Bristol is a city with a population of nearly half a million people in south west England, situated between Somerset and Gloucestershire on the tidal River Avon. It has been amongst the country's largest and most economically and culturally important cities for eight centuries.
The Bristol area has been settled since the Stone Age and there is evidence of Roman occupation. A mint was established in the Saxon burgh of Brycgstow by the 10th century and the town rose to prominence in the Norman era, gaining a charter and county status in 1373. The change in the form of the name 'Bristol' is due to the local pronunciation of 'ow' as 'ol'.
Maritime connections to Wales, Ireland, Iceland, western France, Spain and Portugal brought a steady increase in trade in wool, fish, wine and grain during the Middle Ages. Bristol became a city in 1542 and trade across the Atlantic developed. The city was captured by Royalist troops and then recaptured for Parliament during the English Civil War. During the 17th and 18th centuries the transatlantic slave trade and the Industrial Revolution brought further prosperity. Edmund Burke, MP for Bristol, supported the American Revolution and free trade. Prominent reformers such as Mary Carpenter and Hannah More campaigned against the slave trade.
The late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the construction of a floating harbour, advances in shipbuilding and further industrialisation with the growth of the glass, paper, soap and chemical industries aided by the establishment of Bristol as the terminus of the Great Western Railway by I. K. Brunel. In the early 20th century, Bristol was in the forefront of aircraft manufacture and the city had become an important financial centre and high technology hub by the beginning of the 21st century.
Palaeolithic and Iron age
There is evidence of settlement in the Bristol area from the palaeolithic era, with 60,000 year old archaeological finds at Shirehampton and St Annes. Stone tools made from flint, chert, sandstone and quartzite have been found in terraces of the River Avon, most notably in the neighbourhoods of Shirehampton and Pill. There are Iron Age hill forts near the city, at Leigh Woods and Clifton Down on either side of the Avon Gorge, and at Kingsweston, near Henbury. Bristol was at that time part of the territory of the Dobunni. Evidence of Iron Age farmsteads has been found at excavations throughout Bristol, including a settlement at Filwood. There are also indications of seasonal occupation of the salt marshes at Hallen on the Severn estuary.
During the Roman era there was a settlement named Abona at the present Sea Mills; this was important enough to feature in the third century Antonine Itinerary which documents towns and distances in the Roman empire, and was connected to Bath by a road. Archaeological excavations at Abona have found a street pattern, shops, cemeteries and wharves, indicating that the town served as a port. Another settlement at what is now Inns Court, Filwood, had possibly developed from earlier Iron Age farmsteads. There were also isolated villas and small settlements throughout the area, notably Kings Weston Roman Villa and another at Brislington.
A minster was founded in the 8th century at Westbury on Trym and is mentioned in a charter of 804. In 946 an outlaw named Leof killed Edmund I in a brawl at a feast in the royal palace at Pucklechurch, which lies about six miles from Bristol. The town of Bristol was founded on a low hill between the rivers Frome and Avon at some time before the early 11th century. The main evidence for this is a coin of Aethelred issued circa 1010. This shows that the settlement must have been a market town and the name Brycgstow indicates "place by the bridge". It is believed that the Bristol L (the tendency for the local accent to add a letter L to the end of some words) is what changed the name Brycgstow to the current name Bristol.
It appears that St Peter's church, the remains of which stand in modern Castle Park, may have been another minster, possibly with 8th century origins. By the time of Domesday the church held three hides of land, which was a sizeable holding for a mere parish church. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that in 1052 Harold Godwinson took ship to Brycgstow and later in 1062 he took ships from the town to subdue the forces of Gruffydd ap Llywelyn of Wales, indicating the status of the town as a port
Brycgstow was a major centre for the Anglo-Saxon slave trade. Men, women and children captured in Wales or northern England were traded through Bristol to Dublin as slaves. From there the Viking rulers of Dublin would sell them on throughout the known world. The Saxon bishop of Worcester, Wulfstan, whose diocese included Bristol, preached against the trade regularly and eventually it was forbidden by the crown, though it carried on in secret for many years
At some time after the Norman conquest of England in 1066 a motte-and-bailey was erected on the present site of Castle Park. Bristol was held by Geoffrey de Montbray, Bishop of Countances, one of the knights who accompanied William the Conqueror. William ordered stone castles to be built so it is likely that the first parts of Bristol Castle were built by Geoffrey in his reign. After the Conqueror's death (1087), Geoffrey joined the rebellion against William Rufus. Using Bristol as his head-quarters, he burned Bath and ravaged Somerset before submitting to Rufus. He eventually returned to Normandy and died at Coutances in 1093.
