The sub-Roman and early medieval periods in west Cheshire (c 400-1066)


The sub-Roman period (c 400-650)

Political framework

The outline of post-Roman history that can be recovered from documentary sources suggests that Cheshire remained largely undisturbed following the breakdown of the Roman imperial system in Britain. The local population perhaps became part of the early Welsh kingdom of northern Powys; this was attacked by the Northumbrians c 616, who fought a battle at Chester and defeated the British but did not bring the area under Northumbrian control. The power of Powys was broken by the growth of Anglian Mercia during the seventh century. This in turn suffered as a result of the growth of Wessex, the consolidation of its monarchy and the Danish invasions by way of Wirral.

Archaeological evidence

The archaeology of the five centuries following the end of Roman rule at Chester is very obscure. There have been few finds or structures that can be dated to this period, and we can neither confirm nor deny the accuracy of the historical sources. Outside the city, the problems are even greater.

Amphora sherds thought to be of fifth- and sixth-century date have been found inside the fortress at Abbey Green. They are of a ribbed form which occurs on a small number of high-status sub-Roman sites in the west and support the suggestion that Chester became the base for a British war-lord or king. They also demonstrate that trade continued - even if only on a small scale - either at Chester itself, or through Meols, where a large collection of sub-Roman metalwork has been found. There is a curious horse-headed lead object of fifth-century type from Abbey Green, which appears to be a trial piece for a bronze mount.

The so-called 'Dark Earth' that occurs on many Romano-British and continental sites following the end of the Roman period is sometimes found at Chester. Recent work suggests that these deposits are a product of root and worm activity on the collapsed remains of buildings with wattle-and-daub, cob (mudbrick) or turf walls. Rather than being evidence for abandonment, they may instead be evidence for a radical change in building techniques, which is found on sites throughout the Roman Empire. At an excavation on Foregate Street in 1992, the patchy remains of a clay floor were found in the middle of a thick Dark Earth deposit; this lay between the foundations of a Roman building and the floor of a tenth-century structure and shows that in places, Chester's Dark Earth may derived from collapsed walls.

Other deposits which formed between the fourth and tenth centuries are equally hard to interpret. At a site excavated in Lower Bridge Street in 1991, for instance, after a rough cobbled surface was laid in the fourth century, two deposits containing only second-century material formed. These were then sealed by a cultivation deposit cut by a tenth-century pit. Because no pottery was made in the region between the late fourth and early tenth centuries, it is usually quite impossible to date deposits such as these.

Another excavation in Lower Bridge Street in 1974-6 showed that in the sub-Roman period the site had been divided into small plots, which seem to have been cultivated. Later, roasting-pits were dug, but it was not until the ninth century that true structural evidence is found. Sherds of a Carolingian vessel of eighth- or ninth-century date, a ninth-century silver brooch and structures dated to the second half of that century shows an increase in the intensity of occupation then.

One other substantial structure has been dated to this obscure period. At excavation in Eastgate Row in 1991, the substantial foundations of a masonry building were found. They were cut into a dump of metalworking débris dating from the late fourth century, and were incorporated into the surface of the tenth-century market place after the building had been demolished. If the building is sub-Roman, it is so far without parallel in western Britain, although if it belongs to the Mercian city, as seems likely, it is difficult to see what it might have been.


Placename evidence suggests that there was considerable continuity of population from the Roman period, with a strong Christian tradition. A number of villages' churches have curvilinear churchyards, or are recorded as having them in the past. This is a form that has been connected with Celtic Christianity, being the *lan of Old Welsh place-names, meaning an ecclesiastical enclosure. Known sites include Barrow, Christleton, Eccleston, Farndon, Thornton-le-Moors and possibly Waverton. Christleton and Eccleston are also significant placenames. These early churches and their communities seem to have retained the Romano-British preference for locating settlements on sandy soils.

The early medieval period (c 650-900)

Political framework

Historical sources suggest that domination by the Angles of Mercia did not begin until the seventh century: there is unlikely to have been large-scale immigration into the region by Old English speakers at this time. Archaeological evidence from Chester is very scant, although St John's church was traditionally founded in 689. Late in the ninth century, a mint seems to have been established in the city, which at times was the most productive in the whole of Mercia.


Chester appears to have been largely given over to agriculture during this period. There is evidence that the legionary baths building was used as a stable or cowshed, while ploughing in strips was found on Lower Bridge Street. Nevertheless, some settlement remained inside the abandoned Roman fortress and conditions appear to have improved slightly towards 800; it is possible that the construction and maintenance of Wat's and Offa's and Dykes (probably in the 730s and 780s respectively) provided the stimulus for urban regeneration. By the end of the ninth century, the city was again prospering and seems to have been sufficiently populous to maintain a mint. Outside Chester, settlement patterns are obscure: to a large extent this is because little durable material culture was produced at the time, which has meant that few finds have been made, even in large-scale excavations. Only placenames provide any information about this period.


Henry Bradshaw, a fifteenth-century monk, quotes a tradition that St Werburgh’s relics were transferred to an existing church of Ss Peter and Paul in Chester; this probably happened during the Danish invasion of Mercia in 874-5. If the tradition is correct, this could mean that either St Werburgh’s or St Peter’s had earlier origins. The Annals of St Werburgh’s claim that St John the Baptist’s was founded in 689 by King Æthelræd I and a ‘Wilfric’, Bishop of Chester. This story has generally been accepted as roughly correct; however, there were no Bishops of Chester at that time, and no seventh-century Bishop of Lichfield bore a name like Wilfric (there was a Winfrith, Bishop 672 - 672×6). There was a Wulfræd (Bishop 875×83 - 889×900), contemporary with King Æthelræd II (c 879-911); a date late in the ninth century fits the model of urban regeneration at this time rather better than a seventh-century foundation.

