The title of Earl of Chester first created in 1070 was described by The Complete Peerage as the "best known example of a Palatine Earldom in England". For the past six centuries or more the title has been vested in the British crown and granted to the heir apparent to the throne in conjuction with the title of the Prince of Wales.

The Norman Earls

The very first Earl of Chester was a gentleman by the name of Gherbod the Fleming who received the city of Chester together with a "large portion" of the former province of Mercia, which was formed into a County Palatine, whereby he became Earl of Chester in early 1070. He remained as Earl until the year 1071 when he returned to deal with affairs in his native Flanders, was captured by his enemies at the battle of Cassel, held captive thereafter and largely disappeared from view.

In the absence of Gherbod, William I appointed his nephew Hugh of Avranches to the vacancy. This Hugh, known to his contemporaries variously as 'le Gros' or 'the Fat', or 'lupus' on account of his general rapacity, was the son of Richard le Goz, the Viscount of Avranches in Normandy and his wife Emma, who was king William's half-sister. Hugh was invested with the border earldom of Chester in the year 1171 and given palatine authority; according to later tradition Hugh was granted Chester "To hold as freely by the sword, as the king himself held the Kingdom of England by the Crown". Indeed, since at the time the county of Cheshire included the Land between the Mersey and the Ribble (what has since become southern Lancashire) and Hugh was also granted large estates throughout the land, most notably in Yorkshire (three quarters of the income of the earldom derived from lands held outside Cheshire itself), he was ranked amongst the ten richest magnates in the land.

Hugh deployed much of his wealth and power used to good effect, making himself master of Anglesey and the north coast of Wales and after a lifetime of "gluttony" and "carnal lusts" became a monk on the 23rd July 1101 and died four days later on the 27th July, being succeeded by his only son Richard of Avranches. However both Richard and his wife later drowned off Barfleur in the wreck of White Ship on the 25th November 1120, leaving no children.

His successor was one Ranulph or Ranulf le Meschin, also known as Ranulf de Briquessart after his birthplace of Briquessard in the commune of Livry to the south of Bayeux, who was the son of the preceeding Viscount of the Bessin and Maud of Avranches, sister to the aforementioned Hugh the Fat, who was granted the county palatine of Chester in 1121. Ranulf also succeeded his cousin as the Viscount of Avranches, and became commander of the royal forces in Normandy in 1124, but later died sbout the year 1129.

He was succeeded by his son Ranulf, styled 'de Gernon', having been born at Gernon Castle in Normandy. Ranulf de Gernon later took a leading role in events during The Anarchy when he "distinguished himself as a soldier both on the side of the Empress Maud and that of King Stephen, with the greatest impartiality". He fought against king Stephen at the battle of Lincoln in 1141, as a result of which Stephen later retaliated by seizing him at court in Northampton 1146, although the king later relented and granted Ranulf the castle and city of Lincoln, sometime after 1151. Ranulf married Maud Fitz Robert, a daughter of Robert de Caen, the Earl of Gloucester, and later died on the 6th December 1153, supposedly as a result of poison administered by his wife and one William Peverell of Nottingham. He was followed by his son known as Hugh of Cyfeiliog or Kevelioc, after his birth in the commote of Cyfeilog in Meirionydd in 1147. This Hugh joined the rebellion against Henry II in 1174 and was deprived of his earldom, and although it was eventually restored to him in 1177, he later died in the midsummer of 1181 at the age of thirty-four.

Hugh was succeeded by his only son known as Ranulf de Blundeville, having been born at Oswestry, also known as 'Album Monasterium' or 'Blonde Ville', about the year 1172. Between 1189 and 1199 Ranulf also styled himself as the Earl of Richmond, and indeed the Duke of Brittany, by right of his wife Constance of Brittany, widow of Henry II's son, Geoffrey Plantagenet, despite the fact that she ran away shortly after the marriage claiming that it was invalid and subsequently obtained a divorce in 1199. He nevertheless became commander of the forces for Richard I, and bore the sword Curtana at Richard's second coronation of 1194, whilst he remained faithful to King John and was named as one of the king's executors. He was subsequently to be found amongst the supporters of Henry III and one of the leaders of the English resistence to the French invasion of 1216 and fought at the battle of Lincoln Fair in 1217, being also created the Earl of Lincoln on the 23rd May 1217, although he resigned that earldom to his youngest sister Hawise shortly before his death.

