Medieval Gloucester: The later middle ages

Pages 35-41

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 in the Late Middle Ages

In the late Middle Ages Gloucester experienced the economic problems that affected many English towns at the period, but the inherent strength of its position as a centre of trade, administration, and communications brought it through them without any dramatic change in its fortunes. Among English towns it rated in terms of wealth at 16th in 1334, 15th in 1377, and 17th in 1523. (fn. 1)

The only direct evidence of the impact of the Black Death on Gloucester concerns the canons of Llanthony Priory who (in a record of a century later) were said to have lost two thirds of their number, 19 out of 30, at the first outbreak of the plague in 1349. (fn. 2) Gloucester Abbey appears to have lost about a quarter of its complement of monks. (fn. 3) In 1377 2,239 adults were assessed for the poll tax in Gloucester, (fn. 4) so the total population was presumably well above 3,000.

The available evidence for the late 14th century and early 15th suggests that the town was still enjoying reasonable prosperity, based on a continuance of its traditional economic roles. There was some export trade, particularly in corn, and goods were imported through Bristol, Southampton, and London and distributed, together with Gloucester's own manufactured goods, to the lesser towns of the region. Gloucester also benefited from its position on trade routes into South Wales and between the Midlands and Bristol, though its role in the trade of the river Severn was limited by competition from other towns. The metal working and clothmaking industries maintained their importance, as did the marketing of agricultural produce for surrounding villages.

In the late 14th century and the early 15th the town had a group of wealthy men, mostly merchants and drapers, who bought property, endowed chantries, and monopolized the office of bailiff. (fn. 5) Their willingness repeatedly to undertake that office indicates that the fee-farm revenues, drawn from tolls, landgavel, and profits of justice, were producing adequate sums; the bailiffs were made responsible for making up any shortfall. In 1397 the burgesses were able to lend £200 to the Crown, a large sum compared to that offered by other towns, (fn. 6) and in 1404 a further £100 was lent. (fn. 7) That St. Mary de Crypt church, the greater part of St. Nicholas, and the chancel of St. Michael were rebuilt at the period could also be mentioned as indications of prosperity, but the disappearance of most of the other nine medieval churches makes such evidence difficult to put in its proper perspective. (fn. 8)

In the mid and later 15th century there is mounting evidence of a decline in prosperity. It exists most obviously in a series of appeals addressed by the townspeople to the central government. In an appeal for aid in 1447 they said that the town was depopulated by plague and that hardly £40 of the annual fee farm of £60 could be collected. (fn. 9) In 1455 when seeking paving powers they mentioned their great poverty. (fn. 10) Similar complaints were no doubt part of the negotiations that led to the granting of the charter of 1483, which reduced the fee farm to £20. (fn. 11) The farm was restored to its original amount by Henry VII, who was petitioned for a reduction in 1487 or 1488; the burgesses then claimed that 300 houses were in decay, that their walls and bridges were in disrepair, and that many of the wealthier inhabitants had left town to avoid serving the office of bailiff. (fn. 12) Again, in 1505, when presenting their case for levying tolls on the river trade, the burgesses spoke of the decay of the town and the difficulty of meeting the burdens of repairing Westgate bridge and the quay. (fn. 13)

As has often been said, such statements must be viewed with caution because of their context. In attempts to gain financial relief from the central government the worst possible picture was given and such petitions from towns, which are fairly common at the period, often follow a set formula; (fn. 14) in the suit over tolls in 1505 the final petitions of Gloucester and its fellow defendant, Worcester, were couched in almost identical terms. (fn. 15) Sometimes the petitioners resorted to manipulation of the facts. In 1455 the burgesses said that they had no communal property that they could use to finance street paving, (fn. 16) whereas the community had by then acquired a substantial holding of houses in the town. (fn. 17) In 1505 they said that their annual fee-farm revenues did not 'in certainty' produce more than £9; (fn. 18) they were presumably referring to the landgavel which produced £10 15s. 7½d. in 1455 (fn. 19) and was indeed the only fixed sum, but there were also the variable sources of income, the tolls and amercements.

