Chester-le-Street lies in a vale formed by the River Wear. To the west the land rises sharply towards Waldridge Fell and to the east rises towards the magnesian limestone plateau of the Sunderland area. A good view of its lovely setting can be seen from the village of Great Lumley to the east.
Here the panorama includes the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert with its distinct spire on the site of a Roman fort and Saxon cathedral. In the distance we see the fells stretching west toward the Pennines and to the immediate north the castle of Lumley and Angel of the North at Gateshead beyond.
The valley setting provided an important through route linking north to south and here around 1,800 years ago the Romans built a fort called Concangis. In this they adopted a native Celtic name from the neighbourhood thought to be a local tribal name meaning “horse people”. Another view is that the name comes from the name of an ancient British king or leader Cunec, though this view may have arisen later from a the similarity of the word Cong to the Danish and Anglo-Saxon words for a king.
The old Roman and Celtic name is still recalled in the name of a large stream, the Cong Burn, that joins the Wear here. A nearby street called Cone Terrace takes its name from this burn.
In 1932 much of the burn was channelled through a culvert beneath the town’s market place that hid the burn from view, a rather sad loss for a watercourse that been so closely tied to the town’s history. Thankfully all that changed in 2021 when new flood defence developments brought the burn back into the open once again at the heart of the town.
The Roman fort of Congangis was situated on a Roman Road later called ‘Cade’s Road’ from a nineteenth century historian who identified its course. It links Brough on Humber (and Lincoln beyond) to Newcastle upon Tyne. In the North East it passes through Middleton St George, Sadberge, Sedgefield and Coxhoe and skirts Durham City near Old Durham and Shincliffe. Its course between Durham and Chester-le-Street isn’t clear. North of Chester-le-Street it follows the Durham road through Gateshead and crossed the Tyne by a Roman bridge where the Swing Bridge stands today.
Concangis was situated east of Chester-le-Street’s Front Street which more or less follows the Roman Road – the ‘street’ of Chester-le-Street’s name. The fort was built on a naturally raised piece of land between the Wear to the east and Cong Burn to the north. Little remains of the fort though the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert stands at what would have been its centre.
Parts of Church Chare, Low Chare and Middle Chare lie within it and Middle Chare lines up with the western gateway. The outline of an excavated Roman barracks that stood within the fort and can be seen alongside the parish centre near the church. A Roman granary was excavated near Park View School and also stood within the fort. There was a bath house outside the fort, to the south, and a civilian settlement located to the east of the fort with traces of a timber bridge discovered in the neighbouring Cong Burn.
Roman soldiers were stationed at Concangis until the 4th Century. An altar dedicated to ‘Condatis’ was found here, thought to have been a celebration of the meeting of the waters of the Wear and the Cong. Altars and urns have been found and perhaps more would have been discovered if it were not for the growth of the town over much of the Roman site.
During much of the late Anglo-Saxon period Chester-le-Street was one of the most important places in the North of England and a focus for religious power. In fact, with the possible exception of Bamburgh it was arguably the most important place north of the Tees with an influence that extended well beyond to the south.
The Prince Bishops of Durham who were the principal religious men of power and influence in the North East in later medieval times were the successors of the Anglo-Saxon Bishops of Lindisfarne but the story of the movement of their bishopric from Holy Island to the land between Tyne and Tees includes a 113 year interim era in which Chester-le-Street was the focus. It was at Chester-le-Street that the early development of what later became County Durham can be traced.
In 793 A.D the Vikings had made their first attack upon the coast of Britain with a raid upon Lindisfarne. More raids followed. By the end of the following century the threat of further raids was such that the monks of Lindisfarne were forced to flee their island with the body of Saint Cuthbert and seek refuge on the mainland.
How when the rude Dane burn’d their pile
The monks fled forth from Holy Isle :
O’er northern mountain, marsh, and moor,
From sea to sea, from shore to shore,
Seven years St Cuthbert’s corpse they bore.
Sir Walter Scott
In 882 A.D, after several years of wandering the north of England, the carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin were eventually granted land at Chester-le-Street where Eardwulf, the last Bishop of Lindisfarne became the first Bishop of Chester-le-Street. By this time the people of the north were largely Anglo-Saxons at least in language and culture. The Anglo-Saxons had arrived in the north from their Germanic homelands before 600 AD but sometime after the Roman departure of around 500AD.
