Heritage Trail

St James’ Priory is the oldest building in Bristol yet many people know nothing of its important historic ties to the city of Bristol. This trail will explore the historic ties with the Broadmead area covering a broad spectrum of Bristol’s history. With a particular look at the Priory’s relation to Bristol Castle, trade and faith in the city.

Stop 1: The Priory

This trail begins in the church itself

St James’ priory was founded as a cell of dependency of the Benedictine Abbey of Tewkesbury between 1124 and 1137 by Robert Earl of Gloucester. Robert was the favourite illigitimate son of King Henry I, and in 1109 made Earl of Gloucester and the Lord of Bristol. He was regarded as one of the greatest military geniuses and warriors of the age.

Robert commenced the building of Bristol Castle in 1130. Every tenth stone used for the fortress was put towards the building of St James’ priory. In it’s hayday the priory was richy endowed with lands, liberties and posessions, such as dwelling houses for monks, stables, a bakehouse, a buttery and gardens. On its completion a number of black monks of the Benedictine order took up residence within the priory’s grounds.

The priory flourished and through the fair (see next stop) helped lead the commerical development of Bristol, and appointed Broadmead as the the centre of this.

Between 1536 and 1542 Henry VIII disbanded many monastries, priories, friaries and convents during a time that is now know as the dissolution, St. James’ was no exception. The Eastern arm and many monastic buildings were taken down for the value their building materials, only the Nave survived due to its function as a parish church.

In 1992 the Little Brothers of Nazareth signed a 99 year lease for the derelcect Priory. Today, St. James’ Priory is an active Roman Catholic Church, in which mass is celebrated every Sunday. As well as this the Priory provides a number of different support services.

However, because the Priory no longer has its own parish, they lack a steady income. As a result the Priory relies on donations to maintain the property.

In 2009 the priory benefitted from a £4 million restoration program, they recieved £3.2 million through a grant by the Heritage Lottery Fund. However, to recieve this grant the team behind the Priory were required to match this by raising an incredible £1.2 million themselves. More recently they were awarded a further £59,800 to put towards a project celebrating the ‘hidden heritage’ of the Priory and Broadmead.

The priory is now able to receieve a small income from the café which provides much needed funding towards their other important work.

The Priory’s supports services are also run on site, offering accommodation, support and treatment for those suffering from addiction. The Priory is a vital life line for those who have fallen on hard times and is a shelter for those wishing to turn their lives around.

Stop 2: St James Park

Facing the altar, proceed along the left hand side until you come to a door, go through this door which leads to a small room containing information about the priory, head through this room into the cafe and exit the cafe, turn immediately right, into St James' Park.

St James’ Fair

What we see today as St. James’ Park would have once been home to the annual St. James’ fair. From the mid 12th-Century the fair was held furing Pentescost week, which began on the seventh Sunday after easter (The Whitson Fair). Whitson fair was held for the privilege of the priory, Monks let land for pitches and stalls for an annual sum, helping to fund the priory. These pitches included graves, and it is noted that traders had to set up their stalls around inconvenient tombstones.

By at least the 14th-Century a seperate fair at St. James had begun. This fair was much more of a peoples fair, and acted much like a trade show, showing off the products that residents of Bristol and the rest of England wanted to sell. Due to its immense success the fair expanded into neighbouring streets and the area now known as boradmead hence why the fair can be attributed to the birth of the commerical centre of Bristol.

By the seventeenth-century the fair was so prominent that merchant ships sailing into Bristol to present their wears, were frequently attacked by Turkish pirates in the Bristol channel.

However, the fair lost touch on the commerical and religious aspects and gave way to more gimmicks and entertainment. In the eighteenth-century poet Robert Southey even commented on seeing a trader try to pass off a shaved monkey as a fairy, whilst charging people to see. The fair became notoroius for vice and crime and therefore the last one was in 1836.

(c) Bristol Museum and Art Gallery; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation


Excavations to the north side of the priory church in 1989 and 1995 identified a set of cemetry boundries.  244 skeletons were found with some of these being cautiously dated between 1120 and 1225.

It was no doubt a monks cemetry however the discovery of women and children suggests that it was also the desired resting place for the rich and wealthy of medieval Bristol.

Point of Interest - Overlooking Fairfax Street

Exit the churchyard, and follow the path down between the two sides of the park, cross straight over until you get to Union street, follow until you reach the bridge.

Fairfax street was named after Baron Thomas Fairfax, commander in chief of the Roundhead Troops who captured Bristol Castle in 1645 during the English Civil War in the name of the Parlimentarians, who were fighting against King Charles I and his supporters.

Stop 4: St Peter's Church

Follow up Union Street, cross over Newgate, follow to the church in front of you.

In 1940, Bristol, like many other UK cities during the second world war, fell victim of enemy action, resulting in central Bristol being heavily blitzed. Although much of the outer building remains, by looking through the gates it is evident the damage caused by the air raids.

Before the war the park would have been the bussling central shopping district, however, this was completely destroyed in 1940. The whole area was therefore cleared away, appart from St. Peters and St. Mary le Port which sits at further down Wine Street.

Today, the church stands as a last reminder, and memorial of the Bristol Blitz. In 2008 a memorial was erected on the side of the church inscribed with the the names of those civilians and auxillary personnel killed in Bristol during the blitz.

Around the back of the Church is a sensory herb garden and the Normandy Garden of Peace which opened in 1995. The five silver birch treets are managed by Bristol’s D-Day Vetrens in memory of the five D-Day beaches.

