While the surrounding areas are filled with Iron Age hillforts and Roman villas, Bristol didn’t come to be until the beginning of the 11th century. Back then it was known as Brycgstow (Old English for ‘the place at the bridge’), a small Anglo-Saxon settlement that was developing as a port town on the rivers Frome and Avon.
Not much survives of Bristol from the Middle Ages (blame WW2 bombers and building developers). But there are a few buildings that date from its early days. The oldest building in Bristol is from 1129, arguably making it older than the city itself. Seeing as it has only been 650 years since King Edward III granted rights and privileges to Bristol by royal charter in 1373 and made Bristol a county in its own right.
What is the oldest building in Bristol?
St James’ Priory, right behind Bristol Bus and Coach Station, was founded in 1129 as a Benedictine priory by Robert, Earl of Gloucester – although it was not fully completed until 1374 when the tower was added. But the church became best known for its medieval fair, which was held in the surrounding area now known as The Bearpit (or St James Barton roundabout if you want to call it by the ‘right’ name.)
Probably the most popular fair in Bristol, St James’ Fair ran for almost 700 years! People far and wide used to travel to Bristol just for the fair (think of it as a medieval St Pauls Carnival). And in 1604, Londoners were banned from attending for fear that they might spread the plague. During the 17th century, it was so popular with merchant ships that they were frequently attacked by pirates in the Bristol Channel during the fair.
You could see all sorts of entertainment at St James’ Fair. From theatre to bear-baiting, puppet shows to magicians, musicians, acrobatics, exhibitions and sports. One year the big draw was something called ‘Toby the salient Pig.’ (Please email your guesses in.) But all the made money went straight back into St James Church. Which kept it richly decorated until the fair was forced to shut down in 1837, thanks to pressure from strict religious types.
The church itself was partly demolished during the reign of Henry VIII, however, keeping only the nave of the church. It remained a Church of England place of worship after the dissolution of the monasteries until it fell into disuse in the 1980s. In 1996, it was re-established as an active Catholic church and in 2009, building work began on restoration of the church – completed in 2011.
It’s not the only old building in Bristol though. Bristol Cathedral and The Great Gatehouse on College Green were founded in 1140. While Holy Trinity Church in Westbury on Trym was built in 1194 and St Mary Redcliffe sometime in the 12th Century. But none could throw a party like St James’ Priory.