Chester and the Cotswolds, UK

We are finishing the British portion of our DNA trip by visiting Chester and the Cotswolds. Did you know, in England, that you can’t be considered a city if you don’t have a cathedral? No cathedral, no city. And no, of course there is no intermixing of church and state here – whatever made you think such a thing?

The city of Chester is an old city with a rich history with a lot of ethnic admixture.

Chester was founded as a “castrum” or Roman fort with the name Deva Victrix in the year 79 by the Roman Legion II Adiutrix during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian. Chester’s four main roads, Eastgate, Northgate, Watergate and Bridge, follow routes laid out at this time – almost 2,000 years ago.

Eastgate 1880s

This painting shows Eastgate in the 1880s.

One of the three main Roman army camps, Deva later became a major settlement in the Roman province of Britannia.

Chester Roman fort

A diorama of the Roman Legionary fortress Deva Victrix, courtesy of the Grosvenor Museum, Chester.

The Roman Empire fell three hundred years later, and the Romano-British established a number of petty kingdoms in its place. Chester is thought to have been part of Powys at this time. King Arthur is said to have fought his ninth battle at the city of the legions and later St Augustine came to the city to try and unite the church and hold his synod with the Welsh Bishops. In 616, Æthelfrith of Northumbria defeated a Welsh army at the Battle of Chester and probably established the Anglo-Saxon position in the area from then on.

In the late 7th century, (AD 689) King Æthelred of Mercia founded the Minster Church of West Mercia on what is considered to be an early Christian Site and known as The Minster of St John the Baptist, Chester (now St John’s Church) which later became the first cathedral.

The Saxons extended and strengthened the walls of Chester to protect the city against the Danes, who occupied it for a short time until Alfred seized all the cattle and laid waste the surrounding land to drive them out. The Anglo-Saxons called Chester Ceaster or Legeceaster.

In 973, the Anglo Saxon Chronicle records that, two years after his coronation at Bath, King Edgar of England, came to Chester where he held his court in a palace in a place now known as Edgar’s field near the old Dee bridge in Handbridge. Taking the helm of a barge, he was rowed the short distance up the River Dee from Edgar’s field to the great Minster Church of St John the Baptist by six (the monk Henry Bradshaw records he was rowed by eight kings) tributary kings called ‘reguli’.

Chester was one of the last towns in England to fall to the Normans in the Norman conquest of England. William the Conqueror ordered the construction of a castle, to dominate the town and the nearby Welsh border.

The cathedral in Chester is very interesting, as is the history of the city.  We only had an hour there with the guide.  The city is a walled city – Roman walls – still intact and you can walk them – but we didn’t have time.  Such an ancient location.  The Roman soldiers who built Hadrian’s Wall were stationed here, and came back afterwards.  There were settled Danes and settled Anglo-Saxons and groups of people living in ethnically distinct neighborhoods within the city walls trading with the Romans.  Is it any wonder we find such a mixture of DNA from this part of England?

Chester guide

In the photo above, our guide is showing us a map of the old city. The orange is the fort and the pink is the city wall. No wonder we see so much intermixed DNA here.

Chester map

Here’s a 16th century map of Chester, above, and a modern day view, below. You can see the location of the old city walls on the contemporary map, but the city is obviously much larger today.

Chester satellite

As with all military forts, villages sprang up around the fort for purposes of trade and providing support services to the soldiers.

Chester ruins

You still find the Roman ruins scattered from place to place in the city.

A few years ago, a very interesting paper was written by Steven Bird about the areas surrounding the Roman forts along Hadrian’s Wall. In his paper, titled, Haplogroup E3b1a2 as a Possible Indicator of Settlement in Roman Britain by Soldiers of Balkan Origin, Steven says that:

“The invasion of Britain by the Roman military in CE 43, and the subsequent occupation of Britain for nearly four centuries, brought thousands of soldiers from the Balkan peninsula to Britain as part of auxiliary units and as regular legionnaires. The presence of Haplogroup E3b1a-M78 among the male populations of present-day Wales, England and Scotland, and its nearly complete absence among the modern male population of Ireland, provide a potential genetic indicator of settlement during the 1st through 4th Centuries CE by Roman soldiers from the Balkan peninsula and their male Romano-British descendants.”

The location of Chester is shown on the map below.

