Medieval Gloucester: 1066 - 1327

Pages 13-18

A History of the County of Gloucester: Volume 4, the City of Gloucester. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1988.

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Gloucester 1066–1327

At the time of the Norman Conquest Gloucester was already well established as an urban community and had acquired many of the features that were to govern its fortunes during the next few centuries. (fn. 1) A royal borough in which 300 burgesses, possibly about half the total, held their land directly from the Crown (fn. 2) and the site of a royal palace set at the centre of a large agricultural estate, Gloucester enjoyed a close relationship with the rulers of England. It was unchallenged as the focus of shire administration and was also the trading centre for a wide region; within its county Bristol and Winchcombe were probably the only other places with urban characteristics. The industry which was to be the most significant in the next two or three centuries, the working of iron from the Forest of Dean, was already established. (fn. 3) The town's mint was among the thirteen or so main producers of coin in England. (fn. 4) It was also a religious centre with two monastic houses and possibly as many as eight churches and chapels. Its established position as a shire town, as well perhaps as its Roman origins, was reflected in the term civitas which was applied to it in the 11th and 12th centuries; (fn. 5) later, as that term became restricted to places with cathedrals, Gloucester was styled a town or borough until it was made a city by charter at the founding of Gloucester diocese in 1541. (fn. 6)

Gloucester's most obvious importance to the new rulers of England was its strategic position in relation to South Wales. The crossing of the Severn controlled by the town was rapidly secured by a castle, which was rebuilt on a more substantial scale in the early 12th century. (fn. 7) The castle was entrusted by the Norman kings to a notable family of royal servants who, as hereditary castellans and sheriffs of the county, were dominant in the history of Gloucester for a century after the Conquest. (fn. 8)

The continuing royal interest in Gloucester that its strategic importance ensured, as well as its inherent strength as a trading centre, were needed to overcome a period of disruption and depopulation in the years following the Conquest. A survey dating from between 1096 and 1101 records that of the 300 royal burgages that had existed in Edward the Confessor's reign 82 were uninhabited and another 24 had been removed to make way for the castle; half of the remainder had changed hands since the Conquest, many of the new tenants being Normans. In addition to the core of royal burgesses there were 314 who held from other landlords. The total of 508 burgesses (fn. 9) perhaps indicates a total population of about 3,000. The farm owed from the town, which had been £36 with various renders and customs in Edward the Confessor's reign and £38 4s. (presumably also with the traditional renders) in the time of Roger of Gloucester as sheriff soon after the Conquest, had been fixed at £60 by 1086; c. 1100, however, only £51 4s. appears to have been received. (fn. 10)

Domesday Book and the later survey reveal a complex pattern of landholding in the town, one that presumably dated in many of its essentials from before the Conquest. Apart from the Crown 25 other lords had burgesses c. 1100, the largest holdings being the archbishop of York's 60, held in right of St. Oswald's minster, and Gloucester Abbey's 52. The smaller estates included 6 burgesses of Samson, bishop of Exeter, apparently the remnant of a significant estate in the Southgate Street area which his predecessor Bishop Osbern had held, and the 15 burgesses of Walter of Gloucester, the hereditary sheriff and castellan. The other estates were mostly attached to outlying manors, (fn. 11) 17 of which had burgesses in Gloucester in 1086. (fn. 12) The largest holdings were attached to two important pre-Conquest estates in the neighbourhood: Deerhurst Priory, which became a possession of the abbey of St. Denis, Paris, after the Conquest, had 30 burgesses in Gloucester in 1086, while Tewkesbury manor had 8; (fn. 13) c. 1100 36 burgesses were attached to Deerhurst, while Robert FitzHamon, lord of Tewkesbury, had 22. (fn. 14) Two other manors with large holdings were Bisley with 11 burgesses in 1086 and Kempsford with 7. (fn. 15) The generally accepted explanation for such burgages attached to outlying manors, that they provided the parent manor with a foothold for conducting trade and business in the county town, is supported in the case of Gloucester. Most of the places concerned were distant Cotswold manors for which some such arrangement would be most useful; and for two of them, Quenington, which had a smith owing a cash rent and another burgess owing a rent in ploughshares, and Woodchester, which had a burgess owing a rent in iron, (fn. 16) the arrangement was a means of taking advantage of Gloucester's ironworking industry.

