was the forest, which in medieval terminology did not mean ‘woodland’ but was a legal term for areas outside the usual system of law and subject to the king’s personal authority, with the object of safeguarding game for hunting. In Cheshire there were three—Delamere, Macclesfield and Wirral—but they were under the authority not of the king but of the earls of Chester. At their maximum extent they covered about 40 per cent of the county.

Delamere was divided into two parts—the forests of Mara (from the Mersey south to Tarporley and Vale Royal) and Mondrem, extending thence to Nantwich and recalled in the name Aston juxta Mondrum; its eastern boundary was the Weaver, its western the Gowy. Wirral Forest, the last to be created (almost certainly in the 1120s) included the whole peninsula. Macclesfield Forest occupied the Pennine hill slopes west of the town, from Marple southwards to Bosley. Place-names in this area, such as Wolf’s Crag, Cat’s Tor and Wildboarclough, give a vivid impression of the wildlife which might have been expected in the early medieval period.

Within these bounds all land was subject to forest law, the harsh penal code by which the protection of the game was enforced. The forests were administered by the earl’s officials, overseen by the justiciar at Chester. Many prosecutions related to minor infringement of forest laws, but special punishment was directed towards any form of encroachment—erection of buildings, making hedges and fences, or bringing forest land into cultiva­tion—which interfered with the freedom of movement of the deer. Each forest had its master-forester or warden, a hereditary office. Thus the Grosvenors, of later fame and wealth, were foresters of Mara from the mid-12tb century, while the Davenports held that post for Macclesfield, but these were sinecures—the hard work was undertaken by minor officials.

Within the bounds of each forest, heathland and grassland were at least as important as woods and there were extensive areas of fields, pastures, villages and farms. The idea that the forest areas were deliberately depopu­lated is not tenable. In Wirral, for example, there is abundant documentary evidence for a continued high density of settlement and intensive arable agriculture, and the forest status of much of this area was largely nominal: Wirral was disforested in 1384. The wooded forest of Macclesfield today, and some parts of Delamere, are the product of planting since the 18th century. The only significant areas of true ancient woodland in Cheshire are the thick tangled woods which cling to steep valley slopes in areas such as Wincle and perhaps even along some stretches of the Bollin near Manchester airport. Intensive agriculture over the centuries has removed all the rest.

By the mid-13th century royal enthusiasm for forests was diminishing. Hunting was becoming less significant, and their other natural resources, correspondingly more so. They were increasingly regarded not as pleasure grounds but as an economic asset to be exploited and in Cheshire, during the 1350s and ’60s when the Black Prince was the absentee lord, hefty fines were levied upon those who broke the forest laws or used the land for purposes such as peat-cutting, timber-gathering or grazing animals. The­ purpose of this exercise was not to protect the forest but to raise revenue from fines. Indeed, encroachments and the conversion of land to agricultural use had long been unofficially tolerated provided that a suitable ‘fine’ was paid for offence.

Markets, Boroughs and Towns

Despite the lack of specific documentary evidence we can be confident that markets existed in Chester, and in other centres such as Middlewich and Nantwich, before the Conquest. The element port in the name Stockport is an Anglo-Saxon word for ‘market’, implying a pre-Conquest market even though the first documentary record here does not appear until the-. 13th century. In the two centuries before 1350 a large number of new markets were authorised by charter and the density of markets• increased considerably, although it is now recognised that many charters were granted to markets which already existed—they gave legal status to an informal, or customary, arrangement. Macclesfield, for example, received: formal market rights in 1261 but undoubtedly had an informal market long before that date.

Markets of medieval Cheshire
Markets of medieval Cheshire

Most such charters represented an attempt by the manorial lord to exploit the commercial opportunities which markets offered, and in the golden years of the 13th and early 14th centuries, when the economic and population growth were rapid, this was a very tempting prospect. Therefore many charters date from this period—Aldford (c.1253), Over (1280), Congleton (1272) and Alderley (1253) are just some of the Cheshire examples. Nevertheless, some were not the lucrative ventures which their sponsors anticipated. Existing large markets proved too strong, and saw off would-be competitors—Aldford and Codding­ton markets failed because they were too close to the commercial magnet of Chester. Others were founded too late, for after 1350 the economy was collapsing and the population was drastically reduced so that there was far less trade to be shared out. The latecomers and the little village markets could not compete. The market at Brereton, chartered in 1368, was a total failure, while that at Burton in Wirral, authorised in 1299, had dwindled to nothing a century later.