St Peter’s Church was built not long after Bristol Castle and the priory itself (You will find out more about Bristol Castle on your next stop) with its founder being none other than Robert Fitzhamon, the father-in-law of Earl Robert of Gloucester, the founder of the Priory.

However, the only parts of the original Norman structure to survive are the lower stages of the tower, with the rest having been rebuilt over time. However, the orginal building would have held several small chapels, dedicated to various saints, and the interior would have been brilliantly coloured and gilded.

According to tradition, St. Peter’s church narrowly avoided the fate of Bristol Castle which was destroyed during the civil war. Col. Nathaniel Fienned is said to have ordered the demolition of the church to prevent the besieging Cavaliers from taking up positions in them. It is claimed that the arrival of Prince Rupert, the cousin of Charles II, and his army of Royalist soldiers stopped this action.

Stop 5: Bristol Castle

Go around to the back of the church, follow across Castle Park, until you come to the fenced off remains of the Castle.

To look around Castle Park today it is almost impossible to tell that it was previously home to one of the countries finest strongholds, apart from a few foundation stones that are fenced off in the north end of the park.

To guard the town of Bristol the Normans only had to guard the narrow approach between the rivers Frome and Avon, and it would be here in this perfect postition that they would build a timber motte-and-bailey, to protect their newly aquired land.

By 1147 however, this timber structure had been replaced by a fine stone keep, built by Robert, the illigitimate son of Henry I. The building of this castle had a strong link with the priory, as it is said for every ten stones used for the castle, one was put aside to build the priory hich had been founded by Robert in 1129.

Bristol Castle in 1200 – by Tim Rossiter
Bristol Castle in 1300 – By Chris Molan

During this time the line of succession to the throne of England was in crisis. King Henry had died, leaving no legitimate male issue. Thus a civil war began between his daughter Matilda, and her cousin Stephen, and Bristol Castle would have a key part in the troubles that ensued. Robert acted in support of his half sister Matilda and rebels rallied to the Castle.

In 1141 Stephen was captured and imprisoned in Bristol Castle, and Matilda’s cause had almost triumphed, however, Earl Robert was to be captured by Stephen’s forces. A prisoner exchange meant the war raged on. Stephen would ultimately win the throne.

In later years its military significance would dwindle, and the castle itself fell into disrepair. In 1656 an act of parliament under the orders of Oliver Cromwell dismantled the decaying castle, along with the defensive walls of the City. All that remains today are foundations.

All that remains of Bristol Castle today

Point of Interest - Merchants Street

Come back out onto Newgate, cross straight over to Merchants Street, continue straight until you reach the entrance of the Galleries.

Merchants street was once the military road from Bristol to Kingsdown when exercises and tournaments took place. The name Merchants Street dates from the sixteenth-century

Stop 7: Quakers Friars

Turn right onto Philadelphia Street, Quakers Friars is on your left.

The house of the Black Friars of Bristol was founded in the parish of the priory of St. James in 1227 or 1228, Maurice de Gaunt.

In 1232 Henry III granted a licence to the friars to enlarge their burial grounds, many of the Bristol residents in thr thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth centuries willed their bodies to be buried here. These included prominent Bristoalins such as John Viel, Esq., first Sheriff of Bristol, Sir William Daubeny, a knight, who lay in the choir. and the heart of Robert de Gurney is also buried here.

In 1538, much like St James’ priory, the monastry of the black friars fell victim to the dissolution. The land and buildings were granted to William Chester and the church was dismantled.

The reamaining buildings were taken over by the Society of Friends, who then converted them into two schools, one for girls and one for boys. In 1609 the quakers built a chapel on part of the site and William Penn was married here. William Penn was head of the Society of Friends, and went on the found the capital of Philadelphia in the 1680s.

Stop 8: Wesley's Chapel

Follow the small path around the side of the building, coming out next to Costa, turn left and follow straight through broadmead, until coming to a courtyard.

Bristol was known as the “cradle of methodism”, with prominent preachers such as George Whitfield visiting Bristol in 1739, and began preaching in colleries in Kingswood. These were very popular, huge crowds gathered to hear his preaching, which was continued by John Wesley. His statue can be seen in both courtyards of the New Room.

Wesley built the first meeting house in 1739 in the horsefair, as he was denied the use of Anglican pulpits. This is now known as the New Room and the first methodist chapel in the United Kingdom.

The chapel was enlarged in 1748 to cater for growing converts, as the meeting room was situated in the parish of St James’ Wesley took his hearers to communion services at St James’ Church.

By the end of the century they had nine new meeting rooms, and thousands of followers.

Today the New Room still works as a chapel, and also has a museum dedicated to the story of the creation of methodism, and John Wesley himself.

Point of Interest - The Bear Pit

Walk through the arcade which is the walkway directly next to the New Room, turn right along the horsefair, turn left after Debenhams, onto Bond Street, head into the bear pit using the underground route.

What is seen today as the bearpit was once part of the priory land, and was also home to part of St. James’ fair.

The area was heavily damaged during the Bristol Blitz during the second world war, and a scheme to redevelop formed a sunken pedestrian zone.

Groups have now formed who proactively work to improve and develop the area, with the introduction of stalls and independent businesses within the pit.

Thanks for taking our tour, if you would like to return to the Priory for a tea of coffee at our cafe please follow back out of the Bear Pit to left of where you entered, follow up the ramp, past the bus stops, and back behind the churchyard.