The picture of economic decline given by the appeals to the Crown can not, however, be discounted entirely, and it is supported by other evidence, though some of it of a negative kind. The wealthy merchants and drapers of the late 14th century and the early 15th were not followed by any prosperous descendants and there is very little evidence of any wealthy trading burgesses in the mid 15th century. The decline in the fee-farm revenues seems to be reflected in the fact that fewer men were then prepared to be elected as bailiff for more than one or two terms. (fn. 20)

There is also more concrete evidence in the reduction by the late 15th century in the number of unfranchised inhabitants and foreigners who paid for trading rights in the town. Rolls for 1396, 1398, and 1423 list 285, 283, and c. 252 names respectively, while one for 1481 lists only 108; in those rolls the numbers who can be definitely identified as traders from outside the town are respectively 87, 108, 98, and 33. (fn. 21) The figures for the outsiders may be the more significant indication of a decline in trade, for the reduction in the numbers of inhabitants on the rolls could mean that more were acquiring the wealth to purchase the freedom. Stewards' accounts for 1493 provide another indication of decline, showing that out of a total rental of £29 19s. 1½d. from communal property in the town £7 8s. 8d. had lapsed. (fn. 22)

It would be unwise to draw too definite conclusions from such isolated survivals of what were runs of annual records but the balance of the evidence is that, like other towns at the period, Gloucester underwent a period of decline in the mid and later 15th century. The wide-ranging nature of its functions in trade, administration, and communications within its region enabled it to survive without permanent dislocation, and in the early 16th century there was a revival in its fortunes, helped probably by the growth of the capping industry and a revival in its corn trade. Wealthy tradesmen are once more in evidence, including merchants, cappers, tanners, clothiers, and, most numerous, mercers and drapers. (fn. 23)

Late-medieval Gloucester no longer figured regularly at the centre of national affairs (fn. 24) but it retained its importance in local administration. That was reflected in the number of successful lawyers who played a part in town life at the period. Employment by the courts and administrations of county and borough was supplemented by work for the local monastic houses. One of the earliest lawyers to achieve prominence in the town was Robert Gilbert, who married the widow of a wealthy Gloucester merchant, John Banbury. (fn. 25) He was being employed by the townspeople to defend their liberties in 1409, (fn. 26) served as bailiff at least twice, (fn. 27) and by 1417 and until at least 1434 held the post of steward of Llanthony Priory's estates. (fn. 28) A similar example at a later date was Walter Rowden (d. 1514), (fn. 29) who was three times mayor of the town (fn. 30) and served as steward of Gloucester Abbey's manors. (fn. 31) Probably less closely involved in the town were other laywers who became county gentry. In 1455 among a total of six lawyers who owned or occupied property in Gloucester (fn. 32) were John Edwards who became lord of Rodmarton manor in the early 1440s, (fn. 33) Thomas Deerhurst who probably owned Field Court manor in Hardwicke, (fn. 34) and Sir William Nottingham who was attorney-general 1451–61 and amassed considerable estates in the county. (fn. 35) One incentive for such men to buy property in the town and serve borough offices was apparently the opportunity of a seat in parliament: all five of the men mentioned above sat as M.P. for the borough. (fn. 36)

The opportunities for lawyers in Gloucester were increased by the duplication of the machinery of county administration under the town charter granted in 1483. The charter, which made Gloucester and the adjoining Dudstone and King's Barton hundred into a separate county, incorporated the town, and give it a mayor and aldermen, was the major landmark in the history of the town's government in the late Middle Ages. (fn. 37) An earlier, probably more gradual, development was the appearance of separate machinery for administering the property acquired by the community and financing public works. (fn. 38) That development was one expression at the period of the communal identity of the townspeople, which was also apparent in the aggressive attitude they displayed from the late 14th century over the jurisdictionary claims of the two large monastic houses, Gloucester Abbey and Llanthony Priory. (fn. 39)

