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Cirencester (St. John the Evangelist)

CIRENCESTER (St. John the Evangelist), a parish, and the head of a union, comprising the borough of Cirencester, which is a hundred of itself, and several tythings in the hundred of Crowthorne and Minety, E. division of the county of Gloucester, 17 miles (S. E.) from Gloucester, and 89 (W. by N.) from London; containing 6014 inhabitants. Prior to the arrival of the Romans, this was a British city, called Caer Cori, the "town on the river Corin," which the Romans converted into a military station denominated Corinum. This station, from its position near the intersection of the Fosse-way with the Ermin and Ikeneld streets, was one of considerable extent and importance; and vestiges of the vallum and rampart are yet visible on the south-eastern side of the town, where Roman inscriptions, tessellated pavements, coins, urns, vases, the remains of a hypocaust, and various fragments of masonry, have been found. The Saxons added the name Ceaster, of which and its Roman appellation the present is a corruption. The town was the metropolis of the Dobuni, from whom, in 577, it was taken by Ceawlin, King of Wessex. In 656 it was annexed to the kingdom of Mercia; and in 879, the Danes under Guthrum, after their memorable defeat by Alfred in the battle of Ethandune, retired hither, where they remained for a year, during the progress of the negotiations which led to their conversion to Christianity, and their settlement in the island. Canute the Great held a general council here in 1020, when, according to the Saxon Chronicle, "Alderman Ethelward was outlawed, and Edwy, King of the Churls." In the war between Stephen and Matilda, Cirencester Castle, of which the earliest notice then occurs, being garrisoned by Robert, Earl of Gloucester, on the part of the empress, was taken and burnt by the king's troops, in 1142; having been rebuilt, it was garrisoned by the disaffected barons against Henry III., but was taken by the king, who issued his warrant for its immediate demolition. The wall and gates that defended the town continued entire for some time longer.

In 1322, Edward II. spent the festival of Christmas here, and soon afterwards convened an assembly of his nobles, to devise means for crushing the conspiracy of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, and other barons, against his favourite, Hugh le Despencer; the whole of the royal army was subsequently assembled here. Early in the reign of Henry IV., the Dukes of Albemarle, Surrey, and Exeter, and the Earls of Gloucester and Salisbury, with other persons of distinction, entered into a conspiracy to assassinate the king, and restore the deposed monarch, Richard II. Henry, being informed of this, led an army against them, when some of the principal conspirators, with the forces under them, retired to Cirencester, where they encamped: here they were surprised by the townsmen, and the Duke of Surrey and the Earl of Salisbury were taken and immediately beheaded, on which the troops dispersed. The explosion of hostilities against Charles I. is stated to have occurred in this town, upon a personal attack on Lord Chandos, who had been appointed to execute the commission of array on behalf of the king; and it was soon afterwards garrisoned by the parliament. It was assaulted by Prince Rupert, and captured, after a sharp conflict of two hours, on the 2nd of February, 1642-3; but was recovered for the parliament by the Earl of Essex, on the 16th of September in the following year: it again fell into the hands of the royalists, but was ultimately surrendered to the parliament. On the landing of the Prince of Orange, in 1688, the inhabitants, influenced by the Duke of Beaufort, declared for James II.; and Lord Lovelace, on his march through the town with a party to join the prince, was attacked by Captain Lorange, of the county militia, made prisoner, and sent to Gloucester gaol. In this encounter flowed the first blood that was shed in the Revolution.

The town is pleasantly situated, and consists of four principal, and several smaller, streets. It was anciently of much greater extent, the walls having inclosed an area two miles in circuit. The houses, which are chiefly of stone, are well built, and many of the more respectable are detached; the place is lighted, the foot-paths are paved with small stones, and the inhabitants well supplied with water. There is a society called the Cirencester and Gloucestershire Agricultural Association; and a commodious Hall for temperance and other meetings not involving theological or political controversy, has been erected by Mr. Christopher Bowly, at a cost of £1500. Races were once held annually near the town. But little trade is carried on, the cloth manufacture, formerly extensive, having declined: some knives of a peculiar and superior quality are made for the use of curriers; and there are a small carpet-manufactory, and three breweries. The Thames and Severn canal passes in the vicinity, and has a branch to the town: the Cheltenham and Great Western Union railway, also, has a branch to Cirencester, opened in May, 1841. The market is on Monday, for corn and provisions, and on Friday for provisions only; the latter was once considerable for wool, but since the decline of the woollen manufacture, it has been much neglected. Fairs are held on Easter-Tuesday and Nov. 8th, and statutefairs on the Monday before and the Monday after Oct. 11th. By charter granted by Henry IV., Cirencester was constituted a separate hundred, co-extensive with the borough, the privileges of which still exist, and two high constables are annually chosen, though the town is within the jurisdiction of the county magistrates, who hold petty-sessions here. It sent representatives to a great council in the 11th of Edward III., but did not acquire the permanent privilege of returning two burgesses until the year 1571, by grant from Elizabeth. The right of election was formerly vested in the resident householders not receiving alms (except "inhabitants of the abbey, the Embury, and Sperringate-lane"), about 500 in number; but the limits of the borough, which comprised only 84 acres, were for elective purposes increased by the act of the 2nd and 3rd of William IV., cap. 64, so as to embrace the whole of the parish, comprehending by estimation 5100 acres, and the franchise was extended to the £10 householders. The steward and bailiff of the manor are returning officers. There is a court leet annually, at which the steward for the manor appoints two high, and fourteen petty, constables, two of the latter being for each of the seven wards into which the borough is divided. The powers of the county debt-court, established in 1847, extend over the registration-district of Cirencester.

