Medieval Gloucester

Medieval Gloucester

Seal of the Gloucester Guild Merchant c1200

The Royal Borough of Gloucester was created in the late ninth century. It followed the occupation of the City in 877 by a marauding Danish army. At that time the old Roman city walls and defences were in a poor and ruinous condition. These were ‘Vikings’ who settled for eight months and even built booths in the streets, before moving on.

No battle or serious harm took place before they moved out but clearly their presence had threatened the settled Anglo-Saxon stability. Gloucester was a royal city of the Mercian dynasty and Æthelflᴂd of Mercia, daughter of Alfred the Great whose home-town it was, quickly set about its defences to prevent any reoccurrences.

Fortification took the style of a defensive burh (borough) a military stronghold to protect the people and their commerce. This typically adopted the shape of a grid pattern of streets with north, south, east and west main highways crossing at the centre and with fortified gates to the strong outer walls.

The roman stone walls were repaired and incorporated where possible to strengthen the defences. It would appear that the main concentration of the townsmen’s burgages were situated in the Westgate (waterside) region. As the city was redeveloped, its popularity with royalty and as a destination for a religious centre increased. The Benedictine, St Peter’s Abbey (now the Cathedral) was founded c679 by king Osric of Mercia who is buried near the high alter. The Abbey became a catalyst to many later seeking religious sanctity.

When Alfred finally subdued the Vikings and terms were drawn up, he requested that the bones of King Oswald, killed by Penda, should be brought to Gloucester to symbolise the defeat of pagans. Alfred’s daughter Æthelflᴂd founded St Oswald’s Priory c880 to house the saint’s bones and eventually she was buried in the priory with her husband Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia and it became a site of pilgrimage. The Witan and Mercian state council had met regularly at Gloucester and a mint was founded for coinage and several with portraits of Alfred were produced.

In 1005, the Danes under King Cnut, began another advance and after a brisk and bloody war, Cnut met with King Edmund on the marshy island west of Gloucester, where they agreed to divide the country in two. When Edmund died only a few weeks later, Cnut became ruler over all England.

Gloucester was popular with kings and we are well aware that Edward the Confessor spent many Christmases at his palace in Gloucester where he would have ‘crown-wearing’ meetings with his people to talk over affairs of the kingdom. When William the Conquer took up the throne of England he vowed to adopt the customs, laws and regulations previously employed. He was not entirely true to his word, particularly when having to deal with dissidents. In 1085 William, while staying in Gloucester, instigated the administration of the Domesday recordings.

The Middle Ages saw Gloucester at its height of power. It became an important administrative centre with its location as the gateway to Wales and the near proximity to access raw materials such as iron and timber from the Forest of Dean and wool from the Cotswolds which gave it many advantages.

In the late eleventh century, the Normans built a wooden castle in Gloucester. During the twelfth century it was rebuilt robustly in stone. The city was strategically important in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries because there was frequent warfare between the Welsh and the English.

King Henry II granted Gloucester it first charter in 1155, which gave the burgesses the same liberties as the citizens of London and Winchester. A second charter of Henry II gave them freedom of passage on the River Severn. His son John, by the way, married (firstly) Hawise of Gloucester. The initial charter was later confirmed by King Henry III, who incidentally, came to the throne as a boy of nine and was crowned 1216 in the Chapter House of Gloucester Cathedral. Henry ruled for fifty years but was not a popular king. His son Edward I was a powerful soldier who conquered the Welsh and ‘Hammered’ the Scots. Unfortunately, his son Edward II was not a strong king and came to an untimely end. He was buried in Gloucester Cathedral in 1327 and became the focus of much pilgrimage to the city.

The thirteenth century had been a time of tremendous development. Gloucester got its new bridge and with its first two charters from Henry II confirmed by John(and his son Henry III) it had its first moot hall and the city’s Guild Merchant was established. The burgesses elected their leaders called reeves. It was only they, the recognised burgesses that could be elected to the Guild Merchant, the society that governed the town and controlled the trade.

Much of the town expenses were met by the members of the Guild Merchant. In return they enjoyed the rights to buy and sell without paying tolls. It was also their responsibility to control trading  and the quality of goods manufactured within the town.

