A Brief History of the CotswoldsGeneral
The area of England now known as The Cotswolds is defined both by the underlying stone and by its use as a building material. The landscape's shape was not only created by this stone but it also provided a good building material that has been used in all types of buildings from stone walls and cottages to churches and manor houses.
The first people to leave their mark on the Cotswolds landscape were the Iron Age tribes who built large earthen forts, such as Uleybury (c 800BC).
Next, the Romans, who were here for about 400 years, left a prominent mark. Some of the most important modern roads follow the routes of military roads built around 45AD - such as Fosse Way, Ermin Street and Akerman Street: all meet at Cirencester. The latter town was the country's second largest town after London in Roman Times.
The Angles and the Saxons re-conquered the land sometime after the departure of the Romans in AD406, reached the Cotswolds in about AD600 and set up Gloucester and Winchcombe as important centres.
From here on sheep rearing became a prime occupation. The Cotswolds sheep gained a reputation for its large, high quality, hardwearing fleece. By the 8th Century wool was being exported to Flemish and Italian weavers. Most of the present day villages of the Cotswolds were recorded in the Doomsday Book with an open field system for sheep grazing and arable farming.
After the Norman Conquest in 1066 the main power moved to London and the Southeast. However, many churches and abbeys were built in the Cotswolds using the local stone. The size and quality of these buildings reflected the money emanating from the ever-flourishing wool trade. Not only in the Cotswolds, but also nationally, the wool trade and particularly wool exports became vital to the economy. Most associated with this trade became wealthy. From the 14th Century most of the many market towns became dependent on the wool industry for their wealth. Towns such as Chipping Campden, Northleach, Cirencester and Winchcombe became thriving communities with fine perpendicular churches and large houses occupied by rich merchants. Weavers, dyers and fullers from Flanders were encouraged to come to England to increase production of woollen cloth. Fulling mills powered by fast-flowing streams were established. By the end of the 16th Century the cloth industry was concentrated around Stroud.
In the 18th and early 19th Centuries the parliamentary enclosures of common land led to great changes in the landscape. Thousands of acres were enclosed by walls and hedges. Soon the heavily taxed Cotswold wool could not compete with the increased wool production in other parts of the world. The golden age of the Cotswolds came to an end and the region learned the lesson of not having diversified enough. In the 19th Century most cloth manufacturing moved to Yorkshire.
The 19th Century brought mixed fortunes to the Cotswolds with a big gulf between the gentry and the workers. Better-mechanised equipment led to large quantities of stone available for building and many large country houses were built. Meanwhile, the spa towns of Bath and Cheltenham became ever more prosperous and a magnet for visitors.
In the late 19th Century the Cotswolds became recognised for the beauty of its honey-coloured stone and the quality and unity of its many stone buildings. William Morris, who had a house at Kelscott near Lechlade, increased the popularity of the Cotswolds and founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. From very early in the 20th Century can be traced the beginning of the Cotswold tourist industry and today it is one of the most heavily visited regions of England, and one of the most highly prized to live in!
Local History - The Towns and Villages
In 1966 about 800 square miles of the Cotswolds were designated as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB). Many footpaths criss-cross the region.
Tourism in the Cotswolds thrives with 12% of the workforce earning a living from it - twice the national average.
Chipping Campden - prospered with the wool trade but suffered after its decline. Later it was re-vitalised by the Guild of Handicrafts and many craftsmen practised their trade in the town.
Moreton-in-Marsh - developed as a market town. Travellers have visited and passed through it for over 1500 years and it has numerous 18th Century inns and houses.
Stow-on-the-Wold - from 1107 it was famous for its two annual Charter fairs. Daniel Defoe recorded seeing 20,000 sheep sold here in the 18th Century. The last important encounter of the Civil War, the Battle of Stow, was fought nearby and Royalist troops were imprisoned in St Edward's Church.
Broadway - William Morris brought popularity to Broadway. It became a busy staging post on the route from Worcester to London with many inns opening. It later inspired J M Barrie, Vaughan Williams and Elgar.
Winchcombe - during medieval times it was second only to Thomas Becket's tomb in Canterbury as a place of pilgrimage. Its once fine abbey was destroyed by Henry VIII. Many fine stone buildings are interspersed with some timbered ones as Winchcombe is only just within the Cotswolds.
Cheltenham - changed in the 18th Century from a small village to a Regency spa town with classical architecture and wide streets.
Gloucester - the city originated as a settlement before the Romans came. In Saxon times the city rivalled London in importance. The Normans re-shaped the Saxon monastery to establish an abbey. In the Cathedral's Chapter House, William the Conqueror planned the Doomsday Book. Stonemasons pioneered the Perpendicular style at Gloucester Cathedral. Elizabeth I granted the city a port in 1580.
