A Brief History of the Town of Gloucester

Updated: Dec 29, 2020

From the arrival of the Romans to the end of the medieval period around the late-15th century. For the later history from 1541 when Gloucester achieved city status, see A Brief History of the City of Gloucester, pt. 1. For the history of Gloucester from the 19th century, see A Brief History of the City of Gloucester, pt. 2.


Roman Gloucester


Gloucester owes its existence to the River Severn. In the 60s AD the Romans established a fort next to the Severn in the area of the modern-day Kingsholm suburb, giving them a strategic position controlling the crossing of the river. This was abandoned a decade later (and subsequently used by the Romans as a burial ground) in favour of a new fort, now the site of the modern-day city centre.


At the time of the Roman occupation, the Severn flowed farther east than today's east channel, in the area of today's Lower Quay Street (in later centuries this channel was called the Old Severn and became increasingly silted until it finally disappeared completely in the 19th century). The Roman bridge over the river was some 270 yards (245m) outside the new fort's west gate, which was located in the area where Westgate Street and College Street meet today.


In the late 90s AD the fort became the Roman colony of Glevum, the third colony to be established in Roman Britain after Colchester and Lincoln. In the early 5th century the Romans abandoned Britain, and the colony at Gloucester was left to ruin. The Roman street plan disappeared, leaving only the four main 'Gate' streets which still survive today, largely though not completely as they were during the Roman occupation.


Saxon Gloucester

Photo of the ruined wall of the priory under stormy skies with a 19th-century tombstone laid into the grass in the foreground
Remains of St. Oswald's Priory

The future city became part of the Anglo-Saxon Hwicce kingdom in the 6th century, and in 679 King Osric established an abbey somewhere in the vicinity of today's cathedral. The Saxons began repopulating Gloucester sometime around the 10th century, by which time the Hwicce were subject to the Saxon Kingdom of Mercia.


Around 900, St. Oswald's Minster was established a short distance outside the north-west corner of the former Roman colony by the Mercian Lord Aethelred and his wife Aethelflaed, signalling Gloucester's renewed importance.

Looking down Marylone, with the Church of St. Mary de Crypt to the left
Marylone

Under Saxon occupation, Westgate Street was shifted slightly north of its Roman predecessor, Southgate Street was extended through the remains of a Roman forum to meet the other 'Gate' streets at today's Cross in the centre of the city, and new side streets were laid down. Some of those Saxon side streets still exist today, among them Marylone, down the side of the church of St. Mary de Crypt, and Hare Lane, originally the main route north towards Tewkesbury.


After the death of her husband in 911, Aethelflaed ruled as Lady of the Mercians, played an important role in restoring to Saxon control territory taken by the Vikings and was buried on her death in 918 alongside her husband at St. Oswald's.

View of 19th-century house surrounded by lawn and trees
Site of Roman fort and Kingsholm Palace

Another indication of Gloucester's renewed importance was the establishment by the 11th century of a Saxon royal palace on the site of the original Roman fort at Kingsholm. Saxon royalty often visited Gloucester, and it was strategically important in the suppression of revolts and a campaign against the Welsh.


Late-Saxon settlement spread beyond the west wall of the Roman colony, which was dismantled for building materials, and extended to the Roman riverside wall. The Saxons also built outside the Roman wall to the north.


Norman Gloucester


Gloucester retained its importance after the Norman conquest of 1066. It was here in 1085, possibly at Kingsholm Palace, that William the Conqueror ordered a survey of his newly acquired territory, the Domesday Book. In 1089 the first stones of the Benedictine Abbey of St. Peter were laid near the site of Osric's abbey. At the beginning of the 12th century the town supported some 3,000 inhabitants.

After dark photo of the Severn in flood with, on the opposite bank, the modern day administration block of Gloucester prison, which currently occupies the site of Gloucester Castle
View over flooding Severn to site of Gloucester Castle

By 1112 Kingsholm Palace had been superseded by a new Norman castle built close to the Severn just outside the Roman wall. In the mid-12th century Gloucester was a principal stronghold in the civil war known as The Anarchy, and in the later 12th century it was an important base for operations against the Welsh and Irish.


