The architecture of the Chester city walls

Chester has a long and illustrious history. It is full of spectacular buildings, which reflects the fact that the city has been an important place for centuries.

Chester Cathedral 3

Examples include the 1st century Roman Amphitheatre, the medieval cathedral (above), and the many Tudor palaces. If architecture is a passion of yours, you will enjoy visiting or living in this city, since there are beautiful and interesting buildings to see at every turn.

One of the most unusual, and impressive, examples is actually not a building. The structure we find the most interesting, and intriguing are the city walls. Below, we share the story of the Chester city walls, giving you an insight into why they were built, and how they have protected this beautiful Anglo-Welsh border city over the centuries.

Walls from Northgate 2

Who built the city walls?

The history to the city walls is a long one. Chester’s walls were constructed over the course of literally hundreds of years. All kinds of people were involved in the building, extending and maintenance of this remarkable structure.

The Romans started it all

It all started when the Romans arrived in the area. At that stage, the Romans were very much an invading army. The indigenous population had not yet accepted them as their new rulers, so the Romans were living in what was essentially a hostile environment.

As a result, they had little choice but to build a series of fortresses. Doing so enabled them to hold the ground that they had seized, and to move relatively safely around their territories. It also provided troops, and other Roman citizens, with a secure place to live.

The wooden Roman forts

It is possible that a wooden fort was built in the Chester area as early as 47/48 AD. At that time, Publius Ostorius Scapula was exploring the area. A marching fort may have been built at the mouth of the River Dee, which would have been made of wood and defended by a basic wooden stake wall.

So far, the foundations of that fortress have not been found, but it was normal for the Romans to establish this kind of fort first. Therefore, there is a strong possibility that is exactly what they did in Chester.

Usually, when they did so and decided to stay, they would incorporate the existing wooden structure into the new bigger fortress. Therefore, some people argue that the walls of Chester started to be constructed as early as 47AD.

These wooden forts went up quickly, and used materials that were easily to hand. This approach allowed the Romans to establish a presence quickly, and work out whether they could subdue the area. These wooden forts provided a jumping-off point from which the Romans could explore, and establish whether a territory was worth holding.

We know for sure that between 70 and 80AD, Legio II Adiutrix started to build a permanent fortress on the site of modern-day Chester. This structure was also located alongside the River Dee, and was called Deva Victrix.

To our modern eyes, the fortress would seem rudimentary. It would have also been constructed quickly, using the materials that were to hand. The first step was to create a rampart of earth, and top it with turf. A high wooden palisade was then built on top.

Why did the Romans construct this style of wall in Chester?

Later, in the 1st century, the walls were rebuilt using large, heavy sandstone blocks. Interestingly, no mortar was used to hold these blocks together. This rebuilding work took nearly a hundred years to complete, and would have had to be carried out by a large team of skilled masons.

In addition, stone towers were built to replace the original wooden ones. A lot of money was spent on making the wall look aesthetically pleasing. For example, there were capstones running all the way round, as well as decorative carved cornices.

However, it is still obvious that these walls were primarily built for defence. For example, a parapet was incorporated into the design to provide a high vantage point from which troops could fend off invaders.

Today’s modern city wall is 1.8 miles in circumference. The Roman walls were shorter, at around a mile long, but this first Roman fort was still one of the biggest ever to be built in the UK.

Interestingly, the modern walls you see today incorporate lengths of the Roman fortress wall. For example, the run between The Newgate & The Wolfgate to The Phoenix Tower follows the line of the Roman walls, as does the section between St. Martin’s Gate and The Phoenix Tower.

As we mentioned earlier, this fortress was far bigger than a standard Roman fort. In fact, it was 20% larger than the forts that the Romans built in other parts of Britain.

Its size, and the presence of some unusual buildings, has led historians to speculate that the fortress was built as a jumping-off point for an invasion of Ireland. The invasion never actually took place, but we do know that the Romans considered invading, and started preparing for such an eventuality.

Over time, a civilian settlement grew up around the fortress, with some of the residential buildings being built outside of the walls. These houses combined with the fort buildings formed the core of what is, today, the modern city of Chester.

Walls from Northgate

Æthelflæd’s contribution to Chester’s city walls

The Romans maintained the walls in good condition until they left in the 4th century. It is not clear how well they were taken care of once the Romans left. In all likelihood, the walls fell into a state of disrepair.

The walls do not appear to have received much attention until 907 when Æthelflæd turned Chester into a burgh. The Anglo-Saxons had just reconquered Mercia, so their new queen needed a safe haven from which to operate.

Chester was ideal. Here, Æthelflæd and her armies had access to everything they needed, as well as a solid defensive wall to shelter behind, when necessary. Improving the fortifications that were already there was a logical step for Æthelflæd to take.