Chipping Norton - St Mary's Church dates from the 13th Century and much of the building was the result of the thriving wool industry. High quality tweed was made here for many years.
Burford - there are numerous half-timbered houses among the many 14th - 16th Century stone houses, built of timber from the nearby Wychswood Forest. This was an early Woodrush Crossing where a Saxon settlement clustered round a fort. It was a market town from 1100 and became a leading wool market by 1400, continuing to thrive later as a popular coaching stop. The church has scars from the Civil War and 250 Parliamentarians were imprisoned here by Cromwell.
Bourton-on-the-Water - in Roman times it was at the junction of 2 Roman roads and 3 rivers. There has been a church here since Saxon times.
Northleach - this is yet another small town that was once of much importance as a Cotswold wool centre; it was transformed by the wool trade. During the age of the coach, horses were changed here.
Bibury - William Morris described Bibury as the "most beautiful village in England" and the centre is grouped round St Mary's Church, which was originally the site of a Saxon church. Arlington Row is a striking line of 17th Century cottages whose original occupants provided cloth for fulling at Arlington Mill, which dates from the same century.
Fairford - there was an Anglo-Saxon community here. Today it is a market town with a fine church built on the profits from the then thriving wool trade. This church has 28 stained glass windows comprising the only complete set of medieval windows to survive in a British parish church.
Lechlade - has a fine 15th Century "wool" church. For a long time Lechlade was on one of the main trade arteries west from London by both road and river. Here is the highest point of navigation on the Thames.
Painswick - the town's prosperity from wool is reflected in the many fine houses. St Mary's Church was occupied by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War as scars of bullets and cannon shots on the tower walls testify. The famous 99 clipped yews dominate the churchyard as do the many table tombs.
Stroud - here was produced crimson and scarlet cloth for Army uniforms. In nearby Uley blue cloth was produced. Both cloths became famous throughout Europe. In the early 18th Century there were 150 fulling mills in Stroud and the town was built on the wool industry. Thirty are still working but only one produces cloth - this dyes the yellow, green and scarlet cloths for uniforms and billiard tables.
Minchinhampton - the Normans built a church here but much of Holy Trinity Church dates from the 14th Century. Minchinhampton Common is bordered by old weavers' houses and is pockmarked with many earthworks from Neolithic barrows and old quarries.
Slad - the village lies in the lovely Slad valley, which was lived in and written about by Laurie Lee.
Cirencester - the Roman settlement of Corinium was the second largest town in Britain. It was originally a military base before being laid out as a town. The Saxons destroyed it in 577; it recovered somewhat under the Normans and later became a prosperous wool town. The market square is dominated by the large St John the Baptist Church whose south porch was built in the late 15th Century. The tower was begun soon after 1400 and was built as a reward from Henry IV after townspeople had seized 3 rebellious earls and prevented civil war. There are the remains of a Roman amphitheatre.
Tetbury - the mid 17th Century Market House, the hub from which several streets radiate, was probably built to weigh wool. The town received a Charter in the 13th Century. The mostly 18th Century church boasts a tall and elegant spire, one of the highest in England. Part of Tetbury's prosperity is due to the proximity of Highgrove and Gatcombe, the homes of the Prince of Wales and the Princess Royal.
Bath - the easily worked stone and the hot spring made Bath attractive to the Romans and the Roman town flourished for about 400 years. It had a long decline until the 18th Century when the fine stone and the waters again led to its resurgence. Handsome classical buildings were built with stone from Combe Down and it became the fashion to take the waters. Bath Abbey was built in the early 16th Century and the angels climbing ladders up to heaven on the West Front realise a dream of a 16th Century Bishop of Bath and Walls.
Uley - Uley has a past rich in history. At the top of Crawley Hill is a Neolithic long barrow, known locally as Hetty Pegler's Tump. The story goes that Hetty, a local girl, met her lover at this place. Some two thousand years after this long barrow was constructed, Uley Bury was fortified by the Dubonni tribe. This is not surprising since it commands a magnificent view. To the west can be seen the Black Mountains, the Malverns and the Severn Valley. Walking the Bury perimeter takes about half an hour. Standing with your back to the Severn you see Uley village in the foreground, Owlpen Manor tucked away to the left, and Stouts Hill standing prominently right of centre. In the late 1970s a Roman temple dedicated to Mercury was excavated opposite the long barrow at the top of Crawley Hill. There was great excitement when the god's stone head was found together with a hoard of curses written on lead scrolls. These artefacts are now in the British Museum in London.
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