Resistance to the Norman Conquest of 1066 by
William I and confiscation of lands by the conquerors led to ongoing
dissent and resistance for many years after the invasion. Cheshire,
as a remote northern and independent kingdom offered stiff resistance.
William therefore forcibly imposed his will with a degree of severity
and brutality that made earlier Norse incursions pale into insignificance
by comparison. His treatment of Cheshire was particularly severe, whole
swathes of land being destroyed, villages razed, crops burnt, livestock
slaughtered and people rendered landless, homeless and dispossessed.
In particular, in 1069 a last ditch attempt at local resistance was
bitterly put down and draconian measures taken to impress native Saxons
with the futility of future resistance. Earl Edwin of Mercia along with
other major landowners were made examples of, their properties confiscated
in reprisal and lands redistributed amongst Norman barons.
was the devastation of Cheshire that in William's own Domesday Survey
of 1086 most of the lands in Cheshire were recorded as 'wasta',
or wasteland, as "abandoned or useless lands" where they had
hitherto been fertile and prosperous before the Conquest. Macclesfield,
in particular, seems to have been especially targeted for destruction
by Norman forces, as was the city of Chester, which was besieged in
1070 and eventually sacked, largely demolished and devastated. All this
plunged the county into a state of utter poverty, starvation and deprivation,
from which it took many decades to recover.
At Chester, William built a castle in a defensive location overlooking
the River Dee from where it could dominate and control the city and
from whence the county would be administered. Gaps in the old Roman
wall were repaired, 10 additional guard towers built, so that the inner
city had a 2 mile defensible wall and walkway - making Chester probably
one of the most heavily defended cities in Britain at that time.
The New Administration Having dispossessed Edwin and usurped his governorship,
King William then created one of his faithful baron supporters, Hugh
d'Avranches (nicknamed Hugh Lupus, or 'wolf) as Earl of Chester, ruling
virtually autonomously in his name and with his full authority, and
Cheshire was thereby declared a County Palatine, a title it still holds
today. The county continued to be ruled and administered by Norman earls
and their issue, with their own courts of law, a structured civil service
and independent powers, until the last died without male heir in 1237.
At that time the King, Henry IIIl, declared the female line of inheritance
to be invalid and took back the title, bestowing it on his son, Prince
Edward. Ever since that time the eldest son of all English monarchs
has held the title of Earl of Chester. By the 13th century, so important
were the city and castle at Chester regarded, that extensions were built
to include a royal apartment for King Edward I and his queen, where
they stayed during the various wars with the neighbouring Welsh.
Many other Norman castles were subsequently constructed throughout the
county of Cheshire in order to maintain the peace and to exert control
over the disenchanted population of the region who bitterly hated their
Norman overseers for many generations.
Castles in Cheshire. © John Moss 2003.
A concentrated line of castles protected the border
on the western side of the county from the Welsh; additionally to that
at Chester, these included motte and bailey castles at Shotwick, Dodleston,
Aldford, Pilford, Shocklach, Oldcastle and Malpas. Earlier or derelict
forts at Frodsham, Runcorn, Hale and Halton were reinforced or replaced
with stone to protect the Mersey Estuary. The central Cheshire Plain
was dominated by a new castle at Beeston, which still overlooks it today;
the southern and eastern borders were protected at Stockport, Macclesfield
and Nantwich. But in another sense the castles which the Nomans built
across England had less to do with the defence of the kingdom than with
the demonstration of clear visible evidence that Saxon rule and culture
had ceased and that a new and permanent power now existed in the land.
It would take the best part of two centuries for the
racial and cultural divisions that still existed between Saxons and
Normans to be reconciled and for a clear English culture to emerge.
This is evidenced by the improvements in trade and commerce, particularly
during the two or three centuries following the Conquest when many markets
were established by Royal Charter throughout the region. These were
made possible partly by new rights and freedoms which had been established
by Magna Carta, which laid the basis of English Common Law and went
a considerable way towards removing the injustices which 'Norman' overlords
still wrought upon common Saxon peasantry. These commercial advancements
are shown in the growth of these market towns - Cheshire had finally
recovered from the destruction of the Norman Conquerors and deep wounds
had begun to heal.
