The Birmingham Of Yore

It seems remarkable today, but back in Roman times, when a wall was built around the Roman city in the late 2nd century, it enclosed 240 acres (1 km²), making Corinium the second-largest city by area in Britain.  80 miles west of the city and lying on the lower dip slopes of the Cotswolds, Cirencester straddles the River Churn shortly before the river merges, just outside Cricklade, with the mighty Thames itself before rolling on to London.

 

Roman Mosaic, Corinium Museum
Roman Mosaic, Corinium Museum

 

What Have The Romans Done For Us?

Cirencester is known to have been an important early Roman area, along with St. Albans and Colchester. They built a fort where the Fosse Way crossed the Churn, and native Dobunni people were recruited from nearby to create a civil settlement near the fort. The fort closed around 70AD but the town flourished under the name Corinium. There is no clear origin of the name as we know it today, but Korinion was mentioned by the Egyptian-born scholar Ptolemy in his "Geographica" written in about AD 150. It thus seems probable that the Romans adopted the name Corinium from the local tribe the Dubonnii, of the Cornovii peoples. By the time of the Domesday Book the Saxon "cester" had been added and it is recorded as the town of Cyrescestre; very similar to the present-day name which is often shortened, unofficially, to "Ciren" (“Zoiren”, to locals). 

There are still the remains of a Roman amphitheatre in an area known as the Querns to the south-west of the town, but has only been partially excavated. Investigations in the town show that it was fortified in the 5th or 6th centuries. 

 


Plans For The Abbey

Religious Growth

The minster church of Cirencester, founded in the 9th or 10th century, was probably a royal foundation. It was made over to Augustinian canons in the 12th century and replaced by the great abbey church in 1117 by King Henry I, which came to dominate the town. In the Middle Ages England was divided into areas called manors - although the king owned Cirencester, when the abbey was founded the Abbot became Lord of the Manor of Cirencester. He controlled the town and hence its inhabitants, much to the annoyance of the townspeople.

Medieval Cirencester was an important town. It was small with a population of about 2,500 but Cirencester grew rich on the wool trade from the initial weaving, through to cleaning, thickening and then dyed before being sold, as in so many towns in the region, in the wool fairs. These attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area; indeed many foreign merchants came to buy wool from Zoiren. 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 this industry continued to flourish, and as a result the parish church was made much larger and more beautiful. There was even a grammar school founded in 1461.

As part of The Reformation, Henry VIII closed Cirencester abbey in 1539 and the buildings of the Abbey were cannibalized (today just the Norman arch remains). The town continued to thrive - even sending 2 MPs to Parliament in 1517, but it also suffered from outbreaks of the plague, most notably between 1576-79.

In 1642 came civil war between 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.

 

Slipping Into Obscurity

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 (colours referred to each uniform), and Cirencester Park was laid out in the early 18th century. However in the 18th century the town’s productivity declined sharply,  and Cirencester began to retreat into what felt like a quiet retirement. By the end of the 18th century a branch of a canal finally reached Cirencester which could have offered potential for transporting of goods and produce further afield,  but it had little effect on the growth of the town as by then the wool industry had all but ended; the town’s only real business was the manufacture of farm tools, plus some bacon curing and flour milling. 

 

Growth Of Amenities

Despite this apparent torpor, there were a number of improvements to Cirencester throughout the 19th century.  A body of independent commissioners  were formed in 1825 - they introduced gas lights (to replace the oil ones) in 1833.The first police force came in 1839, the railway reached Cirencester in 1841, and the Royal Agricultural College was founded in 1845. A museum opened in Cirencester in 1856 and the Corn Hall was built in 1862. From 1882 Cirencester even had a piped water supply as well a network of sewers before finally in 1894 Cirencester was given an urban district council. Nimbys rejoiced.


Cirencester Town Railway Station

Moving Into The Present

In tandem with the rest of the country, the 20th century provided a springboard for the town’s growth. The horrendous events of both world wars - with significant loss of life - was counter-balanced by the growth of resources and housing as the town grew; the first council houses came in 1912 with more between the wars and after WWII. In the early 1970s an inner ring road was built in Cirencester, a new museum in 1974, a new library opened in 1975 and most important of all the late 20th century saw an increasing amount of  light industries move into Cirencester. There has been a huge growth in destination catering, boutique hotels and self-catering accommodation and in the town centre itself, many shops cater to tourists and many house family businesses. As a result, the population of this affluent Cotswolds town  numbers 19,000, and the town is well-set to continue its position as a cornerstone and founding father of the Cotswolds...


The Church Today

 

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Cirencester Estate Agent

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