The focus of communal life and the centre of the borough administration was the Boothall, or guildhall, in Westgate Street, and two other buildings, the Tolsey at the Cross and a council house at the east gate, came into use at the end of the period. (fn. 40) For other business, mainly of an incidental or private nature, much use was made of the town's churches. A bond entered into in 1396 was to be redeemed in St. Mary de Lode, (fn. 41) and in 1417 arbitration of a dispute was convened in Blackfriars and adjourned to St. Mary de Grace. (fn. 42) Llanthony Priory held a court for its town tenants in St. Owen's church (fn. 43) and the court of the honor of Hereford met in St. Mary de Crypt. (fn. 44) In St. Mary de Lode the first letters patent of Lord Chancellor Richard Scrope were sealed in October 1378 when parliament was meeting in Gloucester Abbey. (fn. 45)

An additional support to Gloucester's economy was its role in road communications. By 1455 at least 10 inns in its main streets catered for those visiting the town for trade or other business or passing through. Inns identified by name in 1455 were the New Inn in Northgate Street, recently rebuilt on a substantial scale by Gloucester Abbey, the St. George in Southgate Street (which had closed by 1509), and Savage's inn (by 1502 called alternatively the Catherine Wheel) in the later Berkeley Street; among others mentioned were an inn at the Boothall, another nearby, called the Bear in 1528 (later the Old Bear), and one at the quay kept by William Boatman, presumably that called Boatman inn in 1503. (fn. 46) In 1509 were mentioned the Swan in Northgate Street and the Lion in Westgate Street. (fn. 47) Between 1525 and 1544 were recorded the Ram in Northgate Street, which was rebuilt by Gloucester Abbey about that period; a great inn owned by the abbey in St. Mary de Grace parish in upper Westgate Street, probably the later Fleece; (fn. 48) the Bull in Northgate Street; the Crown and the George (later the Lower George), both in lower Westgate Street; (fn. 49) and the Bell on the east side of Southgate Street. (fn. 50) In 1583 most of the above mentioned were among twelve establishments distinguished as 'ancient' inns of the city. (fn. 51)

The importance to the town of its major roads presumably encouraged leading townsmen to choose them as an object of pious gifts. Gifts for repairing roads around the town were a regular item in wills from the late 14th century, with sums of £20 from John Ruseby (d. c. 1395) (fn. 52) and Robert Swansea (d. 1411) (fn. 53) among the more substantial. In 1401 there was a papal exhortation for alms for the repair of the London road at Wotton, (fn. 54) and in 1422 the bishop of Worcester offered indulgences for the repair of the Bristol road between Cambridge, in Slimbridge, and Gloucester. (fn. 55) Of equal importance to the town was the road coming from South Wales and Hereford by way of the causeway and bridges west of the town, which attracted many bequests in the late Middle Ages. The roads from Painswick and Tewkesbury were also much travelled and, like the three mentioned above, entered the town by official gateways manned by porters. (fn. 56) Roadside chapels outside the town are an indication of the amount of travelling. A hermit occupied a chapel at Saintbridge on the Painswick route in the early 16th century and probably collected alms for road repairs. (fn. 57) A chapel at Highnam on the South Wales road was used by travellers at the same period, (fn. 58) and there may have been another chapel on the Tewkesbury road at Longford, where a wayside cross attracted offerings from travellers. (fn. 59)