Most of the buying and selling was carried out at the ‘Bothall’ (Boothall or market hall) in lower Westgate Street where trade was regulated. The wool trade had existed from Roman times and medieval Gloucester was a trading centre for wool from the Cotswolds and Welsh hills. There was also a profitable clothmaking industry before many of the weavers moved to settle in the Frome Valley. However, the Gloucester Guild of Weavers continued to trade until 1629.

The Boothall, better known as ‘Bothall’ was a multi-purpose building, an early form of town hall. Typical of moot halls elsewhere, that held its courts upstairs. Downstairs, on the ground-floor it stored market stalls and operated the day to day civic functions. It was built c1200 and would have been the location for the ‘Hundred Court’ sittings. It was the business centre for the Guild Merchant and had particular importance for the marketing of wool and leather. It was also where the burgesses met and voted on any town policy matters.

By 1455, the ‘Tolsey’ (Town hall) had been built on the southwest corner of the Cross, where it took over the Town management. It was owned and occupied by the stewards of the Corporation. The Tolsey has meaning as a place where the official deeds are retained, and meetings of the common council were held. It would have operated in conjunction with Guild halls. Eventually, the Shire Hall was erected c1816 to house the Council chambers and the County Court.

From the Middle Ages, the four main streets of the city following the line of the Roman streets, had been lined with three, four and five storey buildings facing the streets with two storeys behind and with shops on the ground floor. The ‘burgages’ were accessed through passage ways and narrow side alleys to where the cattle, horses, barns and granaries were housed.

Burgage plots were long narrow strips, built up at the front. Some contained orchards or limited grazing for livestock. Cattle and horses would be led down Westgate Street to the common town Ham (grazing land) on the island between the branches of the river.

At the top of Westgate Street (the Cross) tradesmen, in early times used only portable stalls, before they began erecting permanent stalls to house their goods. By the 1450s they had created a block of houses and shops in the middle of the old market place. There were mercers, cloth merchants and hat-makers alongside stalls selling fish or herbs. Also, there was a cluster of goldsmiths making jewellery and religious ornaments. Bakers produced loaves even though the majority of households had previously baked their own bread.

Behind the bakery, goldsmiths and butchers was ‘Smith Street’ where the iron smiths had their shops. There was a foundry casting church-bells. Also, in Westgate Street was the Church of the Holy Trinity and the King’s Board, the butter market where cheese and dairy products were laid out on wooden boards.

At the lower end of Westgate Street, below the Bothall, it became Bridge Street. This led to the tiny Hambridge by the town Ham and the Inner Bridge called the ‘Foreign Bridge’ with shops built along it and to the Westgate Bridge itself with its fortified gatehouse. The river was split into several streams and the main channel came close to the church of St Mary de Lode and by St Oswald’s monastery.

It was here at the water’s edge, that the earliest part of Anglo-Saxon Gloucester developed, with St Peter’s Abbey and with the royal palace of the Mercians behind. The old channel silted-up by the end of the 1400s. The quay was moved down-river to the deeper water near the castle walls.

By that time, many more guilds had been created to add to the Weavers and the Mercers guilds. There were joiners, shoemakers, metal-workers, tailors, barbers and many more. They each had their own officers, customs and regulations. It is known that new masters of the Tanners Guild upon election were crowned with flowers. The guilds held rights, including the attending of civic functions with the mayor when they would proudly carry banners. Guilds were protective organisations that prevented any ‘foreign work’ or cheap and shoddy products coming into town.

During the Middle Ages, Gloucester had a number of monastic establishments to accompany St Peters Abbey, originally founded in 679 along with the nearby St Oswald’s Priory, founded c800. Llanthony Secunda Priory was founded in 1136 as a retreat for Welsh monks. The Franciscan Greyfriars founded a priory in 1231. Dominican Blackfriars founded a community 1239 in Ladybellegate Street. Early parish churches included the Norman St Mary de Crypt in Southgate Street and St Mary de Lode (Ferry-side) Church near the Cathedral. An early Jewish community had existed in 1150s in the East Gate area, with a school and a synagogue during the 1230s until they were sent to Bristol in the 1290s.

