Gloucestershire, a country in South West England, is mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as early as the 10th century. The area, which includes the Cotswold Hills, part of the River Severn and the entirety of the Forest of Dean, has witnessed a range of significant historical events.
The Battle of Tewkesbury took place in Gloucestershire in 1471, and proved to be one of the most decisive of all battles in the Wars of the Roses. Similarly, the last battle of the English Civil War took place in 1646 close to Stow-on-the-Wold.
Today, the county is home to a number of fascinating historic sites which attest to its varied heritage. From medieval abbeys to Jacobean manor houses, here are 10 of the best historic sites in Gloucestershire that you can visit today.
1. Chedworth Roman Villa
Located in a beautiful valley in Cheltenham are the remains of one of the grandest Roman villas ever discovered in Britain. Evidence of the first stone structure at Chedworth Roman villa dates to the 2nd century AD, and consists of three detached buildings of a few rooms each. Over the following centuries, the villa was extended until it was at its most lavish in the 4th century AD; it featured large bath houses, stunning mosaic floors and marble features. However, it was abandoned after the Roman Empire pulled out of Britain in 410AD.
Centuries passed, and it was not until a gamekeeper unearthed it in 1864 that the full scale and grandeur of the villa was discovered. The outline of the villa was then reconstructed by placing local stone on top of surviving walls, and a lodge and museum were built nearby. In 1924, the property was passed to the National Trust. Today, the remains of the villa – including the stunning mosaics and sophisticated flushing toilets – are open to the public.
Located in the town of Berkeley, Gloucestershire, Berkeley Castle is a grade I listed building that dates to the 11th century. Originally a motte-and-bailey castle, it was held by three generations of the Berkeley family. Much of the castle dates from the 14th century, when it was expanded. It is known as having been the likely site of the murder of King Edward II, and for having been visited by Queen Elizabeth I.
Today, the castle is the third-oldest continuously occupied castle in England (after the Tower of London and Windsor Castle), and the oldest to continuously be both owned and occupied by the same family. Visitors can enjoy the finely decorated rooms which feature chandeliers and silver lamps, as well as paintings dating from the 16th to 20th centuries, fine furniture and a spider’s web ceiling.
Grade I listed Thornbury Castle is a Tudor castle located in Thornbury. Construction on the castle began in 1511 as an additional residence for the Duke of Buckingham. When the 3rd Duke of Buckingham was beheaded for treason in 1521 on the orders of King Henry VIII, the castle was confiscated by Henry, who lived there for 10 days with Queen Anne Boleyn in 1535. After the Civil War, the castle fell into disrepair; however, it was renovated in 1824 by the Howard family.
Today, the castle is a 26-room luxury restaurant and hotel as well as a popular wedding venue. From 1966 to 1986, it was operated as one of the UK’s top restaurants by Kenneth Bell MBE along with Nigel Slater and Simon Gault. Today, it maintains an excellent reputation for its food.
4. Gloucester Cathedral
Located in the north of Gloucester near the River Severn, Gloucester Cathedral originated in around 678 AD with the foundation of an abbey, which was later dissolved by King Henry VIII. A church of St Peter was built in the same location in 1058. It consists of a Norman nave, with a notable monument in the cathedral being a shrine to Edward II of England, who was murdered at the nearby Berkeley Castle in 1327.
Today, the cathedral is a practicing religious building as well as a tourist attraction. Popular features are a stained glass window which depicts the earliest images of golf, which dates to around 1350, and a carved image of people playing a ball game, which is believed by some to be a very early image of medieval football.
Richard of Cornwall is said to have founded this abbey following his involvement in a near-fatal shipwreck. The abbey was consecrated in 1251. In 1270, the abbey acquired a vial that was said to contain the Holy Blood. It then became a popular pilgrimage destination. Hailes Abbey fell victim to Henry VIII’s Reformation in 1538, when the phial of Holy Blood was removed from the site and found to be ‘honey clarified and coloured with saffron’.