By the 13th century Gloucester Castle was a strong fortress surrounded by moated defences which extended via a bridge across the Severn. King Henry III, who had been coronated at the age of nine at Gloucester Abbey, was a regular resident, and it was twice besieged in 1264–1265 during the Second Barons' War. It was maintained as a fortress until the mid-15th century, after which it was used primarily as a prison and increasingly neglected (it was finally demolished in 1787 to make way for Gloucester Prison, itself currently in the process of being dismantled).

Photo of a timber-framed house with the tower of Gloucester Cathedral in the background
Parliament Room on Miller's Green

The town prospered due to its strategic importance on the Severn. Although it was visited less frequently by royalty after King Henry III (died 1272), it was still the venue of Parliaments convened in 1378 (by King Richard II at Gloucester Abbey, an event that gave its name to the Parliament Room in the cathedral's Miller's Green), 1406 and 1407.


Gloucester's position and proximity to the iron-rich Forest of Dean made it an important centre for iron-working, spurred by the frequent demand for military supplies such as nails for ships, horseshoes, spades, arrows and kitchen utensils. This early industry survives today in name, Longsmith Street having been the main location of Gloucester's smithies and forges.


Religious Houses

Photo of building in background with, in the foreground, painting of gate and church spire on display in the priory grounds
Remains of Llanthony Secunda Priory

Several monastic houses were established in addition to Gloucester Abbey in and around Gloucester in the 12th and 13th centuries. In 1136 Llanthony Secunda Priory was founded to the south-west of the city by Augustinian monks as a refuge from Welsh harrassment at Llanthony Priory in modern-day Monmouthshire. Around 1150 St. Oswald's Minster was converted to an Augustinian priory. In 1231 a Franciscan priory was established inside the south-east corner of the Roman/medieval walls at Greyfriars. Eight years later a Dominican priory was established inside the south-west corner of the walls at Blackfriars. The last of Gloucester's religious houses was established 1268 by Carmelites just outside the north-east corner of the walls at Whitefriars.

Photo of the great hall in the former church with a view out of the glazed wall to courtyard ruins
Blackfriars

After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s, Gloucester Abbey became Gloucester Cathedral, St. Oswald's became the parish church of St. Catherine, and the remaining sites passed into private ownership. Whitefriars has long since disappeared under the city, St. Oswald's and Greyfriars are today ruins, Llanthony Secunda and Blackfriars still stand to varying degrees of completeness, albeit significantly different from their monastic origins, while Gloucester Cathedral towers over the city, looking much as it did when the last major works on it were completed in the mid-15th century.

View of the cathedral on a sunny day, with landscaped area in the foreground where the lay cemetery was once located
Gloucester Cathedral

By the end of the 11th century there were ten churches in Gloucester. The right of burial was initially confined to only three – the church of Gloucester Abbey, St. Oswald's Minster and St. Mary de Lode – but this had been extended to the other churches by the early-16th century.


Five of these early churches still stand: the abbey church, now Gloucester Cathedral; St. John the Baptist, now St. John Northgate on Northgate Street, albeit with a 15th-century tower and a body that was rebuilt in the 18th century; St. Mary de Crypt on Southgate Street; St. Mary de Lode just outside the cathedral to the west, albeit with a 19th-century nave; and St. Nicholas on lower Westgate Street, albeit now decommissioned. The Church of St. Michael at The Cross in the town centre was closed at the beginning of the Second World War and, with the exception of the tower (occupied today by the Gloucester Civic Trust), demolished in 1956.


Economy

Photo looking through the arch of a railway viaduct up Hare Lane to a 16th-century timber-framed building
Hare Lane

By the end of the 12th century clothmaking, concentrated by the river near the Church of St. Nicholas, had become a significant industry. Leather-working had become an important industry in the 13th century. It was concentrated around Northgate Street and Hare Lane, the latter the location of a 13th-century townhouse which, between the 16th and 18th centuries, was used as a tannery and still survives today, albeit in ruinous form, as Tanner's Hall. The town was the main regional trading centre and traded to a lesser extent, particularly along the Severn, with farther-flung communities in Britain, Ireland and continental Europe.

