One of the most fascinating aspects of the Mapping Medieval Chester project is the way it has brought together texts written in three different languages. Chester’s late medieval population was remarkably diverse, and came to include English, Irish, Welsh, Scottish and Manx, as well as itinerant continental merchants. This short essay examines how the texts on this website can help us think about linguistic diversity in late medieval Chester.

In his poem praising Rheinallt ap Gruffydd, Tudur Penllyn celebrates Rheinallt’s counter-attack on Chester and curses the city and its inhabitants:

Meirwon fu’r Saeson wedi’u sowsio,
Gwaed aliwns, a gwayw Ffwg i’w dulio.
Gwae Gaer o’u geni, goegwyr gwyno,
Gwae egin Alis, gwae gan wylo;
Gwae Sais, crin ei bais, a bwyso – i’r tir,
Gwae’n wir, fo’i lleddir, diawl a’i lladdo.

Dead men were the Saxons after their trouncing,
the blood of aliens, and the sword of Fulke striking them.
Woe to Chester for giving them birth, complaining fools,
Woe to the offspring of Rhonwen, woe and weeping;
woe to the Englishman, in a crumpled coat, who weighs down the earth,
woe indeed, he’ll be killed, the devil kill him. (lls. 29-34)

Chester is used here as a synecdoche for the whole of England, enabling Tudur to treat the events of the 1460s as a metonym for an ethnic conflict which began with the adventus Saxonum in the fifth century. This awareness of history is reflected in the series of words used for Chester and the English: Caer, the Welsh name for the city; Saeson, Sais ‘the English’; and egin Alis, the offspring of Renwein, the daughter of Hengist for whom Vortigern betrayed Britain to the Saxons, and used to denote the contemporary English. Sais ultimately derives from Latin Saxonus, while aliwns, which tacitly compares the illegitimacy of the men of Chester’s attack on Rheinallt’s estates in Mold across the Welsh Border with the actions of those foreigners who violate the city franchise in Chester, comes from Latin alienus. 1 Despite the poem’s vicious hostility to the English, its borrowings from Latin, however longstanding, cannot but point to the shared Christian identity of England and Wales.

This shared Christian history is exceptionally important to Bradshaw. As Catherine Clarke points out in her introduction, Bradshaw wants to emphasise the continuity of Christian worship in Chester and is careful to trace the origin of both the Chester and the monastery of St Werburgh back to the pre-Roman, British past. He registers Chester’s long past through the variety of names used for the city:

Called Caerlleon of britons longe ago,
After named Chestre, by great auctorite (lls. 374-5)

This 'cite of legions', so called by the Romans,
Nowe is nominat in latine of his proprete
Cestria quasi castria (lls. 400-2)

Kynge Edgare approched the cite of legions,
Nowe called Chestre (lls. 1171-2)

Throughout the Life, Bradshaw alludes to Chester by these two names: the British Caerlleon and the Latin Cestria. He explains that Cestria derives from Latin castria, ‘camp’ and offers various explanations for Caerlleon, suggesting, for example, that the city was named after its founder, Lleon Gauer (380). For Bradshaw, it is this British name Caerlleon which proves beyond doubt that Chester has the prestigious and lengthy history which he claims for it.

However, Caerlleon, or its abridged form Caer, would also have been the word for Chester in contemporary Welsh, and, by implying that Chester is historically a British / Welsh city, Bradshaw’s etymology risks undercutting his central historical thesis that the British were noble but the Welsh are one of the ‘innumberable barbarike nacions’ (ch. 7) against whom Werburgh must defend the city. In other words, the British / Welsh etymology unintentionally justifies the belief (so forcefully expressed in many of the Welsh poems edited for the website by Helen Fulton) that the Romans / Saxons are illegitimate interlopers.

There is a similar unintended ambivalence to Bradshaw’s claim that Chester is called ‘Cestria quasi castria’. Though (it) quasi was being used in English by Caxton in the 1480s, 2 it is a Latin word and is used by Bradshaw to elide the tendentiousness of his claim that Cestria has a Latin etymology. For Lucian, the etymology of Chester is not Latin but Anglo-Saxon: 3

Illud etiam omnimodis attendatur, quod uelut simplex et originale quoddam rei uocabulum lingua Saxonica, Cestria, ciuitas dicitur, sicut euidenter et lucide claret intuentibus ex compositione. Sic enim teste historia Claudiocestriam appellamus, quam Romanus imperator Claudius exstruxit, Leircestriam quam Britonum rex Leirus constituit, Rofecestriam, quam teste BEDA, Rof quidam uir primarius antiquitus possedit ac tenuit. Itaque prudenter aduertat saltim inter nos manens literatus habitator, non sine causa leuiter ac lusorie contigisse, cum cetere urbes ex loci situ uel memoria constructorum seu accidenti aliquo uocabulum sint sortitae, nostra Cestria nomen resonet maternum, magnificum, singulare.

Even the Saxon word for the place, which is Cestria, meaning city, should be heeded in every possible way, since its etymology shines forth to the observant. We can cite from history the example of Gloucester which the Roman Emperor Claudius established, Leicester which Lear, king of the Britons, founded and Rochester, which, according to Bede, a certain chieftain called Rof held in days of yore. Therefore the learned inhabitant dwelling amongst us prudently directs his attention to notice how, with great significance, when various cities have taken their names from their location, in memory of their founder, or by some accident the name of our Chester resounds maternally, magnificently and uniquely.

Though Bradshaw’s proposed connection with Latin castra (‘military encampment’) is plausible, it is Lucian who is right – the Anglo-Saxon word ceaster does mean ‘city’. The three examples Lucian gives here correlate neatly with the three main periods of insular history – British (Leicester), Roman (Gloucester) and Anglo-Saxon (Rochester). Unsurprisingly, Chester stands out among these three carefully chosen examples, ‘maternally, magnificently, uniquely’, because it derives its name not from its founder but from its essence – it is the city.

Someone walking the streets of medieval Chester would inevitably have heard a range of languages, including, at minimum, English, Welsh and Latin. Each of these languages carried different social resonances. The city itself had at least three names – Chester, Caerlleon, Cestria, each likewise with its own resonance. For Lucian, ‘Chester’ was a reminder of the city’s Anglo-Saxon origins, otherwise scarcely mentioned, as well as further hint of God’s unique design for ‘the city’. For Bradshaw, ‘Caerlleon’ and ‘Cestria’ signal British and Roman influences on the early history of Chester, one of his favourite topics . To the Welsh, Chester is always Caerlleon, perhaps – to quote Lucian – a sorrowful reminder that what is true for Wales is true for Chester: 4

Qui olim discidiis et odiis amaris Britanniam in Angliam mutauerunt et quibus adhuc moribus fulgeant, qui eis, cum lacrimis legunt.

The English once subsumed Wales into England causing bitter discord and hatred which still afflict the conquered people, when they tearfully read about these events.


Alien is first used in English in the fourteenth century. The Welsh ‘aliwn’ is a borrowing from the Middle English ‘alyon’, as signified by the use of the English plural in –s. Back to context...
OED quasi adv. (1). It should be pointed out that medieval people did not regard individual languages as discrete entities, as modern scholars are sometimes inclined to do: see, for example, Hanna, 2008. Back to context...
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 672, fols. 60v-61r Back to context...
Oxford, Bodleian Library, Bodley 672, fol. 12v. Back to context...