Local History Research

Activity Description

Are you interested in finding out more about the story of where you live or where you came from?

Local history is the study of the lives of ordinary people. It is the study of how places were in the past and how they came to be as they are now. It is the study of how buildings in our area have changed over time and of the people who lived and worked in them. It helps us understand who we are and where we fit in the story of our place.

The ways in which a place has changed over time can make us think about the future.

Whether we want to understand more about our community and its history, or learn about aspects of the society we grew up in through documented or oral history, local history is accessible to us all.

GlosArch members have written many reports on the history of Gloucestershire, some of which can be found in the pages of our journal Glevensis. If you are thinking of researching into your part of Gloucestershire get in touch by email or join us.

Below are two essays by local historians about the history of Gloucester.

Nigel Spry has also assembled some resources that you may find useful if you want to start looking into the history of Gloucester and the surrounding area. These can be found under Gloucester Maps and Prospects on the Resources page (link) of this website. Links to other relevant websites can be found under Useful Links.


1    GLEVUM The Roman origins of Gloucester – N Spry
(Click here)


From the Saxons to the present  – P Moss
(Click here)


A research folder  compiled by N Spry for The Gloucester Civic Trust.
(Click here)








The Roman origins of Gloucester
by Nigel Spry


In 1997 Gloucester celebrated its founding as a Colonia – the highest status to which any Roman settlement could aspire. To learn about this, let’s start at the beginning – and then we can follow on with some later history.


Some time after AD 49 the Roman army – we cannot be certain but probably the 20th legion or elements of it, from Colchester – built a fortress at Kingsholm near an Iron-Age settlement beside the then course of the Severn. There appears to have been two major phases of construction, the later one possibly bringing the site to full legionary size. The use of the fortress and its continuity of occupation is uncertain, but its probable role was as a strategic base and support headquarters for campaigns in Wales. Because of flooding the location was an unsatisfactory one; this no doubt was one reason that around AD 66 it was abandoned and the army established  a new fortress some km to the south on an area of raised ground where there had been earlier occupation. This would in due course become known as Gloucester.

A New Fortress

The new fortress, rectangular in shape and covering an area of 17 hectares (43 acres), had turf faced and ‘timber strapped’ clay ramparts, 3.5m high, surmounted by a timber palisade and walkway, and fronted by wide steeply cut V-shaped ditches. Substantial timber gate towers pierced the rampart on each side and between them along the ramparts were other timber towers at intervals and at the rampart corners. Between the west and east gates ran the Via Principalis To the south of this road, at the centre of the fortress stood the legionary headquarters building. From here – now  ‘The Cross’ – the Via Praetoria ran up to the north gate, while a fourth main street, starting south of the headquarters building, completed the pattern. The fortress was aligned more or less parallel to the Severn, the course of which was then much closer in to the site than now. Within the fortress gravel streets were laid out in a regular grid pattern and standardised barrack blocks constructed, together with other military buildings, granaries, workshops and stores.

The barracks, each for a century (80 men), had mostly plastered clay walls supported on posts set in trenches, clay floors and probably wooden shingle tile roofs. Some external walls had lias stone sleeper foundations which would have carried timber and clay walls above. Most other building would have been similarly constructed of timber and clay.

It has been suggested that this fortress was occupied by the 2nd legion, but it does now seem more likely that the site was the 20th’s new home. Nothing is certain, but we do have some, albeit undated, physical evidence – a 20th legion soldier’s tombstone found at Wotton and an inscription on a centurial stone of a cohort of the legion, found reused in the cathedral. Although, as we will see, the army would stay for only a generation (cAD66- cAD95) the finding near Kingsholm of a 3rd century tombstone of someone who had also served in the 20th legion, does hint at some sort of later continuing local connection or allegiance.


