Cheshire (archaically the County Palatine of Chester) is a ceremonial county in the North West of England. The western edge of the county forms part of England’s border with Wales. Cheshire’s county town is the city of Chester though Warrington is larger. Other major towns include Widnes, Congleton, Crewe, Macclesfield, Northwich, and Wilmslow. The county is bordered by Merseyside and Greater Manchester to the north, Derbyshire to the east, Staffordshire and Shropshire to the south, and Wales to the west.
Stone Age remains have been found showing a more permanent habitation during the Neolithic age. There is a chambered tomb known as the Bridestones, (left) near Congleton which belonged to the “megalithic culture”, characterised by the practice of collective burial in stone-built chambers beneath mounds of earth and stone. It’s the oldest megalithic structure in Cheshire.
During the Iron Age, Cheshire became occupied by the Celtic Cornovii, bordering the Brigantes to the North and the Deceangli and Ordovices to the West. The Cornovii tribe had their capital at The Wrekin, Shropshire and were known to trade in salt from mines at Middlewich and Northwich.
The Romans arrived in the lands of the Cornovii in 48 A.D. and defeated them at a battle at The Wrekin. They then occupied Cheshire for almost 400 years, during which time they created the town and fortress of Deva Victrix, (right) now Chester.
According to ancient cartographer Ptolemy, the fortress was 20% larger than other fortresses in Britannia built around the same time at York (Eboracum) and Caerleon (Isca Augusta) They developed the settlements at Condate (Northwich) and Salinae (Middlewich) due to the importance as their salt mines. Salt was very important in Roman society and highly valued by the Roman occupation forces. Despite this, the county retained most of its rural character and native Britons tended more towards agriculture than industry.
The army had abandoned the fortress by 410 when the Romans retreated from Britannia. The civilian settlement would probably have remained, using the fortress and its defences as protection from raiders from the Irish Sea. The Anglo-Saxons extended and strengthened the walls of Chester for protection and built at least two defensive ditches Offa’s Dyke, built by King Offa of Mercia between 760-780 and the earlier Wat’s Dyke.
By the middle of the 7th century, Christianity had also become widespread, and one of the earliest churches at Eccleston shows signs of Christian burials as early as 390 AD, the earliest known Christian burials in Cheshire.
During the Norman Conquest, confiscation of lands led to resistance and dissent for many years and Cheshire provided the Normans with stiff resistance. This led the Normans to treat Cheshire particularly harshly with land and villages being destroyed, crops burned and people made homeless. In 1069 the final attempt at resistance was finally put down when Earl Edwin and other notable Saxon landlords had their property confiscated and their land was passed to Norman lords. William built a castle in Chester at a defensive location overlooking the River Dee from where it could dominate and control the city and therefore administer the county.
William abolished the Earldom of Mercia and created a new Earldom of Chester. William made Hugh d’Avranches the first Earl. Hugh was nicknamed Hugh Lupus, or wolf and ruled almost autonomously. Cheshire was therefore declared a County palatine.
Markets had existed in Chester, Middlewich and Nantwich well before 1066, and the suffix “port” (meaning “market”) suggests the likelihood in pre-Norman markets at towns like Stockport.
However the 12th and 13th centuries saw an escalation of towns being granted market rights, probably as the local population grew more used to Norman rule. Aldford and Alderley markets were created in 1253; Macclesfield in 1261; Congleton in 1272 and Over in 1280. However competition was fierce and markets are known to have failed at Aldford, Coddington, Brereton and Burton before the start of the 14th century.
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. Earl Edwin attempted another rebellion in 1071, but was betrayed and killed.
By the early 17th century, Cheshire had established its own gentry descended from the Norman stock. These families dominated trade, legal and community affairs and of course dominated land ownership.
War again swept the county during the English Civil War in 1642, despite an attempt by the local gentry to keep the county neutral, people aligned with either the Royalist or Parliamentarian causes regardless of social status, but more due to their own conscience. Chester and was the setting of a notable siege, as was Nantwich.
The industrial revolution saw population changes in Cheshire as farm workers moved to the factories of Manchester and Lancashire. The abandoned land and farmsteads were absorbed into bigger estates culminating in 98% of Cheshire land belonging to only 26% of the population. By 1870 Peckforton Castle had estates of 25,000 acres. In the 18th and 19th centuries there was a resurgence in the country houses of Cheshire and canals and railways were built. Cheshire continued to develop into a wealthy county during the 19th century with the railways coming through the county in the 1830s.
Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles (1887) described Cheshire’s industry:
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 cheese is one of the oldest recorded named cheeses in British history:
it is first mentioned, along with Shropshire, by Thomas Muffet in Health’s Improvement (c. 1580). Cheshire cheese is Britain’s oldest cheese. There is no earlier specific mention of the cheese of the county, but the importance of Cheshire as one of the main dairy regions of England is already emphasised by William of Malmesbury in the Chester section of his Gesta pontificum Anglorum (“History of the bishops of England” c. 1125).
The county flower is the Cuckoo Flower or Lady’s Smock (Cardamine pratensis) and local delicacies include:
Chester buns – plain yeast buns with a simple sugar and water glaze.
Cheshire cheese – fine and crumbly, in three colours, white, red and blue.
Chester pudding – suet pudding, steamed and served with blackcurrant jam.