Chester Cathedral, Chester, Cheshire
- Site Location
- Chester Cathedral
- National Grid Reference
- SJ 406666
Lichfield to 1075
Chester to c.1086
Coventry and Lichfield to 1541
now: Chester from 1541
now (or name of monument): Christ and the Blessed Virgin
- Type of building/monument
- Benedictine Abbey originally, now Cathedral
II General Description
The church was begun in 1092, presumably at the E. Of the 11th-12thc. work the E wall of the N transept survives, with a chapel arch and above it a triforium. Judging from the evidence of the fabric, the chapel, originally apsed, was remodelled early in the 13thc. and given a square end. Towards the end of the 14thc. a doorway was inserted from the chapel into the N choir aisle, and it may have been at that time that the arch into the transept was walled up and the chapel turned into a vestry. It remained blocked and invisible, at least from the transept side, until 1930, when it was re-opened. At that time 'traces of colour and patterns' were visible (Story of Chester 1939), but they are not now. The higher levels of the transept are Perpendicular. The only other 12thc. feature of the church is the tower at the W end of the N aisle, now a baptistery and dateable stylistically some 40-50 years after the N transept. Inside the church its E and S arches and its N window have scallop capitals, and the remains of a similar window are visible in the W bay of the N aisle wall. For the rest of the church, the five-bay choir can be dated to c.1300, the Lady Chapel slightly earlier (c.1260-80), and the crossing and S transept to the early- to mid-14thc. The nave arcades appear uniform on N and S, but in fact the S side belongs to the 1360s and the N to Abbot Ripley's time (1485-93). St Werburgh's Chapel was a late Perpendicular addition to the end of the N choir aisle.
Construction is of red sandstone, but the appearance of the exterior in particular owes much to the various campaigns of restoration carried out in the 19thc. The earliest of these was Harrison's (1818-20), followed by Hussey (from 1844), Scott (from 1868) and Blomfield (from 1882).
The cloister is to the N of the church, and here a good deal of Romanesque fabric still stands. Starting with the W or Cellarer's range, alongside the 12thc. NW tower is the rib-vaulted Abbot's Passage, entered through a 12thc. doorway, with St Anselm's Chapel above it. To the N of this is the long groin-vaulted undercroft of the range: a structure in two sections now housing an exhibition area and the cathedral shop, and originally extending beyond the square of the cloister to the N. Turning the NW corner into the N walk there is a 13thc. doorway to a passage between the Cellarer's range and the refectory. This last takes up the whole of the walk, and is of c.1300 as it stands. The Warming Room, containing the day-stair giving access to the dormitory, occupies the N end of the E range. Between this and the chapter house vestibule is the slype, and the S end of the walk is occupied by the W wall of the N transept. The S wall of the S walk, i.e. the other side of the N nave aisle wall of the church, is entirely 12thc., and contains two rows of three segmental-headed niches, very shallow for wall tombs, and at the E end of the walk an elaborate late 12thc. doorway into the N nave aisle. The cloister arcades were rebuilt c.1525-30. St Anselm's Chapel itself is built at the S end of the W cloister walk, between the Cellarer's range and the NW tower of the church, and above the Abbot's Passage. It is a mid-12thc. vaulted chapel, described more fully in section IV.4.c below.
III Exterior Features
(i) Cloister S walk, doorway to N nave aisle
1st order: On a square plinth, with an angle roll in the jamb and a row of nailhead then a low roll outside it on the jamb face, and a hollow on the reveal. There are no bases or capitals to this order, and several of the stones of the E jamb have been replaced although the W jamb is original. At the top of the jambs are imposts with a hollow below a worn face with an angle roll on the lower edge. Within the chamfer is a conical pseudo-capital to the angle roll of the jamb. The arch profile is similar to the jamb, with an angle roll, a row of nailhead and a roll on the face, and a further roll (rather than a hollow) on the soffit.
