Chester Cathedral is a truly remarkable building, with a history spanning almost two thousand years. According to legend, a prehistoric Druid temple existed on this site, which was succeeded by a Roman temple dedicated to Apollo. When Christianity became the state religion of Rome in the fourth century AD, the pagan temple may have become a Christian church.
Certainly a church was founded here in 660, and in 875 the relics of St Werburgh were brought to Chester to protect them from attacks by the Vikings. In 907 a church was built by King Alfred’s daughter, Queen Ethelfelda (‘The Lady of The Mercians’) specifically to house St Werburgh’s remains.
St Werburgh in a stained glass window in the Cloisters
The Romanesque arch
in the north transept In 1092, the Norman Earl of Chester, Hugh Lupus (‘The Wolf’), the nephew of William the Conqueror, decided to found a great monastery in the heart of his administrative capital. He sought the help of Anselm, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy and one of the greatest theologians of his day, and at Hugh’s third invitation, Anselm came to Chester to establish the new foundation.
The building of the monastery began at the east end in 1092, working from east to west; the style of the church was Romanesque, in imitation of the Roman building style, with round headed arches and solid masonry.
When the east end was finished it was consecrated to allow services to take place; meanwhile work continued on the rest of the church and started on the cloisters (the domestic buildings).
The first part of the cloisters to be built was the south side (the side nearest the church) followed by the west, north and east sides. The final part to be constructed was the Chapter House, completed in about 1250 and, by that time, the architectural style had changed to the Gothic, with its pointed arches and ribbed ceilings.
The Chapter House
The Lady Chapel At the same time it was felt that the church in the Romanesque style looked somewhat dated, so the monks decided to rebuild it in the more contemporary Gothic style. Reconstruction began in about 1260 at the east end starting with the Lady Chapel.
Work continued with the remodelling of the quire in 1290. The Crossing followed in about 1300, followed by the South Transept in 1350. The south side of the Nave was remodelled in 1360 but the north side of the Nave was not built until 1490 – this 130 year break in building was due to plague when not enough workers were on hand to continue the building.
The west end was constructed about 1520 and the work then moved aloft to construct the upper windows and the stone ceilings.
In 1540, however, the monastery was dissolved; building ceased at this time and very plain wooden ceilings were erected to allow services to take place inside.
Instead of the customary destruction of monasteries during the dissolution, Henry VIII handed it back as the Cathedral of the newly created Diocese of Chester.
The Song School By the nineteenth century, it was clear that the building needed restoration and some work was undertaken in the 1830s. However the major restoration took place 1868-76 by George Gilbert Scott, although further work continued into the early twentieth century; the external Bell Tower was opened in 1975, and the stone floor of the Nave dates from 1997 while the Song School was completed in 2005.