Cotswolds – A Brief History

The meaning of the word ‘Cotswolds’

First of all there’s the name: ‘Cotswolds’. It’s likely that it’s a combination of two very old English words. Wolds – gentle hills. ‘Cots’ – sheep enclosures. So ‘Cotswolds’ probably just means an area of gentle hills with plenty of sheep around. There’s another theory that the name is based on Cod’s – Wold (Cod being a certain Saxon landowner).

Cotswolds History

So take your pick – actually the subject is a good conversation starter in the pub.

Geographically speaking, the Cotswolds are defined as a range of hills occupying an area broadly 100 miles (160km) north-east to south-west (ish) and by its bedrock of limestone, the distinctive honey-coloured stone used in buildings across the area.

Brief History

Back to history. There were Neolithic settlements in the Cotswolds and there are the remains of Bronze and Iron Age forts.

Roman archaeology is substantial (the saying is ‘scratch Gloucestershire and you’ll find Rome’), with Cirencester (Corinium Dobunnorum) once the second largest town in Britain.

The Corinium Museum at Cirencester has one of the finest collections of Roman antiquities in Britain. The Romans paved the ancient path that is still known as the Fosse and, to this day, forms a backbone running through much of the Cotswolds.

From the Middle Ages, the Cotswolds became prosperous from the wool trade. Merchants became very wealthy indeed and spent their money on many of the houses, churches and other buildings that you can still see today.

Wool Churches

You’ll see references to ‘Wool Churches’ in places such as Northleach and Burford and you’ll also see ancient ‘Chippings’ (market places) often with market crosses, a reminder to traders to deal fairly under the sight of God.

This exceptional period of affluence lasted through to Tudor times. To oversimplify things a little*, the later Industrial Revolution can be said to have passed the area by – and led to migration to larger settlements – making it necessary for the Cotswolds to be rediscovered more recently.

In the last century, especially with the rise of the motor car, the Cotswolds became popular as a place to visit and buy property, perhaps retire to. Its combination of self-contained towns and villages represent a kind of ideal way of living for many people, with a wonderful calendar of village, sporting and cultural events through the year.

And we might also mention that the Cotswolds hills have become a popular short break destination, with some excellent hotels.

Sign up for our newsletter

Join our mailing list and you won't miss out on any of our regular exclusive offers on Cotswolds Finest accommodation and attractions.