The rationalisation of markets after 1350 thus left only the strong—those which served a wide area and preferably an urban population, were well-established, and had good road access. Twenty-three markets are definitely known from medieval Cheshire, and there were probably half a dozen other places—such as Tintwistle and Lymm—which had infor­mal markets of which no record survives, giving an overall figure of about thirty. By 1540 this number had been reduced by about half. During the second half of the 16th century, as the pace of economic activity quickened, there were several attempts to establish new markets. Sandbach, which had an informal medieval market, received a charter in 1578 and Tarvin one sometime in the reign of Elizabeth I. The former was successful, the latter—too close to Chester—was not. Few would want to patronise the small village market when the excitement of the town was only a few miles further on; by the 18th century Tarvin market was but a memory.

Boroughs of medieval Cheshire
Boroughs of medieval Cheshire

On a few specified days each year most market centres held fairs, which were vital to longer-distance trading since many specialised in particular commodities. Cattle fairs and horse fairs were central to the agricultural calendar and also served a local need, attracting traders from further afield and acting as major social occasions. Sometimes fairs were held in place which did not have markets, and important crossroads were favoured locations. Four Lane Ends, just south of Tarporley, the junction of the two great roads of medieval Cheshire (from Warrington to Whitchurch and from Chester to Lichfield) was the site of cattle and corn fairs which were among the busiest in the North West.

There were towns in Cheshire before the Conquest—Chester and the three wiches— but they became more numerous as the county shared in a surging national enthusiasm for urbanism between 1100 and 1350. As with markets, the granting of charters is one indication of town development and here, too, the desire of manorial lords to exploit commercial potential was a prime motive. Most Cheshire towns grew from existing village which gradually acquired urban attributes and were then formally recognised by the granting of borough charters, but some were ‘planted’—that is, they were new towns laid out on virgin sites as speculative developments. Knutsford is probably one such venture, established in the 1290s with one long main street, King Street, running along the slope above the mere. It had a market place, now largely built over, but no parish church for it was in the huge parish of Rostherne. It has been suggested that the regular street pattern in the old centre of Altrincham, around the market place, may represent a medieval new town development, laid out after the granting of the market charter in 1290.

Some new towns failed. At Tintwistle, on the important route from Manchester and Cheshire over Woodhead to Yorkshire, a borough was established before 1350—its charter is lost and the precise date is un­known. There must have been high hopes for its success, because of the passing trade, but the area was in fact unpromising territory—moorland and a thinly-populated valley did not provide the important local business and there was strong competition from the market at Glossop. In 1292 a borough at Knutsford Booths, in the township of Toft, was mentioned—apparently an abortive attempt by a different lord to found a rival to Knutsford itself. A similar pairing of boroughs can be seen at Over, an old parish centre which had a market and borough charter from 1280, and Murifeld, a lost place in the same township which, according to a docu­ment of 1330, was separately chartered. In fact neither prospered, because nearby Middlewich was far more attractive for commerce. A total of 18 chartered boroughs can be identified from medieval Cheshire. Of these six failed to become urban centres, but the others flourished and prospered to varying degrees.

Medieval Chester
Medieval Chester

Chester was the largest town in the North West, though small by national standards. It enjoyed a period of considerable prosperity in the 12th and 13th centuries, and its population—probably about 1,500 in 1086—grew rapidly, perhaps doubling in the period 1150 to 1350. The city benefited from the military activity during the Welsh wars and for a time its administrative and strategic significance gave it a strong economic base. However, the gradual English pacification of North Wales and the catastrophe of the Black Death brought economic crisis. By 1400 the population may have fallen back almost to the level of 1086, and for some decades its commercial life was in decline. In the late 15th cen­tury access to the port of Chester was becoming more difficult, and outports further down the estuary were beginning to develop. Despite all these problems, however, the city continued to be the commercial, political, ecclesiastical and social focus of Cheshire and the Welsh borderlands.

Much of the north-eastern quadrant of medieval Chester was occupied by the precincts of St Werburgh’s abbey, and other religious houses, such as the friaries in Watergate Street, also had extensive sites. As with other medieval cities, there was a good deal of open land within the walls. The commercial centre was around the east gate, and just outside the south gate was the bridge over the Dee, on the site of its Roman predecessor. It incorporated the town mill, of which traces can still be seen: a head of water for the mill leat was provided by the great weir across the river. Medieval Chester had eight parish churches, together with the great abbey, a nunnery, three friaries and three religious hospitals.