Occupation of this headquarters site continued into the late 70’s AD, when following the pacification of South Wales, the 20th legion appears to have departed to take part in Agricola’s campaigns in Scotland. Around AD 87 it seems to have returned from the north, and at this date the fortress underwent major changes. Some buildings were replaced by ones of stone; (the centurial stone may have been from a building of this second, ‘stone fortress’ phase). Barrack blocks were rebuilt with stone external walls and timber framed internal partitions. The defences were enhanced by fronting the original ramparts with a wall of large oolitic limestone blocks, packed behind with rubble. Stone gates replaced timber ones and larger ditches were cut. These new stone-faced defences were far more substantial and impressive than anything seen before in Britain, and their similarity to ones known to have been built by the 20th legion at Chester later, adds to the argument for the 20th’s involvement with the rebuilding.

The Colonia

We do not know exactly how long the 20th legion stayed after its return, but a decade from around AD 87 brings us to the accepted date of the foundation of the colonia. A colonia was a self governing Roman provincial city, regulated by a council and four magistrates, whose citizens enjoyed all the rights and privileges of citizens of Rome itself. Coloniae were established for retired legionaries, their partners and families, to provide a nucleus of loyal inhabitants to stabilise the frontiers of the empire. In Britain, Gloucester shared coloniastatus with only Colchester, Lincoln and, much later, York. Like Gloucester all these Roman cities had been legionary sites before they became coloniae. Such sites attracted civilian development around them; the native population providing services and comfort to the military.

The redundant fortress, the civilian suburbs, and a large tract of surrounding agricultural land called the territorium, were all part of the colonia. The territorium here probably included all the land between the Severn and the Cotswold escarpment, both north of the urban area and south down the vale, perhaps for about 15 km. As part of their ‘retirement package’ legionaries were allotted land in the territorium, as well as a home within the town. This also applied to ‘auxiliary’ infantry and cavalry soldiers, from subject tribes within the empire, who also fought in the army and were only granted Roman citizenship on completion of their service. So Gloucester’s early citizens were a diverse, cosmopolitan lot.


Not that the new  city had the name Gloucester then. There is only slight evidence for pre-Roman occupation on the site and none for the local tradition of a Celtic settlement called ‘Caer Glow’. (This results from an attempt to provide a Celtic origin for the British name Cair Glow, – first recorded in the 8th century – and for the Welsh name ‘Caerloyw’ translated as Bright Fortress). The evidence for Gloucester’s Roman name comes from a number of sources – both written and epigraphic.

The most important inscription is that on a tombstone in Rome of a soldier of the 6th legion who was born in Gloucester. Part of the inscription reads … M.VLPIO.NER. QVINTO.GLEVI… (… Marcus Ulpius Quintus, of the Nervan voting tribe, birthplace Glevum … ). NER here clearly points to a ‘dedication’ to the Emperor Nerva forming part of the name of the soldier’s birthplace. Nerva was emperor from September AD 96, following the assassination of despotic Domition, until January AD 98. It is logical therefore to believe that the colonia at Gloucester was established between these dates; hence the celebration in the year 1997.

Wording on a tombstone found at Bath establishes Roman Gloucester’s top-rank civic status: … DEC COLONIAE GLEV ( … decurion (councillor) of the colonia of Glevum … ) A 7th century schedule known as the Ravenna Cosmography gives COLONIA GLEBON, while the name CLEVO is used in a 3rd century route list called the Antonine Itinerary. It is from this somewhat lean evidence that it is inferred that the city’s Roman name was COLONIA NERVIANA (or Nervia) GLEVENSIS (or Glevensium), shortened to GLEVUM.

Early Development

Within 15 years or so of the military to civilian transition, we see the building of new privately constructed properties replacing the earlier barracks. At this period we see the first use of tiles stamped with the ‘Gloucester Corporation’ mark RPG (Rei Publicae Glevensium). Public buildings, temples and bath houses, were under construction in stone. Piped water began to be supplied. Drains and sewers were laid. On the site of the legionary principia an imposing central Forum, (the main public square), was laid out surrounded with colonnades and flanked on three sides by part timbered ranges of shops. Closing off the south of the forum was the 100m by 40m Basilica, (the assembly hall that was the centre for the colonia’s government and law).

As the century progressed substantial new houses were built by thriving descendants of the early veterans. Others families had left to live on their farms in the countryside – successful ones would become owners of villa estates in the years ahead. Outside the original walled area occupation had flourished, particularly towards Kingsholm and outside the Northgate along the road that lead to cemeteries at Wotton and on to the district capital at Cirencester. By natural movement and by reclamation the Severn was slowly moving to the west, and so the suburbs expanded in that direction too. Towards the end of the century, the original colonia defences were enhanced by extending the bank inwards and by construction of new stone interval and corner towers.

