Gloucester is a city with heart and a sense of self. It knows its bones, and lays them out with pride.
Here’s a snatch of Gloucester’s history to get a sense of its pedigree.
The city lies on the banks of the River Severn, near the border with Wales. It was founded in the first century AD by the Romans, who considered it grand enough to label a ‘colonia‘.
They ruled Colonia Nerviana Glevensis for about five hundred years, until the local Anglo-Saxons took it from them in 577 AD.
Next the Danes arrived – hungry for everything.
King Alfred held Wessex to the south, but Mercia, including Gloucester, was vulnerable. King Alfred’s eldest daughter, Æthelflæd, changed that.
All her life Æthelflæd had watched her father’s fight to take back lands conquered by the Danes, so, after his death and that of her husband, she teamed up with her brother to carry on the struggle. Together the pair built a string of fortresses around their territories, with the changes in Gloucester overseen by Æthelflæd herself. She was a respected leader and strategist in her own right, a key part of the victory that followed, but sadly she did not see it. She died in 918 AD at Tamworth and was buried in Gloucester at St Oswald’s, the priory that she and her husband had nurtured.
St Oswald’s is now in ruins but Gloucester still has its cathedral, built near the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon Christian community founded by King Oscric of Hwicce in 679 AD. This site struggled to stand over the years, but in 1072 it sprang into life again when William the Conqueror brought the monk, Serlo of Mont St Michel, to take charge of the failing abbey. Serlo succeeded, the abbey thrived … and Gloucester Cathedral is still with us today.
The building is ornate and grand (but not too grand), with architecture that charts the ages that have passed through it. It has great Norman pillars, elegant medieval cloisters, and beautiful, old – some very old – stained glass windows that play colour with story and light.
It’s a treasure box that has crowned a king, and buried another king, and then welcomed thousands of pilgrims to the slain king’s shrine.
This cathedral is a place loved by its city and shared around the world in the films of Harry Potter. It has been protected through civil wars and world wars, through political and financial difficulties … and still it stands, doors wide, a tribute to the character of the city that has kept it safe.
To see more of that character it’s worth exploring Gloucester itself – there’s plenty for the curious, and given the city’s connections and location that’s hardly surprising. But what is unusual for a city with such a pedigree is how modest it feels.
Gloucester has buried great leaders (including Æthelflæd), has hosted royal courts, and has fought for parliament. It honours the man who improved the lives of prisoners; it has enabled citizens to spread new ways to develop the Christian faith; and it has made everything from pins, to matches, to great bells, and it still enjoys a distinguished reputation for the traditional ships and rigging it repairs and builds.
Its docks are wide and handsome, and its cathedral beautiful … Gloucester should be rich and spoiled but it’s not.
That’s part of what makes it so interesting … there is space to see what has made this city so enduring – from its cathedral, to its docks, to the old buildings that still stand on its high street, including its 15th century New Inn.
In Gloucester you don’t have to dig far to find the history – it’s right there.
Here are some links you might find interesting, and, of course, there’s plenty more to be found on city’s own websites:
An article covering the city’s origins with some information on its Roman name
An article about Æthelflæd The Iron Lady by an academic from Keele University
An article on St Oswald’s Priory in Gloucester
A short piece in an online gallery from The British Library about the cloisters in Gloucester Cathedral
A BBC article written in 2010 about the gargoyles at Gloucester Cathedral
Copyright Georgie Knaggs & The Phraser 2018