It has sometimes been suggested that many of the visitors to Gloucester in the late Middle Ages came there on pilgrimage. The Gloucester Abbey chronicler states that Edward II's tomb in the abbey church was attracting visitors from all over England within a few years of his burial in 1327 and that their offerings financed some of the rebuilding work at the church in the mid 14th century. (fn. 60) In 1391, however, when the monks had licence to appropriate Holy Trinity church and its chapel of St. Mary de Grace the profits were needed for providing lights and ornaments around the tomb, (fn. 61) so it may be that the popularity of the cult was short lived. The tradition that the rebuilding of the New Inn in the mid 15th century was to provide lodging for pilgrims was not recorded before the 18th century (fn. 62) and the fact that it was the abbey which rebuilt the inn may alone have been enough to promote it. Offerings no doubt continued at the king's tomb and at the shrine of St. Kyneburgh, whose remains were ceremonially retranslated by Llanthony Priory to her chapel at the south gate in 1390, (fn. 63) while the relics of St. Oswald still attracted an occasional bequest in wills of the early 16th century. (fn. 64) The donors were probably for the most part people who were in the town for reasons of trade or business rather than those specifically making pilgrimage.

Apart from its shrines Gloucester offered many other objects for pious bequests. Gifts of land to the larger monastic houses had all but ceased by the late 14th century but the smaller houses, the hospitals and friaries, still benefited from cash bequests. Religious devotion was centred mainly on the parish churches. In the later 14th century and the earlier 15th at least nine endowments were made to found or augment chantries. (fn. 65) Other chapels in the churches were maintained by the religious guilds, of which five were recorded in the town in 1455. The most important was apparently the Holy Trinity guild, attached to St. Mary de Lode church, (fn. 66) which had been founded by 1420; (fn. 67) in the 1530s the name of its master, usually one of the aldermen, was recorded each year with the chief borough officers on the freemen's rolls. (fn. 68)

Another form of association for religious as well as social purposes was the trade companies, recorded in the town from the mid 15th century. (fn. 69) The weavers' company (fn. 70) and the tanners' company maintained chantry chapels, and ordinances for the tanners made in 1542 illustrate the various roles played by the companies in addition to regulating their trades. Pensions were provided for impoverished members; the whole company attended funerals of members; masses for dead members were held in the company's chapel in St. John's church; and twice a year the members, in their livery, attended the mayor and sheriffs in the king's watch, afterwards holding a 'drinking' in their hall in Hare Lane. (fn. 71)

A Lollard priest preached at Gloucester in 1383 (fn. 72) but there is no further evidence of dissatisfaction with the traditional forms of religion until 1448 when two Gloucester men, William Fuer, a weaver, and William Grainger (or Skay), renounced their heresy before the bishop of Worcester. Fuer had learnt his opinions from some Bristol weavers and had spoken against landownership by the Church, begging by friars, and the veneration of relics. (fn. 73) In 1510 William Huntley of Gloucester was excommunicated for persistently denying the 'keys' (claves) of the Church. (fn. 74) The arrival of protestant ideas was causing dissension in the town in 1536. One of the sheriffs, Thomas Bell the younger, then complained to the bishop of London of the views of some of the chaplains who had been admitted to serve in Gloucester by Bishop Latimer. The following year Thomas Bell the elder, then mayor, was accused by two other leading townsmen, John Huggins and John Rastell, of calling Latimer a heretic (fn. 75) and there was trouble in Holy Trinity parish over the views of the curate, Hugh Rawlings. (fn. 76) In 1540 efforts to reconcile the opposing parties in the town were made by Thomas Evans, a confidant of Thomas Cromwell, (fn. 77) but later that year a weaver from Stonehouse read from an English bible in St. Mary de Crypt church and denied the doctrine of purgatory, much to the annoyance, it was said, of the congregation. (fn. 78)

The major change in the life of the town at the end of the period was that brought about by the dissolution of its monastic houses. St. Oswald's Priory was surrendered in 1536, the three friaries in 1538, Llanthony Priory in 1539, and Gloucester Abbey at the beginning of 1540. (fn. 79) The creation of the new bishopric of Gloucester in September 1541 made those events a less severe dislocation than they might have been. The great abbey church became the cathedral and, with most of its associated monastic buildings, was preserved; a group of cathedral clergy replaced the monks in residence there; and the abbey's extensive holding of property in the town was transferred to the dean and chapter. (fn. 80)

