The Early History of Chester
You may have wondered why so many British towns and cities end in the word ‘caster’, ‘chester’ or ‘cester’. What is it that Doncaster, Manchester, Worcester and Leicester have in common?
The answer lies in the fact that each of these suffixes is derived from latin – specifically from the word ‘castrum’, meaning fort. All of these towns are situated on the sites of old Roman fortresses. That Chester is not in need of a prefix gives you an idea of how significant a settlement it was to the Romans.
What is now Chester began life as a roman fortress known as Deva Victrix. The name originates from that of the Roman legion which founded it, XX Valeria Victrix and from the word for the river Dee, around which it was built.
When the Roman army reached the northern part of the island, in the land that is now Yorkshire, they encountered a tribe known as the Brigantes. We don’t know a great deal about the Brigantes before their dealings with the Romans. We can, however, be fairly certain that the Romans considered them to be something of a nuisance. Having unsuccessfully attempted to negotiate with them, the Romans decided that they needed to be subdued and that Chester represented the perfect place from which to do it.
There are several aspects of the construction of Deva Victrix which suggest that it may have been intended as the possible capital of Brittania and a base from which to launch further incursions into Hibernia (or Ireland, as we now call it), as well as further north into modern Scotland.
One reason to suspect that Deva Victrix was an important Roman settlement is its sheer size. It is among the largest of the Roman settlements built in Britain. But as well as this, we should also consider the sorts of buildings contained within its walls.
Among these is an elliptical building, of a sort which is not found in any other legionary fortresses. Many historians now believe that this building acted as a headquarters for the region’s governor. The settlement also contained a number of other amenities, including baths and even an amphitheater – all of which lends credence to the theory that Deva Victrix was intended as something more than a mere base camp.
Whatever the intention behind Deva Victrix might have been, the course of history ensured that it was Londinium which would instead become the nation’s capital. As the Empire’s grander strategy shifted from expansionism to consolidation, further northward conquest in Britannia was halted and the south became more important.
What remains of the Roman presence in Cheshire today?
Fortunately, there is a great deal still to see in Cheshire from that period. Outside the walls of the main settlement, the Romans built a sandstone quarry at nearby Handbridge. On the site is a shrine to Minerva, the goddess of wisdom and is one of the only such shrines in Britain.
Chester is also home to the largest roman amphitheater in Britain. The amphitheater was likely used to host the sorts of blood sport that the Romans were especially fond of – bullfighting, cockfighting and gladiatorial combat, along with the occasional public execution.
Unfortunately, the amphitheater did not fare well after the Roman withdrawal from Britain several hundred years after its construction. Its floor was used as a refuse dump, while its structure fell prey to scavengers and erosion. The final insult came in 1730 when oblivious Georgians built a town house over the top of it. The error would not come to light until later, when a planned further extension of the house was halted after an excavation uncovered the amphitheater.
Now, the remaining half of the amphitheater has been uncovered and functions as a tourist hub. A mural painted to resemble the buried half of the ruin covers the entirety of a wall which now divides it in two.
Roman Tours in Chester
Much from this period of roman history survives to this day. The history of this period is preserved by a determined group of tour guides, who conduct their tours through Chester dressed in full Legionnaires regalia. They have a rich knowledge of the period, which they impart daily to those that take the tour.
There are few better ways to go and learn about Roman history. As well as the tours themselves, the summer also sees groups of legionnaires parading through the town center in order to commemorate the significant dates of the Roman calendar.
Those looking to experience this, along with all of the other attractions the region has to offer, will be pleased to note that there are a number of luxury hotels in Cheshire. Among them is Carden Park, which will also be of interest to those looking for a golf course, restaurant or wedding venue near Chester.