Rufus created the Honour of Gloucester, which included Bristol, from his mother Queen Matilda's estates and granted it to Robert Fitzhamon. Fitzhamon enlarged and strengthened Bristol castle and in the latter years of the 11th century conquered and subdued much of south and west Wales. His daughter Mabel was married in 1114 to Henry I's bastard son Robert of Caen. Her dowry was a large part of her father's Gloucestershire and Welsh estate and Robert of Caen became the first Earl of Gloucester, circa 1122. He is believed to have been responsible for completing Bristol castle.
In 1135 Henry I died and the Earl of Gloucester rallied to the support of his sister Matilda against Stephen of Blois who had seized the throne on Henry's death. Stephen attempted to lay siege to Robert at Bristol in 1138 but gave up the attempt as the castle appeared impregnable. When Stephen was captured in 1141 he was imprisoned in the castle, but when Robert was captured by Stephen's forces, Matilda was forced to exchange Stephen for Robert. Her son Henry, later to become Henry II of England, was kept safe in the castle, guarded and educated by his uncle Robert. The castle was later taken into royal hands, and Henry III spent lavishly on it, adding a barbican before the main west gate, a gate tower, and magnificent hall.
The Earl of Gloucester had founded the Benedictine priory of St James in 1137. In 1140 St Augustine's Abbey was founded by Robert Fitzharding, a wealthy Bristolian who had loyally supported the Earl and Matilda in the war. As a reward for this support he would later be made Lord of Berkeley. The abbey was a monastery of Augustinian canons. In 1148 the abbey church was dedicated by the bishops of Exeter, Llandaff, and St. Asaph, and during Fitzharding's lifetime the abbey also built the chapter house and gatehouse.
In 1172, following the subjugation of the Pale in Ireland, Henry III gave Bristolians the right to reside in and trade from Dublin. A surviving Jewish ritual bath or mikveh, Jacob's Well, indicates that there was a small Jewish community in the city in the early Middle Ages.
Later middle ages
By the 13th century Bristol had become a busy port. Woollen cloth and wheat were exported, and wine from Gascony and Bordeaux, along with Spanish sherry and Toledo steel were major imports. In 1141 Bristol men and ships had assisted in the Siege of Lisbon, which led to that city's recapture from the Moors. There is also evidence of extensive trade with Iceland, Ireland, France and Spain. A stone bridge was built across the Avon, circa 1247 and between the years of 1240 and 1247 a Great Ditch was constructed in St Augustine's Marsh to straighten out the course of the River Frome and provide more space for berthing ships.
Redcliffe and Bedminster were incorporated into the city in 1373. Edward III proclaimed "that the town of Bristol with its suburbs and precincts shall henceforth be separate from the counties of Gloucester and Somerset and be in all things exempt both by land by sea, and that it should be a county by itself, to be called the county of Bristol in perpetuity," This meant that disputes could be settled in courts in Bristol rather than at Gloucester, or at Ilminster for areas south of the Avon which had been part of Somerset. The city walls extended into Redcliffe and across the eastern part of the march which now became the Town Marsh. The major surviving part of the walls is visible adjacent to the only remaining gateway under the tower of the Church of St John the Baptist
By the mid 14th century Bristol is considered to have been England's third-largest town (after London and York), with an estimated 15-20,000 inhabitants on the eve of the Black Death of 1348-49. The plague inflicted a prolonged demographic setback, with the population estimated at between 10,000 and 12,000 during the 15th and 16th Centuries
One of the first great merchants of Bristol was William Canynge. Born circa 1399, he was five times mayor of the town and twice represented it as an MP. He is said to have owned ten ships and employed over 800 sailors. In later life he became a priest and spent a considerable part of his fortune in rebuilding St Mary Redcliffe church, which had been severely damaged by lightning in 1446
The end of the Hundred Years War in 1453 meant that Britain, and thus Bristol, lost its access to Gascon wines and so imports of Spanish and Portuguese wines increased. Imports from Ireland included fish, hides and cloth (probably linen). Exports to Ireland included broadcloth, foodstuffs, clothing and metals