The century following the Norman Conquest saw major additions to Gloucester's complement of religious institutions. The survey of c. 1100 records that there were already 10 churches in Gloucester (fn. 17) and, as suggested above, most of them were probably founded before 1066. (fn. 18) Those added after the Conquest almost certainly included St. Owen's church, outside the south gate, which was probably founded by the first hereditary sheriff, Roger of Gloucester, whose son Walter added further endowments. Other late foundations were possibly the three churches with small compact parishes straddling the main market area, All Saints at the Cross and St. Mary de Grace and Holy Trinity in upper Westgate Street. The advowsons of the two last churches belonged to the Crown in the early 13th century and they were perhaps royal foundations, further manifestations of the interest shown in Gloucester by the early Norman kings. Another possibility is that they were built by wealthy townsmen, whose estates later escheated to the Crown. A total of 11 churches, all in existence by the later 12th century, exercised parochial functions in the town and its adjoining hamlets and there were also a number of non-parochial chapels. (fn. 19)

The two oldest religious houses of the town enjoyed very different fortunes after the Conquest. Under the rule of the able and energetic Abbot Serlo from 1072, Gloucester Abbey became one of the leading Benedictine houses of England. Its alienated property was recovered and additional gifts were attracted, the church was rebuilt, and the community was much enlarged. (fn. 20) The abbey's possessions in the town and immediate neighbourhood gave it a major involvement in town affairs in succeeding centuries, sometimes bringing it into conflict with the burgess community. (fn. 21) The minster of St. Oswald passed under the control of the archbishop of York and was later weakened by disputes between the archbishop and the bishop of Worcester and archbishop of Canterbury about jurisdiction. Although reconstituted c. 1150 as a priory of Augustinian canons, St. Oswald's remained a relatively poor house. (fn. 22) In wealth and property, as well as in influence in the town and locality, it was outstripped by the new Augustinian priory of Llanthony Secunda, which was established on land on the south side of the town by Miles of Gloucester in 1137. (fn. 23) Three hospitals for the sick were founded at the approaches to the town in the 12th century. The leper hospital of St. Mary Magdalen, also called the hospital of Dudstone, was established on the London road at Wotton, probably by Walter of Gloucester in the early 12th century; Roger of Gloucester, earl of Hereford, augmented the endowment in the early 1150s (fn. 24) and the hospital was subsequently controlled by the family's foundation, Llanthony Priory. (fn. 25) Another leper hospital, St. Margaret, originally St. Sepulchre, (fn. 26) had been established on a nearby site by the mid 12th century; Gloucester Abbey then controlled it (fn. 27) but in the late Middle Ages it was managed by the burgess community of Gloucester. (fn. 28) A third hospital, St. Bartholomew, at the western approach to the town, between the Foreign and Westgate bridges, was according to tradition founded in Henry II's reign in connection with a rebuilding of Westgate bridge. It was reconstituted under the rule of a prior after Henry III endowed it with St. Nicholas's church in 1229. (fn. 29)

Gloucester's varied collection of religious foundations provided objects of piety to suit all tastes and a stream of gifts of land and rents was directed towards them by the burgesses of the 12th and 13th centuries. Some burgesses preferred to endow external religious houses, and Cirencester, (fn. 30) Flaxley, (fn. 31) Winchcombe, (fn. 32) Godstow (Oxon.), (fn. 33) and Eynsham (Oxon.) (fn. 34) were among those to acquire property in the town. An alternative form of pious donation, the founding of chantries in the parish churches, had begun by the mid 13th century. (fn. 35)