At what date the Anglo-Saxons first encountered the ruins of Concangis is not known but they renamed the place Cuneceastre, or Conecaster as more than one spelling is recorded. ‘Ceastre’ or ‘Chester’ is the name the Anglo-Saxons often gave to abandoned Roman forts.
Nearly three centuries of the Anglo-Saxon era had passed when the Vikings increasingly came to be a problem. When the monks of Lindisfarne fled, several places across the North were visited or formed a resting place for the carriers of St Cuthbert. They included Darlington, Billingham, places in Yorkshire and the Lake District and most notably Norham on the River Tweed. For the Lindisfarne monks the prominent location of Conecaster in the vale of the River Wear situated within the remains of a Roman fort offered the benefit of good communications to the neighbouring areas and protection from raiders including Vikings.
It was perhaps ironic that the land itself was given to the community by Guthred, a Viking king of York who had converted to Christianity and to whom the powerful and influential community had given their support. If the Vikings had owned this land around Chester-le-Street there is very little evidence to suggest that they had settled there. Viking place-names are rare in County Durham and are most numerous in the south of the county but even there nowhere near as numerous as in Yorkshire.
In addition to Chester-le-Street the community received all the land north of Chester-le-Street between the Tyne and Wear stretching as far west as the old Roman road of Dere Street (the Lanchester-Ebchester-Corbridge road). This meant that their land encompassed what are now the boroughs of Gateshead, South Tyneside, part of Sunderland and northern County Durham. Over time further lands were added from southerly and easterly parts of what would become County Durham.
It is said that St. Cuthbert had once visited Chester-le-Street during his lifetime and performed a miracle here but this may have been a story created later to reinforce his links to the place. When the monks arrived they brought with them St Cuthbert’s wooden coffin containing his remains and relics, along with a stone cross, the head of the Northumbrian King Oswald and the beautiful Lindisfarne Gospels.
The community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street were powerful men who served as the guardians of the much revered saint and passed this responsibility down through family members – the monks had wives. They built a church for the saint’s shrine almost certainly utilising stones from the Roman fort.
A Place of Pilgrimage
The layout of the tiny town that developed around the shrine is not known, but it is possible that the streets called chares (a Saxon word for a right angle drop or turn) developed at this time. Evidence suggests Conecaster was small but must had some substance as a major centre of pilgrimage and political power in a role that it held for 113 years.
During that time there were a succession of nine bishops at Chester-le-Street. Pilgrims came from far and wide and included Athelstan, the first King of England who came to Chester-le-Street in 934AD. He bestowed several gifts to the shrine – which can now be seen in Durham Cathedral and consisted of a maniple and stole, embroidered religious items used by bishops. Athelstan also granted land at South Wearmouth, roughly encompassing modern Sunderland south of the Wear. This may have included land from Castle Eden to Wearmouth that was briefly taken from the Community of St Cuthbert by a Viking called Olaf Ball in 918.
Another notable visitor to Chester-le-Street was the Viking king of Norway and York, Eric Bloodaxe. He came to Chester-le-Street in 952AD and despite his fearful name Bloodaxe apparently came in peace. Making a pilgrimage to St Cuthbert’s shrine and receiving the saint’s favour was an expedient political move for those who wanted to hold onto power. However, it didn’t seem to do Bloodaxe much good as he was murdered two years later in an ambush on the wilds of Stainmore.
The nine powerful bishops at Chester-le-Street were Eardwulf, Cutheard, Tildred, Wigred, Uhtred, Sexhelm, Aldred, Elfsig and Aldhun. In the North East their lands stretched from the Tees to the Firth of Forth and they were only second in power to the Earls (or High Reeves) of Bamburgh who virtually ruled the region and with whom they forged a strong partnership. In fact it is likely they acted as a buffer or power broker between the Viking kings of York and Anglo-Saxon rulers of Bamburgh.
Aldred, the seventh bishop at Conecaster played an important part in the history of the English speaking people as he was the man who undertook the first ever translation of the Gospels into English. This would have been undertaken in a scriptorium at Conecaster minster and takes the form of ‘a gloss’ written in the margins of the Lindisfarne Gospels alongside the original Latin. It is written in the Northumbrian Old English language of the Anglo-Saxons. A facsimile copy of the wonderful Lindisfarne Gospels can be seen in Chester-le-Street church.
