WHY IS CHESTER THE ENGLISH OMPHALOS?

Violent death at the the heart of the
seventeenth century spectacle

by Manchester Area Psychogeographic

MAP's drift around Chester was timed to coincide with the anniversary of the death of William Lawes, killed outside the city walls, on September 24, 1645. Lawes was a composer, and supporter of the royalists during the First Civil War, which was coming to an end. In this century Lawes' music has been little known. During the mid sixteenth, however, he was referred to as the "Father of Musick". His biggest commissions were to write music for royal masques, those hugely expensive theatrical events mounted by the court and wealthier members of the aristocracy to remind an audience of their own kind about the symbolic significance of the monarchy. And his death was perceived as a symbol, by royalists, who said about it, "Will Lawes was slain by those whose wills were laws". It went against the natural order, in other words; the order which placed the monarch at the top of the heap.

As a prized musician, Lawes had enjoyed a relatively safe existence in wartime. He was one of the Royal Lifeguards, based with the rest of the Court in the royalist capital city of Oxford. So what brought him to a dangerous, besieged, bombarded place like Chester? The answer to this lies in that "natural" order which Lawes served, whose work reinforced, and which Chester, in ways we were about to discover, still preserves.

We began by walking from the railway station to the middle of Chester: the very middle, or omphalos. It's the point where the Roman augers first plotted the centre of Deva, at the junction of Eastgate, Watergate, Bridge Street and Northgate, and a medieval High Cross marks it. Alongside the conventional street signs, we noticed the city council have started displaying the original Roman road names, Watergate, running west, and Eastgate, running opposite, would have been Via Principalis. The north-south Via Decumana became Northgate and Bridge Street. With or without the names, Chester's street pattern preserves its original geomantic orientation.

This important fact wasn't lost on us. Certainly the place is heaving with obvious tourist-pulling landmarks and a certain amount of tack, but the shape of the street plan is difficult to ruin, even by waging war on it, as the parliamentary armies attempted (after the city surrendered to the parliamentary siege in 1646, the high cross, marking the omphalos, was taken down, and for years it lingered in a Roman garden, only to be rebuilt in the 1970s in its original position). In the seventeenth century, however, Chester was inferior to the city of Oxford, which was to the Royalists the ancient "centre" and omphalos of England. Oxford was where the king brought his court in 1642, while Chester was significant strategically, as the primary port linking royalist England to Ireland. But just as Oxford in medieval times had been rivalled by Lichfield for the title 'centre of England', Chester seems now to have surged into the lead.

On November 3 1996 the Observer newspaper decided that "archetypal" Chester was "the heart of middle England" ("pinpointed by demographic analysts as bang in the middle of all the league tables - age, housing, work, income - that count"). The city was used as the basis for a survey analysing so-called "moral decline" in Britain.

Walking back along Eastgate we ascended the city walls and made out way to the northeast corner, where King Charles Tower stands. This, also known as Phoenix Tower, is where Charles I watched the battle of Rowton Moor, on September 24 1645, where William Lawes died.

The siege or "leaguer" of royalist Chester began in 1644. In June 1645 the indications were that the king might march his armies to relieve the city, but Charles veered his troops away eastwards, to be heavily defeated at Naseby. Then in mid September the parliamentarians attempted to force Chester's defences conclusively and penetrated the south east suburbs, while the royalist defenders burnt houses to the north and east of the city walls to prevent giving cover to attackers. On September 22 the king arrived from Wales with an army almost entirely composed of cavalry, most of which camped south east of the city, planning to block a possible parliamentary retreat east into Cheshire, and hoping to trap them in the suburbs. A parliamentary relief army came up from Whitchurch, along the Roman road, during the night of the 23rd, and were driven back by the royalists outside the city in the morning. But the parliamentary siege troops moved out of the suburbs to reinforce their own reinforcements. Sounds confusing, and it was. In the afternoon, the main royalist army was outmanoeuvred and defeated with heavy losses. Just after four o'clock, a royalist relief force, including the Royal Lifeguards, which had been sent out of the city, was also swallowed up. Evidently, they thought they were charging towards victory, for William Lawes was described as "betrayed thereupon by his own adventurousness" and was killed by a bullet.

