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Historic Chester and Shrewsbury

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Two ancient cities, retaining their individual characteristics of a former age, relics of a far distant past whose style and customs savour of medieval romance, are to be discovered in Chester and Shrewsbury, the two main gateways from Eng land into Wales. As such they figure historically, and early records abound in references to Welsh and English, at one time in the clash of warfare and at another in the interchange of trade.

The first chapters in the long history of these two border strongholds are too faint to be deciphered; we are led back to an obscure period when roaming tribes scraped their vague marks on stone and left us to conjecture who they were, or to deduce what they did from some crude implement shaped by unskilled hands. By such uncertain signs and tokens do we trace the story of Chester and Shrewsbury back to Roman and Briton, and then further to that misty and half-legendary period when the savage worked out his destiny in the plain watered by the Dee or amid the thick alders on the slopes to the Severn. We conjecture much, but chronicles are scant.

In the case of Chester the mystery is particularly baffling; and even amid the developments of civilization and order, when the touch of the historian might have been expected to become surer, there are gaps remaining unfilled, there are curious details and exceptional features which elude the investigator and leave him in a state of surprise and surmise.

The original Chester is more or less a buried secret. The Roman Deva, or Devana Castra, is conspicuous enough in massive walls, in towers, in hypocausts, in vaults; while medieval Chester, with its monastic relics and its half-timbered dwellings, prevails impressively over the life of modern times. Here you breathe the very atmosphere of the Middle Ages, gaze upon the craftsmanship of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, are in an old-world treasure-house not so changed or spoiled as to be unrecognizable. You can set your feet on fragments of Watling Street which once resounded to the tramp of Roman legions, can enter crypts which have never yielded up the secret of their origin and purpose, can linger in the arched stone corridors called the Rows and, leaning over the balconies, muse, as men have done for many hundreds of years, why these unique and picturesque passages were ever constructed.

There is nothing else like the Rows of Chester. They form a paved promenade set in the houses along the main streets at first floor level. They are reached by steps from the pavement below, and thus form continuous galleries open in front, with shops and warehouses beneath and the floor of the second story above. Was this a device, as has been suggested, to secure the wares and the merchandise against possible Welsh marauders?

Chester comes definitely into history about a.d. 60, when we find it a fortified station during the Roman occupation. A name that emerges during this period is Marino, son of Arviragus; and Caesar's Tower in the centre of the castle is a reminder of the imperial sway. The strength, size and importance of the stronghold of Chester can be estimated by the nature and extent of the city walls, with their parapets. It is still possible to make the circuit of the city, nearly two miles in circumference, upon the broad highway which they form.

But the constructing Roman went and the destructive Briton came, leaving little for history to note except the new name of Caerleon which he gave to the place. The next centuries were a welter of strife among contending tribes, and in 605 Ethelfrith of Northumbria swooped upon Chester, and his hordes laid it waste. Not for three hundred years did it rise from its ruins and begin anew an eventful history. How in course of time it held out against the Norman Conqueror and was the last to submit, and was granted by him to his nephew as a county palatine; how it was ravaged by the Welsh under Llewelyn in 1255; how since 1301 it has supplied an earl's title for the sovereign's eldest son; how it was besieged by the Roundheads for two years (1643-45) and only surrendered to escape starvation - these are items in those pages of national history in which Chester occupies a significant place.

When Borrow, on his way to Wild Wales, made a short stay at Chester, he described it in a single paragraph of characteristic terseness and accuracy: "It is an ancient town with walls and gates, a prison called a castle built on the site of an ancient keep, an unpretending-looking red sandstone Cathedral, two or three handsome churches, several good streets, and certain curious places called Rows." While this reveals the old city in a flash, it conveys nothing of its glamorous charm, its incomparable picturesque-ness, and its succession of surprises. You may enter a very modern shop and find your way to a Roman hypocaust, visit a wine merchant's and see his casks stored in a crypt dating back to the Plantagenets, take a meal at a restaurant and peer into an ancient chapel with a vaulted roof of stone.