Another community established in Gloucester after the Conquest was formed by the Jews, who had their quarter in Eastgate Street. (fn. 36) Jews are recorded in the town from 1168, when they were alleged to have carried out the ritual murder of a boy, (fn. 37) and a Gloucester Jew was advancing money to those going to Ireland with Strongbow's expedition in 1170. (fn. 38) A prosperous member of the community at that period was Moses le Riche, whose heir owed the Crown 300 marks in 1192 for the right to have his debts. (fn. 39) In the early years of the 13th century Gloucester Jews were financing local magnates, such as Henry de Bohun, earl of Hereford, and Roger de Berkeley, (fn. 40), and their activities among the burgess community at the same period are revealed by sales of property to pay off debts owed to the Jews or to redeem mortgages. (fn. 41) Some 13th-century Jews acquired considerable property outside the Jewish quarter, among them Ellis of Gloucester (d. c. 1216) (fn. 42) and Jacob Coprun (d. c. 1265). (fn. 43) The Jews of Gloucester had a grant of royal protection in 1218 and were placed in the custody of 24 burgesses. (fn. 44) The Jews' chest for keeping the chirographs of debts, in the custody of a Christian and a Jew, was mentioned in 1253. (fn. 45) The tallage levied on the Jews in 1255, when those at Gloucester were assessed at 30 marks, suggests that the community was then among the 18 leading Jewries of England. (fn. 46) The Gloucester Jews were removed to Bristol in 1275 at the insistence of the lady of the borough, Queen Eleanor, who had been promised that the towns she received in dower should not contain any Jews. (fn. 47)

The proliferation of Gloucester's religious institutions and the attraction to it of a large Jewish community are among indications of the economic vitality of the town during the 12th and 13th centuries. Aids raised from the English towns during Henry II's reign suggest that Gloucester may then have ranked about ninth in order of prosperity, well behind such great regional centres as York and Norwich but among the leading county towns, on a par with such places as Oxford and Winchester. (fn. 48) No equivalent information survives at that period, however, for Bristol, the town which over succeeding centuries was to dominate the region in which Gloucester lay and exert a significant influence over its economic fortunes. When a levy of men for service overseas was made in 1212 Gloucester and Bristol both had to supply 30, (fn. 49) but an aid of 1210, when Gloucester was assessed at 500 marks and Bristol at 1,000, (fn. 50) probably provides a more accurate indication of their relative size and prosperity. Within the northern half of Gloucestershire, however, Gloucester was not seriously challenged as the trading and administrative centre. Among neighbouring settlements Tewkesbury and Cirencester became market towns soon after the Norman Conquest, but both remained much smaller than Gloucester. Of the many other places which gained markets between the late 12th and early 14th centuries several in the immediate area of Gloucester, including Newent, Cheltenham, Painswick, and Newnham, were moderately successful and made some impact on its market trade but in the expanding economic climate of the period looked to Gloucester as the centre for the supply of manufactured and imported goods.

Gloucester's trading connections with the smaller market towns of its region and its own local market area were among the diverse elements that provided its livelihood. It had an industrial base supplied in particular by ironworking, for which it was widely known at that period, and by clothmaking; it played a part in the trade of the river Severn and, mainly through Bristol, in overseas trade; and its control of the trade routes out of South Wales benefited it from before the time of the Edwardian conquest. (fn. 51) The general impression to be gained from the available information is of a steadily prospering economy, though the local financial records needed to endorse such an impression do not survive. An isolated bailiffs' account roll, for 1264–5, records the fairly substantial sum of £49 18s. 5d. produced by the tolls on trade and that at a time when the local economy was disrupted by fighting in and around Gloucester. (fn. 52)

Gloucester also benefited from its role as an administrative centre. From its castle the sheriff carried on the county government, while the town was also the venue for the justices in eyre, visiting commissions, and inquisitions of all kinds. Such events brought many people regularly to Gloucester, including inhabitants of Bristol before that town won separate county status in 1373. (fn. 53) Religious houses such as Winchcombe Abbey found it advisable to maintain lodgings for use when business brought the monks to Gloucester. (fn. 54) The town remained the site of a mint at least until the recoinage of 1248, (fn. 55) probably losing that role at a reorganization of mints in 1279. (fn. 56) Its status was also enhanced and its economy benefited by the regular visits of king and court, which continued until the mid 13th century, and by a role as a supply base during royal campaigns in Wales. Less beneficial to its economic well-being was the part its strategic position led it to play in the upheavals of the reigns of Stephen, Henry III, and Edward II. (fn. 57)