A Successful City

In the late second century AD the city reached its zenith of culture and prosperity, and of overall size (around 150 hectares (380 acres)). In the main, its inhabitants within the walls lived in substantial stone houses, the homes of more affluent ones had mosaic floors, under-floor heating and decorated plaster walls. They shopped in stone colonnaded streets and markets, where they admired public statues, such as the imposing equestrian one erected in the sandstone paved courtyard of the forum, that by now had been rebuilt in stone. They worshipped in the temples, relaxed in the baths, attended the theatre and visited the amphitheatre outside the wall to see entertainments and displays; (but so far none of these buildings has been found). They, or their employees and slaves, may have worked in a town business or an industry in the suburbs – perhaps down near the stone quay alongside the Severn, which by this time had moved west to a course 250m from the original defended area.

Roman Britain was divided into four provinces in the early 4th century. It is most likely that Glevum, as a colony, became the provincial capital of Britannia Prima, in the same way that colonies at York and Lincoln became capitals of their respective provinces. There is some evidence that at this time Glevum possessed a mint.

Defence and Decline

At the very end of the third century or the start of the 4th century, major changes took place to the city’s defences. The 2nd century wall was replaced in two stages by a stronger and higher one of stone faced concrete resting on courses of massive reused stone blocks. In parts of the wall replaced in the second stage, the blocks rested on deep timber foundation piles. Stone external towers were added; two parallel wide ditches were also cut in front of the new walls. These military fashion defences, possibly part of a wider strategic scheme for the defence of southern Britain, were constructed, (as were similar fortifications at Cardiff and Caerwent), in response to a perceived external threat coming via the Severn Estuary and the river itself. History does not tell us if these enhanced defences were ever needed.

Life continued, buildings were remodelled, even the latest elaborate mosaic floors installed. However, as the century progressed the overall threat to the stability of Romano-British life increased because of unremitting Saxon raids on the east and south coasts and of Irish and Pictish pressure in the north. The economic effect of this in centres like Glevum was to produced a rapid decline in the urban lifestyle and a particular collapse of urban administration.

Decay and Defeat

Distress and decay followed swiftly throughout Britain after the removal of the military in AD 407. Roman traditions continued, but the fabric of a city such as Glevum could not be supported. Buildings fell into disuse and from now on any new ones would be constructed in timber. As time went on into this Sub-Roman period, the old defended town was in decay, and the focus of settlement seems to have been concentrated beside the river. By the middle of the 6th century, here as elsewhere, strongmen, appointed or otherwise, came to the fore to lead military opposition to Saxon or Saxon controlled populations who were settling in the southern fertile river valleys. From the traditional account in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, which is questioned by some, we learn that in AD 577 a decisive battle was fought at Dyrham that ended in the slaying of three of these British ‘kings’ and the capture of their cities. One of these kings was Conmail of Glevum. For Roman Gloucester, time had run out.

c) Nigel Spry 2003 

For the detailed current understanding of the early history & the topography of Roman Gloucester, see ‘The Coloniae of Roman Britain: New Studies and a Review’, pages 73-85, 113-135, 152-159 & 177-189. Henry Hurst (Ed.) Portsmouth, Rhode Island, 1999. 






From the Saxons to the present
by Philip Moss

Saxons and Normans

In the seventh century the Hwicce, a subordinate Saxon tribe of the Mercian dynasty, had settled in Gloucestershire and part of Worcestershire. In 679 Osric, king of the Hwicce, founded a monastery at Gloucester dedicated to St Peter on or near the site now occupied by the cathedral. By the tenth century the town was an important centre of the Kingdom of Mercia and had been re-fortified and re-planned by Queen Aethelflaeda, daughter of Alfred the Great, against the incursions of the Danish armies. The street plan of in Gloucester is a direct legacy of this revitalisation. She also founded the New Minster church of St Oswald, about 900, which became a national shrine following the installation of the bones of the seventh century king and saint.

