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Commune, Country and Commonwealth: The People of Cirencester, 1117-1643

Commune, Country and Commonwealth: The People of Cirencester, 1117-1643

David Rollison
Volume: 10
Copyright Date: 2011
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 296
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    Commune, Country and Commonwealth: The People of Cirencester, 1117-1643
    Book Description:

    Commune, Country and Commonwealth' suggests that towns like Cirencester are a missing link connecting local and national history, in the immensely formative centuries from Magna Carta to the English Revolution. Focused on a town that made highly significant interventions in national constitutional development, it describes recurring struggles to achieve communal solidarity and independence in a society continuously and prescriptively divided by gross inequalities of class and status. The result is a social and political history of a great trans-generational epic in which local and national influences constantly interacted. From the generation of Magna Carta to the regicides of Edward II and Richard II, through the vernacular revolution of the 'long fifteenth century' and the chaos of state reformations to the great revival that ended in the constitutional wars of the 1640s, the epic was united by strategic location and by systemic, 'structural' inequalities that were sometimes mitigated but never resolved. Individual and group personalities emerge from every chapter, but the 'personality' that dominates them all, Rollison argues, is a commune with 'a mind of its own', continuously regenerated by enduring, strategic realities. An afterword describes the birth and development of a new, 'rural' myth and identity and suggests some archival pathways for the exploration of a legendary English town in the modern and postmodern, industrial and post-industrial epochs. DAVID ROLLISON is Honorary Research Associate in History, University of Sydney.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-989-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. List of maps and tables
    (pp. vi-vi)
  4. Preface: ‘A phoenix in flames’
    (pp. vii-x)
  5. Abbreviations
    (pp. xi-xii)
  6. Introduction: Commune at the crossroads
    (pp. 1-16)

    The place called Corinium by the Romans, and many variants of ‘Cirencester’ – ‘armed camp by the River Churn’ – after they left, replaced a nearby Celtic tribal capital, Bagendon, in the second and third centuries of the Christian era.¹ The change of location was determined by the crossing of three Roman roads, Akeman and Ermin Streets, and the Fosseway.² Like many old English towns, Cirencester owes its existence to Roman landscape engineering and a pax romana that imposed and protected movements of people, ideas and commodities throughout Magna Britannia. Later empires capable of restoring the roads and protecting the traffic depended...

  7. 1 A domination of abbots
    (pp. 17-25)

    The Augustinian abbey of St Mary, Cirencester, was ‘perhaps the order’s most important individual house’ in England.¹ It was ‘exceptionally well-founded’ by Henry I in 1117, and in 1131 the first abbot, Serlo, was consecrated.² Four centuries later, in 1535, ‘its revenues were much greater than those of all other Austin houses save Waltham and Leicester’, an observation that applies to its earlier history, since it acquired little property beyond the town and Seven Hundreds of Cirencester after its foundation.³ It became a casualty of the Henrician Reformation ‘on the morning of 19 December 1539’.4 The abbey’s lordship over the...

  8. 2 The crisis of the early fourteenth century
    (pp. 26-32)

    The reign of Edward II marks one of the great turning-points of English history. Demographic historians have shown that at some point in the reign of his father Edward I (1274–1307), the population of England reached a peak of nearly six million. Since the time of his mysterious disappearance and suspected murder, in 1327, Edward II has been regarded as a weak king. His contemporaries eventually judged him to be a tyrant (and therefore, according to contemporary constitutional theory, fit to be deposed). Yet Edward II was at least as unlucky, historically speaking, as he was weak and tyrannical....

  9. 3 Classes of the commune before the Black Death
    (pp. 33-43)

    In late medieval England, as later, ‘wealth in towns was distributed with extreme inequality’.¹ At Cirencester, the wealthy elite and the most substantial shopkeepers and tradesmen lived close to the market; the poorest lived in tenements, cottages and hovels stretched along the roads that led southwest out of the market-place towards Cricklade, Tetbury, Bristol and Bath, and west across the Wolds towards Gloucester. In a military assessment of 1522, 34 men in ‘Chipping Street’ (then more commonly known as Dyer Street), along which travellers from London entered the town, were assessed as holding £1,260 in goods and stock. Dyer Street...