In the later 12th century the townspeople of Gloucester emerged as a community with political objectives and the wealth to acquire them from the Crown. The town secured its first charter at the beginning of Henry II's reign and in 1165 became one of the earliest places to be given the right of fee farm. An attempt soon afterwards by a group of leading burgesses to gain greater freedom from royal control was suppressed and the achievement of the right to elect bailiffs, under a charter of 1200, was the next major advance. Following that the exclusion of the county sheriff and other royal officials from interfering in their affairs remained a goal. (fn. 58) The government of the town, carried on until 1483 by the two bailiffs, acting mainly through the hundred court, settled into an oligarchical pattern; the bailiffs were drawn from a recognized class of wealthier burgesses, (fn. 59) apparently composed in the 13th century and the early 14th by the leading merchants in wine and wool and the principal wholesalers, such as mercers and drapers. (fn. 60)

Under the influence of its varied economic and administrative functions Gloucester expanded, its progress only temporarily disrupted by fires which devastated its main trading streets on several occasions in the late 12th century and the early 13th. (fn. 61) From the later 12th century suburban growth was recorded on monastic land outside the north, east, and south gates. (fn. 62) A clause in the town's charter of 1227 protecting absconded villeins who had been in the town for a year and a day from being reclaimed by their lords (fn. 63) suggests that numbers of immigrants were then being attracted to Gloucester. Surnames of 13th-century inhabitants that derived from place-names show that such immigration was mainly from a local area of north Gloucestershire villages; a few men had come from a greater distance, from Midland towns such as Ludlow, Kidderminster, Banbury, Warwick, and Northampton, and from Brecon and Abergavenny, (fn. 64) places on the main route into Wales which Gloucester commanded.

Other immigrants attracted to the town at the period were the friars: the Franciscans and Dominicans founded communities in the 1230s and the Carmelites in the 1260s. (fn. 65) The establishment of friaries in the 13th century has been seen as an index of the status of towns; Gloucester was one of 20 towns in England, but one of only 4 in the western half of the country, which attracted three or more different orders. (fn. 66)

The population of Gloucester during the period is difficult even to guess at, with the 1327 subsidy, for which 257 people were assessed, providing the first indication after the record of c. 1100. The total population in the early 14th century was perhaps around 4,000. The total sum for which Gloucester was assessed in 1327 was £28 4s. 8¼d., (fn. 67) compared with Bristol at £80 12s. and Cirencester and Tewkesbury at £13 4s. 2¼d. and £10 3s. 6d. respectively. (fn. 68) Among English towns as a whole Gloucester then ranked about 16th in order of wealth. (fn. 69)


