Modern Chester was founded in around 74 AD as the Roman legionary fortress of Deva, later acquiring part of the name of the Twentieth Legion to become Deva Victrix. It clearly had a large number of impressive Roman buildings, perhaps more impressive than most Roman cities in Britain. Deva was 20% bigger than the other legionary fortresses in Roman Britain (e.g. Eboracum, modern York), and contained the enigmatic Elliptical Building, so far unique in the Empire. The purpose of the Elliptical Building remains unknown, but it must have been an impressive structure in its day. Chester also had the usual components of a legionary fortress, including a headquarters building (principia), smart houses for the commander (praetorium) and senior officers, amphitheatre, stone defensive walls and a main baths building (thermae), not to mention a large harbour and a bridge crossing the River Dee. How much of this was still standing in the seventh century, and can we tell if people were still using it for anything?
Ranulph Higden, a monk at the abbey of St Werburgh in Chester (later the cathedral) wrote a description of Chester in the mid fourteenth century. He described underground passages (the sewers), huge stones inscribed with the names of ancient men (tombstones, or perhaps also other monuments or inscriptions?), and vaulted dining rooms (perhaps parts of the main bath building [thermae]) (quoted in Mason 2001). Evidently substantial parts of the Roman infrastructure were still standing at this date, getting on for a thousand years after Roman government came to an end in Britain. Say what you like about the Romans, they built to last.
In the headquarters building, the rooms along the rear of the cross-hall were refloored several times during the fourth century, and the room west of the shrine-room (aedes) was converted into a secondary shrine. Mason (2001) gives no date for these repairs, but since there were several they presumably span quite a long period of time and indicate regular use and maintenance in most of the fourth century, if not later.
In the baths suite attached to the Elliptical Building, a new doorway was inserted and the mortar bedding for its timber door sill produced a find of 24 coins dated the reign of Emperors Valens and Valentinian (364-75 AD). The hypocaust was rebuilt, and part of the suspended floor was found still intact when excavated in 1969. Gold-working crucibles were found at the north end of the building, together with a gold solidus of the Emperor Magnentius (350-353 AD).
Coins of Theodosius I (379-395) and Arcadius (395-408) have been found in Chester, but no coins of Honorius (became Emperor in 408).
Excavation in the centre of the fortress has shown that there was no extensive complex of post-Roman timber buildings as at Wroxeter in this area. Possibly such structures existed elsewhere in the fortress and have not been discovered (or not recognised), but there is no evidence for them. David Mason states that the various timber buildings identified in Chester on various digs so far are now thought to belong to the Anglo-Scandinavian town of the ninth and tenth centuries.
Not much is known about the Roman bridge, except that it was on more or less the same site as the current Old Dee Bridge, which was built in the medieval period. It is not known how long the Roman bridge stood. The location of its replacement on the same site may indicate that the Roman bridge remained standing and in use long enough for the street plan of Anglo-Scandinavian and medieval Chester to become fixed and so dictate the position of the crossing. Or it may reflect the constraints of geology/geography, for example if it happens to be the only sensible place in the vicinity to build a bridge.
The thermae courtyard was repaired and resurfaced throughout the fourth century.
When the thermae complex was destroyed by development in 1964, parts of the walls were still standing in situ to a height of up to 13 feet (4 m), hypocausts and mosaic floors were still intact, and large sections of collapsed roofing vaults (barrel-vaulted concrete, estimated to have stood 53 feet above floor level) lay on the floors. A layer of “dark earth” containing charcoal and bits of animal bone had accumulated to a depth of 1 foot (30 cm) over the tepidarium floor, implying a considerable period of residential occupation. It is not known when the roof vault collapsed. However, if the “vaulted dining rooms” mentioned by Ranulph Higden refer to the vaulted and decorated bath complex, then parts of the building were still standing and still roofed in the middle of the fourteenth century.
The harbour and the rest of the Dee estuary downstream of Chester has been slowly silting up since the end of the Ice Age, and the harbour is now the low-lying dry land of Roodee racecourse. In the Roman perod it was a busy harbour and may have been the base for part of the Roman naval fleet. Shipping is recorded as having trouble getting upstream to Chester in the late medieval period, according to Mason. He also says that the Anglo-Scandinavian town of the ninth and tenth centuries relied on trade, and that the street frontages were cleared of Roman rubble because they were the most valued as commercial premises. If this is correct, it implies that the harbour was still capable of taking trading shipping at a useful volume, at least for shallow-draughted ships like those used by the Norsemen, until at least the tenth century. The harbour would presumably therefore also have been similarly functional in the intervening period.