The narrow streets are reminiscent of the Friars, black, white and grey; the famous bridge over the. Dee recalls the jolly miller who cared for nobody, no, not he, and who might have been a descendant of that Howel of the Battle Axe who captured the French king at Poictiers and got the rich mills as part of his reward; the Water Tower is a memorial of the bygone time when ships came up the river and were moored at that spot; and the Bridge of Sighs transports our thoughts to that gloomy era when the condemned took their last look at the world, heard the priest's solemn parting words, and passed to their doom. Nor must the tragic association of Phoenix Tower be forgotten, where, at the fateful close of a September day in 1645, King Charles saw his hopes melt away in the disaster on Rowton Moor, and next night was a fugitive in Wales. Even the odd name of the very secular racecourse, the Roodee (Rood-eye; "eye" means island, as in "Chels-eye" - Chelsea) is derived from the headless stone cross, the Rood, one of the most venerable relics in the locality.

Rows of stately mansions, decorated as the Tudors loved, lean across the streets-here Bishop Lloyd's Palace with its quaint and elaborate carvings, yonder the Palace of the Stanleys, once kings of the Isle of Man, and the picturesque home of the Earls of Shrewsbury (now the Bear and Billet hostelry), with its ancient timbers, buttresses and sparkling lattices. But in Watergate Street is one edifice which more deeply arouses emotion, God's Providence House, said to be the only place in Chester which in 1652 escaped the dire ravages of the Plague, and invested with romance by the art of Mrs. Linnaeus Banks. Famous names are likewise conjured up. Dean Swift visited the old Yacht inn, and there are associations with Matthew Henry and William Penn. The oldest ecclesiastical building in Chester is St. John's Church, with its Anchorite's Cell (falsely rumoured to have been a hiding-place of Harold the Saxon) and its weird wooden coffin enclosed in the ruined wall. The ancient Abbey of St. Wer-burgh met with the customary fate, but its church expanded into the cathedral, the history of which is related elsewhere. Outside the Cathedral Close the city is busy enough-very modern in spirit now, not only in its industry, but in its pleasures, and a favourite centre for the traveller making his way through this ancient doorway into Wales. The streets hum and throb with the traffic, and the air vibrates to the whir of the wheels. Chester is medieval no longer, save in its outward aspect and the reverently preserved relics and treasures of the past.

Two famous writers have given us such vivid and accurate pen-pictures of the ancient city of Shrewsbury that it is of historic as well as of literary interest to reproduce them. The first is William Cobbett, who in the course of his "Rural Rides" in May 1830 came, as he said, to "one of the most interesting spots that man ever beheld." He proceeded to describe how it was "curiously enclosed" by the Severn, which "in the form of a horseshoe completely surrounds it, leaving of the whole of the two miles round only one little place whereon to pass in and out on land. There are two bridges, one on the east and the other on the west, the former called the English and the other the Welsh bridge. The environs of this town, especially on the Welsh side, are the most beautiful that can be conceived.

The town lies in the midst of a fine agricultural country, of which it is the great and almost only mart. Hither come the farmers to sell their produce."

For what may be termed an "interior" view of Shrewsbury we turn to the pages of Charles Dickens, who first visited it eight years after Cobbett, was deeply impressed by its antique and curious aspect, and has left an amusing account of a "bespeak" theatrical performance he witnessed "as really like the Miss Snevellici business as it could be." Twenty years later, when he himself acted on behalf of charity in the town, he wrote from the Lion Hotel on Wyle Cop, where he was lodged "in the strangest little rooms, the ceilings of which I can touch with my hands," that from the bulging windows, leaning over a queer old rail, he could "look all downhill and slantwise at the crookedest black and yellow old houses, all manner of shapes except straight shapes."

In its main features Shrewsbury does not change. Its pride and glory are in being a treasured relic of that old England so much of whose past history it stores. A famous place this, for its direct association with kings and princes, with famous leaders in the State, and with gallant warriors. Its charter was granted by Richard Lionheart; its castle is Norman; its abbey church (1094) is Benedictine; and the very names of its byways echo from far-off times- Dogpole, Wyle Cop, Shoplatch, Murivance and Mardol. But the history of Shrewsbury goes back to that dim era when the alder islands were the abode of a primitive race, when the British under Caractacus made a last stand against the Romans, when the triumphant Romans reared in massive stone their citadel of Uriconium, when they in turn retreated and the ravaging Saxon destroyed their work and took their place, and when Pengwern arose to become the capital of the kings of Powis. All this chequered history only brings us to the eighth or ninth century, at which period we find Scrobbesbyrig ("the town in the wood") firmly founded, and at the beginning of its long, unbroken chapter of events. Here the Saxon kings had a residence, and here was one of the first mints. This was rich spoil for the Normans, and the Conqueror's kinsman, Roger de Montgomery, became earl, built the castle, founded the abbey, and held sway.

