Chester, Ancient Diocese of (CESTRENSIS), in England. Though the See of Chester, schismatically created by Henry VIII in 1541, was recognized by the Holy See only for the short space of Queen Mary’s reign, the city had in earlier times possessed a bishop and a cathedral, though only intermittently. Even before the Norman Conquest the title “Bishop of Chester” is found in documents applied to prelates who would be more correctly described as Bishops of Mercia or even of Lichfield. After the Council of London in 1075 had decreed the transfer of all episcopal chairs to cities, Peter, Bishop of Lichfield, removed his seat from Lichfield to Chester, and became known as Bishop of Chester. There he chose the collegiate Church of St. John the Baptist as his cathedral: The next bishop, however, transferred the see to Coventry on account of the rich monastery there, though he retained the episcopal palace at Chester. The Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield was of enormous extent, and it was probably found convenient to have something analogous to a cathedral at Chester, even though the cathedra itself were elsewhere; accordingly we find that the church of St. John ranked as a cathedral for a considerable time, and had its own dean and chapter of secular canons down to the time of the Reformation. But the chief ecclesiastical foundation in Chester was the Benedictine monastery of St. Werburgh, the great church of which finally became the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary. The site had been occupied even during the Christian period of the Roman occupation by a church dedicated to Sts. Peter and Paul, and rededicated to St. Werburgh and St. Oswald during the Saxon period. This church was served by a small chapter of secular canons until 1093, when Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester, converted it into a great Benedictine monastery, in which foundation he had the cooperation of St. Anseim, then Prior of Bee, who sent Richard, one of his monks, to be the first abbot. A new Norman church was built by him and his successors. The monastery, though suffering loss of property both by the depredations of the Welsh and the inroads of the sea, prospered, and in the thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries the monks transformed their Norman church into a Gothic building which, though not to be reckoned among the greatest cathedrals of England, yet is not unworthy of its rank, and affords a valuable study in the evolution of Gothic architecture. It has been said of it that “at every turn it is satisfying in small particulars and disappointing in great features”. The last of the abbots was John, or Thomas, Clark, who resigned his abbey, valued at £1,003 5s. 11d. per annum, to the king.
In 1541 Henry VIII, having thrown off all obedience to the pope, created six new bishoprics, one of which was Chester. The archdeaconry of Chester, from the Diocese of Coventry and Lichfield, and that of Richmond, from York, were combined to form the new see, and the abbey church, now the cathedral, was to be served by a dean and six prebends, the complaisant ex-abbot becoming the first dean. At first the diocese was annexed to the Province of Canterbury, but by another Act of Parliament it was soon transferred to that of York. The first bishop was the Provincial of the Carmelites, John Bird, a doctor of divinity who had attracted the king’s attention by his sermons preached against the pope’s supremacy. Having already been rewarded by the Bishopric of Bangor, he was now translated to Chester. On the accession of Mary he was deprived as being a married man, and died Vicar of Dunmow in 1556. The diocese being now canonically recognized by the pope, George Cotys, Master of Balliol and Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, in which university he had been a distinguished lecturer in theology, was appointed bishop by the Holy See. In 1556 he was succeeded by Cuthbert Scott, a very learned theologian and Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University. On the accession of Elizabeth he was one of the four Catholic bishops chosen to defend Catholic doctrine at the conference at Westminster, and immediately after this he was sent to the Tower. Being released on bail, he contrived to escape to the Continent. He died at Louvain, October 9, 1564. The arms of the see were: gules, three mitres with their labels, or.