I could write about the beauty of the Cotswolds at any time of the year because there is always something to enjoy whatever the weather. From cosy cottages to magnificent manor houses, castles and cathedrals, the Cotswold stone oozes strength and security, and promises a warm welcome. The landscape too, never disappoints . There are rolling hills, lush pastures, rivers, lakes and woodland enough to please anyone who enjoys the outdoors. The towns and villages between them have enough festivals, events and attractions to keep locals and visitors entertained all year round.
But for history it is hard to beat Gloucester City.
During the recent History Festival in the city, every aspect of its past was celebrated and I was lucky enough to go to many talks, walks and events.
Gloucester’s history goes back at least 2000 years. In fact it was such an important place in Roman times that it was granted colonial status by Emperor Nerva. This meant that the citizens of Gloucester had the same rights and privileges as the citizens of Rome. There are parts of the Roman city walls still visible in the heart of the shopping centre.
Some local historians believe that Christianity was brought to Gloucester by the Roman soldiers. After the fall of the Roman Empire many of the soldiers did not return home but retired to villas around Gloucester. It is thought that ‘churches’ grew from the grass roots up, with people getting together to celebrate and share their faith.
By Saxon times Briton had a Christian King, Alfred. He was succeeded by his daughter, Aethelflaed, who was a major influence on Gloucester’s development. She designed the layout of the city so that it was easily defended from invaders. The basic layout still exists and is very easy to navigate. There are four main roads; Northgate, Southgate, Eastgate and Westgate, which radiate out from ‘the Cross’. The actual cross no longer exists but it used to be a very important focal point. The monks of Greyfriars laid pipes from nearby Robinswood Hill, to provide fresh drinking water for the townsfolk. Running off these four main roads are fascinating narrow lanes. Many with names alluding to the enormous influence of the church in the city.
By the Middle Ages, Gloucester was among the most important towns in Britain along with London and Winchester. King Edward the Confessor held his great councils in Gloucester every year. And, after 1066, William the Conqueror continued the tradition. It was here in Gloucester, probably at Kingsholm, that in 1085 William commissioned the Domesday Book as a comprehensive survey of the country.
Gloucester’s strategic importance continued, and, as I wrote in an earlier blog, the boy king Henry 111 was crowned in what was St Peter’s Abbey in 1216. This is still the only coronation that has taken place outside London.
Gloucester city went from strength to strength in the following centuries: Iron ore, coal and timber were readily available nearby in the Forest of Dean, and Gloucester had a busy inland port and ship canal. This led to thriving business and trade. Dry docks and large warehouses were built alongside the canal. Then later, the railway made the movement of goods even easier. I wrote about Butler’s Wharf once before and I am so glad that I saw it before it was damaged due to fire. It has now been renovated and is starting a new life as small apartments which are currently for sale.
For me, the best part of the History Festival was learning about all the fascinating characters who came from Gloucester and left their mark on the world. It is almost unbelievable that just one relatively small city could have produced so many influential people.
As I have a daughter who lives in America, I was particularly interested in how far back our strong links go. For instance, did you know that the oldest bells in North America were made in a Gloucester foundry in 1744 by one of the Rudhall family? Abraham Rudhall (1657-1736) was the first of a whole family of bell founders in Gloucester. The peel of bells was transported, free as ballast, by sailing ship, and hung in Old North Church in Boston. These bells, which still ring out today, were rung by one of America’s greatest folk heroes – Paul Revere. The bell tower actually played a crucial role in the American War of Independence. A coded signal was arranged, one lantern in the tower would warn that British were advancing overland, while two lanterns meant they were coming by sea. Paul Revere rode through the night to warn troops in Concord that the British were advancing overland from Boston.
Another Gloucester man, George Whitefield (1714-70), became an itinerant preacher and evangelist. At Oxford University he met the Wesley brothers and joined their Christian Society, becoming a Methodist. He travelled to America several times and was famous, although not always popular, for his preaching abilities. He was a friend of Benjamin Franklin and to this day he is more famous in the states than here in the UK.
Here is one man’s assessment of George Whitefield:
From time to time until his death his whole life was taken up in travelling and preaching not only in Britain but in Ireland and America.
Thirteen times altogether he did cross the Atlantic.
His journeyings by land amounted to tens of thousands of miles. The number of sermons he preached almost exceeds belief – nine, ten, twelve, fourteen in a week – sometimes four in a day, on one occasion seven!
In churches – and when turned out of churches, in chapels, drawing rooms, barns, streets, fields; at early morning, noon and night, his voice was lifted up, proclaiming to rich and poor the glad tidings of salvation.
These labours were often carried on amidst opposition from Bishops and clergymen, magistrates, mobs and buffoons. Again and again his life was in danger from the fury of wicked men. He was abused, slandered, beaten, stoned.
His constitution was feeble and his sickness frequent; yet, not withstanding all, his zeal glowed with a flamewhich no flood of opposition could quench, and for thirty four years he toiled on, fearless and unflagging, in the service of his Lord.’
A third Gloucester man who is better known in the States than the UK is John Stafford Smith (1750-1836), the musician and composer. He was the son of the Cathedral organist and he is best known for composing ‘The Anacreontic Song’. This tune became very popular and in 1814 was set to a poem by Francis Key called “The Defense of Fort McHenry”. In 1931 both the music and lyrics were adopted as the National Anthem of the United States with the title of ‘The Star-Spangled banner’. John Stafford Smith is buried in Goucester and there is a memorial plaque to him in the Cathedral which is very well tended and has both the Union Flag of the UK and the Stars and Stripes flag of the USA above it.
There were many other fascinating men and women that I heard about during the history festival, including Hubert Cecil Booth (1871-1955). He invented the vacuum cleaner. His machines were used at the request of King Edward V11 to clean the carpets of Westminster Abbey for the Coronation in 1902. I was surprised to learn that he was offered a Knighthood but turned it down! He also designed ‘Great Wheels’ and suspension bridges.
But surely, the most amusing Gloucester character must be James (Jemmy) Wood (1756-1836). Jemmy inherited Gloucester Old Bank in Westgate Street in 1802. He was a mean and miserly man and such a shrewd businessman that he was one of the richest commoners in the land, a millionaire when he died. It is said that he was the inspiration for the character of Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’, a ‘Christmas Carol’. Charles Dickens often visited his friend, the writer and social activist, Sir Arthur Helps, in Gloucester, so he would have known of Jemmy. In fact he actually mentioned him by name in his book Our Mutual Friend. It is said that there were crowds cheering in the streets of Gloucester on the day of Jemmy’s funeral. I’m sure he must have been turning in his grave when most of his fortune was wasted on legal actions to sort out the disputes over his will! The disputes were well documented and it is believed that they inspired Charles Dickens to write Bleak House.
By the way, in case you were wondering, the title of this post is a very old proverb about Gloucester, which was well known and recorded from the Middle Ages right up to the 17th century. It probably refers to the large number of churches which existed in the city. By Tudor times, when the population of Gloucester was about 3000 people, there were 300 churches to cater for them!
I will leave you to enjoy some of the photos I took during the History Festival.
I have written several times about Gloucester and there are lots more photos on these posts. You can see them by clicking on the word Gloucester in the tags and categories.