Chester map 2

Byrd further says that, “The frequency of E3b in Britain was observed to be most prevalent in two regions; a geographic cluster of haplotypes extending from Wales eastward to the vicinity of Nottingham, encompassing the region surrounding Chester, and a second (NNE to SSW) cluster extending from Fakenham, Norfolk to Midhurst, Sussex.”

Byrd provided the following map to illustrate his findings.

Byrd map

The surprising part to me isn’t that Chester is such a “hotspot,” all things considered, but that Wales is as well. I don’t think of Wales in terms of the Roman occupation, but apparently I should have.

Wales is literally just next door as well, meaning you can see it, and it seems the people living in Chester had a hissy-sister-fit type of relationship with the Welsh for as long as anyone can remember.

Yep, that’s Wales, looking down this street to the end. The Welsh hills are in the distance. The people of Chester don’t put clocks on that side of buildings because they don’t “want to give the Welsh the time of day.”

Chester city hall

I’m not kidding about that “time of day” thing. Above, their beautiful City Hall with clocks on 3 sides of the tower. I’ll just let you guess which side is clockless.

Wales in the distance

The abbey is now gone of course, but this is the gate to where it once stood.  Underneath this gate they found a medieval wall, so this is not the first structure to grace this location.

Abbey gate

While the abbey is long gone, the Cathedral still exists and is splendid.

Chester cathedral

The cathedral door is original, and stunning.

Chester cathedral door

When inside the cathedral, the organist was practicing and it was an imposing sound.  I got some photos of the organist and the organ and pipes and it is really quite amazing.

Chester cathedral organ

This gives you the scope of the cathedral and the organ.  I think if you were afraid of heights, you couldn’t play this organ!

Chester cathedral organ 2

As with all of these early churches, the stained glass is phenomenal.

Chester cathedral window 2

The nave was begun in 1323, was halted due to the black plague and finally completed in the late 1400s.

Chester rood screen

The Rood Screen carvings are simply awe inspiring.

In this cathedral you find the remains of three earlier churches and the abbey was next door of course.  The abbey was destroyed during the forced change from Catholicism to Protestantism.  The cloisters remain, at least the ones attached to the cathedral.

Chester cloisters

This abbey was very wealthy because they told their patrons that if the family did not give all their money to the church, they were being selfish, because for money, the monks could pray their souls out of Purgatory to Heavens quicker.

Chester grave slab

This 13th century grave slab now resides in the cloisters, but was originally elsewhere on the grounds. There is no identification of who was buried beneath the slab.

Chester stone coffin

There is also a stone coffin found in the cloisters. The coffin was over six feet, six inches. This is unusually large for people of that time. Note the drain hole.

These old churches all have people buried in the floor inside.  This one is full of carved tombs and statues, but this one in the floor, small by comparison, and in a side nave, so obviously couldn’t afford a “good” spot, just spoke so loudly of heartbreak.

Chester floor burial

But God, or the King, served justice upon the wealthy abbey who had been extorting “prayer money” from the family of deceased patrons, because they were so rich that the King took notice and removed all of their riches and destroyed the abbey.

Chester quilt

This tapestry, which is really a quilt, hangs in the church as well.  It was created by a woman from the US who came to see the reenacted Bible stories.  These reenactments were discontinued after the reformation, because they were determined to “not be Christian” but have been historically reenacted for the past several years.

I just loved this quaint little street.

Chester street

Leaving the cathedral, we saw “The Rows” which begin in Godstall Lane across from the church in a small street, too small for modern cars.

Chester Godstall lane

Walking down Godstall Lane, where you exit on the other end, after it narrows even more, about a block or so from the beginning, is on the second row of buildings, or the second floor.

Chester the Rows

Can you see in the windows of the store below? When doing excavation work, old roman arches were found. You can visit today and have tea too.

Chester Rows arch

Here’s a larger photo of the area.

Chester Rows street

A couple of buildings on down the road is Bridge Street, one of only two bridges to connect to Wales originally – and anyone could go in, but you had to pay a toll to get out.  They seriously did not want the Welsh in England.


From there we drove through the northern part of Wales which looks a lot like England, although the Welsh would probably string you up if they heard you say that.  They still speak Welsh there and it’s multi-lingual, except in the north where many won’t speak English.  In south Wales, many don’t speak Welsh.  Hard to believe such a difference for such a small country.  It may be called the United Kingdom, but it’s anything but and there are significant regional differences within and between countries.  These are the mountains that divide Wales and England.

Wales mountains

Even stopping at gas stations here provides entertainment.

