Learning about Manchester’s Early History

Well-known parts of Manchester’s history include their textile boom during the Industrial Revolution and the first steam engine railway to Liverpool. But what about its precursor? Manchester saw different leaders leading up to the Revolution, each characterizing the city today renowned for sports and radical literature.


The first known settlers were a Celtic tribe – the Brigantes (meaning, people of the highlands — aptly named after their terrain). Then came the Romans in their 400-year conquest of Britain; Manchester was invaded around AD 77 under Gnaeus Julius Agricola, and the Romans’ influence is evident in the city structure. The Anglo-Saxons and Picts followed in the time leading up to the Industrial Revolution.

Agricola’s Arrival



The Romans built their headquarters in Castlefield around AD 79 and remnants can be found today. Mancunium, what Manchester was formerly (and lesser) known as, persists today as the people’s name. This originated from the shape of the hill that the Roman garrison was situated on. The garrison, constructed at a site called Castellum, was intended for subduing the natives who eventually settled in the surrounding eastern area known as Alport (Old Town; today’s Deansgate). It was only in the thirteenth century when records of Alport surfaced.

Castellum was chosen because of its advantageous position at the junction of a major road which ran cross-country. It eventually became the starting point of subsequent roads built by the Romans. Using surrounding natural resources, the garrison serviced major Roman settlements until it was deserted in 410 AD. From timber to stone, it was rebuilt thrice. The surrounding civilian areas were believed to be abandoned during mid third century, which aligns with the end of Roman rule in North-West England (around AD 383). The end of the Roman empire in Britain was largely due to fact that the Romans over-extended themselves – from Italy, their geographical reach was beyond manageable, and many of their troops had to deal with homeland attacks.

Castlefield Canal

Urban development threatened preservation efforts; the Industrial Revolution saw the destruction of building remnants, especially with the 1760s’ construction of the Bridgewater Canal. Roman dishes were found by workmen in 1808 and subsequently saved by the British Museum. Excavation findings included AD 306-340 Roman coins and a bronze statuette of Jupiter Stator, as well as a silver coin of Trajan (dating AD 98 – 117). Other interesting discoveries included bronze statuettes of the Genius of Mauritania and Hercules, weapons, a coffin and urns, glassware, and pottery. The unearthing of some coins hinted that the Roman occupation might have been longer than commonly thought – from around AD 60 to the end of second century AD.


In the quiet aftermath of the Romans’ departure, barons who found favour from the monarchs developed Manchester. Trade was known to have flourished during this period and swiftly became a prominent feature of the city.

Tribal Invasions

There was an influx of mainland Europe and Scotland tribes as well as Germanic Saxons during this time. Under the Saxons, who occupied Manchester longer than the preceding Romans, churches and markets were established. The names of places, culture, and laws in Manchester can be attributed largely to the Saxon’s legacy.

Manchester was situated between Northumbria and Mercia, two Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The former governed Manchester (around AD 923) until the Danish tribes’ arrival. The latter took control, albeit short-lived (in 1015, Danish King Canute invaded England), under Edward the Elder, Alfred the Great’s son. Edward the Confessor brought Manchester back to Anglo-Saxon rule from 1042 to 1066, before the invasion by the Normans.

Old Map of England


The Norman Conquest and The Collegiate Church 

The beginning of Manchester’s medieval centre lies where Manchester Cathedral stands today. After the victory of the first Norman King of England at the Battle of Hastings, Manchester came under the rule of William the Conqueror. In 1075, William Peverel, his son, gave some inherited land to Albert Gresley, including Manchester’s manor. The Gresley family ruled Manchester for eight generations, but it wasn’t until the fifth when Manchester became an important commercial centre in the region. His grandson, Thomas Gresley, brought significant privileges to Manchester’s citizens with the Great Charter which rid the feudal system. Without an heir, Thomas passed the manor to his brother-in-law, and the de la Warres became the next dynasty of Manchester. The Collegiate Church (today’s Manchester Cathedral) was established by Thomas de la Warres in 1421 and seven wardens held service until 1547.

Manchester Cathedral

The European continental wars saw skilled textile producers settling in Manchester and the textile industry became a critical part of their economy.  Prior to the fame of its cotton production industry, Manchester was known for its textile trade brought about by Flemish weavers. An annual fair and weekly markets in medieval Manchester brought commerce and trade to the forefront of the prospering economy, granting Manchester the reputation of a market town in 1359. St Ann’s Square today is where the fairs were held, and a few important streets were Withy Grove, Smithy Door which was known for its fish market, and Shudehill, as they are known today.



Though accommodation had sprung up to house business travellers, Manchester still lacked the necessary transportation systems to support its economy. Prisons for the religiously persecuted were built in the 1500s and the Manchester Grammar School (then the Free Grammar School) was founded in 1515. In 1931, this prestigious School moved to Fallowfield, where it stands today.

From the Reformation to 1617, the college was abolished, reinstated, used for munition storage, raided in 1649, and eventually turned into a library by a successful merchant, Humphrey Chetham. Chetham’s library is both the oldest public library in Britain and one of the oldest English-speaking public libraries globally.


Chetham’s Library

Following the West family, the manor was sold twice before it ended up with the Mosley family, who also held the title of Maylor of London in 1599. In the 1830s, the town council purchased the manor and its role was replaced by a new, more modern form of governance.

Manchester and England

Alongside the rise of the public institutions were religious and political strife. Since Elizabeth I did not produce an heir, following her death, James I Stuart from Scotland became the king of both England and Scotland, and the Catholic crown replaced Protestantism. In 1625, when Charles I, his son, asserted the kings’ divinity, the Parliament and monarchy disputes led to the 1640s Civil War of England, which saw political allegiances established and the eventual beheading of Charles I in 1649. As Manchester supported the Parliament, the Royalists attempted a week-long siege which ended in their defeat.

Towards the end of the eighteen century, Jacobitism affected Manchester – rebellions to restore the Stuarts’ monarchy were rife. In 1789, the French Revolution influenced Jacobinism in Manchester – rebels thought the parliament was illegitimate and sought to reinstate the king with the Church. These political revolutions were brewing at the onset of the Industrial Revolution, adding to the increasing social tensions of the time.


Interested in learning more about Manchester’s history from the Industrial Revolution onward?

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