We use cookies to improve your experience, some are essential for the operation of this site.

Preface to Cheshire


Cheshire is a north-western county some 60 miles from east to west and 40 miles from north to south. It is bordered by the Irish Sea to the north west, Lancashire to the north, Derbyshire to the east, Staffordshire and Shropshire to the south and Wales to the west. Its sea-coast is formed by the Wirral peninsula: a rectangular tongue of land between the estuaries of the Dee and the Mersey. The area of the county in 1961 was 621,884 acres, making it the 25th in order of size of the English counties. The largest towns in the traditional county are Warrington, with a 2011 population of 165,456, Stockport (105,878) and Birkenhead (88,818), although Chester (86,011) remains the county town and administrative centre, while Warrington is now a Unitary Authority in its own right, and Stockport is now in Greater Manchester.

Landscape, Geology and Building Materials

The bulk of the county is a great plain lying between the mountains of Wales and the Derbyshire Pennines; pasture land, woodland and orchard traditionally, with salt mines around Nantwich, Northwich and Winsford. Geologically Cheshire is one of the least complex counties in England. The far west, including the Wirral peninsula, is dominated by the Triassic Bunter sandstones – soft and pinkish in colour. In the central plain and occupying most of the county, these are overlaid by an outcrop of younger Triassic sandstones from the Keuper beds. This sandstone is varied in colour from red to buff and grey, but is also soft and friable. Finally, on the eastern border where the Pennines begin, the surface rocks are older and harder. These are chiefly carboniferous Millstone Grits and sandstones, but with some carboniferous limestones to the south and east of Macclesfield, and coal measures running in a narrow strip from Stalybridge down to Macclesfield. Throughout the county glacial boulder clays and sands overlay much of the surface.

The soft sandstones covering most of the county have been quarried for building since the middle ages. They are easy to work and initially brightly coloured, but they soon blacken and are easily eroded and weathered. The result is that most of the county’s medieval buildings have either been replaced or heavily restored, and exterior sculpture has not tended to survive well. In the east where millstone grit was available, survival has been much better; the fifteenth-century church at Astbury, for example, retains its crisp architectural detailing.

Weathered and blackened stonework on the chapter house of Birkenhead Priory

For domestic buildings and even some churches, the oak forests of the Cheshire Plain provided the material for timber-framed construction until the seventeenth century, and of the surviving examples, Little Moreton Hall is the most spectacular. Brick came into general use in the Georgian period, but the abundant Cheshire clays produce a rather unattractive red brick.

Timber framing in the aisle at Lower Peover


Cheshire’s importance to the Romans was largely military and industrial. It lay between the lands of the Ordovices in North Wales and the Brigantes in the Pennines, and could serve as a base for attacks in either direction. The Brigantes were subdued by Cerialis in 71 AD, and the Ordovices by Agricola in 78-79, and thereafter Chester (Deva) became a base for the 20th Legion, and it was occupied until the end of the 4th century. Parts of the Roman walls still survive around the town. Elsewhere in the county, Roman settlements grew at Northwich, Middlewich and Wilderspool. Cunliffe (in Pevsner (1971), 50-51) suggests that these civilian developments may have replaced military installations, and that, in Middlewich at least, salt production was the main occupation.


There is little evidence of events after the Romans left, but Chester may have survived as the centre of a post-Roman principality extending into north Wales. Bede describes a bloody battle in the early seventh century between the British and King Aethelfrith of Northumbria, and thereafter the region may have passed into Mercian control – the Mercian king Aethelred (674-704) is traditionally supposed to have founded St John’s, Chester, but the tradition can only be traced back to the twelfth century. A Viking raid and occupation of Chester is recorded in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for 893, and the site is then described as “a deserted city”. This has been taken to prove that Chester lay waste from the 7th century until the 10th, but this theory fails to explain why the Danes would have wanted it, and why the English should have besieged them inside it for two days. In 907 the city was refortified by Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred, brother of King Edward the Elder, and ruler of Mercia. By the middle of the 10th century, evidence points to a growth in the importance of Chester, and to the foundation of the shire. The city stands near the mouth of the Dee, and is well placed for sea-borne trade, particularly with Dublin. From the early 10th century the Wirral had been occupied by Danish settlers, many driven out of Ireland, who were well suited to the occupation.

After the Norman Conquest, both the city and the county changed dramatically. A rising in 1069-70 was crushed by King William, who subsequently built a motte and bailey castle to the south-west of the old legionary fortress, destroying houses and farmland in the process, and greatly enlarging the walled area. Hugh I was appointed Earl in 1071, and the honour of Chester became one of the greatest in the kingdom with vast possessions scattered all over the country. This provided William with a powerful buffer against the Welsh, and a springboard for future expeditions into their lands.

