Medieval Gallery Text

Below is a copy of the text from the panels in the Medieval Gallery of the Corinium Museum.


When the Normans conquered England in 1066 they bought with them a hierarchical social structure known as the feudal system. Under this all land belonged to the King and tenure of the land was granted in return for service, usually military. This made all members of society directly or indirectly tenants and servants of the King.  

The nobility and the Church were immediately below the King, then the knights, and below them the peasants.   In the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries a merchant class, the burgess, emerged below the knights.

The plague, known as the Black Death, and the famines, which struck England in the first half of the fourteenth century, reduced the population from about 4 million to 2.5 million.  The resultant shortage of labour almost destroyed the feudal system. The peasants or villains who had had to work on their lord’s land in return for the land they held, now paid a money rent and often demanded wages.



From the 13th centuries, the increasing size of church and noble households meant that officials were needed to administer them. Ambitious men, like Richard Dixton and William Prelatte, sought service with Royal and princely households.  These men used their position to increase their wealth and soon formed a class in society almost equivalent to the knight.

Men from the Cotswolds found advancement this way.   In 1340 Walter of Cirencester was made the King’s the assessor of tax in Gloucestershire.  Early in the 15th century Sir Walter Hungerford of Down Ampney served Henry V as Lord Treasurer. 

Later in the 15th century, first Richard Dixton and then William Prelatte served Richard, Duke of York as receiver-general of his estates in Gloucestershire. 

Both men were also members of Cirencester’s Weavers Guild of the Holy Trinity.   They gave money for the building of the Trinity Chapel at Cirencester Parish Church and were both buried there.   Dixton died in 1438 and Prelatte was an executor of his will.   Prelatte who lived in a house in Laurens Street (now Gloucester Street) died in 1462. 


The Abbey of St. Mary was governed by the Augustinian rule.  There were between twenty and forty canons and a considerable number of lay-servants and lay-brothers.  The canons dressed in black and like other monks were celibate and lived as a community.

The lives of the canons were regulated from dawn when they were called to Prime, the first office or service of the day, to midnight when they sang the final office of the day, Matins and Lauds.  In the afternoon the canons worked for five hours in the fields, gardens, workshops, offices, or kitchens of the Abbey.

The canons also had the opportunity to use their administrative talents.   They could service the churches under the Abbey’s jurisdiction, represent the Abbey as legal attorneys or oversee its estates. The Abbey had an extensive working library of 200 volumes, many of which would have been produced in the Abbey’s own scriptorium.

Besides the Abbot there were a number of other officials: 

Prior                 The Abbot’s deputy.

Cellarer             Looked after the abbey’s food supplies.

Almoner             Responsible for distributing alms to the poor.

Succentor             Directed the choral services and oversaw the scriptorium (a room for

                         copying manuscripts)

Sacrist              In charge of all the vestments and the furniture of the High Altar.


Advances in banking during the 13th and 14th centuries helped international trade.   The merchants from the leading Italian cities, which were the largest and most sophisticated in Europe, chiefly developed these ideas.

It was inconvenient and dangerous to carry large amounts of cash on long journeys. To overcome this problem a system of bills of exchange, or credit notes, was established.  Money deposited with a branch of a trading house in one country would be redeemed or exchanged for goods at another branch of the same trading house in a different country.

In 1402 the Cambini of Florence wrote to Francesco Datini that the best market for wool was Cirencester because it had an exchange for Florentine gold coinage.


Food in Medieval England was not so very different from that eaten today.   People ate meat, fruit, vegetables and grain.  The variety and quantities eaten varied according to season and social position. Fresh food was scarce in the winter, and very expensive. 

Far more fish was eaten than today, much of it salted, on the many fast days when other animal flesh was forbidden.   All classes drank ale although wine was favoured by the upper classes. 

Manorial servants often fed well.   In the 13th century they ate two meals a day consisting of beef and ale, fish, in the form of herrings and cod, cheeses and rye or wheat bread. The basic diet of the peasants consisted of carbohydrates in the form of grain, mostly barley and oats, baked or brewed into bread or ale.  They ate little protein, meat and eggs being in short supply. 

