The Corinium Museum is located at the heart of Cirencester, the 'Capital of the Cotswolds'. Its principal collection consists of the highly significant finds from the Roman town of Corinium Dobunnorum. However, the museum today is much more than that, taking the visitor on a journey through time and charting the development of the Cotswolds from its prehistoric landscape to the modern day.
The light and modern galleries offer the visitors an exceptional interactive experience. The museum is renowned for its learning provision, with an education centre and temporary exhibition space that ensure a vibrant, changing programmer of events and activities for everybody to enjoy. Take a virtual tour around our museum and explore the Prehistoric, Roman, Saxon and Medieval Galleries.
The Prehistoric Period
The earliest prehistoric people arrived in the Cotswolds from around 700,000 years ago. These people lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers but over thousands of year’s ways of life changed and the first farmers emerged who lived in recognizable settlements. These people left behind a rich archaeological past – human and animal remains, stone tools and, later fine metal tools and weapons.
The Coming of the Romans
A fort was established in Cirencester within a year of the Roman conquest of Britain in 43 AD. It housed a cavalry unit of 500 men. Evidence for the garrison comes from stray finds of military equipment and two exceptionally fine military tombstones. By 75 AD the Roman fort had been dismantled and the troops had transferred elsewhere.
Corinium Dobunnorum, Roman Cirencester, was the second largest town in Roman Britain. After the army left the civilian settlement, or vicus, which had built up in the vicinity of the fort was remodelled. In the centre of the town stood the main public buildings and the Basilica Forum complex. By the 3rd century the town was equipped with walls and monumental gateways.
With the exception of London, Cirencester boasts the largest concentration of Romano-British mosaics in the country. Over 90 mosaics are known from the town and many more from the surrounding countryside. Although many of these remain in situ, most of the important mosaics are now in the Corinium Museum.
From the 5th century, Saxons from north-west Germany seem to have been the main settlers in the Thames Valley, from where they spread to the Cotswold Hills. Part of a large settlement has been discovered in Lechlade, where excavations have revealed six small buildings, either houses or workshops, with sunken floors. This suggests a modest community surviving on its local resources, in complete contrast to the exotic wealth of their burials.
The Norman Conquest in 1066 had little immediate effect on the Cotswolds. Cirencester remained a royal estate and a market was granted to the manor in 1086; over the next 300 years Cirencester changed from being a farming community to a centre of bustling trade. Throughout the 12th and 13th centuries the English wool trade flourished and Cotswold wool became much sought after. The most important industry in the town was the manufacture of woollen cloth. Fine churches and cathedrals were built with money earned from the wool trade and many abbeys had their own flocks of sheep.
The Civil War
At the beginning of the seventeenth century the Cotswolds saw an economic decline which brought with it social unrest. The wool trade collapsed, war raged on the Continent and irresponsible royal fiscal policies had a long-lasting impact on the people of Cirencester, who depended on the wool trade for their livelihood. By the 1630s political and religious opinion in Gloucestershire was increasingly polarised and there was open opposition to the personal rule of Charles I (r.1625–1649). When war finally broke out between the king and Parliament in 1642, the kingdom was plunged into turmoil. The people of Cirencester, led by a number of prominent citizens, declared for Parliament and established a formidable garrison. Owing to its strategic central position the Cotswolds was fought over throughout the Civil War, and Cirencester, at the junction of three major roads, was the key to its control. On 2 February 1643 Prince Rupert launched a successful attack on the town. Over 300 defenders were killed and 1,200 prisoners were taken and marched to prison in Oxford. The town was ransacked and wool, cattle, sheep and horses were seized. The war brought financial ruin to many in Gloucestershire and near-famine conditions to parts of the county.
Eighteenth to the Twentieth Century
The Industrial Revolution arrived in Cirencester by canal, the Cirencester arm of the Thames and Severn Canal opening in 1789. The 18th century also saw the first publication of the Cirencester Flying Post, the playing of a new sport, cricket and the opening of a theatre in Gloucester Street. Through the nineteenth century Cirencester doubled in size and population. As the town developed, the processing of locally produced goods came to be an important factor. The Corn Hall opened in 1862, enabling the corn dealers to transact their business under cover for the first time. As commerce expanded, so did the accompanying infrastructure, with a number of private and commercial banks being founded at the end of the century.
Heather Dawson, Corinium Museum