Case study - the decline of the road from Gloucester to Oxford

The road from Gloucester to Oxford is an example of a shift in the status of a road from 'national highway' to 'secondary road' due to economic factors. It appears on the Gough Map as a red line with distance markers, suggesting that in the late fourteenth century it was a route of some importance. In 1394, Richard II used this road, travelling from Oxford to Gloucester via Witney and Northleach, and again in 1396 when the stops included Burford and Northleach.8Nigel Saul, Richard II, Yale English Monarchs (London: Yale University Press, 1997), pp. 472-473. But by the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century it was no longer significant enough to appear on published road maps.

The road’s later reduced importance centred on the fortunes of the Cotswolds economy. In the tenth century, Oxford was an important trade centre and had a mint. By the thirteenth century, its wealth derived from its position in the middle of a corn growing area and its proximity to Cotswold wool production. It lay on “trade routes from the Midlands to Southampton, and from London through Gloucester to the Welsh border.”9'Medieval Oxford', British History Online <> [accessed 28 May 2019]. A number of factors affected its importance in the fifteenth century, including a change in the use of roads. A new set of bridges and causeways were built in and around Abingdon between 1416 and 1422 which meant that the transport of goods from Gloucester to London started to move further south following roads via Faringdon, Abingdon and Henley.10Harrison, The Bridges of Medieval England, pp. 63-64.

These developments were echoed in the history of Northleach. By the late fourteenth century it had become a principal market for Cotswold wool, important enough to hold direct negotiations with London merchants associated with the Calais staple, and with Italian merchants. But the decline of its clothmaking industry was evident in the decreasing number of weavers accepted into the trade, from seven between 1548 and 1567 to three between 1601 and 1620. Petitions to Charles I failed to revive the industry and by 1710 it was described as ‘formerly a noted town for cloth manufacture’. Northleach lost its significance to such an extent that “much traffic travelling from the Gloucester and Cheltenham direction towards Burford and Oxford evidently bypassed the town by a road following the high ground to the north, recorded as the ridgeway in 1600”.11'Parishes: Northleach with Eastington', British History Online <> [accessed 28 May 2019].

Gloucester to Oxford on the Gough Map

Section of the Gough Map showing the route between Gloucester and Oxford
Figure 3. Section of the Gough Map showing the red line route between Gloucester and Oxford.