However despite his two marriages (he later took a second a wife in Clemence de Fougères) Ranulf had no surving children and his vast wealth therefore fell to be divided between his four surviving sisters at his death on the 28th October 1232.

The later Plantagenet earls

Ranulf de Blundeville's eldest sister Maud married one David Canmore, generally known as David, Earl of Huntingdon the grandson of David I, king of Scots, leaving an only surviving son named John. This John, who was naturally known as 'John le Scot', succeeded his father as the Earl of Huntingdon and was also created the Earl of Chester on the 21st November 1232. He married Helen, the daughter of Llywellyn ap Iorwerth, but died without issue shortly before the 6th June 1237 when he was believed to have been poisoned by his wife.

He too left four sisters as his coheirs, and it was William de Forz, the husband of the oldest sister Christian, who therefore put forward his claim to the title. However althought the other coheirs were apparently happy with this arrangement (so long as they received their due share of the estates), Henry III decided that the earldom should be annexed to the crown "lest so fair a dominion should be divided among women" and ensured that both William de Forz and his wife quitclaimed their rights to both the title and the County Palatine of Cheshire.

It seems that Henry III first granted the title of Earl of Chester to his younger son Edmund Crouchback in 1253, but later changed his mind and in the year 1254 the earldom of Chester was conferred by the king on his elder son, the Lord Edward and later king Edward I, along with a sway of other royal territories within Wales including the Perfeddwlad, the lordships of Cardigan, Builth and Camarthen and various other castles. The specific intention being that the Lord Edward, as he was known at the time, would thus be able to resist and contain the ambitions of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd of Gwynedd.

During the Barons' War of 1264-1265 led by Simon de Montfort, the Earl of Leicester against Henry III, the former won a notable victory over the king at the battle of Lewes in May 1264. Edward was captured and taken as a hostage and stripped of his title as the Earl of Chester, which Simon de Montfort took into his own hands. However Edward later escaped a year later on the 28th May 1265 and after de Montfort's death and defeat at the battle of Evesham on 4th August 1265, Edward was able to reclaim Chester. He subsequently used the earldom as the base from which he launched his final conquest of Wales.

As Edward I he later granted the earldom to his son Alphonso Plantagenet in 1284 shortly before his early death at the age of eleven, and then to his next son Edward II who was also created the first Prince of Wales. Edward II subsequently granted the title to his son who became Edward III. Since 1399 the earldom of Chester has been vested in the British Crown and the title of earl of Chester granted to those heirs to the throne also accorded the title Prince of Wales (and therefore see Prince of Wales for subsequent holders.) although the act of Richard II in 1398, which raised the earldom to the status of a principality was soon revoked by Henry IV.


THE EARLS OF CHESTER

FLEMING

AVRANCHES

MESCHINES

CANMORE

PLANTAGENET

DE MONTFORT

PLANTAGENET (restored)

All separate creations

See Prince of Wales thereafter.


SOURCES

  • The 1911 Encyclopedia Brittanica entry for CHESTER, EARLS OF
  • Genealogy of Avranches at http://homepages.rootsweb.com/~cousin/html/d0001/g0000167.html
  • The Palatine Earls of Chester at http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/3203/Chester.html
  • Royal Genealogy information held at University of Hull see http://www.dcs.hull.ac.uk/public/genealogy/royal
  • RoyaList Online at http://www.royalist.info/royalist/index.html
  • Charles Arnold Baker The Companion to British History (Longcross Press, 1996)
  • THE ENGLISH PEERAGE or, a view of the ANCIENT and PRESENT STATE of the ENGLISH NOBILITY London: (1790) see http://www.genuki.org.uk/big/eng/History/Barons/

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