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Gloucestershire falls naturally into three parts: the eastern hills of Cotswold limestone from Winchcombe down to Bath, spilling towards Oxfordshire at Stowe and Fairford; the central heavy clay valley of the Severn from Tewkesbury down to Avonmouth; and the old red sandstone, wooded Forest of Dean in the west, for centuries a community cut off from its neighbours. At Gloucester itself, until the opening of the Severn bridge in 1966, was the highest road bridge over the river, giving it a critical strategic position between south Wales and the west of England. Gloucestershire is one of the bigger counties, even after losing part of its southern fringe to Avon in the local government reorganization of 1972. From Chipping Campden in the north to Marshfield in the south is over 50 miles, and from Coleford to Lechlade, west to east, is nearly as far. The balance of the county has been much affected by two great towns. Bristol was a major city with a mint well before the Conquest and in 1373 was given status as a county in its own right, the first town to be granted such a privilege. Consequently it was outside county government, though remaining in the economic and cultural orbit. Cheltenham was a mushroom development of the late 18th and early 19th cent., after the celebrated visit by George III in 1789 had helped to spread the fame of its waters. In 1801 it had 3,000 inhabitants to Gloucester's 8,000. But within ten years it had overtaken its neighbour, and by 1901 was a town of 45,000.

Roman Gloucestershire was prosperous. A military base was soon established at Gloucester (Glevum); Cirencester (Corinium) became the second largest town in Roman Britain; great villas at Woodchester and at Chedworth testify to the wealth of some of the inhabitants; a network of roads, including Ermine Way, Fosse Way, and Akeman Street gave easy communication with the rest of the province, and another road ran to the Forest of Dean to enable the iron to be exploited. The local inhabitants were the Dobunni tribe. After the withdrawal of the legions, much of Gloucestershire fell to the Saxons in 577, when Ceawlin of Wessex defeated British chiefs near Cirencester. But Wessex did not long retain the area. In 628, Penda, pagan king of Mercia, defeated the Wessex levies, also at Cirencester, and took possession. The eastern part became the kingdom of the Hwicce under Mercian overlordship: the western fringes of the Forest of Dean formed part of the autonomous kingdom of the Magonsaetans. This division was reflected in the ecclesiastical organization. The Hwicce territories became part of the see of Worcester, while the Magonsaetans fell under the jurisdiction of Hereford, founded in 676. Æthelfleda, lady of the Mercians, fortified Winchcombe and Gloucester against Danish inroads in the early 10th cent., and was buried at Gloucester. The area then changed hands again, falling once more to Wessex: Athelstan pushed back the Welsh, with the boundary becoming the Wye rather than the Severn, and died at Gloucester in 940.

After the Norman Conquest, Gloucestershire, first named as a county in 1016, was still a frontier region, and the earl of Gloucester was given palatine powers. William of Malmesbury, in the early 12th cent., described the region in idyllic terms: the soil was so fertile that it bore fruit ‘of its own accord’; the vineyards were prolific; ‘the villages are thick, the churches handsome, the towns populous and many.’ By Camden's time, in Elizabeth's reign, the vineyards had all gone, which he blamed on the sloth of the inhabitants, but the Cotswold pastures had proved ideal for sheep, and a flourishing cloth industry had established itself around Stroud and Dursley. The establishment of a bishopric at Gloucester in 1541, after the dissolution of the monasteries, gave a shot in the arm to the county town. In the 17th cent. tobacco growing flourished for some years before the government closed it down to give protection to the new American colonies.

In the 18th cent. Gloucestershire was divided politically between the Beauforts and the Berkeleys, who, after an expensive election contest in 1776, reached agreement to share the county seats. Increasingly the county was knit together by improvements in transport. The Thames and Severn canal through Sapperton tunnel in 1789 never fulfilled the high hopes, and the Hereford and Gloucester canal linked two towns of only moderate importance. But the Gloucester and Berkeley canal in 1827 shortened the line of the Severn and enabled Gloucester to remain a busy port. Railways arrived in the 1840s—first the narrow gauge line from Birmingham to Gloucester, then broad gauge lines to Gloucester from Bristol and from Kemble. The change of gauge at Gloucester was for many years a major obstacle until the Great Western gave up the struggle in 1872. The Worcester to Oxford line, passing through the county via Moreton-in-Marsh, opened in the 1850s, but remained more picturesque than profitable, until in the late 20th cent. it found a new lease of life serving commuter traffic to Oxford. The western parts of the county were opened up by the railway bridge at Sharpness in 1879 and by the Severn tunnel in 1885.

As the cloth industry in the east and mining in the west went into decline, the county's industries diversified—wagon works at Gloucester, aeronautics at Bristol, piano-making, printing, furniture, chemicals, and tourism in the Cotswold valleys. In the 1960s the county was criss-crossed by the M4 running east–west and by the M5 running north–south: the interchange at Almondsbury was briefly a traffic sensation. Even more important was the Severn bridge in 1966 which brought to an end the old Beachley–Aust ferries: queueing for the ferry had once been a regular bank-holiday activity, and generations of Gloucestershire people had watched the last ferry disappear into the sunset before starting wearily on the 60-mile diversion via Gloucester.

J. A. Cannon

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Gloucestershire County in sw England; the county town is Gloucester. Other important towns include Cheltenham and Stroud. There was a strong Roman presence in the county and in later periods it became important for coal-mining and the wool industry. The Cotswolds, to the e, sustain dairy and arable farming. The fertile Severn River valley is home to dairying. Industries: engineering, scientific instruments, plastics. Area: 2642sq km (1020sq mi). Pop. (1997 est.) 561,900.

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