The History of Cirencester
The Romans built a fort on the site of modern Cirencester, an area where they had experienced little resistance from the native Dubunni. This same civilian population was drawn to the fort and a significant settlement grew up alongside the Roman military presence. The Roman fort was dismantled relatively early in the Roman occupation, around 75 AD - a sign of the peace the area enjoyed. Cirencester prospered under the Romans and during the 1st century it was rebuilt with grand streets and public buildings. An amphitheatre at Cirencester reinforces just how important, busy and therefore wealthy the town had become. In the early 3rd century a worsening security situation saw stone walls erected around Cirencester.
The Roman Cirencester, or Corinium Dobunnorum, was probably the second largest town in England, after London but by the 4th century Roman civilisation was in retreat. Roman soldiers finally withdrew completely from England in 407 AD and most of the towns were abandoned. However, there is evidence to suggest that even after the Romans deserted Britain, their old town of Cirencester may not have been completely left to ruin and may have been reused as defensive structures in times of war. By 577 AD the marauding Saxons arrived, winning a great battle to capture Cirencester, Gloucester and Bath . A Saxon settlement was established at Cirencester and this began to flourish. By the time of the Domesday Book of 1086, a weekly market was held in Cirencester.
King Henry I established an abbey at Cirencester in 1117 and, as was usually the case, the abbey soon ran the town and most of the countryside around it. Monks established the Hospital of St Lawrence in Cirencester the 12th century and a leper hostel was built in the 13th century. There was known to have once been a wooden castle at Cirencester, burned down by Stephen during a civil war in 1142. During these times the town of Cirencester grew very wealthy on the wool trade.
In 1215 and 1253 the abbot was given the right to hold wool fairs and the towns wealth allowed the foundation of a grammar school in 1461. The abbey was never popular with the townsfolk so they probably weren’t unhappy to see it destroyed under Henry VIII ’s Dissolution. The King closed Cirencester abbey in 1539 and now only a single Norman arch remains.
In the 1642 Civil War Cirencester stood behind the Parliamentarians. However, in February 1643 Royalists troops took the town and held it until 1645 - very near to the end of the war. Wool continued to drive the expansion of Cirencester during the 16th and 17th century. The 18th century saw the market town’s fortunes decline sharply as the wool industry declined sharply. The Industrial Revolution passed the town by, even though a branch of a canal reached Cirencester.
In 1801 the population of Cirencester had risen to about 4,000 and a hundred years later, in 1901, it had doubled to 8,000. However, in the same one hundred years the population of Britain had quadrupled, so Cirencester had actually declined in relative size and importance. This was partly due to the final collapse of the wool industry there in the 19th century. An 1825 Act of Parliament formed a body of men called Improvement Commissioners who were granted had powers to pave, clean and light the streets of Cirencester. Oil lamps in the street were followed in 1833 by gas lights. Further signs of the updating of the town came with its first police force in 1839. The railway, often the bringer of boom times to a town, reached Cirencester in 1841. However, it had little impact on the town which continued to grow modestly into the next century. Cirencester’s growth accelerated during the 20th century and late in the century light industries were established there. However, it is tourism that is currently the most valuable industry to the town. In 1971 Cirencester had a population of 15,000, rising to around 19,000 today.