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Maelor Saesneg Historic Landscape

Historic Landscape Characterisation

Maelor Saesneg

The Administrative Landscape

Secular boundaries

Little is known of the early administrative framework of the area, though it is assumed that Maelor Saesneg fell within the Iron Age and subsequent tribal territory of the Cornovii. This is thought to have loosely corresponded with boundaries of the post-Roman kingdom of Powys, which as noted below may have extended into the Cheshire plain to a point perhaps midway between Whitchurch and Chester.

Though little is known of the early medieval history of Maelor Saesneg it must be assumed that the commote of Maelor and its religious focus on the banks of the Dee at Bangor Is-y-coed had become established as a thriving community by at least the late 6th century. Certainly, the leader of the religious community at Bangor, St Dunawd, had considerable status in the contemporary British church, and led a delegation of bishops and other learned men of the British Church to a meeting in 603 with St Augustine, in his ultimately unsuccessful mission to establish the authority of the Roman church over the native church in Britain.

The early boundaries of the kingdom of Powys are uncertain, but they had almost certainly once extended well into the Shropshire and Cheshire plains. From at least the early 7th century these attractive lowlands along the Dee and extending into the Cheshire Plain came under increasing pressure especially from the expanding Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Mercia to the east and south-east. A degree of cooperation had evidently developed between the native British kingdoms and Mercia at this time, at least in the face of a common enemy, and indeed Bangor Is-y-coed was to figure in the earliest documented event of the 7th century in the West Midlands. At the battle of Chester, about 616, Aethelfrith, king of the Anglian kingdom of Northumbria defeated British forces said by Bede to include monks from the monastery of Bangor led by Brocmail (Brochfael), of the royal house of Powys, who some sources say was accompanied by Selyf, son of Cynan. Both leaders appear to have belonged to the Cadelling, a royal dynasty which appears to have ruled over territories in north-east Wales and Chester in the 9th century. The slaughter of a considerable number of British monks at this battle was justified according to Bede, by the recent rejection by the British Church of Augustine's mission to establish the supremacy of the Roman Church.

The subsequent capture of the whole of the Cheshire plain by Aethelfrith's successor, Edwin of Northumbria, was perhaps undertaken with the ambition of also annexing the kingdom of Powys. Though relatively short-lived, this action was to prefigure one of the most momentous events in the history of the native kingdoms of the Cymru. Supremacy over the Cheshire plain was to be disputed by Northumbria and Mercia for some years to come, Cadwallon of Gwynedd and Penda of Mercia joining forces at one stage to defeat Edwin. Yet, ultimately, the British kingdoms of Wales were to be cut off once and for all, from those of Cumbria. Political and military power over the region was to become consolidated by Mercia during the course of the second half of the 8th century during the reign of first of Aethelbald and then of Offa, the latter styled 'king of the English'. The construction of Wat's and Offa's Dykes before the end of the 8th centuries was to wrest control of Maelor Saesneg from Powys and extend Anglo-Saxon power to an area well to the west of the Dee for several centuries to come. Place-name evidence indicates the establishment of a scattering of Mercian settlements throughout the area during the course of probably at least the 8th to early 11th centuries, if not earlier.

The impact on these settlements of the Danish wars of the 9th and 10th centuries is unknown, though the place-name of Croxton, to the east of Horseman's Green, might betray Norse influence. The name of Worthenbury, containing the Old English element burh ('stronghold'), may signify a defensive structure of some kind.

At the time of the Norman Conquest in 1066 much of the land to the east of Offa's Dyke along in the northern borderland fell within the Cheshire hundreds of Exestan and Dudestan, the latter (later known as Broxton) including the area of Maelor Saesneg and assessed for tax (hidated). Manors listed in the Domesday survey of 1086 identifies lands at Worthenbury (Hurdingberie), Bettisfield (Bedesfeld) and Iscoyd (identified as Burwardestone), as being held by Edwin, the Saxon earl of Mercia at the time of the conquest in 1066. Domesday also records claims by the church of lost holdings in Bedesfeld and Burwardestone, some of which has been lost as long ago as the reign of King Cnut (1016-35), which has suggested that the existence of pre-Conquest multiple estates covering a significant proportion of Maelor Saesneg, divided between the church and earl Edwin.

Following the Norman conquest these lands formed part of the marcher lordship of Chester held by Earl Hugh of Avranches, one of King William's principal lieutenants, probably with the intention of providing a base for campaigns against the neighbouring Welsh kingdoms, the new lordship said to have been settled by 'a youthful band of warriors in search of adventure and fortunes' at this period. The manors of Hurdingberie, Bedesfeld and Burwardestone, together with extensive lands in the adjacent area of Cheshire were made over to Robert FitzHugh, one of Earl Hugh's principal tenants and probably of Norman origin. The pattern of these holdings, which formed a compact block in the southern half of the Domesday hundred of Dudestan, appears to reflect a multiple estate confiscated from Robert's predecessor, the Saxon earl Edwin, possibly taken over with a minimum of administrative disruption.