  10. 4 The struggle continues, 1335–99
    (pp. 44-49)

    William of Hereward was elected abbot in 1335. On 3 January 1343 he was called before another commission of oyer and terminer to answer the complaint of John of Shardelow, John le Stouford, William le Thorpe and John le Roche, who sued the abbot in the king’s courts ‘for recovery of the kings rights usurped and withdrawn by the abbot of Ciceter’. The abbot seized and imprisoned them until they ‘made very grievous fines with the abbot for their ransoms’. To secure freedom they paid up, but Abbot Hereward was not satisfied. The spokesmen for the commonalty complained that he...

  11. 5 A turning-point: the generation of 1400
    (pp. 50-63)

    The plot did change, momentarily, on 8 January 1400. The townspeople were presented with a rare opportunity to intervene decisively in the politics of the kingdom, using the occasion to pursue their long struggle. After the failure of the ‘Epiphany Plot’ to kill Henry of Lancaster and restore Richard of York to the throne, the Ricardian earls of Kent and Salisbury, accompanied by Sir Ralph Lumley, Sir Thomas Blount, Sir Benedict Sely and thirty other esquires, made their escape up the Thames Valley, arriving at Cirencester after dark. They took over the Ram Inn, abutting the marketplace, where the landlord...

  12. 6 Highpoint of vernacular religion: building a church, 1400–1548
    (pp. 64-88)

    Legend has it that while staying at the abbey ‘in about 1380’, the young Richard II and his wife paid a visit to the parish church. Richard’s wife, Anne of Bohemia, expressed a wish that a chantry be set up ‘at the east end of the north aisle of the nave’, to pray for the souls of the kings of England and their friends.² True or false, it is recorded that on 18 November 1382 three pious burghers of the town, Robert Playn, John Boys and Nicholas Poynter, paid 40 marks into Richard’s treasury for a licence to found a...

  13. 7 Classes of the commune in 1522
    (pp. 89-94)

    The grossly unequal distribution of wealth, power and status is clear enough in the sources considered so far. Comparison of the assessment of 1327 with the national military survey of 1522 indicates that social structure, measured by systematic assessments of relative wealth, changed very little in the intervening period. The lists are comparable. Both exclude a large class of people considered too poor to be worth assessing. As R.W. Hoyle observes, ‘it is clear that the 1522 return for the Cotswolds massively under records the names of men who in 1525 paid either 20s. in wages or 40s. in goods’.¹...

  14. 8 Surviving Reformation: the rule of Robert Strange, 1539–70
    (pp. 95-102)

    The manor of Cirencester left the church ‘on the morning of 19 December 1539 and was taken into the hands of the Crown’, where it remained for eight years. In July 1547 it was granted to Thomas, lord Seymour of Sudeley, who held it until his execution in March 1549.¹ It was then purchased by Sir Anthony Kingston, who died in 1556, another suspected traitor. Elizabeth I granted Abbey House to a more stable proprietor, her physician Richard Master, in June 1564. The aptly named Masters settled down, and were to prove an abiding presence in the turbulent politics of...

  15. 9 ‘The tyranny of infected members called papists’: the Strange regime under challenge, c. 1551–80
    (pp. 103-118)

    Robert Strange’s position as bailiff, and the network of connections set up by marriages of his daughters, was the strategic core of his political machine. We can assume on the basis of the past that opposition factions had a continuous if amorphous existence even when they generated no direct evidence. Cirencester was too small a place for everyone not to know who was communing with whom, and what the issues were. Had the evangelical Edward VI not died in 1553 and been replaced by the Catholic Mary, it is possible that Strange’s control of the manor and, especially, the parish,...

  16. 10 Phoenix arising: crises and growth, 1560–1660
    (pp. 119-132)

    Before considering what eventually replaced the Strange regime – the communal revival of the later sixteenth and first half of the seventeenth centuries – it is necessary to explore the economic and demographic contexts with which all the inhabitants of late sixteenth-century England had to deal as a matter of course. New sources now make it possible to reconstitute aspects of communal experience that can only be deduced from earlier sources. This chapter focuses on two apparently paradoxical themes, a relentless series of severe mortality crises in a context of long-term population growth. Mortality crises had always been part of urban experience....

  17. 11 Only the poor will be saved: the preacher and the manual workers
    (pp. 133-148)

    The protest of the ‘poor townspeople’ of 1570 against their ‘papist captains’ used national politics for local ends. A year later, in circumstances that are unclear, Cirencester became a parliamentary borough, with the right to elect two members of parliament. This event triggered old, unresolved questions concerning Cirencester’s constitution and franchise.¹ Who, as H.R. French puts it, had a right to participate in the town’s ‘deliberations’, in this case concerning the nomination and election of parliamentary representatives?² In an institutionalized borough like Bristol or Gloucester, such decisions were handled by the mayor, aldermen and the ‘commonalty’ of formally qualified burgesses....

