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Christ and the Blessed Virgin, Chester Cathedral, Cheshire

(53°11′35″N, 2°53′25″W)
Chester Cathedral
SJ 406 666
pre-1974 traditional (England and Wales) Cheshire
now Cheshire West and Chester
  • Ron Baxter

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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.


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.


Exterior Features



Exterior Decoration


Interior Features


Tower/Transept arches

Wall passages/Gallery arcades


Vaulting/Roof Supports


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.


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.

Anon, The Story of Chester Cathedral. Gloucester 1939.

F. Bennett, Chester Cathedral. Chester 1925 (3rd ed. 1931).

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. 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.

R. Richards, Old Cheshire Churches. London 1947, 93-101.