A History of Cirencester

By Tim Lambert

Roman Cirencester

The Romans invaded England in 43 AD. The Celtic tribe in this area, the Dobunni put up little resistance. Nevertheless, the Romans built a fort on the site of Cirencester. Soon a civilian settlement grew up nearby. The soldiers in the fort provided a ready market for goods made by the townspeople. The Roman fort was dismantled around 75 AD.

However, Roman Cirencester prospered. In the late 1st century it was rebuilt and enlarged. The streets were laid out in a grid pattern and a marketplace called a forum was built. The forum was lined with shops. It also had a kind of town hall called a basilica.

The Romans also built an amphitheatre at Cirencester where people could watch wrestling and cruel sports like cockfighting and bear-baiting (a bear was chained to a post and dogs were trained to attack it). On special occasions, gladiators probably fought in the amphitheatre.

At first, Roman Cirencester was defended by a ditch and an earth rampart, which probably had a wooden palisade on top. However, in the early 3rd century stone walls were built around Cirencester.

The Romans called Cirencester Corinium Dobunnorum. It was a large and important town. It was the second largest town in England, after London. Corinium covered 240 acres. The population of the Roman town is not known for sure but it was probably between 10,000 and 12,000.

However, in the 4th century, Roman civilization declined. The towns shrank as people drifted away to the countryside. The last Roman soldiers left England in 407 AD. Afterward, town life broke down.

Cirencester in the Middle Ages

After the Romans left Britain Cirencester may not have been abandoned completely. There may have been some people still living inside the walls and farming the land outside. However, it seems certain that Cirencester ceased to be a town. Meanwhile, the Saxons invaded eastern England.

In 577 AD they won a great battle and captured Cirencester, Gloucester, and Bath. Soon a little Saxon settlement grew up near the Roman remains. However, Saxon Cirencester was no more than a village of wooden huts with thatched roofs, a far cry from Roman days.

Sometime before the Domesday Book was written (1086) a market began in Cirencester. Although it was still a farming settlement Cirencester became a center for the local area. In 1086 the population of Cirencester was probably around 350. The town grew much larger as the Middle Ages progressed.

Then in 1117 King Henry I founded an abbey at Cirencester. The abbey came to dominate the town. In the Middle Ages England was divided into areas called manors. The king owned Cirencester but when the abbey was founded the Abbot became Lord of the Manor of Cirencester. He controlled the town, much to the annoyance of the townspeople.

In the Middle Ages, the church ran the only ‘hospitals’ where monks looked after the poor and sick as best they could. In the 12th century, the Hospital of St Lawrence was built in Cirencester. In the 13th century, a leper hostel was built.

There was also a castle at Cirencester. Little is known about it except that it was burned by Stephen during a civil war in 1142.

Medieval Cirencester was an important town. It was small with a population of about 2,500 but Cirencester grew rich because of the wool trade. In Cirencester wool was woven. Then it was fulled. That means it was cleaned and thickened by being pounded in a mixture of water and clay. When it dried the wool was dyed.

In 1215 and 1253 the abbot was given the right to hold wool fairs. In the Middle Ages fairs were like markets but they were held only once a year and they attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area. Many foreign merchants came to buy wool at the Cirencester fairs.

As Cirencester grew prosperous wealthy citizens gave money to expand the parish church and make it more ornate. In the 15th century and early 16th century, the parish church was made much larger and more beautiful. Meanwhile, a grammar school was founded in Cirencester in 1461.

Cirencester 1500-1800

Henry VIII closed Cirencester Abbey in 1539. The buildings of the Abbey were cannibalized. Today only a Norman arch remains of the Abbey. No doubt the townspeople were glad to get rid of the abbot. Meanwhile from 1517, Cirencester sent 2 MPs to parliament. However, like all towns in those days, Cirencester suffered from outbreaks of the plague. It afflicted Cirencester in 1576-1579.

In 1642 there was a civil war between the king and parliament. The people of Cirencester supported parliament but in February 1643 royalists seized the town. They held Cirencester until 1645 when the civil war was coming to a close.

During the 16th century and the 17th century, the wool industry in Cirencester continued to flourish. However, in the 18th century, it declined sharply and Cirencester dwindled into a quiet market town. At the end of the century, a branch of a canal reached Cirencester but it had little effect on the growth of the town.

There were 2 charity schools in Cirencester in the 18th century. The Blue School was opened in 1714, and the Yellow School opened in 1740. (They got their names because of the colours of school uniforms). Meanwhile, Cirencester Park was laid out in the early 18th century.

However, in the 18th century, there were epidemics of smallpox in Cirencester, which killed many people. It struck in 1741 and again in 1758.

Cirencester in the 19th century

In 1801 Cirencester had a population of about 4,000. By the standards of the time, it was a fair-sized market town. By 1901 the population of Cirencester was 8,000. Although the population of Cirencester doubled in that time, the population of Britain quadrupled. So compared to other towns, Cirencester declined in size and importance.

During the 19th century, the wool industry died out altogether. The only significant manufacturing industry in Cirencester was making farm tools. There was also a bacon curing industry and flour milling. Meanwhile, the Royal Agricultural College was founded in 1845.

There were several improvements to Cirencester in the 19th century. In 1825 an Act of Parliament formed a body of men called Improvement Commissioners. They had powers to pave, clean, and light the streets of Cirencester and to remove obstructions. At first, the streets were lit by oil lamps but in 1833 gas light was introduced to Cirencester.

Life in 19th century Cirencester gradually improved. Cirencester gained its first police force in 1839. The railway reached Cirencester in 1841.

A museum opened in Cirencester in 1856 and the Corn Hall was built in 1862. The first cemetery opened in Cirencester in 1871 and a cottage hospital opened in 1875.

From 1882 Cirencester had a piped water supply. Also in the late 19th century, a network of sewers was dug under Cirencester. In 1894 Cirencester was given an urban district council.

Cirencester in the 20th century

Bingham Hall was built in 1908. The first council houses were built in Cirencester in 1912. More were built between the wars and after 1945. In the early 1970s, an inner ring road was built in Cirencester.

A new library opened in Cirencester in 1975. Also in 1975, Cotswold Leisure Centre opened.

During the late 20th century some light industries moved to Cirencester. Today tourism is the most important industry in Cirencester.

The New Brewery Arts Centre opened in 2008.

During the 20th century, Cirencester grew quite rapidly. By 1971 it had a population of 15,000. In 2023 the population of Cirencester was 20,000.