According to local tradition, the king had been watching it all from the vantage point of his tower, before moving into the cathedral where he witnessed events from the steeple. Standing at the Phoenix Tower in the late twentieth century, we couldn't work out how he could have seen very much; apart from the fact that trees obscure the view today, the tower is in the northeast corner of the city walls, and the battle took place in the southeast. Then we realised he may realised he may have stood in the tower in order to follow the movements of his Lifeguards, who were unable to take the most direct route out of the city, via the east gates, because parliamentary forces were at their strongest on the eastern side of the city. Instead the Lifeguards progressed out of the city via the north gates, sweeping around to the east and then south, towards eventual disaster. By which time the king would have had a better view from the cathedral. It was here that Charles nearly met the deity he so closely associated himself with: whilst talking to the one of his officers, a parliamentary sniper, positioned in a church tower outside the walls, shot at him. The bullet missed the king and killed the officer. Out in the fields, Lawes was probably dying at about the same time.

The bullet that penetrated Lawes' body was the result of personal folly, but if the bullet aimed at Charles had actually hit its target, it would no doubt have prevented Charles' greater folly in instigating the Second Civil War of 1648 with the help of the Scots covenanting army.

We photographed the cathedral from the Phoenix Tower, and then walked west, along the walls, Passing Morgan's Mount, the site of another tower which had contained a gun emplacement commanded by the Royalist Colonel Morgan. Here, in October 1645, the parliamentary army blew a hole in the walls and stormed in, to be beaten back by the defenders led by the French Comte de St. Pol, dressed only in his nightshirt. The royalists didn't surrender until the following year, when Oxford also capitulated, and the King was placed under, and escaped from, house arrest. We wonder what happened to Lawe's body in the meantime. Following the walls west, past the Goblin Tower, Water Tower and over the railway, we turned south with the Roodee, aka Chester racecourse, on the right. We left the walls at Grosvenor Road and walked to St. Mary's Church, where many victims of the siege and the plague which followed it, were buried. But there aren't any monuments. Lawes was being elusive.

Chester is a heritage city, where history is spectacle. The effect obscures the odd combination of mysticism and pigheadedness which characterised the Caroline court in the same way that up until recently it covered up the cracks in the contemporary, contemptible House of Windsor. Lawes was part of the royal clique from early on; he knew Charles well and dedicated his artistic abilities to the cult of the king and the rituals surrounding it. For his pains, he was referred to as the "deare servant" of Charles. What follows is an attempt to show how that king's defeat and execution failed to demolish the ritualistic culture of the Caroline dynasty, leading in part to the survival of royal mystique today. In the process, the artist, Lawes, was forgotten (there's a message there, we feel) while the ritual carried on, incorporating the king's death as part of it. The ritual, banal in its operation, tolerant of fools, and highly expensive, was bigger than the idiots it glorified. The spectacular society in Britain starts here.

Charles and his music maker were close. William Lawes, born in 1602, was a couple of years younger than Charles and first met him when they were both teenagers. They had the same music teacher, John Coprario, and probably played in the same consort. Following Coprario, Lawes was selected first to play and then to compose for the Court in the early 1630s, where he devised music for plays performed by the royal rep company, the Kings Men (founder member: W. Shakespeare), as well as the sumptuous royal masques. The settings for these entertainments had religious connotations: the Kings Men performed at the Blackfriars Theatre, built inside the confines of the monastery built for the monks of that order, and also at the Cockpit-at-Court, an indoor theatre at the royal palace in Whitehall, which had been a monastery too, at one time, belonging to the Dominicans. Masques were performed here, in the new Banqueting House, designed by Inigo Jones, who also drew up the costumes and scenery, the latter utilising painted "flats", creating the illusion of perspective. It was in the masques performed in Whitehall and in theatres like Blackfriars that drama began to become a proscenium event; it is likely that the first play to use scenery was Alaura, by Suckling, with songs by William Lawes, staged at Blackfriars in 1637. The well-known "wooden O" theatres, like the Globe, with their inner stages and "tiring houses", were beginning to become things of the past.

Theatres figured quite literally in the renaissance systems of artificial memory, used by the learned to remember vast tracts of text from ancient sources, and described by Yeats(1), in particular in the work of the Rosicrucian, Robert Fludd, whose Arts of Memory of 1619 used Jacobean theatre stages as "occultised" memory "icons" in a system of pairs (western and eastern), placed on signs of the zodiac. Fludd's theatres are Shakespearean, and don't have prosceniums, but the engravings which illustrated his book depend upon a careful use of perspective to convey Fludd's full message. Imagining a theatre three dimensionally was for some reason essential to the user of artificial memory, and what happened to theatres in the years following 1619 was a movement towards three-dimensional illusion. Fludd was also interested in machines; his memory system is mechanical, just as the spectacular effects of Inigo Jones depended increasingly upon mechanical systems.

