Medieval Bristol: A Walk Through The Middle Ages

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Bristol is a maritime city, known for its trading links with the New World and its importance in the Georgian and Victorian eras. But the city’s importance goes back to the Middle Ages, and much of medieval Bristol can still be discovered.

Bristol In The Middle Ages

The city of Bristol was the third largest town of medieval England, important enough to be listed in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. It first grew up in Anglo-Saxon times when a bridge was built across the River Avon. The historic town occupied the area between the Avon and the River Frome, and was a busy port, trading with Ireland and the southwest of England. In time it became very wealthy, minting its own coins and holding a weekly market.

The development of the harbour led to the growth of Redcliffe on the south side of the river. At the same time various religious communities were established, including an Augustinian monastery that later became the Cathedral, the monastery of St Mary Redcliffe, and the lands owned by the Knights Templar.

Part of medieval archway, with carvings of stone figures and a coat of arms.
Images of Brennus and Belinus, legendary founders of Bristol, above St John’s Gate

Exploring Medieval Bristol

There are three main areas for exploring medieval history in the centre of Bristol. First, there is the historic walled town and Castle Park. Then there is Redcliffe (including Temple Meads), and the Cathedral.

If you are short of time then you will probably find the most to see – and get the best sense of the medieval history of Bristol – in the old town.

The Old Town

The Normans took over the Saxon town and replaced the original defences with a stone wall. The High Cross, at the central crossroads, marked the location of the marketplace which was increasingly important for Bristol’s business activities. Trade was originally based on wool, minerals and fish but later focused on wine imported from France and Spain. (The High Cross itself was removed in 1733 and can now be seen in the grounds of Stourhead House in Wiltshire.)

Although later development and wartime bomb damage have destroyed much of the old city, including the walls, the original layout is still apparent. The streets still follow their medieval route, and many of the medieval names (such as Corn Street) are still there. And, while the current market buildings date from the 18th century, the extensive St Nicholas Market continues the old town’s mercantile tradition.

You can follow an Old City Heritage Trail, which includes the route of the old city walls. Look out in particular for the following.

Leonard Lane

Leonard Lane is a narrow medieval alleyway that follows the line of the walls. Walking along here you get a sense of how enclosed the city would have felt during the Middle Ages. But this lane is also remarkable for another reason: since 1987 its walls have been festooned with street art, to the extent that it is now the longest public art thoroughfare in Europe.

Narrow passageway with street art on the walls on either side.
The narrow passageway of Leonard Lane

St John’s Church

There were once five churches along the city walls, but only the 14th century St John’s Church now remains. Go inside to explore the narrow space: the church was actually built into the wall. There is a medieval vaulted crypt beneath the church.

The tower and steeple of the church stand above St John’s Gate, one of the historic entrances to the city. Above the gate you can see small statues of Brennus and Belinus, the mythical founders of Bristol.

Medieval church with tower built over a gateway.
Entering the old town via St John’s Gate

St Nicholas Church

The current St Nicholas Church is an 18th century replacement of the medieval original. However if you go into the crypt you will see part of the old church and of the town wall.

Christmas Steps

Pass through St John’s Gate to the outside of the old town and you will come to Christmas Street. Follow the modern road for a while and you will come to the Christmas Steps, one of the oldest streets in Bristol. The building at the bottom of the steps that now houses a fish and chip bar is thought to date from the 13th century.

Castle Park

William the Conqueror built a wooden fort beside the old town, and it was replaced with a stone castle in the 12th century. The area now known as Castle Park covers the castle site and the eastern part of the old city, both of which were destroyed by bombs during World War II.

Stone wall with a gateway covered by an iron grille.
A gateway into the medieval castle

Some fragments of the castle’s masonry and one of its gates can still be seen in the park. But more impressive is the remains of St Peter’s Church, at the centre of the park. Also visible (but currently behind scaffolding) is the ruined Church of St Mary le Port, one of the most important churches of the medieval city.

Bristol Cathedral

St Augustine’s Abbey was founded in 1140 and remained in use until it was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1539. It then formed the basis of Bristol Cathedral, which was completed in the 19th century.

The oldest part of the Cathedral is the Chapter House, dating from the 12th century, but other fragments of the original abbey remain. And on the southern side of College Green you can see the Abbey Gatehouse, once an entrance to the abbey grounds.

Large archway through a building with a smaller arch beside it.
The Abbey Gatehouse

Redcliffe And The Temple

As the city of Bristol grew development spread to the south of the river. The water was deeper on this side, making it easier to moor boats, and many merchants had their houses here. It became a very wealthy area and a centre for industrial activity.

Unfortunately much of Redcliffe was bombed during the war, but you can still see medieval architecture at the Church of St Mary Redcliffe and at the Temple Church.

Church Of St Mary Redcliffe

The Church of St Mary Redcliffe goes back to the 12th century, although most of the current structure was built in the 14th and 15th centuries. It is thought to have been based around a shrine to the Virgin Mary, at which merchants and sailors made offerings in thanks for a safe return to port. The church is a magnificent example of Gothic architecture and well worth a visit. Guided tours of the church are available.

Across the road from the church is the Quakers’ Burial Ground, at the back of which you can see a cave in which a hermit lived in the Middle Ages.

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Temple Church

The area now known as Temple Meads was once in the ownership of the Knights Templar, a military monastic order who provided men and other resources for the Crusades. All that now remains of their occupation is the remains of the Temple Church, which was originally a round church modelled on the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

Remains of a church with a tall tower at one end.
The remains of the Temple Church, with the famous “Leaning Tower”

The church is currently closed for restoration but you can stand outside to see the tower, known locally as the “Leaning Tower of Bristol”.

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