Perhaps its most celebrated feature, though, was the famous Rows, the first-floor galleries which provide continuous upper-level walkways accessible by steps. The Rows have been extensively investigated by historians and archaeologists in recent years, and it is now thought that the ground-floor shops are actually undercrofts, which because of the hard bedrock and the huge quantities of Roman debris behind the street frontage were only partly excavated below ground level. The galleries—which are found in many medieval buildings—were then gradually linked together at first-floor level to make pedestrian walkways. The present external appearance is largely Victorian, but the facades conceal numerous medieval structures and there is no doubt that they are at least 700 years old in origin. In 1278 much of Chester was destroyed in a great fire and this, together with the economic prosperity of the late 13th-century city, has been suggested as a possible stimulus to their development. The reasons for their survival are still uncertain, but after the late 14th century Chester declined, and a stagnant commercial life gave little incentive to rebuilding in the 15th and 16th centuries. When vigour returned, in the late 16th century, the system of ownership and access had become fossilised and could not be altered.

Elsewhere towns were much smaller, but they can be identified by characteristics which set them apart from rural communities. These included burgage tenure, the privileged form of landholding found in chartered communities, which generally gave rise to a distinctive pattern of long narrow burgage plots stretching back from the main streets. At the time of the Domesday Survey, for example, Congleton was no more than a village but by 1350 it may have had about 500 people. It thus ranked, with places such as Malpas and Sandbach, at the bottom of the urban hierarchy, but it had a mayor and burgesses and in 1311 eighty burgage plots were recorded. There was a market and fairs, a watermill, a manor court­house and moot hail, and two chapels (but no church, since Congleton was in Astbury parish).

In Macclesfield the prosperity of the late medieval town, derived from its nascent cloth and button industries as well as from its role as the main market centre of east Cheshire, was reflected in the building of substantial urban properties by wealthy gentry and burgesses—on the market place, for example, there were the ‘garrets’, a row of purpose-built shops with rooms above, probably built in the very early 16th century. At Stockport before the mid- lith century there was a proto-urban community, with an ancient parish church and a very early market, near the important ford where the Roman road south-east from Manchester crossed the Mersey. In 1260 the small town was made a borough and given formal market rights by charter and, helped by a very favourable site and the protection although the town was given by its influential lords, the de Warren family, it prospered and already a major industrial flourished.

Stockport in 1824
Stockport in 1824

Economy and Industry

The general increase in the levels of economic activity in the early Middle Ages is clear—the expansion brought in its train new towns and new markets down to the ancient bridge and was accompanied by a rapid population increase. The Black Death across the Mersey. and the consequent economic and demographic collapse put an end to this Wellington Road, the modern A6, which by- prosperity, and for some decades Cheshire, like other counties, was in the passed the old town to the doldrums. By the mid-15th century some revival was apparent, although west, was being laid out at Cheshire towns may have shared in the general urban malaise which some the time of the survey, authorities identify.

The foundation of the medieval county economy was of course agri­culture but there were some industries, and commerce and trading had an increasing role, especially in the towns. Cloth manufacturing was of considerable importance, although it never achieved a wide reputation. Linen cloths were produced extensively in the western half of the county, where the damp lowlands along the Dee valley and around Chester were suitable for the growing of flax. The Malpas area was noted as a centre for this trade in the 1360s and 1370s, and other sources indicate that the output was sufficient to support specialised cloth merchants in that town and elsewhere: a 1371 inventory includes Welsh woollen cloth and local linen among the goods of a Malpas mercer.

In the eastern half of the county, and also in the Halton area, woollen cloth was manufactured, based on the sheep which grazed the Pennine slopes and the uplands around Frodsham and Halton. From at least the late 12th century Congleton had a fulling mill for the preparation of woollen cloth, and similar enterprises were found in other east Cheshire communities. By the 16th century the Macclesfield fairs were well-known for their cloth trading, but much of the cloth produced in medieval Cheshire—whether linen or woollen—supplied local needs, and the great export trade which characterised, for example, the Cotswolds and East Anglia never developed here.

The mineral resources of the county were also exploited, though also on a comparatively small scale with the inevitable exception of salt. There were ironworkings in the Macclesfield area by the middle of the 14th century, using the thin beds of ironstone which occur among the Coal Measures of the Pennines. In the years before the Black Death this had become a locally-important trade, and in 1353 it was claimed that 27 bloomeries, or smelting hearths, were operating. The east Cheshire coalfield, too, was probably being exploited by this period, but it is unclear whether the copper deposits at Alderley Edge were worked in the Middle Ages.