The wedding feast menu of Jean du Chesne in 1394 is fairly typical of an upper middle class meal:

Pottage:             ground capon thickened with almond milk and served with

                         pomegranates and red comfits.

Roast:               kid, duckling and spring chicken all served on the same dish.

Entremets:              crayfish set in jelly, loach fish and young rabbits and pigs.

Dessert:             Frumenty (a kind of wheat porridge with eggs and milk) with venison.

Hippocras:             (sweetened spiced wine) and wafers.

Boutehors:             (The sally forth) spiced wine and spiced sweetmeats.


The precincts of the great Abbey of St Mary were enclosed by a wall. This contained the religious buildings, two farms, dovecotes, orchards, mills and gardens. The conventual (religious) buildings consisted of the Abbey Church itself, a chapter house and cloisters, a library, and a muniment room for the storing of robes. There was also a refectory (dining hall) for the monks with kitchens and latrines, an infirmary, and an inn for poor travellers and pilgrims. All that now remains are the Spital Gate, the dovecote, and the barn of Barton Grange, and part of the nave of St John’s Hospital.

The Spital Gate was built in the 12th or early 13th century and is one of the three gateways into the Abbey precinct. The Barton was one of the three grange farms of Cirencester Abbey and is probably on the site of the earlier Royal Manor (demesne). 

Part of the arcaded nave of the Hospital of St. John the Evangelist survives in Spitalgate Lane.  It dates to the reign of Henry II (1154 – 1189).  The Hospital was founded by Henry I in 1133 for the destitute and sick.  The Abbey acquired it in the 13th century.  This was confirmed by the Pope in 1222 and the King in 1348.


Cirencester’s Medieval origins are still visible in the town today.   The Parish Church, High Cross, Weaver’s Hall, and the names of some of its streets date from the period.

Builders began work on the Parish Church, dedicated to St John the Baptist in the 1120’s.  It had been planned to add a spire but the land was unstable, and two buttresses had to be built to support the tower.  Frequent changes were made as building styles altered – the Norman nave was replaced in 1240 with an Early English style, and this was changed again in the 16th century.

The High Cross which once stood at the west end of the market place can now be seen by the west door of the Parish Church. The cross dates to the early  15th century and is referred to as the Nova Crux in a document dated 1413, implying an earlier cross.

Weaver’s Hall is the oldest secular building in the town.  It was established in 1483 by the will of Sir William Nottingham who left land for the benefit of four poor men living in a home he had erected for them in Battle Street (now called Thomas Street).


In 1086 Cirencester had only 56 adult inhabitants, rising to 574 adults in 1381. The population of Cirencester developed through local and international trade, especially the wool trade.  

The Domesday Survey of 1086 assessed Cirencester as follows:

“The  King’s land in Cirencestre hundred, king Edward held 5 hides of land.  There in demesne are 5 plough and 31 villeins with 10 ploughs.  There are 13 serfs and 10 bordars, and 3 mills worth 30 schillings and meadows and 2 woods worth 50 schillings…. It pays £20 5 schillings, 20 cows 20 pigs and from the new market 20 schillings….”

In 1189 King Richard I sold his manor at Cirencester to the Abbey for £100.  By the end of the 12th century this Abbey, and a castle dominated the town.  The Castle was apparently strengthened in 1142 , but destroyed in 1216.


The Abbey of St. Mary was the biggest of the five Augustinian houses founded by Henry I, and the wealthiest.  It dominated the lives of the people of Cirencester for over 400 years.  Building began in 1117, on the land immediately behind the present day Parish Church.

For its upkeep, Henry I gave the Abbey lands in Berkshire, Gloucestershire, Northamptonshire, Oxfordshire, Somerset and Wiltshire, with a third of the tolls from Cirencester’s market and two-thirds of revenues of the royal demesne (manor).

In 1189 Richard I granted the Abbot the town and manor of Cirencester, ‘with all possible rights over life and limb, and labour, and goods’ in exchange for £100 and an annual rent of £30. The Abbey’s annual income was over £1050 a year but its lands were eventually valued at  £132,607.

