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The County of Cheshire

Cheshire History

 A Victorian Definition

Bartholemew's "Gazetteer of the British Isles" (1887) described Cheshire thus:

"Cheshire, a palatine and maritime county of England, bounded on the northwest. by the Irish Sea, and bordering on the counties of Lancaster, York, Derby, Stafford, Salop, Denbigh, and Flint; extreme length, northeast and southwest, 58 miles; extreme breadth, 40 miles; average breadth 18 miles; area, 657,123 acres; population 644,037.
Cheshire forms, towards the Irish Sea, a flat peninsula, the Wirrall (12 miles by 7 miles), between the estuaries of the Mersey and the Dee, and inland a vast plain separating the mountains of Wales from those of Derbyshire. This plain is diversified with fine woods of oak, etc, and is studded with numerous small lakes or meres. A low ridge of sandstone hills runs north from Congleton, near the east border, and another extends from the neighbourhood of Malpas to Frodsham, near the estuary of the Mersey.
The chief rivers are the Mersey with its affluent the Bollin, the Weaver, and the Dee. The soil consists of marl, mixed with clay and sand, and is generally fertile. There are numerous excellent dairy farms, on which the celebrated Cheshire cheese is made; also extensive market gardens, the produce of which is sent to Liverpool, Manchester, and the neighbouring towns.
Salt has been long worked; it is obtained from rock salt and saline springs; the principal works are at Nantwich, Northwich, and Winsford. Coal and ironstone are worked in the districts of Macclesfield and Stockport. There are manufacturers of cotton, silk, and ribbons, carried on chiefly in the towns of the East division; and shipbuilding, on the Mersey. Cheshire contains 7 hundreds and 503 parishes, and is entirely within the Diocese of Chester. "

Roman Cheshire

The resident Celtic tribe of the Cornovii , who occupied ancient the lands that were to become the County of Cheshire, were one of several native British tribes who succumbed and acceded to Roman occupation. In AD 60, the Roman fort of Deva (Chester) was established, most probably to protect access to lead and silver that was found in Flintshire over the border in neighbouring Wales. Deva was the largest Roman fortified settlement in Britain.

Map of Roman Cheshire
Map of Cheshire in Roman Times, showing major roadways and fortified settlements. Copyright © 2003 John Moss

Following various battles against the Brigantes (based in Lancashire) the full scale occupation of Cheshire began around AD 71. Chester thus became the most important of the defences against native incursions, and developed into a major military and commercial centre. The settlements at Condate (Northwich) and Salinae (Middlewich), which was the second largest town in the country after Chester, also grew in importance as their salt mines were highly valued by the Roman occupation forces, many of whom received their pay in salt.
The network of roadways that gradually developed were in no small part the result of so-called "salt roads" over which this valuable commodity was transported. By AD 80, Cheshire as pacified and increasingly Romanised. Other industries included smelting of lead at Runcorn and potteries at Wilderspool, though the county retained most of its rural character and native Britons tended more towards agriculture than industry.

Mercian Saxon Cheshire

After Roman withdrawal from Britain in the 5th century, increasing numbers of invasions took place from Scandinavia - the much feared Norse men, or Danes. Yet, they too in turn grew peaceful and wholesale woodland clearances continued as they settled and farmed new lands in the area. By the mid-7th century, Christianity had become widespread, and early churches were erected, one of the oldest at Eccleston, near Chester ( "eccles" was actually an old Celtic-Welsh word for a church).
In some ways, Cheshire marked a frontier between the Danes in the north and east and the Welsh to the west, and at least two defensive ditches were dug to keep them out - the celebrated Offa's Dyke, built by King Offa of Mercia between 760-780 AD, and the earlier but less well known Wat's Dyke, built some time before 655 AD, which remained the recognised border until the Norman conquest.
Mercian place names are evident throughout the county, recognised by the suffix 'ham' (from the Saxon word 'hamm' meaning a settlement), and 'burgh' or 'bury' (indicating a fortified settlement or stronghold). Old Cheshire townships like Frodsham, Eastham, Weaverham, Wrenbury and Prestbury all reveal Mercian Saxon origins.

Cheshire in Mercian Saxon times with defensive forts
Mercian Cheshire showing defensive forts. Copyright © 2003 John Moss

Scandinavian Cheshire

Apart from Welsh incursions, from the 8th century onwards the region also suffered continuous intermittent attacks from Scandinavians - known variously as the Norsemen, Vikings and Danes. These invasions, from already occupied Ireland, took place over two centuries until the beginning of the 10th century. Parts of west Cheshire were known to have been controlled by the Norse King Ceowolf. It was not until the reign of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex (and later of Mercia) that Scandinavian incursions were eventually controlled, or else peaceful accommodations were made as in the Wirral where the invaders were granted a settlement in exchange for a peace treaty. As a result, the Wirral abounds in Danish place names - as in Thingwall, from 'thing' - meaning 'a meeting place'.
With western Cheshire now largely pacified, the remaining threat now came from the east - from the Danish kingdom based at York. Fortifications were therefore concentrated along the line of the River Mersey - itself a northern border between the Mercian kingdom ( Mersey - the boundary river of the Mercians'), and Northumbria. In 914 AD a defensive stronghold was built at Eddisbury and at Runcorn fortifications were strengthened. All along the length of the River Mersey, as far as Manchester, fortified defensive settlements were created, including Rhuddlan, Thelwall, Bakewell and Penwortham and the old hill fort at Eddisbury was strengthened and brought back into service as a primary defence of Chester.
By 930 AD relative peace had been established throughout the kingdom, and apart from infrequent small raids and a particularly savage and effective incursion in 980 AD, the Norse threat had been removed and Mercia was a well defended fortified entity, and remained so until Norman occupation.
By 980 AD the name of the region had begun to resemble its modern name, and was known as Legecaestrescir , meaning the 'shire of the city of the legions', (a reference to the old Roman occupation), and had probably already become a recognised county since 920 AD under the reign of Edward the Elder. During his reign, parts of old Derbyshire were also added to the Mercian kingdom in the form of Longendale and Macclesfield.
By the end of the 10th century, Chester had become the permanent headquarters of Eadric Streona, the King's Governor of Cheshire, Staffordshire and Shropshire and was increasingly ruled as an autonomous region. By 1030 AD, it had come under the governorship of Earl Edwin, grandson of Leofric of Mercia, perhaps the most powerful and influential family in England, and remained so until the Norman Conquest in 1066 AD.

See also:

Several sources were used in the compilation of this web page, but we must make particular reference to Alan Crosby's book "A History of Cheshire" which provided the lion's share of our information.

Cheshire Continues Next Page >>


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Copyright © John Moss, Papillon Graphics AD 2013 Manchester, United Kingdom - all rights reserved.
This page last updated 6 Feb 12.