During the reign of Edward the Confessor the great hall of the Royal Manor or Palace at Kingsholm became the regular meeting place of the King and the Great Council – the Witanagemot – raising the status of Gloucester to that of Winchester and London.

In 1066 William of Normandy claimed the English throne and continued the practice of holding meetings of the Great Council at Gloucester. It was at one such gathering in 1085 that William I called for the detailed survey of his kingdom resulting in the production the Domesday Book. The conqueror also had a profound effect on the religious life of Gloucester when he appointed Serlo of Bayeux, Norman monk, to restore the flagging fortunes of the near defunct abbey of St Peter. Serlo began by building the great abbey church in the Norman style and the huge pillars of the nave are an important feature in the present cathedral. Perhaps the first Norman building to be imposed on the town was a motte and bailey castle. The 20m. (65ft.) high mound was built in the south-west corner of the walled town and was topped with a timber tower with a defended enclosure bailey on its east side. This together with the rebuilding of some of the town gates became a symbol of the king s authority over, Indigenous Saxon population. The timber and earth castle was replaced in the early twelfth century by a large stone keep, complete with surrounding walls and deep moat, just to the west on the east bank of the River Severn.

In the dispute for the throne between King Stephen and Matilda, Robert Earl of Gloucester, supported his half-sister Matilda. The town transferred its allegiance from the king to Matilda but no fighting took place.

The Plantagenet and Tudor Period

Gloucester s importance was confirmed under the Plantagenets the grant of its first charter by Henry II in 1155, which gave the to privileges equal to those of Westminster and London. On 28th October 1216 the nine year old Henry III was led from the Royal Palace at Kingsholm to his coronation in St Peter’s Abbey. He is the only English monarch since the Conquest to be crowned outside Westminster. Henry was a deeply religious man who did much the church in Gloucester during his long reign. It was he who was responsible for the grants of oaks from the Royal Forest of Dean for the building of the Dominican and Franciscan Friaries in the town. Remains of both houses survive: Blackfriars – England’s most complete Dominican Friary dates from 1239 and Greyfriars from the rebuild of the early sixteenth century. The house of the Carmelites or Whitefriars erected just outside the north-east corner of the town wall was similarly endowed but today, sadly, no trace remains. Henry’s zeal for establishing religious houses was tempered by his political troubles. By a strange quirk of fate the city of his coronation became his prison when in 1263 Simon de Montfort held him captive in Gloucester Castle during the Barons War. Many significant parliaments were held at Gloucester in the following one and half centuries including one held by Henry IV in 1407 which paved the way for bringing public finances under parliamentary control.

The fortunes of medieval Gloucester were strengthened in 1327 at when Abbot Thokey accepted for burial at St Peter’s Abbey the body of King Edward II who was murdered at nearby Berkeley Castle. During the next two centuries many people were moved to make the pilgrimage to Edward’s tomb, resulting in increased wealth and importance for the city and abbey. Craftsmen began restoring and beautifying the church and by the 1470s the building had reached its present size, complete with exquisite fan tracery in the cloisters and the glorious tower of Abbot Seabrooke. In this period other ancient city churches were also rebuilt and adorned with Perpendicular style towers.

In 1471, during the Wars of the Roses, Queen Margaret’s Lancastrian army was refused entry to Gloucester. She continued north to lose the Battle of Tewkesbury.

In 1483 Richard III granted the charter on which the city s local government is largely based. It conferred on the burgesses of Gloucester the right of electing a mayor and twelve aldermen. To maintain the dignity of these new officers it also provided that the mayor should have a sword of state carried before him with two sergeants at mace to serve him. King Henry VIII and his new wife Anne Boleyn visited Gloucester in July 1535 staying as guests of the abbot of St Peter’s. It was in this same year that the Act of Supremacy was passed making Henry the Supreme Head of the Church of England and by 1536 the suppression of the smaller monasteries had commenced. By 1540 the dissolution of the larger monastic houses of Gloucester was well advanced and the episcopal see of Gloucester was established. The abbey church became the Cathedral of the new Diocese.

