A Brief History of Cirencester
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 throught
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