The community magnets

December 19, 1997

CHURCH institutions were very important in the early phases of town development in medieval times, according to a researcher who has investigated the growth of Gloucester and Worcester.

Richard Holt, of Birmingham University's medieval history department, said St Peter's Abbey in Gloucester and Worcester Cathedral played a significant role in the early history of the towns.

The aim of the project he conducted with Nigel Baker, an urban archaeologist and geographer with English Heritage at Shrewsbury, was to assess the degree to which these churches influenced the development of the centres.

While in some cases the building of a church followed the growth of population, the reverse was true of Gloucester and Worcester. Dr Holt said both churches were founded on former Roman sites by the same royal dynasty in about 680ad.

"They were the magnet that drew a community to the site," he said. However, there were significant differences in the way the two towns grew. The bishops of Worcester had a big influence on its shape and structure, but the policies of the Anglo-Saxon state were more important in Gloucester, Dr Holt said.

About 960ad, Bishop Oswald created a secular/ecclesiastical divide in Worcester for the first time. The move coincided with reform of the church that aimed to separate clergy from the secular world.

"This released a lot of land for housing and was financially a very shrewd move," Dr Holt said.

Gloucester's status as a royal centre under the Mercians meant it was more important than Worcester. "The impact of this closer royal presence is that the church had far less influence," he said.

The researchers concluded that whatever influence the church had had on early town development diminished after 1000ad.

Dr Holt explained: "After that, church institutions just behaved as big, urban landlords. They had some impact on land development, but did not determine the shape of the town - largely because the shape of towns was fixed."

In the period after the Norman conquests, many small towns were founded by religious houses or ecclesiastical lords on their land, but there was very little difference between these and settlements created by secular lords.

Dr Holt said the patterns of development in Worcester and Gloucester uncovered by the research revealed much about the influence of the church on other towns.

The research was funded by the Leverhulme Trust and will be published next year by Scolar Press, preceded by a volume of essays on aspects of the church in medieval towns, edited by Terry Slater of Birmingham University.

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