Robert FitzHugh became a prominent baron in Earl Hugh's wars against the Welsh, and despite the relatively small number of earth and timber castles that have been identified in the area, the military and strategic nature of Robert's holdings in south-west Cheshire and Maelor Saesneg is emphasised by the presence of the significant number of unnamed knights (milites) which the Domesday survey suggests had been granted land in the area in return for military service. These include three in Bettisfield, two in Burwardestone, and one in Worthenbury, who undoubtedly formed the upper echelon of tenants in the district. Other newcomers to the area included three unnamed Frenchmen (francigenae) at Worthenbury, who probably occupied a higher social status than the local peasant population.

Little is known of the cultural or linguistic make-up Maelor Saesneg at the time of the Domesday survey, though later history suggests that, as perhaps in the pre-Conquest period, it may have continued to accommodate numerous Welsh landholders. Domesday lists various serfs, villains, bordars, oxmen and radmen, the only possible reference to a specifically Welsh underclass being the three 'other men' listed at Bettisfield.

Though annexed by the Anglo-Norman marcher lordship of Chester, the north-eastern boundaries of Wales were still to be a subject of dispute by the kingdom of Powys in the late 11th century. A period of relative tolerance developed between the kingdom of Powys and the English of the borderland developed during the reign of Henry I in the earlier 12th century, turmoil during the reign of Stephen in the years leading up to the middle of the 12th century providing the opportunity for Powys to extend its eastern boundaries into Cheshire and Shropshire into lands it had held before the Conquest, the commote of Maelor (to become known as the lordship of Bromfield, lying on both the western and eastern banks of the Dee) being reabsorbed into the Welsh kingdom at that period. Despite an occasional raid, such as that by the earl of Chester on Maelor in 1177, the territory was to remain in Welsh hands for over a century.

A number of factors were to curtail the freedom and independence of Powys during the 13th century. Its geographical position made it vulnerable to annexation at various times by the expansionist kingdoms of Gwynedd to the west and of England to the east. The sheer size of the kingdom - described by the court poet Gwalchmai as extending 'from the summit of Pumlumon to the gates of Chester, from Bangor Is-coed to the forested fringes of Meirionydd' - had tested the reins of native government during the 12th century, the Welsh custom of partible inheritance gave rise to a number of separate small and ineffectual native lordships during the course of the 13th century. Maelor Saesneg, with its relatively rich and productive farmlands bordering the Dee and few natural barriers to east or west, was clearly prized by both parties.

On the death of Madog ap Maredudd in 1160 the kingdom of Powys was split into two, the northern part of the kingdom, inherited by his son Gruffudd Maelor, becoming known as Powys Fadog after Gruffudd's son, Madog. The territory known as Maelor Saesneg ('English Maelor'), first recorded in a charter of 1202, became divorced from Maelor Gymraeg or ('Welsh Maelor') on the west bank of the Dee by separate lordship grants. Gruffudd Maelor, who inherited Maelor Saesneg on Madog's death in 1236, entered fully into Anglo-Welsh society, marrying Emma Audley, the daughter of a prominent Shropshire family, and yet remained subject to the power of the kingdom of Gwynedd, especially under its new leader, Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Something of the character of borderland society at this time is given by the provisions that Gruffudd Maelor was to make for his widow in a charter approved by Llywelyn. Emma would inherit Maelor Saesneg, contrary to the normal dower provisions of Welsh law, but the territory was to revert to Welsh lordship upon her death.

In the event, Llywelyn dispossessed Emma of these dower lands following Gruffudd's death, because of her allegiance to the English Crown. Following campaigns against Llywelyn in 1276-77 Edward I endeavoured to extend his control over Maelor Saesneg, Welsh control of the territory being finally surrendered following the conquest of Wales by Edward in 1282-83, when Maelor Saesneg was seized by the English Crown. By the Statute of Wales of 1284 the various royal estates in north-east Wales - neighbouring Tegeingl (Englefield) and Hopedale, and the isolated territory of Maelor Saesneg - were amalgamated into the new county of Flint, placed under the wide-ranging military, administrative and judicial powers of the chief justice of Chester, remaining in the personal possession of the crown. In 1286 Edward I granted Maelor Saesneg to his queen, Eleanor.

The common Welsh place-name elements llan and tref are both almost entirely absent in Maelor Saesneg, suggesting that the area was more or less entirely administered according to the English manorial system, though the occurrence of Welsh field-names and land measures in early documents betrays a continuing Welsh-speaking element in the population. Manors known to have existed at one time or another within Maelor Saesneg include Worthenbury, Bettisfield, Iscoyd, and probably Gredington recorded in the Domesday survey, as noted above, and Hanmer and Overton recorded in later sources. The townships at the time of the tithe survey in the 19th century, in part deriving from the decay of the medieval manorial system comprised the single township parishes of Bangor Is-y-coed and Worthenbury, the three townships of Overton Villa, Overton Foreign and Knolton in the parish of Overton, Penley township in the parish of Ellesmere (Shropshire), Iscoyd township in the parish of Malpas (Shropshire), and Wallington, Halghton, Tybroughton, Bronington, Hanmer and Bettisfield townships in the parish of Hanmer. Despite the absence of township divisions within Worthenbury, the parish included the four hamlets of Mulsford, Broughton, Ywern and Willington, in addition to the parochial village.

