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The Use of Riches


For historians of the Reformation, bank holidays seem often to include some sort of visit to a church. Sure enough, this weekend just gone found me in Cirencester, a town I had somehow neglected to visit despite having lived for a few years now not twenty miles from it.

Cirencester is particularly interesting for a busman’s holiday of this sort because it’s famed church of St John the Baptist literally sat on a faultline of the English Reformation: its renowned south portico, for instance, was originally built in 1500 by the monks of the neighbouring abbey, to be used as a centre for their business matters. Cirencester grew rich on the wool trade, and the monks of the town were at the beating heart of the local economy.

St John the Baptist was – and is – the parish church, but at its rear were the capacious grounds of the Augustinian abbey, itself built on the site of the oldest known Christian church in Saxon England. When the abbey was dissolved in 1539 it would have been a huge break for the local populace (something detectable in the Catholic lingerings in the surviving, and now much-restored church, with its painted ceilings and decorated pulpit). We often emphasise to our students the benefits of studying history in a town with so rich a past as Cheltenham’s; the surrounding areas, too, are full of history made flesh.

Indeed, Cirencester is something of a time machine: move away from the Reformation down one of the town’s narrow medieval streets, and before long you emerge in the eighteenth century, climbing the Bath-like Cecily Hill to arrive at Earl Bathurst’s gloriously landscaped gardens, where Alexander Pope used to sit down to write.

Studying history in sunny Gloucestershire can sometimes feel suspiciously like a nice day out!

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