At the sales of the other monastic property in the town the main purchaser was the elder Thomas Bell, a wealthy capper, who thus became the largest private landowner. He bought Blackfriars and some Llanthony Priory property for £240 in 1539, (fn. 81) more Llanthony property for £100 in 1542, (fn. 82) and the bulk of the Llanthony property together with property of other monastic houses for £627 in 1543. (fn. 83) His later purchases included some of the chantry property in 1548, by which time he had acquired a knighthood. (fn. 84) The bulk of the former chantry property was bought in 1549 by Richard Pate, later recorder of Gloucester, and Thomas Chamberlayne, some of it passing from them to the corporation and to St. Bartholomew's Hospital. (fn. 85)

Gloucester entered the early modern period under a new style: it was declared to be a city as a result of the foundation of the bishopric in 1541. (fn. 86)


  • 1. Hoskins, Local Hist. in Eng. 238–9.
  • 2. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6685, f. 12v.
  • 3. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 58.
  • 4. Hoskins, Local Hist. in Eng. 238–9.
  • 5. Below, trade and ind. 1327–1547.
  • 6. Cal. Pat. 1396–9, 179.
  • 7. Ibid. 1401–5, 417.
  • 8. Below, Churches and Chapels.
  • 9. Cal. Pat. 1446–52, 70–1.
  • 10. Rot. Parl. v. 338.
  • 11. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 16.
  • 12. Ibid. pp. 61–2.
  • 13. Select Cases in Star Chamber, i (Selden Soc. xvi), 211–13.
  • 14. Cf. R. B. Dobson, 'Urban Decline in Late Medieval Eng.' Trans. R.H.S. (5th ser.), xxvii. 10–12.
  • 15. Select Cases in Star Chamber, i (Selden Soc. xvi), 213–15.
  • 16. Rot. Parl. v. 338.
  • 17. Above, town govt. 1200–1483.
  • 18. Select Cases in Star Chamber, i (Selden Soc. xvi), 212.
  • 19. Glouc. Rental, 1455, 115.
  • 20. Above, town govt. 1200–1483.
  • 21. G.B.R., C 9/2–5.
  • 22. Ibid. F 4/2.
  • 23. Below, trade and ind. 1327–1547.
  • 24. Above, Crown and boro.; military hist.
  • 25. Glos. R.O., P 154/14/CH 1/3, 15.
  • 26. G.B.R., I 1/15.
  • 27. Below, Bailiffs of Glouc. 1200–1483.
  • 28. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6682, ff. 121, 245.
  • 29. Hockaday Abs. cciii, 1514.
  • 30. Fosbrooke, Glouc. 208.
  • 31. Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Newton, f. 48 and v., where, in 1512, another man was appointed to hold the office jointly with him, probably because of his age or illness.
  • 32. Glouc. Rental, 1455, 7, 53, 75, 77, 89, 93; the rental also mentions (pp. 65, 93) three other lawyers, including Rob. Gilbert, as recent owners or occupiers.
  • 33. V.C.H. Glos. xi. 236.
  • 34. Ibid. x. 184.
  • 35. Trans. B.G.A.S. 1. 185–99.
  • 36. J. T. Driver, 'Parl. Burgesses for Bristol and Glouc. 1422–37', Trans. B.G.A.S. lxxiv. 68–9, 81–4, 87–9; Williams, Parl. Hist. of Glos. 186–8.
  • 37. Below, town govt. 1483–1547.
  • 38. Above, town govt. 1200–1483.
  • 39. Below, town and religious communities.
  • 40. Below, Public Buildings.
  • 41. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6684, f. 189v.