Gloucester was a recognised port, and during the Middle Ages, exported wool from the Cotswolds along with leather and iron. It was also known to have a fairly large fishing industry. Administration took place from the combination of Castle, Palace and the Abbey and it was from Gloucester that William I directed the requirement of the Domesday recordings. In 1378, Richard II convened Parliament in the city and continued to hold parliaments until 1406 under Henry V. The Parliament rooms can be seen today in the Cathedral.

In the 1450s Gloucester had a population of around 4,000 people, eleven parish churches, six monasteries and three hospitals run by monks. The Church employed one in ten and owned most of the property, amounting to around two thirds of the city.

The burgesses attended four churches in Westgate Street and the Guilds had chapels in various churches where they heard Masses and lit candles in honour of their patron saints. The Tanners at St John (North Gate) to St Clement, the Weavers at St Michaels (Cross) to St Ann., etc.

Much changed after the Reformation by Henry VIII and with the reforms to the Church. The less powerful and smaller monasteries were the first to go. St Oswald’s was saved from absolute ruin and retained as a parish church. The monasteries were forced to close while the Abbey Church became the Cathedral of today. Bishop John Hooper worked hard to improve priestly studies and to convert all to the protestant religion. When Queen Mary came to the throne, she had him executed.

The Sheriff was regularly in residence at the Castle, where there was a guard of knights controlling numerous workmen. There was the king’s mint and the four moneyers who were substantial men that had each previously held office as bailiff of the city. Profits came from the town burgesses. Basic industries were the iron-working, including bell founding, clothmaking, leather-working, and the fisheries along with many crafts such as ship-smiths, parchment-makers, needle-makers, hoopers, goldsmiths, glass-wrights, soap-makers, girdlers, glovers and so on. The general traders such as the mercers and drapers were the leaders of the community.

Constitutional development came with the charter of 1256 that gave Gloucester the privilege of ‘return of writs’ and the freedom from the sheriff’s interference in business affairs.

There were five main gates to the city, these were the North Gate, Almesham Postern, East Gate (new in 1253), South Gate and the defensive Westgate Bridge which was built in the reign of Henry II by Nicholas Wared a chaplain. It was built with the assistance of burgess William Myparty who provided a house which later became St Bartholomew’s Hospital. The local parish church of St Nicholas was described in 1203 as the church of Gloucester Bridge. The parson in 1221 claimed to be keeper of the Gloucester Bridge.

The borough burgages between the bridges, were known as inter-bridges’ (or inter-pontes). By 1370, Westgate Bridge had become the most important bridge. In 1668, the bridge required major repairs when an arch fell in. It was repaired in 1693 and again in 1716 and 1726 when the old drawbridge was removed.

Gloucester was incorporated by Richard III in 1483 when the town was declared a county. This was confirmed in charters of 1489 and 1510. In 1580 Queen Elizabeth I officially declared Gloucester’s status as a Port for exporting goods directly overseas.

It is significant that Gloucester had always been such a royal town until the repercussions of the execution of Bishop John Hooper by Queen Mary in 1555. The townspeople became firmly protestant and eventually took the Parliamentary side during the Civil War. The Siege of Gloucester in 1643 took place between August and September when the city resisted the army of King Charles I whose men received heavy casualties. When King Charles II came to the throne, he took revenge upon the city by having its walls torn down.

Gloucester’s Riverside Meadows ‘the Hams’

During the Middle Ages at Gloucester, there were around 270 hectares of lush floodplain meadows along the banks of the Severn. 130 hectares of hay meadows on the east bank were in the hands of several owners. On the west side were 142 hectares of hay meadows belonging to Gloucester Abbey and St Oswald’s Priory. They were ancient ‘hams’ dating back to the early indigenous British inhabitants of the riverside. These ancient hams dated from before 680 when the priests and nuns with their double monastery came to be established. The land was marsh before its enclosure into the hamms (enclosed ham meadows). The meadows were closed off under regulation, during the winter months until the midsummer when hay was cut, and after which the cattle and sheep could be allowed to graze freely.