Fludd's magico-philosophical system, based on the idea of the microcosm's relationship with the macrocosm, also described music. The Divine Monochord, illustrated in Fludd's The History of the Microcosm, shows a double octave being tuned by the hand of god, on a single string(2). As the string is tuned from low G to C we move from earth to god: C is a divine key, and it is no coincidence that a great deal of the music William Lawes composed for the royal masques was in the key of C, and keys relating to it. Unified tonality distinguished Lawe's composition and paved the way for the post-Restoration operas of Purcell.

Perspective in theatre accompanied the increasingly ceremonial structure of masque, which included complex sets of entries, dances, ante-masques and "symphonies", and of course, the king and queen, who actually appeared in the centre of many productions. Lawes positioned his musicians and singers geometrically, and plans still exist showing everyone's named performance place. Masques were put on in the winter, on Twelfth Night (January 5) by the king, at Shrovetide by the queen, and they'd often last four or five hours. No expenses were spared; one masque, the Triumph of Peace (text by John Shirley, music by William Lawes and Simon Ives), performed in 1634, cost 21,000. The Triumph of Peace, an ironic title bearing in mind what was to come in 1642, was produced by the Inns of Court, the four medieval colleges for law students. In 1634 they were being punished by Charles I for a piece of criticism which had been published by the puritan barrister William Prynne, based at Lincoln's Inn, who thought masques and plays were immoral especially if members of the aristocracy took part in them. The Triumph of Peace proved the Inn's loyalty, a perfect example of forced entertainment. It was preceded by an immense procession through the streets of London. Masques were elitist, but they weren't secret. It was important that mere groundlings could also get a peep at the spectacle.

Masques offended many puritan, and were intended by Charles I to do so; the 1638 production of Britannia Triumphans (text by Davenant, music by William Lawes) was deliberately performed on a Sunday to infuriate people like Prynne. After 1649, during the brief period when England was a republic, it's well known that theatres remained closed (they had actually been closed since the outbreak of the war in 1642), but what is not so well known is that masques continued to be performed, in schools, as "moral representations". In other words, the new republicans appropriated elements of royalist ritual, to the extent that in 1653 Cupid and Death was performed for the Portuguese ambassador in London.

Charles I was not simply a promoter of, and performer in his own masques. He lived life itself as if it was a masque, a macrocosmic enlargement of a ritual drama. His artists, like Lawes, conjured elaborate ceremonial spectacle; then, after 1642, those artists were engulfed in a war which, to the monarch, up in his tower, was also a spectacle, surrounding him. The process continued in an odd way during the trial of Charles I in January 1649, with Charles refusing to recognise the legality of the court, insisting he was above the law. Despite the fact that Charles was found guilty of treason, of declaring war on parliament and the "kingdom", the spectacle of Charles in life was to culminate in the spectacle of him being executed, outside the Banqueting Hall at Whitehall, where his masques had been staged a decade earlier. It was January 30, and just as scaffolding had been erected within the hall to stage the masques, scaffolding was now used to stage the execution, with Inigo Jones' architecture immediately behind, appearing, in all the surviving pictures we have of the scene, like a proscenium, and Charles stepping through one of the building's upper windows to face the crowd, as a performer emerges through a stage door to face the audience.

We never found William Lawes' grave and perhaps it isn't in Chester, perhaps it's in Oxford, where his only known portrait resides in the Faculty of Music. If anyone has information, please write to us. William's brother Henry, also a composer, survived the war, and carried on composing throughout the commonwealth period. But Charles II had spent most of the 1650s on the continent, and on his return in 1660 he preferred French musical fashion. English melancholy was out. But masques and opera had never been away. Ritual for the elite took off again, in a renewed form. And it's still here. If you have any doubts, take a listen to Radio 3 some time.

We completed our tour of Chester on the eastern side, clambering down the steps from off the walls at Newgate, where new mums and kids in pushchairs pause to gulp down pie and chips while watching the traffic roar along Pepper Street below. From here you can see the Roman Amphitheatre, undiscovered in Lawe's time, and not really an amphitheatre, it's half a gladiatorial arena, with a convent built over the other half. Spectacle and religion again, cohabiting. We went and had a look. A man in Roman armour was showing some American tourists round. They'd stopped inside a tiny room built next to the main entrance to the arena; it was a shrine to the Roman goddess of fate: Nemesis.

(1) Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, Routledge, 1966.

(2) Reproduced in Jamie James' The Music of the Spheres, Little, Brown, 1994.


First published in Manchester Area Psychogeographic 6, Winter 1996/7.

Back to Index