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Often overlooked, the stunning Water Tower on Chester’s city walls highlights an important peek into the city in the Middle Ages as an interconnected and international place. Students of History at Chester can study this medieval past and also become a part of on-going research by myself and the Grosvenor Museum in Chester to examine the city as a significant node in a wider global network of trade and commerce.

The Water Tower was built between 1322 and 1325. Although it might be hard to imagine when you visit it now, during the Middle Ages the tower actually stood in the River Dee and during this period Chester was a major port city in the North West of England. One of the key purposes of the tower was to monitor the ships that came into Chester and to ensure that custom duties and taxes were paid on the goods that came into the city. It was here that numerous ships from France, Spain, Ireland and Germany would come to unload cargoes of wine, furs and skins. These were often sold and traded at markets and fairs within Chester which could last from two weeks to a month in length.

Taking a walk further into the centre of Chester itself, you can see everywhere reminders of the wealthy merchants who lived and traded in the city, especially in Bridge Street. Chester merchants who participated in longer distance trade and in more luxurious objects became very wealthy.  We know of one such 13th century merchant, Hugh of Brickhill, and his ship was sent to Gascony in 1283 to be stocked with hides and armour for the English king’s knights. Once the ship had completed its mission we know that the ship returned with wine for the royal army in Wales. The success in trade and commerce of these merchants allowed them to build wealthy residences in Chester. Some part of their residences survive today in Bridge Street, so why not pop into the shops that line the streets and you can catch a glimpse of medieval cellars and undercrofts.

Another way that we can understand Chester as a thriving international city in the Middle Ages is through objects found in archaeological excavations. One of these objects is a 14th century tile, kept today in the collections of the Grosvenor Museum. The tile shows three hares or rabbits interlocked by their ears. If you look really closely at the tile you can see it is a visual riddle or puzzle. Only three ears of the animal appear on the tile, but yet each animal shares an ear. While the tile was found during excavations in the nave of Chester Cathedral in 1996, the actual motif of the tile was inspired by designs on silks imported to Northern Europe along the silk road in China. So this design has travelled thousands of miles from China to Chester showing how people, ideas and objects travelled across boundaries in the Middle Ages, often through trade.

As I explore in this short film, the Water Tower, merchants' houses and objects in the city remind us to look closely at Chester in the Middle Ages. If we do so, we can see a thriving international, connected city with global trade links.


If you’d like to know more about the history of Chester, visit our Global History in One City page, where our lecturers feature in a series of videos demonstrating how the local history of Chester is undeniably part of a rich and dynamic global history.

If you have an interest in history, you can find information about our History course here and you can also chat to one of our History students via Unibuddy.

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