The saltworkings of central Cheshire were of special importance, and this is reflected in the remarkably detailed account of the industry and its customs which is given in the Domesday Survey. All salt production until the late 17th century was by evaporation from naturally-occurring brine, and so the location of the industry was still determined by the natural brine springs. At Nantwich in 1066 the king and the earl of Mercia shared the income from a saltpit and eight saltbouses (where the boiling took  place) in the ratio of 2:1, but many other salthouses were held by the earl and other local landowners. By contemporary standards this was a very large industry.

The Domesday Survey lists the detailed conditions for the payments of dues at each place, including the toll of ‘boilings’—a measure of weight, with 15 boilings to a pack‑load. There were also regulations governing the transport of salt: anybody who overloaded a cart so that the axle broke, within one league of a ‘wich’, was fined two shillings, and ‘anyone who so overloaded a horse that he broke its back’ paid the same, an interesting reflection upon the road haulage industry of the 11th century. These regulations were clearly well-established and of considerable antiquity when they were written down in 1086, and it is also apparent that there was a very distinctive administrative organisation controlling the working of salt.

All the evidence points to a flourishing industry in the later Saxon period, one that explains the known high status and urban character of the three wiches in this period. The prosperity of the three towns continued to be related directly to that of the salt industry. Their growth from the 16th century onwards is attested by abundant evidence, but in the 15th century there were acute difficulties. Cheap sea-salt, from the Atlantic coast of Gascony and Aquitaine was being shipped to England and although of poor quality it retailed at half the price of Cheshire salt. The saltpans of the Fylde coast in Lancashire also provided competition, and these threats to the market of the Cheshire springs were reflected in the declining rental value of the ‘wiches’ themselves.

General trading was a mainstay of the commercial life of Chester, based on its status as a leading port and its position as the focus of main roads from north-west England and north Wales. Although it began to experience problems in the late medieval period Chester was the leading English port in the northern basin of the Irish Sea, taking most of the traffic to Dublin and northern Ireland. This vital trade was augmented by direct contacts with southern France, Brittany and Spain; Chester imported substantial quantities of oil, cork, iron, and foodstuffs, and the Gascon wine trade is identifiable as early as 1275. From at least the late 13th century Chester was considered to be the ‘head port’ of the North West, with customs control over places such as Liverpool and Lancaster.

The road network which made possible Chester’s role as a port was more extensive, and better used, than is generally appreciated. The Gough Map of the early 14th century, the earliest English road map, shows the routes from Shrewsbury through Ellesmere to Chester and then on to Liverpool via the Wirral ferries, and from Newcastle under Lyme to Warrington (the present A50), and these key roads were only a small part of the medieval network. Sub­stantial lengths of Roman road re­mained in regular use, and medieval documents are full of references to roads and their traffic.

Saltways from Cheshire into Yorkshire and Derbyshire
Saltways from Cheshire into Yorkshire and Derbyshire

In the late 1320s there was a lengthy dispute over rights of way in Grappenhall and Thelwall, in which members of the Boydell family were accused of stopping roads leading to the Mersey crossings. There was a bridge at Warrington by 1305, empha­sising the importance of the north-south routes which converged at this point just as their Roman predecessors had focused upon Wilderspool, and surname evidence indicates that a bridge at Stockport, where there was similar convergence of routes, had been built by the early 13th century. Prosperous or public-spirited individuals often left money for the upkeep and improvement of roads. In 1413, for example, John Coly of Chester left 10 shillings to be used for the repair and maintenance of Watfield Pavement, the long causeway on the Nantwich to Chester road between Barbridge and Alpraham.

Salt was carried eastwards from the Cheshire wiches into Derbyshire, Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire using a complex network of saltways, which climbed the hills above Macclesfield and Congleton and then led across the Peak District. Their courses have been traced by several historians, whose evidence includes distinctive place-names such as Saltersford, which is found widely in the Pennines. These lanes were certainly medieval in origin, and probably much older than that, even though they are better-documented from the 17th century onwards. The name Saltersford above Macclesfield was recorded in 14521 while a stone bridge was built at Saltersford near Middlewich as early as 1331. A very important road ran from Stockport up Longdendale to Saltersbrook, high on the watershed above Woodhead, a route known from Yorkshire sources to have been in use from at least the 15th century but which, since Tintwistle borough was clearly founded to control its trade, was evidently important at least two centuries before.