  • 42. Ibid. C 115/K 2/6682, f. 160.
  • 43. Ibid. C 115/K 1/6681, ff. 38, 56; C 115/K 2/6685, f. 11.
  • 44. Ibid. E 142/32, rot. 3; C 115/K 2/6685, f. 11.
  • 45. Cal. Close, 1377–81, 216.
  • 46. Glouc. Rental, 1455, 7, 9, 13, 39, 41, 47, 51, 63, 81, 85, 127; and for the George, G.B.R., J 5/3; for the Bear, Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 428; for the Catherine Wheel, Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Braunche, p. 53; and for Boatman inn, G.B.R., G 10/1, p. 48.
  • 47. G.B.R., J 5/3.
  • 48. Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Malvern, i, f. 244; ii, f. 82v. An inscr. on the doorhead of the Ram (now in Glouc. Folk Museum) records its rebuilding by the town monk, the abbey official responsible for its property in the town.
  • 49. G.B.R., J 5/4; J 3/16, ff. 9v., 50v.–51; Austin, Crypt Sch. 149.
  • 50. G.B.R., J 5/5.
  • 51. Ibid. B 1/1.
  • 52. Hockaday Abs. ccxix, 1394; cf. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6684, f. 185v.
  • 53. Hockaday abs. ccxvii.
  • 54. Cal. Papal Reg. v. 390.
  • 55. Worc. Episc. Reg., Reg. Morgan, ii. f. 8v.
  • 56. Below, Bridges, Gates, and Walls.
  • 57. Hockaday Abs. ccxvi, 1506; Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Malvern, ii, f. 41v., a lease of the hermitage in 1531, which obliged the lessee to spend an annual sum on repairs to the road.
  • 58. V.C.H. Glos. x. 26–7.
  • 59. Below, Outlying Hamlets, intro.
  • 60. Hist. & Cart. Mon. Glouc. i. 46–7.
  • 61. Cal. Pat. 1388–92, 406.
  • 62. Bodl. MS. Top. Glouc. c. 3, f. 45, which says that New Inn Lane was formerly called Pilgrims Lane; cf. Rudder, Glos. 86.
  • 63. P.R.O., C 115/K 2/6684, f. 135.
  • 64. Worcs. R.O., Worc. dioc. wills, file I, no. 52.
  • 65. Below, Churches and Chapels.
  • 66. Glouc. Rental, 1455, 23, 31, 79, 81, 99.
  • 67. Hockaday Abs. ccxv.
  • 68. G.B.R., C 9/6.
  • 69. Below, regulation of trade and ind.
  • 70. Hockaday Abs. ccxix, 1485.
  • 71. Glos. Colln. 28652, no. 4.
  • 72. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 21.
  • 73. Ibid. 22; Worc. Episc. Reg., Reg. Carpenter, i, ff. 58–9.
  • 74. Hockaday Abs. cciii.
  • 75. L. & P. Hen. VIII, x, p. 463; xii (1), pp. 139–40; cf. Fosbrooke, Glouc. 208. The two Bells were described as brothers (perhaps actually step or half brothers) in 1525: Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Malvern, i, f. 23IV.
  • 76. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xii (1), pp. 313, 484.
  • 77. Ibid. xv, pp. 66–7.
  • 78. Hockaday Abs. ccclv.
  • 79. V.C.H. Glos. ii. 60, 86, 90, 111–12.
  • 80. Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 19–26; L. & P. Hen. VIII, xvi, p. 572.
  • 81. Cf. Glouc. Cath. Libr., Reg. Abb. Malvern, ii, f. 111v.
  • 82. L. & P. Hen. VIII, xiv (1), p. 590.
  • 83. Ibid, xvii, p. 265.
  • 84. Ibid. xviii (2), pp. 51–2.
  • 85. Cal. Pat. 1548–9, 40–1.
  • 86. Trans. B.G.A.S. lvi. 206–8; Glouc. Corp. Rec. pp. 438–40, 444–5.
  • 87. Glouc. Corp. Rec. p. 20.