In 1309 the lordship was granted to Queen Isabella, consort of Edward II, but when the king seized it in the late 1320s the commote was granted to Ebulo Lestrange. In 1397 Richard II added the county of Flint to his palatinate of Chester and form the new principality of Chester. The territory remained in the personal possession of the crown until the Acts of Union of 1536 and 1542-43, in the reign of Henry VIII, when it formally became absorbed within kingdom of England and Wales, generally sharing a single administrative and legal framework. The creation of Denbighshire from the abolished marcher lordships in north-east Wales cemented the isolation of Maelor Saesneg hundred from the rest of Flintshire, becoming known in the modern period as the rural 'Flintshire Detached', for which the medieval borough of Overton became the centre of administration.

As a result of local government reorganisation in 1974 the area became absorbed within the district of Wrexham Maelor in the newly-created county of Clwyd. In the course of further local government reorganisation in 1996 Maelor Saesneg became part of the new unitary authority of Wrexham County Borough Council. The lowest tier of civil administration at the present-day is represented by community councils, of which the following fall within Maelor Saesneg: Bangor Is-y-coed, Overton, Willington Worthenbury, Hanmer, Maelor South, and Bronington.

Ecclesiastical boundaries

The early monastic clas church at Bangor Is-y-coed, named Bancornaburg by Bede, appears to have been the focus of an extensive ecclesiastical district corresponding with the early Welsh commote of Maelor, comparable with the association between the minster churches and hundreds in the neighbouring Anglo-Saxon kingdoms, both probably being staffed by a body of secular priests entitled to various dues. The church had been in existence since at least the late 6th century, its leader Dunawd (anglicised to Dinoot, Dinoth) having sufficient status within the British church to lead the of bishops and other learned men to the conference with St Augustine in 603, noted above, which perhaps took place at Bangor itself. There are many indications of British Christianity in the area and it seems likely that British churches preceded some local Anglo-Saxon ones, particularly in west Cheshire, and that there was therefore a degree of continuity between in ecclesiastical organization and settlement between the late British and early Saxon periods

The extent of the early medieval ecclesiastical district belonging to Bangor in the pre-Conquest period is mirrored by the distribution of townships belonging to the parish as late as the early 19th century, comprising those of Bangor Is-y-coed and Is-coed in Flintshire (in Maelor Saesneg) to the east of the Dee, and by four Denbighshire townships of Eyton, Royton, Pickhill and Sesswick (in the former Maelor Gymraeg) to the west, having formerly also included the parishes of Overton and Worthenbury which had once been dependent chapelries of Bangor Is-y-coed. The eastern part of Maelor Saesneg appears to have formed part of a similarly extensive ecclesiastical district centred on the early church dedicated to St Oswald at Malpas, Cheshire, whose medieval parish included the township of Iscoyd to the north-east and whose deanery towards the end of the 13th century included the parish of Hanmer. Penley, on the south-west side of Maelor Saesneg, was a township and chapelry within the medieval parish of Ellesmere, Shropshire. The only priest in Maelor Saesneg mentioned in the Domesday survey, however, is one with an endowment of land in the manor of Bettisfield (Bedesfeld), one of the townships of the ancient parish of Hanmer and probably signifying the existence of St Chad's church at Hanmer itself by that date.

By the Conquest period Maelor Saesneg lay within the diocese of Lichfield, a position it occupied apart from a the period between 1075-95 when it belonged to the short-lived diocese of Chester, until 1541 when it was transferred to the new diocese of Chester. Worthenbury, whose chapel is mentioned as early as 1388, was created a separate parish by act of parliament in the second half of the 17th century. Overton, whose church was probably in existence from the beginning of the 1280s, when the planted borough became established, only became a separate parish in 1867.

A number of new parishes were created due to an expanding rural population and the rise in Nonconformism during the course of the 19th century. The new parish of Bronington (sometimes referred to as New Fenns) was created out of the parish of Hanmer in 1836 and the new parish of Bettisfield was likewise created from the parish of Hanmer in 1879, though the new church built at Willington in 1873 remained a part of the parish of Hanmer.

In 1849 the parishes of Bangor Is-y-coed, Bettisfield, Bronington, Hanmer, Overton, and Worthenbury were transferred from the English diocese of Chester to the Welsh diocese of St Asaph.

During the course of the first half of the 19th century there was a notable growth in the number of nonconformist places of worship throughout Maelor Saesneg and particularly in the Denominations with dates of erection of chapels are as follows: Welsh Calvinistic Methodist chapels at Crabtree Green (1814); Independent or Congregationalist chapels at Bangor Is-y-coed (1838); Primitive Methodist chapels at Overton (1816), Cloy (1832); Penley Preaching House (not used exclusively for worship); Bettisfield Mill House (c. 1845); Bethel Chapel, Hanmer (1850); Willington (1845); Wesleyan Chapel, Overton (1816); Bronington Chequer Wesleyan Chapel (1822); Horseman's Green Chapel (1841); Wesleyan Association meeting places without separate buildings in Bangor township (1850); Independent Dissenter meeting house in Bettisfield.

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