With the medieval period historical documentation becomes much more plentiful than before and there are no problems in outlining the main historical trends of the period. However, archaeology has a valuable contribution to make in many aspects, ranging from administration to village life.
Chester joined in the rebellion against the Normans in 1069, and was the last major city to resist them. William I planted a castle in the city which became the base for a powerful Earldom, with its own Parliament separate from England until the crown acquired it in the thirteenth century. Although it remained small in national terms, it was nevertheless of strategic importance: Prince John launched his attack on Ireland from here in 1185, while Edward I established his campaign base for the conquest of Wales at the castle almost one hundred years later, in 1282. The circuit of walls along the western and southern sides of the city was completed at this time.
Early settlement cores can be defined in a number of ways. Surviving buildings (including listed examples and medieval churches) may give a clue to the late medieval focus, as may early maps such as Burdett’s (surveyed in 1777). However, further work needs to be done to establish the general progress of settlement nucleation, which cannot be assumed. Although there have been suggestions of Norman planned villages (as at Aldford, Dodleston and Malpas), nucleation in some parts of England is generally thought to have occurred as late as the thirteenth century. In one instance, Caldecott, the motte and bailey is some distance from the settlement focus: could this be an example of a castle abandoned before settlement nucleation took place and which therefore had no influence on the settlement’s location? Nucleation may indeed have been a very late phenomenon in Cheshire, and in many places has not occurred at all. Excavations in the centre of Tattenhall, one of the best candidates for a medieval village, have so far surprisingly failed to produce evidence of substantial medieval activity.
Some villages have traces of early properties – known as tofts and crofts – that have subsequently been abandoned and which survive as low earthworks. Placenames (and especially field-names) frequently provide clues about medieval land use. The sites of many medieval manors can be identified with later farmhouses and halls; mill sites, which are recorded from Domesday Book onwards, can frequently be recognised on the ground. The network of minor roads and lanes that connects settlements both with each other and with their fields was largely established by this time.
Moated sites are relatively common in the district. They seem generally to have been built in the half-century 1275-1325 in areas of new clearance and agricultural expansion. Although this holds true of much of England, the peculiar characteristics of Cheshire may mean that the pattern here is substantially different, and the hypothesis needs to be tested. They were generally of manorial status, although some belonged to ecclesiastical institutions. Sometimes there are ancillary enclosures defining gardens, orchards, fields and even haystacks.
The motte-and-bailey castles that are found throughout the district best represent the military outcome of the Norman invasion. Of particular importance is the string that runs along the Welsh border, from Shotwick in the north, through Chester, Dodleston, Pulford, Aldford and Castletown to Oldcastle in the south. Although the border was not fixed on its present line until the Treaty of Rhuddlan in 1285, the castles were of strategic importance in holding one of the main routes through the marches. Some (such as Aldford) may have been founded during the Anarchy in the 1130s and 40s.
The castle at Malpas was important as the central focus of a Barony, and was supported by apparently subsidiary castles at Oldcastle and possibly Tushingham (Bell o’th’Hill). The motte survives at Malpas, but the remainder of the site has been badly damaged by the growth of the medieval town and the establishment of a reservoir in the bailey early in the nineteenth century.
Administrative changes are most noticeable in the establishment of forests and parks. There are known parks such as Shotwick, where possible boundary banks survive, and other areas of enclosure shown in field patterns (as at Waverton) which might have originated as medieval emparkments.
The medieval city of Chester was the largest and most prosperous in the northwest and long remained the region’s principal port. It developed a diverse economy, with trade, silversmithing and leatherworking among its most important industries. The world-famous Rows ’ the two-tier galleried buildings along the main streets ’ are a product of the High Middle Ages, with some examples dating back to the twelfth century.
The medieval rural economy is relatively well understood, with a wealth of landscape detail surviving until recent times. Much of this consists of traces of medieval agriculture, preserved under later pasture and visible on aerial photographs taken in the 1940s as well as on early maps and other documents. They show small fields divided into ridge-and-furrow, while placenames frequently refer to the arable lands as the Townfield or Townfields. Although farming in strips was presumably the norm in the District, there is no convincing evidence that this was the three-field system of the midlands.
Small industrial sites, such as the mills recorded in medieval documents, have left few archaeological traces. Little comparative material exists for medieval mill sites in the region, but it is likely that there are many potential sites available for survey in the district. Two probably medieval mill sites are known at Bradley, with another at Shotwick.
There are few good surveys of medieval church buildings in the district, and in some instances, there is surviving fabric earlier in date than has previously been supposed. Churchyard growth and development have not been documented, although much of the expansion evident may be post-medieval in date. Chester was home to a number of religious houses, most notably the wealthy Benedictine Abbey of St Werburgh, founded in 1093, which owned numerous rural estates in the region.
There is evidence for a short-lived episode of woodland regeneration towards the end of the eleventh century, which fits into a general pattern in Northwest England. However, following this there is evidence for further clearance and agricultural expansion; assarts in Delamere Forest are frequently recorded in the thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Forest Rolls. Deer are recorded at Delamere from the thirteenth century, and the Old Pale was created in 1337 as a place to hold them. Although the extent of woodland in Delamere is known to have been limited, it has long been supposed that Wirral was more densely covered. A Cheshire saying suggests that “From Blacon Point to Hilbre, a squirrel may leap from tree to tree”, but this is almost certainly false. Wirral was densely settled at the time of Domesday in 1086 and there are few references to woodland there. Indeed, maintenance of the existing woodland was a cause for concern throughout the Middle Ages. It was disafforested in 1376. There is also evidence for the cultivation of hemp (or, less likely, cannabis) at sites in North Cheshire especially.