2nd order: En-delit cylindrical nook-shafts on attic bases supporting waterleaf capitals with roll neckings and imposts continuous from the 1st order. This is all original and badly worn in the E jamb, but on the W, the shaft and capital are 19c copies. The arch has an angle roll scooped out in a hollow on the angle, with further hollows on face and soffit.
3rd order: En-delit octagonal nook-shafts on attic bases supporting waterleaf capitals with roll neckings and imposts continuous from the 1st order. This is all original and badly worn in the E jamb, but on the W, the shaft is a 19thc. copy. In the arch this is the outer order, and Pevsner describes it as 'a kind of intermittent corn-cob motif'. In fact the arch profile has a slightly curved arriss with thin rolls outside it on face and soffit, then rows of nailhead on face and soffit, and finally another roll on the soffit and a roll and quirked hollow on the face. This profile, however, is only expressed in a band in the centre of each voussoir. The rest of the voussoir is cut back on face and soffit and carved with a simpler profile of an angle roll with face and soffit rolls and rows of nailhead between. Outside this is a badly worn label, apparently of roll profile.
(ii) Cloister W walk at S end, doorway to Abbot's Passage (under St Anselm's Chapel)
Three orders, round-headed. The 1st order has an angle roll in the arch, and on each jamb, with no capitals but quirked hollow-chamfered imposts. The 2nd and 3rd orders have tall stepped plinths and en-delit nook-shafts on worn attic bases. The imposts are the same as the 1st order, and the arches are plain and square. There is no label. The capitals are as follows:
|h of opening||2.99 m|
|w of opening||1.52 m|
(i) N nave aisle, bay 6
A blocked round-headed window, of which the E capital with its impost and part of the arch above it remain visible on the interior of the church. The capital is for a nook-shaft (now missing) and has a roll necking. It has flat leaves at the angles, with the tip of a leaf visible between them at the top of the main face. The impost has been shave flush with the wall, and the arch above has an angle roll and face hollow.
(ii) NW tower, N wall
The exterior of the window is now inside St Anselm's Chapel, and the interior within the NW tower. To the exterior the window is round-headed and of two orders. The 1st order is plain and continuous with a slight chamfer. It is largely of replacement stones, although the west jamb and several of the voussoirs may be original. The 2nd order is carried on en-delit nook-shafts on attic bases. These are all either replacements or heavily recut. The east capital and its cuboidal impost block are replacements; while the west capital appears to be original, although efficiently scoured or sandblasted. It has flat leaves at the angles and the centre of each face and a tall plain abacus. The impost block on this side is largely chipped away. The arch is carved with lateral centrifugal face chevron; a quirked angle roll and quirked face hollow profile. The first eight voussoirs from the east are replacements; the rest original. No label survives.
To the interior the window is splayed on the sill and reveals, and of two orders. First order: plain and continuous. Second order: en-delit nook-shafts supporting triple-scallop capitals with narrow cones between the scallops, chamfered neckings, chamfered imposts and an unmoulded arch. The window is heavily restored: indeed it may be that none of its stonework is original.
3. Exterior Decoration
(i) Niches in S wall of S cloister walk
Six blind niches in two sets of three, each with a segmental head. The arches are supported on engaged nook-shafts with varied bases, carved capitals and impost blocks. In the descriptions that follow the niches are numbered from east to west. The arch of niche 4 demonstrates that at least two restorations have taken place. In general, original stones have lost most of their surface detail, but the arch profile has been copied twice subsequently; first, perhaps, in the 19thc., and again very recently. Associated with the 19thc. restoration is a thick, black protective coating, much flaked away, presumably applied to stabilise the friable surface. It is particularly intrusive on the W shaft of niche 3.
Niche 1 (E): Arch head worn and many voussoirs replaced, but voussoirs 2, 6 and 7 show signs of an angle roll and face roll (see niche 3). The E shaft is a baluster shaft with central triple roll on tall triple roll base. The capital is a worn double scallop with a double roll necking. The impost is cut back on the front face and has a double hollow chamfer on the W face. The W shaft is another baluster shaft with central triple roll on a base with a bulbous lower roll, a hollow and a roll and hollow above. The lower roll is damaged. The capital is a double scallop with recessed shields and a double roll necking. The impost is cut back on the front face but a double hollow chamfer profile remains on the inner face.
