Water Tower, Chester, built c. 1322-6 by John of Helpston
Robert W. Barrett, Jr.

Chester and Cheshire

In 1322, a few decades before the beginning of Regeneration’s period of coverage, the citizens of Chester agreed to pay royal mason John de Helpston £100 to build a tower at the northwestern corner of the city walls.  This so-called New Tower was needed to guard access to Chester’s harbor; because the course of the ever-silting River Dee was continually shifting away from Chester, the riverside fortification had to be attached to the civic defenses by nearly thirty meters of spur wall.  Within a century of the tower’s construction, the Dee’s course had moved further west—leaving the New Tower high and dry.  In spite of its newly landlocked condition, the tower came to be redesignated the Water Tower sometime during the seventeenth century, and it continues to bear that name today.

The Water Tower’s westward orientation connects it to medieval Chester’s raison d’être: defense against the Welsh.  (The hills of Flintshire are just visible to the left of the image above; in the fourteenth century, Flintshire was occupied territory, governed from Chester Castle.)  Chester was the embarkation point for Edward I’s late thirteenth-century pacification campaigns against the Welsh.  Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that the Water Tower is materially tied to Edward’s policy of castle-building in North Wales: first recorded as a citizen of the English borough at Ruthin in 1296, tower-builder John de Helpston was also working at Flint in 1324.  Furthermore, the Water Tower’s physical fabric resembles that of a riverine tower built at Conwy in the 1280s.  The Welsh never appear to have attacked the Water Tower, even during Owain Glyn Dŵr’s early fifteenth-century Rising; the only recorded aggression aimed at the fortification is that of the Parliamentarians in the Siege of Chester (1644-46).  The tower nonetheless remains a symbol of English vigilance against foreign encroachment, a sign of Cestrians’ investment in their identity as a militarized border population.

Many of the texts produced in the vicinity of Chester and Cheshire during the fourteenth century share that investment in liminality.  In period, the most famous of these works is the Polychronicon of Ranulph Higden, a Benedictine monk resident at St. Werburgh’s Abbey in Chester.  Begun around 1327, Higden’s chronicle history of the world deftly negotiates the contradictions between its regional origin at the edge of England (a location Kathy Lavezzo has described as “on the border of the border of the world”) and the claims of global centrality that the work advances for its source monastery.  (Higden’s project will be continued in the sixteenth century by the producers of the Chester Whitsun plays: the play Banns attribute authorship of the cycle to Higden and Mayor John Arneway, incorrectly but intriguingly identifying the fourteenth century as the origin point for the plays’ own conflation of  local and universal identities.)

Borders are also at issue in British Library MS Cotton Nero A.x, the unique copy of the alliterative poems Pearl, Patience, Cleanness, and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight.  The Cheshire origins of these works are tentative: they appear to have been produced somewhere in the vicinity of Cheshire’s southeastern border with Staffordshire, with Ad Putter and Myra Stokes recently arguing for “a home dialect somewhat north of Staffordshire.”  Pearl denies interfaces and crossing-points in favor of a discourse dedicated to enclosure and inaccessibility; Sir Gawain opts instead to depict the self’s failure to properly police its boundaries, connecting Gawain’s ordeal at the Green Chapel with a self-conscious triangulation of (Southern) English, Welsh, and Cestrian identities.  Thematically (if not authorially) linked to the Pearl-poet’s work is St. Erkenwald, a northeast Cheshire work that considers London and the English past from a provincial perspective.  Time becomes a border here, a concern that marks much, if not most, of the alliterative poetry of the English northwest.