We should have known, of course, right from the first. It was there, written in flowers and earth… but although we saw, we didn’t see. How could we? Such signs and portents seldom become clear until after the fact and it is easy to read much into little. Even so… we really should have known, given what we are writing about.
The sun was cresting the constructed horizon of the town as we walked to the Roman wall to take a first look at the Cathedral, its rays gilding the warmth of the red sandstone and setting a fire in the damp blackness of the trees. From here we could see into the grounds where a Celtic Cross… a solar cross… was laid out in the garden.
The cathedral was still closed, so we had gone in search of breakfast though I could, undoubtedly, have simply stayed there documenting the menagerie of strange creatures carved in the stonework. Even then I didn’t realise what was to come… or just how many photographs I would have to take… and not even scratch the surface of the artistry and history within.
Legends say that the site has always been sacred. Long ago, so the tales tell, a Druid Grove stood upon this site. Then a Roman Temple to Apollo, followed by a Roman Basilica dedicated to St Peter and St Paul, possibly when Christianity became the official religion of Rome in the 4th Century.
Our interest, however, really begins in the 7th Century with the church that was founded in 660AD by King Wilfhere, about the time when King Penda, the last pagan king ruled the kingdom of Mercia. We have written of this era throughout the Doomsday series and the legends associated with the place have been entwined with our research and stories.
In its time the Cathedral has been ecclesiastical college and Abbey. It was once was part of a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Werburgh, granddaughter of our King Penda, and her remains were brought to Chester in 875AD to protect them from the Viking attacks. A church was established by King Alfred’s daughter, Queen Ethelfelda …‘The Lady of The Mercians’… and the relics enshrined in 907AD. The church was restored by Lady Godiva… she who is said to have ridden naked through the streets of Coventry… and her husband Earl Leofric of Mercia, but in 1090 this church was razed to the ground.
In 1092AD a new monastery was founded by Hugh Lupus, ‘The Wolf’, a nephew of William the Conqueror. Work continued for centuries, building and remodelling, right up until the Dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry VIII in 1540. Unlike many such buildings, however, Chester escaped destruction and King Henry established the Anglican Cathedral of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary in the abbey in 1541; the last abbot became the first Dean and the senior monks were made Canons.
The building is incredible. Traceries of lace carved in stone, sculpted wood, stained glass and mosaics… geometric floors and painted ceilings… and a very loud and modern alarm system that can … apparently… be tripped by errant photographers trying to get a shot of a particular ceiling boss. They were very nice about that, I have to say, under the circumstances…
In fact, the whole place has a friendly feel… very warm and welcoming unlike many of the cathedrals where secular power has vied for supremacy with spiritual strength. Schoolchildren in monastic habits were being shown around the building, learning about the lives of their forefathers… the very stone seems to exude peace in the intricately vaulted cloisters. There was just so much … there is no way I can show it to you all at once…