In the countryside, Barrow, Christleton and Eccleston churches are associated with records of Saxon crosses that were destroyed by seventeenth-century Puritans. These early churches and their communities seem to have retained the Romano-British preference for locating settlements on sandy soils. Church dedications may also suggest early origins. The dedications to St Chad at Farndon and Tushingham are perhaps Mercian (although the Bishopric was St Chad’s, so the dedication is possibly later, though not after the see was moved to Chester in 1075). That to St Alban at Tattenhall may also be Mercian (or even earlier, potentially).

Other religious sites at Mickle Trafford (St Plegmund’s Well and Plemstall Church) and Holy Well in Chowley/Broxton/Clutton (there is some confusion in the documents, although the well site is now in Chowley) are associated with saints of this period. Their pre-conquest origins are not certain, however, the latter not being attested before the fifteenth century. The church at Plemstall is on a low sandbank island in the marshes of the Gowy estuary, with the Well on the mainland at the point where the road from Mickle Trafford descends to a causeway across the marsh. At Chowley, the documents associate the Well with a chapel that has not been located; it also has legendary connections with St Winefride (of Holywell, North Wales). The masonry construction of both wells is of plausibly medieval date.

The Central Middle Ages (c 900-1100)

Political framework

The impact of the Norse and Danish invasions of the ninth to eleventh centuries appears to have been limited in the region, being concentrated mostly on the Wirral peninsula and in Chester itself. Chester was refortified as a burh - a defended market town - in 907 by Æthelflæd, Queen of Mercia. From this time on, it again dominated the region with its mint and port, which quickly developed a flourishing trade with Ireland.

At the end of the Saxon period, Domesday Book gives us a snapshot of settlement patterns and land tenure in 1066 and 1086. This shows the scale of Chester’s pre-eminence in the county. It also suggests that a pattern of multi-township parishes, which is still the main rural settlement type in Cheshire, had been established by the middle of the eleventh century, if not much earlier.

King Eadweard the Elder died at Farndon on 17 July 924, and it has been conjectured that he held a Royal estate there, perhaps because of his de facto kingship of Mercia. It has further been conjectured that the site was actually at Aldford, which is not distinguished from Farndon by Domesday Book. However, given the interesting topography of Farndon itself, the latter site is perhaps more likely. The present High Street curves parallel with the oval enclosure in which the church is situated. Early maps show that this line was continued southwards along the east side of the village, to the cliffs by the river, forming a roughly oval enclosure. This has been thought to be a Saxon burh (or fortified site) rather than a later feature.

The cropmarks close to the river between Farndon and Churton-by-Farndon, usually thought to be the remains of a prehistoric mortuary enclosure, have been suggested as Saxon in date. In form, they resemble a large timber hall set in a larger rectangular enclosure. The existence of a possible second site nearby reinforces this interpretation, with its similarity to the situation at palace sites such as Yeavering, where palaces were rebuilt on slightly different sites. This could then be identified with the place where Edward the Elder died, although the identification of archaeological sites with historical events and characters is at best dubious, at worst fanciful.


Tenth and eleventh-century occupation is found widely across the site of the old Roman fortress at Chester, except in its north-western corner. Intensive occupation has also been found to the south, along Lower Bridge Street. We think that this area was the focus of Scandinavian settlement in the city.

St John’s Church became an important ecclesiastical centre in the city. By the time of Domesday Book, the area was known as the ‘Bishop’s borough’ as the church and its parish were the manorial property of the Bishop of Lichfield. There was a prosperous suburb along Foregate Street, which emerged from the East Gate of the burh and where earlier Saxon occupation is also found. The area west of the old Roman fortress does not seem to have been densely occupied, although a substantial settlement lay here in Roman times. Perhaps the focus of the port had shifted south, towards the bridge.

Once again, evidence from the countryside is patchy, at best. So-called Chester Ware pottery (also known as Stafford Ware) is found largely on urban sites, although sherds have been found at Poulton, Grange Cow Worth (in Ellesmere Port) and at Tatton Park. There is a little Anglo-Scandinavian sculpture, notably at Thornton-le-Moors and Neston, as well as some metalwork from Meols.


Dedications to St Oswald at Chester and Depenbech (Malpas) are thought to be associated with Æthelræd II and Æthelflæd of Mercia (879-911 and 911-918); they are known to have encouraged the growth of this cult along the Welsh border in places such as Hereford and Shrewsbury. This may indicate that Malpas was not a Norman ‘New Town’, but a Saxon burh.

Domesday Book records major ecclesiastical holdings in the county. The Bishop held manors at Farndon and Tarvin; the church of St Werburgh held Saighton, Huntington, Great Boughton, Pulford and part of Wervin (confirming the late copies of its foundation charters). The record of two priests at Farndon is another indication of a late Saxon ecclesiastical centre.


Environmental evidence for this period is limited. Pollen cores seem to indicate a continued low level of agricultural activity until well after the Norman Conquest. Evidence for early medieval woodland regeneration at places such as Wybunbury, Lindow Moss and Dane’s Moss remains undated; it may belong to this period, if comparisons with other parts of the Northwest are valid.