Markets had existed in Chester, Middlewich and Nantwich well before
1066. The Angle-Saxon suffix "-port" (meaning "market"),
illustrates the likelihood towns like Stockport had early pre-Norman
markets already in place. However, most known markets seem to have come
into being in the 12th and 13th centuries - Aldford and Alderley were
granted market rights in 1253, Macclesfield in 1261, Congleton in 1272
and Over in 1280. Many others soon followed, though many failed through
the fierce competition that one market town held over its neighbours.
Markets at Aldford, Coddington, Brereton and Burton had all failed and
disappeared before the start of the 14th century. There were also many
other informal or unofficial markets in many Cheshire townships, including
Sandbach and Tintwistle (then included in the county). Twenty-three
official markets were known to exist in medieval Cheshire, but there
were probably twice that number if we include unofficial markets.
Cheshire Markets. © John Moss 2003
Apart from market days, several times
a year townships of any size held fairs - predominantly cattle fairs,
horse fairs or agricultural fairs. Often these were held outside towns
at important cross-roads where they could attract passing trade, as
that held south of Tarporley, which was the site of one of the biggest
cattle fairs in medieval Cheshire.
Even though traditional Norman and Saxon divisions
had been largely forgotten, by the early 17th century Cheshire had established
its own gentry, with leading and land-owning families still largely
descended from Norman stock. Families like the Venables, the Mainwarings,
the Davenports and the Masseys monopolised most of the land ownership
and traced their lineages directly back to the Conquest of 1066. They
also dominated trade, legal and community affairs, and tended to marry
only amongst each other. However, the outbreak of the English Civil
Wars in 1642 was to change all that, and divided loyalties tore apart
an otherwise well established and cohesive social fabric. Peasant and
aristocrat allied with either Royalist or Parliamentarian causes according
to conscience and irrespective of social status. The county, like many
others, saw vicious battles fought on its lands - notably, the sieges
of Nantwich and Chester caused extensive devastation and bloody battles
at townships like Middlewich wrought havoc in the surrounding countryside
of central Cheshire.
About two-thirds of the county gentry remained fervently Royalist in
their allegiances, while the remainder were Parliamentarians. Chester
was a Royalist stronghold, while the market towns of Stockport, Knutsford,
Nantwich, Congleton, Middlewich and Northwich remained in Parliamentarian
In 1654, England was placed under military rule and Cheshire, Lancashire
and North Staffordshire were governed by the infamous Charles
Worsley. His ruthless treatment of Royalist supporters made his
name feared and despised throughout the northwest of England. Riots
were planned, even by Parliamentarians, notably Sir George Booth of
Dunham Massey near Altrincham, in the face of Worsley's barbarism, though
these were summarily quashed and the leaders executed.
Late in the 18th century, land enclosure and district
reorganisations took place, many large estates being reorganised and
boundaries redrawn. Industrialisation of the many mill towns in Lancashire
and Manchester saw many Cheshire farmsteads abandoned as workers sought
"a better living" in the industrial towns. Abandoned lands
were absorbed into bigger estates so that by 98% of the land in Cheshire
belonged to only 26% of its population. By 1870, enormous estates grew
up, including John Tollemache's estate at Peckforton with over 25,000
acres, the Marquess of Cholmondeley's lands of nearly 17,000 acres and
those of the Duke of Westminster at just over 15,000 acres.
Cheshire was a wealthy county in the 19th century. It is estimated that
there are more more fine 18th and 19th century country houses in Cheshire
than any other English county. Tatton
Hall and Dunham Massey are examples.
The wealthy land-owning Egerton Family built their impressive country
seat at Tatton between 1760 and 1820, set in its own magnificent parkland
and exotic gardens, and the 17th century house at Dunham Massey saw
significant 19th century development and expansion into its present
Cheshire Cheese also came into the national consciousness at this time,
with some 10,000 tons being sent per year to London alone, thanks to
the completion of the Trent & Mersey
Canal which connected rural Cheshire directly to the industrial
Midlands and beyond