It’s worth noting that there is no trace of the Roman name Deva Victrix in the modern name of Chester or in the names Bede knew for the city in when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History in 731:
…which the English call Legacaster and the British more correctly call Caerlegion…--Bede, Ecclesiastical History of the English People, Book II Ch. 2
Bede was writing in Latin and called the city Urbs Legionis. This translates as “City of the Legion”, as do the English and British names he quotes, so the three names are really the same name in three languages.
This contrasts with some other Roman fortresses and cities, such as Winchester, Lincoln, York, Londinium, Wroxeter and Carlisle, where elements of the Roman name can be traced in the modern name. In turn, this may indicate that whatever Chester was used for after the Romans left, and whoever was using it, the Roman name was either discarded or lost.
The coin evidence may suggest that regular Roman Army troops were still stationed in Chester, getting paid in Imperial coinage and repairing and maintaining the fortress buildings up to about the end of the fourth century, but not during the reign of Honorius in the early fifth. It is of course possible that coins of Honorius circulated in Chester and that none has yet happened to be discovered by archaeology. However, given that the usurper Emperor Constantine III invaded Continental Europe from Britain in 407, presumably with an army, it is quite plausible that he took Chester’s garrison with him.
Chester hosted a major synod in 601 (Annales Cambriae), which is probably the same event as the meeting recorded by Bede in 603 or 604 and attended by seven bishops and “many very learned men” (Bede Book II Ch. 2). The synod and the possible ecclesiastical importance of Chester was discussed in an earlier post. It also has implications for the state of the surviving infrastructure. Seven bishops probably each brought a sizeable retinue, as no doubt did Augustine of Canterbury. If Chester was the site, this implies it was:
(a) an important and prestigious place, suitable for hosting a gathering of VIPs;
(b) had enough infrastructure to cope with them and their retinues in suitable style;
(c) was sufficiently well-connected to transport networks that a large number of people could be expected to travel to it;
(d) perhaps that it had some connection with the Brittonic Christian church or an important official thereof (perhaps a Bishop of Chester, as discussed earlier.
Chester in the seventh century probably still had the following infrastructure:
- A fortress wall (possibly not fully intact – see earlier post);
- A functioning harbour, at least for shallow-draughted vessels;
- A bridge crossing the River Dee;
- Part or all of the main baths complex (thermae), still standing and still roofed;
- Probably some or all of the similarly robust structures, such as the headquarters building and perhaps the Elliptical Buildng, were also still standing and roofed, since they had been kept in good repair up to at least 400 AD and would have taken some time before they fell down;
- Roman streets and roads on the alignments still in use today (and maybe some others that have since been lost);
- A population living in and/or around the fortress, probably at a low density
The location of the synod suggests that the Chester may have been a centre of ecclesiastical power, as has been suggested for Wroxeter. It may also have been a centre of secular power, or the secular power (i.e. the king or local sub-king) may have been based elsewhere, again as has been suggested for Wroxeter.
Chester’s Roman name seems to have gone out of use some time before 731, since Bede knew the city as “City of the Legion” in three languages and not as Deva, Deva Victrix, or any derivation thereof . This isn’t universal for ex-Roman cities in Britain, since Bede knew his local city (modern York) by its Roman name of Eboracum. Nor does it just reflect the limits of Bede’s knowledge, since whoever wrote Annales Cambriae also knew Chester as “City of the Legion”, not as Deva.
The absence of Chester’s Roman name by 731 may suggest either a temporary period of abandonment during which the name was forgotten, or a deliberate decision not to use the Roman name. I would lean towards the deliberate decision, since it seems unlikely that Latin-speaking literate Brittonic churchmen would not have been perfectly capable of reading the city name off milestones or inscriptions if they wanted to, even if all other records had somehow been lost. Perhaps the local population had always called the fortress “the city of the legion”, reflecting its military function, in the same sort of way as the Gaelic name for modern Fort William is An Gearasdan, “the garrison”.
Mason DJP. Roman Chester: city of the eagles. Tempus, 2001, ISBN 978- 0-7524-1922-0.
Bede. Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Translated by Leo Sherley-Price, Penguin Classics, 1968, ISBN 0-14-044565-X
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