Niche 2: Arch head worn. The E shaft is spiral carved on a tall attic base. The capital and necking are too damaged to identify. The impost is cut back on the front face and worn on the inner face. The W shaft is carved with directional chevron, reversed in lower half, meeting in a lozenge at the centre. It stands on a tall attic base. The capital is badly worn but retains signs of vertical rolls on both faces. The necking is lost and the impost has been replaced with a modern double-hollow-chamfered copy.
Niche 3: Arch head has an angle roll and a face roll with a quirk between them. Voussoir 1 is a modern replacement. The E shaft is plain on a tall triple roll base. The capital is worn to a shapeless lump, with signs of a roll necking. The impost is a modern replacement. The W shaft is covered with a double-strand basketweave design in lozenges, and the tall base covered with a single-strand orthogonal basketweave design. The capital too is carved with basketweave, this time single-strand and in lozenges. The impost is a modern replacement.
Niche 4: The arch demonstrates at least two restorations. The original, worn voussoirs are to the right, while the keystone and the first four voussoirs on the left are modern. Voussoirs 5-10 represent an earlier restoration. The E shaft is plain on a low double roll base. The capital is a double scallop with roll necking and the impost a modern replacement. The W shaft is plain on a replacement base. The capital is a double scallop with wedges between the cones and a roll necking and the impost is cut back on the front face but has a double hollow chamfer profile on the inner face.
Niche 5: The arch is almost entirely a modern replacement, and a modern chamfered label has also been added. The E shaft is plain on a tall roll/hollow/roll base. The capital has losses to both faces but appears to be tectonic with a roll necking. The impost is double hollow chamfered. The W shaft is plain on an attic base. The capital is double scalloped with a roll necking, and the impost double hollow chamfered.
Niche 6. The arch is largely a modern replacement, although some original voussoirs survive; five at the left and four at the right, and a modern chamfered label has also been added. The E shaft is octagonal on an inverted cushion base with roll necking. The capital is a double scallop with a large triangular angle wedge and a roll necking. The impost is damaged, but a large hollow chamfer survives below a face which may originally have been hollow-carved. The W shaft is plain on a tall bulbous or inverted cushion base with a roll necking. The capital is a double scallop with triangular wedges between the cones and a roll necking. The impost has a tall hollow chamfer below a narrow face, perhaps slightly hollowed.
IV Interior Features
b. Tower/Transept arches
(i) Transept arches
(i) N transept, E chapel arch
1st order: attached half-columns with worn roll/hollow bases supporting catastrophically eroded capitals. Their neckings are entirely gone, and the capitals themselves appear to have been either double scallops or trefoils. The plain chamfered imposts are equally worn.
2nd order (W face): attached coursed nook-shafts on roll/hollow bases. Traces of roll necking survive on the N capital. The capitals themselves were apparently cushions, but both are seriously eroded, and the W parts of both capitals are lost. No surface remains on the S impost, and what survives of the N - a plain chamfer - appears to be a damaged replacement.
2nd order (E face): basically as W face. The nook-shafts are replacements, as are the roll neckings. Of the capitals the S is better preserved and is a cushion or trefoil with angle tucks. The N capital also has the angle tucks but a large loss on the S face obscures its type. Both imposts are chamfered, the S with a groove at the bottom of the face. Of the two, the S looks more trustworthy.
The 3rd order of the arch was entirely remade with new voussoirs in 1930, and similar repairs are visible in the central sections of the inner arch orders. The embrasures including capitals, imposts and bases clearly suffered erosion and mechanical damage before a coat of whitewash was applied to them. This in turn has suffered severe flaking and blistering. It is not clear whether the damage was caused during the blocking of the arch, perhaps in the 14thc., during its unblocking in 1930, or since then. The first seems the likeliest.