Shrewsbury was kept astir both by dangers without and important happenings within. There were the raiding Welsh on the borders, scarce to be shut out by the fortified town walls; and this menace was eventually to have a terrible climax. King John found the great Llewelyn a formidable foe, and the Welsh prince for some months was able to make himself master of the town. Llewelyn's successor, David, continued the strife, fought a desperate but losing battle in 1282, fell into the hands of the English, and was tried and condemned by the Parliament sitting at Shrewsbury- "the first national convention in which the Commons had any share by legal authority, and the earliest lawful trace of a mixed assembly of Lords and Commons." The awful fate of David (the scene of his execution near the High Cross is still shown) is a reflection upon the barbarity of this epoch-making Parliament, but as a deterrent it was no doubt effectual.

Shrewsbury, owing to its position and its increasing prosperity, was well worth conserving. It became a favourite visiting-place of the monarchs- the three Edwards were all there in turn, Richard II was present at the Parliament, and Henry IV made Shrewsbury his headquarters when the momentous trial of strength took place between himself and the Percys. The royal visitations were continued by Edward IV, two of whose sons (the ill-fated little Princes of the Tower) were born in the Dominican Friary; next by Henry VII and his son Prince Arthur; and, if rumour be true, by Queen Mary, who stayed at the Olde House on Dogpole. King Stephen and Henry II had been at Shrewsbury as besiegers, but it was Henry IV's visit in 1403 which supplied Shrewsbury with one of its most crucial episodes and provided Shakespeare himself with a theme. Battlefield Church, dedicated to S. Mary Magdalene, with its tower, its parapets, its quaint gargoyles, its emblazoned windows, and its crowned statue of the king, stands forth com-mandingly as a memorial and shrine to the mighty conflict which raged on a July day when the sun peered bloodily "above yon bosky hill" and made the day look "pale at his distemperatur." Hotspur, with his fourteen thousand archers, and the fiery Douglas, with his Scottish followers, fought with all their fury against the reigning king; the cries of "Saint George" and "Esperaunce Percy" rang out in long defiance; nor was the royal cause safe until the two arch-enemies were prone-Percy with an arrow through his brain and Douglas captured.

As might be expected of a city with such a history, Shrewsbury was essentially loyal, and became a stronghold for Charles I; while James II was the last of the royal visitors to spend a short time in the historic Council House of the Court of the Marches which Edward IV had founded. To the sixth Edward, aided subsequently by Elizabeth, Shrewsbury owes its famous Grammar School (1551-1562), with its illustrious traditions. Its alumni include Sir Philip Sidney, Wycherley, Archbishop Thomson and Charles Darwin. The picturesque Elizabethan market place, with its heavy stone pillars, dates back to 1595; the Refectory Pulpit is one of the curiosities of a past age; and hostelries like the Lion and the Raven (in the latter Farquhar wrote his comedy "The Recruiting Officer") take the memory back to the high times of coaching and county balls and civic assemblies. Hazlitt loved Shrewsbury as much as did De Quincey, feeling it to be a very centre of romance; and well might their minds be impressed as they wandered about the streets, mounted the Seventy Steps, gazed at the timbered houses in High Street, Butcher Row, Fish Street, Mardol, and dreamed of the old builders and residents who had left their names as labels-Ireland's Mansion, Owen's Mansion, Rowley's Mansion, Master Sherar's House, to which must be added the alms-houses of the Drapers' Company, a still existing Town Guild. Nor must we omit to mention Weeping Cross, one of the stations which the guilds visited on Corpus Christi Day, there to offer up fervent petition for a good harvest. Turn where we will, we are in touch with a remote past and its half-forgotten customs, a shrine with its glamour, its colour, its suggestion, its hoarded memories, and its significant historical associations.

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Pictures for Historic Chester and Shrewsbury

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