The move from Chester-le-Street to Durham
Sadly, for Conecaster its days were numbered as the centre of a bishopric and in 995 A.D the threat of raids most likely from Scotland rather than Scandinavia, as the Scots were actively raiding at this time, resulted in the relocation of the bishopric to a new centre. In that year the monks and bishop settled at Durham where the shrine of their saint has rested ever since. It was Aldhun, the last Bishop of Conecaster who became the first Bishop of Durham.
Technically by definition, as the seat of a bishop, Chester-le-Street’s Anglo-Saxon church had been a ‘cathedral’, making Chester-le-Street by today’s definition a city. The term ‘cathedral from which we get cathedral literally means bishop’s throne, however the Anglo-Saxons did not use the term ‘cathedral’ and the prominent church at Conecaster was known as a minster. Sadly, nothing remains of the Anglo-Saxon church and the present church of St Mary and St Cuthbert that stands on its site dates to the eleventh century.
In 1050 Egelric, a Bishop of Durham, pulled down the minster at Conecaster and built a new stone church in its place. He probably used stone from the old Roman fort. A great hoard of treasure was apparently discovered during the demolition which Egelric kept for himself, retiring to Peterborough with his fortune.
It’s not known if the treasures were part of a Roman hoard or gifts bestowed upon St Cuthbert’s shrine. If it was the latter then Egelric was not the first bishop guilty of such a theft. A hundred and three years earlier, Sexhelm, a bishop of Conecaster had stolen treasures from the shrine in 947 AD and was expelled for his sins. In fact this may have been the same treasure as the monks are said to have subsequently hidden the treasure from Seaxhelm.
Although not the Anglo-Saxon original, the church of St Mary and St Cuthbert is of considerable interest. It is not known if Egelric’s church was completed and although parts of the church may date from that time – the vestry being the oldest part – the church was rebuilt in 1267 and this is largely the Chester-le-Street parish church of St Mary and St Cuthbert that we see today with the major exception of the spire that was added in 1409.
A row between two men over who should become rector of the church in 1286 caught the attention of Bishop Bek who dismissed them both and gave the church a collegiate status making it one of the senior parishes in the northern part of Durham. Collegiate churches (which also included Lanchester and St Andrew Auckland) had a similar organisation to present cathedrals with deans, prebendaries, chaplains, deacons and other ministers. The Dean of Chester-le-Street would live in the Deanery, where Park View School now stands.
Inside the church are reminders of Chester-le-Street’s important past including a wooden bishop’s throne, though this is not ancient as it dates from 1927. Striking are the painted panels by A.K Nicholson which show events associated with Chester-le-Street’s history.
One panel shows the monks arriving in Chester-le-Street with St Cuthbert’s body and another depicts King Alfred the Great confirming the grant of the land made by Guthred. It was Alfred who granted the right of sanctuary to Chester-le-Street, a privilege later transferred to Durham Cathedral where it is symbolised by the Sanctuary knocker. There are figures of St Mary and St Cuthbert and stained glass windows, which like the panels, depict the early history of Chester-le-Street as well as the Lindisfarne Gospels.
Anker’s House and ‘Lumley Warriors’
Attached to the church as an integral part of the building is a medieval anchorage once occupied by a succession of hermits who were voluntarily locked away for the remainder of their life, only connected to the outside world by a very narrow squint or slit in a stone wall along with a tiny hatch for food to be passed through.
Anchorites here included a John Blenkinsopp of Birtley in the 1400s and John Wessington of Washington in the 1380s, a member of the famous family who would later give the world the first American president. The anchorage or ‘anker’s house ‘ was in use until 1547 and now serves as a tiny museum.
The stone tomb effigies of knights called the Lumley Warriors are a curious feature of the church with fourteen in total lined up in two rows from head to toe, some with missing feet so they could be squeezed in. Placed in the church in 1594, they were collected by John Lord Lumley who claimed they were all his ancestors though some are fakes created by Elizabethan craftsmen for Lumley and others were the tombs of other knights who were not Lumleys at all.
Two were known to have been taken from the churchyard of Durham Cathedral are thought to be Fitzmarmadukes from Horden who had a similar coat of arms to the Lumleys. One had died serving Edward II at the Battle of Perth and had requested burial at Durham Cathedral. The Fitzmarmadukes were relatives of the Lumleys but distant ones.
The old church of Chester-le-Street has stood the test of time and is still an important landmark in the town but like all churches has required constant care. In the 1600s when King James passed through the town workmen were busy strengthening its spire. One man is said to have performed a headstand on the church spire to impress the passing monarch. The King sent his compliments for the free entertainment.
