Readers will have to forgive me for not having mentioned this previously but it bears taking careful note because I understand that many of you navigate my county-by-county England tours more often by auto rather than by train or bus. To access many castle sites a portion of your navigation will be on foot to reach remote locations. Many Brits love to walk but Americans take walks in small doses, comparatively, with longer resting periods. Let’s face it, no one really wants to get lost in the woods looking for a castle. Therefore, I must let it be known that if you compare the current boundaries of England’s counties to historical maps you will become confused by the differences. Nearly all of England’s county boundaries have drastically changed over the centuries, continually, so make sure that you have an up-to-date map or use a GPS on a castle outing. Save the historical maps for time-travel and historical reference only. In the South of England the differences may be more or less subtle but can still be rather perplexing in any case. Word to the wise! -The Castle Lady
Sir John Betjeman, England’s Poet Laureate of the late 20th century, has said of Bristol as being “the most beautiful, interesting and distinguished city in England”. Bristol dazzles with offerings in entertainment, arts, thriving nightlife and cultural scene. An old city, it has become a London of the West Country with a primarily youthful population and the Quayside a rocking weekend mecca. The history is still here although you may have to pay extra attention to find it and when all else fails you can check out M Shed on Princes Wharf to get you up to speed on everything. In the meantime…
The town of Brycgstow which is the old English word for Bristol, meaning- the place at the bridge, was likely established c.1000 (and certainly by 1020) in what today is far northwest Somerset. This large trading center, originally a part of Gloucestershire, possessed its own mint, producing silver pennies bearing the town’s name. Iron age hill forts near the city can be found at Leigh Woods and Clifton Down on the side of the Avon Gorge and on Kingweston Hill near Henbury. During the Roman occupation a settlement called Abona resided where the Sea Mills are now and an old Roman road connected from that point ran all the way to Bath, twelve miles away in northeast Somerset. Of course, you will find any number of old Roman forts and villas spread throughout the region.
By 1067 the town was a wall-fortified burh which had once resisted an invasion from Ireland by King Harold’s sons (ca. early 1000s). Under Norman rule the town acquired one of the strongest castles in southern England. Bristol Bridge, which was built in stone by 1247, adjacent to the conjunction of the Rivers Avon and Frome, stood as it was built until 1763, when it was rebuilt by 1768, outlasting the castle by one hundred years. Presently, it spans the Floating Harbour built between Redcliffe Street and Welsh Back a short distance from Castle Park where a magnificent concentric castle once stood.
Bristol emerged as a major port after the Norman Conquest, under direct ownership of William the Conqueror, because of its proximity to the river Avon and the Avonmouth inlet. Geoffrey de Monbray, the Bishop of Countance built the early motte and bailey earth defenses which served their purpose as headquarters when he put down the aggression of William Rufus ca. 1088, being one of William’s closest allies. Those defenses were replaced with stone walls and a keep before 1200, under the direction of Robert (Fitzhamon) of Gloucester (a son of Henry I), erecting the third largest keep ever built in England and that in Caen stone. Interestingly, over the next thirty years or so, the castle’s circuits also included an extension along the west to the now prosperous section of Redcliffe and the River Frome (rhymes with room) which fed the moat. A city wall encircled the old town but in the present, few remains can be seen above ground save for one surviving gatehouse- St. John’s Gate- at the top of Broad Street (northeast of Bristol Cathedral). Rebuilt in the mid-14th century, it is a simple gate passage with a portcullis groove and an early fan vault and crowned by the tower and spire of St John’s Church which was also rebuilt about the same time and stands in line with the former city wall. Two medieval statues flank St. John’s Gate which are depictions of mythical founders of the city- that of King Bennus and King Benilus. The architecture of St. John’s reflects a medieval Somerset vernacular which shows up again at the Hanging Chapel at Langport, more than thirty miles south. Large windows suggest that the wall no longer had a serious defensive role by that time. Before the crowning of Richard II, Bristol became a county when it began to incorporate neighboring towns. The entire area became a ship building and manufacturing center creating an economic boon for the extended county. As a result, the city’s population was among the largest metropolises in England alongside that of London and York in the far north.
