Last night I had the pleasure of attending a public lecture given by Helen Fulton, who is just about to take up her position as Professor of Medieval Literature at York (and is a graduate of the University of Sydney!). Said paper was entitled ‘Medieval Chester and North Wales: Border and Identity’, and looked at a series of Welsh literary references to the town of Chester – mostly poetry, from the genres of satire, religious lyric, and praise-poems.
Helen, who’s until recently been working at the University of Swansea, has been looking at these literary references as part of the Mapping Medieval Chester project (headed up by Dr Catherine Clarke). Chester, on the English side of the River Dee, was regarded as a border town by the English – ‘the last bastion against the rebellious Welsh’ was, I think, Helen’s description of English attitudes to Chester. As part of the project, a high-quality digital map of 15th century Chester was produced (under the direction of Dr Keith Lilley, Professor of Human Geography from Queen’s University Belfast), and is available for free online, along with seven downloadable static maps.
Helen’s been looking at Welsh attitudes to Chester: her paper yesterday demonstrated clear literary evidence of Welsh resentment toward the English people and particularly authorities of Chester, but argued that Chester’s geographical position as a town in ‘England’ doesn’t seem to have had much affect on the Welsh attitudes toward it. The Welsh objected to Chester’s presence and influence, Helen argues, in much the same way as they did to English towns which were technically in ‘Wales’ – Flint is the only place name I can recall here. They don’t see Chester, its people or environs as substantively different to English towns in Wales: the fact that it’s over ‘the border’ doesn’t matter. They do see the town as a locus of English administration and anti-Welsh sentiment; they also regard it highly as a pilgrimage site, and Helen argues that religious literature by the Welsh about the holy places of Chester is one way in which Welsh-speakers lay claim to the town and the right to be there.
In short, Chester! It’s an interesting place. I suggest you read Helen Fulton’s essay on Colonial Chester, available on the project website. It sounds like a fascinating locus of Welsh-English relations: some of the most interesting parts of Helen’s talk, to me, were the side notes she made. Like, for example, the fact that despite strict anti-Welsh laws in Chester, at one point (date of which I’ve forgotten) two individuals, father and son, named John Walsh, held high civic offices in the town. Or the fact that, in areas of Wales where both English and Welsh law applied, there are records of people who for all intents and purposes were ‘English’ pulling out Welsh ancestry in order to be tried under Welsh rather than English law. Apparently Welsh law was more lenient than English in several key areas, but I wonder what (if any) impact the decision to legally identify as Welsh might have had on the individual’s subsequent life (would people remember? Would s/he become a target of Anti-Welsh sentiment?).
I leave you with a rude poem about Chester by Lewis Glyn Cothi, who attempted to move to Chester, only to have all his possessions stolen by locals. He was rather cranky after that. Another thing which fascinated me was the diatribe against the Irish here: Chester was (is?) a port town, and evidently the presence of Irish traders in the town was a sore point for Lewis Glyn Cothi.
Chester is a town in an unwholesome land,
a town whose pedigree has never been good,
an angry Irish town, weaker than its importance,
a depressing town containing folk from Connacht,
a town of the seven sins where no-one is poorer,
a fortified turreted town where no-one is prouder,
a town with a Cheap of gluttony, their faces more guzzling,
a town where desire grows and everyone is low-life.
Many a room now run-down,
many a goblin hole, many a short fat person,
many the offspring of eight kinds of intercourse in the bushes,
many a mound of sadness and secrecy,
many a boy in a coffin will be sadder,
many a widow’s breast will be more bereft,
many a merchant’s wife more wanton with a lover,
many a tame partner more unfaithful.
Unfaithful children, they will tell lies
as men and women.
For what they did to my property,
they will sing to the beats of the sword.
-Ed. & trans Helen Fulton: this is only the last few stanzas. The full poem is available in facing-text translation here.