Henry VIII had made England a Protestant country, a policy which his son Edward VI continued, but Mary Tudor, his daughter, was deter­mined to restore Roman Catholicism. So many Protestant clergy were martyred during her reign that she acquired the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’. During these persecutions Bishop John Hooper, the second Bishop of Gloucester, suffered martyrdom for his faith by being burnt at the stake in St Mary’s Square on 9th February 1555. Mary was succeeded by the Protestant Elizabeth who granting Gloucester the status of a port in 1580. The city is the most inland port in the country.

Kings and Commonwealth

In 1642 civil war broke out in England. The cause of the war being Parliament s struggle against the absolute government of King Charles I, his alleged encouragement of popery and his illegal taxation. The strong growth of Puritanism in Gloucester from the late sixteenth century determined its support for the parliamentary cause. Within a year of the outbreak of war the parliamentary forces suffered many reverses and Gloucester alone stood against the king in the west. On 10th August 1643 a royalist army commanded by the king himself lay siege to the city. Gloucester was the only Roundhead garrison be­tween the recently captured Bristol and the north-west, its capture would control the River Severn at its lowest crossing point. The garrison in Gloucester was commanded by the 23 year old Lt. Colonel Edward Massey. Under his command were two infantry regiments, 200 horse and dragoons and a few trained bands amounting to 1500 men. At the height of the siege the king had at his disposal a force of some 30,000 royalists. It says much for Massey and his puny garrison that with only the rather dubious protection of Gloucester s medieval town walls and some hastily thrown up earthworks the citizens resisted the artillery bombardment for 26 days. The king was forced to retreat on hearing that a relieving parliamentary army from London was nearing the city. ‘Ever remember the fifth of September’ was a motto adopted by Gloucestrians following the raising of the siege and this date became an annual holiday known as ‘Gloucester Day’.

In 1644, the year following the siege, John Biddle, the Master of the Crypt School in Southgate Street, drafted what he called ‘ Twelve Arguments Against The Doctrine Of The Trinity’. For this he was removed from office, but by producing this text John Biddle had founded English Unitarianism . He became a martyr to the new religion in 1662, a few years after the Restoration of Charles II, when he died of fever while in Newgate Prison unable to pay a fine of £200 imposed for Unitarian worship.

In Recent Centuries

The eighteenth century saw the steady growth of Gloucester both in size and as a social centre. Local industry continued to flourish due to the proximity of iron-ore, coal and timber in the Forest of Dean. The city became renowned for pin manufacturing and the centuries old industry of bell founding continued apace. It has been said that many belfries in England contain at least one bell cast by the famous Rudhall family of Gloucester.

During the same century Robert Raikes, editor of the influential Gloucester Journal, established his Sunday School movement and George Whitefield the fiery evangelist began his ministry in the city.

Sir George Onesiphorus Paul gave practical evidence to Parliament of his concern over prison reform by recommending the building of the present Gloucester Gaol which was, at the time, the finest and most advanced in the country.

In 1823 Gloucester came to the fore with the construction of the County Asylum in Horton Road, now Gloucester’s finest Georgian building, one of the first purpose-built psychiatric hospitals in the world.

Progress was accelerated during the early nineteenth century by the completion of the Gloucester and Sharpness canal in 1827 which resulted in the growth of the local timber industry. The waterway was then the longest, deepest and widest ship canal in Britain and afforded a direct route from Gloucester to the Scandinavian countries. The port facilities were expanded, including new dry docks and additional warehousing for the handling of grain. The coming of the railways in the 1840s also served to make the city more attractive to industry. In the Victorian era the city boundaries were extended, the population grew six-fold and many exuberant buildings were constructed.

The twentieth century witnessed the establishment of other notable industries such as aircraft production, railway rolling stock, motor cycles and match manufacturing. Although some of these firms are no longer trading, the city has maintained a diverse commercial and industrial base. This together with the important contribution that tourism makes to the local economy will ensure that the city continues to thrive.

(c) Philip Moss 2003 

For a full and comprehensive picture of the archaeology and history of Gloucester, see the following works: ‘Gloucester – a history and guide’, Carolyn Heighway, 1985 and ‘Historic Gloucester’, Philip Moss, 1993. 

Manuscript 2003.