Today, the site is home to the stunted yet elegant ruins of the abbey – the cloisters’ fine arches remain, overgrown but dignified. Nothing’s left of the church, save the outlines of its foundations. There’s also a fascinating little museum displaying items from the site, including floor tiles, carved ceiling bosses and an exceptionally rare fragment of a 14th-century monk’s spectacles. A free audio tour really brings the site to life.
Cirencester Roman Amphitheatre was constructed in the early 2nd century to hold a capacity of 8,000 spectators. Located in the major Roman city of Corinium, today known as Cirencester, Cirencester Roman Amphitheatre would have attracted visitors from around Roman Britain.
Though Corinium was the second-largest city in Roman Britain after Londinium, following the Roman retreat from Britain in the 5th century however, the once-thriving community rapidly declined. The amphitheatre fell into disuse as a centre of entertainment. It was briefly used as a medieval fortress, then it was abandoned again until the Abbot of Cirencester began using it as a rabbit warren.
Today, Cirencester Roman Amphitheatre is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public. Very little of its structure remains however its large earthworks are still visible, giving an insight into the size of the former theatre – one of the largest in Britain.
7. Sudeley Castle
Grade I listed Sudeley Castle in Sudeley, near the Cotswolds, is part of a 1,200-acre estate in the Cotswold hills. It was initially built in 1443 on the site of a former 12th-century fortified manor house. It was later seized by the crown, becoming the property of King Edward IV and King Richard III, who built its famous banqueting hall. King Henry VIII and his wife Anne Boleyn visited the castle in 1535, and it later became the resting place of King Henry VIII’s final wife, Catherine Parr. The castle was used as a military base during the First English Civil War, then was besieged and slighted by parliament. It remained in ruins until it was purchased and turned into a family home in 1837.
Today, the castle is known for its stunning interiors, art collection and its 10 gardens covering some 15 acres. It remains one of the few castles left in England that is still a private family residence.
8. Newark Park
Situated on top of the Cotswold escarpment, Newark Park is made up of a 750 acre estate which features a former Tudor hunting lodge, built in 1550. Over successive centuries the lodge changed hands and was added to, most notably by the Low family of London, who significantly extended the building in 1672 by adding a four-storey building to the west. In 1949, the property was gifted to the National Trust, who initially turned it into a nursing home. After falling into a state of disrepair, it was saved by Texan architect Robert Parsons in the 1970s, who highlighted many of the property’s original features.
Today, the informal gardens at Newark Park are popular amongst visitors. The National Trust hosts a range of events throughout the year such as Easter trails, a classic car show, a Christmas weekend and outdoor theatre performances.
9. Stanway House
A Jacobean manor house near the village of Stanway in Gloucestershire, Stanway House was constructed in the late 16th and early 17th century for the Tracy Family, the Earls of Wemyss and March, who still live there. A Grade I listed building, it is known for its elegant furniture, fascinating gatehouse, 14th century tithe barn, 18th century water garden, church and parkland.
The current Earl of Wemyss and March has pursued a programme of restoration for years, such as on the 18th-century water garden, which features a single jet fountain that reaches 300 feet high, making it the highest fountain in Britain, and the highest gravity fountain in the world. Today, the house and grounds are open to the public on a limited basis every year.
10. Odda’s Chapel
One of the most complete surviving Anglo-Saxon churches in England, Odda’s chapel lay undiscovered for centuries, its walls hidden amongst the winding rooms of a 17th-century farmhouse, Abbot’s court. The nave had been converted into a kitchen, while the chancel was used as a bedroom. Originally established by the eponymous local nobleman in the 1050s, it was dissolved by during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, at which point it became a farmhouse.
In 1865, a local vicar realised that there had once been a chantry chapel nearby. However, it was only in 1885 during repairs to Abbot’s Court that a blocked Anglo-Saxon window was discovered hidden behind plaster. Today, the chapel is open to the public. Walks in the area are also popular.