The building in the Abbey Grounds known as the Norman Arch is the only remaining gatehouse to the former St. Mary’s Abbey and was known as Spyringate or Spital Gate. The carriage gateway has arched openings on either side, typically Norman semi-circular in shape, with a smaller arched doorway on the north side. There is a room above under a tiled roof with a dormer window to the south side and chimney stacks at each end. To the west side a cottage, built in the 18th century, was constructed of local stone with a stone tiled roof, connected to the room above the gatehouse at the fist floor level.
The River Churn runs immediately to the north side of the cottage and under a wide bridge in front of the archway.
The archway and cottage form a picturesque group and have been the subject of many drawings, paintings and photographs over the years promoting the architectural heritage of Cirencester. The Abbey Grounds were given to the Town Council in 1964 by the Chester Master family for use as a public park with the access through the archway being a public right of way.
Since very little of the Roman town remains above ground, the archway is almost certainly the oldest surviving building in Cirencester.
We know that the Augustinian Abbey of St. Mary was built on the site of the Saxon Church of St. Mary in the mid 12th century – foundation believed to be in 1117, with the first Abbot being Serlo, from 1130-1147. Excavations carried out in 1964-66 revealed the location of the Abbey and its cloisters lying to the north of the Parish Church.
The Spyringate or Spitalgate – a derivation of Hospital gate, now known as the Norman Arch, was built in 1180 as one of the entrances to the Abbey precinct. The walls precinct followed the line of the former Roman town walls and there is a possibility that roman masonry is incorporated into a wall of the cottage. The River Churn flows along the north side of the cottage and under a wide bridge in front of the archway.
During the dissolution of the Monasteries by King Henry 8th in 1539 the Abbey was demolished. Ownership of the site passed to Dr Richard Master, physician to Queen Elizabeth1, and remained with the family for exactly 400 years until it was gifted to the town in 1964. Very little documentary evidence exists as to when the cottage was built, but it is likely that the Archway building originally stood on its own, with a boundary wall extending on each side and the room above (occupied by a gatekeeper) being entered from an external staircase or even an internal ladder from inside the arch. The origins of the cottage would appear to be from the early 18th century with additions in the 19th century. The town map of 1835 shows the building very much as it is today.
The architectural and historical significance of the building was formally recognised in 1948 when it was listed Grade1 by Historic England This puts it in the top 5% of all listed buildings and therefore of considerable national importance.
Considerable repairs were carried out in 1968 by the former Urban District Council and it was transferred to the Town Council in 1974. Cirencester Town Council has an annual maintenance budget of £11k for the upkeep of the Abbey Grounds including the Norman Arch and Cottage and has an earmarked reserve of £20k for remedial repairs. On and or before January 2022, the Town Council aims to prepare a vision document and masterplan for the Abbey Grounds, integral to this is the Norman Arch and Cottage.’
John Tiffney Cirencester Civic Society
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