This church building has great importance in the history of the ‘Freemen of Gloucester’. Built in the 12th century in the Westgate ward of the old city, it performed a principal part in the support of the ancient burh (borough). The church became redundant in 1971 and is now under the care of the Churches Conservation Trust. Strategically located within the early burgage plots it was central in serving the Corporation and the industrious trades merchants of the City.
The parish vestry, in conjunction with the court of the adjacent ‘Boothall’, provided government to the local merchants. Within its parish duties it also administered the functions of the Westgate Bridge and St Bartholomew’s Hospital. Also, within its remit was the burial of inhabitants from the King’s Castle and from the county gaol.
A graveyard that stretched from behind the church was closed in the 18th century and the human remains reinterred in the city cemetery. The cleared area of the burial ground subsequently made way for increased housing.
The parish boundary had stretched from the Castle ditch to include the ‘Bareland’ that had been cleared, at the King’s request, some time following the civil disturbances of 1264. These grounds were subsequently claimed by the burgesses and were redeveloped during the 17th century. The Westgate burgage properties were held directly from the King and ‘landgable’ (tax) was paid to the Crown.
By the 15th century, the military necessity for the cleared zone had declined and the south facing plots were once again built on. This was all claimed by the burgesses as ‘corporation’ land. Remember, the burgesses were given their freedom by a charter of Henry II in 1155 and regarded themselves proudly as the ‘Kings Tenants’. An interesting thing about the ancient burh (borough) plan is that plot positions and borders were rigidly retained.
The early Saxon burh or borough had been concentrated on the Westgate ward of Roman Gloucester. It was well organised and laid out in precise burgage plots with frontages to the streets. As the Borough developed and the population grew, some plots were split (within their boundaries) to accommodate further housing. The borough was governed by a Reeve appointed by the king and later replaced by the Sheriff in the Castle. The edge of the old ‘Bareland’ is visible today in the existing Quay Street whose curving road indicates the probable lip of the outer ditch of the Castle.
St Nicholas Church, when it was later planted in its position, appears to have been dedicated by that name, to the patron saint of sailors and merchants. It has all the hallmarks of the old ‘wool churches’ in towns of that time, indicative of the wealthy trade in woollen cloth. Several other trades developed under the old Merchant Gild and the Westgate ward became considerably wealthy. Trading in goods via the Severn to Bristol and overseas brought a healthy income to the Corporation.
The Churchyard would have complemented the activities of the Boothall in being a popular outdoor meeting place with measuring and trading facilities and was possibly the place for the ‘town’ penal stocks. There is no doubt how the impressive tall elegant spire would have been visible from a distance and the peal of the six bells very encouraging. By the sixteenth century the church was so popular that squints were inserted in the side chapel walls to allow a large standing congregation to view the alter.
In contemplating the importance of this church in Gloucester, I would say it was truly the ‘Mother’ church of the Freemen’s community. AS.
‘Boothall’ (booth-hall) was a combined town hall/guild hall set at right angle (end-on) to the street where the Shire Hall stands today. The ground floor, with trading booths and storage for portable stalls that could be taken to the marketplace by the Cross. Upstairs was the Moot hall for court and Corporation meetings and voting.
St Nicholas Graveyard, burial ground has Registers running from 1558 to 1785. These can be viewed in the ‘Gloucester Archives’.
Free Burgesses of Gloucester, the proud ‘King’s Tenants’ had valuable collective rights including to graze their cattle and horses on the Common Ham and to fish a specific stretch of the River Severn.
Alms of St Bartholomew’s Hospital remain today in the form of a modern building in Park Road, Gloucester. Freemen of Gloucester continue to have an interest through their ‘Compensation Fund’.
The Freemen and Women of Gloucester who have inherited their ‘freedom’ from ancestors who were free burgesses of the City – continue their traditions today in the modern environment.