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If you happen to think about Chester’s origins, you probably imagine it as a Roman fortress which became a medieval English county town. What you may not realise is that this transition took place in a much more exotic ‘transnational’ context, known to scholars as the Viking ‘diaspora’. Indeed, the origins of Chester belong to a time before there was a single English people or an England.

The Viking Age, AD  800-1200, witnessed people sailing from Scandinavia to dominate the Baltic Sea, the North Sea, the Irish Sea and the North Atlantic Sea. They were raiders, traders, conquerors and settlers, who travelled huge distances, from modern day Turkey to North America, and settled in Russia, northern France, Britain, Ireland and Iceland. Thanks to the Vikings, Chester became a node in these transnational networks.

The former Roman fortress at Chester was perfectly placed to dominate the Irish Sea – it was perhaps originally sited for that purpose. Elsewhere in Britain, Viking armies occupied older fortresses and used them as bases for raiding, so Chester might have been an attractive prospect.

But the Vikings were not the first people to re-use the Roman fortress at Chester. In the early middle ages, Britain was a patchwork of peoples with their own kings, including the Mercians, with their heartlands around Lichfield and Tamworth (modern Staffordshire), and Repton (modern Derbyshire). The kings of Mercians extended their authority over Chester and probably founded two religious communities – one on the site of Chester Cathedral, within the Roman walls, and the other on the site of St John’s Church, outside the walls next to the former Roman amphitheatre. Wealthy religious communities were a common target for the Vikings and this may be another reason why Chester was targeted.

The history of Viking Age Chester is only sporadically recorded. During the ninth century, the rulers of the Mercians fought continuous battles with Viking armies, chronicled in a series of annals known as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. In 893 these annals tell us that:

‘a large (Viking) army…reached a deserted city in Wirral, which is called Chester. Then the army (West Saxon and Mercian?) could not overtake them before they were inside that fortress. However, they besieged the fortress for some two days, and seized all the cattle that was outside, and killed the men whom they could cut off outside the fortress, and burnt all the corn, or consumed it by means of their horses, in all the surrounding districts.’

Then, at the beginning of a series of annals describing the activities of Æthelflæd, ruler of the Mercians, we learn that ‘In this year (907) Chester was restored.’ A later set of annals known as the Fragmentary Annals of Ireland claim that at this time a Viking leader called Ingimund left Ireland for Britain, came to Æthelflæd for help, was settled on land near Chester, coveted the wealthy city and its lands, gathered Viking allies to attack it, but was defeated by Æthelflæd’s forces.

Behind these stories about Mercian rulers and Viking armies lies the shadowy presence of Chester as a fortified place with associated lands and wealth to be plundered or controlled. To see glimpses of the people and networks through which that wealth was acquired we have to turn to the surviving material culture. Watch my video below to see how buildings, pins, brooches, churches, and crosses found in the city reveal its Viking past hidden in plain sight. In turn, see how this activity may explain how Chester and St John’s Church became the symbolic centre of Britain and Ireland.


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