The Abbot owned and developed properties throughout Cirencester, particularly in Abbot Street (now Coxwell Street) and the Market Place.   When the Abbey was dissolved on the order of Henry VIII in 1539 these numbered 152 messuages, or houses with their land and outbuildings.


As their feudal Lord, the Abbot had considerable authority over his manorial tenants.  All townspeople had to do three days work a year in making the Abbot’s hay and harvesting his corn.

Some tenants had to work one day a week on the Abbot’s lands, others had to plough, mow or carry hay and corn at specific periods.   This system provided the three Abbey farms – Barton, Almery, and Spyringate Granges – with a labour force.  Tenants’ own corn had to be ground in the Abbot’s mills, where both Abbot and miller took a share.  Tenants could only buy and sell goods at the weekly market provided they paid the Abbot a tax (chepingavel) of 2.1/2d twice a year.

A tenant could not sell or bequeath land, if it was re-rented to his heirs a heriot (fine) of the tenant’s best possession was levied.  On his death the second best possession went to the church as ‘mortuary’, which in Cirencester also went to the Abbot as rector of the parish church.  When a tenant’s daughters married he paid another fine or merchet, to the Abbot.


All nations of the world are kept warm by the wool of England made into cloth by the men of Flanders’

 During the 11th and 12th centuries the English wool trade flourished and Cotswold wool was thought the finest in Europe.  There were about ten million sheep in England.  Fine churches and cathedrals were built with money earned from wool, and most abbeys, including St. Mary’s Cirencester, had their own flocks, the wool was often sold months before shearing to foreign buyers.

By the 14th century Cotswold wool was eagerly sought by merchants from Flanders and Florence.  Foreign merchants also settled in Cirencester – such as Giles and Henry Beaupyne.  In 1341, ten wool merchants are known to have been in business here.  By then  Cirencester was the centre of Cotswold wool sales before its export through London, Bristol or Southampton.  These sales took place in the Boothall, now the Corn Hall .

Wool was also carried by packhorses to ports in Kent, to be shipped to the Staple (the regulated royal market) at Calais.   After inspection by royal officials, customs duty was paid and the wool sold to merchants from all parts of Europe. 


The 12th century saw the expansion of monastic orders, most notably the Augustinians, as at Cirencester.  By the 13th century there was a move away from these huge foundations,  and small houses of friars, Fanciscan and Dominicans spread into the towns.  However, the upper classes continued as patrons of the Church and the foundation of monasteries was replaced by that of chantries. 

Chantries were sums of money, or a bequest, to pay for a chaplain in existing colleges and parish churches. These chaplains prayed for the soul of the donor.  The chantries  also paid for charitable works such as the support of a school or alms houses. During the 15th century chantry chapels were built in Cirencester church.  In 1458 John Chedworth, Bishop of Lincoln, gave land to Winchcombe Abbey to pay an annual salary of £10 to a chantry priest and school master for the chantry of St. Mary in Cirencester Church.

Other wealthy Cotswold wool merchants paid for improvements to their parish churches.   William Grevel left 100 marks for Chipping Camden Church and John Tame completely rebuilt Fairford Parish Church in the late 15th century. 


By the time of his death in 1401, William Grevel had made a fortune from the wool trade and was a substantial local landowner.   His tomb in Chipping Campden Church describes him as, “The flower of English Woolstaplers”. 

It is probable that he is descended from one of two burgesses of Chipping Campden, Simon Grivell or Thomas Grivell. Grevel was certainly living at Campden as early as 1367, as in that year he purchased a property there for 10 marks.  The tax roll of 1369 records that he paid a tax for himself and his wife of 13 shillings and 6 pence, and 4 pence for each of his six servants.  By 1380 he had accumulated such wealth that he built another house on a prominent site at the northern end of the town. This house was exceptional in its day for its size and decoration.  In 1397 he bought the manor of Milcote from Sir Walter Beauchamp and entered the ranks of the gentry.

Grevel had links with Court and in 1397 was a creditor of the King. He is recorded as lending to Richard II 200 marks (£135) on promise of repayment the following Easter 1398.