There is evidence that she used stone found in the local area to repair the northern and eastern sections of the wall. We know this because Roman tombstones have been found embedded in these sections of the wall, so clearly they were used for some of the repairs. It is also possible that she extended the walls to the southeast to form an L-shaped defence, with the river providing protection for the exposed section of the settlement.

William the Conqueror extends the walls

However, from what we can tell it appears that Æthelflæd did not extend the walls by much. The majority of the work that gave us the walls we see today was done only after William the Conqueror arrived in the city, in 1069.

His first step was to have a castle built, but outside the boundary of the original Roman walls. It was only logical that he extended the walls to enclose the castle, since doing so provided additional protection for its inhabitants.

Eventually, the rest of the medieval city was enclosed when the walls were extended to the west and south. A final third stretch was built to join the two new sections together. This formed a square walled enclosure that provided protection for the entire city.

During this period of construction, three new gates were added: The Watergate, Bridgegate and Shipgate. These new gates, and sections of the wall, took decades to build.

Construction work started around 1070, but the Shipgate and Bridgegate were not completed until the 1120s. The last section of the wall was finished by 1162. At that point, the layout of today’s Chester walls was established.

The testing of the walls

Over the centuries, the fortifications were tested repeatedly. Naturally, each time invaders tried to get into the city, the walls were damaged and had to be repaired.

Every attack took place using new weapons and siege strategies. Therefore, each new attack highlighted weaknesses in the design of the walls.

For example, in 1265 the supporters of Henry III besieged the castle for 10 weeks until Luke de Taney surrendered. Afterwards, the fortifications were strengthened to try to make the city less vulnerable. On that occasion, a two-meter ditch was added along the front of long sections of the wall. Chester’s walls continued to be changed and reinforced right up until the mid 1600s.

The struggle to maintain the walls

There is no doubt that over the centuries, the walls have protected the occupants of the city. It is clear that the city walls protected Chester’s inhabitants from physical harm by keeping invading armies out.

Over the centuries, the walls have had a significant impact on the lives of the people of Chester. The fact that they were lucky enough to live in a walled city provided them with a more stable life.

Due to the fact that the city was so well protected, over the centuries, Chester remained an important commercial and political centre. Again and again, the powerful rulers of the day were attracted to the city, and used it as a base for their operations in the area. If the walls had not been there, Chester would have not been seen as such an attractive proposition by the rulers of the time.

The fact that the walls were here attracted the right people to the city. This stability allowed Chester’s trader to thrive, and continue to do so down through the centuries.

However, there was a price to pay. Maintaining this large structure, and doing so for thousands of years, has been expensive.

Over the centuries, the maintenance of the walls has been funded in different ways. Sometimes the state contributed, but most of the time it was those that lived in the city, and the surrounding area, that paid for the upkeep of the walls. For hundreds of years, the residents of the city were charged a murage. In addition, merchants that traded in the city were charged a tax to bring their goods through the walls into the city of Chester.

Unfortunately, there were periods where there was not enough money available. Therefore, at times, the walls were in a very poor state of repair. In 1569, 1608 and 1629, there were known to be actual gaps in the walls.

The walls were hastily repaired in 1641, when it became clear that a Civil War was inevitable. In 1645, the walls were heavily tested when Parliamentarian forces attacked, and eventually breached the wall in two places. Fortunately, that was the last time the walls were needed for defence.

Other uses for the walls

After that, maintaining the walls became less important, at least from a defensive point of view. However, the walls have continued to be important for Chester.

Once it started to become clear that the walls were not needed for defensive purposes the city authorities started to look at new ways to use them. In 1707, £1,000 was spent on repairing the walls and laying a proper path along the parapet. This was done to allow people to use it as a recreational walkway. For the city of Chester, this was a significant investment; in today’s money £1,000 would be the equivalent of £150,000.

When the gates became too narrow to accommodate the increasing flow of traffic in the mid-1700s, the authorities widened the gates. They could have simply knocked them down and removed some of the wall either side, leaving a gap. Instead, they spent a lot of money on preserving the integrity of the walls.

The city authorities even went as far as incorporating a new walkway section into the gates. This meant that people could enjoy a longer, uninterrupted, walk along the walls. In 1720, steps were added to make the walkway more accessible. A second set was added in 1785.

These improvements gave the walls a new lease of life. They became a recreational facility for city residents to enjoy. Sadly, the needs of modern life meant that roads and bridges have now cut across the original walls. However, Chester still has the most complete set of original city walls in the UK.

Chester Walls Bridge (Pepper Street)

The future of the walls

Today, the walls are not needed for defensive reasons. However, they are still very important to the city.

They are now a major tourist attraction, which means that they are an essential component of the local economy. The cost of maintaining the walls is a problem, but, to date, the city authorities have continued to see this unusual structure as important. Therefore, the future of the Chester city walls looks to be secure.

Posted by Mark
June 17, 2016


  1. ‘Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls’..


    Comment by Steve Howe — October 4, 2019 @ 11:46 am

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment