A Brief History of Gloucester

A tall ship in Gloucester Docks - an important part of the history of Gloucester
A tall ship in Gloucester Docks – an important part of the history of Gloucester. Photo by kennysarmy, licensed under CC BY 2.0
Gloucester is a place we advise all our visitors to Cook’s Green Cottage to visit. Whatever your interests Gloucester has so much to offer the visitor as it is so rich in history but also has a wealth of restaurants, shopping and entertainment venues. We have decided to give our website visitors a brief history of Gloucester. Picking up on the highlights since the Roman times will, we hope, give you a taste of how this wonderful city evolved and what shaped it through the years.


The origins of Gloucester are Roman and the site was a natural choice as it sits at the first point the River Severn can be crossed easily. A fort was built in 49AD to guard the river crossing followed by another fort where the town centre is. When the Romans left in 75AD, the place where the fort stood was built into a small town named Glevum for retired soldiers. This town along typical Roman patterns with a forum and a grid pattern was eventually abandoned around 407AD when the Romans left Britain.


Nobody knows if people were living in Gloucester after the Romans’ departure but there may have been clusters of farmers in the locality. A battle with native Celts in the area enabled the Saxons to capture Gloucester as it stood. In the 7th century the Saxons built a monastery and the town began to grow. By the 8th century Gloucester was cited as one of the noble cities of the entire kingdom.

The 9th century saw the Saxons create a network of fortified towns called burghs. Anticipating a Danish attack, all men in the area would gather to fight in the burgh of which Gloucester was one. From Gloucester, a resounding victory was had over the Danish. As Gloucester flourished during the 10th century a mint was established and suburbs extended beyond the North gate.

Gloucester also became a pilgrimage town as the remains of St Oswald were brought to the city. This was good for the economy as the visiting pilgrims spent lots of money.


Gloucester is the place where William the Conqueror declared the Domesday Book be written.

Gloucester’s population was around 3500 during the Middle Ages making it a large town by the standards of the day. The Normans built a castle of wood in Gloucester in the 11th century which was rebuilt in stone during the 12th century. Due to wars between the Welsh and English during the 12th and 13th centuries Gloucester was strategically important. The fortunes of war favoured the economy with a garrison at the castle.

The main industry at this time was wool along with a leather industry. Iron was also worked with a large fishing industry on the River Severn. Imports and exports were thriving.

The 13th century saw friars arrive in Gloucester known as Greyfriars because of their habits. They were followed on by Dominican friars known as Blackfriars due to their habit colour. When King Edward II was buried at St Peters Abbey, it made a contribution to the economy again as visitors flocked to the tomb. A decline in the towns fortunes began in the 15th century as Wales was now conquered meaning Gloucester was not so important strategically and there was also growing competition from other towns for goods and services.


Gloucester gained a bishop and Abbey Church became a cathedral. After the reformation of the churches when Queen Mary tried to restore Catholicism to Britain, she burned many Protestants including John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester, burned for heresy in St Marys Square. Around this time a grammar school was established called the Crypt School and the wool trade continued to decline. Along with outbreaks of plague Gloucester was struggling.


Gloucester was still a busy port and a market town for the surrounding region in the 17th century and although various trades had declined there was a boom in pin making. The city suffered in the civil war 1642 to 1646. Much of the south west were supporters of the king but Gloucester supported parliament. The town’s people destroyed houses outside the city walls so any enemy could not take refuge and added some earth fortifications. Gloucester stood fast during a siege where they were bombarded with cannon until the Royalist army retreated.

In order to curry favour with Charles I the city erected a statue. The monarch was less than impressed and ordered it to be destroyed along with the city walls.


Changes during this period included the demolition of the cross which had stood for centuries. A hospital was opened and traffic improvement achieved by demolishing the east gate. Two new market places were established and a prison opened on the site of the old Gloucester castle. Pin making continued to flourish but the wool trade died out.


Gloucester was full of civic virtue and great improvements were made such as free medicine for the poor, gas lighting, a piped water supply and network of sewers. Horse drawn trams served the public and buildings were erected including the school of art and science.

Many dry docks were built and a ship canal was built serving Gloucester to Sharpness. Scandinavian timber was transported along this canal and many warehouses were built.

The railway arrived in 1840 leading to a new industry of making railway carriages. Pin making such an essential industry declined but flour milling, timber milling, farm machinery and a little shipbuilding kept the city afloat.
Gloucester was fast growing and at the end of the century the population of was 47,000, although 434 were killed by a smallpox outbreak in 1895.

THE 20th and 21st CENTURY

Gloucester improved rapidly in the 20th century gaining electricity and electric trams followed by buses. There was another outbreak of smallpox in 1923 claiming 3 lives. Slum clearance took place in the 1920’s and council houses were built. Many museums opened with reference to Gloucester’s past and famous residents.

So there you have a very brief history of Gloucester. The city is now one of the finest in England with a population of 117,000. Exploring the past there is a great education and moreover an enjoyable day or two out.

Click here for a list of 10 things to do in Gloucester.

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