Other towns

Of the three largest towns in the county, Birkenhead was occupied only by the priory (begun c.1150) in the twelfth century. By 1800 its population was only 110, but from 1815 onwards it was developed as a resort accessible from Liverpool by steamer across the Mersey estuary. Shipbuilding began there shortly afterwards. Neighbouring Wallasey is no more than an expansion of this development to the north. Stockport was a medieval town which received its charter c.1220 and had a twelfth-century castle (demolished in 1775). Its growth from the eighteenth century on was linked to that of the Lancashire cotton towns, just over the border to the north. More important in our period were Nantwich, Northwich and Middlewich, the suffix to their names indicating that they were salt-working towns, and it is clear from Domesday that the industry was well established by 1086.

Major and monastic buildings

The county’s two most important foundations are both in Chester. St John’s was traditionally founded by the seventh-century Mercian king Aethelred. In the 1050s it was refounded by Earl Leofric as a collegiate church, and in 1075 it became a cathedral when Bishop Peter moved his see there from Lichfield. This state of affairs only continued until 1095, when the see was moved to Coventry, and later shared between Coventry and Lichfield, but St John’s remained a cathedral in name until Henry VIII founded the Diocese of Chester based at St Werburgh’s in 1541. St Werburgh’s itself was founded from 1092 by Earl Hugh I as a Benedictine Abbey.

Much of Romanesque St John’s survives, including the nave and parts of the chancel, and a collection of loose stones. Of St Werburgh’s, only the north transept and north-west tower of the Romanesque church are still standing, but more survives in the cloister walks and the buildings around them, including a rich late-12c doorway.

St John's Chester from the E, and the cathedral (formerly St Werburgh's) N transept

Loose stones at St John's, Chester

Niches in the S cloister walk of Chester Cathedral

Other monastic foundations were at Norton Priory (c.1133 – Augustinian), Combermere (1133 - Cistercian), Chester St Mary (c.1140 – Benedictine nunnery), Birkenhead (c.1150 – Benedictine) and Stanilow (1172 – Augustinian). Both Birkenhead and Norton have significant Romanesque remains: Birkenhead its chapter house and Norton the undercroft of the west monastic range, including a fine doorway.

Romanesque capitals at Birkenhead (c.1150-70) and Norton (c.1180-90)

Lesser buildings

Cheshire’s parish churches have not stood up well to the effects of time and weather, largely because of the soft sandstones they were built from. Bruera and Shocklach are the closest we come to complete Norman churches. Bruera is so heavily restored and has so many later accretions that this is not immediately obvious, but it boasts half a chancel arch, with beautifully bold and primitive capitals, and a good deal of geometric sculpture in relief panels.

Chancel arch capitals at Bruera

The little church at Shocklach is more obviously Romanesque, with a nicely carved doorway.

The S nave doorway at St Edith's Shocklach

Other 12c doorways worth seeing are at Prestbury Norman Chapel and Barthomley.

A detal of the elaborate doorway at Prestbury Norman Chapel

For the font enthusiast, the 11c example at Mellor stands out, with its elongated rhythmic beasts. Acton’s font would doubtless be interesting too if more of it survived.

The fonts at Mellor and Acton

Apert from the hanful of sites mentioned above, the finest of Cheshire’s Romanesque work is in fragments, and here the pickings are surprisingly rich. The collection at Acton is justly famous, but there are more to be seen at Bowden, Frodsham and Bunbury.

Part of the collection of Romanesque loose stones at Acton


The most generally useful source of information on the county is still George Ormerod’s History of the County Palatine and City of Chester. There are no RCHME inventory volumes for Cheshire, and apart from the volumes containing only general articles, the Victoria County History has, at present, only covered the City of Chester. Work is currently proceeding on the topography of the county. Pevsner is valuable, of course, and for churches, Raymond Richards’s Old Cheshire Churches. The three antiquarian publications covering the county: the Transactions of the Historic Society of Lancashire and Cheshire, the Transactions of the Lancashire and Cheshire Antiquarian Society, and the Journal of the Chester and North Wales Architectural, Archaeological and Historic Society are a valuable resource, and the antiquarian F. H. Crossley has contributed useful articles to all of them.

  1. F. H. Crossley, “Cheshire Churches in the Twelfth Century”, Journal of the Chester and North Wales Architectural, Archaeological & Historical Society, 32 (1941), 73-97.
  2. G. Ormerod, History of Cheshire, 3 vols 1816-19. (2nd ed. T. Helsby, 1882).
  3. N. Pevsner and E. Hubbard, The Buildings of England. Cheshire, Harmondsworth 1971 (repr. 1978).
  4. R. Richards, Old Cheshire Churches, London 1947.
  5. A. Thacker (ed), Medieval Archaeology, Art and Architecture at Chester (British Archaeological Association Conference Transactions 22), Leeds 2000.
  6. Victoria County History: Cheshire V.i (The City of Chester: General History and Topography). 2003.