Button candy

We went on to have a late lunch in the Cotswolds.  I didn’t know what the Cotswolds were until today, but think of thatched roof cottages with flower gardens and English figurines and that’s the Cotswolds.


Cotswalds 2

Jim and I found a bakery and had a picnic in the town square sitting on the base of the war monument.  It wasn’t Arles in southern France or Stonehenge, but it was still a nice picnic and we didn’t spend our entire hour and a quarter there waiting to be served.  Instead, we spent money like tourists are supposed to do!

Cotswalds square

However, there was a chocolate shop, Cotswold Chocolates, and I had to visit and try the wares. The owner was a lovely lady and she had some TO DIE FOR dark chocolate dipped apricots. I have already checked to see if they ship overseas.

Cotswalds chocolates

We love to visit the local stores and see what local treats we can find to try. But….I drew the line…

Freeze dried insects

Stow is really a quite beautiful little village.  Lots of tourists think so too, but also lots of locals walking around, many with their dogs.  There is a dog water bowl in the doorway of many shops and signs saying dogs are welcome.  There was a farmers market in the square, of course with local veggies.

Queens Head Inn

I particularly like this reflective photo of the images in the old hand blown glass windows of the inn, above.

Cotswald windows

From the Cotswolds, we headed for London. The rest of the group was departing for home, but Jim and I were starting the second part of our trip – a cruise around the British Isles. This is particularly exciting for me, because I have family connections in several locations. In one location, we’ll be driving right past my family’s land and in another I’ll be visiting the clan castle.

I’ve been immersing myself in the history of the places where we have and will visit. One of my favorite books is Peter Akroyd’s, London, A Biography. He shares 2000 years of London’s history in very human form. He discusses the history, the culture, the people, the rich, the poor, the plague, the great fire…you name it, he talks about it. While contemporary London is certainly an outgrowth of the original London, it’s had changed dramatically. I can’t help but look at this map from the 15th century and wonder if this was the London my ancestor, Henry Bolton knew. We don’t really know where he was from, but oral history says London, and that he and his brother, Conrad were kidnapped and sold into indentured servitude after arriving in the states. We know he was in the US before the Revolutionary War and was born about 1759 or 1760 someplace, probably in England. Were these old London streets familiar to Henry and Conrad, his brother?

Old London map

The original map was in a book, known by the Latin name Civitates orbis terrarum, and was published in the German city of Cologne between 1572 and 1617 – just before many cities were destroyed by the Thirty Years War.

The book was intended to accompany an atlas of the world published in 1570 by renowned cartographer Abraham Ortelius.

More than 100 artists and cartographers worked on the originals, which as well as showing the cities’ main features, also included figures in local dress, ships, carts and topographical details.

It was thought that these details helped to show the political importance of the places that they accompany. This book included all of the major cities in Europe, but some elsewhere.

For map junkies, you can purchase this book of old maps, Cities of the World, £44.99, republished and available at

Take a look at the difference between the map above and a current day view of the same area.

Current London map

This has been a very hectic week and even at the end, still seems surreal, much as the sunrise at the Stirk House did yesterday. This evening among the hustle and bustle of London, Ribble Valley, Charnock Richard and Downham seems a very distant dream.



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6 thoughts on “Chester and the Cotswolds, UK

  1. This is a very interesting story of the history and places visited during your trip. It was well photographed and the narrative is also documented with both historical and modern maps, etc. My wife and I may just follow in your footsteps one day. Sometime ago I took a map of Great Britain and colored in the circles representing the towns where my ancestors lived. The map eventually looked as though it had the measles. When I lived and worked in France I drove to different regions each week, so I inked in the roads I traveled on my map, so I would try to take as many different roads as possible. After a while my map looked like a cobweb. Thank you for the wonderful presentation.

  2. Cotswolds (not Cotswalds) refers to the Cotswold Hills from which stone is quarried to build the stone buildings. The Cotswold Way is a popular long distance National Trail.

  3. I’ve just been reading “First Migrants” by Professor Peter Bellwood of the Australian National University, just published last year, an excellent multi-disciplinary review of population migration, which mentions that all the English cities ending in “chester” or “cester” were named for Roman army camps, including Leicester, another apparent hotspot on your E3b map. Interestingly, the book’s publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. is based in Chichester. I’d love to see how a hotspot map of haplogroup J2 correlates.

  4. Enjoyed reading your account of Chester. It is a fascinating place. I recommend walking along the walls if you have time next time. Great photos.

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