Fighting & Fortifications on The Wirral
Invaders and Defenders
The history of the British Isles has not been a peaceful one. From the earliest times wars have been waged on British soil. sometimes between opposing religions or political factions, sometimes between the British and invaders from overseas. The Wirral Peninsula has not escaped the tide of war and the evidence for this can be seen today.
To discuss how the Wirral was involved in Britain's turmoil’s we have to look beyond the Peninsula. At the time of the Roman invasion of Britain in 43 AD, Cheshire and North Wales were occupied by a tribe known as the Cornovii and Chester was probably even then an important settlement. In 71 AD the Romans began a major campaign in Cheshire, constructing a legionary fortress in Chester, a site of obvious strategic significance. The town was close to the ever rebellious territory of Wales, convenient for campaigns further north and situated on the River Dee, which gave access to the Irish Sea. The fortress was completed circa 80 AD and consisted of a turf mound, with a ditch at the base and a wooden palisade equipped with towers. Sometime after 100 AD the fortress was largely rebuilt in stone, becoming in effect a self-supporting town and converting roughly the same area as the later medieval city - much roman masonry is still in evidence. The fort of Chester was, of course, an excellent base for the Romans' conquest of the Wirral and traces of their occupation have been found in several parts of the Peninsula. Roman coins have been unearthed at Oxton, Caldy, Neston and Hooton, and many coins and artefacts have been discovered at Meols suggesting that it was a large Roman settlement. Romans are thought to have quarried stone at Storeton, and a tombstone commemorating a centurion, almost certainly made of Storeton stone, can be seen, with other Roman artefacts, at the Grosvenor Museum in Chester. Traces of what seems to be roman roads have been discovered at Greaseby and at Street Hey near Williaston, and in 1850, when Wallasey Docks were being built, the remains of an ancient bridge, thought to be Roman construction, was found. The bridge was, apparently, 100 feet long and consisted of oak beams supported by stone piers.
The Romans withdrew from Britain in about 410 AD, but further invaders soon appeared. The Romano-Britons were harried by raiding Picts and Scots, who descended from the North, and later by the Anglo-Saxons, invaders from Denmark and Germany. The circumstances surrounding the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons were not clear. It being possible that some groups were actually invited by the British as mercenaries to fight the picts and scots. Be that as it may, the British and Anglo-Saxons were soon fighting each other, the invaders eventually gaining the upper hand, and in 604 AD Aethelfirth, the Saxon King of Northumbria took the city of Chester. Place names ending in ton and ham are a legacy of the Anglo-Saxons.
The Anglo-Saxons eventually dominated life in the southern half of mainland Britain, their distinctive culture forming the basis of our modern society, but England was shaken to its heart by the coming, i nthe late 8th Century, of the Norsemen. These ferocious fighters and expert seamen were natives of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, and a violent raid in Northumbria island of Lindisfarne, an event described with horror and outrage by contemporary writers, marked their arrival. The Norsemen were soon firmly established in the British Isles and the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle for the year 893 AD records the taking of Chester by the invaders who then made repeated incursions into Wirral, settling along the Dee coast. Their presence is commemorated to place names ending in "by" and "wall", the name Thingwall deriving from the Vikings parliament or "thing". The actual site of this meeting place is thought to have been at nearby Cross Hill by the A551.
Warfare between Anglo-Saxons and Scandinavians continued, the depredations of the invaders only being halted by King Alfred and his descendants, notably his son Edward The Elder, and his daughter Aethelflaed who, with her husband Athelred, drove the Vikings out of Chester and transformed Cheshire into an Anglo-Saxon stronghold. Alfred's battle against the Norsemen was also carried on by his grandson Athelstan who united the English and defeated an army of Scots, Picts,Welsh and Norsemen in a tremendous battle in 937 AD at a place known as Brunanburgh. Surprising , the site of this hard-fought and bloody battle, one of the most important in British history, is not known, but among the locations, which have been suggested, is that of Bromborough. Certainly the site would appear to have strategic significance: it is close to the Mersey and the Irish Sea, and the Norsemen and their allies, had they won the battle, could then have advanced on Chester, from there penetrating deep into Anglo-Saxon England.
Britain was only to know another hundred years or so of relative peace before the arrival of another force of invaders - the Normans. These ruthless and determined warriors from Northern France were in fact descendants of the Vikings, one of William the Conquerors’ forbears being the Norwegian King Rolf Ganger. Following the defeat of King Harold's army at the Battle of Hastings in 1066, William's forces soon took control of England, a task dependent on the rapid construction of castles. The first Norman castles were of earth and timber, but once the invaders established their hold on the country they began to build castles of stone, one being at Shotwick
Today Shotwick is one of the quietest villages on the Wirral Peninsula, but this was once an important settlement with a ford across the River Dee to Wales - still in use in the late 18th Century - and a castle, which was the base for many English military operations against the Welsh. The castle is thought to have been built some time before 1093 by the first Norman Earl of Chester, Hugh Lupus - 'Hugh The Wolf' - William the Conqueror's nephew who, as his name suggests, was a typical Norman - ruthless, bold and cunning. As a young man he was active and powerful, but as he grew older he became, like his uncle, enormously corpulent, the Welsh referring to him as Hugh the Gross. No trace of the Norman castle remains above ground, but it was undoubtedly a formidable building having, it is thought, an outer wall with several circular towers and a central square keep. It was almost certainly built on the site of an earlier defensive structure, probably Saxon/ The castle's earthworks can still be seen about a mile south of the village, the spot being reached by a footpath which connects Shotwick with Great Saughall. Henry II stayed at Shotwick in 1156 when he led his army against the Welsh, as did Henry III in 1245, and Edward I in 1278. Peace was finally made with the Welsh after 1281, following the death of Prince Llewlyn, and the castle seems to have gradually fallen into decay from this time on. The ruins were still standing in the 17th Century but, as they were regarded as a ready source of building material they eventually disappeared.