The town of Chester-le-Street
Despite the loss of Bishopric status in late Anglo-Saxon times Chester-le-Street’s place on the main road from London to Scotland ensured that it did not drift into obscurity but It still remained a relatively small place.
By the 1100s, Conecaster was called ‘Ceastre’ or ‘Cestre’ and was referred to as ‘Cestria in Strata’ by 1406. It was called ‘Chestre in le Strete’ by 1411 and Chester le Street by 1419. ‘Street’ historically comes from the term ‘strata’ applied to old Roman roads because of their paved nature. The suffix ‘Street’ in Chester’s name helped to distinguish Chester-le-Street from other Chesters, but most locals simply call the place Chester.
In the mid 1300s there would have been thatched cottages in the narrow lanes called chares and along the main street and a bake house and common oven. Stocks and a pillory stood in the churchyard until 1790 for the punishment of offenders. By the mid nineteenth century when rapid mining developments in the neighbourhood had been significant Chester-le-Street was described as a town but was still more like a large village.
Up until the 1930s when it was culverted, the Cong Burn was the main feature of the town crossed by a bridge that carried the main road over the broad stream. Today you would hardly know it is there at all though street-names like North Burns, South Burns and Bridge End give away its presence near the Market Place where the outdoor market straddles its course in a pipe beneath the paving.
John Leland, Henry VIII’s antiquarian described Chester-le-Street as “one main street of very mean building in height” in the early 16th Century and noted that the bridge across the “Conebrook” as “a very fair bridge of three arches”. Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) described the town as “an old dirty thoroughfare town empty of all the greatness which antiquaries say it once had”.
By the 1830s the town still consisted of little more than the Front Street and was home to an engine works, a brass foundry, a corn mill, around sixteen inns and taverns and the homes of various tradesmen. As the century progressed it increasingly became a focal point for the mining villages of the neighbourhood.
The most notable buildings in the main street are the historic pubs called the Queen’s Head and Lambton Arms. The Queen’s Head dates from about 1616, but has an 18th century façade. A former coaching house on the Great North Road, ten coaches a day once set off from here.
The Queen’s Head and Lambton Arms were listed as posting houses, where mail could be delivered up and down the Great North Road. The Lambton Arms dates from at least the 18th Century, but its façade was added in the early years of the 20th Century. Court sessions of the Bishopric of Durham were once held at the Lambton Arms and Queen’s Head. The Lambton Arms also hosted the Halmote Court ‘the Hall meet’ up until the nineteenth century. Such meetings were usually held in a manor house.
Dainty Dinah and the Sweet Factory
One industry for which Chester-le-Street was famed was the Dainty Dinah sweet factory which made toffees, nougats, mints, caramels and sweets of many flavours. Sweets were made in the town from around 1878 when a factory was established by a Mr Luccock between the Front Street and neighbouring railway line. Later a Mr Samuel took over the business and manufactured jam but in 1910 it was taken over by George W .Horner of Norfolk whose confectionery brands at Chester-le-Street included ‘Mermaid’ and later from 1914 the famed ‘Dainty Dinah’ brand of toffee with local blonde-haired lady, Alice Scott, modelling the role of Dainty Dinah.
Dainty Dinah and Horner’s became an internationally recognised brand and the 106 feet high factory chimney was a Chester-le-Street landmark. Sadly, the company faced tough competition from other national confectioners in the 1950s and the business eventually closed in 1961
Shrove Tuesday Football
For hundreds of years an annual Shrove tide football match was held at Chester-le-Street’s but unlike similar events at Sedgefield and Alnwick (which takes place in the castle park) it is no longer played today. The ball game’s origins are lost in time but it has been suggested that it dates to Roman times. It is more likely to have originated in a later period, perhaps in the medieval era.
This was a riotous event held on Shrove Tuesday and traditionally involved a team of ‘downstreeters’ versus the ‘upstreeters’ with Low Chare marking the boundary between the two. There were no goals, but the object was to get the ball to one end of the town or the other. It more often than not ended up in the Cong Burn and in 1891 a bridge across the burn collapsed, seriously injuring a boy. If it didn’t land in the burn one nineteenth century observer noted that the ball seemed to go from the yard of one local pub to another.
Shops were boarded up during the event but damage still seemed inevitable and eventually the protests of traders brought an end to the event with the last game taking place in 1932. A heavy police presence the following year ensured it would not continue.