The living is a vicarage not in charge, in the patronage of the Bishop of Gloucester and Bristol: the impropriate tithes have been commuted for £99, and the vicarial for £240. The church is a magnificent structure in the decorated English style, erected in the fifteenth century, with a lofty embattled tower, crowned by pinnacles; its interior and exterior are richly adorned, and it contains several chapels of exquisite beauty, and many monuments. A fund, producing £267 per annum, was bequeathed for keeping it in repair. Two other churches, one dedicated to St. Cecilia, and the other to St. Lawrence, have long been in ruins. There are places of worship for Baptists, the Society of Friends, Independents, Wesleyans, and Unitarians. The Royal Agricultural College of Cirencester was incorporated by charter in March, 1845, and suitable buildings have since been erected at Port Farm, on Earl Bathurst's estate, and near the junction of the Stroud and Tetbury roads. The edifice is in the Tudor style, having two bold fronts, the principal or southern front being 190 feet long, and its centre occupied by a fine tower 80 feet in height, with a turreted newel of 100 feet, used as an observatory for meteorological and other scientific purposes. The buildings are three stories high, and include a large dininghall, class-rooms, a laboratory, and a museum, with ranges of sleeping apartments for the pupils. The college is under the management of a head master and of professors; and besides instruction in agriculture, conveyed by lectures, individual study, and practical working, the pupils are taught botany, natural history, physics, mathematics, drawing, mechanics, dynamics, surveying, building, hydrostatics, and hydraulics, particularly as they refer to agriculture. There are professors, also, for the various branches of general education. The Free Grammar school was founded by Bishop Ruthal, and the original endowment was augmented by Queen Mary with £20 per annum, payable out of the exchequer; the master is appointed by the Lord Chancellor. The Blue-coat school, established in 1714, was afterwards endowed by Thomas Powell, Esq., with £15 per annum, part of an annuity issuing from the exchequer for 99 years, and a moiety of the revenue of Maskelyne's estate: the Lord Chancellor, in 1737, added £20 per annum, out of property left for charitable purposes by Mrs. Rebecca Powell; and in 1744 Mrs. Powell's executor assigned the interest of £562 as a provisional supply after the expiration of the annuity. The Yellow-coat school was founded and endowed in 1722, by Mrs. Powell; the income is about £320.

St. John's hospital, for three men and three women, was founded by Henry I., and endowed with land and reserved rents amounting to between £30 and £40 per annum. St. Lawrence's hospital, for a master and two poor women, was founded in the time of Edward III., by Edith, proprietress of the manor of Wiggold; it has a small endowment, and is under the control of Earl Bathurst. St. Thomas's was erected by Sir William Nottingham, attorney-general to Henry IV., and endowed with £6. 18. 8. per annum. The union of Cirencester comprises 39 parishes or places, of which 33 are in the county of Gloucester, and 6 in that of Wilts; and contains a population of 20,726. There are a few antiquities. Henry I., in 1117, built an abbey for Black canons in honour of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which he and his successors richly endowed; it was a mitred abbey, and in the 26th of Henry VIII. its revenue was estimated at £1051. 7. 1.: the remains consist of two gateways and a large barn. In a field called the Querns, to the west of the town, near the Roman wall, are the remains of an amphitheatre. Grismond's Tower, a circular hill about a quarter of a mile westward, converted into an ice-house by Earl Bathurst, was discovered, on examination, to be a Roman tumulus, containing several large urns full of ashes and burnt bones. Richard of Cirencester, author of a History and Itinerary of Britain in the time of the Romans; Thomas Ruthal, Bishop of Durham, and counsellor to Henry VII.; and, lately, Caleb Hillier Parry, M.D., eminent in his profession, and father of Capt. Sir Edward Parry, R.N., the celebrated navigator, were natives of the place.

Transcribed from A Topographical Dictionary of England, by Samuel Lewis, seventh edition, published 1858.