Cirencester was established as a Roman administrative centre, at the junction of a web of roads linking towns like Exeter, Gloucester and Lincoln, from around 75 AD. When the defences were built in the 2nd century it was the second largest town in Britain after London. The full Roman story is told in the Corinium Museum.
After the Romans departed and the town abandoned, buildings were looted for their stone - many existing structures still incorporate Roman stonework. After the battle of Dyrham in 577 Cirencester fell into Saxon hands, and by the time of the Norman conquest was a growing community with a long narrow church located in what is now the Abbey grounds. In 1117 King Henry I decreed that the existing religous house based on the Saxon church should become a monastic abbey with the King as patron. He was also Lord of the Manor, so provided a replacement parish church for the townspeople on its present site. Whereas the great Abbey church of St Mary lasted 400 years, the parish church of St John Baptist has been enriched and grown into the magnificent church of today.
Later, Richard I sold the Lordship of the Manor to the Abbot, who therefore also controlled the town. This was a major source of complaint from the townspeople during the Middle Ages, during a period when the Cotswolds and Cirencester itself grew rich from the wool trade. They were not sorry when the Abbey was dissolved in 1539. The buildings were demolished, some of the stone being used in new town buildings. The King sold the site (later to be owned by the Chester-Master family), but took back the Lordship of the Manor, later to become the present Cirencester Park (now the home of Earl Bathhurst).
During the Civil War the town sided with Parliament and the two big estates with the King. In 1642 Royalists took the town, over 1000 townsmen were imprisoned in the church without food or water, before being marched to Oxford the next day to seek pardon from Charles I.
The late 1600s saw religious revival: the Unitarians, Baptists and the Quakers were evident. The river Churn and the Duntisbourne brook ran through the unpaved streets; there was a ford at Cecily Hill and raised footpaths and fords in Gloucester Street; the Market Place consisted of three congested streets with rows of houses, shops and inns. These were cleared away from 1876, drains were dug and the rivers culverted.
As for traffic, a branch of the Thames & Severn canal came in 1789 and went in the 1930s; two railway stations came in the 19th century and went in the 1960s. A ring road came in the 1980s, and the bypass in 1998. Meanwhile, despite the traffic, the town remains a very pleasant place to live and work.
Sources: ‘Cirencester The Roman Corinium’ Cirencester Town Council official guide, about 1987
Cirencester Parish Church’ The Pitkin Guide, 1997