(ii) NW tower, E arch
Round-headed, three unmoulded orders in the arch, two in the jambs.
1st order (shared): In the embrasure is a pair of attached half-columns with an acute projecting arriss between them. The half-columns have low double-hollow-chamfered bases. Each of the three supporting elements has its own capital, and these are multi-scallops with conical wedges between the scallops. Neckings are chamfered and imposts chamfered with a low roll on the edge between face and chamfer. The E halves of the E capitals on both embrasures, and the sections of impost above them, and indeed, the upper half of the half-column support, are replacements.
2nd order (E face): Attached nook-shafts on bases as 1st order, carrying multi-scallop capitals with roll neckings. On both embrasures the entire order is a replacement from halfway up the nook-shafts.
2nd order (W face): As E face, but largely still original.
(iii) NW tower, S arch
Round-headed, three unmoulded orders in the arch, two in the jambs. Identical to the E arch, except in its restoration. Here the replaced sections are: the capitals, imposts and most of the shafts of the 2nd order, S face; and the capital and impost on the W jamb of the 2nd order, N face.
3. Wall passages/Gallery arcades
(i) N transept, E wall
Triforium of six complete bays, round headed and carried on cylindrical en-delit shafts or (at the S end of the arcade) coursed, attached shafts. At the N end of the arcade, running to the junction with the N wall, is the remains of another bay, now blocked and with its voussoirs removed and replaced by coursed walling, and its N respond cut away. At the S end, bays 5 and 6 have been blocked, and the start of another bay is visible. This has been overbuilt with later masonry, and its voussoirs removed and replaced by coursed walling, which extends into the arch of bay 6. The capitals are cushions with angle tucks and roll neckings. They support chamfered impost blocks, shaved on the W face. The capitals and imposts of the three S shafts are later replacements. These three shafts are of coursed masonry, attached to the later blocking of the bays, but they look original, so the bays may have been blocked from the outset. The arches are unmoulded.
4. Vaulting/Roof supports
(i) St Anselm's Chapel
The chapel is built at the S end of the W cloister walk, between the Cellarer's range and the NW tower of the church, and above the Abbot's Passage. The chapel has a presbytery remodelled in the early 17thc., and to the W a nave of three bays with 12thc. responds and angle corbels, now supporting a 19thc. plaster fan vault. The corbels are single and at the E end only, while the wall responds are of two types: triple between bays 1 and 2, and double between bays 2 and 3. This suggests that the original vault had two quadripartite rib-vaulted bays at the E, but that the W bay was differently treated, perhaps with a groin vault. The responds are numbered from E to W.
N1 respond: En-delit half column on a dosseret flanked by en-delit nook-shafts. The bases are attic with a groove in the upper roll. The central capital is a triple scallop with triangular wedges between the cones, and the nook-shaft capitals are similar double scallops. They appear to be original but cleaned. All have roll neckings and the imposts are plain chamfered.
N2 respond: Paired en-delit shafts supporting a pair of capitals carved from a single block. These are triple scallops with triangular wedges between the cones and a roll necking. They appear to be original but cleaned. Imposts and bases are as N1 respond.
S2 respond: Paired en-delit shafts supporting a pair of capitals carved from a single block. These are volute capitals with waterleaf-like leaves terminating in ball-shaped volutes below a plain abacus. They appear to be original but cleaned. Imposts and bases are as N1 respond.
For the window in the S wall, see III.2.(ii).
(ii) Cloister W range, Cellarer's undercroft
A vaulted undercroft of seven double bays supported on a row of central piers with wall responds and corbels at the angles. The vault is a quadripartite groin vault with square transverse and longitudinal ribs dividing the bays. The undercroft has now been divided into three parts: the three S bays form an exhibition space, the next three bays are the Cathedral Gift Shop, and the N bay contains a passage and public lavatory. It will be seen that only the capitals in the exhibition space are readily visible - those in the Gift Shop being incorporated into the display. This is apparently not serious since the range of capital forms is very restricted.
