Poem in Praise of Chester

The Latin text is taken from Higden’s Polychronicon, I. 48 (Babington and Lumby, 1869, II. 80-82) . The translation by John Trevisa is taken from the same text (pp. 81-83), where John Trevisa’s translation of the whole of the Polychronicon is included with the Latin. Trevisa’s translation of the Latin poem is by no means accurate in every detail, but is a close enough rendering of the original. I have translated both the Latin and the Middle English into modern English so that they can be compared.

Ranulph Higden (d. 1364) was a monk of St Werburgh’s abbey in Chester. The Polychronicon was a universal history, based on the work of earlier writers, which Higden continued down to his own lifetime. The history was clearly very popular, surviving in over 120 manuscripts in the fourteenth century. It was translated into English by John Trevisa (1342-1402) in 1387, and another anonymous translation survives from the fifteenth century. Trevisa’s translation formed the basis of William Caxton’s printed text, first published in 1480, which Caxton called The Description of Britain.

1 Cestria de castro nomen quasi Castria sumpsit,
Incertum cujus hanc manus ediderit.
Haec Legecestria tunc est dicta, vel Urbs Legionum,
Anglis et Cambris nunc manet urbs celebris. 1
5In muris pendent lapides velut Herculis actus,
Agger et augetur tutior ut maneat.
Saxula Saxonica superextant addita magnis,
Concava testudo bina latet sub humo.
Mineras profert salinas proxima tellus, 2
10Quas spargit multis gentibus occiduis.
Carnibus et farre, sic piscibus affluit urbs haec;
Merces et classes advehit unda mare.
Henrici quarti, Godescalli Caesaris olim, 3
Regis et Haraldi pulvis habetur ibi. 4
15 Mars et Mercurius, Bacchus, Venus, atque Laverna,
Proteus et Pluto regna tenent inibi. 5
Ejus gens sequitur multum mores Babylonis,
Quae dum plus poterit, plus solet esse ferox. 6


These lines indicate the importance of Chester to the people of north Wales, as their county town, court and major marketplace. Back to context...
The Latin poem refers specifically to the ‘salt-pans’ of the Dee estuary, which fertilised the soil and made it particularly rich. Trevisa’s translation of ‘sands’ rather misses the point. Back to context...
Trevisa’s version of the poem is attempting to sort out an ambiguity in the Latin. According to Gerald of Wales, De Instructione Principis, chap. XXVI (Brewer et al., 1861, viii), it was the emperor Henry V who, repenting of his misdeeds, gave up his kingdom and lived as a hermit in Chester until his death. Higden adds that Henry lived in Chester for ten years under the hermit name of Godescall, literally 'called by God'. See Brewer et al., 1861, i. 186, vi. 139-40; Babington and Lumby, 1865 vii. 245, viii. 35. The Latin poem seems to imply that Godescall was Henry IV (1050-1106, father of Henry V and also king of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor) not Henry V. In his translation, Trevisa says that both Godescall and the fourth king Henry, that is, father and son, were buried together at Chester. Back to context...
According to a legend passed on by Gerald of Wales, King Harold II was not killed at the battle of Hastings but left there wounded and, like the emperor Henry V, sought refuge in the anchorite chapel of St James, in the graveyard of the church of St John in Chester, where he finally died (Thacker, 2005). In his Journey Through Wales, Gerald says: The real identity of these two persons, which had hitherto been kept secret, was revealed only when they each made their confession (Brewer et al., 1861, vi. 140; Thorpe, 1978, 199. Back to context...
Trevisa breaks off here to add an explanation of the various gods mentioned: Mars is the god of war, Mercurius the god of merchandise, Bacchus the god of wine, Venus the goddess of love, Laverna the goddess of theft and robbery, Proteus the god of falsehood and guile, and Pluto the god of hell. Trevisa adds that the poem is suggesting that these elements are all present in Chester. Back to context...
The text reads truthe, and the editor suggests emending to crouthe, 'crows', in the sense of making a noise. Neither of these options makes a good translation for the Latin ferox, 'fierce, cruel, aggressive, arrogant'. Back to context...