  • 1. This chapter was written in 1982–3.
  • 2. Glouc. Rental, 1455, pp. xiv-xv.
  • 3. Dom. Bk. (Rec. Com.), i. 162.
  • 4. Stenton, A.-S. Eng. (1947), 529–30.
  • 5. Dom. Bk. (Rec. Com.), i, 162; Glouc. Rental, 1455, pp. xiv–xv; Hist. & Cart. Mon. Glouc. (Rolls Ser.), i. 14–15, 22; cf. F. W. Maitland, Dom. Bk. and Beyond (1907), 183 n.
  • 6. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 20.
  • 7. Below, Glouc. Castle.
  • 8. Below, Crown and boro.; military hist.
  • 9. Glouc. Rental, 1455, pp. xiv–xv.
  • 10. Dom. Bk. (Rec. Com.), i. 162; Glouc. Rental, 1455, p. xv. The Dom. Bk. account of Glouc. confines itself mainly to listing burgages that had been alienated from the royal demesne or were attached to outlying manors.
  • 11. Glouc. Rental, 1455, pp. xiv-xv.
  • 12. The list given in Taylor, Dom. Glos. 128, omits Brimpsfield and has Wheatenhurst for Woodchester.
  • 13. Dom. Bk. (Rec. Com.), i. 163, 166.
  • 14. Glouc. Rental, 1455, p. xiv.
  • 15. Dom. Bk. (Rec. Com.), i. 166v., 169.
  • 16. Ibid. 167v., 170v.
  • 17. Glouc. Rental, 1455, p. xv.
  • 18. Above, A.-S. Glouc.
  • 19. Below, Churches and Chapels.
  • 20. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 53–4.
  • 21. Below, town and religious communities.
  • 22. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 84–6.
  • 23. Ibid. 87.
  • 24. E.J. Kealey, Medieval Medicus (1981), 112.
  • 25. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 119; P.R.O., C 115/K2/6684, f.90v.
  • 26. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 71, 75, 77.
  • 27. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 121; cf. Kealey, Medieval Medicus, 133; Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Froucester B, pp. 228–9, where the abbey described it as 'our hospital'.
  • 28. Below, town and religious communities.
  • 29. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 119–20.
  • 30. Ciren. Cart. ii, pp. 388–98.
  • 31. Flaxley Cart. ed. A.W. Crawley-Boevey (Exeter, 1887), pp. 113, 156, 173, 195–6.
  • 32. Reg. Mon. Winch. i. 74–5, 116–20.
  • 33. Godstow Reg. (E.E.T.S. orig. ser. 142), i, pp. 139–50.
  • 34. Eynsham Cart. i (Oxford Hist. Soc. xlix), pp. 204, 228–9.
  • 35. Below, Churches and Chapels, ancient par. ch.; Reg. Mon. Winch. i. 116–20.
  • 36. Ciren. Cart. ii, p. 397; Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 303.
  • 37. Hist. & Cart. Mon. Glouc. i. 20–1.
  • 38. Pipe R. 1170 (P.R.S. xv), 78.
  • 39. Ibid. 1191 & 92 (P.R.S. n.s. ii), 292.
  • 40. Ibid. 1205 (P.R.S. n.s. xix), 98; 1207 (P.R.S. n.s. xxii), 216.
  • 41. e.g. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 95, 121, 133; Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Froucester B, p. 453; P.R.O., C 115/K 1/6681, ff. 99v., 105v.
  • 42. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i. 283, 317.
  • 43. Close R. 1264–8, 68, 235.
  • 44. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i. 354.
  • 45. Select Pleas from Exchequer of Jews (Selden Soc. xv), 28; Close R. 1264–8, 42–3.
  • 46. Cal. Pat. 1247–58, 441–4.
  • 47. Select Pleas from Exchequer of Jews (Selden Soc. xv), 85.
  • 48. C. Stephenson, Borough and Town (1933), 225.
  • 49. Rot. Litt. Claus. (Rec. Com.), i. 130.
  • 50. Pipe R. 1210 (P.R.S. N.S. xxvi), 143.
  • 51. Below, trade and ind. 1066–1327.
  • 52. G.B.R., F 3/1; cf. below, Crown and boro.; military hist.
  • 53. Bristol Charters (Bristol Rec. Soc. i), 119.
  • 54. Reg. Mon. Winch. i. 119.
  • 55. Chron. Johannis de Oxenedes (Rolls Ser.), 319.
  • 56. Cf. Powicke, 13th Cent. (1962), 633.
  • 57. Below, Crown and boro.; military hist.
  • 58. Below, achievement of liberties.
  • 59. Below, town govt. 1200–1483.
  • 60. Below, trade and ind. 1066–1327.
  • 61. Hist. & Cart. Mon. Glouc. i. 22, 24, 26.
  • 62. Below, topog.
  • 63. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 9.
  • 64. The main sources for 13th-cent. Surnames are property deeds in ibid. pp. 70–294; P.R.O., C 115/K 1/6681; and Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Froucester B.
  • 65. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 111–12.
  • 66. S. Reynolds, Intro. to Hist. of Eng. Med. Towns (1977), 51, 63.
  • 67. Glos. Subsidy Roll, 1327, 1–2.
  • 68. Ibid. 4, 37.
  • 69. W. G. Hoskins, Local Hist. in Eng. (1972), 238.