The grass from these meadows was a highly prized adjunct to the royal borough and the castle in medieval times. Hay was taken off and much of it was delivered to Llanthony Priory for winter fodder in the priory sheep-house and for their cheese-making cattle. After the hay harvest the rest of the year before winter, the pasture was open to eligible commoners including the burgesses of the city borough.

The river at and above Westgate Bridge, was claimed by the burgesses as common fishery. Senior burgesses could fish for recreation without charge. In 1414, the prior of Llanthony sued four fishermen for using nets, prohibited across the river.

The River Severn from Port Ham





Priest-ham and Nun-ham on the bank below the bridges, had belonged to the manor of Abbots Barton before being given to Gloucester Abbey c750. This was before Walter; Sheriff of Gloucester built a new castle at Castle Mead. In 1137, Walter’s son Miles gave much to his new foundation of Llanthony Priory. Miles son and successor Roger, earl of Hereford, claimed a right of common pasture for his manor of King’s Barton annually, as this formed Castle Mead known later as Oxlease.

After Roger’s death in 1155, King Henry II claimed the castle, causing a dispute over Castle Mead (currently in the hands of Llanthony Priory). It was confirmed as a gift by the King. In 1192 the Priory acknowledged that the Priestham belonged to Gloucester Abbey and had only been a tenancy in part.

The Priory made good its title by surrendering to the Abbey in exchange, burgages in Westgate Street  and Kingsholm Road. The burgesses of Gloucester claimed an ancient right over the hay in Castle Mead and this was confirmed by the Abbey c1235. A bridge over the Severn connected Castle Mead to the Castle, and between 1263 and 65, during the ‘Baron’s War’ the royal constable Roger de Clifford seized the mead for his mounted garrison. A year later, the bridge was burned down by rebel John Giffard. It was then rebuilt in stone

Castle Mead was conveyed by Llanthony Priory to the king in 1265. It was described as 60 acres of Priestham in exchange for 46 acres of Sud-meadow and 16 acres of Wal-ham. The burgesses again enjoyed common pasture there until 1268 when the king assigned half the meadow to support the Castle. The burgesses were then permanently excluded from 1269 onwards.

Tithes and Fisheries (with various weirs) were generally distributed for the churches, excepting those of Roger de Berkeley that were outside the king’s hands. Fish-weirs on the Severn  were destroyed by king’s order in 1535, but at the Dissolution, the Priory still had pasture and fishing rights at an island by the Castle. This can be identified as the ‘fish-house’ and weir. Such a place stood until 1610.


The principal common meadows were Oxlease, Port Ham, Archdeacon Meadow with Little Mean Ham and Common Ham.

The manor of Maismore was given to Gloucester Abbey in 1101. Around 1235, the Abbey challenged the right of the Gloucester burgesses to common pasture in that manor. The burgesses paid a fee of £23-6s-8d for a right of common pasture after hay harvest in the abbey’s meadows west of the Severn, except those belonging to its foreign manors. The Gloucester burgesses had common pasture throughout the year in the Common Ham.

The medieval history of the common meadows became an issue after 1875. Following the reforms under the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, the free burgesses now only had a shared ownership with the newly elected Council over the commons. The Council now had the freehold while the burgesses continued to have their common grazing rights. The City Council had entrusted the management of the commons to a committee of city freemen (burgesses).

In 1887, the Freemen claimed that they, and not the Council, had succeeded to the common rights granted in 1518. In 1891, the Freemen sued the Council for encroaching on their privileges. The Town Clerk, George Sheffield Blakeway, refused to answer the suit before a thorough examination had been made by an archivist. There was then a counterclaim. The agreement of 1518 entitled each freeman to pasture his own beasts, up to a maximum of five. The freemen with no animals were breaking the agreement by letting the pasturage. Accordingly, under the Gloucester Corporation Act of 1894, the Council took powers, which were exercised 1899, to buy out the freemen/burgesses’ rights and to turn the meadows into public recreation spaces and pleasure grounds. Since that time, very few have been turned to that use! It is my understanding that a Freemen’s Committee meet regularly with charitable funds probably from a compensatory payment for their lost grazing rights.



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