The Saxon and Medieval Town
Cirencester became an important centre in the Saxon period, but little tangible evidence survives. Burials and the site of the minster church are all that remain to reflect its former status.
[Some burials were discovered in 1909 at The Barton, on the edge of Cirencester Park, and they included that of a warrior buried with his spear and shield. His grave had been dug through the fourth-century Orpheus mosaic which is now on display in the Corinium Museum.]
The Saxon settlement itself was probably sited in the vicinity of the present Cecily Hill, to the north-west of the abandoned Roman city. Little else is known of the details of the life and times for the next 350 years.
The minster church of St Mary, founded in the 9th or 10th century, was probably a royal foundation. It survived into the 12th century, to be replaced by the Augustinian abbey also called St Mary. [Both the Anglo-Saxon church and the medieval abbey church lay to the north of the parish church, and the site is now marked out in the Abbey Grounds with an explanatory plaque.]
At the Norman Conquest the royal manor of Cirencester was granted to the Earl of Hereford, William Fitz-0sbern, but by 1075 it had reverted back to the Crown. The Domesday Survey of 1086 records the new market of Cirencester, which paid an annual toll of 20 shillings and attracted trade from the surrounding area.
Cirencester Abbey was founded by Henry 1 in 1117, the biggest of five Augustinian houses in the country founded by the king, and following half a century of building work the great abbey church was finally dedicated in 1176. However, the first Abbot was installed in 1131 at the initial consecration and started to control life in the town. Building work was interrupted by the civil war between Matilda and Stephen when another of Cirencester's landmarks was destroyed: the castle. Documentary records show that this was a wooden structure, fortified by Matilda, but attacked and burnt by Stephen in 1142. Its probable site is somewhere in the area of the present mansion house behind the huge yew hedge in Park Street.
It is difficult to imagine now, but throughout the medieval period the townscape would have been dominated by the bulk of the great abbey church with its central tower, overshadowing the parish church and houses clustered around its precinct.
Thus for more than four centuries the great Augustinian Abbey of St Mary and the parish church of St John the Baptist stood side by side, to the north of the busy market place. As lord of the manor, the abbot had jurisdiction over the market rights and drew rates from all the transactions. His power was absolute in matters of law and order, and at times abbot and citizens were in fierce dispute.
The Abbey lands were spread as far as Winchester, Pulham in Northamptonshire, Frome in Somerset and even in County Kerry in Ireland; usually based on churches but also land and houses. They were accumulated by both Royal and private donation. The number of canons varied to as many as 40 with an unknown number of lay brothers who carried out domestic duties. The canons black fur-lined cassocks and black hoods would have been a familiar sight.
Sheep rearing, wool sales, weaving and cloth-making were the main strengths of England's trade in the Middle Ages, and many Cirencester merchants and clothiers took advantage of the wealth and prosperity to be gained from national and international trade. At its greatest the very best cloth to be found in Europe was from Cirencester. Their tombs survive in the parish church, while their fine houses of Cotswold stone still stand in and around Coxwell, Dollar, Park and Dyer Streets.
The "woolgatherers" barn and house at the north end of Coxwell Street give a hint at the size of some of their businesses. Indeed Coxwell himself (he died in 1618 aged over 100) was a very rich merchant who owned many properties in the town, several of which he bought from Queen Elizabeth. Their wealth also funded the second rebuilding of the nave of the parish church in 1515-30, to create the largest parish church in Gloucestershire, often referred to as the Cathedral of the Cotswolds. The profits from wool also provided the means for many legacies to the benefit of the community. A grammar school founded in 1458 and there were many charities founded by townsmen and women for the benefit of the poor and sick, many of which survive to this day.
The Hospital of St John in Spitalgate was originally founded by Henry II, and the St Thomas's Hospital in Thomas Street (the oldest surviving secular building) was founded by Sir William Nottingham, for four poor weavers, in 1483. This last building is still an Alms House today, but now as 2 dwellings.
At the dissolution of the monasteries in 1539, Henry VIII ordered the total demolition of the buildings so that today the Norman Arch, built in 1180, and parts of the precinct wall are all that remain above ground of the old abbey. (Many local buildings can be found with re-cycled stone from the Abbey from a few large stones in a cottage's foundations to whole windows and doorways in larger houses.)