Nestled between the Rivers Frome and Avon (at a bend), the castle was sited along the east of the city, surrounded by two walled baileys and dominated by a tall square keep only outsized by the White Tower in London and Colchester in Essex. An outer bailey faced the city protecting the keep with the constable’s house which stood alongside it on the south and the Chapel of St. Martin along the north. The larger inner bailey housed a banqueting hall with other administrative and residential portions. The River Frome was diverted to create a moat around the castle walls emptying into the Avon along the south. The location and size gave Bristol Castle a key role during the Anarchy which was set off following the death of Henry I. His only legitimate child, Matilda became his heir through his own declaration and by right. Stephen of Blois, her cousin, usurped the throne at that time and Robert of Gloucester, who was her half-brother became her strongest ally and the commander of her troops. When the rebels came calling in 1138 King Stephen was with them and surrounded the town but he disbanded and left when he realized that Bristol was practically impossible to attack. To add insult upon injury, he was brought back to Bristol Castle for imprisonment following his capture at Lincoln in 1141. Even at that time it was not yet a royal castle but was retained by Henry II after he was crowned in 1154 and by then Bristol was considered a vital port. Henry III, who was nine years old when he was crowned, was brought to Bristol Castle to be educated and eventually, when his minority ended, spent quite a bit of money finishing the defenses with a barbican along the west, a gate tower and a great hall considered to be among the finest in England. Bristol incarcerated many royals during most of the medieval period.
Eleanor of Brittany was the star heiress to the English throne and the Duchy of Brittany and even though she was moved to a few other castle locations during her long term imprisonment she was brought to Bristol in 1224, after 22 years of being sequestered in the royal manner and died there on August 10, 1241 as the longest-imprisoned member of an English royal family. What was her crime, you ask? Simply this: She posed a potential threat to her uncle John, who was crowned King of England some years after she was born and was equally a threat to her cousin Henry III later on. From the time she was a teenager and clear into middle age she was never to know a life of freedom or that of being a wife and having children. These luxuries of life were forbidden to her even after her child-bearing years were considered over. There were many attempts by suitors and even relatives to obtain her release over the years but one after another failed and she was never freed even after she wrote to Breton barons and clergymen herself. One letter she wrote is archived in Brittany, France and is the only surviving document written by her in existence.
Two young sons of Dafydd ap Gruffydd, the last princes of Gwynedd (in Wales), were imprisoned for life in Bristol Castle after Edward I’s conquest in 1283. During the Wars of the Roses, William le Scrope, Sir John Bussy and Sir Henry Green were executed at the castle, without trial, in June of 1399 by the Duke of Hereford who became King Henry IV of England, after his return from exile.
Bristol was the second busiest port in the country in the 1400s and became the send off point for many important voyages. An expedition led by Robert Sturmy mid-15th century was conducted to try to break into trade with the Eastern Mediterranean countries monopolized by Italy.Bristol merchants turned their eyes to the west with expeditions to the Americas by at least 1480. These included John Cabot‘s voyage of exploration in 1497 to North America and the subsequent expeditions continued up to 1508 including one led by William Weston of Bristol in 1499. Bristol became the main British port for the birth of America and transatlantic trade, pioneering the era of ocean-going steamliners with the construction of the S.S. Great Britain which is docked where it was originally built in Bristol’s harbour. Well after this passenger ship was discovered abandoned in the Falkland Islands, a rescue took place in 1970 and it has been undergoing restoration in port ever since.
Unfortunately, the formidable Atlantic trade with the Americas turned sour with the rise of slave trade involving Africans. Liverpool vied for the exchange and by the 17th century slaves were sent to North America on brisk, brutal runs back and forth for plantation goods like sugar, tobacco, rum, rice and cotton, of course. More than 2,000 ships were fitted out at Bristol with an estimated volume of half a million people carried from Africa to slavery in North America. The trades carried out took place in an area of Bristol which is still a lively covered market today. This is the area around Broad Street, King St. and Corn Street and the Corn Exchange built by John Wood the Elder in 1743. Bronze trading tables, referred to as the Nails remain as historical evidence of the deals struck for ‘cash on the nail’ (immediate payment).
