From its early history as a Roman settlement, Chester has represented colonial power in north-west Britain. Situated at a key topographical location, providing access by sea and land to northern England, north Wales and Ireland, the city of Chester has come into being over centuries to facilitate colonial conquest, settlement and exploitation of resources.
Anglo-Saxon Chester and Wales
Following the withdrawal of Roman troops from Britain in the early fifth century, the area that is now the county of Cheshire formed part of a network of British territories stretching from the Solway to Somerset, linking the northern kingdoms of Strathclyde, Rheged and Elmet with those of (modern) Wales and Cornwall. Most of what is now the modern county of Cheshire formed part of the Welsh kingdom of Powys, ruled by the descendants of Cadell, while its north-eastern borders met with those of Elmet and the emerging Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia. In his Life of St Werburge, Henry Bradshaw credits the ‘ancient Britons’ with the first founding of the city, before the coming of the Romans, and both Bede and Geoffrey of Monmouth describe the city as a British stronghold against the expansionist policies of the Saxons of Northumbria (Bede, Historia Ecclesiastica, II.ii; Geoffrey of Monmouth, Historia Regum Britanniae, XII.i).
By the seventh century, the Saxons were expanding from their eastern kingdoms. The battle of Chester (c. 616), won by Aethelfrith of Northumbria, drove a wedge through British territories in the north-west and separated the British of the ‘old North’ from their compatriots (British combroges, later cymry) in what became Wales. From then on, Chester was gradually appropriated by the neighbouring Mercians as an English city, though an alliance of the Welsh and the Mercians against the Northumbrians lasted throughout most of the seventh and early eighth centuries. Edwin of Northumbria used Chester as a base for campaigns in Gwynedd in the first half of the seventh century until his death in 633 at the hands of Cadwallon of Gwynedd and his ally, Penda of Merica (Bu’lock, 1972: 31; Higham, 1993: 116-24).
For Lucian, Ranulph Higden, and indeed for Henry Bradshaw at a later period, Chester was in essence an Anglo-Saxon city, with all that that implied of historical and spiritual greatness. For these writers, the city represented the triumph of the Christian faith as a colonizing ideology illuminating a dark part of the world. Its location at the cross-roads of England, Wales and Ireland guaranteed an abundance of resources flowing into the city from its nearest neighbours: ‘the Irish honour Chester with fish and with a sea port, the Welsh bring meat and an abundance of cattle, and the English stream forth sacks of grain’ (Lucian). Ranulph Higden’s poem to Chester alludes to its Saxon heritage, where ‘small Saxon stones stand on top of larger ones’ (saxula Saxonica superextant addita magnis), and Henry Bradshaw’s Life of St Werburge celebrates the royal Anglo-Saxon ancestry of the saint as fundamental to the character of the city.
Norman Chester and Welsh Resistance
Following the Norman conquest of Britain in 1066, Welsh rule in Wales was systematically eroded by policies of territorial expansion using military force, urban plantation and control of the church. The earldom of Chester was established by William the Conqueror in 1070, along with a number of other key earldoms along the border between England and Wales (Walker, 1995: 51-59). From Chester and other strongholds, particularly Rhuddlan, Shrewsbury and Hereford, the Normans set about subduing the Welsh and annexing their lands. The conquest was not straightforward or evenly paced but there was an inexorable momentum to the Norman advance which led to a gradual weakening of the Welsh defence and to a series of allliances and submissions to the Norman kings. The situation was complicated by the fact that the border earls, forerunners of the Marcher lords of Wales, soon developed their own agenda separately from that of the crown, which often found itself disciplining its own magnates as well as battling against the Welsh.
During the civil war between Stephen and Matilda, Ranulf, earl of Chester, supported Matilda and his engagement with English political affairs left the northern border with Wales temporarily unattended. Between 1135 and 1155, the Welsh were able to regain some of their lost lands. In Powys, Madog ap Maredudd captured Oswestry; in Gwynedd, his rival Owain Gwynedd occupied the lands between the Conwy and the Dee (which marked the border with England) and captured the Norman castle at Mold (Yr Wyddgrug). These gains turned out to be temporary. When Henry II came to the throne in 1154, he was well aware that he needed to reclaim royal authority in Wales and he therefore led a campaign into Gwynedd in 1157 in an attempt to weaken the power of Owain Gwynedd and restore Norman lands there. Though Owain was eventually defeated and forced to submit to the king, he and his sons did carry out a successful ambush of Henry’s English troops at Coleshill, west of Chester, which the Welsh court poets were happy to celebrate: ‘Rhag traeth Caer yn aer, yn arfod gweilgi Cilgwri, cil wellig’ (‘Slaughter on the sea-coast of Chester, an attack at Cilgwri’s sea-road, a humiliating retreat’), said Seisyll Bryffwrch in his elegy to Owain Gwynedd after his death in 1170. 1
The Edwardian Conquest of 1282
Chester played a key role in the events leading up to the conquest of north Wales by Edward I in 1282. A significant development earlier in the century was the reversion of the earldom of Chester to the crown in 1237, creating a new self-image for the city as an independent but loyal subject of the monarchy. As a crown lordship, Chester became a symbolic site of the king’s sovereignty over Wales, demonstrated by Henry III in 1241 when he received the submission of Dafydd ap Llewelyn ap Iorwerth at Rhuddlan, and again in 1245 when Henry invaded north Wales to subdue the rebellious Dafydd, using Chester as his base. In 1254, Henry granted the earldom of Chester to his young son, Edward, who made a ceremonial visit to the city in 1256 to receive homage and fealty from the nobility of Cheshire and north Wales. Only two years later, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, grandson of Llywelyn ap Iorwerth, had taken power in north Wales and claimed the title of Prince of Wales. Though Henry attempted another show of strength from his base at Chester, using the citizens of Chester to provide victuals and transport, he failed to confront Llywelyn; instead, in 1267, Henry and his son Edward signed the treaty of Montgomery recognizing Llywelyn as Prince of Wales and overlord of all the Welsh barons of Wales. Though Llywelyn paid the king handsomely for this privilege, he received in return a number of Marcher lands including the much-disputed area between the Conwy and the Dee (Smith, 1998, 179-85).