The free-standing central piers are all cylindrical except for C4, between the fourth and fifth bays from the south end. This is a square pier with a triple respond at its N and S ends, suggesting an original division of the space at this point. Unfortunately this pier is entirely surrounded by a display of souvenirs, and could not be photographed. The rest are cylindrical with attic bases and multi-scallop capitals, the shields grooved around their lower edges and the cones sheathed, with roll neckings and chamfered imposts.
En-delit half column on a dosseret flanked by en-delit nook-shafts. The bases are attic with a groove in the upper roll. The central capitals are triple scallops with triangular wedges between the cones, and the nook-shaft capitals are similar double scallops. Neckings are plain rolls, and bases attic with a groove in the upper roll. This form is identical to the wall responds in St Anselm's Chapel. An exception is respond E3, where the bases have the same form but the nook-shaft capitals are plain cushions and the central capital a plain double scallop.
Benedictine Abbey (1092-1540). Cathedral (from 1541).
Thacker suggests that St Werburgh's was founded by Earl Hugh of Chester as a Benedictine family mausoleum, on the model of Roger of Montgomery's foundation of Shrewsbury Abbey in 1083. In 1092 Anselm, then Abbot of Bec, was invited by Hugh to witness the foundation charter, and the monastery received substantial endowments from Hugh and his principal tenants. In fact, as Gem points out, Hugh had been pressing Anselm to come for several years, and when he did arrive he not only witnessed the charter but also instituted a community under Abbot Richard of Bec, so there must have been monastic accommodation and a church by that time, even if only temporary.
Pevsner dates the N transept not later than c.1100, which ties it to the original foundation of 1092. The NW tower he dates forty to fifty years later, and the Cellarer's undercroft to the early 12thc. If this is correct, the Chapel of St Anselm, which has identical respond forms, bases and capitals, must also date from the early 12thc., and predate the NW tower whose window it partly obscures. The present author would prefer to date all three in the middle of the century, c.1140-60. All of this is very plain, with nothing more elaborate than a volute capital in St Anselm's Chapel. Much more elaborate work appears on the south walk of the cloister, in the doorway to the E end of the nave aisle and the baffling niches along the wall. Waterleaf capitals and deeply moulded imposts and archivolts on the doorway suggest a date c.1170-90. The niches appear a generation earlier, but their inventive range of motifs cannot be connected to the humdrum work going on at the same time, in the NW tower, St Anselm's Chapel and the Cellarer's range. It is striking too that while the niches are architecturally identical, details of capitals, shafts and bases are unique to each niche. Bennett called them 'recesses of doubtful purposes', suggesting that they have been burial places for abbots, or book-cupboards. The latter idea he was not much taken with, but when we come to examine the former we are struck by parallels with such later tomb recesses as those in the N chancel wall at Carlisle Cathedral and the early 14thc. examples made to house the series of retrospective effigies of bishops in the choir aisles of Hereford Cathedral. In view of the mausoleum function envisaged by the founder, it is at least possible that these niches were intended to carry a series of tombs of members of the family of Hugh of Avranches.
- Anon, The Story of Chester Cathedral. Gloucester 1939.
- F. Bennett, Chester Cathedral. Chester 1925 (3rd ed. 1931).
- R. Gem, 'Romanesque Architecture in Chester, c.1075-1117', A. Thacker (ed), Medieval Archaeology, Art and Architecture at Chester (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 22), Leeds 2000, 31-44.
- C. Hiatt, The Cathedral Church of Chester. London (Bell's Cathedral Series) 1948.
- N. Pevsner and E. Hubbard, The Buildings of England. Cheshire. Harmondsworth 1971 (repr. 1978), 135-47.
- R. Richards, Old Cheshire Churches. London 1947, 93-101.
- J. Tait (ed.), Chartulary of Chester Abbey, I. Chetham Society 79, Manchester 1920.
- A. Thacker, 'The Early Medieval City and its Buildings', A. Thacker (ed), Medieval Archaeology, Art and Architecture at Chester (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 22), Leeds 2000, 16-30.