Bristol slowly lost its defenses through disuse and neglect. By the mid-20th century, German blitzkrieg finished off the entire town, it seems. Out of 100,000 buildings hit only 3,000 were beyond repair and were not rebuilt. A shopping area that centered around Wine and Castle Streets was particularly badly hit and architectural treasures such as the Dutch House and St Peter’s Hospital were lost. The city Hitler destroyed has been more or less restored but in the present, one of England’s largest royal castles and town walls is no longer easily visible to the casual observer. The actual Bristol Castle site has been well excavated leaving the earthworks scarred beyond recognition but evidence of a once great castle is exposed in areas of Castle Park near the former Broadmead Shopping Centre now referred to as Cabot Circus and Mall Galleries on the main shopping road. Interesting fragments of foundations can be spotted on Castle Green, which is freely accessible to the public and, as you walk around, information panels about the castle can be seen and easily read.
Two bombed out churches dot the landscape of Castle Park and a third, St Nicholas, is the only one restored to be a museum which houses a triptych by Hogarth painted for the high altar of St. Mary Redcliffe in 1756. While there you can also view statues moved from Arno’s Court Triumphal Arch which are depictions of King Edward I and III both of which originally adorned Lawfords’ Gate- a portion of the city walls. When the walls were demolished in the 1760s the King’s statues and also figures from the Newgate portion of the castle, depicting Robert of Gloucester and Geoffrey de Montbray (the aforementioned Bishop of Coutances), were moved to the museum and are included in the collection. Repair work was done, during the 1968 to 2000 excavations, on remaining vaulted chambers of the castle. Two undercrofts of Henry III’s residential building remain and can be found on Castle Street. What remains of the Sally Port, a secret exit from a castle during sieges, can also be seen on Castle Park grounds. Scarce remains of the old city walls- footings, actually- can be explored along King Street, so-named in Charles II’s honor.
There are several depictions of Bristol available from the earliest days but the first written description to be found was written in 1480. Later, the famous antiquarian John Leland visited the castle circa 1540 when it was falling into ruinous neglect. His account states that it had “two courts, and in the northwest part of the outer court there is a large keep with a dungeon, said to have been built of stone brought by the red Earl of Gloucester (Robert) from Caen in Normandy. In the other court is an attractive church and many domestic quarters, with a great gate on the south side, a stone bridge and three ramparts on the left bank leading to the mouth of the Frome. Many towers still stand in both the courts (baileys) but they are all on the point of collapse.” The castle was no longer in use by that time but it remained a Royal stronghold so the city government had no jurisdiction and eventually it was taken over by all types of squatters.
When the Civil War broke out the castle had been purchased by the city (1630) and they took sides with Parliament and refortified the walls. However, Royalist troops came in, took over the castle and also built additional fortified outposts, known as bastions, on the site of an earlier Parliamentarian stronghold. (The Palladian Royal Fort House which exists on the latter site, at present, was built by James Bridges in the 18th century for Thomas Tyndall.) When Oliver Cromwell showed up he ordered destruction of the already ruinous castle and that was the end. Demolished in 1656, save one Octagonal tower, the only observable remnant which survived remained in place for centuries up until 1927 when it also had to be torn down. This tower was sketched by an artist, one Samuel Loxton in 1907. The photo here was most likely taken before it was torn down. Portions of the banqueting hall from the castle were incorporated in a building that still stands. Along the western section you will find a mangled dry ditch and the sally port is visible on the side of a hill which feeds into the moat a visible distance from St. Peter’s Church. The castle moat was covered over in 1847 but still exists and is mainly navigable by boat, flowing under Castle Park and into the Floating Harbour.