Throughout the next decade leading up to the conquest of north Wales, Chester cemented its position as a bastion of royal power specifically directed against the Welsh, shaping an urban identity which lasted until the modern period. Ascending the throne in 1272, on the death of his father Henry, Edward I expected Llywelyn ap Gruffudd to pay homage to him and travelled from London to Chester in 1275 specifically for this ceremony. Acording to the Brut y Tywysogion, the Welsh ‘Chronicle of the Princes: ‘And the prince summoned to him in turn all the barons of Wales. And by common counsel he did not go to the king because the king harboured his fugitives, namely, Dafydd ap Gruffudd and Gruffudd ap Gwenwynwyn. And for that reason the king returned enraged to England.’ 2 Llywelyn’s modern biographer, J. Beverley Smith, has commented: ‘It was sad, and it stands as a severe judgement upon the creator of the principality of Wales, that so great and singular an achievement in the political history of the nation was put at risk by contention between king and prince over the fulfilment of the obligations of a feudal bond’ (Smith, 1998: 385).
By July 1277 Edward was back in Chester at the head of a huge army. Large quantities of corn and wine had been shipped in from Ireland, using Chester’s famous sea connections, and other supplies and equipment were gathered in from the surrounding countryside. Craftsmen and labourers made new roads across north Wales and fortified a castle at Flint. Heading off by road to the river Conwy, and from there by sea to Anglesey, Edward’s army trapped Llewelyn in Snowdonia and forced him to submit. The treaty of Aberconwy, made in November 1277, left Llywelyn ruling Gwynedd west of the Conwy, losing all the lands he had previously gained in 1267. Some of these lands were transferred to his brother Dafydd who had been loyal to Edward throughout his contentions with Llywelyn; this allegiance to the king had been one of the reasons why Llywelyn refused to do homage to Edward after his coronation.
And yet it was Dafydd who precipitated the final war of conquest. In March 1282 Dafydd rebelled against Edward, attacking Hawarden Castle and a number of others on the Welsh side of the border, west and south of Chester, including Flint, Rhuddlan, Ruthin and Hope. Llywelyn swiftly joined the revolt and campaigned in south and mid-Wales. In December, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, the last Welsh ruler of north Wales, was killed in battle against the English at Cilmeri, in the lordship of Builth.
Once again, Chester was the centre of a massive support network for Edward’s armies, bringing in supplies by land and sea, providing labour for building and roadworks and, not always willingly, surrendering carts and horses for transport (Hewitt, 1967: 44-45). Boat builders from the Cinque Ports were drafted to Chester to build the boats that would form a pontoon bridge across the Menai Straits to enable an invasion of the mainland from Anglesey. When, on November 6th, the invading forces tried to escape back across the bridge, under attack from the Welsh, a combination of high tide and the weight of fully-armed men broke up the bridge and many of the English troops drowned (Smith, 1998: 526-7, 536-8). The calamity, hailed as a triumph of war by the Welsh, had the effect of strengthening the resolve on both sides to continue the war until one side surrendered.
The death of Llywelyn in 1282 was the beginning of the end of the war. The court poets were well aware of the enormity of the event, of its consequences for Wales as a nation and its impact as the end of a political era. Bleddyn Fardd (fl. 268-83) said: 3
Gŵr a las drosom, gŵr oedd drosaf,
Gŵr oedd dros Gymru, hy y’i henwaf:
Gwrawl Lywelyn, gwraf o Gymro,
Gŵr ni garai ffoi i’r ffordd nesaf.
A man was killed for us, a man who was mightiest,
A man who stood for Wales, a bold man, I’ll name him:
Valiant Llywelyn, best kind of Welshman,
A man who never wanted to take the easiest way out.
Dafydd, Llywelyn’s brother, continued the resistance with some of his allies, but a number of key Welsh nobles had already deserted to the king and Dafydd fled to the mountains of Snowdonia. He was finally captured in June 1283 and executed in October of the same year. Edward I had conquered north Wales.
