Was Chester the intended capital of Roman Britain?

Inspired by a previous blog post that re-imagined Winchester as the nation’s capital through mapping, guest blogger John Murray applied this technique to Chester.

There has been much speculation amongst historians and archaeologists on whether Roman Chester (Deva) was intended to be the capital of Britannia.

This was the subject of a BBC Two Timewatch programme (Britain’s Lost Colosseum) from 2005 and, more recently, in Professor Alice Roberts’ Britain’s Most Historic Towns programme about Roman Chester.

During an archaeological dig in 1939, the remains of a substantial elliptical building were discovered immediately to the dextral rear (north west) of the headquarters building (Principia).

The map below shows the approximate location of these buildings. The elliptical building would have been approximately where the present-day Chester Market Hall is located.

Location of Principia and Elliptical Building overlaid on OS Open Map-Local with present day city walls.

The actual intended use of the Elliptical Building is unknown as construction was abandoned part way through the first build. Archaeological surveys show that the building was approximately 60m x 30m in size with a large elliptical courtyard in the centre surrounded by smaller regular shaped buildings within a rectangular site.

Roman columns in Northgate Street, Chester near the site of the Elliptical Building. Photo © Anne Murray CC BY-SA.

In the centre of the building was a large water feature, thought to be a fountain with a pool. An inscription on a lead water pipe found during another dig in 1969, indicated that the building was first built in 79 A.D. during the Flavian dynasty under the reign of Vespasian, when Gnaeus Iulius Agricola was Governor of Britain.

The building was later reconstructed, along with the fortress, during the early 3rd century.

The exotic design of the elliptical building, its size, and grandeur makes it unique within Britain and suggests it was built for a special purpose, possibly as the headquarters of the provincial governor. A slate cut inscription found near the site in the 1960s added further weight to the theory that Deva was the intended capital of Flavian Britannia.

Inspired by an Ordnance Survey blog post about Winchester, A Capital Idea, I wondered what the map of Chester would be like if it was and had remained as the nation’s capital and grown over the years as London has.

I re-imagined Chester as the capital of Britain using exactly the same technique OS’s Danny Hyam did for his Winchester map.

Chester re-imagined as the capital of Britain using OS OpenData.

Using QGIS and OS OpenData, I took the London Urban Area Boundary from OS and overlaid it on a map of the Chester area, positioning Chester Cross where Charing Cross is located in London, clipping the edges to the coastline. These two locations are regarded as the centres of both cities and the point where historically distances are measured to.

Taking OS’s examples for Winchester on the same scale where London landmarks would be:

  • Buckingham Palace would have been in the middle of Curzon Park
  • Wembley Stadium would be at the UPM recycling plant on Deeside
  • Wimbledon Tennis Ground would be located just south of Higher Kinnerton

Taking Chester landmarks applied to London:

  • Chester Cathedral would be where the National Gallery is on the north side of Trafalgar Square
  • Chester FC Stadium would be in the middle of Hyde Park
  • Chester Racecourse would be at St James’s Palace
  • Chester Zoo would move near Caledonian Road tube station

Thanks to OS and Cheshire West and Chester Council for their help in writing this article.

City Walls shapefile © Cheshire West & Chester Council (2018) reproduced with permission.

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