This year marks the 1,175th anniversary of the founding of the University of Chester. Here’s the proof of this assertion, from outside the Binks Building housing the Department of History and Archaeology:

IMG_20140906_082351Of course the ‘Church of England’ foundation claim of AD 839 might stretch credulity somewhat, but let’s not quibble. And yes, there are always cynics and they might cite all the University’s publications and the recent official history of the institution written by Professor Graeme White, formerly head of the Department of History and Archaeology, and note that 1839 was the foundation year. They might note the many other signs around the University state 1839 and not 839.  Those desperately trying to deny the 1,175th anniversary might invoke the agency of persons’ unknown who they might claim doctored this particular sign. Let’s dispense with such unfounded fantasy: this sign tells us the facts.

So let us reflect on the year AD 839 and the historical context of that great year that saw the birth of the greatest university in the whole of Chester. It was the year of the death of the King of Wessex, Ecgberht who was buried in the Old Minster of Winchester to be succeeded by King Aethelwulf. These were respectively the grandfather and father of King Alfred the Great, possibly the greatest king and worst sous chef in English history.

Likewise, Wessex’s powerful midland’s rival in whose bounds the ruins of Chester lay, Mercia, lost their great King Wiglaf who was interred at Repton, Derbyshire. He was replaced by the short-lived Wigmund and Wigstan: a time of dispute if not turmoil. A time of limited personal name innovation and familial hair-loss.

Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records this as the year that London, Canterbury (according to the C manuscript) and Rochester endured a great slaughter, presumably at the hands of raiding Vikings of Danish decent but equally from anyone who didn’t like the South-East cathedral universities and their tendency to steal Heads of Dept and promote them to Faculty Deans. (Although 842 is the adjusted date for these raids).

Close to Chester, the power of the Welsh kingdom of Powys was led by the long rule of King Concenn, who erected at some point in his reign a great stone cross to honour his great-grandfather Eliseg: the Pillar of Eliseg. They also invented S4C in this year.

It is unclear whether it was in 839 or the following year, 840, when the University first received its degree-awarding powers, but it is well-attested that its first combined honours degree was in Religious Studies with Anglo-Saxon, allowing for profitable career paths in the nearest available minster churches of Mercia, Northumbria and possibly Wessex and Kent but sparse opportunities in the British church to the west. However, there are rival accounts suggesting that only a fraction of graduates took up a career in the church, many instead going into retail, insurance and pillage.

Given this long 1,175 years of history, it is most apposite that the institution that was born in the year AD 839 should be actively researching the very origins of the kingdoms of Powys and Mercia through archaeological research at the Pillar of Eliseg, the monument raised by King Concenn: Project Eliseg. I hope the University of Chester recognises the importance of continuing this research and providing a multi-million pound grant to facilitate its anniversary archaeological investigations….

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