Photo looking down the street under a colourful sunset to the spire of St. Nicholas Church, with shops on the right, the columned portico of Shire Hall on the left and colourful planters in the foreground
Lower Westgate Street & St. Nicholas

The significance of the Severn is reflected in the medieval importance of Westgate Street, the upper part of which had, by the mid-12th century, become the location of the town's main market. The middle of the street was also the location of two medieval churches – St. Mary de Grace opposite the entrance to today's St. John's Lane and Holy Trinity opposite the entrance to today's Bull Lane (neither of which have survived) – and by the end of the medieval period (around the end of the 15th century), the street had been further divided into two narrow lanes by the construction of houses, shops and a covered butter market known as the King's Board (the remains of which are now located in Hillfield Gardens). Southgate Street was by the 13th century the location of a fish market.


Government


Immediately after the Norman conquest Gloucester was a royal borough governed by the king's appointee. Over the following centuries the town's wealthy merchant classes increasingly acquired the liberty to govern the town free of royal interference.


In 1483, during the reign of King Richard III, a royal charter added the surrounding parishes and hamlets of Dudstone and King's Barton to Gloucester and styled the area 'the county of the town of Gloucester', to be governed by a mayor and eleven other alderman in a council of forty members in total. The ranks of this 'corporation' were filled by the town's wealthy merchants. The mayor was chosen annually from amongst the alderman by the aldermen and twelve other council members. New aldermen were selected from the council by the sitting alderman and were appointed for life. New council members were appointed, also for life, by a full council vote.


Topography

Map of Gloucester in 1610
Gloucester 1610. Source: Wikipedia

Medieval Gloucester continued the expansion beyond the Roman walls begun by the Saxons. In 1119 Foreign Bridge – its name indicating the limit of the town – was built across the Old Severn, which by this time had shifted westwards to where today Royal Oak Road cuts across lower Westgate Street by the car park.


The land between the Old Severn and the Severn's east channel was known as The Island (so called because it was at one stage surrounded by the shifting courses of the Severn). Development of this area and construction of Westgate Bridge with its fortified gatehouse spanning the east channel began during the reign of King Henry II (1154–1189).

View along Pitt Street with the old cathedral precinct wall running from the entrance to King's School
Precinct wall along Pitt Street

Gloucester Abbey straddled the north-west corner of the Roman wall, and the abbey's northern wall, built c.1218 when the abbey expanded onto land owned by St. Oswald's, was part of the town's defences. A section of that wall, part of which was heightened with windows added c.1535, still stands today along Pitt Street below King's School.


Expansion to the north reached the River Twyver, with access into town via Alvin Gate at the top of Hare Lane and the outer north gate at the junction of Northgate Street and London Road, near where today's Black Dog and Bruton Ways meet. To the east and south, suburbs were established along the main routes outside the town's defences, which remained the old Roman wall and the Norman castle.

Examples of timber-framed buildings in Gloucester dating to the 15th and 17th centuries
Folk Museum

Few properties during this period were built of stone, and between 1122 and 1223 five fires devastated large swathes of Gloucester's timber-framed housing, surviving examples of which include the Folk Museum.


In 1377 the town, with a population presumed to have exceeded 3,000, was rated as the 15th wealthiest in England, dropping to 17th in 1523. By the end of the medieval period, in the last years before the town officially became a city, Gloucester no longer featured in national affairs as it had a few centuries earlier, but it remained an important regional centre.


Sources

A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester, Victoria County History, 1988, pp. 1–72

The Severn Flood-Plain at Gloucester in the Medieval and Early Modern Periods, Transactions of the Bristol and Gloucestershire Archaeological Society, Vol. 124, 2006, p. 12, John Rhodes

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