In the 1530’s Henry VIII’s marriage difficulties led to a break with the Pope and the Roman Catholic Church. It was Henry’s need for money that led him to suppress the monasteries and confiscate their property.   The lesser monasteries, such as Poulton Priory, were suppressed in 1536.  In 1539 it was the turn of the great Abbeys.

Abbott John Blake surrendered Cirencester Abbey in December 1539. The King’s Commissioners ordered the Abbey to be destroyed, except for those buildings of use to future tenants. Lead was stripped from the roofs and windows and saved for the King.  The Crown sold the Abbey’s treasures of silver plate, gold, and other valuables.

The dissolution of the monasteries had far reaching social effects. The sale of their estates allowed the gentry to extend their land holdings, and the middle classes to join the ranks of the gentry. For the poor the dissolution meant spiritual distress and the loss of employment, hospitality and charity.


Early in her reign Elizabeth I conferred Oakley Manor, now Cirencester Park,   on her treasurer Sir Thomas Parry and sold the Abbey estate to Richard Master her physician. 

Like the Abbey before them these two estates dominated the lives of the people of the town.   By the 1560’s Cirencester’s population was about 3,000.  Along with the rest of the country Cirencester felt the effects of  rampant inflation. Between 1500 and 1603 real wages dropped by 57% while the average price of essential goods rose by 500%.  Population growth ensured that labour was cheap and wages remained low.  As the price of land rose the wealthy land-owning classes were protected from the worse effects of inflation but the poor were badly effected. 

The political stability of Elizabeth’s reign boosted trade, bringing prosperity to the merchant classes, many of whom built new houses throughout the Cotswolds.  The majority of the town’s population were still dependant on the woollen industry.  Wool combing, spinning and carding were staple occupations for women and children.  Weaving, a male occupation was also a major employer.

JOHN COXWELL 1516 -1618

John Coxwell, a local man who made his money from the wool trade, was able to rise from the merchant class to the gentry.      Described as a ‘clothman’ John was in his early twenties when Cirencester Abbey was dissolved.   Twenty years later, when Elizabeth I sold off the Abbey lands he was able to purchase a significant part.  

Coxwell’s will includes the bequest to his son Samuell of, “land in the Cittie of Glocester.. the parish of Mitchell Hamptone  and in the parish of Bisley’ as well as  ‘certain houses which I boughte of the late Queen Elizabeth’. Ten of which ‘lye in Doler streete, St Thomas streete and Abbott street.

In 1580 John built a manor house at Ablington, near Bibury.   However, he spent much of his time in Cirencester.  It is known that he lived in Abbott Street, now Coxwell Street,  probably at Woolgatherers. The portrait of John was painted when he was 98 years old.  Reputedly John died after a fall from his horse near St John’s Bridge, Lechlade, aged an amazing101!  

The portrait of John Coxwell was generously donated to the Museum by the Coxwell-Rodgers family.    It was conserved in 2003 with the support of the Mercers’ Company.


The picture of life in Medieval Cirencester is built up from many sources. These include images, standing buildings, evidence from archaeological excavation and written documents.

The Poll Tax return for Cirencester in 1381 lists 574 people over 15.  Some are still listed as agricultural labourers but the majority now have other occupations. These included 5 merchants, 5 tailors, 2 goldsmiths, 3 blacksmiths, 3 braziers, a spicer, a saddler and a mason.  There were 30 servants, 2 fishsellers, 1 tanner and innkeepers and cooks.  The most important industry in Cirencester was the manufacture of woollen cloth. By the middle of the 13th century the dying of cloth was such an important occupation that Cheaping Street was renamed Dyer Street.

Cirencester became an increasingly important centre of trade.  A market had been granted to the town in 1086 to be held on a Sunday, but the terms of the charter of Richard I granted the Abbot markets on Mondays and Fridays instead.  Market tolls of 1321 list some 80 items including cattle, horses, goats, bean and pea meal, cheese, butter, fish, salt, alum, iron, lead, tin, brass, linen, silk and cloth with gold.

These documents show evidence of a thriving community with increasingly sophisticated demands.