This latter mentioned Bristol invention was designed by William Jessop in the early 1800s to help any water vessel in Bristol’s harbour to navigate better when the levels were being affected by variations in the tides. River Avon is a 10 mile tidal stretch from Avonmouth to Bristol’s port. A lot of work went into the planning and executing but in the end it failed to prosper and the docks were closed indefinitely. As a result, in the present day, the actual commercial port is at Avonmouth on the Severn estuary even though I.K. Brunel was created chief engineer of the docks in 1831 with an eye to improving the city’s locks and dredging system. Besides that he designed the Great Western Railway which runs between London and Bristol. Temple Meads railway was also extended by him to run to Clifton Suspension Bridge which he designed, as well, and still stands as his greatest invention. Later the SS Great Western and SS Great Britain both built in Patterson’s shipyard were also designed by Brunel.
A tour of Bristol’s greatest invention- The Floating Harbour
Rendering of Bristol Castle as it may have looked originally:
and a blog entry on Bristol Castle with photos of the surrounding park:
Either before or after checking out Castle Park, I highly recommend that you check all the other historical sites of Bristol. A sightseeing bus tour with tickets that allow hop-on hop-off access includes commentary and unlimited travel on these red double-deckers for a full 24 hours. St. Mary Redcliffe‘s spire can be seen from Castle Park and is a delightful stop on your way over to the city center. Queen Elizabeth the I loved it and thought it the ‘fairest (14th century) church in England’. It was heavily funded by two famous mayors of Bristol- William Canynge the Elder and his son of the same name. St. Mary’s nave exhibits the arms and armor of Sir William Penn, the father of the founder(whose name was also William) of Pennsylvania ! Additionally, you’ll see the black Purbeck marble columns, 1200 gold roof bosses, the Chaotic Pendulum and a model of John Cabot’s ship The Matthew. Above the north doorway a whale bone, presented to the church by John Cabot, was in thanksgiving for his safe return from his expedition to discover North America. Bristol Cathedral on College Green, which dates back to 1140, has a magnificent faςade and is quite a delight to tour inside with the medieval carvings in the antechapel, the 13th century Elder Lady Chapel and the misericords in the choir loft. This cathedral was built over centuries and may be the longest period of time for a cathedral construction in history ! From 1298 to 1330 it underwent rapid progress in building, however the transepts and tower weren’t finished until 1515. The nave was not built until the Victorian architect G.E. Street consecrated it upon completion 350 years later!
The City Museum and Art Gallery on Queen’s Road is diverse and will surprise you with the international collections plus those of local artists Sir Thomas Lawrence and Francis Danby.The former Industrial Museum on Prince’s Wharf, (now known as M Shed) which is along the south of the Floating Harbour, will give you much to see in products of all kinds which have been manufactured in Bristol for the past 300 years! You’ll be able to view the aforementioned S.S. Great Britain along Gas Ferry Road on the Prince’s Wharf as well, although you must arrange the viewing ahead of time. This large steam-driven iron-hulled ship which was designed by I.K. Brunel traveled around the world 32 times before being left in port at the Falklands as a complete wreck. This was a commercial forerunner of cruise ships and the restoration of it is magnificent.
After you check out St. John’s Gate, if you go further east, between Lewins Mead and Colston- the Christmas Steps are a steep inclined lane filled with specialty shops and if you go a little further toward the top you’ll find the Chapel of The Three Kings which was founded in 1504. At King Street, while you’re searching for remnants of castle walls, the 17th century LLandoger Trow Inn looms up as the timber-framed star in a set of striking buildings. Daniel Defoe met Alexander Selkirk here, whose real-life story became the inspiration for Dafoe’s Robinson Crusoe published circa 1719. Llandoger’s neighbor Theatre Royal is a rare Georgian Bristol survivor, a playhouse built in 1766. One other survivor for the period, Georgian House is located at 7 Great George St. over by Brandon Hill, the easternmost part of the city. The interior depicts the life of a wealthy Bristol merchant of the 1790s with Adamic style furnishings and a lively authentic servants quarters. Don’t miss the drawing room!
In parting, my recommendations further afield, but not too far, is the Bristol Zoo Gardens– England’s version of our National Zoo in Washington, D.C. and the site of a BBC Children’s T.V. show Animal Magic and the Clifton Suspension Bridge at the Avon Gorge, north of the city showing off Brunel’s ingenuity and artistry which was completed in 1864! Stay awhile and enjoy the nightlife and…