Standing on the site of a 10th century Saxon church, the present cathedral at Chester dates from the mid 13th century. Dedicated to St Werburgh, this Christian church was transformed into a Benedictine Abbey in 1092, colonised by a small group of monks from Normandy. Building of the new abbey church began immediately and took the best part of 150 years to complete but little evidence of the first church remains. The traditional sturdy Norman architecture was eventually replaced over the next two centuries by a more elegant Gothic style. Henry VIII dissolved the monastery in 1540 just as the monks of St Werburgh's Abbey were beginning to enjoy their new surroundings. A year later the abbey was given back as a cathedral, the last abbot of St Werburgh's becoming the first Dean of Chester Cathedral.
Over the next two hundred years Chester Cathedral slipped into a bad state of disrepair but was eventually saved from total collapse by the efforts of Sir George Gilbert Scott. His 19th century restoration of Chester Cathedral, both externally and internally, not only put in place essential repairs but also enhanced the appearance of the great church immensely. Most of the stained glass comes from this period and highlights the abbeys dedication to St Werburgh, as well as the long history of the cathedral. On the northern aisle of the nave, at the side of one of the large windows, sits the 'Chester Imp'. A charming little figure in chains, carved by one of the medieval monks, to protect the church from evil spirits.
Most medieval cathedrals have beautifully carved stalls in the quire but the quality of oak carving at Chester Cathedral is quite exceptional. Each stall is topped with an elaborately carved canopy set above a row of small corbels, and below each seat a magnificently carved misericord. This area of the church is so richly carved with such a diverse array of religious artefacts, animals, birds and grotesque figures that it is quite overwhelming.
Apart from the main church many of the monastic buildings from the ancient Benedictine Abbey have been remarkably preserved. The original cloisters, although largely rebuilt during the first half of the 16th century and subsequently restored at the beginning of the 20th century, are a constant reminder of the important part they played in monastic life. All the bays of the undercroft, containing some wonderful vaulting, have been utilised to provide an exhibition centre, gift shop and workshop. The monks' dining room or refectory is still used regularly, as is the superb Chapter House.
Chester is a splendid city of Roman origin, instantly recognisable by the charming black and white architecture in the main shopping street, but with some historic evidence from almost every period throughout the last 2,000 years. And at the heart of the city, remaining very much an integral part of life in the modern community, is the outstanding Chester Cathedral.