Between 1284 and the Acts of Union passed by Henry VIII in 1536 and 1543, Wales’s identity as a colony of the English crown was shaped by physical occupation, legal statute and ideological positioning in various discourses.
By a series of settlements made in 1284 Edward moved the lands of north Wales, the former ‘principality’ of Llywelyn, under English control. New shires were created from west to east, Anglesey, Caernarfon, Merioneth and Flint, with the first three under the authority of a new justice of north Wales based at Caernarfon and the fourth under the existing office of the justice of Chester. This meant that many of the most disputed lands on the Welsh side of the border were now administered from an English city, and one that was distinctively royalist, as the possession of the king’s oldest son, the newly-configured Prince of Wales. It meant that the Welsh of Flintshire were obliged to go to Chester to attend the county court, to pay their burgages to English officers and to worship at the cathedral which governed their parishes.
Other Welsh lands were confiscated from their traditional owners and created as new Marcher lordships, many of them handed over to Edward’s allies as a reward. The shires of Cardigan and Carmarthen were placed under the control of a justice of West Wales, based at Carmarthen. Throughout the country, but particularly in north Wales, a long project of castle-building and fortification began, opening the way to economic growth through urban development. The English were coming, settling in the new plantation towns in Flintshire under the shadow of Chester’s protection, and gradually moving further west as the frontier opened up. By 1296, a new castle and town had been built at Beaumaris, on Anglesey, providing a colonial outpost in the far west for English burgesses among a predominantly Welsh community.
Edward’s conquest of north Wales and the subsequent settlement was undoubtedly the most decisive act of colonization in the long history of relations between Welsh and English. As a consequence of 1284, the Welsh were disadvantaged, economically and legally, compared to the English in Wales, and a colonial mentality developed among both colonisers and colonised. Welsh poetry of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries expresses the ambivalence, what Homi Bhabha calls the ‘doubling’, of the colonised attempting to adjust to the greater power of the coloniser. 4 English and Welsh regarded each other with a certain amount of suspicion and even outright hostility, though there were clearly many areas of co-operation, including intermarriage, employment and trade.
Most of the borough charters of the new English towns in Wales were worded specifically to give trading advantages to English burgesses and to exclude the Welsh. In the wake of uprising or rebellion, particularly during and after the revolt of Owain Glyn Dŵr in 1400-1415, royal legislation was swift and punitive. R. R. Davies suggests that ‘the anti-Welsh legislation of Henry IV only codified and generalized practices and prohibitions which had been in the making for generations’ (Davies, 1995, 281), but the very specificity of this legislation drove a dagger into the heart of traditional Welsh cultural practices. Thus the Welsh were not to gather in groups without special permission, or to live in fortified houses, or to give money to minstrels and singers. They were not to buy houses or land in England, or in the English towns in Wales, thereby institutionalising the existing view that these English towns in Wales were to be regarded as part of England, enjoying the same protection from Welsh infiltration. 5
Why would the Welsh hate Chester?
Two of the most punitive sets of legislation came from Chester, the first in June 1401 and the second in September 1403, both issued by Henry, prince of Wales, in the wake of the Owain Glyn Dŵr rising and the associated rebellion of Sir Henry Percy, justice of Chester, in 1403. 6 Not only were the Welsh disbarred from carrying any arms into Chester, besides a knife to eat with, and from gathering in groups and even from keeping a tavern, but in 1403 they were banned from remaining in the city at all between sunset and sunrise on pain of death. As Philip Morgan suggests (Morgan, 2007), it is not difficult to imagine how such legislation might have led to the kind of resentment towards the men of Chester expressed in later Welsh poetry. Tudur Penllyn’s delight in Rheinallt’s attack on the men of Cheshire conveys a sense of revenge for centuries of military oppression and defeat, while Lewys Glyn Cothi’s satire on Chester expresses the resentment of a Welshman who knows he is not, and has never been, particularly welcome in the city. As for the little poem asking the mayor of Chester for a knife, perhaps it is too fanciful to catch an ironic echo here of the legislation of 1403, vigorously supported by the mayor, which denied any arms to the Welsh - except a knife to eat with.
- The poem in Bramley et al., 1994, no. 22 (lines 32-33). Notes to these lines give references to other citations of the battle by twelfth-century poets, including Gwalchmai and Cynddelw. The notes suggest that ‘Cilgwri’s sea-road’ refers to the river Dyfrdwy (p. 385). Back to context...
- Jones, 1955, 263. Back to context...
- Andrews et al., 1996, no. 50, lines 17-20. For the famous elegy to Llywelyn ap Gruffudd by Gruffudd ab yr Ynad Coch, see Parry, 1962, no. 36; translated in Conran, 1986, pp. 161-4. Back to context...
- Bhabha, 1994, 44. See also Fulton, 2008. Back to context...
- For examples of anti-Welsh legislation, see Statutes of the Realm , II.128-9 and 140-1; Rotuli Parliamentorum III. 473; Bowen, 1908, 31-37. Back to context...
- Davies, 1995, 290-91; Morgan, 1987, 212. Back to context...