Traditionally, Cirencester was pronounced sis-etter or sis-sester, but by the 1980s this pronunciation had been largely replaced by Syren-sester. The older pronunciation is now rarely used, while many local people simply abbreviate the name to Ciren.
When the Romans built a fort where the Fosse Way crossed the Churn, to hold two quingenary alae tasked with helping to defend the provincial frontier c. AD 49, native Dobunni were drawn from Bagendon, a settlement of the Dobunni situated 3 miles to the north, to create a village near the fort. When the frontier moved to the north following the conquest of Wales, this fort was closed and its fortifications levelled c.70, but the village persisted under the name of Corinium.
Even in Roman times, there was a thriving wool trade and industry, which contributed to the growth of Corinium. A large forum and basilica was built over the site of the fort, and archeological evidence shows signs of futher civic growth. When a wall was erected around the Roman city in the late second century, it enclosed 240 acres, making Corinium, in area, the second-largest city in Britain. It was made the seat of the province Britannia Prima in the fourth century, and some historians would date the pillar the governor L. Septimus erected to the god Jovian to this period, providing evidence of a sign of pagan reaction under the Roman Emperor Julian.
The amphitheatre still stands to the SW of the city, and archeological excavation shows that it was fortified in the fifth or sixth centuries. Possibly this was the palace of one of the British kings defeated by Ceawlin in 577. It was later the scene of a battle again, this time between the Mercian king Penda and the West Saxon kings Cynegils and Cuichelm in 628.
The minster church, founded in the 9th or 10th Century, was probably a royal foundation. It was destroyed by Augustinian monks in the twelfth Century, and replaced by the great abbey church.
At the Norman Conquest the royal manor of Cirencester was granted to the Earl of Hereford, William Fitz-Osbern, but by 1075 it had reverted to the Crown. The manor was granted to Cirencester Abbey, founded by Henry I in 1117, and following half a century of building work during which the minster church was demolished, the great abbey church was finally dedicated in 1176. The manor was granted to the Abbey in 1189, although a royal charter dated 1133 speaks of burgesses in the town.
The struggle of the townsmen to prove that Cirencester was a borough, and thus gain the associated rights and privileges, probably began in the same year, when they were amerced for a false presentment. Four inquisitions during the 13th century supported the abbot's claims, yet the townspeople remained unwavering in their quest for borough status: in 1342, they lodged a Bill of complaint in Chancery. Twenty townspeople were ordered up to Westminster, where they declared under oath that successive abbots had bought up many burgage tenenments, and made the borough into an appendage of the manor, depriving it of its separate court. They claimed that the royal charter that conferred on the men of Cirencester the liberties of Winchester had been destroyed when fifty years prior the abbot had bribed the burgess who held the charter to give it to him, whereupon the abbot had had it burned. In reply, the abbot refuted these claims, and the case passed on to the King's Bench. When ordered to produce the foundation charter of his abbey, the abbot refused to, apparently because that document would be fatal to his case, and instead played a winning card. In return for a "fine" of £300, he obtained a new royal charter confirming his privileges and a writ of supersedeas.
Yet the townspeople continued in their fight: for their aid to the crown against the earls of Kent and Salisbury, Henry IV in 1403 gave the townsmen a gild merchant, although two inquisitions reiterated the abbot's rights. The struggle between the abbot and the townspeople continued with the abbot's privileges confirmed in 1408-1409 and 1413, and in 1418 the abbot finally removed this thorn in his side when the gild merchant was annulled. and in 1477 parliament declared that Cirencester was not corporate. After several unsuccessful attempts to re-establish the gild merchant, the government in 1592 was vested in the bailiff of the lord of the manor.
As part of the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1539, Henry VIII ordered the total demolition of the Abbey buildings. Today only the Norman Arch and parts of the precinct wall remain above ground, forming the perimeter of a public park in the middle of town. Despite this, the freedom of a borough continued to elude the townspeople, and they only saw the old lord of the manor replaced by a new lord of the manor as the King acquired the abbey's title.
Sheep rearing, wool sales, weaving and cloth-making were the main strengths of England's trade in the Middle Ages, and not only the abbey but many of Cirencester's merchants and clothiers gained wealth and prosperity from the national and international trade. The tombs of these merchants can be seen in the parish church, while their fine houses of Cotswold stone still stand in and around Coxwell Street and Dollar Street. Their wealth funded the rebuilding of the nave of the parish church in 1515-30, to create the large parish church, often referred to as the "Cathedral of the Cotswolds". Other wool churches can be seen in neighbouring Northleach and Chipping Campden.
The English Civil War came to Cirencester in February 1643 when Royalists and Parliamentarians came to blows in the streets. Over 300 were killed, and 1200 prisoners were held captive in the church. The townsfolk supported the Parliamentarians but gentry and clergy were for the old order, so that when Charles I was executed in 1649 the minister, Alexander Gregory, wrote on behalf of the gentry in the parish register, 'O England what did'st thou do, the 30th of this month'.
At the end of the 18th Century Cirencester was a thriving market town, at the centre of a network of turnpike roads with easy access to markets for its produce of grain and wool. A local grammar school provided education for those who could afford it, and businesses thrived in the town, which was the major urban centre for the surrounding area.
In 1789 the opening of a branch of the Thames and Severn Canal provided access to markets further afield, by way of a link through the River Thames. In 1841 a branch railway line was opened to Kemble to provide a link to the Great Western Railway at Swindon. The Midland and South Western Junction Railway opened a station at Watermoor in 1883. Cirencester thus was served by two railway lines until the 1960s.
The loss of canal and the direct rail link encouraged dependency on road transport. An inner ring road system was completed in 1975 in an attempt to reduce congestion in the town centre, which has since been augmented by an outer bypass with the expansion of the A417. Coaches depart from London Road for Victoria in central London and Heathrow Airport, taking advantage of the M4 Motorway. Kemble Station to the west of the town, distinguished by a sheltered garden, is served by fast trains from Paddington via Swindon.
In 1894 the passing of the Local Government Act brought at last into existence Cirencester's first independent elected body, the Urban District Council. The reorganization of the local governments in 1974 replaced the Urban District Council with the present two-tier system of Cotswold District Council and Cirencester Town Council. A concerted effort to reduce overhead wiring and roadside clutter has given the town some remarkably picturesque streetscenes. Many shops cater to tourists and many house family businesses.
Sites of Interest
The parish church, often referred to as the Cathedral of the Cotswolds, has a nave built in 1515-30, and also features a high embattled tower and a remarkable south porch with parvise. A fine example of the wool church, among its numerous chapels, that of St Catherine has a beautiful roof of fan-tracery of stone that dates to 1508. Other wool churches can be seen in neighbouring Northleach and Chipping Campden.
To the west of the town is Cirencester House, the seat of Earl Bathurst. The first Lord Bathurst (1684 - 1775) devoted himself to beautifying the fine demesne of Oakley Park, which he planted and adorned with remarkable artificial ruins. This nobleman, who became a baron in 1711 and an earl in 1772, was a patron of art and literature no less than a statesman, and Alexander Pope, a frequent visitor, was allowed to design the building known as Pope's Seat in the park, which commands a splendid view of woods and avenues. Jonathan Swift was another appreciative visitor. The house contains portraits by Lawrence, Gainsborough, Romney, Lely, Reynolds, Hoppner, Kneller and many others.