  18. 12 Gentlemen and commons of the Seven Hundreds
    (pp. 149-170)

    The most influential of Tudor-Stuart England’s constitutional writers, Sir Thomas Smith, divided the English into two classes, rulers and subjects. The ‘common wealth, or policie of England’, he wrote, was ‘governed, administered and maintained by three sortes of person’. The first of these ‘governing sorts’, or ruling classes, of course, was ‘the monarch … in whose name and authoritie all things be administered’. Second were ‘the gentlemen’, whom Smith also divided into two distinct ‘partes’. Highest in rank was ‘the Baronie or estate of Lordes’, consisting of barons ‘and all that bee above the degree of baron’: marquises, dukes, earls...

  19. 13 Immigrants
    (pp. 171-188)

    Cirencester’s customs incorporated guarded but necessary hospitality to strangers. ‘Passingers’ – people passing through – were welcome. The town needed immigrants to maintain the number of inhabitants required to perform its traditional functions. Every death, of a gentleman-merchant, yeoman-clothier, artisan, butcher, shepherd, bookbinder, papermaker, even of its one, symbolic, ‘loyterer’, was an opening to be filled. If Cirencester’s weavers failed to keep up their numbers, or the quality of the cloth and knowledge of markets, the clothiers of Painswick, Stroud and Bisley would soon take their place. Recollect the custom declared by the twelfth-century elders:

    that if a stranger coming hither slept...

  20. 14 The revival of the parish
    (pp. 189-207)

    Research on the lower, local levels of government suggests that, constitutionally, late sixteenth-century England differed from its neighbours, in Britain and on the continent, in that a sophisticated and dedicated culture of governance was present, and practised, in localities all over the country.¹ How it was structured and practised varied greatly, but at certain key periods of English history one institution, the parish, came to the fore. This had happened at Cirencester before the period that concerns us now: the parish had been the magnetic centre of communal life throughout the fifteenth century. There are also signs of an even...

  21. 15 ‘More than freeholders ought to have voices’: parliamentarianism in one ‘countrey’, 1571–1640
    (pp. 208-224)

    The contemporary term ‘countrey’, so important to the identity of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century English people, referred to a form of collective identity that was in part a corollary of the steadily increasing importance, from the early fourteenth century, of the House of Commons. Unlike the more mutually opaque pays of its larger and more populous neighbour, France, the identities of English countreys were formed, not only out of routine interactions, specific and distinctive accents, customs, economies and ecologies, but also from regular engagement, as parliamentary electorates, with national policy and government. The task here is to show why that feeling...

  22. 16 Moments of decision: August 1642 to February 1643
    (pp. 225-246)

    ‘Our troubles began about August last’, explained ‘one who was present [at the] taking of Cicester’:

    on Thursday, February 2, 1642/3, by seven thousand of … Cavaliers, under the command of Prince Rupert, Prince Maurice, the Earls of Northampton, Carnarvon, Denbigh and Cleveland, the Lord Digby, Lord Andevour, Lord Wentworth, Lord Taffe, Lord Dillon, Lieutenant-General Wilmot, Sir John Byron, Colonell Gerrard, Colonel Kyrke, Colonell Dutton, Captain Legge, and divers others.²

    The symbolism of the list was lost on no-one. The lords came to Cirencester to do more than take a town. Eminences of the kingdom of Charles I came to...

  23. Afterword: Rural sunrise
    (pp. 247-268)

    The theme of this Afterword is the emergence of a new epoch in the town’s (and nation’s) history. It had a distinctive mythology, enshrined in its twilight years by the great country writer Richard Jefferies, in a chapter of Hodge and His Masters entitled ‘Fleeceborough – A Despot’ (written c.1870). The accompanying illustration, ‘Cirencester the Seat of Allen Bathurst Esq.’, engraved by the much-travelled Dutch craftsman, Johannes Kip, captures an in-between phase. It was published as one of a fine series of gentry power houses in Sir Robert Atkyns’ Ancient and Present State of Gloucestershire (1712). Kip represented Cirencester from the...

  24. Bibliography
    (pp. 269-278)
  25. Index
    (pp. 279-284)
  26. Back Matter
    (pp. 285-285)