It seemed too good to be true; a chance to get on a soap box and sing the praises of one’s home county! But where to begin? My mind went back to my years at primary school, and the day when Mrs Taylor told the whole class to make a list of all the things that Cheshire was famous for. I incurred her wrath that day, because I could only think of a handful while my classmates were calling for extra sheets of paper. In her eyes, I was not only lazy, but also hopelessly lacking in county pride. Half a century later came this opportunity to make amends.
Back in the 1890s, the author Fletcher Moss wrote: What a land of history, romance and beauty this Cheshire is! Will some wizard ever write of it as Scott wrote of the borderlands? There’s the first challenge! The second was to find a way of stuffing all that history, beauty and romance into a book of 190 pages! No matter, it would be a miscellany, full of personal biases. I would dig deep on some topics while others (e.g. Lewis Carroll, Elizabeth Gaskell) would be squeezed out altogether. Boundary changes presented another problem. Cheshire, for centuries, was shaped like a teapot; until 1974, when its spout and handle were both broken off, so that it now looks more like a casserole. I chose the teapot.
One of the motivations of the local historian is patriotism, and this book would be no exception. Cheshire has many reasons to be proud – midst proudest proud, as our ancestors used to put it. Its position on the Welsh border gave it a military importance, so it was made a county palatine where the Earl of Chester operated independently of the King. The famous Cheshire archers were the mainstay of English armies, and played a huge role in the battle of Agincourt and other campaigns. King Richard the Second employed some of them as his personal bodyguard, and became so enamoured of Cheshire that he upgraded it to a principality. No other English county has ever received such an honour.
Cheshire men did not always need bows and arrows to see off their enemies. On the 4th of Sept 1651, the day after the Battle of Worcester, part of the defeated Royalist army was returning home. They were about 1,000 of them, all on horseback, and almost all were Scots, so they were retreating northwards. They made a disastrous mistake, however. They passed through the town of Sandbach where they were attacked by townsmen armed with wooden poles. A few were killed on either side and about 100 Scots were unhorsed, taken prisoner and locked up in the church.
While bowmen won glory on the battlefield, a Cheshire poet was writing works that were worthy of his contemporary Chaucer. His name has not come down to us, but we call him the Gawain Poet after his most celebrated work, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Analysis of his dialect reveals that he lived somewhere in the eastern half of Cheshire during the 14th century.
One of Cheshire’s most famous sons may not even have existed. Robert Nixon the Cheshire Prophet is supposed to have been born at Winsford in 1467, before other visionaries such as Mother Shipton and Nostradamus. His prophecies were remembered for centuries after his death. A few examples:-
1.I see men, women and children spotted like beasts and their nearest and dearest affrighted of them (the great plague of London 1665-66).
2.All sorts will have chimneys in their mouths (smoking).
3.The dragons out of Ireland shall come and make war with England for their abomination so that London shall run with blood (IRA bombing campaigns).
Nixon’s most poignant prediction was that would one day clem [starve] to death, and so he did. He was summoned to court by the King, where he made such a nuisance of himself that he was locked up in a cupboard where he was forgotten.
One of the most persistent myths about Cheshire people is that they are incurably Cymrophobic. The tower of Chester Town Hall, for example, has only three clock faces. Any local will tell you that the blank side faces Wales and we won’t give ‘em the time of day! They may also quote a law that was laid down in 1403, which forbids Welshmen to remain in the city after sunset, to carry arms, to enter any tavern or to congregate in groups of three or more. That sounds very unwelcoming, but it is not at all what it seems. The law was introduced by the King because he feared that the formidable Cheshire archers might team up with the Welsh forces of Owain Glyndwr and turn on him.
Besides, Welsh people have been settling in the western half of Cheshire ever since, making it the Welshest region in England. And the commonest surname in the county is not Smith, but Jones!
Cheshire’s most famous export (cheese) takes us even further back in history. It is the oldest named cheese in England, dating back to the 12th century at least. In 1590, it became the first variety to be exported outside its native region when Queen Elizabeth’s court ordered some for the privy council’s dinner. It even rolled across the channel. The French - not usually noted for their appreciation of English cuisine – are partial to Le Fromage Chester, even if they do get the name wrong.
So, Mrs Taylor; if you can hear me from the Elysian fields, I hope I am now forgiven.
By Roger Stephens