Shotwick, like other Wirral villages, was noted for the archers, the longbow playing a vital role in medieval warfare. As late as 1541, in Henry VII's reign, an act was passed enforcing the construction and maintenance of butts for archery practice and an old tithe map of 1843 the fields just below the church are marked with The Butts. A further reminder of unsettled times can be seen in the porch of Shotwick Church. Here, in one of the sandstone walls, are grooves, probably dating from the 16th Century, where arrows were sharpened.
The Tower At Brimstage
At the centre of the Wirral Peninsula sits the pleasant village of Brimstage which has an intriguing oddity that is found here. The village is overlooked by Brimstage Hall, attached to which is a tower of obvious antiquity, It is not known when the tower was built, the first reference to it being in 1398 when Sir Hugh de Hulse and his wife Margery were granted a licence to build an oratory - a small chapel - at their residence here. it is thought that oratory was in the base of this tower, which gives every impression of having been used earlier as a defensive structure. It is set upon a slight rise and anyone on the roof could have seen for miles - as far, in fact, as the mountains of Moel Fammau in Wales. The thick walls are pierced by arrow slits and the summit is machicolated, to allow missiles at unpleasant substances to be dropped on attackers. The roof, consisting of thick stone slabs is supported by massive corbels and reached by a winding, much worn, stone staircase. And there may of been a moat around the structure at one time. In the Cheshire volume Buildings of England (1971) by Nikolaus Pevsner and E. Hubbert assert that ''the building has every appearance of been a tower house ie. a compactly planned fortified dwelling of the peel-tower type'.
It has been said that there has been a building on the site now occupied by Leasowe Castle for hundreds of years. Originally, it consisted of a tower, which was built in 1593 by Ferdinando Stanley, the 5th Earl of Derby. Ferdinando was born in 1559 and at the age of 14 was called to Windsor by Elizabeth I. He held no senior office in court, but between 1585-86 he was Mayor of Liverpool. He took, it is said, the Manor of Wallasey in 1594 and died not long after in the same year.
Though the structure does not seem to have any strategic significance, but it was obviously capable of withstanding the attacks of casual marauders in times when the Wirral Peninsula was a wild lawless place. The walls of the tower are three feet thick, and it was originally surrounded by a deep ditch. Furthermore, the doorway, which can be seen in the ground floor room of a later turret, was over five feet from the ground, probably being entered by means of a ramp and drawbridge which could be drawn up from inside. Over the years there have been many additions to the castle, which has had a chequered career, opening in 1970 as a restaurant and hotel, a role it still fills today.
The Perch Rock Battery
The Perch Rock Battery, often referred to locally as Fort Perch Rock, is situated near Wallasey on the northern corner of the Wirral Peninsula. It was one of many defence's erected around the English coast in case Napoleon should try to invade the country or plunder coastal towns and was completed in 1829 from plans made by Captain Kitson. Red sandstone used in the construction of the fort came largely from the Runcorn Quarries, and was floated down the river in sort of flats and unloaded when the tide was out. Other stone came from Claughton Quarries. The stone was so soft and had to be left to be weathered. The Battery covers about 4.000 yards. Accommodation was provided for one hundred men, and the fort was equipped with eighteen guns, these being positioned to cover Rock Channel, the entrance to the Mersey from the Irish Sea. The fort has never been involved in any fighting and in 1958 the War Office put it up for auction. It now contains a museum, one of the exhibits being the remains of a Heinkel bomber which was shot down near Chester in August 14th, 1940 after a battle with three Spitfires training instructors from RAF Hawarden.
In the 1750's the Corporation of Liverpool decided to move the Powder Magazines, used to store explosive and shot from ships in port, from their site in Clarence Street and find a more isolated site for them on the Cheshire side of the River Mersey. Accordingly, a suitable plot was purchased on the south bank of the Mersey at Wallasey and the new magazine constructed. They were renovated and enlarged in 1838-39, and were still in use until 1851, when it was decided that in future explosives would be stored in hulks further up the river at the Bight of Sloyne. The move was probably prompted by safety concerns, the land around the Magazines having become much more built up.
In 1858 a battery was built on the site, and the imposing gateway with its crenulated towers, survives to this day as does the perimeter wall which now encircles several houses. Facing the south wall of the battery, on the other side of the road (Magazine Brow) are several cottages, perhaps dating from the 17th Century. These were probably first inhabited by fishermen, but it is thought that they were later occupied by offices from the battery. The Magazines were often referred to as Liscard Magazines and the fort as Liscard Battery, but the name Liscard later became attached to an area about a mile away where Wallasey's main shopping area is situated. A quaint circular dwelling may be seen about fifty yards from the fort's gateway, this being known as the Round House.
Now forming part of a private residence, this was once occupied by the battery's watchman. Further along Magazine Brow are situated two public houses, the Pilot Boat and The Magazines, the latter having been built in 1759 and once used by sailors who were having their outward bound ships reloaded with munitions at the Liscard Magazines.