Liberty of Cheltenham

Liberty of Cheltenham

Cheltenham a Brief History


The manor before and long after the Norman Conquest, belonged to the Crown. It had, like Tewkesbury, been a part of the ancient county of Winchcombeshire shired from Mercia. The manor remained in royal ownership until 1367, when Edward III granted its possession to Fecamp Abbey. It then became an ‘independent liberty’ possessed and governed from Normandy. It was listed as a borough in 1336 but never became incorporated. This mile long high street, market town was run by Stewards and Bailiff’s Court. The sense of religious self-management was still apparent much later when the popular Reverend Francis Close gained a reputation as the ‘Pope of Cheltenham’ when the Town was run from the Vestry.

Cheltenham in Gloucestershire became nationally famous as a ‘Spa’ resort for noble families to enjoy taking the natural medicinal waters. It was largely developed during the fashionable Regency period of George III. The town was carefully laid out with pleasure grounds with temples and serpentine walks in Montpellier, a promenade and winter gardens. The roads were bordered by large trees and green verges, it became known as the ‘Garden Town of England’.

The earliest references of the settlement are to Cintenham and Celtanhomme in a document at the Synod of Cloveshoe in 803, during the reign of Genwulf of Mercia. This concerned a dispute between Deneberht, bishop of Worcester and Wulfhard, bishop of Hereford concerning the right to rents of a monastery. It is understood that such a Saxon building once stood on the bank of the Chelt in the area now known as Cambray.

Early occupants of the region, particularly following the ‘Battle of Deorham in 577, were a tribe of West-Saxons known as the Hwiccii. A treaty at Cirencester in 628 brought the rural area of Gloucestershire under Penda, king of Mercia. By the ninth century many Christian churches had been founded in the locality. Little is known of the priory at Cheltenham until after the Norman Conquest. The old Saxon church was probably destroyed by the Danes, along with others, near to Gloucester before King Alfred defeated them at Ethandune in 877.

The Country was divided into shires and hundreds, and Gloucestershire annexed to the ruling house as part of Wessex. King Edward the Confessor was the first recorded owner and Lord of the Manor of Cheltenham. Of course, the modern spelling did not appear until it figured in the Manor Act of 1625 as ‘Cheltenham Street’. Previously it had been variously written as Chiltham, Chilteham, Chintenham, Chiltehe, and Cheltham. It is debatable whether the name is taken from the river or the river from the place. Chelt was Anglo-Saxon for cliff. Perhaps this has reference to the escarpment of the adjacent hill.

King William, as Conqueror, automatically became Lord of Cheltenham Manor and the hundred containing it. ‘Terra Regis, King Edward held Chinteneha’ read the compiled survey of 1086. During the time of Edward the Confessor, the Chancellor of England was Reinbald, a wealthy Norman (settled before the Conquest) who held many church lands. He was also dean of a college of canons in Cirencester who he left most of his possessions.

Cheltenham’s ancient minster St Mary’s with the lands thereof, and the mill at Sandford, and other appurtenances belonging to the Crown, were handed to Henry I as part of an endowment to a new abbey being built at Cirencester by the Augustinians, Hic jacet Reinbaldus Presbyter qondam hujus Ecclesias decanus et tempore Edwardi Regis Angliae cancellarius. Henry II presided over the abbey’s dedication in 1176, when Cheltenham was one of seventeen churches supplied with priests from the college there. Tithes went to the abbey and Cheltenham ceased to be accountable to The Bishop of Worcester. This situation remained until the Dissolution in 1539.

As a royal possession, the Manor of Cheltenham enjoyed a number of rights. Henry III leased it for four years to its own inhabitants at £64 a year. These lessees were given the right to hold ‘one market each week on Thursdays’. The ‘Liberty of Cheltenham’ was almost unique along with the Liberty of Slaughter on the Cotswolds, with a similar charter. Both of these manors were passed out of English jurisdiction into an order of monks in Fecamp, Normandy.

Fecamp Abbey already had monasteries in Gloucestershire and ‘alien houses’ at Rye and Winchelsea. The Liberties were freed when John lost Normandy and the manors were exchanged. There were frequent objections that the conditions in the Liberties ‘hindered justice’ because they obey ‘neither the itinerant justices nor the Kings servants’. Edward III was compelled to define their rights. Henry V eventually put an end to the situation by confiscating all foreign-held property and gave Cheltenham Manor to his aunt, Elisabeth of Huntingdon. On her death it went, as part of his endowment to the convent of Syon at Twickenham. The owner of the Manor, under Henry V, was head of a Bridgettine order, an abbess who ruled over seventy-seven nuns, priests, and deacons in the new convent at Twickenham. She held all the powers previously granted but did not ever visit Cheltenham. Syon became one of the richest abbeys in the land. It was all reverted to the Crown by the Dissolution of Henry VIII including the parish church of Cheltenham.

Cheltenham was listed as a borough in 1336 while still in the government of Fecamp. Henry III’s charter led to its expansion into, what was later described, as the ‘longe towne havynge a market’. Its High Street ran from above the church towards the Sandford Mill. A Manor House accommodated Syon’s Steward and the Bailiff’s Court. A new Hall and Crosse Chamber was built in 1459. The Bailiff looked after the agricultural work of the manor and kept its accounts. There were tenants and freemen who lived on inherited land, with copyholders and tenants in demesne. Locally governed by half-yearly courts, and a court of Pie Powder was held at the market.

Typically the fields were enclosed from Spring to Autumn for crops and after harvest thrown open as common land for pasture. This medieval system persisted in Cheltenham long beyond most English towns, and even as a late as the 1920s, tenants continued to pay heriots to the Steward. The market played an important part in the economy of the town. A Market-house and Booth Hall are recorded in the Court books.

Cheltenham had its first Lord of the Manor, William Norwood of Leckhampton, in Elizabeth’s reign. It seems that the church with its 240 acres remained separate from the Manor. In theory the lord of the manor was still able to hold the freedoms previously belonging to Syon. The Cheltenham Manor Act of 1625 determined the connection of the Lord with the various tenants. However, the Manor was still Crown property, and it wasn’t until it came under Charles I that the Lordship was sold for £1200 to John Dutton of Sherborne.

The Civil War came near to Cheltenham with the Siege of Gloucester and of some interest is that John Dutton’s son, known as ‘Crump’ Dutton became a close friend of the Protector Oliver Cromwell. It was around 1716 when attention to the spring waters were first made. Elegant society was beginning to gather at Bath and Tunbridge Wells to drink mineral waters. By 1738 the entrepreneur Captain Henry Skillicorne had enlisted assistance by Narbonne Berkeley for his project to develop a Spa. Cheltenham, in the 1770s, was still one long street with the charming right-angled extension of Skillicorne’s walk, surrounded by largely grown trees.

Developments took place until by the late 1770’s it had become the place to visit. In 1778 George III, with his Queen, his daughters and a small entourage spent some weeks of entertainment between July and August. Cheltenham merchandise became very popular, and the gentry flocked to visit the new-found fashionable resort. Large houses were built, and festivals began to emerge until the town and its surrounds became the place to see and to be seen.


St Mary’s Minster and parish church of Cheltenham has been in continuous use for more than 850 years. The existing building will have replaced an earlier Saxon church. The Minster is the only surviving medieval building in Cheltenham. In 1367 Edward III granted the Manor of Cheltenham to Fecamp Abbey in Normandy this was ratified in a charter of 1423, and it remained an independent liberty until the Reformation. Reference to the church being to a Minster, indicates that it had senior responsibilities over other churches in the locality. It may also have been collegiate. For further details please see my survey (see St Mary’s Churchyard).

Fecamp Abbey of the Holy Trinity was a Norman abbey answerable only to the Pope. Its property in England was conferred by William of Normandy and retained its liberties with Charters that allowed self-determination. The liberties then became associated with Syon Convent (Bridgettine Order) in England founded by Henry V, 1415. It became very wealthy and the richest religious house. St Mary’s church and grounds were given to the Order of Syon governed at Twickenham. With the Dissolution of Henry VIII, Syon was dissolved, and Cheltenham placed under the See of Gloucester where it remains today.

Syon or Sion is an obsolete word for scion = meaning offshoot or descendant.

Cheltenham Manor had early borough status, but no mention can be found of burgesses in the grant by Henry III of a market and fair. In 1397 the tax list suggests it was an urban community. In the lists of 1313 and 1336 it is clearly determined as a borough. In the reign of Edward III, 60s was paid for the farm tolls for the market. During the Middle Ages, the town was largely agricultural and self-supporting in respect of food, fuel, and clothing. There were thatcher’s, slaters, carpenters, weavers, bakers, millers, smiths, and leather workers. There was a fulling mill but no specific references to cloth making.

Cheltenham Spa: The fashion for ‘Taking the Waters’ was fading by the 1840s

The Reverend Francis Close (born 1787) was the Anglican rector of Cheltenham for 30 years (1826-1856). Dubbed the Pope of Cheltenham. He was an evangelist, a vociferous opponent of the Oxford Movement. During his time at Cheltenham he founded two churches and a training college for training teachers. He was strongly opposed to gambling, horse racing, tobacco, alcohol, and theatrical leisure activities. Close was a popular preacher and a firm Tory. He declared the bible to be Conservative, as with the Prayer Book and the Church. The town was nicknamed ‘Close Borough’ for his influence over all developments.

Cheltenham borough town was governed by a combination of separate authorities, the Town Commissioners, the Vestry, the Turnpike Commissioners, and the Justices of the Peace. The town had become a parliamentary borough by the Reform Act of 1832. However, incorporation by charter of the town, did not take place until 1876.

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